Thursday, December 31, 2020

Fuggled Beers of the Year - Dark, Proper Dark

Off we head then to the end of 2020 with a quick review of the year's dark beers...

Virginia

  • Morana - Devils Backbone Brewing
  • Schwartz Bier - Devils Backbone Brewing
  • Porter - Port City Brewing
Honorable mentions: Fast Mild - Ballad Brewing Company

In years past I have refrained from putting Morana on my beers of the year list for the simple reason that I researched and designed the recipe, but as many have said throughout 2020, all bets are off now, so it is on the list. This was the 5th brewing of the beer, and in my unhumble opinion the best so far, thanks largely to open fermentation and horizontal lagering, in addition to the usual double decoction. 

Schwarzbier, the style, is one of those lager styles that just doesn't get enough love in the craft brewing scene, and Devils Backbone's nod to Space Balls is right up there with the finest examples from Germany, and regularly finds a place in the fridge. 

It wouldn't be a 2020 review of the year without Port City now would it. Their Porter is one of those beers that is just wonderful, an archetype of the style if you will, when it is served at a proper temperature, like 55°F, is so much more than the sum of its parts, it sings.

Call it bias, call it nepotism, but only Morana can be the Fuggled 2020 Dark Beer of the Year and with the ever growing list of tmavé lagers hitting the shelves, I really hope to see it packaged one day soon.

Rest of the USA
  • Dunkel - Von Trapp Brewing, VT
  • Irish Walker 2012 - Olde Hickory Brewing, NC
  • Trösten - Von Trapp Brewing, VT
Honorable mentions: Dunkel - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC; Porter - Anchor Brewing, CA.

Of my various crushes on Von Trapp beers, and I think I have a little something for all of them bar the Kölsch, the Dunkel is as solid a US made Dunkel as is possible to find, and it makes a great component of a řezané pivo, especially with Von Trapp's Helles. I have been known to polish off an entire 6 pack of cans in the course of an evening once the boys go to bed, it is that moreish.

I hope you are sitting comfortably, but yes a barleywine makes this list, a very dark barleywine for sure, and one that had been sitting in my cellar since 2013. I described Irish Walker as being a "cacophonous love song to malt" that was "just glorious", a very worthy contender indeed.

Trösten is Von Trapp's smoked lager winter seasonal, though I have to admit that I find the smoke character to be somewhat subdued. Despite that, it is a beer that I love drinking for it's fuller dark body and satin smooth mouthfeel.

A surprise perhaps for regular readers then that the Fuggled Rest of USA 2020 dark beer is....Irish Walker from North Carolina's Olde Hickory Brewing, an utterly lascivious beer, with all the temptations and delights that word implies.

Rest of the World
  • Schlenkerla Urbock - "Heller-Bräu" Trum, Germany
  • Icelandic Toasted Porter - Einstök Ölgerð, Iceland
  • Imperial Stout - Samuel Smith's Brewery, England
Honorable mentions: Schlenkerla Märzen - "Heller Bräu" Trum, Germany.

Some beers are simply worth every penny of buying a case worth to sit in the fridge and pulling out when the mood strikes for a taste of the divine. Schlenkerla Urbock is one such beer, and having said that, I have about a half case in the fridge for such occasions.

I don't generally do coffee infused beers, but the Icelandic Toasted Porter from Einstök is an exception to the rule. Think a fine London porter with a taste of espresso and you are very much in the ballpark of this North Atlantic wonder.

Classic. Is there any other word that best describes this imperial stout from Yorkshire? Honestly there isn't one that pops into my mind. Insanely drinkable, unlike many an imperial stout, Samuel Smiths nail this style to a tee, despite the .5% abv.

Tricky, tricky, tricky...but then push comes to shove, the 2020 Fuggled Rest of the World dark beer is the classic from Bamberg, Schlenkerla Urbock.


Pick one they said, pick one.

Ok then, the Fuggled Dark beer of 2020 is laden with bias, nostalgia, and a longing to be home in the forests of Bohemia.

Morana takes the crown.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Fuggled Beers of the Year - Darker Than Pale Lighter Than Dark Brown

How's that for a description of colours in this category? Suitably vague and broad of scope I would hope you agree.

Onwards then to the runners and riders

Virginia
  • Franconia Kellerbier - Port City Brewing
  • Rauch Märzen - Port City Brewing
  • Alt Bier - Devils Backbone Brewing
Honorable mentions: Doppelbock - Port City Brewing; Bavarian Prince - New Realm Brewing.

As I mentioned in my last post, this year has been stellar from Port City, so it is no surprise to see them dominating the DTPLTDB category. I drank loads of the Franconian Kellerbier earlier this year, often while harvesting fresh green things from my garden, the experience was a series of delightfully rustic moments in the midst of this most odd year. 

When you compare a rauchbier to the glories of Spezial in Bamberg, you know you are drinking something, erm, special, Rauch Märzen is just such a beer. A gorgeous drop of rauchbier that hits my sweet spot with unerring accuracy. 

Technically speaking, Devils Backbone Alt Bier was my first beer of 2020, from the zwickel at the brewpub while brewing Morana back in February. When finally Morana was on tap, and people were allowed to reserve tables in the Devil Backbone meadow, we did so. With double digit numbers of crowlers of Morana acquired, I was drinking the Alt Bier, revelling in the sense of normality with a version of altbier that could actually pass for a German beer. 

This years Virginia DTPLTDB beer of the year is Port City's Franconian Kellerbier, a beer so good it pretty uch made up all of my drinking for a couple of months in the summer.

Rest of the USA
  • Copper - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC
  • Oktoberfest - Von Trapp Brewing, VT
  • 40 - Sierra Nevada Brewing, CA/NC
Honorable mentions: Winter Ride - JosephsBrau, CA; Yule Bock - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC; Vienna - Von Trapp Brewing, VT.

Very much a tale of old favourites here. I wax lyrical about Olde Mecklenburg at length to anyone crazy enough to listen about the glories of decoction mashing, extensive lagering, and a commitment to making beers with malt, hops, yeast, water, and "nothing else". Whenever I have the opportunity it is Copper that takes up a fair amount of space in my fridge. 

For the second year in a row, I did a mass Oktoberfest tasting, and Von Trapp's eponymous beer is probably my favourite version of the style, though it didn't win the blind tasting. However, a maß at Kardinal Hall on an overcast Friday afternoon brought a ray of sunshine to an otherwise grim day. 

I know you are shocked, a top fermented, American hopped, IPA made it on my list of contenders this year, but it is Sierra Nevada and they are simply one of the best breweries on the planet, and in "40" they had the perfect beer to mark such an august anniversary. 

Sierra Nevada then, in their anniversary year take the honours as the best DTPLTDB beer in the rest of the US for 2020.

Rest of the World
  • Vintage Ale 2016 - Fuller's, England
  • Oktober Fest-Märzen - Privatbrauerei Ayinger, Germany
  • Maudite - Unibroue, Canada
Honorable mentions: Orval - Abbaye d'Orval; London Pride - Fuller's.

With the lockdown in its infancy I decided to hit the cellar for some of the old ales, barleywines, and other assorted heavy hitters that had been lingering for a while. From those DTPLTDB beers the 2016 iteration of Fuller's Vintage Ale was the standout beer, and I am eyeing at least one more bottle of it before the year is out. 

Sure, I know Ayinger's autumnal festbier is not strictly speaking an Oktoberfest lager, it is though the one German lager of that season that I look forward to most, chewy, fully bodied, warming, echt lecker.

I renewed acquaintances with Maudite early in the year for an Old Friends post, such a nice beer, one that I have had a couple of times since, when the urge for a well brewed dubbel strikes (admittedly something of a great conjunction in my lager driven world). 

