Friday, September 20, 2019

Oktoberfest Taste Off - The Final

The final four.

Originally my intention had been to have a pair of semi finals followed by a final and third place play off, kind of like the World Cup, but I changed my mind.

On Sunday morning, Mrs V and I, with the twins in tow decided to go to the Somerset Pasture Party being held just up the road from us. Basically the "party" is an exhibition of vintage steam and gas powered contraptions, and with sons that get all excited at trains we figured they'd enjoy it too. We had also arranged to meet up with my good friend Dave and his wife Ali, along with their son, who is slightly older than our boys.


Once done with choking on wood and coal smoke, thank god for what remains of the EPA and the Clean Air Act frankly speaking, we all decamped to our place for lunch and drinkies. With the ladies in the kitchen preparing lunch, the kids watching cartoons and/or playing with toys, I decided to split the bottles I had for the four remaining beers with Dave and choose a final ranking for them. The final four, as a reminder, were:
We decided to rank them purely on the basis of personal preference rather than comparing to any particular style definition, especially as from the picture you can see that they cover a range of colours and interpretations of "Oktoberfest" lager.


Our initial rankings were:

Dave
  1. Goose Island
  2. Ayinger
  3. Sierra Nevada
  4. Samuel Adams
Al
  1. Sierra Nevada
  2. Ayinger
  3. Samuel Adams
  4. Goose Island
Other than both having Ayinger as our second favourite, everything else was up in the air. Dave had Goose Island ahead on the basis that it was not as interesting a beer as Ayinger and Sierra Nevada and therefore something he was likely to down plenty of in a sitting, I had it last because I thought it was not as interesting as the others and I would get bored after a couple, same justification, different outcomes.

We both agreed that Ayinger was a really complex, interesting beer, very different from the American beers, but excellent drinking. The question was whether we would want to drink it by the litre? Both of us said that a couple of pints would be fine, but eventually we would end up with palette fatigue.

Between us I think we have probably drunk well in excess of 120 bottles of this year's Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest, and we both love it. I put it first because it would be something I could drink plenty of, and have done so far this year, without getting bored. Dave put it just behind Ayinger because Ayinger was more interesting and if he was just having a couple then he would go for the Ayinger.

It sounds terrible to say, but both of us thought Samuel Adams was just "meh". It's ok, not terrible interesting, not terrible, but also not something either of us would happily down a 12 pack of together on the deck, the sweetness we agreed was one dimensional.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, we asked our respective wives to try our first choices and let us know their thoughts, but Ali preferred the Goose Island, and Mrs V the Sierra Nevada. Birds of a feather and all that jazz.

So we decided to have a policy of horses for courses. If you are having a session and don't want to think too much about the beer you are drinking, go for the Goose Island. If you are having a session and want a beer that doesn't just fade into the background, go for the Sierra Nevada.

While Sam Adams will not likely make another appearance in my fridge this year, the Ayinger most certainly will as I found that I really enjoyed it, even though it was much more "old school" märzen than the moodern, paler, Oktoberfest lager styles. I can imagine using it in many late autumn and winter recipes, especially for soaking fruit for a cake, or in my roasted garlic and onion jam recipe that I plan to make again soon.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Oktoberfest Taste Off - To The Final Four

And so the 16 became 8...

Time for the quarter finals of the Fuggled Oktoberfest taste off. Once again I did this blind, with Mrs V choosing at random numbers for the draw and them bringing me the quarter finals in whatever order suited her whimsy. The quarter finals were:
  • Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier vs Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
  • Port City Oktoberfest vs Goose Island Oktoberfest
  • Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest vs Devils Backbone O'Fest
  • Samuel Adams Octoberfest vs Paulaner Märzen
Unlike the first round, which if you are interested you can read about here, I am going to include my tasting notes for the quarter finals, as ever using the Cyclops beer tasting template designed by a friend of mine, and these are in the order Mrs V gave them to me, winners in italics.

Samuel Adams Octoberfest vs Paulaner Märzen


Samuel Adams Octoberfest
  • Sight - light red, large ivory head, good clarity and head retention
  • Smell - unsweetened cocoa, toffee, light lemony hops, bread crusts
  • Taste - bready malt, light toffee, subtle spicy hops, just a touch thing
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Paulaner Märzen
  • Sight - copper, small white head, decent retention, very clear
  • Smell - grainy malt, cotton candy, herbal hops
  • Taste - Smooth, doughy bread, grassy hops, balanced but lacking bite, touch lemony
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Although the Sam Adams was a bit thinner than the Paulaner, the lack of a clean snappy bite really counted against the German beer.

Port City Oktoberfest vs Goose Island Oktoberfest


Port City Oktoberfest
  • Sight - rich golden, thin white head, lingered
  • Smell - light citrus, cereal, slightly toasty
  • Taste - toasted crusty bread, some grassy hops, subtle citrus, slightly dull finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Goose Island Oktoberfest
  • Sight - rich golden, thin white head
  • Smell - orange citrus, bready, toffee, floral hops
  • Taste - toasted muffin, flower meadow hops, some subtle spice, very nicely balanced
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
A surprise here in Goose Island winning over Port City, but it had more going on, especially in the aroma department, and the balance in the finish was very good.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest vs Devils Backbone O'Fest


Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
  • Sight - deep orange, tight ivory head, excellent retention
  • Smell - toasted cereal, light cinnamon, bready malt
  • Taste - brown sugar, juicy sweet malt, citrus hops, subtle lemon and lime, clean finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Devils Backbone O'Fest
  • Sight - amber, large fluffy head, excellent retention
  • Smell - English toffee, toasted biscuits, light lemon
  • Taste - rich toast, honey, bit thin in the finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Sierra Nevada takes the tie here as a far more complex and flavourful beer, O'Fest is good, but not up to Sierra Nevada.

Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier vs Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen


Hofbräu
  • Sight - deep gold, solid white head, good retention
  • Smell - weetabix, light citrus
  • Taste - boiled grain, metallic hops
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen
  • Sight - rich amber, firm white head, superb retention
  • Smell - crusty bread, toast, subtle spice
  • Taste - honeyed malt, sweet bread, toffee, lovely clean finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Ayinger was in a league of its own here, like a proper homemade fruitcake compared to the sweet confection that masquerades as fruit cake come Christmas time.

And so we have our final four, and I have to admit a couple of surprises here, I really didn't think Goose Island and Samuel Adams would make it this far. How did they fair? Come back Friday...

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Oktoberfest Taste Off - Round 1

I am not entirely sure I thought this one through.

Sitting watching the idiot box with a glass of Von Trapp Oktoberfest in my hand, I decided it would be a fun idea to get my grubby mitts on every Oktoberfest I could in the Charlottesville area and try to decide which was the best one.

