Friday, September 25, 2020

Raising Voices: Amethyst Heels

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Oktoberfest Champions League: The Final 6

We needed a tie breaker...

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

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

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

Friday, September 4, 2020

Oktoberfest Champions League: Group Stage

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

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

The 6 groups lined up as follows:


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

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

Here then are the final standings by points.

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

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

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

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

Rauch Against the Machine

I am just going to come out and say it, I have loved rauchbier ever since I first had Schlenkerla's iconic Märzen back in Prague in 2008...