Not only was it the standout cellar beer of 2020, Fuller's Vintage Ale 2016 is the standout DTPLTDB beer of 2020 from the rest of the world. A worthy taker of the accolades.


Decisions, decisions...As ever it is tricky for me to choose one, but in reality given the amount of it I drank earlier in the year, and the fact I drove 60 miles round trip to pick up several unexpected 4 packs, the winner of the Fuggled DTPLTDB Beer of the Year is Port City's glorious Franconian Kellerbier, and I look forward to indulging in more in 2021.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Fuggled Beers of the Year - Pale

January 2020 promised much.

Potential work commitments would mean trips to Texas, New York, South Carolina, Canada, and Rome. With work trips come opportunities to try local beers, either as part of the horror of conference "networking happy hours" or when heading out for dinner in the evening. When I travel by myself I tend to deliberately make my dinner choices based on beer lists.

We all know what happened instead, lots of Zoom meetings.

Despite being largely stuck in central Virginia, this year has been pretty good on the beer front. I have tried beers from new-to-me breweries, made a point of supporting local bottle shops, often to the tune of a case a week at the beginning of lockdown, and where local breweries have had clearly laid out booking systems and strict mask requirements I have been happy to sit in their beer garden with the family and enjoy beer, sunshine, and happy toddler banter (Bertie, the younger of the twins, is a glorious gobshite).

Up until last year my annual review had often been a single post, and I thought this year would be a return to that format, but when I started thinking about all the beers I have had, it was clear that I could break things up a bit. Thus, we begin the review with pale beer and in keeping with last year, my top three each from Virginia, the rest of the US, and the rest of the world.

Virginia

  • German Pilsner - Port City Brewing
  • Helles - Port City Brewing
  • Downright Pilsner - Port City Brewing
Honorable mentions: Our Daily Pils - Basic City Brewing; Euphonia Pilsner - New Realm Brewing.

This year has been stellar on the lager front from Port City up in Alexandria. I have long been a fan of their Downright Pilsner, which is modeled on Bohemian pale lagers. The Helles is their regular summer seasonal, and when the season is right a regular in the fridge. German Pilsner is part of their monthly Lager Series, which has been an absolute boon for this lagerboy in 2020. Choosing just one of the three is seriously difficult, but given that I drove a 60 mile round trip for another beer, and was thrilled to find a stash of German Pilsner in the shop I went to, it is a worthy Virginia Pale Beer of 2020.

Rest of the USA
  • Captain Jack Pilsner - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC
  • Helles - Von Trapp Brewing, VT
  • Alexandr - Schilling Brewing, NH
Honorable mentions: Pilz - Live Oak, TX; Helles - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC; Bavarian Pilsner - Von Trapp Brewing, VT; Pilsner - Von Trapp Brewing, VT; Pils - Edmund's Oast Brewing, SC; Rewind Lager - Birdsong Brewing, NC.

You get the feeling I mostly drink lager? I can't imagine what gives you that impression. There are several beers in the honorable mentions that I would happily drink exclusively for the rest of my days if need be, especially the Edmund's Oast Pils. Of the three finalists though, the Helles from Von Trapp is a near fixture of my drinking life, it is simply perfect and always welcome. Olde Mecklenbburg are, as you well know unless you live under a rock, are one of my favourite breweries. Whenever Mrs V and I go through Charlotte, we stop and stock up on beer, and the Captain Jack Pilsner will take up at least half of the purchase. So good is Captain Jack that it is Mrs V's beer of choice if I have any in the fridge and she fancies a beer. Alexandr from Schilling was the icing on the cake. My first trip to a pub to see someone other than my wife was to see my best mate at Kardinal Hall. We sat in the beer garden, suitably socially distant, with litres of beer, and just had a perfect afternoon. This desítka from New Hampshire was a revelation, and I a convert to another brewing from New England. The Rest of the USA Pale Beer of 2030 then is...drumroll gents...Schilling's glorious Alexandr.

Rest of the World
  • Plzeňský Prazdroj - Plzeňský Prazdroj, Plzeň, Czechia
  • aU - Mahr's Bräu, Germany
  • Jahrhundert Bier - Privatbrauerei Ayinger, Germany
Honorable mentions: Icelandic White Ale - Einstök Ölgerð, Iceland; Pils - Mahr's Brau, Germany; Helles - Schlenkerla, Germany; Weihenstephaner Festbier - Weihenstephan, Germany.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post I was supposed to have visited Canada and Italy this year for work, and at least for the Italy trip I was hoping to try Tipopils in its native climes to see if it better than the tired, flaccid beer I had in Baltimore in 2012. Even so, there have been plenty of good international beers to enjoy. A couple of weeks ago I popped into Kardinal Hall and had a few litres of Prazdroj in their beer garden, draft Prazdroj is a rarity in these parts, and the keg had just gone on, so it was fresh too, each litre went down with inordinate ease, goodness me I love this beer. Mahr's Bräu's delightful aU turned up in Beer Run in February, so naturally I snaffled the lot and indulged in what has become in many ways the archetype of the perfect lager in my world, and when Andreas Krennmair nails his homebrew clone recipe, I plan to start making it too, I just love the rusticity of it. Last up is Ayinger's Jahrhundert Bier, a full bodied pale lager that makes a wonderful nightcap, the bitterness is just enough to take the edge off the malt sweetness, but I find I can only drink a couple of bottles of an evening, hence the ideal nightcap. I feel almost guilty for not making Prazdroj my internsal pale beer of 2020, but Mahr's Bräu's aU is simply too delicious and warm fuzy feeling inducing to come second in a year so in need of comfort.


For sure I say this every year, but deciding on a single beer to be the Fuggled 2020 Pale Beer of the Year is a difficult task, and this year is no different. For all its machinations and peregrinations I have enjoyed some absolutely outstanding pale beers (yeah, yeah, I know you are saying "pale lager" to yourselves) this year. The stand out though has to be Schilling's divine Alexandr (and not only because it has a magnificent name). I haven't had many Czech style pale lagers that in an instant take me back to life in Czechia, but this one did so. If you have it available somewhere near you, go get it, it is damned good stuff.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Rauch Against the Machine

I am just going to come out and say it, I have loved rauchbier ever since I first had Schlenkerla's iconic Märzen back in Prague in 2008. Just as honest is that so many American made smoke beers have been deeply disappointing. In my experience they just lack enough of the smoke character to keep me coming back for more. When it comes to rauchbier I am an extremist, I don't want a hint of bacon, I want an entire side of pig smoked up a chimney burning good hardwoods.

As autumn continues its drift toward ever deepening darkness, and my mood generally improves as I much prefer the cold and dark of a northern winter, smoke beers become more and more appealing. For the first time, this year I gave in to my love of Schlenkerla and ordered an entire case of Märzen from the awesome folks at Beer Run, minor aside I wish all European lagers in the US came in half litre bottles. With that case running low, I got a case of Urbock and decided it would be fun to do a side by side tasting, with a couple of American beers chucked in for interest's sake. Here's the lineup.


I did a comparative tasting of the Von Trapp Trösten and Schlenkerla Urbock last winter and even then knew I wanted to compare it to both the Märzen and Urbock this year. Port City having their Rauch Märzen available as part of their fantastic Lager Series was the icing on the cake. For fear of prattling on ad nauseum, I will go to the tasting... starting with the lowest ABV:


Port City Rauch Märzen
  • Sight - deep auburn, red highlights, rocky ivory head that lasts, nice clarity
  • Smell - wood smoke to the fore, touch of breadiness, some molasses
  • Taste - mix of bread and wood smoke, settles to reveal some herbal hop notes
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
When I first tried this is reminded me of the Spezial Märzen I had in Bamberg last year, at least in terms of colour. While it is a lovely beer and certainly one of the best US made rauchbiers I have had, it isn't as transcendently glorious as Spezial. What we do have here is a beautiful, clean, medium bodied lager that finishes nicely dry, and leaves you wanting more, which is just as well as I have another dozen 16oz cans in the fridge.


