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?

Monday, May 18, 2020

A Belgian Pilsner?

Yeah, ok, I know.

The vast majority of beer brewed and consumed in Belgium falls squarely into the "pilsner" category of pale lagers. When one thinks of pale lager from Belgian, Stella Artois inevitably pops up first, but also Jupiler, maybe sometimes people will mention Maes, and I have fond memories of drinking Primus in Ieper many moons ago.

Belgian beer is admittedly not something I drink a lot of. I do enjoy the various Trappist ales, as well as the occasional lambic, gueuze, Flanders red, or oud bruin. Not a fan of saisons to be honest, but a good witbier has it's place. I do though have a general rule when it comes to beer styles that have their origins in Belgium...they need to actually be brewed there. I make an allowance for Allagash White, and Celis White too for that matter, but when your average IPA merchant suddenly starts pumping out sours and funky shit then I will happily avoid.

All of this is a long way round to owning that I don't recall having drunk many beers from Ommegang before, if at all. This is no sleight on Ommegang at all, I have just never quite been able to persuade myself to buy something of theirs. Then they brought out Idyll Days Pilsner.

The first 4 pack of 16oz cans I bought was purely on a whim. Browsing the list of beers available from Beer Run for curbside pickup, I saw the magic word "pilsner" and decided that I should try it out. I guess I liked it as I polished off all 4 cans while video chatting with a mate, so naturally no notes were taken, until yesterday. The boys were in bed for their afternoon nap, it was warm but overcast outside, and having taken obligatory photos, I parked myself on the deck for a mini session...


According to the marketing blurb on the Ommegang's website, this is brewed with Czech floor malted barley, Saaz hops, and is then lagered for 30 days, and gets packaged without being filtered. Hmmm...Czech ingredients, Belgian lager yeast, decent lagering period, all sounds good.

The first thing that struck me as I poured out the can into one of my Czech lager glasses was the colour. I was not expecting a 5% abv beer to be quite this wan shade of pale. After last week's experience of wildly fizzy yet headless pale lager, it was nice to get a proper voluminous dollop of white foam that stayed around on top of the beer for the duration and left a nice bit of lace down the glass.


Making their way up through the head were aromas of crackers, specifically water biscuits, as well as delightfully subtle lemon grass thing, with touches of hay and floral hops as well. The subtlety in the aroma department carries on over in to the realm of taste as well. There is a slight sweetness, not unlike savory scones freshly out of the oven, and the lemongrass character of Saaz is noticeable, though restrained and delicate.

Restraint really is the key word here, everything is in balance, with neither hop, malt, or yeast taking over, as I initially noted down, nothing dominates and nothing is lost. One thing that I did not realise before reading the Ommegang website just now was the use of flaked corn in the grist, I barely even noticed it when I was drinking. The finish has the clean snap I expect of a well made lager, and left me wanting another mouthful, my 4 pack disappeared pretty quickly as a result.

It really is a lovely beer, one that will make many a visit to the fridge, and who knows, maybe I'll try some other Ommegang products too...?

Friday, May 15, 2020

Opening Up?

Today sees the beginning of "phase one" reopening in Virginia.

From a beer perspective that means restaurants, breweries and brewpubs are able to re-open for outdoor seating only, at 50% of their listed capacity, while maintaining appropriate physical distancing, and groups of no more than ten at any given table.

The various social media platforms I use have been almost swamped with posts from businesses announcing their decision to either expand their operations or not. The tone has varied from sombre and serious, mainly among those companies not opening up further, to celebratory from those opening up, and to be blunt some posts have been puerile to the point of crass.

Having seen a great swathe of posts I put the following on Facebook the other day:
"Have seen too many breweries, brewpubs, and restaurants touting offering outdoor seating service as of Friday with the notion of "getting back to normal".

Well forgive me for not sharing the relief while there is still no vaccine, no reliable treatment, and no cure.

Two weeks from Friday we'll be back to square one."
As a result of that post I have had several conversations with folks in the industry that I count as friends, whether brewers, servers, or owners. The majority of owners feel stuck between a rock and a hard place as they need to have some kind of revenue to pay the rent on their buildings, having unscrupulous landlords not willing to work with them to find a solution that doesn't put staff at risk. Most of the brewery staff I know are concerned that re-opening is going to turn into a shit show as people ignore physical distancing requirements, refuse to wear masks, or just behave in anti-social and frankly selfish manners, all in the name of getting their drinkies on.

One of the brewery owners I spoke with asked me the following question "what will it take to get you back to the pub?", I had no real answer on the spot, so I figured I'd take it out to Twitter...



Of the 25 people that responded to the question more than 75% are waiting for a vaccine or reliable treatment before heading back out to the pub, and I tend to agree with them.

I really do miss going to the pub, I am much more of a pub goer than a craft beer geek. I am as  perfectly happy in a great pub with a pint of Guinness as I am drinking craft lager in any of my favourite brewpubs in the Charlottesville area. However, until there is some form of medical protection against both the virus and the selfish stupidity of people banging on about their right to not wear a mask, I'll continue my drinking from home. Speaking of which, it's Friday and will soon be time to pick up a stash of fantastic lagers for the weekend while my Cascade hopped best bitter conditions in the kegerator.

Wherever you are drinking this weekend, drink responsibly, be safe, and wear a damned mask,

Thursday, May 14, 2020

VPL - Virginian Pale Lagers

It took eight weeks, but by last Saturday I was actually getting a little bit of cabin fever, so I asked Mrs V if it would be ok if I went out to do the weekly shop. Generally Mrs V is our designated person for doing the shopping during these weird times as both myself and one of my boys are asthmatic, and so we want to minimise the possibility of either of us getting sick.

There were ulterior motives for wanting to get out of the house for a few hours, namely it was Mother's Day and I needed to get Mrs V a card, some fancy booze, and ingredients for dinner. I also wanted to pick up some different beer from Wegmans as they still do BYO six packs, and so ended up with a selection of 2 Czech style Pilsners, 2 German style Pilsners, and a pair of Munich Helles.

I started with the two Czech style beers, both of which I have drunk plenty of over the years but not really sat down and analysed them.

