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?

NoVA Franconia

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