Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Of Minnesota Oktoberfests

 At the beginning of this month, Minneapolis based writer Jerard Fagerberg started work at the same organisation as myself. The subject of beer pretty quickly came up and lo and behold we have another person on the team that writes about the world's favourite barley based beverage. Having suitably followed each other on Twitter, I got a message from Jerry offering to send some Minnesota festbiers and märzens to add to my ongoing mass Oktoberfest tasting. A few days later and my fridge had 7 beers from the far north chilling down. Come Sunday they were ready to drink...and so I did.

The beers were, as you can see in the picture:

I decided to subject them to the same approach as I have been doing with all the beers in this year's tasting, which is exactly the same as last year:
  • Sight - 3 points
  • Smell - 10 points
  • Taste - 15 points
  • Balance of sweet to bitter - 2 points
  • Personal opinion - 10 points
So without further ado, let's jump into my Cyclopsesque tasting notes, I didn't take pictures for each beer as I was too busy drinking the beer, you understand that right?

Summit Oktoberfest - 6.5%
  • Sight - recently polished copper, inch of ivory head, excellent clarity
  • Smell - fresh crusty bread, rich malt complexity, no hops
  • Taste - beautiful Munich malt sweetness, rich bready notes, herbal hop bite in the finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
What a lovely start to the tasting, a beautifully complex lager that has everything you need to make it dangerously drinkable. The hops were evident without intruding, and the clean lager fermentation gave it the right amount of snap to keep me coming back for more. There was also an intriguing slight coconut note in the mix.

Schell's Oktoberfest - 5.8%
  • Sight - orange, almost Irn-Bru orange in the light, persistent off white head, beautiful clarity
  • Smell - toasted crusty bread, a touch of toffee, no hops
  • Taste - toasted bread, and also classic pilsner malt cereal character noticeable, clean herbal hops
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
I have to admit that I was really please to see this one on the box. My last beer from Schell's was a decade ago when they brewed a tmavé that I very much enjoyed, and here was another that, were Schell's available in Virginia, I would be buying regularly. Medium bodied, with a fantastic balance, and eminently drinkable.

Bauhaus Schwandtoberfest - 5.7%
  • Sight - deep amber, quarter inch white foam, good clarity
  • Smell - fresh bread from the oven, little if any hop aroma, clean
  • Taste - bready malts again, toasty with a slight caramel note, clean hop bitterness
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
The head sank into a schmeer of bubbles pretty quickly. This was a decent, malt forward, clean lager, with just enough hop bite to stop that hefty body from being cloying.

Beaver Island Oktoberfest - 6%
  • Sight - deep copper, red highlights, thin white head, excellent clarity
  • Smell - Honey on toast, no hops
  • Taste - slightly doughy, underbaked bread, maybe a touch of burnt sugar
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
In lots of ways this had things right. It was medium bodied, quite complex, and the bitterness from the hops was enough to just stop it being too sickly, but there was something of an odd after taste which was a distraction trying to nail down.

Indeed Oktoberfest - 5.8%
  • Sight - amber, quarter inch of white head, good clarity
  • Smell - pilsner malt cereal, sweetness of Maillard reactions
  • Taste - toasted malt, rich malt sweetness, floral hops
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Oh I liked this one. Lots of malt complexity, toasted Vienna, toffee like Munich, yum, yum, yum, to top it all there was the crisp (still fuck off with your crispy shite people) lager characteristic that brings everything in to sharp relief for another mouthful.

Fair State Cooperative Festbier - 5.7%
  • Sight - golden, half inch of persistent white foam, good clarity
  • Smell - rich pilsner malt grain character (decoction mash?), nice bready character, subtle herbal hop note
  • Taste - solid cereal grain character, lots of Pilsner malt, traces of honey, spicy hops
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
This was bloody marvellous, absolutely bloody marvellous. Like a stronger Czech style lager, packing a wallop bit still with a firm bitterness and clean finish. Could happily drink this all day long.

Utepils Receptional Festbier - 5.9%
  • Sight - deep gold, quarter inch white head, superb clarity
  • Smell - dollops of lightly honeyed pilsner malt, light bready note, some subtle lemongrass
  • Taste - more honeyed pilsner malt, floral hops with a slight spicy edge
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Another lovely festbier, perfectly balanced, refreshingly clean in the finish. Reminded me of the Primátor Exklusiv 16° strong pale lager from Czechia which was once declared the world's best lager. Again a beer I could imagine drinking maß after maß of in an autumnal biergarten.