Champion Brewing Shower Beer

  • Sight - pale golde, healthy quarter inch of foam with good retention, superb clarity
  • Smell - Ceareal grain, hay, touch of lemon, some floral hops
  • Taste - Bready malt base, spicy hops, nice citrusy, clean, bitterness
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3
In so many ways this is a wonderful Czech style pale lager. Only 4.5% abv, 100% Saaz hops, a really nice firm bitterness and a lingering clean finish pointing to good clean fermentation. If I were comparing to some of the pale lagers back in Czechia, I would put this in the same league as Herold, a good solid brewery with a devoted following.

Port City Brewing Downright Pilsner

  • Sight - Slightly hazy pale gold, good firm white head, nice retention
  • Smell - Lemony and lime citrus character, some breadiness, alpine meadow time floral notes
  • Taste - Bready malt character, some spice, bit lemony edging to pithy, clean fermentation
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
Medium bodied, with high carbonation, almost too bitter in some respects, citrus character borders of pithiness.

As I said, I have drunk plenty of both these beers of the years, and am of the opinion that they are dead certs for being in the top five pale lagers in Virginia. I am pretty sure that both would go down pretty well back in Czechia too, but they just don't reach the heights of something like Pivovar Hostomice's majestic Fabián 10°, Únětický's 12°, or the much missed Kout na Šumavě 10°. Making a not entirely unreasonable assumption that the ingredients are broadly similar, I do tend to think that the difference is in process, in particular the fact that Czech breweries still do decoction mashing, and that the Maillard reactions that causes brings something indefinable to the glass that focusing on ABV, IBUs, and other brewing by numbers stats simply cannot bring to the beer? I say it fairly often, but decoction really does matter if you want to make an authentic Czech style lager, regardless of colour or strength.

Moving from Czech style pale lagers over the border, so to say, to German style...

Basic City Our Daily Pils (unfiltered)

  • Sight - Pale gold, slight haze from being unfiltered, thin white head, distinctly not fizzy
  • Smell - Subtle malt sweetness, fresh bread crust, floral hops, some citrus like mandarin
  • Taste - Bready malt with a touch of biscuity sweetness, slightly earthy, spicy hops and a trace of citrus
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
This has actually become something a regular tipple for me. Back in open pub days, ah the memories, I enjoyed many pints of it at Beer Run, often sat at the bar of a Friday afternoon with work done and the boys yet to be picked up from school. At 4.8% it sits squarely in the ball park for a German pils and has all the refreshing drinkability you would expect from Germany's finest. Definitely a welcome addition to Virgini'a lager scene.

Lost Rhino Brewing Rhino Chaser

  • Sight - Gold, think white head, dissipates quickly, good clarity
  • Smell - Mostly cereal and bread upfront, almost worty, with some subtle spice
  • Taste - Sweet, sugary caramel notes, a little hop flavour with a spicy cinnamon finish
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
This actually reminded me more of the modern Festbier than a pilsner. At 5.6% it is simply too strong to be authentic, but then the can does tout that the brewery has ""Americanized" the classic European Pilsner", a turn of phrase that strikes fear into my heart as it invariably leads to a disappointing drinking experience. If you want to make a pilsner, make a fucking pilsner. If you want to make a strong pale lager then make a strong pale lager. Just as decoction matters, so do styles when it comes to setting the drinker's expectations.

Ok let's leave the pilsners behind and venture into Helles.

Bingo Lager

  • Sight - Yellow, excellent clarity, fizzy, lots of bubbles, no head at all (WTF?)
  • Smell - Light floral hops, slightly grainy, generally indistinct
  • Taste - Bready malt, clean citrus bitterness, touch of corn in the finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
I want to give the brewery the benefit of the doubt here as there seemed to be a dink in the seam of the can lid, which may help explain the absolute absence of head. When I swirled the glass half way through drinking I did come some white foam but it disappeared quickly. The beer itself is well balanced and decent enough, I guess I will have to buy another one just to see if the can lid theory works out.

Stable Craft Helles

  • Sight - Pale golden, think white head, fizzy, good clarity
  • Smell - Crusty bread, spicy hops, earthy, some rather odd onion/garlic notes in the background
  • Taste - Non-descript, some malt, some hops, prickly carbonation, lacking clean lager character
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5
This one was a major let down. I was willing to give Stable Craft a try because I have enjoyed their brown ale from time to time, but this was dull and muddled rather than bright and zingy as I would expect from a Munich Helles.

We are lucky in some ways in Virginia that we have some decent pale lagers being brewed, but we also have some that are simply sub-par, and in this tasting we ran the gamut of what is out there in that regard. On the helles front it is safe to say that once South Street have some of their My Personal Helles back in stok I will be slaking my thirst with it.

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Session: Quarantine Edition - The Round Up


As promised, one week after The Session - Quarantine Edition here is the round up.

Straight off the bat, I want to thank everyone that took part and wrote something on the theme of "where are you at?". I was kind of overwhelmed by the response from the beer blogging community and the number of posts created, from what I have seen we had a grand total of 19 contributions to the theme, so let's delve in and see what's what eh?

First up is Jordan, also known as tripleclutcher on Instagram, and it was there that he posted a picture and a lengthy description of his new drinking habits, including "more local beer".

Alan McLeod in Canada taxed my shoddy Latin with a post titled "Mea Taverna Quarantina", or "My Quarantine Tavern", and told us about his home, where he does most of his drinking, that he doesn't "miss the pub. Much".

Over at The Brew Site, Jon tells us about how he had stocked up on homebrewing ingredients before the lock down because his local supplier was shutting down. As well as brewing he is asking the question of breweries and brewpubs, "who...is going to survive?". Sobering thoughts indeed.

I am not quite sure of Mark at Kaedrin's description of the Quarantine Edition of The Session as a "triumphant return" but hey we'll take it. He then goes on to tell us about the things he misses as a result of nearly 7 weeks in lockdown, mostly bottle shares and how he and his friends are getting around that.

DaveS at Brewing in a Bedsitter is having a "very cosy catastrophe".

A new blog for me, which is one of the great things about The Session, and Carey, to quote her tweet managed "to vomit out some words on life", and very fine words they are too, about the new normal in her drinking life.