I ended up with 18 beers, it would have been 19 but Beer Run have been out of Von Trapp Oktoberfest ever since the notion popped into my head. The 18 were:
  • Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
  • Port City Oktoberfest
  • Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
  • Great Lakes Oktoberfest
  • Devils Backbone O'Fest
  • Blue Mountain 13.Five Oktoberfest
  • Goose Island Oktoberfest
  • Schlafly Oktoberfest
  • Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen
  • Paulander Oktoberfest Wiesn
  • Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier
  • Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest
  • Weihenstephaner Festbier
  • Benediktiner Festbier
  • Brothers Craft Festbier
  • Samuel Adams Octoberfest
  • Brooklyn Oktoberfest
  • Legend Oktoberfest
To whittle this down to 16 beers for a knock out style first round, I gave the beers each a number and had Mrs V give me 4 numbers at random for a pair of qualifying ties, which ended up being:
  • Great Lakes Oktoberfest vs Schlafly Oktoberfest
  • Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest vs Brothers Craft Festbier
Rather than taking notes for the qualifying round, I drank each beer blind and made my decision as a pure beauty contest, figuring that I would pay more attention to the beers themselves in the competition proper. Thus Sierra Nevada and Schlafly made it through. Despite Great Lakes and Brothers Craft being sent home early, both were perfectly decent beers, though Great Lakes was sweetener than I like for a lager beer. With capricious whimsy completing the first round, we made the draw:
  • Ayinger vs Blue Mountain Brewery
  • Benediktiner vs Port City Brewing
  • Hacker-Pschorr vs Devils Backbone Brewing
  • Hofbräu vs Brooklyn Brewery
  • Paulaner Märzen vs Legend Brewing
  • Paulaner Wiesn vs Goose Island
  • Weihenstephan vs Samuel Adams
  • Sierra Nevada vs Schlafly
To keep this as blind as possible, the inestimable Mrs V randomly picked the ties to pour and didn't tell me which beer was which for each pair. I did take some notes for round 1 but outcomes were heavily influenced by which beer I preferred, so rather than bore you to death with my tasting notes (and honestly how many times do you want to read "malty"?), here are the pictures, with the victorious beer in bold.

Hofbräu vs Brooklyn Brewery


Weihenstephaner vs Samuel Adams


Paulaner Wiesn vs Goose Island


Paulaner Märzen vs Legend


Benediktiner vs Port City


Hacker-Pschorr vs Devils Backbone


Ayinger vs Blue Mountain


Schlafly vs Sierra Nevada


A couple of takeaways from these results. I was really surprised that Samuel Adams made it past the first round as normally I find it way too sweet for my tastes. There were some seriously difficult decisions here, had I been doing this with friends fisticuffs may have ensued, it was that close, in particular the Ayinger vs Blue Mountain and Schlafly vs Sierra Nevada ties.

This weekend I will do the quarter and semi finals, having bought extra bottles of any of the beers that I need. Tempted to run a poll on what people think will win...

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

To a T

I spent my formative teenage years living in the Outer Hebrides, in particular for the geographically challenged the bit in the red box in the picture:


The blue bit to the west of the islands is, obviously, the Atlantic Ocean. That blue bit stretches all the way to Canada with nothing between. It is not for nothing that the islands are often referred to as being on the edge of the world. I loved living there, and there are still times when I have moments where I think it would be good to go home and raise my boys the relative peace and safety.

Like most teenage kids growing up in isolated communities drinking started at a relatively early age, I think I was 14 when I had my first sneaky can of beer, nicked from a fridge at someone's house during a party at which parents were free to bring their kids along. I am not counting here the cider my parents would give us as younger kids, or my dad's homebrew that we would drink from time to time. There is something about that first illicit beer, as I say taken from the fridge when the adults weren't looking, that means more than all your parents' enlightened attitudes toward booze.

Most definitely among those first ill-gotten cans of nectar was Tennent's Lager, at a time when the cans still featured the Tennent's Lager Lovelies, scantily glad models that were probably many a teenage beer filcher's first crush. With said cans safely hidden in coat pockets we would head out to the garden and sit behind a dry stone wall, in the lee of the wind, and pretend like we knew anything about beer.

Such memories came flooding back when Boak and Bailey posted a story about them drinking Tennents when in Scotland recently, and so I resolved that on my trip home in July to do likewise. Thus it was that on the first Friday night in the Highlands, Mrs V and I left the bairns with their grandparents and wandered up to one of my favourite institutions, the public bar of a Highland hotel, the Station Hotel in Alness.

Entering through the hefty, weather beaten, teal blue doors you land practically on the bar. In keeping with public bar tradition there is no carpet, old school wooden floorboards are the order of the day. There is no fancy furniture, a few barstools, well used wooden tables around the periphery of the room, and equally well used wooden chairs. My kind of bar.

Dotted around the bar are groups of working men, ignoring the barstools entirely, standing just shy of an arm's length from their pints. At a table in the corner, a mixed group of Polish seasonal workers, in many a Highland public bar when there are ladies present in your group, you sit at a table rather than stand at the bar. Mrs V and I took up station at the short end of the bar itself, I like to be at a bar when I am drinking, next to the gaming machine, flashing with promises of paying your drinks bill for the night if you are lucky enough.

The Station doesn't do craft beer, doesn't really do local beer either if I remember rightly. I am not sure it would matter anyway, basically everyone was drinking Tennent's, which apparently accounts for 50% of all lager drunk in Scotland. I didn't bother with pictures of my pints, perhaps for fear of being called out as the metropolitan middle class softie I have become, or because it was irrelevant to being out with my wife on a rare trip sans enfants.

The first thing that strikes me is just how fizzy the pint is, though given the laser etched nucleation points on the base of the branded glassware, is it always that carbonated? Given the never ending stream of bubbles, the head pretty much stayed put, it was actually a rather alluring sight, and possibly the first time I had drunk Tennents and been able to see it.

Taking a first mouthful, my initial reaction was that if I was served this at an American craft brewery, either as a pilsner or helles, I would be pretty happy. Sure it is no Port City Downright Pilsner, but it is not a bad pale lager by any stretch of the imagination. The flavour is mostly a grainy crackeriness, somewhat similar to a Jacob's Cream Cracker, with a similar subtle sweetness as well. Am I allowed to say that it actually tasted of barley? That's a thing right? Hops are not a major component of the brew seemingly, but what was there gave enough of a clean bitterness to snap the malt to attention, as well as wisps of floral lemoniness that reeks of classic noble hops, you know, the ones from Central Europe.

Four mouthfuls in and the pint was gone, a fresh one on its way, then another, and another as we settled into the buzz and banter of the bar. At some point a pair of young girls came in, one with ID and one without, dolled up for a night on the town and pre-gaming before heading into Inverness. The gathered older folks, which Mrs V and I have accepted we are now part of, shared looks of recognition of days gone by, while the barman gave the IDless girl short shrift, and soon they were gone, while hands reached out for pints and the drinking continued.

I don't recall how many pints I had, maybe 8, but I did wonder, perhaps out loud and a tad overly loud as Mrs V and I walked back to my parents' place whether an avowedly craft bar is capable of such an atmosphere? Merrily buzzed and with no regret whatsoever for drinking Tennent's all night, I fell into a happy slumber that thankfully the twins didn't disturb until about seven thirty the next morning. I would drink Tennents again several times on the trip, each time knowing that I would miss it when I got back to Virginia.

Maybe it is the Tennents I miss, maybe it's public bars in Highland Hotels. Either way, that session will live on in the memory, despite no pictures.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Lager Doesn't Need You

Oh FFS, it's 2019, why does craft beer still feel the need to come out with this level of shite...?



So Stone Brewing, fresh from failing to revolutionise the German brewing scene with their, now sold on to Brewdog, Berlin operation, have decided that lagers "deserve flavor too"? How fucking gracious of them.

I wonder at times if there is a mine that delivers endless piles of marketing bullshit to breweries to simply reinforce the fallacy that seems common among certain sectors of the beer world that somehow lager is flavourless fizzy water (which is kind of ironic considering the nascent popularity of the "hard seltzer").

That lager is still used as shorthand for bland beer is sadly typical for for too many in the craft beer world, especially among the types that think everything needs a boatload of New World hops, or have the world "India" somewhere in its moniker.