So there we have it, 5 märzens and 2 festbiers that do Minnesota proud. In terms of a mini-league on my point system they ended up as:
  1. Utepils Receptional (32/40, wins on personal preference)
  2. Summit Oktoberfest (32/40)
  3. Fair State Festbier (31/40, third on personal preference)
  4. Indeed Oktoberfest (31/40)
  5. Schell's Oktoberfest (30/40)
  6. Beaver Island Oktoberfest (28/40)
  7. Bauhaus Schwandtoberfest (26/40)
Utepils for the win it is then, and clear evidence based on these numbers that the pale festbier style is still my preferred version of the annual autumnal lagerfest...

Thanks again to Jerry for sending the beers down, and I am in the process of curating a selection of fine Virginia beers to send back north for his drinking pleasure.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Old Friends: Port City Downright Pilsner

You'd think that a brewery that got 4 mentions in my annual top 10 Virginian beers wouldn't really be getting an "Old Friends" post. Even more so when you consider how often I have said brewery's products in my fridge, and the regularity with which I post pictures on Instagram of their beers, especially their lagers. However, it is the case that for all my enthusing about Port City Brewing up in Alexandria, and my extolling of the virtues of their simply wonderful Lager Series program, I have been criminally negligent of the beer that made me fall head over heels with them in the first place...Downright Pilsner.

If I have the story correct, Downright Pilsner was first brewed in 2012, purely as a seasonal. It sold so well, and in the Velkyal household that included at least 4 cases in a couple of months that year, that it became a part of their core lineup. A pair of those cases were bought for a couple of parties we had that autumn, firstly our house warming, having recently taken ownership of the keys to our house, and later for a Czech night to mark Czechoslovak Statehood Day on October 28th. Downright is billed as a Bohemian Pilsner, and was certainly a hit with plenty of the Czechs and Slovaks at our party, especially among those that emigrated in the wake of the 1969 crushing of the Prague Spring.

As I say, Downright is marketed as a Bohemian Pilsner, and in terms of the numbers it is pretty much spot on, brewed to 12°, if memory serves, 4.8% abv, and 37 IBU of Czech hops, though my memory seems to think that it used to be about 44 IBU, but one quibbles. Keeping slightly out of kilter with it's brethren in the homeland, Downright is dry hopped with Saaz. I spent a good year or so badgering my local Wegman's to start stocking it, they have the rest of the Port City range, so I knew they could. Eventually to my delight it showed up, and then the Lager Series started and I got all distracted.

Feeling guilty, I chucked a couple of bottles into my mixed 6 pack at the weekend, determined to stop ignoring my old faithful and to reacquaint myself with its delights. Thus, with the Sunday evening Oktoberfest clutch done with, and just wanting to enjoy a beer for its own sake more than anything, I poured them into my Chodovar mug...

Goodness me but isn't that a thing of beauty, both the glass and the beer to be frank. I got the glass on eBay as piece of nostalgia for the first Chodovar I ever had, in such a glass, at Pivovarský klub. Anyway, the beer, beautiful as I said, a lovely translucent gold, topped with a healthy white head that persists and left some lovely lacing on its way down the sides of the glass. I mentioned that the beer is jam packed full of Saaz hops, and sure enough everything you expect is there, lemongrass, orange blossom, that spicy note that is difficult to pin down sometimes. In amongst it all is a grainy note, lightly honeyed, classic Pilsner malt really.

Even after all these years there is something deeply comforting about Downright, it just tastes as a well made pilsner should do. Hops, and lots of them, a firm clean bitterness to cut through the soft billowing sweetness of the malt, like drinking a summer meadow in the Šumava region of Bohemia. The finish is clean, crisp (not crispy for fuck's sake, get a fucking dictionary), and satisfyingly refreshing, not in a bland watery way, but in the way that makes you want more, a whole lot more.

So yes the beer is still great, and I shall suitably adorn myself in sackcloth and ashes for having neglected it for so long...might also organise another Czechoslovak Statehood Day bash and buy several cases. The new label though is just fantastic, with the a skyline that looks for all the world like Prague, and folks drinking large mugs, it could almost be the beer garden at Letna, overlooking the Vltava toward Our Lady of Týn on Staroměstké náměstí to the left, and the south tower of St Vitus Cathedral in the castle to the right.