Sucking Stones is another new blog on my radar, and I am pleased that the theme "stuck a chord". Simon had ambitious plans to homebrew several times a week as a result of lockdown, but then had a realisation.

Coming to a blog that I, and many others know well, The Beer Nut in Dublin brings us tasting notes of a couple of new beers from The Porterhouse, as well as his ecstacy at finding canned Rheinbacher at his local Aldi.

Resident beer satirist Matthew Lawrenson of Seeing the Lizards is in the enviable position of being able to get Oakham's lovely Green Devil, while also being designated a "key worker".

When Lisa Grimm upped sticks and moved to Ireland, her plans included "weekend trips in Ireland and the odd hop over to London for theatre". As a result of the lockdown, she seems to be getting a crash course in Irish craft beer and its attendant community.

In "Pressing Pause on the Cassette Tape of Life", Michael of Bring on the Beer owns to writing his post while being 5 beers to the good, top man! He owns that his drinking "skyrocketed" at first but has settled down in recent weeks.

Skipping over to Germany, Andreas Krennmaier, aka "the daft ejit" had many of us drooling with pictures of Schönramer Pils and Mahr's Brau Helles, while telling us about life as an IT guy working from home. Side note, I just noticed his post about making a Mahr's Brau aU clone, and if Beer Run don't have it back in soon I'll be giving that a bash!

Co-founder of The Session, and craft beer guru in general, Stan Hieronymus tells us about how he likes to go to the pub and observe the goings on, and that he looks forward to the return of a normal that looks rather like the old one.

Ray and Jess at Boak and Bailey are finding that once the fight or flight response passes the brain adjusts to the new normal, and they are "drinking less, but savouring what we drink all the more".

Another new blog for me, Brews and Views makes me deeply jealous by writing about the lagers of Utopian Brewing in the UK and their British Pilsner and Dark Lager, both of which I am very keen to try, so hopefully one day when I get back to the UK...

Fellow Mitteleuropaphile Joe Stange, aka The Thirsty Pilgrim, likewise has me deeply jealous, mainly because of his 4 tap kegerator at home, including a Czech style side tap for the much hyped slow pour, and a very fine dark lager in the pictures.

Skipping over to the West coast, Jeff Alworth of Beervana writes about the delights of drinking alone at home, and how "comfortable" beers take precedence in days like this.

Once again to the new to me blog realm...Steve at "Wait Until Next Year" tells us about one of the best phenomena of this whole situation, beer delivery services.

Lastly, the host, me. I wrote about how I feel very fortunate to be able to be "At Home" through all this, and while it is not ideal for Mrs V and the twins, I am actually enjoying having them around all the time.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Session: At Home

Once upon a time, The Session was a monthly event where beer bloggers got together and wrote about a common theme. Like all good sessions it lasted quite a while, the best part of 11 years before last orders was called and punters filed out into the dark. The dark though doesn't last forever, not even in the depth of a Hebridean winter, eventually the sun returns and again the possibility of a session presents itself. In the spirit then of the hair of the dog, I present the Quarantine Edition of The Session, with a theme of "where are you at?", looking at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our drinking lives...


In many ways I am deeply priviledged at this time, and I am very much aware of it. I have worked from home for a couple of years already, so that is nothing new for me. My wife, a Montessori teacher, is working from home too, she has not been furloughed, and we are very grateful that her school continues to pay her, and watching her adapt to teaching online and by distance has been nothing short of remarkable. If you have ever had the pleasure of meeting Mrs V you will know why I am immensely proud of her. Perhaps my 30 month old twins have it hardest at the moment as school has been cancelled until at least the end of May and they haven't seen their friends in 6 weeks. They are just toddlers and so don't understand what is going on, and Zoom sessions with their classmates are studies in how to fail at holding a kid's attention.

The biggest change for us has been at weekends. We had a nice routine going prior to the outbreak. Saturday morning to the store for the weekly shop followed by a trip to one of our favourite beer places for lunch and beer, often Beer Run or South Street Brewery, but with a rag tag collection of other places worth going to. Mrs V and I are not fans of "scenes" so we like to get done and back to our Piedmont fastness before the masses descend. All that is gone now, and I am longing for the day when I have my first pint of South Street's My Personal Helles.

As my good friend Eric once said, I am much more of a pub fan than a craft beer fanatic. I love going to the pub. There are genuinely few things I would rather do with myself than pull up a seat at a bar, get a pint, and just while away some time with a book, or people watching. I am very much an introvert and the pub is a place where I can shut the world out of my head while not becoming a total recluse. All that is gone now as well.

At the beginning of the lockdown, when all this was very new, I was drinking a six pack of something almost every night. Given that most of the beers I enjoy are lagers of varying styles in the 4.5% to 5.5% ABV bracket, a six pack a night didn't feel all that drastic. The lagers of Von Trapp Brewing have been my staple go to beer for the duration of our isolation, mainly because our local breweries that are still operating are not known for the beers I enjoy drinking, and I am not at the point of wanting to load up on local IPA just to get my beery fix.

After a week or so I decided that I should raid my cellar a bit, thinking that the beers I had stashed away "for a special occasion" might never get drunk. It was a nervous time for me as I am asthmatic, as is the eldest of my twins, and it is still fresh in my memory having a child in the intensive care unit. Being locked in when you have 1.75 acres is no doubt much easier than being locked in to some of my friend's flats back in Europe, but still there was the nagging doubts in my mind about the business trip to Texas I had just returned from. So I raided the cellar for the big ones, barleywine, old ale, imperial stout, the kind of stuff you rarely see mentioned on Fuggled.

Now it is almost as though the lockdown is normal life. I still work from home, I just have odd hours, and as things have settled into routine I have found myself going back to my more normal drinking pattern of weekends only. This is really only possible because Beer Run continues to operate on a curbside pick up only basis, and thus every Friday has become "take out" day in the VelkyAl household. It is the day we jump in the car, go and pick up food from a restaurant, and get the beer for the weekend. More than ever right now I am glad they carry Von Trapp's superb lagers. Their Pilsner, Helles, Vienna, and Dunkel are staples, and in their Kölsch they have a beer that Mrs V really loved, hopefully it will be back in stock soon.