I enjoyed a glorious lager last night, 8.3% abv, wonderfully dark, and brewed with only malt, hops, yeast, water, and nothing else. It was Olde Mecklenburg's Fat Boy Baltic Porter and it went with my wife's homemade apple pie an absolute treat. Most of my drinking since I got back from Scotland has been Sierra Nevada's Oktoberfest collaboration with Bitburger, again a wonderful example of the lager arts.

Anyway, back to the original tweet from Stone, and to riff on their style of marketing, lager doesn't you to add flavour, perhaps you need to learn to appreciate the flavours and aromas of classic central European lagers. So give it a rest with the lager bashing, both obvious and insidious, and own the fact that the bottom fermented family of beer is as interesting and varied as its top fermented cousin.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2019

Picking up my dog from the in-laws in South Carolina after a trip to Scotland always feels like the beginning of the end of summer, something I am always grateful for. I am not much of a fan of summer, preferring the cool delights of spring and autumn, or in a particularly happy year, the cold and snow of winter - Narnia under Queen Jadis sounds fantastic to me. Another sign of the impending end of summer is mulling over the beers I have had in the last 12 months from Virginian breweries and coming up with my top ten...
  1. Port City Brewing - Downright Pilsner (4.8%). Normal service has been restored for my regular readers who may have been concerned that the last couple of years of this has seen the top spot taken by an imperial stout and a porter. Earlier this year my family and I has a weekend trip to Alexandria in Northern Virginia to visit my wife's cousin and her family, while in town we took the opportunity to visit Port City in the flesh for the first time. Thus it was that I had Downright Pilsner as fresh as fresh could be, and it was simply divine, singing with the lemon, hay, and oh so subtle spice of Czech Saaz hops. This beer is so painfully simple in terms of its ingredients, Pilsner malt, Saaz hops, water, yeast, but in doing things properly, including 6 weeks lagering and natural carbonation, it is process and attention to quality that make this beer stand out as the drinking highlight of the last 12 months in my world.
  2. Three Notch'd Brewing - No Veto Brown Ale (5.0%) . Last autumn I went on something of a bender. Not the traditional, all in one extended sitting, bender that is, perhaps going on a kick is a better description. I had a craving for a brown ale one rainy weekend, and thus started about 5 weeks of pretty much only drinking that style, and in the process revisting several beers that had been missing from life for a while. No Veto made a welcome return to the taps at the Three Notch'd brewpub right in the middle of that kick, and dominated it from there on in. Beautifully layered flavours of crusty bread, unsweetened cocoa, hazelnuts, and a light chocolate dance with richly earthy hops, with just a twang of a tobacco note in the mix as well. Given a quick stir to knock out the excessive carbonation so beloved of American drinkers, and some time to get it to cellar temperature and you have a simply wonderful wet afternoon tipple.
  3. South Street Brewing - Shake Your Teal Feather Pilsner (4.3%). I sometimes think I am a sucker for punishment. I see the words "pils", "pilsner", or even on occasion "pilsener" on a beer list and I know I need to try said beer. More often than not said urge leads to mild disappointment as the vast majority of craft brewed pilsners are meh at best. Thank god then for Mitch at South Street who knows his way round brewing an excellent lager. I ordered SYTF over my regular South Street tipple, took an obligatory large mouthful, none of your sipping fannying about in Fuggled world, and boom in an instant I was back in the Czech Republic. Two more mouthfuls, with a taste for Mrs V, confirmed that here was an absolutel belter of a Bohemian style pale lager. Singing with hops, the malt backing group added the necessary harmonies, and a finish that just screamed out for another mouthful. Yeah, it was that good, and all I drank for a while.
  4. South Street Brewery - My Personal Helles (5.2%). As I said, Mitch knows how to brew a damned fine pale lager, and My Personal Helles is still probably the beer I drink the most of, I cannot say this enough, I freaking love this beer. It has got ot the point that often the folks at South Street are confused if I don't order it, and depending who is behind the bar on a given day, they don't even have to ask what I want.
  5. Alewerks Brewing - Tavern Brown Ale (5.7%). The other highlight of my autumn on the brown ale, and one that will be a feature of this autumn in all likelihood. When served at the perfect cellar temperature of 54°F, having been stored in our wine cooler at that temperature for a week or so, the complexities of the malt jump to the fore, a beautifully blended melange of sourdough bread, roasted hazelnuts, and cocoa, with caramelised oranges in the background. You often hear beer referred to as liquid bread, this was liquid bread with Nutella, lovely.
  6. Basic City Beer Co. - Our Daily Pils (4.7%). It was a Friday afternoon, I was at Beer Run in town using better wifi than I currently have at home, and this was the only beer on tap that wasn't some weird concoction, or Natty Boh, or Allagash White, which I wasn't in the mood for. Being unflitered there is a slight haze that reminds me more of a kellerbier, but the flavours were all on point and a second pint soon followed. Now if I see it on tap when I am out and about, I am a happy camper.
  7. Three Notch'd Brewing - 40 Mile IPA (6%). I know you are shocked that an American style IPA would make it onto the Fuggled list of the top 10 Virginian beers I have drunk in the last 12 months, but 40 Mile does something that so many IPAs simply do not do anymore, it gets the bitterness right. IPA is meant to be a bitter beer, not some juiced up wankfest for people who seem to not actually like the taste of beer, and yes there is a basic beer flavour. This was the first beer of 2019 for me, and also the first beer I wrote about for Flagship February. Coming back to this beer after several years of preferring other Three Notch'd beers was like seeing an old friend again. 40 Mile is everything a proper US IPA should be, a bit on the strong side, clean bitterness, firm malty backbone, and reeking with hop aroma and flavour. A classic.
  8. Stable Craft Brewing - Britchin Brown (5.5%). Yeah, brown ales need a moment in the limelight of their own, minus daft additions naturally. Stable Craft are a relatively new brewery, and Britchin Brown was on tap at a pub I frequent from time to time while I was in the middle of my brown ale kick. Once I had allowed it to warm up to a more reasonable temperature (seriously folks what's with the penguin feet obsession?), here was an excellently constructed version of the American brown ale style. Yes you get all the usual malt flavours associated with brown ale, nutty, chocolatey, and a trace of roastiness, but with Britchin Brown there is a clean refreshingness to it that makes it almost too easy to drink.
  9. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery - VIPA (5.2%). VIPA is described by Hardywood as a Virginia India Pale Ale, or even a "Virgindia Pale Ale". It is brewed with locally grown Virginian hops, Cascade I believe, and is an interesting study in the impact of terroir on hop flavour, yes you get the grapefruit and pine that is the calling card of Cascade, but there is also a subtle coconut flavour and aroma that is apparently unique to Virginian Cascade. The coconut characteristic just about makes it through into the drinking with this beer, and at only 5.2% it is a very drinkable, if not entirely sessionable, beer.
  10. Blue Mountain Brewery Full Nelson Virginia Pale Ale (5.9%). Another local brewery's flagship beer that I revisted during Flagship February and wondered to myself why I had ignored it for so long? Seriously hoppy at 60IBU, a good dose of which is a pithy bitterness that just seems to be missing from so many pale ales these days. While I would argue that at 5.9% this is not a sessionable beer, it is more certainly pintable, and goes especially well with the spicy chicken and waffles at one of my favourite brunch places in Charlottesville. Again, I find that this beer really benefits from being allowed to warm up to cellar temperature, and I don't recall it ever being available cask conditioned, but it would absolutely sing in that format.
I point this out every year, but this is an entirely subjective list based purely on my drinking in the last 12 months. If you have any recommendations of good Virginia beers I should hunt out and try, I am more than open to suggestion.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Hitting the Sweet Spot

Well, so much for micro blogging July eh? Turns out the Blogger mobile app is a pile of dogshit and every post I attempted got hung up in the publishing process. Anyway, Mrs V, myself, and the twins are back from our month long sojourn to Scotland, so I have access to regular Blogger again - 2 step authentication is great, if your mobile phone actually gets text messages abroad.

