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.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Golden Leaves of Vienna

Sadly this is not an Evan Railesque travelogue of drinking eponymous lager in the capital of modern Austria. Though when the boys are a bit more grown up a tour of the drinking cultures of central Europe sounds like a grand plan, after all them turning 18 and me 60 coincide quite nicely, and in winter as well so a tour of the Christmas markets could be fun. Anyway, I digress.

As you well know, dear regular reader, I am a big fan of Devils Backbone Brewing just down the road from us here in central Virginia. They were one of the first breweries we visited after moving here from the Czech Republic (sorry, but bollocks to Czechia) and have been a constant, and consistent source of lager beers to keep the lagerboys (and girls) amongst us happy. Of course I should also mention that Jason at Devils Backbone has been kind/crazy enough to brew a couple of my beer recipes at the brewpub.

Unlike many a craft brewery, Devils Backbone's flagship beers are lagers, the trailblazing Vienna Lager and the one time bestseller at the brewpub Gold Leaf. Between them they have picked up 13 gongs at various competitions, including the World Beer Cup. For a long time though if you wanted some Gold Leaf you had to go to the brewpub, which is no great travail, but the days of an hour's drive for a couple of pints are gone for the time being, twins eh? Those days though are over for a reason other than parenthood, Devils Backbone now package Gold Leaf.


Gold Leaf, described on the can as a "Golden Lager", is very much in the tradition of central European every day beer, which given Gold Leaf's nicely modest 4.5% abv makes it a grand session beer. I imagine the starting gravity is around 11° Plato - I can't remember who told me this but if you take the ABV and times it by 2.5 then you have an approximation of the starting gravity. Made with 4 different malts, and 3 hop varieties, including 2 of my favourites (Tettnang and Saaz), to give you 21 IBUs, it is a very easy beer to drink, and that my friend is it's charm.

No doubt I sound like something of a scratched record on this, but I have no time for the vast majority of silly shit beers, you know the kind of thing, porter with peanut butter, IPA with breakfast cereal, gose with fruit, anything you care to mention with vanilla. Gold Leaf is the kind of beer I love to drink, simple, classic, flavourful without being challenging, refreshing, and ideal for sitting on the front porch on a Sunday afternoon. Best of all right now, it is available in our local Wegmans as a 15 pack of cans for $15, you really can't beat that.

Unless of course you want something a little stronger, then get a 15 can pack of Vienna Lager for the same price and pour three into your 1 litre maß....


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Stand Up For Lager

If you follow pretty much any of my social media accounts, you will know that I am a devotee of lager. I love the stuff, absolutely love it. That's not to take anything away fro, or cast aspersions at, their top fermented cousins, but given the choice, I will always choose a well brewed lager beer. Just to give you an idea of my love for the lagering arts, here's a quick selection of my favourite posts on the subject:
This morning as I had my coffee and watched YouTube videos, having dispatched Mrs V to work and the Malé Aličky to daycare, a video was recommended to me by the Craft Beer Channel about lagers...here it is:



What a fantastic video! Thank goodness for people out there telling the truth about the various lager styles. If I were in the UK you bet I'd be trying to get along to the lager festival mentioned in the video, and if you are in the UK, do try and get along.

Friday, March 15, 2019

For the 1%

Last night I was about to send out a tweet to the effect that the six pack of Anchor Porter I was starting on was likely to be my last beer from that most august of craft breweries, and that fact actually made me sad. I really like Anchor beers, and they are not that easy to come by for some reason in this part of Virginia, so when I go to South Carolina I make sure to get a six pack of either their Porter or Liberty Ale.

The reason I was on the verge of a one man boycott was the way management were stifling attempts of Anchor workers to unionise and use the power of collective bargaining to improve salary and conditions. To make sure I had my fact straight, I made sure to check on the old interwebs for stories about the situation, to be presented with news that the workers had successfully voted to unionise. Naturally I was very pleased, and assuming Anchor's management does nothing to punish or interfere with the workers' rights to be in a union I will continue drinking Anchor with a clean conscience.

However, this got me thinking about how few craft brewery workers actually have union representation at their place of employment, and also the generally poor levels of remuneration and benefits for what is a dangerous job. Based on a survey of salary and benefits done by Jeff at Beervana, it is very rare for a head brewer/brewmaster to earn north of $48,000 - which equates to £36,200 or €42,385. Jeff goes into much more detail here, and it is worth checking out his analysis, and subsequent posts.