There have been a couple of welcome additions to my drinking world that perhaps I would previously have skipped on by, Bitburger's superb collaboration with Sierra Nevada being one of them, as well as Ommegang's new Idyll Days Pilsner, a Belgian style pale lager that is absolutely lovely. It being Friday we have placed our orders and in a few hours will go pick up the goodies for the weekend, including a new Czech style lager lager to try out from a Virginian brewery...

It all sounds so humdrum and banal, quite possibly because it is in so many ways. There are times when I joke with my wife that growing up on a small island in the Outer Hebrides was perfect preparation for this, especially given my loner tendencies. Still, life goes on, and beer is there, and for both of those right now I am grateful.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Session: Quarantine Edition Announcement

Yes you read that right, for a limited time only (quite possibly just this once, or maybe a few times depending on response) The Session is making a comeback.


It all started with this tweet:

Jay and I then ran polls to gauge interest and only a few people categorically said "no", so here we go for the Quarantine Edition of The Session...but first, a reminder:

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic.

Given that I suggested its return, it would seem churlish of me to not step up and suggest the theme for our compositions, but what to write about? I suppose I could be mildly snarky and ask everyone to go out and buy some Corona beer and write about that, but that seems a tad flippant.

Having been bombarded for the last 4 or 5 weeks by various media sources and corporate email blasts telling everything that companies are doing to combat COVID-19 and how they are "on your side", the phrases that have been so heavily used as to border on cliche include "abundance of caution" (title of the next Coldplay album apparently), "unprecedented times", and "the new normal". In there is the genesis of the theme for the Quarantine Edition of the The Session, in these unprecedented times, what has become your new drinking normal? Are you drinking more? Less? Have you raided the cellar regularly? Is there a particular brewery whose beer is keeping you company while you are confined to barracks? Has there been a beer revelation in these times?

Basically, tell us where you are at.

Given that folks' schedules are all over the place, I am going to recommend putting you post up next Friday, May 1st, as would be the usual schedule, but if it works better for you to post a day or two early, or late, that's fine. I will do a roundup the following Friday, May 8th, to give as many people as need it the time to participate.

Don't forget to add a link to your post, Twitter thread, Instagram pictures, however you plan to post, to this post so I can include you in the round up.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Raiding the Cellar: Holy Orders

So far in this period of self isolation, all my raids on the cellar have been for big heavy hitters, barleywines, old ales, those kid of things, the other night though I fancied something a little different. It is very rare that I don't have a couple of bottles of Orval sitting in the cellar awaiting their date with destiny, and the remaining one had its date on Tuesday night.

Said Orval was bottled on the 5th October 2017, so just coming up to two and a half years old, well and truly past the "fresh" stage but not yet in the seriously aged world.


Having carefully poured the beer so as to avoid getting the dregs into the glass, not generally a fan of drinking sediment unless I am drinking a hefeweizen, I was actually surprised by the lovely luminescent orange liquid. That bubbly three quarter inch of white foam was continually refreshed by the noticeable carbonation, and thus hung around for the entire time the beer lasted.


As you would expect from a 30 month old bottle of Orval, there was a noticeable sour tang to the aroma, but I wasn't getting any of the much vaunted leather and barnyard of urban myth. Instead I was getting more of a pleasant apple cider vinegar thing, with wisps of vanilla, which confused me at first so I had Mrs V take a whiff and she got it too. Having jammed my nose into the chalice several times to track down that last elusive aroma I realised it reminded me of champagne.

That tangy character was definitely present in the flavour as well. Again this may be subliminal given the number of people getting into sourdouch baking in the current pandemic, but the tang reminded me of a sourdough loaf, baked with a fairly young starter, present but not overwhelming. The bready character was like nice crusty toast, sans butter, but with a schmeer of Seville orange marmelade. Do they use Goldings in Orval? I can't remember.


In response to the beer, I tweeted that I think 30 months old is my sweet spot for Orval, I do like the young fresh stuff, but that zip of sour just adds something ephemeral to the beer, perhaps the famed goût d'Orval? I commented to a friend at the turn of the year that I was thinking about working through the various Belgian/Dutch Trappist ales this year and have so far done Westmalle and noe Orval just a few more to go. At some point I will have to brave the booze shops..

Monday, March 23, 2020

Raiding The Cellar: 2016 Fullers Vintage

I have a maroon elephant in my beer cellar, almost a decade's worth of Fuller's Vintage Ale spanning the years 2008 to 2016. For some reason I haven't been able to find anything post 2016 to fill out the collection, but there we go. In looking for something to dip into last week, I thought it would be interesting to try one of the youngest of the collection, so I pulled a bottle of 2016...

I always enjoy reading the blurb on the back of the box when I dip into the Vintage stash, and apparently this version was brewed with Nelson Sauvin hops. Now, I have a confession to make, it has been a very long time since I knowingly had a beer with Nelson Sauvin in it, the previous one being New Belgian's Shift Pale Lager back in 2012, and I haven't used it in my own homebrew.

With the bottle having spent the requisite hour or so in the fridge to bring it down in temperature a wee bit, my cellar is pretty settled at around 60ºF, which while not perfect doesn't seem to negatively affect the beers, but I like to drink my British ales at about 50ºF, I poured into my current favourite glass from Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in North Carolina, they call it a Franconia.


What a simply beautiful beer it is, crystal clear, rich copper, light red at the edges, all topped off with a firm quarter inch of ivory foam. Minor ranty detour, but I am sure I am not alone in thinking that all these soupy things that are all the rage these days are just plain ugly. Sorry, ok not really, but if I wanted an alcoholic beverage that looked like fruit juice with whipped cream on top, I'd buy a bottle of orange juice, tip the requisite vodka in and make free with the aerosol "cream". Give me a clear beer any day of the week, rant over.

As I say, it had been a long time since my previous daliance with Nelson Sauvin hopped beer, so I really didn't have much of a frame of reference for what I was sticking my nose into. What an incredibly floral hop this one is, and at the same time rather herbal, it actually put me in mind of lavender. Being a good, solid British strong ale, there was plenty of biscuity, digestives not savory scones, and toffee like caramel notes. I was looking forward to this one.