Von Trapp Trösten
  • Sight - dark brown, deep red highlights, lasting half inch tan head, excellent clarity
  • Smell - light smoke, roasted malts, toasty, some spicy hops, hints of coffee
  • Taste - bready Munich like malt sweetness, wisps of smokiness, roasty, dark bitter chocolate
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5
I have no evidence for this other than my own subjective opinion, but I feel like the smoke in this has been dialed back compared to the 2019 version. That's not to say that this is a bad beer, far, far from it, it is a lovely complex dark lager with a hint of smoke that if you didn't know was there would probably stand out as a key element of that complexity. Being me though, I wanted more of the smoke, but I guess that just means I'll drink it next to the fire and breath deeply.


Schlenkerla Märzen
  • Sight - deep, deep garnet, 1 inch off-white head that lingers, and lingers, good clarity
  • Smell - it's Schlenkerla so dollops of beechwood, like sitting next to a roaring fire, a hint of well aged cheese (in a very good way)
  • Taste - beechwood very much front and mittel, beyond that a lovely breadiness, pumpernickel, earthy hops, did I mention the smoke yet?
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Even after all these years this just hits the spot perfectly, though for the first time I noticed that the body is actually relatively light for a rauchbier, probably explains the insane drinkability. Great balance, and deeply complex.


Schlenkerla Urbock
  • Sight - dark chestnut, rich ruby hints, light brown head that lasts an age
  • Smell - it's another Schlenkerla, the aroma is so distinctive that there is not a better way of saying it, loamy earth and leaf litter, tobacco
  • Taste - deeply smokey, some almost stollen like sweet bread character, seriously dark chocolate
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5
What. A. Beer. Absolutely glorious, even if a touch on the cold side straight from the fridge. Medium to medium-full body, beautiful silken mouthfeel, and a finish that is clean and dry yet doesn't linger too long. Where the Märzen is angelic, the Urbock is simply divine.

So there we have it, 4 excellent beers, each worth drinking in their own right, and in the case of the Port City evidence that all is not lost when it comes to American made examples of the style. Given that I have a total of about 2 cases' worth of beer remaining of these four, I have plenty of fine drinking ahead of me this autumn, every prospect pleases.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Raising Voices: Amethyst Heels

Today sees the beginning of a new series of guest posts here on Fuggled, which I am calling "Raising Voices". The aim of this series is to amplify, as much as this blog can do, the voices of people in the beer world who come from communities that are under-represented in the mainstream of beer communications, such as people of colour and LGBT.

I very much believe that beer is the people's drink and as such is open to all, regardless of background. Yet, so often the voices we hear talking about beer are very much like me, white, financially middle to upper middle class, straight, and male. Being the people's drink, the beer community should be intrinsically diverse and inclusive, and such diversity reflected in the media we produce.

Today's post is by Ruvani de Silva or the Craft Beer Amethyst site, and perhaps better known by her Twitter handle "Amethyst Heels", so to avoid waffling on, I hand over to her...


When I walked into my very first Great British Beer Festival at London’s Earl’s Court back in August 2005, I (rather obviously) had no idea that fifteen years later I would be a beer writer, beer nerd, beer traveller and beer advocate. If I had known, however, I would not have been at all surprised to hear that I would be one of the only South Asian voices in the industry. 

Back in 2005 I liked beer, but was honestly a bit more of a wine gal. Walking into Earl’s Court that day, something began to change. That huge cavernous space, not a pretty events arena by anybody’s estimation, but so alive and buzzing with the hubbub of beer nerds poised over their programmes, clamouring at each of the endless progression of bars, full of questions, specifications, speaking - or so it felt – their own language. I was fascinated. I wanted to be on the inside, to learn how to navigate this enormous room full of more beer, more types of beer, more breweries than I could ever have imagined could exist in the geographical confines of Great Britain.

Unusually for a South Asian second-generation immigrant of my age, I grew up, while not exactly in the countryside, also not very far from it either. In smallish town that I hail from, cask beer was the norm, much of it brewed locally, and I’ve always enjoyed the taste of Milds and Bitters, those cheeky sips sneaked out of the top of my dad’s pint glass. Lagers were frowned upon as ‘foreign muck’ – a young person’s drink, and as a young person I was more than happy to fall into that particular stereotype, but the nuance, the variety, the excitement of cask ale, drew me back. I began to investigate cask options from pub to pub, note flavours, styles and breweries. I began to have my favourites. GBBF became a fixture in my calendar, and I began attending other CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) festivals and events around London, eventually becoming a paid-up member and volunteer. I loved the element of exploration, getting to know different styles well and becoming discerning, ie a bit of a nerd, the same way I had with wine. And yes, I liked surprising people. Bartenders, friends, colleagues, men in general and sometimes women too. No one expects the brown girl to order a pint of cask, still less do they expect her to be able to talk knowledgeably about it. Being unusual, unpredictable and informed in a world where people are constantly making assumptions about you based on how you look is fun and it’s empowering (to me at least). There’s a satisfaction, a sheer fuck-you-you-don’t-know-me at play. Yes, I do want a pint. Yes, it is for me. No, I don’t need you to steer me towards a beverage you consider more appropriate for me to drink, and please, please don’t try to tell me that I’ll find it much too bitter, or worse, too boozy. This one is a particularly fun kicker with craft beer.

So yes, craft beer. I discovered it in the corner stores of New York, chock-full of Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas and, if I was really lucky, a bit of Rogue, way back in the early 2010s. My job brought me to the US regularly, and soon every trip became a mission to try as many different beers as I could, beers that were rare, nay impossible to find in the UK but cheap as chips in the land of the free. I got into hops, the bigger, bolder, punchier the better. Boozy beer did not faze me. I dreamed of brewery selection boxes, Black IPAs, Rye IPAs, Imperial Stouts and Coffee Porters. I drank my first flights and began to seek out every American bar in London selling the stuff. Of course, as with every successful American export, we soon had our own craft beer scene in London and I jumped in head-first. As with CAMRA, I was lucky. I found a group of beer-friends where I was welcomed and accepted, and we set up beery charity events and walking tours. Yes, a few folks were a bit flummoxed to find their beer-tour guide was in fact a young-ish South Asian lady, but I considered that to be another part of their learning experience, let’s just say. Once again, knowledge can be a powerful thing. It’s much harder to reject someone’s presence when they know what they’re talking about. While I am not in any way a beer snob and I believe that everyone has the right to their own opinion and that everyone’s presence is equally valid, if you want or need to prove your worth and your place somewhere it is, undoubtedly a lot easier if you can talk the talk. I’m still very much on my own beer-education journey, and while I know a lot less than a lot of folks, I know a lot more than plenty of others too. It’s easy to believe that your opinion is worth less when folks with louder voices try to deny you your seat at the table by drowning you out, shutting you down or shaming you into thinking you don’t know enough. You don’t have to learn more, but I have found that knowledge can act like armour, can be a vital tool in pushing back, even in instances of micro-aggression. Growing up in the place and time that I did, I’m used to being the only brown girl in the room, and I’m comfortable speaking up and holding my own with a group of white men. It’s a full-time job being the person who defies social and cultural expectations on three fronts – age, gender and colour – so I’ll take and use any tools available to me.