Given a median individual income in the US of $31,000, it would appear at face value that brewmasters are doing ok, earning 54% more than median, but let's take a moment to step away from the folks at the top end of the brewing totem pole. According to Jeff's analysis, a lead brewer is earning $38,000 per annum, still above the national median, but pretty much on par with the median in Virginia.Once you get to the bottom rungs of the brewing ladder, you dip just below the median salary.

And yet, according to the Brewers Association, the craft beer market in 2017 was worth $26 billion, that's $26,000,000,000 (US billions being smaller than European billions, much like standard beer serving sizes). That $26 billion is in retail dollars, so let's remind ourselves of this breakdown of the costs of a six pack of beer.


According to this infographic, 52% of the cost of the six pack is markup from the middle men that come between me and my beer, distributors and retailers. So using that number as a guide, the production value of the craft beer industry is about $12.5 billion. The most shocking part of that breakdown though is the cost of labour, just 1% of the cost of your 6 pack is the hours the brewers spent making that beer. Risking physical injury and even death in the event of a tragedy, to earn a single percent of the pie, the same single percent of the pie as the yeast gets.

Perhaps it is the left wing blood that flows through my veins, being the grandson of a leader in the National Unemployed Workers' Movement in Scotland that lead hunger marches in the 1930s, but so little regard for the value of the workers making a company's beer sickens me. That may explain why when I hear stories of breweries that victimise workers for having the temerity to stand up to management and demand better working conditions (and some breweries I have seen the insides of are death traps) and better pay I will always stand in solidarity with the working brewers and thus not drink that brewery's products until workers are free to unionise.

In the meantime, cheers to the workers at Anchor Brewing!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

#FlagshipFebruary - Olde Mecklenburg Brewery Copper

Leaving the flagship beers of central Virginia behind, I want to take a quick trip down Route 29, I-85, and just a tiny bit of I-77, to Charlotte, North Carolina.

It is almost embarrassing when I think about it just how many times since Olde Mecklenburg Brewery opened its doors in 2009 Mrs V and I have driven right past without stopping in. The brewery and its 8 acres of beer garden, yes you read that correctly 8 fucking acres of beer garden, stick that in your poxy patio with a potted tree pipe and smoke it, is literally a couple of minutes off the interstate on the last stretch of the drive to my in-laws in South Carolina.

Then when you look at the beers that they make, you probably think, what the fuck have you been playing at Al?? Everything they make is central European in origin, mostly German, and you know me, I am a complete Teutonophile. Best of all? Not a single IPA in sight, yeah can you believe it, a craft brewery in the USA that doesn't have an IPA as its flagship. What does it have then? A pilsner perhaps? A kölsch? Nope neither of those, the flagship is a Düsseldorf style altbier, named Copper.


Copper has become one of my go-to beers when I am able to get hold of it, which basically means whenever Mrs V, the Malé Aličky, and I go south, or the in-laws come north and I put in a beer order. As you can imagine from the name, and see in the picture, Copper is exactly that, a lovely transparent copper orange, topped with a nice, healthy, rocky foam, as you would expect from even Düsseldorf's finest (which is Schumacher since you didn't ask but I'll tell you anyway). Admittedly you probably look daft taking a big sniff from a half litre mug of beer, but who cares when the aromas of bready malt, floral hops, and orange blossom coming wafting through the foam? Those themes dominate the drinking, fresh bread with a schmeer of honey, meadowy floral hops tinged with something citrusy, think lemon and orange rather than grapefruit, and a good solid bitterness to cleanse the palate. You can't get away from the fact that this is a nailed on version of a classic beer style, one that is old school, and all the better for it. This is serious beer flavoured beer for serious beer drinkers, none of your daft silly shit ingredients to muddy the waters here thank you very much.


Next time the family and I go south, probably in the summer, we will definitely be breaking the journey at Old Meck's beer garden, let the boys stretch their legs and run around while mum and dad enjoy several fresh altbiers.

Every prospect pleases.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

#FlagshipFebruary - Blue Mountain Brewery Full Nelson

It's fair to say that I like Blue Mountain Brewery, and have pretty much from the moment we first walked through the, original, door back in 2009. We have watched them grow, both as a venue with the original brewpub at least doubling in size, and as a company, adding the Blue Mountain Barrel House and South Street Brewery to their fold. I have named a beer for them, Isabel, and we did a historic brewing project together, introducing central Virginia to the delights of 1920s Old Burton Ale. It is also fair to say that I simply do not get down there often enough, thankfully there are plenty of places in town to find their beers on tap.