Now, I don't know whether to put this down to subliminal marketing stuff, but there is a very noticeable white wine character to this beer. Not being one to trust my general lack of interest in the boozy grape juice world, I asked Mrs V and try it and let me know what she thought, without telling her the hops involved. Sure enough she said it tasted somewhat like the Sauvignan Blancs that she is a fan of, replete with the slight mustiness that seem sto be par for the course with such wines. In amongst the mix was the classic Fullers flavour, which always puts me in mind of marmelade, and which I really like. Sure, there are some for whom "the Fuller's flavour" is something they don't care for but I am a fan. I also, and again this may be entirely sub-conscious, thought the beer tasted rather like a Werther's Original, likewise a good thing.

What a cracking, cracking beer this is, and perhaps I caught it in a good moment, but I look forward to trying the other 2016 vintages I have floating around in the cellar, as well as doing some brewing with Nelson Sauvin, most likely in my best bitter recipe to begin with, though I can imagine it working rather well in my lime witbier too.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Raiding the Cellar: Grand Illumination

It has been 11 years now since Mrs V and I moved to the US, and in almost all that time I have had a bottle of Williamsburg Alewerks, as was, Grand Illumination American Style Barleywine in the cellar. Brewed in 2009, Geoff and the guys at Alewerks only made the same number of bottles, mine was number 1836.


This particular bottle has been almost a perennial amongst the bottles I would put in the fridge at the beginning of each Thanksgiving, and returned to the cellar each Epiphany. But today it is just another empty in the recycling bin, because a couple of nights ago it was my choice when raiding the cellar.


Not sure the picture really does it justice but the shade of ruby red in the glass was actually not quite what I was expecting, I thought it would be in the same dark vein as the Irish Walker. That little cap of off-white to ivory foam was pretty consistent as I drank the beer.


In terms of aroma, this was anything but one dimensional. There was plenty of unsweetened cocoa, as well as toffee, bread, and some dried fruit, more in the raisin realm than prune. Also floating around was a nice spicy thing that made me think of nutmeg, and it went nicely with the soft dulce de leche notes I was picking up.


Ok, enough of the smells, on to the tastes, and whoa booze is right there from the get go, like a rum soaked cake, full of rum soaked fruit. The alcohol really dominated the beer, though it wasn't harsh and didn't burn, it was just so noticeable. The body was thinner than the Irish Walker had been, more medium than full, and perhaps that contributed to the boozy character. In the finish there was a lingering citric hop bite that I imagine comes from the American hops that were used.

All in all a most acceptable 11 year old drop of barleywine, a style I don't actually have that many of, most of my cellar beers are old ales, imperial stouts, and the occasional Orval, no doubt there will be some of those in future posts.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Raiding the Cellar: Episode 1

Like most beer lovers I guess, I have somehow developed a collection of various special releases, strong beers, and other assorted bottles somewhat nebulously tagged as being for a 'special' occasion. Usually I pull out several with the vague intention of drinking them over the Christmas and Hogmanay period and then come January 1st put most of them right back in the cellar.

With life as it is currently is, I decided I really should actually make a dent in the cellar and given yesterday was St Patrick's Day what better than a good strong Irish beer?

Erm...I don't have any of those at the moment, so the closest thing was a barleywine called Irish Walker from Olde Hickory Brewery in North Carolina. Did I mention the vintage? It was a bottle of the 2012 that I bought way back in 2013, back when waxed bombers of heavy hitters were all the rage.


Other than when I bought it, I have no recollection of why, probably the aforementioned "special" occasion. As I was drinking it I looked up the brewery, happy to learn that they are still making their beers at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Any way, the beer, how was the beer?


In a word, dark. Seriously I was not expecting it to be as dark as it was, a deep, almost opaque, mahogany that glowed garnet red in the light. That thin schmeer of light tan you see in the picture lingered and lingered, leaving a delicate lace down the glass. The aroma was dominated by one of my favourite smells, black treacle, ok molasses if you insist, but it was front and centre. I also caught traces of plain chocolate, a savouriness that always makes me think of soy sauce, and the occasional wispy floralness.

Drink the damned stuff Al, sheesh. Ok, ok, ok, goodness me this is glorious unctuous goo. Straight off the bat this is a sweet, malt rich wonder, lots of molasses again, plenty of toffee, burnt sugar, raisins, and plums in there as well. There is a spicy hop bite in the finish for fun, but this a cacophonous love song to malt, just glorious. Clearly the 8 years this has been sitting around have been very kind to this 10% brut, but by god I want to buy more and let it sit around for another 8 years.

The only question in my mind right now is what to pull from the cellar for episode 2 of this new series, "Raiding the Cellar"?

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Einstöking Up

One of the countries of the world that I would love to visit properly is Iceland. I say "properly" because I am not convinced that stopping in Keflavik airport 4 times in the last few years en route to and from Scotland really qualifies. One thing I love about coming into land at Keflavik is just how much it reminds me of home in the Hebrides, maybe it's a north Atlantic thing?

When it comes to booze I have generally associated Iceland with Brennivín, Iceland's caraway flavoured aquavit which I absolutely adore. Until recently though I had never tried an Icelandic beer, despite there being a bar in the airport, time has never allowed so far. I started noticing beers from Einstök Ölgerð in a couple of the local bottle shops toward the end of last year, but always in a six pack rather than available as singles and being a cheap dour Highlander I was loathe to spend $12 on beer that might be crap - and no, I don't consult things like Ratebeer and Untappd when buying beer.

Anyway, between Christmas and Hogmanay my neighbour came round with some beers, including a pair of Arctic Pale Ales, which I enjoyed very, very much later that evening. I knew that at some point I would have to get a collection, especially after I also indulged in the Toasted Porter that was delightful. Our local Wegmans has also recently started stocking them, and being the bastion of sense that they are, had most of the range available as singles, so I made a six pack with a couple each of Arctic Pale Ale, White Ale, and Wee Heavy.