Fast-forward to the American craft beer world of September 2020 - we’re in the middle of a pandemic but there’s another crisis affecting our industry that we’re all aware of – it’s still riddled with prejudice. Now, as a female South Asian beer writer, the divide across the industry between those pushing for change, demanding a full restructure, a revitalisation of our own, and those desperate to hold onto the keys to the kingdom feels like huge unbridgeable chasm. It’s easy to focus on the good people, the good places, the powerful voices who want to make everyone welcome. I can nestle into a space, both physically and online, where my voice is wanted and heard, where my interest and knowledge aren’t undermined and where I’m valued as a legitimate part of this industry. But the enormity of the industry space where that just isn’t the case is absolutely astonishing – the bigotry, hate, aggression and really the sheer bullshit that continues to appear on online beer forums, brewery statements, pump clips and advertising campaigns is enough to make any non white cis male shy away from the industry as a whole, never mind taking on a public, vocal role. It feels as though the ongoing pitched-battle for the heart and soul of this country taking place across our social and political landscape is being played out in miniature in our own beery backyard. We have to be prepared to argue, to fight back, to get into it even if we’re people who don’t like confrontations, even if it’s draining, depressing, potentially pointless. Because if we don’t, who will? As a British South Asian living and writing in America, I have a luxury I never had at home in that I am so unusual as to be removed from the frontlines of much of the bigoted hate and ire out there – unless, that is, I deliberately insert myself into the conversation. When I write, I try to write in a way that shows my commitment to the rights and voices of all diverse groups and the need for us to stand together with our allies, speak up for and protect one another, and fight for our place at the table. We cannot afford not to.


I love beer – writing about it, reading about it, talking about it, learning about it, sharing it, travelling for it, and most of all drinking it. I feel that, along with my identities as a woman and a South Asian, being a beer-person, a beer nerd, a beer writer is an important part of who I am, and is something worth defending and holding on to. Like most minorities, there are times when I revel in my diversity and times when I hate it. Would it be easier or different in another industry or community? Experience has shown me that that is a definite no. There are very few culturally sanctioned public spaces for women of colour, or any other minorities for that matter, so there’s no point running away looking for somewhere easier to belong. This is an incredibly crucial time for all of us to be heard, in the beer world and the world at large, and although I don’t have a huge platform, I will continue to use my skills and experience to keep pushing for equity, diversity, inclusion and visibility for women, South Asians and all diverse groups.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Oktoberfest Champions League: The Final 6

We needed a tie breaker...

If you recall from the previous post, where I tasted 24 beers marketed for Oktoberfest, Benediktiner Festbier and Left Hand Oktoberfest had tied for top position in their group. In terms of their score, they had exactly the same points in each of the categories, the solution then was to drink them blind again, score them again, and then average their scores to break the tie, hopefully. It turned out the Benediktiner squeaked home by the narrowest of margins, giving me a final 6 of:

  • New Realm Bavarian Prince (märzen)
  • Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
  • Great Lakes Oktoberfest (märzen)
  • Benediktiner Festbier
  • Sierra Nevada (märzen)
  • Von Trapp Oktoberfest (märzen)
For the final 6 I decided to stick with the blind tasting and my points method of
  • Appearance - 3 points
  • Aroma - 10 points
  • Taste - 15 point
  • Balance of bitterness and sweetness - 2 points
  • Personal opinion - 10 points
With the inestimable Mrs V again decanting the various cans and bottles while I pottered away to make sure I wasn't aware of what I was drinking, the final 6 scored as follows:
  1. Ayinger - 34/40
  2. Great Lakes - 33/40
  3. New Realm - 33/40
  4. Sierra Nevada - 32/40
  5. Von Trapp - 31/40
  6. Benediktiner - 27/40
Having used the average of 2 tastings to split Benediktiner and Left Hand, I had decided that I would use the same method to decide the final rankings of the 2020 Fuggled Oktoberfest Taste Off, giving us...
  1. New Realm Bavarian Prince - 67/80 (33.5)
  2. Great Lakes Oktoberfest - 65/80 (32.5)
  3. Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen - 64/80 (32)
  4. Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest - 63/80 (31.5)
  5. Von Trapp Oktoberfest - 61/40 (30.5)
  6. Benediktiner Festbier - 58/40 (29)
I won't bore you with my full tasting notes for the winner, but on both occasions, about 10 days apart, I noted a superb malt complexity that was mostly the classic toasted bread thing that you get with Munich and Vienna malts, sweet without being sugary or caramelly. In terms of personal opinion, both times I gave it 8/10 and noted that it is the kind of beer I would happily sit and drink several maß of.

As in previous years, I wouldn't be too surprised if I pick up some singles of other Oktoberfest lagers that weren't available when I collected the entrants to see if Bavarian Prince can hold onto its crown, but as things stand, well done New Realm for creating a lovely märzen that will be in my fridge for a while yet this autumn (also, yay autumn is here!).

Friday, September 4, 2020

Oktoberfest Champions League: Group Stage

The plan was simple, find at least 24 beers being marketing as "Oktoberfest" lagers, whether festbier or märzen, and decide which is the best available in central Virginia.

The first year I did this I restricted myself to lagers brewed in Virginia, last year I changed that to include non-Virginian beers that are available in the shops. When I restricted myself to VA beers, I could just do a single sit down flight, whereas last year I did a knock out competition with a final four. I have to admit that I found the knock out approach somewhat onerous, so for this year I decided to have 6 groups of 4 beers, chosen at random, and the winner of each group would go to a final group stage.

The 6 groups lined up as follows:


At first glance, groups 1, 3, and 6 looked to be the most difficult, and so it turned out, with several well regarded Oktoberfest lagers not making through to the final group of 6, which I will write about in a later post, once I have given my tastebuds a day or several off, and a chance to reset by drinking helles and pilsner again.

To choose a winner in each group I decided to combine the Cyclops tasting notes method that I like to use with a quasi-BJCP point approach, which I broke down thusly:
  • Appearance - 3 points
  • Aroma - 10 points
  • Taste - 15 points
  • Balance of bitterness and sweetness - 2 points
  • Personal score - 10 points
Given the festbier and märzen variants when it comes to Oktoberfest lagers, I judged them according to their respective BJCP category descriptions. The definition of festbier specifically calls out "amber hues" as unacceptable in the colour department, any beer that veered into orange was judged as a märzen regardless of marketing.

Here then are the final standings by points.

1. New Realm - Bavarian Prince (34/40)
2. Great Lakes - Oktoberfest (32/40)
2. Sierra Nevada - Oktoberfest (32/40)
3. Left Hand - Oktoberfest (31/40)
3. Von Trapp - Oktoberfest (31/40)
3. Benediktiner - Festbier (31/40)
4. Ayinger - Oktober Fest-Märzen (30/40)
4. Samuel Adams - Octoberfest (30/40)
5. Devils Backbone - O'Fest (29/40)
5. Warsteiner - Oktoberfest (29/40)
5. Edmund's Oast - House Oktoberfest (29/40)
6. Port City - Oktoberfest (28/40)
7. Paulaner - Oktoberfest (27/40)
8. Shiner - Oktoberfest (25/40)
8. Leinenkugels - Oktoberfest (25/40)
9. Blue Mountain - 13.Five Ofest (24/40)
9. Brooklyn - Oktoberfest (24/40)
9. Ballad - Oktoberfest (24/40)
10. Schlafly - Oktoberfest (23/40)
11. Starr Hill - Festie (22/40)
11. Brother's Craft - Festbier (22/40)
12. Bingo Beer - Oktoberfest (21/40)
13. Genessee - Oktoberfest (19/40)
14. Solace - Gute Nacht (10/40)

To ensure that the tasting was completely blind, Mrs V picked beers at random from the fridge while I was out of the room, and other than the one litre can of Paulaner as the final beer, I had no idea about what was what until we sat last night and worked out the rankings.

The final 6 though are not to be the top 6 beers by points, but rather the 6 beers that won their respective groups, although this is pretty much what ended up happening, which gives me a bit of a headache. Left Hand and Benediktiner tied for their group, even to the point of having the exact same points for each category, so this weekend I will try and find some more Left Hand and do a beauty contest tasting to decide the winner. If I can't find the Left Hand, then Benediktiner will go forward.

