Thursday, October 31, 2019

Oktoberfest Crown Challengers - Saranac and Victory

Back before I went to Central Europe for ten days I was wrapping up my Oktoberfest lager challenge. As things stood, the reigning champion was Jospehsbrau Oktoberfest from Trader Joe's, contract brewed by Gordon Biersch. I had two remaining beers in the fridge to pit against our champion, and so the other night having put the twins to bed, I cracked them open, with a bottle of Josephsbrau to compare alongside.


I started off with Saranac's 1888 Oktoberfest, a brewery that for some reason very rarely seems to make it into my fridge. Anyway, on to the Cyclops notes...
  • Sight - crystal clear copper, thin loose head, off white, dissipates very quickly
  • Smell - crackers, very light toffee, very little of anything really
  • Taste - lightly toasty, some grassy hops, some toffee sweetness
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Other than looking the part, this beer was a distinct let down. Everything seemed so restrained as to be almost bland and barely worth the effort of finishing the 12oz bottle. It wasn't that it was a technically bad beer, there was little to pick at from a quality control standpoint, it was just plain boring.

Josephsbrau retains its crown...

On then to Victory Brewing and their Festbier.

  • Sight - dark copper, beautifully clear, very little head initially but swirling the glass revives it
  • Smell - sweet toasted grains, caramel, bready, syrup, light lemon note
  • Taste - quite syrupy, sweetness dominates to the exclusion of all else
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Far too sweet for my tastes, really seems to lack the clean crisp bite of a well lagered beer. I had high hopes for this given Victory's lovely Prima Pils, but those hopes were dashed by the overwhelming sweetness of the beer.

Again Josephsbrau sees off the contender, mainly due to its superior balance and drinkability.


Given that Oktoberfest lagers have basically disappeared from the shops, the 2019 Fuggled Oktoberfest of the Year is Josephsbrau Oktoberfest, a victory for contract brewing and traditional German brewing practices!!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Prague - Back to the Beginning

Some dates are seared into memory. For me one such date is October 14th 2005.

It was a Friday and I was meeting up with some friends to go drinking, as one did of a Friday evening as a late 20 something single bloke living in Prague. The pub we were going to was Pivovarský klub, which had only just opened in the district of Karlín. Back then Karlín was one of the less salubrious neighbourhoods in the city and was still recovering from the the 2002 flood that decimated the area. Not only would this night be the night I found my local for the next four years of my life in the city, it was the night I met Mrs V, and we've been together every since.

Another date seared into memory is October 16th 2017, the day Mrs V and I welcomed our twin sons into the world, and now on their second birthday I was landing in Prague on my way to speak at a conference. With their birthday being on a week day this year, we had already had their party, but still I felt bad about not being at home on the day itself.

Having discovered that my Czech was not as atrocious as I had worried, successfully purchasing a short term pass for the city's magnificent public transport system, and carrying on a decent length conversation with the hotel receptionist, I needed a beer. My hotel was just two doors down from my old local, some might say I planned it that way, some might known me well, and so with a flutter of excitement I wandered a few hundred feet and back more than 10 years...

Walking through the door it felt as though literally nothing had changed. The signs on the walls were the same, the tables and chairs exactly where we left then in the Noughties, had I not known that Klara now works for a another pub, I would have not been surprised to see her behind the bar. So I took my seat.


My seat. On the left hand corner of the bar, first chair on the side. This seat allows you to watch the bar and the wider room at the same time, it is a seat for people watching, it is the seat that I always chose if it was available, and as I was often in before the crowds it usually was. I also had a regular seat in the basement bar, but it was sunny out so I wanted to sit in the light of the upstairs bar.

One thing that had changed was the absence of Štěpán, Pivovarský klub's světlý ležák that was a reliable go to beer for many nights out when I didn't fancy anything new or different. In it's place was Břevnovský Benedict, a 12.5° pale lager from Břevnovský Klášterní Pivovar, and from what I understand basically the only near permanent tap at PK. It just seemed right that my first beer back in Prague was a pale lager in Pivovarský klub.


What a delightful beer, brimming with everything you expect from a Czech lager, a lovely subtle sweet graininess, a firm bitterness that while evident isn't harsh, light lime citrus notes from the hops, along with just a trace of white pepper, and that hay and floral aroma that always makes me think of freshly mown meadows in the mountains. Served at the right temperature, around 8°C/46°F, it was conditioned without being fizzy, the fuller body so classic of lower attenuated Czech lagers smoothing out the drinking...god this was good.