Starting off with the Icelandic Arctic Pale Ale, so named as the brewery is only 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It pours a delightful amber, bordering on recently polished copper that has faded a little but still has that sheen of polished metal. The head is white, firm, and lingers at about a quarter inch for the duration of the drinking. So far so classic pale ale, good and clear, it does my heart good to see clear beer in these murky days. The aroma is mostly a citrus thing that melds oranges, grapefruits, and mandarins, as well as a touch of pine resin ,as well as a touch of caramel and a toasty edge. From the drinking perspective we are looking at toffee, marmelade (yay, love me some marmeladey beer!), floral hops, biscuity malt character that made me think of rich teas, and just a the slightest hint of pine. Damn this is one tasty beer. Beautifully balanced, and a good looking beer as well, Arctic Pale Ale made me think of a stronger, more US hopped version of Landlord, guess what is going to be seeing the inside of my fridge quite a bit?


From pale I went to white. Witbier is one of those styles that I really do like but very rarely drink, perhaps because really good examples are few and far between, so how does Icelandic White Ale stack up? Well, it certainly looks the part, hazy gold, white head that dissipates eventually, leaving patches of foam on top of the beer. It also smells the part, dominated by lemons and a touch of the coriander that is in the recipe, there is a nice crackeriness to the the aroma that hints at what is to come. What is to come is a beer that tastes remarkably like a homemade lemon meringue pie, and a bloody delicious one at that. Seriously, this is a damned good beer let alone a damned good witbier. I would say it has a little more going on that Allagash White, so if you are a fan of that, hunt this stuff down.


Finishing off the evening's drinking then was the Icelandic Wee Heavy, brewed with smoked malt and angelica root, and very much leaving the pale beers behind. The Wee Heavy is a gorgeous deep chestnut brown, it's almost lascivious in its rich colour. The head is light tan and in common with the other beers lingers around for the duration of the drinking. The smoke is noticeable in the aroma department, but it doesn't utterly dominate to the exclusion of all else, there are some nice herbal notes floating around, and a touch burnt sugar. On the flavour front, the smoke is again clearly present, and the burnt sugar aroma becomes a nice black treacle character, there may also have been a hint of unsweetened cocoa, but that seemed to come and go. At 8% this is a bit of beast, but given it's superb balance, rich flavours, and smooth mouthfeel it is a cracking beer to put your feet up by the fire and just indulge - I came very close to buying some peat from Amazon to chuck on the fire to make the fantasy complete.

Three absolutely storming beers, and now I want to visit Iceland for real even more now.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Classics Revisited: Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout

For reasons best known only to history and circumstance, I don't recall having had a Samuel Smith's beer when I lived in the UK. I am sure that my pre-Prague drinking life largely consisting of Guinness, Murphy's, Caffrey's, and John Smith's in pubs of varying amounts of Oirishness may have played a part.

My introduction to Samuel Smith's was, if memory and Blogger labels serves, in Bicester when visiting one of my brothers. I lugged a fairly impressive haul of British beers back from Oxfordshire to Prague, including their Taddy Porter, Oatmeal Stout, and the muse for today's classic revisit, Imperial Stout.


When you think about a brewery so steeped in nostalgia for the Victorian era, you'd kind of expect their Imperial Stout to have the kind of provenance and heritage that only the noblest of blue blooded families can claim. Alas, as I discovered doing some background reading for this post, the beer was apparently first brewed in the 1980s, originally for the American market. Even so, I still list it as a classic as I have heard plenty of craft brewers name check it as an inspiration for their own imperial stouts.

Let's get started then...


Yes, I am pouring an imperial stout into an imperial pint glass, even branded (yay Christmas mixed packs with glassware), but at 7% abv, this is not exactly rocket fuel when compared to the standard abv of most American craft beer. As you can see from the picture it had a massive head, a fact I put down to the traditional Victorian practice of etching the white Yorkshire rose onto the bottom of the glass. The head never really settles down when using my Sam Smith's glasses, so there was a lot of lacing left as I drank the inky obsidian liquid. There was actually enough foam in the bottom of the glass at the end to have a mouthful of the moussey goodness.

I am sure you can imagine that through such a dense head if was fairly tricky to pick out a lot of aromas, though definitely in there were licorice, a touch of coffee, a wallop of black treacle, and a kind of tobacco/herbal thing that I always associate with Fuggles. Tastewise, the black treacle character was very much to the fore as well as some bittersweet chocolate, think something north of 80% cocoa and from South America. There were also some light fruity esters, as well as those herbal hops coming through in the finish.

For an imperial stout that is on the lighter end of the abv spectrum, it most certainly doesn't feel as though it is lacking heft. The silky mouthfeel and full body are almost sensuous.

I am sure there are folks out there who would claim that this is really just an old school porter, especially because of the abv thing. I am not one to quibble with how a brewery wishes to brand their beer (unless they win awards for it in a different style than that market it), and can happily say this classic stands up to scrutiny as one of the best imperial stouts out there today.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Old Friends: Unibroue Maudite

From time to time I wonder if I have ever really got over the fact that my parents moved back to Scotland after about 6 years living in the Haute Vienne region of France. Don't get me wrong, I am glad to have somewhere to stay when Mrs V and I go to Scotland, but I loved going to the part of France they lived in.

During our 2008 Christmas trip we went into the Leclerc supermarket in La Souterraine, as ever I made a bee line for the beer aisle, where I noticed a few bottles of beer that looked markedly different from the massed ranks of French macro pale lager. Naturally I picked up a couple of each, and some Orval, hoping to try local French craft beer. Those bottles were all Unibroue, and I didn't read the back label at first, so only at my parents' place did I learn said brews came from Canada.

From that moment on I knew that Unibroue beers would be something I would enjoy from time to time when Mrs V and I jumped over the Pond, and so it has been, though usually their tripel, La Fin du Monde. Over the years I have found my tastes shifting ever further away from big hitters, as you probably know if you follow Fuggled with any sense of regularity. Having recently been reminded that I quite like the occasional dubbel, I figured I'd resurrect the Old Friends series and get myself a 750ml bottle of Maudite, Unibroue's dubbel...


First things first, I love the fact that the label is still basically the same as it was in 2008, showing the chasse-galerie of French Canadian lore, which may, if my reading is correct, itself be a version of ancient Wild Hunt stories. Any way, the beer...