The rest of the final 6 are:
  • Ayinger
  • Great Lakes
  • Von Trapp
  • New Realm
  • Sierra Nevada
I definitely get the sense that splitting these 6 will be a very difficult task, but we leave that for a few days and another post.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book Review: Vienna Lager

 A few months ago I bought "Historic German and Austrian Beers for the Home Brewer" by Andreas Krennmair and have thoroughly enjoyed dipping and and out of the book for inspiration and plans for the upcoming winter lager brewing season. It was on the basis of having enjoyed it so much that I ordered his latest book, "Vienna Lager", from Amazon within moments of him announcing it's release on Twitter.

A few days later it dropped through the door (figuratively speaking), and just last night I finished it. Sure it is not a weighty tomb, but I have read it in snatches as life allows, even so, a month is pretty good going by my standards these days.

What we have here is the life and story not just of the Vienna Lager style, but also a deep dive into the life of it's creator, Anton Dreher - he who went wandering around British breweries with Gabriel Sedlmayr, filching samples with Bondesque contraptions as they went. Scion of a family of innkeepers and brewers, Dreher built the largest brewing company on mainland Europe in the 19th century, at its height boasting 4 breweries, one each in Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, and Italy.

Andreas then follows Vienna Lager on its journey from its Austrian homeland to the New World, as it became an established part of the German brewing world in both the US and Mexico, and thence onward to its acceptance within craft beer.

While being focused on Dreher and Vienna Lager in particular, the book gives the reader an insight into the massive changes wrought on the European brewing industry in the second half of the 19th century. Not only are we talking about the introduction of three of the most influential beer styles, but also the introduction of English malting techniques that allowed maltsters to create consistent pale malt, and thus the world was set on the path of pale lager domination.

Andreas' book is full of fascinating technical detail, the kind of thing that very much appeals to the technical writer in me. At the same time he succeeds to keeping the technical details accessible and not overwhelming. An added bonus for homebrewers, and possibly commercial brewers looking to re-create history, is a selection of recipes for Vienna lager through the ages, naturally the early ones of just Vienna malt and Saaz hops appeal to me most of all, and perhaps this winter will finally see me take the plunge into decoction mashing.

What Andreas has done here is write the definitive guide to Dreher and his Vienna Lager, and made a valuable contribution to knowledge of the development of pale lager in general. It is an excellent read, go and buy it, now.

Monday, August 10, 2020

To Helles and Back

If you've been paying attention these last few years, you'll know that pale lager is my thing. Whether we are talking světlý ležák, Pilsner, helles, or even Dortmunder, I probably drink far more pale lager than anything else. In my world, the path to brewery greatness is paved with golden lager and if a brewer can knock out a good one then I am more likely to try their other wares, while coming back to the pale stuff regularly.

Returning from a recent sojourn to South Carolina, as I mentioned a few posts ago, I stocked up on Olde Mecklenburg beers, their altbier, pilsner, and the seasonal helles specifically. I had it in my mind that I wanted to include it in a three way tasting with Von Trapp Helles from Vermont and Virginia's Port City Helles, which is their current seasonal as well.

There was only one problem, the seeming ambivalence of central Virginia's supermarkets when it comes to lager -  seriously, most of them will have the complete range of Port City but not the Downright Pilsner, or they'll stock everything from Tröeg's except Sunshine Pils. Having been back from South Carolina for well over a month now, I only got round to the tasting this weekend due to the hassle of finding the Port City Helles, having scored a case from the ever reliable Beer Run.

With the runners and riders in place, I dived on in...


Port City Helles - 5.2%, bottled June 8, 2020
  • Sight - clear light golden yellow, half inch white foam that leaves nice lacing
  • Smell - floral hops, light bready malt, lemon, hay
  • Taste -  subtle wildflower honey, nice light crustiness, lemongrass
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
A lovely, lovely beer. Supremely balanced with a medium dry finish that just leaves you wanting more, nice and clean. Port City have a wonderful way with lager beers and this year's Helles is up there with the best of their range. Beer this good makes the Virginia summer almost bearable. With the lemon and grass thing going on, I wonder if they use Saaz for the hopping?


Olde Mecklenburg Mecklenburger Helles - 4.9%, canned July 2, 2020
  • Sight - crystal clear yellow, thin white head, visible carbonation
  • Smell - cereal grain, lemongrass, wildflower meadow
  • Taste - water biscuits, citrus (lemon and key lime), subtle spice note
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Another very moreish beer. Finishes really clean though maybe just a touch on the dry side, which brings the hops slightly to the fore. Delightfully well balanced.


Von Trapp Helles - 4.9%, best before September 29, 2020
  • Sight - golden yellow, excellent clarity, half inch of white head that lingers, tracing a fine lacing on the glass
  • Smell - citrus, freshly microplaned lemon zest, all flavour no pith, freshly baked southern biscuits
  • Taste - crackers, lemon, wildflower honey, elegant herbal notes
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
The finish on this one is soft and pillowy, just dry enough to keep it clean, but with a malt presence that is just cut through by a lingering bitterness that doesn't dominate. The balance is absolutely perfect making this an absolutely magnificent beer that would more than hold its own in the biergartens of Mitteleuropa.

Three absolutely storming beers, all wonderful examples of a style that when South Street's My Personal Helles is available is basically my go to. I would love to be able to compare all four at some point, though that may have to wait as South Street haven't had it on in a while. However, as I tweeted last night....


Thinking further of this question today, if I had to choose either the Port City or Von Trapp then after much agonising it would be the Von Trapp, by the shortest of short noses. Both are gorgeous beers that I will happily drink all day and night sat on my deck, but Von Trapp has one significant advantage that pushes it into the winner's circle. It is available year round and not just for a couple of months in the summer.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Book Review: Historical Brewing Techniques

At the beginning of this year I resolved to get back to reading as much as possible.

In the carefree days of not being a dad I would read something like 2 or 3 books every month, but with Fin and Bertie wreaking havoc on all things in chez Reece, that dropped off dramatically. Sorry if it makes me a total failure of an Enlightenment man but there were days when crashing in bed was just about all I could manage.

Anyway, I resolved to read at least 1 book each month, and have so far kept to that plan, with a combination of fiction by new-to-me writers, beer writing by the likes of Pete Brown, and in "Historical Brewing Techniques" by Lars Marius Garshol the latest book by a blogger whose writing I have enjoyed for quite some time.


One of the things that I have enjoyed most about Lars' blog posts from his trips to various parts of the Baltic world to brew with farmhouse brewers has been that they go beyond the formulaic "I went here, we brewed this, it tasted like this". Not only do you get a sense of the beer, its brewing, and its tasting, you get a very real sense of the people making the beer, their culture, their sitz im leben, and you see how intimate the beer is to their existence.

That sense of anthropology, history, linguistics, and even mythology is infused throughout the book making it much more a book about people than a drink. To really understand farmhouse ale from the Baltic world and Russia, you need to understand the people and the world they live in, and that is infinitely more interesting to me than tasting notes.

One thing that really struck home, mainly because lately I have found myself somewhat jaded with the goings on of the craft beer world and its obsession with the emperor's new clothes of "innovation", was Lars' drawing a distinct line between craft beer and farmhouse ales. Just because a brewery uses kveik to ferment their umpteenth IPA doesn't tie them to the farmhouse tradition.

Also as a homebrewer it was great to see the simplicity, even rusticity, of the farmhouse brewers' setups. There are times when I feel a little down on my own setup, usually when listening to a friend describe their latest, greatest piece of homebrewing technology, as if squeezing an extra gravity point from the malt, or hitting a rest temperature to within hundredths of a degree, actually makes all that much difference to the flavour of the beer.