Weighing in at 5.9% abv and with 60 IBUs, Full Nelson is Blue Mountain's flagship, a beer that when I found my notes from our first visit in 2009 I described as being "a delight". That was also my opinion when I most recently had a couple of pints, again sharing a pitcher with my mate Dave.


As you can tell from the picture, Full Nelson is squarely in the old school American Pale Ale category, old school of course not being any denigration of a lovely beer. Despite the 60 IBUs, there is enough malt to balance that out and make for one very drinkable beer, perhaps not a session beer, but certainly something worthy of a few pints in a single sitting.

Being an old school American Pale Ale, you get a good wallop of bitterness as well as the classic pine and citrus flavours that the style is known for. That bitterness though is softened by the almost Plzeňesque water source, which gives the beer a roundness that pale ales made from a harder water source lack, and in my world that makes it a more pleasureable drinking experience. In many ways Full Nelson is a throwback to simpler times in the craft beer world, before the IPAification of everything, before beer as murky as sheep phlegm, before endless new releases. In other words, a flagship, pure, simple, and endlessly enjoyable.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

#FlagshipFebruary - South Street Satan's Pony

In the nearly ten years since Mrs V and I upped sticks from the Czech Republic (not sorry, but I will never refer to the Czech lands as "Czechia"), Charlottesville and it's immediate environs have experienced something of a brewing boom. In 2009 there were just 4 breweries within about 20 miles of the city, and only one of those in Charlottesville itself. The oldest of those 4 breweries, and the only one in the city of Charlottesville proper, is South Street Brewery. Established in 1998, the brewpub has always been one of my favourite spaces in which to drink, though until 2015 the beer was, all to often, undrinkable, as I wrote about here.

Apparently it hadn't ever been thus. Prior to starting Blue Mountain Brewery, Taylor Smack had been the brewer at South Street, and they had a good reputation. When 8 years later Taylor bought South Street, he and his wife Mandi set about restoring that reputation, to superb effect. South Street beers are now worthy of the space they are brewed and consumed in, and in doing so they also restored the flagship, Satan's Pony.


Satan's Pony is a rarity among flagship beers in that it is not an IPA, rather it is, officially, an Amber Ale. I tend to think of it though as more of a ruby mild in the tradition of Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby as it is 5.3%. Sadly I think the term "ruby mild" would sell less than "amber ale". The picture above was taken a couple of weekends ago at brunch, my good friend Dave and I shared a pitcher of Pony, and once it had got to cellar temperature it was quite revelatory. With only 12 IBU, malt complexity comes to the fore. It has a lovely biscuity base, British biscuits that is, think Rich Tea. On top of the base is layered toffee, a subtle toastiness, and the soothing flavours of unsweetened cocoa. With hops basically there to add bitterness for balance, this is anything but a one dimension hop fest, and it is all the better for it. It is simply delicious.

Now, if you know me in the slightest, you'll likely be reeling from all the glowing positivity above, so let me say this about Satan's Pony, it doesn't get the love it deserves.


South Street is one of the few places I know in Virginia that has a beer engine, and thus the ability to have real ale hand pulled at cellar temperature, and I can think of no better beer in their range to be elevated to the heights of real ale than Satan's Pony. When I say elevated, I mean no silly shit ingredients, I don't want a pastry ruby mild, or dry hopping, or cocoa nibs, or, well, anything else really. Satan's Pony, properly cask condititioned, then properly cared for by the cellarman, pulled, when ready, through a sparkler, would be a thing of beauty.

This year sees the 21st birthday of South Street, and Satan's Pony has been a major part of that ride. You could make a strong argument that Pony is the flagship craft beer for Charlottesville and central Virginia, and in the spirit of Flagship February get out there and try it folks, then thank Taylor and Mandi for restoring its lustre (before bugging them for having it on cask...)

Thursday, February 7, 2019

#FlagshipFebruary - Three Notch'd 40 Mile IPA

I do hope you are sitting comfortably dear reader, especially if you are one of my regulars, as I am about to do something rarely seen in these here Fuggledy parts, extol the virtues of a pale ale of a hoppy nature.

Not only was last Friday the beginning of Flagship February it was also the day on which my dry month was over, and so it seemed appropriate for me to break the fast with a local flagship beer. Thus I wandered into the cavernous brewpub that is Three Notch'd, sat at the bar, and ordered a pint of 40 Mile IPA.