As I said in a previous post about this beer, Port City have this Bohemian style pilsner done right, damn right, and I need to drink more of it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

A Perfect 10

You would be forgiven, if all you drank was American made "Bohemian Pilsners", for believing that pale lagers from Czechia are almost uniformly 14° Plato or above, such is the frequency with which you come across beers with an abv north of 5.5%.

The truth though is that for all the Pilsner Urquell love you get in the craft beer world, and that love is thoroughly deserved for such an iconic, and truly great, beer, the most popular beer in Czechia is Gambrinus 10°. When talking about traditional Czech breweries, it is a pretty solid bet that their top selling beers are also 10° pale lagers, aka "desítka". If you go into practically any standard boozer in Czechia, the kinds that don't have side pour taps, don't fanny about with different types of pours, and where tourists would stand out a mile, if you ask for a "pivo" you will get a desítka.

Last week I got a message from Jace, the GM of the Charlottesville Starr Hill tasting room, telling me that he had a case of Elder Pine 10 Plato Pivo and was happy to share some with me. Having agreed a trade of a couple of cans of Olde Mecklenburg Mecktoberfest and Carolina Keller in return, I picked up the beers last Friday. I say beers, because Jace chucked in a New Zealand style Pilsner that was frankly superb, but I am not going to write about that one.

Obviously though I am writing about the desítka, but first a picture...

Look at the simple glory of that beer, also cool can design, but that beer just looks the part. As much as I love many US made pale lagers, there are times when I feel they are just a touch on the, erm, pale side. Don't get me wrong, they are still fantastic beers, but from the offset with the colour and the voluminous white head and hung around stubbornly, clinging to the glass as I drank, this one felt just plain right.

Now, zoom in on the picture above and read the abv. There is a school of thought that if you times a beer's abv by 2.5 it will give you the starting gravity. Four times two and a half is....that's right, 10, and exactly what you would expect from a desítka in Czechia. So far it looks the part, and the numbers work out right for the part too. Ok, ok, try not to get too carried away here, take a sniff...hay, lemongrass, some floral stuff, and a very subtle bready malt note. Oh god, please don't let this beer fuck it up when I actually drink it...

Hallelujah, no fucked up flavours here! The almost honeyed grain is there, the firm through unobtrusive bitterness is there, the delicate interplay of orange flower hops and the malt is there. Wait, where am I? Am I back in a Černý Most boozer, you know, the one at the bus/metro station, crowded with working men in their blue overalls? Back, nope I am at my kitchen table in Virginia. With duly expected fervour I insist Mrs V try it too...she sips, she nods, she looks at the can..."when are we going to Gaithersburg?". Approval.

It didn't take long for the other cans to make their way into a glass, and subsequently down my throat, and now I want more, a lot more. 

I guess I need to plan a trip to Gaithersburg next time they have this delight available.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Rheinisches Bitterbier

 It's becoming an obsession, really it is.

Ever since Andreas Krennmair suggested the name "Rheinisches Bitterbier" as a name/style for my most recent homebrew, I have been digging around trying to learn more about it. I actually managed to polish off the entire keg with a couple of friends over the weekend, and the final beer looked like this:

I have to admit that I was marginally surprised at just how dark it was, but it was certainly a lovely moreish beer. Towards the end of the keg, the sweetness of the Munich malt had mellowed out a bit, so when I inevitably rebrew it in the autumn, I will lager it as I had previously intended.

Back though to the term "Rheinisches Bitterbier". I mentioned in my previous post that in the early part of the 20th century, the style was listed with "Westfälisches altbier". My research so far has failed to shine much light on the Westphalian Altbier, though I have been able to find some further details about the Rheinisches Bitterbier in some of the German books in Google Books.

According to "Untersuchung von Nahrungs, Genussmitteln und Gebrauchsgegenständen":

Admittedly with the help of Google Translate, my German is o for a general gist, but I wanted to be a little more certain, Rheinisches Bitterbier and Westfälisches altbier are described as:

"These low gravity beers are made like bottom-fermented beers through a vat and barrel fermentation, with a strong addition of hops. They contain 3.64-5.5% extract, 3-4.8% alcohol by volume, and 0.165-0.515% lactic acid"

A confession, the text in red is taking straight from Google translate, and I am not entirely sure by what is meant, though I am assuming they just mean primary and secondary fermentation occurring in separate vessels? What I can say for sure is that we are talking about well hopped, top-fermented, low gravity beer.