This is an interesting one when it comes to describing how it looked on pouring into my goblet because so much depended on the light. Sat looking out of a window, sunlight streaming through, the beer was a deep dark copper, with red highlights, but sit with the light behind you and it appears to be a muddy brown. Whether light is to the fore or behind, the head is slightly off white, rocky, and lingers, leaving some delicate lacing down the sides of the glass.

The aroma is dominated by spices, hardly surprising as this is a spiced ale according to the label, mostly I was getting nutmeg and ginger, with a touch of clove. It immediately put me in mind of the fruit cake recipe I make each Yuletide. Lingering among the spices was a touch of molasses. some grassy hops, and just a hint of dried fruit. All of those characteristics carried on over to the flavour department as well. The fruitcake motif was reinforced, and augmented, with prunes, brown sugar, and just a light trace of banana as it warms - I drank it at the recommended 50° but inevitably it warmed as 750ml of 8% booze is not something for chugging fresh from the fridge, unless you are a philistine of course.


Maudite is definitely on the sweeter side of the spectrum, but the hops that are there give it just enough of a scrape to make drinking the entire bottle anything but a syrupy struggle. While a hefty beer for sure the alcohol is not really all that intrusive, it could even be called dangerous as it lies well integrated in the background. Overall a lovely beer that it was delightful to spend some time with again after many years, and having re-established contact I think I'll go hang out with the accursed crew of the flying canoe again some time soon.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Classics Revisited: Westmalle

For fear of sounding like a naysayer, one of my main issues with the craft beer scene at the moment is its constant, incessant, pursuit of the new. Many of the breweries I follow on various social media outlets are forever promoting new IPAs beers, weekly IPA beer releases, or their IPA latest collaborations. To quote "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" by Madness, it's become a
"perpetual steady echo of the passing beat
A continual dark river of people
In their transience and in its permanence"
Being something of a contrarian, I decided recently that I wanted to revisit classic beers and breweries that existed long before the current boom in craft beer, kind of making 2020 have a little hindsight.

You really don't get much more originalist than monastic brewing, and when we talk about beer being made to nourish takers of vows and pay for their work in the world, there is nothing more iconic than Trappist Ale. At some point throughout this year I plan to revisit as many of the classic Trappist beers as possible, but first up is Westmalle.

Located in the Belgian province of Antwerp, Westmalle Abbey was established as a priory in 1794 before becoming a full Trappist abbey in 1836, in which year the monks under the guidance of the first abbot, Martinus Dom also established a brewery. At first the monks brewed only for their own consumption, but started selling to the local area in 1856. Westmalle produces three beers, Extra, Dubbel, and Tripel, but here in central Virginia only the latter pair appear to be easily available.


The dubbel, the recipe for which apparently dates back to 1926, pours a deep mahogany, with garnet glints shining through at the edges. The head is light tan and dissipates pretty quickly to a patchiness on top of the beer, giving the glass a swirl though rouses it nicely. The aroma is dominated by fruity esters, raisins, cherries, and dried figs. Floating around in there as well were traces of toffee, brown sugar, and bread. The fruit dominates the drinking as well, but in a fruitcake kind of way, when the fruit has been liberally soaked in booze, my mind leapt to rum in particular for some reason. With a scrape of effervescent carbonation, the medium full body avoids being cloying. The dry finish was a little unexpected, perhaps a product of US dubbels that I tend to find overly sweet, even sickly.


Moving on the 9% behemoth that is the world's original Tripel, this one pours a slightly cloudy gold with orange highlights. The head this time is pure white, though it too dissipated to patchiness and roused nicely when swirled. The big player in the aroma department is bananas, but not in the same sense as you get with many a hefeweizen, these bananas have been lightly caramelised in butter, perhaps with a couple of slices of apple chucked in as well.  Other than the fruit, there is a spicy note as well as a reasonable hint of the booze hit to come. While the booze is present in tasting, mostly I was getting some nice toasted malt, a bit of grass and lemons, and even a light syrup flavour, it does not dominate. The body on this one is fuller than the dubbel, but that same effervescent carbonation does its thing and makes it anything but a sticky beer.

One thing that was clear from drinking this pair Westmalle beers is that I honestly don't think that tripel will ever be my thing. That's not to say that it was a 'bad' beer, that is clearly not the case, but that is just not the kind of beer I enjoy drinking on a regular basis, even when chilling at home and without the need to drive. The dubbel on the other hand I can see becoming a vaguely regular visitor to the fridge, one that I kind of wish we were having an actual winter to enjoy with it,

Monday, February 3, 2020

Because We Can

Saturday was one of my favourite kind of days, a brewday with one of my local breweries.


In this case I was down at the Devils Backbone Basecamp once more. The plan, to brew Morana for the fifth time. Morana is, as a quick recap, a 14° tmavé speciální, or for the non-Czech speakers a 14° dark special lager, modeled on the sadly now departed Kout na Šumavě dark lager of the same strength.


From the very first time we brewed Morana, back in 2010, it has been double decocted as a nod to the traditional brewing practices of central Europe. It has also always undergone a long period of lagering, about 45 days. It has always used floor malted Bohemian pilsner malt, as well as CaraBohemian, Dark Munich, and de-bittered Carafa II, and it has always been hopped exclusively with Saaz hops. For this most recent brew none of these things have changed. At the end of the slightly longer than many a brewday, decoction does that, we had an on the nail wort that is going to make a simply fantastic beer.


From here on in though, Morana is in uncharted territory. You see, Devils Backbone have recently invested in some fun brewing equipment that we hope will bring Morana, a beer described in Jeff Alworth's Beer Bible as "the best New World effort to make an Old World beer", closer to her Old World antecedents.


Where in years past Morana would have undergone fermentation in a cylindrical conical tank, this time she is being fermented in Devils Backbone's new open fermenter, indeed she is the first lager to do so. As ever when Jason Oliver and I get together I learn shit tons of fun stuff about brewing, and naturally I asked what difference, if any, an open fermenter would make. Apparently the difference is less in the open nature of the vessel than it is in the geometry of it, being broader and shallower than a CCT. If I understand what Jason told me correctly, the CO2 generated by the yeast has a larger area in which to bubble to the surface, raising the yeast as it goes. This results is a fermentation with less circulation in the vessel, resulting in a more leisurely process, and thus the yeast is less stressed than it would be in the CCT. Again, assuming I understood correctly, this will impact the body and mouthfeel of the beer, making it even more luxuriant than previous iterations.