Throughout the book, the reader is reminded of the vitality of brewing in the development of human civilisation, and in the farmhouse tradition described, in the Nordic and Baltic worlds in particular. It is not a stretch of the imagination to realise that the farmers and warriors we call Vikings very likely used the same methods and ingredients over a thousand years ago.

This wonderful book is probably the best "beer" book I have read in many years, I use inverted commas there quite deliberately as it is not a simple "beer" book by any stretch of the imagination. It is a guide to a world that is dying out, almost gone, and one that tells a far longer story of humanity than industrial brewing could ever hope to.

If you haven't already, go and buy this book, it is worth every penny.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Old Friends: Fuller's London Pride

The Old Friends series makes a return today, and in some ways goes right back to the beginning. The first beer of this series was also from Fuller's, their style defining ESB, but when I originally conceived this notion, it was today's beer that so nearly went in the trolley, London Pride.

I may have mentioned this before, so forgive me if you have a better memory than me, but I have a soft spot for Fuller's due largely to their location. The Griffin Brewery is in Chiswick, a parish in the ancient county of Middlesex, near where my dad grew up, and not far from Chiswick County Grammar, where he went to school. At the tender old age of 16, my dad joined the army as an apprentice radar engineer, and so began 30 odd years of being paid to traipse around the UK and Europe, being shot at on occasion for the privilege. Most of my memories of that part of the world are from when we would go and visit my nan in her ground floor council flat near Gunnersbury Park.

I haven't been to London in many years, not since I used to make epic bus trips from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Prague, some 1400 miles away. I have never really been a fan of flying, so taking the bus from Uig to Glasgow, then Glasgow to London, and finally London to Prague, a total of about 48 hours, made sense to me, yeah I'm weird. In fact it has been so long since my last trip to London that it pre-dates my interest in decent beer, and so if I did drink when I was there it was usually something like Guinness in my glass.

One of the reasons that I went with the ESB for the first Old Friends post was that at that point I would pick up a four pack of Pride at least once every couple of months. In the two years since that post that has dropped away dramatically, so why not reacquaint myself? On to the beer then we go...


  • Sight - copper/amber, thin white head that quickly dissipates, reminds me of the scum you get on a London cuppa sometimes, magnificently clear
  • Smell - the "Fuller's aroma", Seville orange marmelade esters, toffee, subtle black tea, and sweet spices, think nutmeg
  • Taste - toffee sauce ,some fruitiness like plums, plain scones fresh from the oven, slight grassiness in the finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2/5

There are times when I drink this that I really understand why American brewers and drinkers have such a hard time grasping the fact bitter should be, well, bitter. It's not that it is terribly sweet, though the mouthfeel feels a little like undissolved jelly cubes, it's that the hops are nudged out by the famous Fuller's yeast character, as well as not being the same kind of citrus as folks are used to here. So many breweries here use very clean top fermenting yeasts that the character of the beer is so different, and I wonder if American breweries under hop the style as a result?

Having said that, it is still a lovely beer and one that is incredibly consistent. I found my tasting notes from a post I wrote about several English ales a few years back, and was pleased to see many of the same descriptors. I am not sure it will return to being a regular in the fridge, my tastes are very much in the lager world again these days and I actually found the switch to top fermented beer kind of jarring.

I suppose when winter comes I should complete the triumvirate of Fullers beers and pick up some London Porter...

Monday, July 27, 2020

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2020

As July draws to its inevitable end, it is that time of the year when I sit down and think about all the Virginian brewed beers I have had this year and select a top ten.
  1. Port City Brewing - Franconian Kellerbier (4.7%). I have drunk an awful lot of this beer in the last couple of months, and the highest praise I can give it is that I am gutted it is not part of the regular lineup, as it would be a permanent fixture. A lovely balance of sweet Munich malt and German hops makes it far too easy to keep pouring down my throat, which is exactly what I have been doing. Sadly I have just one 4 pack left...
  2. Port City Brewing - Downright Pilsner (4.8%). A well deserved one-two for the guys up in Alexandria. Now, sure it is not exactly "traditional" to dry hop a Czech style pilsner, but when it crams so much Saaz goodness into a bottle then I am inclined to turn a blind eye. I bitched and moaned to the beer buyers at our local Wegmans for about 18 months to get this in stock, and my shopping trips have been happier ever since they did, even if I had to wait a month to buy some as it came in just in time for my dry month at the beginning of the year.
  3. Basic City Brewing - Our Daily Pils (4.7%). Our Daily Pils is one of those beers that is a fantastic stand by, whether on tap or as a six pack of cans. Absolutely redolent with the wonderful flavours and aromas of Saaz hops, it is somewhere between a Czech style and German style pale lager, and one that I enjoy muchly, usually with three cans tipped into my litre glass.
  4. Ballad Brewing - Fast Mild (4.2%). This one came right out of left field. Back in December I popped into Beer Run on a Friday afternoon for a feed and a pint before picking up my boys from school. I saw the magic words, "dark mild" and thought, what the heck, let's give it a bash. And bash it I did, 4 mouthfuls. Bash again I did, a slightly more considered pint this time as I let it warm up to something akin to cellar temperature, and what you have here is a gorgeous mild that I would love to have on cask, preferably without the silly shit American breweries are so fond of.
  5. South Street Brewery - My Personal Helles (5.2%). You know the story, this is the local beer that I drink far more of than any other. It really is a fabulous helles, perfect soft billowing maltiness, subtle hopping, and that snap to attention that proper lagers have. Sat at the bar one day, the barman said he thought it should be bottled, I disagreed, and still do, a beer like this is best in the pub it is brewed in. With all that has gone on though with lockdown, I haven't had it in months, it is quite possibly the only beer I really miss.
  6. Devils Backbone Brewing - Alt Bier (5.6%). Beers that have undergone extensive lagering are always going to be a major theme in any list I produce. When Jason and I brewed Morana back in February I had a half pint straight from the lagering tank, where it had rested for about 6 weeks already. When I went down to drink Morana, it was on tap, having lagered for another couple of months, I had a few pints, brought home some crowlers, and reveled in every drop. I have never been to Dusseldorf so I can't trot out the old line about it taking me back to the Altstadt, but by Odin it makes want to go one day.
  7. Alewerks Brewing - Tavern Brown Ale (5.7%). The ultimate in old man beer styles, and one that thankfully so far the weird shit ingredient brigade have largely left alone. Once the leaves start to turn, not too long now, I get the urge to drink brown ale, at cellar temperature of course, and just enjoy beer for it's own sake. Of the brown ales that grace the fridge each autumn, this is the one I look forward to more than any other, just a wonderfully complex beer that leaves you more than satiated, it leaves you satisfied.
  8. Alewerks Brewing - Weekend Lager (4.8%). Weekend Lager is to spring and summer what Tavern Brown is to autumn, a wonderful complement to the season, especially on draft with brunch sat on a patio. Another beer that warrants pulling out my litre glass, filling it up, and losing myself in the golden liquid.
  9. Port City Brewing - Helles (5.2%). Three beers in my top ten for Port City, all of them lagers of course, and also the third helles on the list. You might get the idea that I love lager or something like that. Unfortunately this is is just a seasonal for a couple of months in the summer, but it is always worth the wait, and when it is available you'll find me on my deck, under the umbrella (not a big fan of the sun to be honest), taking in the sounds of rural Central Virginia, admittedly while dream of rural Mitteleuropa.
  10. Champion Brewing - Shower Beer (4.5%). Yeah, I know. a seventh lager on the list, the third pilsner. What can I say, lager is what I like to drink and Shower Beer is a damned good lager. Supremely sessionable, dripping with Saaz, and painfully easy to just sit and drink several crowlers of in an evening (I may or may not have done that several times). Consistently good beer, not much more than that you can ask for.
Every year I say this, but this list is the perfection of post-modernist beer thought, entirely subjective, based on the last year of drinking, and sure it says more about me than it does about Virginian beer. I am though happy to hear what people think are great beers being made in the Commonwealth so that I can hunt them out and give them a bash.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Carolina Pilsner

A couple of weeks ago, Mrs V and I took ourselves off to her parents' place in South Carolina for a week of quarantined change of scenery. 