40 Mile is a rare beast in that it is an IPA that I have liked from the outset of its brewing, and still like to this day, despite the fact that I don't often drink it. I think part of my liking for 40 Mile is that it eschews the modern craze for a lack of bitterness, it is properly twangy in that department. The star of the hop flavour department is El Dorado, popping with tropical and stone fruit, making 40 Mile so much more than just another pine and grapefruit bomb. As with any beer that I like, balance is important, and the malt character is not lacking either. With delicate poise, the light toffee notes of the crystal malt add restraint. With a relatively modest 6% abv, 40 Mile is something that you can take a couple of with lunch and not be the worse for wear, though caning it all day is most definitely not the wisest thing a one can do.


I remember with much fondness my first taste of 40 Mile, or at least the beer that would become 40 Mile. In the very early days of the Three Notch'd project, the founders organised a meet and greet with their brewer at the pub next door to their original location. Wanting to support my friend that is one of the founders, I got along and met with Dave Warwick and tried several of the sample beers he had with him, including an IPA that shock of all shocks, I really liked. When it first made an appearance in the old taproom (a space I deeply lament the passing of, it was for a long time the best drinking hole in Charlottesville) I drank 4 pints of the newly monikered 40 Mile while my friends watched aghast that Al was drinking multiple pints of an IPA.

In terms of sales, 40 Mile has been surpassed by Minute Man IPA, an IPA of the New England ilk, but in moving from their original digs to the new brewpub where I had my first beers of 2019 last week, it is clear that 40 Mile remains the flagship and the brewpub is known as "the house that 40 Mile built".

Friday, February 1, 2019

Real Ale: Real Craft

I am in the planning stages of going home to Scotland for at least a month this summer. Inevitably that means things like plane tickets, making sure travel documents are up to date, getting passports for a pair of 15 month old children, getting 15 month old children to sit still for photographs for said passports, and so on and so forth. Thankfully my current employer is ok with me taking my computer with me and working from the UK so I don't have to use up all my holiday time, working in IT is fantastic at times.

Inevitably intermingled with all these practicalities are thoughts of beers to hunt out, pubs to go to, breweries to visit, that kind of beer tourist crap that I admit to being terrible at. You see, I have this problem, when I find a place I like I often don't feel like changing it up, and I have a short list of must hit boozers and must drink beers for my time home. One thing all these bars have in common, whether in Inverness and environs northwards, or in Glasgow, is they have decent selections of cask ale.


While I am not a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, and in no way, shape, or form an anti-keg beer zealot - forget dry January, that would be abstinence in the US - I do consider myself very much a fellow traveller on the path of real ale righteousness. Nothing, and I literally mean nothing, beats a pint of flavourful, well conditioned, well tended ale drawn from a cask, served at the right temperature. That is something each boozer on my little list has in common, they do cask ale right, and that means sparkled as well, naturally.



There does seem to be something of a false dichotomy though in the UK when it comes to the relationship between cask ale and craft beer. Just so there is no room for misunderstanding, let me say very clearly that the biggest difference I see is that craft beer is ultimately a product of a brewery, while cask ale is a craft throughout its life cycle.

Think about that for a moment. Craft beer basically gets made, kegged, chucked in a pub cold room and then poured from a tap. When the keg kicks, a member of the bar staff goes to the cold room, puts a new keg on and carries on. It is exactly what I did for many years behind the bar at the Starr Hill brewery tasting room. It doesn't take any special skill to pour beer behind a bar that serves kegged craft beer. That's not to say that keg beer is crap beer, it is after all just a different dispense method, rather that when it comes to delivery there is very little that can go wrong once the keg is tapped.


Now consider real ale, delivered to the pub cellar where it needs to sit at the right temperature until it is ready to be vented, and even then it takes time to get to the appropriate condition for serving. It takes a trained cellarman to keep the ale flowing with as little disruption to customers. Even in the pulling of your pint, there is right way to pull through a beer engine. There are many stages at which real ale can turn to shit, especially once it has left the relative safety of the brewery, and of course once the cask is tapped the clock is running on when it will turn to vinegar, a problem that keg beer generally doesn't have, I know of breweries that have found old kegs of beer in the back of their storage and put it on tap to customers who were none the wiser, and happily paid full price for essentially old beer.