One of aims while home in the Highlands was to stick as much as possible to local beer, and if that failed then to at least drink Scottish brews. The very, very, very minor midge in that ointment, was that my thinking ahead parents got me in some Timothy Taylor Landlord a couple of days before we arrived. One of my rules in life is to never say no to Landlord, and after 20ish hours of travelling, they went down superbly well.

Don't worry, I am not going to give you a blow by blow list of tasting notes of the various beers I enjoyed, and didn't, in my month back. One thing though that I did notice, and this may say more about me than it does Scottish brewing, but there seemed to be a sweet spot in terms of ABV and insanely wonderful drinking, somewhere in the range of 3.5-3.8% to be honest.

That range of alcohol seems tiddly when compared to the average craft beer being made in many a brewery in Virginia, 6.5% is pretty much the norm. Thankfully though I tend not to think of strength as a flavour or pre-cursor to my enjoyment, many of the worst beers I have ever drunk have been in that average craft beer range. Perhaps then it is a case that British brewers are just phenomenal at producing flavourful beer without boatloads of malt and the requisite hopping to avoid drinking syrup.

The highlights of drinking in this sweet spot were:

The beers listed are sold as an Edinburgh pale ale, session IPA, session blonde, and session pale ale respectively, so sessionability is a key part of the appeal, and there is not one of them I wouldn't happily spend the night on the sesh devoted to. Of the 4 only Inveralmond's frankly divine EPA doesn't focus on New World hops, if anyone ever slags off Goldings or Styrian Goldings then force this down their neck and watch them come to the light of truth.


When I finally get back round to having a pint now that the travelling is all but done, I am actually mildly concerned that nothing at the various brewpubs and bars I frequent will have the same appeal. I know that I will spend some time brewing variations on this theme, so I am not utterly bereft, but the absence of proper session beer in the US craft scene genuinely saddens me.


When I think of Lew Bryson's definition of a session beer topping out at 4.5% and that so many brewers sell "session" beers that go well north of that, I am forced to come to the conclusion that despite various well known outliers, session beer is unlikely to be a regular part of the craft beer scene. Whether that is a result of brewers being unwilling to make beers that are genuinely session strength or that a very vocal minority of drinkers advocate for the big, or unusual, stuff to the detriment of all else, I am not sure.


Thank goodness then for the homebrew store...

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Micro Blogging July

We arrived in the north of Scotland last night, via DC, Reykjavik, and Glasgow. Nearly a full day of travelling, we were knackered, and I was having a mild panic as I couldn't find my phone and losing it  would mean a serious amount of hassle.

Thankfully the phone was just in a different bag than I thought. I don't have reliable roaming this far north and I have 2 step authentication on all my Google accounts when logging in from a PC, hence I am declaring July to be the Fuggled Micro Blogging Month. I will use the Blogger app on my phone to write quick thought blogs and tasting notes, tapping away on the phone keyboard is a pain, especially as fat fingers is a reality.

Things with an off license close early this far north, so having whetted my whistle with a couple of Landlords over dinner I fancied another beer. At that point my mother mentioned that they had "a pudding beer from Christmas" in their cellar that turned out to be Wells Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale, any port in a storm and all that jazz.

A timely reminder of why beers that say "flavoured with" are usually off limits to my world. God what awful swill. The "natural" toffee flavouring  had a taste that as it warmed reminded me of nail polish. Flabby in the finish would be an overstatement, think Austin Power's Fat Bastard post weight loss, yeah, gross eh?

Will not be buying this at World Market when we get to Virginia, that's for sure.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Big Brewing Comes to Town

Friend and fellow homebrewer Jamey Barlow sent me a link yesterday to an article in the Charlotte Observer about plans from the German brewer Gilde to open a brewery in Charlotte.

Gilde is a brewery from Hannover, a city that has a certain amount of resonance for me as when I was a kid it was near Hannover that my family lived. My father was in the British Army and he was posted to nearby Celle, and my little brother was actually born in Hannover. Recently while investigating our ancestry it seems likely that my dad's family came from Minden, again not too far from Hannover. Oh and I am going to Hannover in October for a few days with work, so that's fun eh?

According to the article, the brewery, which is part of the TCB Beverages group, Europe's largest contract brewer, will start with a 5000 sq. ft. facility they are calling The Embassy. The Embassy will seemingly be the first step toward a large production facility in a few years time, capacity is said to be half a million barrels a year in the production brewery - for context, that is about 40% of Sierra Nevada's current annual production at 2 breweries.

While it is exciting that a German brewery is setting up on this side of the Pond, I have to say that some of the quotes from Gilde CEO Karsten Uhlmann smack of an incredible arrogance toward the Charlotte brewing scene. One such quote is:
“We believe that obviously Queen Charlotte forgot to bring her beer (here) ... and we’re trying our best to correct this mistake”
Ignoring the fact that the queen consort to 'Mad' King George (the third of that ilk) never once stepped foot on colonial soil, it is also dismissive of the decade of German brewing that Olde Mecklenburg Brewing have been doing in the city.

Uhlmann also trots out the old canard about recipes having not changed for hundreds of years, to which I happily respond with a hearty "Quatsch mit Soße!". Gilde's current product range has the usual suspects, helles, pilsner, radler, usw, usw. Now, given pilsner was invented in 1842 and the first Munich helles was produced by Spaten in 1894, we're not exactly talking beers that date back to Gilde's 1546 establishment now are we?

I do however like the fact that Gilde intend to use their US brewery as a training ground in German brewing techniques, which I assume will mean decoction mashing, extended lagering, CO2 capture, natural carbonation through krausening, and a commitment to the highest of quality control processes, both in terms of ingredients and systems.

I have to admit that I don't buy into the shit that a rising tide floats all boats (seriously only a landlubber with a duck pond for aquatic adventures could believe that tosh). The economies of scale available to a half million barrel brewery will allow Gilde to undercut some of the smaller breweries in the Charlotte area, likely sinking rather than floating them.

My main hope is that Gilde's presence will further inflame an interest in central European beer styles, and that the likes of Olde Mecklenburg will see a boost from Gilde being around. I guess it also means that hunting out Gilde's beers while I am in Hannover is a must.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Gaming It?

Competitions seem to abound in the beer world.

At times, it feels as though every brewery in the history of beer, which started sometime in the 1980s as well all know, has won at least one gong from some competition. Such is the sense of achievement for many that the cheap medal that comes with the award is often framed and hung proudly on the brewery tap room wall for all to see.

From what several brewers have told me, entering said competitions is not cheap either, and the price is only really worth it if you win a gong and can feast on the PR bump for a little while, especially if you win the much coveted "best in show", though a category level gold will also suffice.

Other than the Great American Beer Festival, most competitions appear to be judged mostly by amateurs, folks like me for example, and a day's judging beer with fellow amateurs can be great fun. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with amateurs being asked to evaluate a commercial operation's beer, but I have heard of plenty of instances where BJCP certified judges treat commercial beer like they would homebrew. For the record, I am not a BJCP judge and I have no ambition to part with that level of cash that could be better spent drinking beer.