Unusually for one of our trips South we didn't stop at Olde Mecklenburg on the way down for a feed and to let the ever growing twins run around for a bit, though we did stop in on the way to buy a stash of beer to bring back to Virginia.

The day before we headed back north, I popped into a local bottle shop, suitably masked of course, and as I was wondering around I thought it would be fun to try a taste off of pilsners from South and North Carolina. I ended up with the six beers below.


The beers were:
  • Birdsong Rewind Lager (NC)
  • Edmund's Oast Pils (SC)
  • Olde Mecklenburg Captain Jack (NC)
  • Revelry Glorious Bastard (SC)
  • Coast Brewing Pilsner (SC)
  • Indigo Reef Pilsner (SC)
Let's just dive on in shall we...


Birdsong Rewind Lager - 4%, Czech style, canned April 10, 2020
  • Sight - golden with slight haze, health half inch of white head, good retention
  • Smell - faint grass, Southern biscuits, some herbal notes, very lightly fruity
  • Taste - bready malt, slightly crusty, clean hop bitterness, herbal
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Really refreshing and session worthy beer. Body in light-medium, maybe a little on the watery side int he finish, but nothing I haven't experienced with Czech made desítky. I really like the can design too, made me think of Anthony Bourdain describing Kout na Šumavě as "nostalgic" when he visited the brewery with Evan Rail. Will definitely pick more of this up next time I see it.


Edmund's Oast Pils - 4.5%, German style, canned July 6, 2020
  • Sight - golden with a thin white head that dissipates to a lingering schmeer of foam, excellent clarity.
  • Smell - floral hops, fresh scones, slightly spicy
  • Taste - juicy sweet malt, firm pithy bitter hop bite, slightly lemony
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
An absolute stunner of a beer, but it reminded me more of Czech pilsners that German, in particular Hostomický Fabián 10. Medium bodied with a soft maltiness in the finish rather than the crackery dryness you often get with German pilsners. An early contender for the Fuggled beer of the year.


Olde Mecklenburg Captain Jack Pilsner - 4.8%, German style, canned June 22, 2020
  • Sight - straw yellow, thin white head, brilliant clarity
  • Smell - fresh bread, lemons, limes, some spice
  • Taste - cereal grain, citric hops, grassy, floral spiciness like nasturtium flowers
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
Classic German style pilsner. Clean, dry finish with great snap that you get from proper lagering. Medium bodied and insanely moreish. There is a reason this is a beer I drink a lot of, it is simply a stunning brew, I love it.


Revelry Glorious Bastard - 5.25%, Czech style
  • Sight - golden with thin white head, good clarity
  • Smell - floral hops, some hay, kind of a musty cheese thing going on (aged hops?), fruity
  • Taste - crusty cread, saccharin sweetness in background, rough bitterness
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
When I asked Mrs V to give this a try her instant response was "is this an IPA?", says it all really. Such a disappointment as the aroma is generally spot on, but the balance is missing in the drinking.


Coast Brewing Pilsner - 4.8%, German style
  • Sight - slightly hazy gold, quarter inch of white foam, decent retention
  • Smell - almost non-existent, slightest trace of flowers and grain, maybe
  • Taste - dominated by bready sweetness, extracty
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 1/5
This one was a major disappointment, and most of it went down the drain. It was a syrupy mess, lacking any of the snap that well made lagers have, it was kind of flaccid and lacking any hop character. Will try again though at some point in case I got a duff can.


Indigo Reef Surface Interval - 6%, Czech style, canned on April 29, 2020
  • Sight - straw yellow, kind of cloudy, think white head
  • Smell - floral hops, light citrus character, Southern biscuits
  • Taste - sweet malt, very sweet actually, some spicy hops
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5
Given ABV, I am assuming this is about 15 degrees Plato, which would be darker in Czechia as this was surprisingly pale. Medium-full body made it quite syrupy though there was a lingering spicy finish.

As I posted the other day on Instagram, 2 stunners, 1 drain pour and 3 decent beers, though I kind of question the brewers' experience of actual Czech beer. The 2 stunners were head and shoulders above the others, and the Edmund's Oast was particularly enjoyable. 

One thing has been on my mind in particular. I am starting to think that the term "pilsner" is insufficient for describing Czech style pale lagers brewed by American craft breweries. If you take the extremes of the ABV for the 4 beers I have, you have 4.5%, 4.8%, 5.25%, and 6%. Multiplying the ABV by 2.5 gives you the ball park starting gravity in degrees Plato, and we have (rounding to the nearest whole number) 11°, 12°, 13°, and 15°. 

Under Czech beer law these four beers straddle 2 different categories, ležák, aka "lager", and speciální pivo, aka "special beer". Even within the speciální pivo category, Czech would expect different things from a 13° and a 15° beer, think the difference between a strong helles and a bock respectively. Yet they all bear the moniker "pilsner", mainly because they use Saaz hops, or some higher alpha acid derivative, looking at you Sterling.

While I am happy that Czech style lager seems to be increasingly popular with both brewers and drinkers in the US, I think lumping everything pale under the banner of "pilsner" actually does a disservice to one of the great brewing cultures of the world, and I would argue that we reserve the world "pilsner" for those beers that are in the same sitz im leben as the original, Pilsner Urquell - 12°, 4.5-5% abv, 30-40 IBUs of Czech hops. Anything below that could be a "Session Czech Lager", anything above that a "Strong Czech Lager", but pilsner sets expectations in knowledgeable drinkers' minds, so stick to it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

NoVA Franconia

Whether it is a trendy fad or something more lasting and meaningful, I love the fact that well made lager beers are enjoying a moment in the spotlight here in Virginia.

Sure, there have always been reliable go-to breweries and beers when the lager cravings hit, or as I like to call them, "the weekend", such as Devils Backbone or Port City, but it seems as though there are more options in the shop when it comes to Virginia brewed lager.

Right now I am drinking a lot of one particular beer from the ever reliable Port City Brewing of Alexandria up in Northern Virginia. They already make 2 of my favourite beers, the lovely Downright Pilsner, and an Oktoberfest that is a more than welcome sight in autumn, so when I heard they had brought out a beer called "Franconian Kellerbier", well you knew I would hunt it down.

I didn't really have to do much hunting as another of Charlottesville craft beer fixtures, Beer Run, had it available for curbside pickup about a week after I first heard about it. Minor aside, Beer Run have been an absolute lifesaver in the last few months with a steady supply of Von Trapp lagers.

This is not about the glorious wonders of Von Trapp, it is about this beer here...


Doesn't it just look lovely in my Port City half litre bierkrug, even if the can is slightly less than a full half litre. I love that rich, ever so slightly hazy, amber and the big cap of foam so befitting of a German style lager. To look at it kind of reminds me of my usual favourite German lager, the divine aU from Mahr's Brau. 

The aroma is dominated by a wonderful toasted malt character, sitting beneath the rustic earthiness and general spice that you get with Spalt hops. I have to admit that I don't spend an awful lot of time sticking my nose into the beer because it is just so damned tasty.

That toasted bread thing is there, as is the deep sweetness that I always associate with Munich malts (ie, not sugary), and again the earthy hops bring balance and some slightly floral notes to the party. All of this is rounded out with a clean finish, a medium body, and a touch of hop bitterness that makes it magnificently easy to drink, which at 4.7% means no hangover if you bash a few of these of a school night.


