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.

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 la...