Again from conversations with plenty of brewers over the last decade or so, most will produce small batches of beer specifically for a given competition. I guess that makes sense, I mean why send regular bottled beer that the consumers will be judging your brewing chops by? It stands to reason that you want the freshest beer possible, in tip top condition, one that hasn't been abused by distributors and retailers. If only there was a competition for distributors and retailers for their quality processes!

I guess from my tone that you have come to the realisation that I find the vast majority of beer competitions meaningless, a blinged up version of Ratebeer or Untappd basically, however there is one part of the whole charade that really bugs my head. Categories.

Competitions use whatever taxonomy of beer styles they feel is best suited to their goal, and some will use the GABF style guidelines while others use the latest BJCP offering. My gripe though is that no-one, it appears, ensures that the brewers are submitting to the appropriate category, everything is left to the capricious whimsy of the entrant. Thus you get situations where beers are winning gongs for categories that they are not marketed as.

A few years back a Virginia brewery made a great song and dance about a beer they sold to the general public as an "Imperial IPA" winning a gold medal in the IPA category of a competition. The competition in question had a separate category for "Double/Imperial IPA", though off the top of my head I can't remember who won that particular gold medal.

Perhaps I am being too much of a stick in the mud purist, but if you are going to market a beer as being in a given style, then you should enter it in competitions in that style category. A medal winning "Czech" pilsner with German hops and less than 15 IBUs is not a pale lager that you would find in the Czech Republic.

I am sure the following scene plays out in tasting rooms across the US, and maybe further afield too. A punter asks for a sample of something and the bartender says "this is our gold medal winning...insert style here". I guarantee that the punter is just going to assume that the gold medal is for the style the beer is being marketed as, and so will assume that the sample in hand is a good representation of the style, and thus the potential for misinformation increases.

Competitions can be useful for recognising the truly great brewers in the industry but when beers are winning gongs for styles they have no right to be representing then that brings down the level for everyone, and kind of feels like companies are gaming the system for cheap marketing.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Homeward Bound!

I am going home next weekend.

One of the delights of working from home in an IT based world is that "home" is a relative term. Usually it is central Virginia, but sometimes it is South Carolina, Florida, or in this case my proper home, Scotland. Have laptop and internet connection will work, and keep my leave allowance for times when I want to not think about work at all, like Christmas.


Going home has become a semi-regular occurrence since moving to the US, when I lived in Prague I rarely bothered, probably mainly because I couldn't afford to go home for an extended period of time every couple of years. This year we'll be home for most of July, and only a couple of days off will be required. This trip will be the twins' first jaunt to their ancestral home, and first opportunity to be fawned over by members of my family other than my parents.


Being something of a CAMRA fellow traveller, the thought of having decent real ale always fills me with excitement. Yeah I love my local craft breweries, especially those that don't fanny around with daft ingredients, but there is little in the beer world to compare to a well kept pint of ale, pulled through a sparkler, served at perfect cellar temperature, carbonated not fizzy.


I have a list of places that I will visit at least once while I am home. The Cromarty Arms is always reliable for a quality pint of the magnificent Cromarty Brewing Happy Chappy. The Castle Tavern in Inverness often has an excellent selection of real ales from across the UK, and hopefully a cask of Timothy Taylor Landlord will be in situ in July, even we agnostics need a spiritual moment from time to time. The Phoenix Alehouse, sister to The Castle Tavern, is a haven down by the Inverness bus station if you have a few moments before your bus leaves.


When Mrs V and I were last home there was a new pub in Inverness in the throes of being decked out, but it opened after we had come back to Virginia. The Black Isle Bar and Rooms, owned and operated by Black Isle Brewing, is a place I really want to get to as I don't think I have ever seen their beer on tap, though have enjoyed plenty of it bottled.

There are several breweries that I had not heard of on our last trip whose beers I want to hunt out and try, Speyside Brewery and Spey Valley Brewery for example, so I am planning to drink beer mostly from the west Highlands and Moray for the duration of my trip. Sure I'll make a exception for the likes of cask Landlord, but when in Rome and all that jazz.


One beer that I know will be a regular tipple, whether bottled at the end of a day of work, or pulled through the beer engine in a pub, is the aforementioned Cromarty Happy Chappy, a beer I have adored from the moment I first had it at the Cromarty Arms. It is a beer that I come back to time and time again when I am home, and on the occasions when friends of mine go to the Highlands they are often gracious enough to squirrel me a bottle back to Virginia.

So here's hoping to a stress free first flight with the twins, Mrs V picking up the driving on the left quickly (I have total confidence in her driving skills), proper Scottish summer weather, and that first pint...you know it'll make me a Happy Chappy.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Echt!

It used to take about six and a half hours to drive from Central Virginia to Columbia, South Carolina whenever Mrs V and I would head down to her parents'. Since the advent of the twins, now 20 months old, it often takes about eight with all the additional stops to change diapers, feed, etc, etc, etc...

We've been making the trip down US Route 29, I-85, then I-77 for almost 10 years. I am fairly sure I have some kind of muscle memory for the road, and for the longest time our single stop on the trip was at a place called Eden, very close to where the 29 crosses the Virginia/North Carolina state line. There is pretty much nothing at the rest area other than well cleaned toilets, drip coffee, and vending machine soda. This weekend though we eschewed the delights of the Eden rest area and pushed on the ninety minutes to Charlotte for our break.


I don't recall the first beer from the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery that I ever had. I feel confident it was the Copper, an absolutely on point altbier, but as to where I had it, I don't remember. What is true though is that whenever the family and I head south, or in-laws/friends come north, I make sure to stock up on Olde Meck beer, usually the Copper and their, on a par with Rothaus, Captain Jack Pilsner. I had long held ambitions to pop into the brewery some time, but just assumed it would need to be part of a longer trip to Charlotte.

For nearly ten years, as Mrs V and I were making the road trip to and from Central Virginia we were unwittingly driving within a couple of blocks of the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and their eight acre biergarten, yeah you read that right, an eight acre biergarten right in the heart of Charlotte, just off the I-77. How that knowledge was not in my head sooner is a mystery to me, you live and learn, and having learnt, we jumped off the interstate, parked up and headed into the brewery's beer hall and biergarten...


Once through the hefty wooden doors it was delightfully cool and to be honest had Mrs V and the bairns not been with me, I would have parked at the bar and never bothered with the biergarten itself, the South and I don't agree with each other when it comes to suitable summer weather. The interior is everything you expect from a central European beer hall, dark wood, benches, and a bar with banks of taps.


The boys both needed changing so Mrs V took one at a time, while I kept tabs on the other and ordered myself a flight of the 4 beers I have not tried before:
  • Mecklenberger Helles
  • Southside Weiss Ale
  • Hornet's Nest Hefeweizen
  • Fat Boy Baltic Porter
No notes were taken, but the Fat Boy will make an appearance or two in the fridge this autumn and winter, to go head to head with Port City's divine Porter, and the other three were perfectly lovely beers.


The boys suitably refreshed, and thankfully cheerful despite 4 hours cooped up in a car, with the dog in his flexi crate between them, Mrs V ordered a pilsner and I got to have my first Olde Mecklenburg Copper on draft. Naturally in the excitement of having a properly brewed altbier served in a proper altbier glass I forgot to take a picture, so take my word for it that it was superb, and looked the part to boot. With beers and bairns in hand, we headed out in the sunshine to take a place among the benches of the biergarten.


It was pretty quiet when we were there, so we took a place on a bench near the children's play area, tied the dog up to a heavy bench so he could nose around, and waited for our food buzzer to go off. Mrs V was being very responsible and had a Cobb salad that she has raved about to all our friends since, and I had the currywurst...