Having fermented for the requisite length of time, and once it is with about 1.5° Plato of target gravity, it will be moved over to a CCT to finish the fermentation with the CO2 valve firmly shut. With the natural carbonation achieved, it will be pumped over to another new toy that Jason gets to play with, one of the horizontal lagering tanks. There she will sit for 45 days at near freezing, and when the time comes to keg her up and drink, she will not be filtered.


During the brewday, Jason treated me to a couple of samples of German style beers sitting in the horizontal tanks. Currently lagering and soon to be on tap at Basecamp are Ein Kölsch and Alt Bier, no prizes for guessing the styles based on the names. Whenever they have been on tap in the past, Mrs V and I have made a point of getting to the brewpub for a few jars and to fill several growlers, based on the samples taken from the zwickel, we'll definitely be heading down in the not too distant future.

I remember once Jason being asked for an article in some brewing magazine about why he does decoction mashes for his lagers, to which he responded "because I can". What better reason to decoct, open ferment, and lager horizontally a Czech style tmavé for authenticity than simply that, because we can?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Changing the Conversation - Parents in Pubs

According to some folks I had a misspent childhood.

There are many Sunday afternoons in memory where my little brother and I were at the Sergeants' Mess bar with my mum, dad, and assorted other military families. We would be given a stack of 10p pieces, the old big ones that often had a two shilling coin mixed in, and summarily told to fuck off and play pool while the adults sat around drinking. If the noise of a group of kids got too loud, within moments there would be one of the collected kids' parents, invariably actually one of the dads, on their way to tell us to pipe down.

My dad had an equally misspent childhood in London, and often regales anyone that is listening with stories of being sat outside the pub, given a glass of orange juice and an arrowroot biscuit to keep him company.

My twin sons are continuing that tradition, we first took them to the pub when they were 10 days old, they slept the entire time. Now they are toddlers they are learning to sit at a table, drink their milk or water (juice and soda for kids can fuck off in our world), and colour in their books. Growing up around alcohol and the people drinking it is just plain normal.

When I was back in central Europe in October, basically every pub I went to had families sitting at tables together, parents with half litres in hand, and kids engaged as part of the group and the occasion, and more than once given a sneaky sup of booze. Growing up around alcohol and the people drinking it is just plain normal.

As a result of the recent article in Pellicle on the theme of kids in pubs, these thoughts and memories came flooding back. The article is well worth the read, though in my opinion it is really more about women in pubs than children as no-one seems to be addressing the idea that fathers take their kids to the boozer with them. Likewise I am not going touch that aspect here, mainly because as a father to toddlers I know from experience that even taking them to the park by myself can be a challenge. The boys will have to wait a couple more years before the three of us head to the pub sans Mrs V.

Several of the commentaries I have read as a result of the original article take the approach that kids in pubs are a "bad thing" and that the norm for "family-friendly pubs" is basically Lord of the Flies. From a purely anecdotal level, as that is the only level possible in a beer blog unless I plan to document pub life with pictures, dates, and times (I have no such ambition, or the time to do so), is that the vast majority of kids in pubs are supervised and reasonably well behaved. Of course, if your expectation of kids is that they should be seen and not heard then you are ripe for disappointment, and frankly that is your own problem.

What I did decide to do though was to take a look at the history of children and the pub, and one of the first things to pop up was this cartoon.


As you can see, the picture purports to show the scene at a London pub at 9 PM, and right there front and centre are children. To the left I see a toddler and probably an older sibling, getting a jug of ale, the toddler may be about to have a meltdown and is being taken away. To the right a mother, I assume, is holding the hand of another toddler. Stood at the bar is at least one woman holding a baby. The picture was first published in The Evening Chronicle in 1858.

Kids in pubs is not some kind of new alternative lifestyle being pushed by the politically correct hordes intent on destroying western civilisation as we know it. For as long as pubs have been regarded as community assets the community has taken its kids to the pub with them. Growing up around alcohol and the people drinking it is just plain normal. A little further evidence for this is the poll I decided to run on Twitter:

From more than 300 responses to the poll, 58% of respondents' parents took them to the pub as children. What then is going on?

The problem here, in my unhumble opinion, is that we are focusing far too narrowly on children in pubs. Kids that misbehave in pubs are in all likelihood the kind of children who misbehave in other public spaces such as on the high street and in the shops. In reality the issue here is one of parenting, of which the child's behaviour in public is a symptom not the disease itself. Parents that take their kids to a public space and then let them run wild to the detriment of others using the space are the problem.

What then, to paraphrase Lenin, is to be done? The knee jerk reaction is to ban children from all pubs and create a generation that have no idea how to behave in the pub, have no positive impressions of life around alcohol, and are thus more likely to view booze and boozing as illicit and ripe for misuse. Not being a fan of bans in general, even ones, like the smoking ban, that don't impact me personally, landlords should have the freedom to set the rules for behaviour in their own pub, whether that is no kids after a certain time of day, making plain that families breaching said rules will be asked to leave the premises, or having a separate "quiet lounge" so that those who just want a pint can enjoy the space without being triggered by the presence of small humans.

Such is the nature of our society, seemingly on both sides of the Pond, that no one solution will make everyone happy. Some will cry out "why should I go to a different part of the pub?" if the landlord creates a quiet lounge, others will go running to the local tabloid with stories of the mean landlord kicking them out because their kids are high on sugar and the sheer bliss of being ignored by parents. Of course there is the old refrain from pre-smoking ban days that if you don't like smoky pubs just don't go, the same could be argued for pubs with kids in them, if you don't like it, go some place else.

Kids will always be in pubs, it's just part and parcel of being a community, but they also need to be given the tools and space to learn how to behave when they are there, and that is the responsibility of the parents. It is on the parents to make sure their children are behaving in a manner that respects the public nature of the space they are in. So let's stop raising the straw man of children in pubs and focus on the core issue, parents control your children.

NoVA Franconia

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