I think sometimes cask ale gets a raw deal, demeaned by crafties and lout drinkers alike as old man beer, mistreated by far too many pubs, in the US often served slapped on a bar and with the cask groaning with silly shit, and cloudy as fuck too. When the craft of real ale is done right, the beer has passed through the hands of multiple artisans (and being a good cellarman is an art), and the end product is a pint of beautifully cool, well conditioned ale, there is nothing that compares.


Cask ale is the product of craftsmanship from beginning to end.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sober Reflections - #TheSession

Before launching into my beery navel gazing that is the "theme", for want of a better word, that Alan has set before us for this month, let me say that I am so glad that he decided to pick up the baton and keep running with The Session.


Coming back to Alan's request, he wants us to reflect on the month now drawing to its close:
How was your dry or wet January? Did the campaign actually change your behaviours in any way? Or is it just good to reflect on the idea of alcohol and health and this is a great way to do it?
This is the 12th year that I have taken January off the booze. I am not sure there was even such a thing as "Dry January" back in 2007, back when my standard beers were Gambrinus, Kozel, and Budvar. That first month off the booze came about as a result of a particularly drunken Christmas and Hogmanay season, and just sick of feeling shitty with a hangover.

In common with many smokers' anecdotes, the hardest part was going to the pub, to watch football, and not having a half litre beer glass in my hand. After about 10 days though that wore off and I found that I quite enjoyed waking up with a clear head on a Sunday morning and walking along the Vltava in the crisp winter cold. When February 1st came around though, I was ready for a beer, but my palette had changed, and of the old faithfuls only Budvar satisfied.

My dry month has become as much a feature of my drinking life as my love of Czech lager and best bitter, it's just something I like to do for no other reason than I feel that it is good sometimes to take a step back, even switch off a little bit, and tune out the noise that surrounds much of the craft beer industry.

This year has been the hardest I can remember, and I am glad that I am a stubborn, bloody minded Highlander, as that determination to get to the finish line will get me through. It would be too easy to say that the fact that I have 15 month old twins has made the month harder, I had the same twins, though younger obviously, this time last year. Life with 3 month old twins though is a completely different kettle of fish, and not drinking when you have to deal with 2 or 3 feedings each night was likely beneficial.

In talking about this with Mrs V, as inestimably wonderful as ever, she noted that compared to even 3 or 4 years ago I probably don't drink quite as much, and so for the first Holidays period I can recall, there were no epic, or even semi-epic, sessions on the booze. There was a fairly steady stream of a couple of imperial pints each night, and a few extra at the weekend, but nothing where Mrs V felt as though I had had enough, before my going on to have a few more. Without sludgy hangovers to deal with, the feeling of clean came much quicker than the usual ten days.

This year has also likely been harder because the boys, as is the want of kids that age in winter, have been an endless source of snot, fever, and the attendant discomforted upset that goes along with such things. When bedtime is over and done with so many nights I have looked longingly at the Sierra Nevada mix pack, cans of König Pilsner, and growler of South Street doppelbock in the fridge, only to have that dour Highland determination remind me that a few more days without will make that first February beer all the sweeter.

And then comes through the news about Fullers. As with previous sales of breweries I very much like, I am incapable of the caterwauling and gnashing of teeth that is de rigeur at times like this. However, I think the news is the first time such a thing has happened in the middle of my drink free time, and perhaps I am clearer headed than usual, but this time the lamentations of St Jude's acolytes grated more keenly, like the banshee's wail. As someone pointed out, there is a likely overlap of caterwaulers and folks that derided Fullers as "boring brown beer". Some people will find any reason for a moan.

Anyway, Friday is on its way, and I am looking forward to having a beer or two with lunch to get back in the swing of things.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Try Offering Dry

A friend on Facebook posted this interesting little article in the Morning Advertiser today, which basically states that Dry January will "be the death" of the British pub.

The article goes on to state that 5 million British drinkers have signed up for the "official" Dry January project run by those tireless, puritanical, temperance folks of Alcohol Concern. The number of people completing the challenge in previous years is not mentioned. If my own observations of friends who, like me, attempt to take 31 days off the bevvy can be extrapolated out, I would not be surprised if fewer than 2 million people actually succeed.

I have mentioned in previous posts that I have little truck with either the official Dry January brigade or the plucky rebellious sorts advocating for Tryanuary, which encourages folks to break out from their normal drinking, preferably at some craft beer, leave your wallet with the barman, type place.