It was perfect. Everything about Olde Mecklenburg was perfect. The biergarten was actually a garden, you know with trees, lots of shade, and the cool air that brings. The food was bang on, the service exemplary, and the beer, oh the beer. I love Copper, but when I wandered back to the bar to get a second, I knew it was Captain Jack Pilsner that I wanted, and having inquired about the possibility of getting a litre it was back to the table to sit in the shade with my little family.


If we hadn't had another ninety odd miles to go to get to Columbia, we would have sat all afternoon, enjoying the very chill vibe, and letting the boys run off some pent up energy. It is though now a given that we will be breaking our journey at Olde Mecklenburg as a matter of course, especially as I got a couple of their one litre growlers and they have a system akin to getting propane at the hardware store where you swap the empties for filled ones at a superbly reasonable price (finally it seems someone is taking the pricing side of Reinheitsgebot as seriously as the ingredients).

The presence of a place with the ethos of Olde Mecklenburg Brewery gives me hope that the future of craft beer is not all "wacky flavors, cheap ingredients, or added colors", that there are breweries out there who share my ideal of the perfect beer experience, and who deserve to thrive because of their commitment to quality and not taking shortcuts, heck they don't even sell to retailers that will not commit to keeping their beer in a refrigerated environment!

With all that said, I think I will be filling my Olde Mecklenburg branded altbier glass with Copper from a growler when the boys go to bed tonight.

Every prospect pleases.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Live Oak Pilz

So far this year I have been to Texas twice, first to Austin and most recently to San Antonio. Both trips were for conferences related to work stuff, and in both cases I found myself drinking plenty of pilsner style lager.

I have been on a major pale lager kick of late, literally to the detriment of almost every other beer style. The highlight of said kick though was a beer brewed in Austin but which I drank in San Antonio, as I hadn't seen it available in any of the watering holes of its home city when I was there.


Live Oak Brewing are based out near Austin's international airport, hence I didn't get to them during my visit to the city back in March. Sat in a pub in San Antonio, I spied the magic word "pilz" and figured that at $3 for a 12 oz can it was worth a stab. It poured a slightly hazy straw colour, with a healthy looking inch or so of bright white foam that simply would not disappear, I was duly intrigued. The smell was on the money as well, all that classic Saaz goodness, subtle spice, floral notes, and a delicate lemony citrus note lingering in the background. With the first mouthful I knew what I was going to drink for the rest of the night, this is a Bohemian style pale lager as a pale lager should be, clean, zingy, crisp, and absolutely snapping with hoppiness, anyone that thinks hoppiness and pilsners are mutually exclusive is a muppet.


Looking up the beer on the old interwebs due to a lack of information in the pub beer list I learnt that this particular blonde delight has a 12° Plato starting gravity, which ferments out to give it a very respectable 4.7% ABV, all playing nicely with the 36 IBU of pure Saaz. Apparently the brewery uses a decoction mash on the Moravian malt, making this one of the most authentic iterations of the style I have had in the ten years since I left Prague for the New World. I wish it was available in Virginia as it would be a regular in the fridge.

As I said, I knew at first mouthful what my evening's drinking would be, and when I left there was but a single can remaining in the fridge, there had been 12 when I started. Yes it was that good, and every mouthful was savoured. What we have here is an early front runner for at least the best US pale beer of 2019.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Real Cræft Beer?

Education, so they say, is wasted on the young. As a kid growing up in the Outer Hebrides one of my favourite subjects at school was history. I loved, and still do, reading and learning about the Russian Revolution, World War 1, the Tudors and Stuarts, and British imperial history. One of the themes that I was not enamored with at the time though was Scottish Farming from 1540-1750, admittedly those dates may not be accurate but I seem to recall it being from just before the Union of Crowns through to just after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. There are bits I remember, the use of runrig systems of land use, the Clearances, the Improvers, that kind of stuff. These days I find agricultural history absolutely fascinating, probably inspired by TV shows like Tales from the Green Valley, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Wartime Farm.

It was largely as a result of my love of those shows that a couple of weeks back I got a copy of Alexander Langlands' book "Cræft", which is an examination of the history and meaning of traditional crafts such as basketry, weaving, and even haymaking. Due to the woodcut style drawings on the front cover, I was hoping that there would be a chapter on beer and ale in an agricultural setting, but sadly not. Despite this minor gripe, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who is tired of our post Industrial Revolution petrochemical driven age and interested in seeing the old ways make a come back. I can't remember the last time I read a book so quickly.

Although there was no chapter on traditional beer and ale making in an agricultural setting, many of the themes of the book prompted me to think more closely about the nature and character of the early 21st century "craft" beer boom. In particular I wondered about whether "craft" beer as practiced is in fact a "craft" at all?

Langlands deliberately harkens back to Old English in his use of the word "Cræft" to describe the pre-Industrial Revolution activities he delves into. For Langlands there are important factors in what makes something a "Cræft" as opposed to a craft hobby. At it's core, Langlands argues that "Cræft" takes that which is local and available to make something useful, for example the different styles of pottery that arose from the various types of clay in given areas of England. Such an idea really challenges the very concept of a "craft" beer business that buys in its malts, hops, and yeast from around the world, or strips its local water of everything that makes it local so that they can approximate the water of Burton, Dublin, or Plzeň. How then is the beer they produce a "craft"? It is not a product of place either, so in that sense it is not local. Businesses like Starr Hill, Three Notch'd, and Port City are thus not Virginian breweries, but breweries in Virginia.

Perhaps the closest we get to a "Cræft" brewery these days is the ever growing number of farm breweries that seem to be popping up, especially in this part of central Virginia. Places like Lickinghole Creek Brewing grow a large proportion of the ingredients they use in their products, including barley and wheat, though I don't know if they are self sufficient in malt. Such an enterprise though does perhaps point backwards to a time when beer was more about sustaining the working population than it was about hanging out with friends and getting rat-arsed, something we Brits are apparently better than most at doing.

Viewed through this lens, modern "craft" beer is distinctly un-"cræfty", and so perhaps it is an acknowledgement of this fact that the Brewers Association definition of "craft" no longer makes any mention of the ingredients or processes involved in making the product. Just make less than 6 million barrels of beer, and don't be more than 25% owned by a non-craft brewery or beverage maker.

This is not to criticise the beer and its makers, but to own the fact that what we call "craft" beer is not in any meaningful sense a "craft", it is just small scale industrial production, with all the petrochemical reliant inputs, pumps, plant, and petrochemical distribution that entails. Farm breweries growing their own ingredients are probably the purest "craft" breweries out there, but even in that world there is a reliance on industrial methods of production.

Once you own that what we call "craft" is in reality just small scale industrial production of beer the focus shifts away from the company making the beer and on to the beer itself. Stripped of its moral certainty of superiority, the liquid in the glass becomes the primary guide, as in reality it always was, to what is good beer. "Am I enjoying this beer?" is probably the only question actually worth asking, followed by "Do I want another one?".

Friday, May 10, 2019

Come Helles or High Water

One of my favourite places to grab lunch and a bevvy on a Friday has for a good few years now been South Street Brewery. When I worked in Charlottesville itself the place was just across the street from my office, these days I tend to go in and meet folks for lunch and do some work parked at the bar. So much of a regular am I at South Street that several of the bar staff no longer bother to ask me what I want to drink, they know I want a glass of My Personal Helles straight off the bat. If there is something new, and potentially worthy of further inspection, they'll give me a sample, just in case I wish to veer from the path of helles righteousness.


