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?

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...