Clearly the text above draws heavily on the work of Dr Josef König, who in the 1920 edition of his book "Chemie der menschlichen Nahrungs- und Genussmittel" wrote:

Here König gives another couple of interesting details, including a starting gravity of "9%" which I think would be the equivalent of 9° Plato, or 1.036 in specific gravity. There is also more about the hopping of Bitterbier, "unter starkem Hopfenzusatz bzw von gebrühtem Hopfen zum Lagerfass bei den bitterbieren" meaning that the beer is strong hopped in both the kettle and the lager tank...dry hopping basically.

When it comes to colour and taste perception we turn to volume 4 of "Encyklopädie der technischen Chemie" by Wilhelm Foerst, published in 1953:

My rough translation of this would be:

"Rhenish bitter beer is a top-fermented regular strength beer with a golden yellow color, which is fermented at a fairly low temperature, then lagered at around 6 degrees in the storage cellar and filtered. There is a lot of hops in the brewhouse and hops are also added to the storage barrel ("hop stopper"). This gives it a very aromatic taste."

So here we have a beer that looks very much like a modern Kölsch and is very hop forward, with strong kettle hopping and drying hopping to make a very flavourful beer.

I think then that the beer I brewed would not qualify as a Rheinisches Bitterbier as understood in most of the 20th century.

Interesting from my perspective is that Westfälisches altbier seems to have disappeared from from the books I was digging into, so more research required for sure.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Westfälisches Altbier, oder?

 For the first time in a while I kegged a homebrew at the weekend.

I don't get to brew anywhere near as much as I would like, or as much as I used to, so the kegerator has been loaded with commercial beer for the last few months. Right now though, there is a 5 gallon keg of my own stuff happily conditioning, hopefully for imbibing this weekend.

My brewing these days is mostly in the old "extract and specialty grains" format, though I won plenty of medals with this method and so am not too worried about not doing all grain for the time being. This particular batch though is all extract, because the only malt I wanted was Munich, and Northern Brewer sell just the right size containers of liquid Munich malt extract to give me a starting gravity of 11° (1.044).

In the hopes of minimising potential staleness from the malt extract that had been in the house a couple of  months, I bought fresh Hallertauer Mittelfrüh to hop with, a fresh packet of Wyeast 1007 German Ale, and spent a few hours over a boiling brewpot.

I like Mittelfrüh for the soft sweet spiciness that you get, and all the other classic noble hop characteristics, things like fresh hay, wild flowers, and an earthiness that I am hoping will cut nicely through the Munich malt's toffee sweetness. I added enough to give me about 34 IBUs according to my brewing software, nearly half of which were in the bittering addition.

With the yeast, I always prefer an altbier yeast to a kölsch when doing something vaguely Germanic and top fermented. I don't have the kit to do lager fermentation in the summer, but find that 1007 reacts nicely to my 64°F basement, and finishes dry and clean, kind of like a lager, even without extended cold cellaring. Plus, Kölsch yeasts have a fruitiness that I find distracting.

The beer I kegged up looks like this...

I expect the final conditioned beer to be a bit paler, more in the deep golden/light orange world than the slightly turbid light brown of the sample.

On Twitter, Andreas Krennmair suggested the term "Rheinisches Bitterbier" based on his research which used it as an umbrella term for Düsseldorf Altbier and Kölsch. I did my own spot of digging around into the term and discovered that it was also put together with "Westfälisches altbier" according to Dr Joseph König. His descriptions of these beers are in his section on "German Top Fermented Beers", though he says the Rheinische Bitterbiers are made in the same manner as bottom fermenting beer, at least if my dodgy German isn't failing me horribly here.

König doesn't actually mention the styles that make up Rheinisches Bitterbier, but Andreas' research has them there, though in separating out "Westfälisches altbier" my interest was further piqued, for family reasons. My great-great-great grandfather was reputedly from Germany, at least according to UK census returns from 1871 - 1901, with further research from other parts of the family saying he was originally from Minden in Westphalia. Also in Westphalia is the city of Münster, home of the Pinkus brewery, who brew an altbier that is decidedly lighter in colour than those you find from Düsseldorf, so I wonder if that was the norm in Westphalia?