As there was no-one else at the bar I got talking with the barman about the brewery's bottled offerings, and wondered out loud more than anything else whether My Personal Helles would ever be part of that range? Thinking about it a bit more, I came to the conclusion that it would actually not benefit the beer itself to be available in bottles, especially given the abuses that appear to be the norm in the distribution and retail channels.

The barman, who to my shame I had been calling Drew forever until my mate told me it was Adrian (ugh....parent brain is a think for men too I am sure) asked why I thought that helles as a style was not really suited to the bottled format, especially given the prevalence of helles (heli?) in bottles as the style has gained traction with American drinkers. In reality it came down to one simple thing, I believe there are some styles that are simply best drunk in a pub, beer hall, or beer garden. Random memory from my early years in Prague, there was a beer hall in the heart of Staré Město called Radegast that was basically the perfect beer hall, sadly it is gone now, sacrificed to the "improving" Noughties that stripped the centre of the city of so many characterful boozers and drinking dens.

Beer styles, for want of a better word, are the product of the beer culture from which they arise, and there is something delightful about drinking German style lagers in Germanic style surroundings, hence beer hall or garden is perfect. Sure the beer tastes broadly similar sat on my deck, and I even have plenty of trees to look at, but the purest element of a beer culture is missing. People, lots of them, enjoying beer in a convivial environment.

Perhaps they are sitting alone at a table reading the newspaper, or with their minds buried somewhere in a book. Perhaps they are a family enjoying the garden, kids free to wander around a bit while their parents keep an eye on them and feel relatively normal for a little while (this particular street is a two way one, family friendly boozer, boozer friendly families). Perhaps they are a works outing for a Friday liquid lunch before calling it a day a few hours early. For whatever reason people are in a drinking establishment they are creating a culture, of which the beer itself is just a single part, and in the case of helles, and arguably the standard beers of beer cultures around the world, it is the supporting act, not the star.

It's entirely possibly that I am a contrarian, but I have never really been much of a trend follower. I have an inbuilt aversion to people of an evangelical persuasion, whether their evangelion be religion, craft beer, politics, the list could go on for pages, though I am sure my aversion is in reaction to my years as an evangelical Christian, even though Brit evangelicals are nowhere near as bad as many a 'Murican Evangelical.

I can't imagine a helles ever really being the main act. Even at South Street My Personal Helles isn't part of the core range, but it has a dedicated following among regulars. Perhaps that is why it is better as a draught only beer, you actually have to deliberately go there for a pint rather than having it commoditised into cans or bottles, thus participating in the beer culture, and the culture is the important thing.

Monday, April 29, 2019

For The Love of Lager

I am a Lagerboy, plain, simple, and proud of the fact.

Sure there are top fermented beer styles that I love as well, but nothing is as satisfying as a pint of well made pale lager. The crackery, bready, malt, the snap and floral bouquet of noble hops, the lingering finish, clean, crisp, and almost daring you to try and stop drinking. Perhaps a dark lager could compete however, adding some toasty, smoothly roasty notes into the mix, hopefully with some of that Munich sweetness that is beyond even the finest crystal malts in the deftest of hands.


I have written before about how in this part of Virginia we are somewhat spoilt for choice when it comes to locally brewed lagers. South Street in the heart of Charlottesville have probably the single most regular beer I drink, My Personal Helles, which in my mind is pretty much the archetype for a good helles in my world. Devils Backbone's Schwartzbier is a staple during the colder months, and if I am honest I doubt there is a better example of the schwarzbier on the planet - a bold claim I know.


However, I have a gripe, for some reason the beer distributors in this part of Virginia have decreed that craft lager from breweries such as Port City and Troegs will not be available on the shelves. When Mrs V and I go to do our weekly shop at the local Wegmans it appears that the entire Port City lineup is there. If you fancy their magnificent Porter, you will be happy. If their delightful witbier is your thing, not a problem. Want one of their IPAs, bob's your uncle. Hankering for the deliriously wonderful Downright Pilsner.....yeah, fuck you, not a chance.


I can tell the same story about Troegs. Fans of hoppy beers of varying degrees of India-ness are more than catered for, people that know Sunshine Pils is one of the best pale lagers being made anywhere on planet earth, let alone the east coast of the USA, can once again fuck off in the minds of the beer distributors and retailers of central Virginia.

I have asked time after time at store after store in the area for them to stock both of these delights, but their absence continues to stand out like a sore thumb, more galling for the fact that just a couple of hours drive away in Warrenton, gateway to the gridlock that is Northern Virginia, the Wegmans stocks both Downright and Sunshine. So what gives?

I assume the same distributor handles Port City Optimal Wit as Port City Porter (though with the fucked up nature of distribution rights and the asinine politics of beer distribution who knows if that is actually true), so why have they taken the unilateral decision to deny the drinkers of central Virginia a world class Czech style pale lager? I likewise assume the guys filling the Charlottesville Wegmans shelves with Troegs' IPA have the ability to add a little Sunshine to our lives, but choose not to.

Can anyone explain?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Old Friends: Samuel Smiths Oatmeal Stout

We are on the cusp of a proper change in season here in central Virginia.

The threat of frost has receded, and most mornings when I walk Honza, our Cairn Terrier, it is a rather pleasant 55° Fahrenheit, that's about 13° Celsius for those of you that live in the 21st Century. With the warming days and shortening nights I tend to find that I am drawn to paler beers as my beloved porters, stouts, and dark lagers are banished for these painful weeks until the Summer Solstice has passed and I feel alive again - I am a winter soul through and through.

To wave farewell for a few months, I decided to do an Old Friends post on one of my absolute favourite beers, Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout.


Samuel Smiths' beers are probably the easiest British beers to get on this side of the Pond, and our local Wegmans carries most of their range, including the Organic Lager which may feature more regularly in the coming months' drinking.

Is there an Oatmeal Stout out there that is more closely associated with the style than Sam Smith's? I honestly can't think of one, it is as synonymous for me as Guinness is with Irish Stout, Sierra Nevada with Pale Ale, and Żywiec with Baltic Porter. So how was this most famous, and august, brew?


As you would imagine it poured as black as India ink, and interestingly, just as lustrous. Having mastered the art of pouring into a nonic glass, there was a mere half inch cap of foam that lingered for the duration of the drinking, protecting the precious liquid below. I have given up drinking Sam Smiths beers from my Sam Smiths glasses due to the etching on the bottom of the glass that creates a massive head. The aromas were exactly what you expect from a stout, coffee, chocolate, you know the deal, though I always find with this one that a trace of pipe tobacco forces it's way through the head to make you think of Gandalf the Grey enjoying the finest pipeweed in all of The Shire.

The aromatic themes, as is so often the case with stouts, carry on into the flavour department, think a slice of grannies bestest chocolate cake, served with a fine Italian espresso, then add in the silken mouthfeel of the oats and you have a luscious pint of dessert. Having, as is my wont, let the beer come up to cellar temperature, the carbonation was unobtrusive, just enough to clean the palette and leave you wanting more.

What a simply glorious way to bid farewell to the colder days of winter and early spring, though admitted I am already looking ahead to autumn's return.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Cleveland in dem Haus

Last week I was in Cleveland, Ohio, for a conference. Having admitted in several posts that I am a terrible beer tourist, I have determined that whenever I am away on a business trip I am going to try and change that narrative. Naturally I had done some research on Cleveland and had a list of breweries whose wares I at least wanted to try, time can often be at a premium on these conference trips and so I usually find a well regarded pub with a decent local selection so I can at least try a few new things.