I had made a conscious decision that I would stick to local beer styles while in Prague rather than chasing after IPA, whether hazy or otherwise, when in Rome and all that jazz - plus I love Czech lager styles and they are so painfully rare here in Virginia. With that in mind, next up was the 14° Tmavý speciál from Pivovar Falkenštejn.


Tmavé is one of those beer styles that almost defy definition as even in the Czech Republic vastly different beers bear the moniker "tmavé" and couldn't be more different. As you can see from the picture, this one was very much on the inky blackness end of the colour spectrum. In terms of drinking, it was deliciously complex, layers of caramel, chocolate, and espresso swirling around in the glass, both as flavours and aromas. When I was about half way through the glass, the door opened and in walked Evan Rail.

Evan and I enjoyed many a session when Prague was definitively home for Mrs V and I, he was not expecting to see me, and I was thrilled to see him, even if only for a few moments as he was guiding a photographer around for a story on Karlín. We made arrangements to meet later in the week to catch up properly.

Sat at my usual corner of the bar, and Evan's too as it turned out, everything felt instinctively as it should do. I was in the city I will always regard as home, in the pub which for years was basically my living room, drinking beer styles I never tire of. All that was missing was Mrs V and the boys, but one day we'll all go to Prague as a family.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Oktoberfest Crown Challengers - Josephsbrau

Having seen off the challenge of Spaten, Josephsbrau Oktoberfest from Trader Joe's hoved into view.

I am happy to admit to having a soft spot for the Trader Joe's range of contract brewed beer, where else can you get thoroughly reliable, solid central European lagers for under $6.50 a six pack? Of course, the lagers are brewed by Gordon Biersch, and while they may lack the sex appeal of trendy breweries, I have never once had a bad beer from them, they just do them right, and do them well.

But how would it stand up to the beer that is the only annual release I keep an active eye out for?


Once again with the Cyclops:
  • Sight - pale copper, nice white head that lingers and leaves a lovely bit of lace
  • Smell - tangerine citrus hops, toasted teacake, some herbal notes
  • Taste - juicy sweet malt character, fresh scones, firm citric bitterness
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
What a cracking beer this is.

Let me tell you a story, last weekend Mrs V and I took the boys to the Kiptopeke State Park on Virginia's Eastern Shore for their first camping trip. Along for the trip was my good friend Dave, his wife, and their son who is only a couple of months older than our pair. Dave and I drink a lot of beer together, and we have been caning 12 packs of Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest like nobody's business this year. Indeed, we polished off another one on Friday night, having got the tents sorted and the children to sleep. On the Saturday, we started on the Trader's beer, though admittedly I waited until the sun was down to start drinking, and the consensus then was that Trader's is a more drinkable beer.

It is, then, on that basis that Sierra Nevada has been knocked off its perch in the Fuggled Oktoberfest Taste Off. Josephsbrau Oktoberfest is simply delightful and unlike other seasonal beers that folks describe as "drinkable" it doesn't fall into the bland trap.

The king is dead!


Long live the king!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Oktoberfest Crown Challengers - Spaten

So....where did we leave it? Oh that's right, from my perspective the winner of the Fuggled Oktoberfest Taste Off was Sierra Nevada's collaboration with Bitburger. As is the way of things though, the shops suddenly had more beers bearing the Oktoberfest label and so I knew I had to find a way of incorporating those into things.

The plan then is simple, a series of head to head tastings and whoever is left standing at the end will be declared the Fuggled Oktoberfest of the Year, a prize so unmatched in prestige that it is quite literally priceless, oh ok then it has no monetary value.

The first contender was Spaten's Oktoberfest, marketed as the "Ur-Märzen", the original Märzen, it seemed only natural to start things off with this.


Using the Cyclops beer evaluation tool, here's my thoughts on Sierra Nevada
  • Sight - copper, medium white head, nice lacing
  • Smell - toasty malt, light brown sugar, floral hops
  • Taste - slight peppery hop note, toasted teacake, nicely clean bitter bite
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
There is a reason I have drunk a lot of this since it came out in August, it is damned delicious. What then about the challenger?

  • Sight - rich orange with red highlights, firm white head, good lacing
  • Smell - sweet grainy malt, subtle honey, citrus and spicy hops
  • Taste - soft toffee, caramelised grains, a bit indistinct
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Ok, so it is a nice beer, good balance leaning more toward the malt, and with a nice clean finish. The problem with it though is that it is just rather forgettable.


Sierra Nevada then holds onto their crown...but other challengers are lining up.

Munich - Flying Visit

When I flew to central Europe back in October, I landed firstly in Frankfurt before heading on to Prague. For my flight back I had a choice,...