I like to think of these kind of beers as "country beers", the kind of thing you would find in a village Gasthaus, possibly the only beer on tap, served just metres from where it was brewed, and very much the local hero of beer. The kind of beer that you could imagine sitting in the sun, under the shade of a old tree, and just letting the world go by, while you engaged in something completely unrelated to beer, like shelling peas that you just picked from the garden.

I have drunk a fair old whack of Franconian Kellerbier, and it is more than fair to say that I am going to miss it when it is gone, being but a seasonal beer, rather than year round. Would I swap it for one of Port City's regular lineup to be a year round brew, you bet I would, the world is quite sufficiently stocked for IPAs these days, so one of those can go as far as I am concerned.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Visiting the Devil to Worship a Goddess

Mrs V and I went to the pub on Saturday.

Those words seem so unremarkable in the normal flow of things, but with life the way it is at the moment, it is quite staggering how poignant they are. I was inordinately excited to do something so banal as going for a feed and a drink with my wife.

Said pub was the Devils Backbone Basecamp brewpub about an hour's drive from where we live, and there was an ulterior motive, Morana was on finally on tap. According to the brewmaster, it was the best batch of the 5 we have done. It was also the first batch that included open fermentation and horizontal lagering as part of the process.

A while back, I wrote about what it would take to get me back to the pub and my thinking then was that would have to be a vaccine or reliable treatment. Thinking a little bit deeper, I had made the assumption that going back to the pub was within the context of business as normal where you pick a venue, rock on up when you feel like it, and deal with whatever is going on at the time. I had failed to consider the possibility of reduced capacity opening.

Here in Virginia we have just entered "phase 2" of the re-opening plan, which for pubs means 50% capacity, no more than 10 people at a table, and tables at least 6 feet apart, and no sitting at the bar itself, as well as various best practices and recommendations. One thing that Devils Backbone are doing which gave me the confidence to arrange a visit is that they are operating on a reservation only basis, and they have posted a full list of their practices on their website, including mandatory masks when not sat at the table.

With our bespoke, Mrs V made, masks on faces, we arrived at Devils Backbone and it was obvious from the get go that here was a process that had been thoroughly thought through and was functioning well. The major benefit of of reservations only is that there are no groups of people loitering while hoping for a table to to open up. Once we were seated we were told that there was a 90 minute limit to our reservation and that menus were available through a QR code on the table (which meant I had to download a reader app as my phone is a bit old).

Both Mrs V and I were seriously impressed with our trip to the Basecamp, and I think the reservations thing is going to be the deciding factor for any future trips to pubs. Pretty much everything was done in such a way as to minimise physical contact between patrons and staff, all food and drink was served in one time use containers, and staff wore masks all the time. If there was one thing that wasn't quite working it was the single occupancy status of the toilets, with nobody overseeing that, groups of people ignored the signs on the doors and went in together.

Anyway, the beer, that is after all why we were there...


Jason was on the money in telling me that it is the best batch yet. Goodness me it is a delicious brew, sure I am biased, but I honestly think Morana would stand up to and tmavé being brewed in Czechia. Reviewing notes on previous batches, this one has a silkier mouthfeel and a slightly fuller body. All the lovely deep malty sweetness of Munich malt is there, and the unsweetened cocoa of the Carafa too, in amongst it all is the spicy character of Saaz, not the star for sure, but not a wallflower either.

Admittedly the beer doesn't look its best in a single use plastic pot, so here it is as Perun intended, in a tuplák glass...


Fantastic beer, superb, safe setup for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, while still being able to enjoy a pint of one of my favourite beers in the world, and all at a place that Mrs V and I have loved ever since we came to this part of Virginia.

I know there are some people out there who still hold a grudge against Devils Backbone for being part of the AB-InBev universe, but at the end of the day that is their problem. I said it when the deal was first announced that as long as the beer remained good, the people running the show still ran the show, and the overall ethos of Devils Backbone didn't change, then I wasn't going to be a dummy spitter. I still haven't spat my dummy, see no reason on the horizon to do so, and with their superb handling of opening up in a safe manner, I can only say I love them more than ever.

So, if you are in the area, get yourself a reservation, another benefit was how easy that process was on their website, and go enjoy some beers in the sun.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Stick Don't Twist

I have developed a business plan.

I believe that if it is successful, then I will become an exceedingly rich man, can buy a small Hebridean island to retire on and raise my children in a place of peace.

The plan is devastatingly simple, whenever a brewery uses one of the following phrases in their beer description, the give me a Dollar, a Pound, or a Euro, depending on the brewery's location:
  • "our interpretation of"
  • "classic <insert style>, with a twist
Not wanting to limit my revenue streams, any phrase that has similar connotations will be included in the collection scheme.


Now, I am not the kind of person who is wildly strict about beer styles, if your porter is just a touch strong, I will not insist you call it a stout. If your best bitter uses Cascade instead of Goldings, I won't declare it a Session IPA. However, beer styles have evolved for a reason, especially when it comes to beers that have a very distinct geographical basis.

Take one of my favourite brewing projects that I have ever been involved with, Devils Backbone Granát, the first polotmavé to be brewed in Virginia. Granát just squeezes out Morana, which incidentally is on tap at the Devils Backbone Brewpub at the moment, because polotmavé as a style is even less well known and understood than tmavé.

Part of the pleasure of doing brewing projects with local brewers is designing the recipe itself, which for me is not just a case of wanging a few ingredients into brewing software to hit the right numbers but about background reading on the style and how it is perceived in its homeland, and the expectations of drinkers. For fear of sounding like an anti-innovation stick in the mud, part of my aim when I design these recipes to to be as faithful to the culture whose beer I am attempting to replicate and introduce to a different audience. In a perfect world, I'd be able to ship some of the Czech over to the likes of Evan and Max to get their take on them, and where they would stand in the pantheon of Czech breweries,

Anyway, back to Granát. As a recipe it built on the Morana research quite a bit, for the non-Czech speakers "polotmavé" literally means "half-dark", so the idea is to use the same malts as in your tmavé but less of the specialty malts to make a lager that sits somewhere between dark copper and deep red. From the research that went into the recipe's creation, the specialty malts used are more often than not:
  • Munich
  • CaraBohemian or CaraMunich
  • Carafa, usually de-bittered
Sticking with the kind of malts used in Czechia is important as far as I am concerned because substituting in different malts, more easily obtainable perhaps, changes the flavour profile. While it is perfectably possible to make a tasty red lager using Caramel 60, chocolate malts, and black malt, it isn't how it is done in Czechia.

This applies, in my mind at least, to most beer styles, though obviously Czech lagers are a world I am very interested in. Of particular concern, and perhaps I am being idealistic here, is that when bringing a little known style into a new market and not being faithful to the ingredients used in the originals breweries do their customers a disservice. When friends of mine who have tried Granát and Morana go to Czechia, I want them to have an accurate frame of reference for the tmavé and polotmavé they will drink there. A case in point would be swapping out CaraMunich for a crystal malt, the sweetness is so different that the same beer brewed with these malts would be noticeably different, and in my mind without CaraMunich, much diminished.

Imagine trying to brew an American Pale Ale with just Saaz, it wouldn't be identifiable as an American Pale Ale. It might be, and I would put money on it being so, a fine tasty beer, but American Pale Ale it is not. I have written before that I think authenticity is important, and even more so with styles that are unusual in a given brewery's sitz im leben.

If we in the beer world want to co-opt concepts such as terroir and the importance of place with regard to how beer styles originate and evolve then I think we also need to pay respect to those concepts when brewing relatively rare styles. One of the things I really love about beer culture is learning new things, trying styles from places I have never even considered, but how can I trust that I am getting as close to the real thing is breweries are constantly twisting, and shouting about it?

Happy to Schill

September 4th. The first time in the course of the whole pandemic thing that I went to the pub without a reservation, and to meet someone fo...