Then I saw the magic words "Hofbräuhaus Cleveland" and knew without a shadow of any doubt that if time allowed then I would be going. Inspired by the thought of Bavarian style booze and food, I checked Google Maps and discovered it was 0.4 miles from my hotel...yeah, you know I was going there. Thus it was having landed in a much colder than Virginia Cleveland, and spent the afternoon getting set up for the conference exhibition, I took a stroll and allowed my mind to wander back to central Europe...


It being a Wednesday night, the Hofbräuhaus was not exactly busy and so I strode past the classic bench tables of a bierhalle, headed straight for my favourite place to drink, the bar itself.


Behind the bar stands the heartbeat of any brewpub, the coppers, and in this case actually copper, or at least copper clad, shining brightly. I was actually thrilled when I saw them, I knew their beers would be brewed in the US rather than shipped from Germany, but for some reason I hadn't expected them to be brewed in house. The thought of fresh, brewed in situ, Hofbräuhaus lagers filled my heart with joy. Yeah, I am a sucker for pretty much all beer and food related Teutonic things, I would say "German" but let's not leave out the Austrians shall we?


When in Rome and all that jazz, I started out with a half litre (yes!!) of the Hofbräuhaus Original...


Original is a Helles that is clean, crisp, with a nice noble hop bite and enough malt body to make it wonderfully easy drinking without dissipating into wateriness. It was a lovely beer with which to stare in bafflement at the food menu - how exactly does an avowed teutonophile decide between schnitzel and wurst? With a half litre of dunkel perhaps?


As I said it was cold in Cleveland, about 30°F when I arrived and there it had stayed in anticipation of warmer times, and so the dunkel just seemed more like cold weather drinking. This was lovely, rich, spicy, gently warming, touches of cocoa, tobacco, and that light cinnamon thing that you get with German hops. With a decision made on the food front, jägerschnitzel, another half litre was duly ordered as I had found my beery muse for the night.

I am fairly sure that Hofbräuhaus Cleveland will not win many friends among the punks and illuminati of the craft beer world, but for those of us who love a well made, classic, German style lager, it is a great place and one that if ever life takes me to Cleveland again will be due another visit.

Thinking about it in light of the news that Stone had sold their Berlin brewery to BrewDog, maybe the problem was craft beer's attitude to Germany rather than Germany's attitude to craft beer, after all Bavaria basically invented "traditional ingredients". Perhaps in the beer drinking heartlands of the world, there is less demand for beers "with a twist", and perhaps craft beer largely fails to understand that for the normal German drinker something like a helles, pilsner, or dunkel is as good as they want it to get?

And who is to say they are wrong? Not this guy, that's for sure.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Done Right, Damn Right, Downright.

I have mentioned many times that I am an abysmal beer tourist. Here in the Charlottesville area there are plenty of breweries I just haven't bothered to go visit, a fact perhaps influenced by many a local brewery's lack of lager in their lineup - it's a post for another day but recently I have been feeling as though I have come full circle in wanting mainly to drink properly made lagers to almost the exclusion of all else.

At the tail end of last year, Mrs V's cousin took up a job that had her and her husband transplant from Greensboro, North Carolina, to the interminable gridlock that is Northern Virginia, Alexandria to be precise. This weekend just gone, Mrs V and I went up, with the Malé Aličky to tow naturally, to visit, and I saw an opportunity to rectify my errant ways. Alexandria is home to one of my favourite breweries, Port City, and it really was high time for me to darken the door of their tasting room/bar.

Given the high regard in which I hold Port City, it is perhaps odd that I don't post about them more often, though there is a major mitigating circumstance. For some reason, best known only to the distributors and retailers in this part of the world, their Downright Pilsner is rarer than hens' teeth. Their majesterial Porter is something I save for the darker nights of autumn and winter, once I get my fill of the annual Oktoberfest, which is always a fine brew. Usually I have to limit my Downright consumption to the occasions when I see it on tap.

Well, on Sunday it was on tap just a few yards from where it had been brewed as I dragged the family along to get my fill of fresh Downright before Mrs V drove us back to central Virginia.

I am sure I have said this many times before, but there is simply no other Virginia brewed pilsner, whether Bohemian, German, or American in style, that is anywhere near as good as Downright Pilsner. There are a couple that come close, looking at you Devils Backbone Meadow Bier and South Street Shake Your Teal Feather, but Downright has so far held off all comers looking to take that particular crown.


Perhaps it's the simplicity of the recipe, just Pilsner malt and Saaz hops? Perhaps it is the 6 weeks of lagering, or maybe the mildly untraditional dry hopping with Saaz? Perhaps it's the 43 IBUs that all that Saaz brings to the table (yes you read that right, an American made Czech style pilsner that hops it with the best of Czech made Czech lagers). Perhaps it's the fact that Downright is a dvanáctka, that's a 12° Plato beer for the non-Czech speakers of the world?

Actually, it is all of the above. Downright is done right, and when you do things properly you get good results. Could Downright stand up if served on the taps of august Prague establishments like Pivovarský klub? Damn right it would. In fact, I am convinced it would quickly become a favourite among the cognoscenti of the Czech beer world.

Now then, when can I get back to Alexandria, given that my crowlers are finished and already I am hankering for more...?

Friday, March 29, 2019

Ordinary Homebrew

It's fair to say I now have a house beer. Well, let me qualify that a little by saying it is fair to say that I have a house grist and yeast combination, the hops I tend to mess around with. My house beer is my best bitter recipe that in the hands of Three Notch'd is known as Bitter 42, but in these here parts is still called Session 42 when I use Goldings, and {hop name} 42 when I don't.

Such has been my focus in the last couple of years on brewing best bitter, I have neglected entirely my good friend, Ordinary Bitter, that even lower gravity beer that is ideal for pouring into a pottle sized jug and forgetting all about the week just gone by. I may have mentioned elsewhere that I have become the de facto brewer for house parties and concerts at my wife's fiddle teacher's place, and we have one coming up in May with a rather well known fiddle player, and so naturally I have my thinking hat on.

The easy thing to do would be another keg of the Limelight Witbier I brewed for the St Patrick's Day festivities and which kicked in under 2 hours. Given that May is American Mild Month, brewing a pale mild crossed my mind, but mild is always a tricky thing to explain, even more so when it isn't dark, and being honest I am yet to hit on an Americanised version that I really love. The even easier thing I guess would be to take the Session 42 recipe and scale it down to ordinary bitter strength, but as my dad always says, if it's easy, is it worth it?

So a brand new ordinary bitter recipe is the decision, and given the challenge of brewing something low alcohol and not woefully insipid, it something I am looking forward to. The recipe I have settled on does share some characteristics with Session 42, mainly in that it is on the paler side of the bitter spectrum. The recipe looks like this:
  • 43% Maris Otter
  • 43% Golden Promise
  • 7% Victory Malt
  • 7% Crystal 15L
  • 19 IBU First Gold for 60 minutes
  • 6 IBU First Gold for 15 minutes
  • Safale S-04 yeast
Apparently this will give me a starting gravity of 1.039, which once the yeast has done it's thing will give me a 3.8% ABV beer to back up the 25 IBUs of First Gold hops. In terms of colour I am looking at about 6-7 SRM, or nicely dark gold.

If I have the time and can find the equipment I might be tempted to put it into my cask and serve it from a gravity tap, but I never carb my beers too much anyway in the keg so it would mostly be for novelty value.

The name for this particular brew, Boatman - I was listening to The Levellers as I designed the recipe.