Now forgive me I am being cynical but could someone please just decide what exactly it is that is killing the British pub? Is it the smoking ban? Brexit? Climate change? It seems at times that anything that diverges from the image of Blighty as basically The Shire writ large is the greatest harbinger of doom for the pub industry.

Now forgive me if as a mere punter I am missing something, but haven't we just had the Christmas and Hogmanay period, when pubs are slammed to the gunwales pretty much for the entirety of December? Why was no one complaining that all these people out on the piss were putting too much money in the boozers' coffers?

It seems to me that rather than whining to the media about how a dip in custom is affecting their business's profitability, landlords would be better served taking on board the ethos of Tryanuary and give the Dry January folks an actual alternative to booze. I know too many places that only have some crap like lime soda as a non booze option.


How about offering traditionally made soft drinks, ditching the post-mix swill from Pepsi or Coke, like those made by Dalston's or Lovely Soft Drinks? Thankfully here in central Virginia most of my favourite places to drink also make their own ginger beer, and in the case of Three Notch'd it's bloody delicious.

Running a business means adapting to market forces and the capricious whimsy of the consumer, pubs are no different.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Local Flagships

It would appear that I have entered uncharted territory, being described as "all a’giggle" and "excited and on-board", phrases not normally applied to this fine upstanding example of the Highland Scot, a study in taciturn. I refer of course to my enthusiasm, suspicious naturally, for the upcoming Flagship February. One of the reasons I am happy to support Flagship February is that it chimes so nicely with my Old Friends series of posts, several of which has featured brewery flagships that I hadn't drunk in a while.

It does however raise the question, in this era of almost weekly new beer tappings, one off collaborations, and limited availability releases, how do you identify a brewery's flagship? Well, Stephen Beaumont, the driving force behind the project offers this:
the beer that formed the foundation of the brewery… not necessarily its current best-seller
That pretty much seems to be on point for a definition. As an example I asked the brew master at Three Notch'd here in central Virginia what he considered to be their flagship beer, to which he responded 40 Mile IPA, despite the current best seller being their Minute Man NEIPA. I imagine then there will be a fair amount of IPA in the drinking of folks supporting Flagship February, I remember well sitting with the MD of another local brewery just before they started distributing widely in Virginia and being told they only chose an IPA as one of their packaged beers because it was expected by most craft beer drinkers. Thankfully though, in this part of the world at least, not every brewery has an IPA as their flagship.

The guys at Blue Mountain have their Full Nelson, a "Virginia Pale Ale" that is pretty much a classic American style pale ale, with all the citrus and pine hop thing you effect, you could almost call it "old school" but that would be a disservice to what is a fine, fine beer.

Just a wee bit down Route 151 (the Boulevard of Booze), Devils Backbone's flagship is their simply wonderful Vienna Lager, which I wrote about for the Old Friends series.

Coming into town itself and at South Street, one of my favourite haunts when it isn't January (side note, this year's dry month is harder than previous years), their flagship is Satan's Pony, an amber ale that is magnificently crushable and I wish they would have it on their forlorn beer engine, sans silly shit in the cask. It would be a revelation I am sure.

Again popping out of Charlottesville, to Starr Hill in Crozet and here we do have an IPA for a flagship, and again a beer I wrote about for Old Friends, the Northern Lights IPA, at one time the best selling IPA in Virginia. There was a question in my mind about whether Northern Lights would be the Starr Hill flagship, but since they no longer include Jomo Lager, Pale Ale, Dark Starr, or Amber Ale in their core lineup, it's pointless to ask.

As well as being an opportunity to remind myself of some beers I have enjoyed mightily in the past, Flagship February could also be the kick up the zythophilic arse I need to get to some of the newer local breweries and try their flagships

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

My Name is Fuggled, And I Approve #FlagshipFebruary

It started with a post on Vinepair about the struggles of flagship beers in the American marketplace. Step forward Stephen Beaumont with the idea of Flagship February, a month dedicated to celebrating the core brands that are the back bone of many a craft brewery. It was thus that Flagship February was born.

The idea is pretty simple, spend a month drinking and celebrating those flagship beers that are the backbone of many a brewery's offering. This is the kind of thing that I am more than happy to get behind, especially as it chimes nicely with the Old Friends series that I have been doing here on Fuggled.

With that in mind, I plan to make flagship beers a major feature of my drinking, and posting, in February, and not just from the central Virginia region - partly because several of them have Old Friends posts already.

Now, to start encouraging industry folks I know to stock flagships on tap in their bars, or have some kind of special deal in their tasting rooms....