So from a quick and easy homebrew project, I have stumbled upon some beer history to try and dig in to, and perhaps we need more Westfälisches altbier in the world?

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2021

The end is nigh.

The end of July that is, which means several things. Schools will soon be back in session, already there are sightings of pumpkin ales in the aisles of the supermarket, and it is time for the annual list of beers that constitutes my top 10 Virginian beers of the last 12 months.

Not wanted ado further, let's leap into the list.
  1. Devils Backbone - Czech Pale Lager (5.5%). The beer formerly known as Trukker Ur-Pils was relabeled as Czech Pale Lager. This batch also featured a couple of other changes from previous versions as the brewpub now has an open fermentor and horizontal lagering tanks. Jason also swapped out the usual Augustiner yeast for Weihenstephaner, and it made a difference, being softer, less crackery, but just as delightful a beer. Here was a beer that in my world would more than stand up to the very best pale lagers being brewed in Czechia, including Pivovar Hostomice and Únětický Pivovar, yes it really was that good.
  2. Port City - Franconion Kellerbier (5.0%). Last year's top beer has been just as good this year and would have retained top dog status had Devils Backbone not brough out Czech Pale Lager. This year's version is wonderfully balanced, drinkable, and the perfect accompliment to sitting at the kitchen table working through the garden harvest, shelling peas and drinking Kellerbier makes for a very zen hour or so.
  3. Port City - Helles (5.2%). Every summer I look forward to the release of Port City's superb Helles. This year I actually managed to find it on tap before seeing it on bottles in the shop. I sat at Kardinal Hall on a sunny afternoon and every mouthful was sheer bliss. As you would expect from a Port City beer, the Helles is excellently executed, the sweetness of the malt and the bitterness of the hops working in a delicate balance that makes it so damned drinkable. If I were to have a gripe it's that it doesn't comes in half litre cans and thus on a recent tubing trip we took a different brewery's helles...
  4. Devils Backbone - Alt Bier (5.8%). For a few glorious weeks in early spring, this was my go to beer during several trips down to the original Devils Backbone brewpub. Again this is a beer that has gone up a level since the introduction of open fermentation and horizontal lagering at Devils Backbone. There is a deeper richness to the malt, a fuller mouthfeel as a result of less stressed yeast in the open fermentor, and the clean snappy finish just makes it a beer that needs only 4 or 5 mouthfuls before another is in order. I realise my beer tastes are in the minority, but goodness me I wish this were either a regular part of the lineup, or at least a seasonal that could be reliably on every spring.
  5. Port City - German Pilsner (4.6%). Admit it, you're shocked it took this long to get a German style pilsner on the list. This is as close to a classic German style pilsner being brewed in Virginia as you can get, though only in August when it comes out as part of Port City's frankly superb Lager Series program. This particular pilsner is unfiltered and carbonately naturally so is a bit softer than some other versions, which I really enjoy, especially as the heat of Virginia's summer finally starts to break and the back deck becomes vaguely habitable again.
  6. New Realm - Bavarian Prince Oktoberfest (6.3%). A new brewery on the list. New Realm are the brain child of legendary master of all things IPA, Mitch Steele. In Bavarian Prince they also boast the winner of last year's Fuggled Oktoberfest Champions League, which will likely make a return in a few weeks as the shelves fill up with festbier and märzen for the season. Bavarian Prince, while stronger than most beers I drink, is made with all German ingredients (always a good sign as caramel malts in German beer styles just taste wrong) and insanely easy to pour litre after litre down my throat. I am sure it will take quite some beer to knock it off it's perch this year.
  7. Alewerks Brewing Company - Tavern Brown Ale (5.7%). There are a few weeks in this part of Virginia, usually around the September Equinox when it is overcast, the temperatures are dropping to a pleasant autumnal range, and it rains pretty often. Those few weeks, as reliably as Pavlov's dogs on hearing the ringing of a bell, are when I get the urge to drink brown ale, at cellar temperature, in my Sam Smith's pint glasses. When when urge comes, into the shopping trolley goes Alewerk's outstanding brown ale. If there is a break in the rain, I might even don the old tweed cap and sit outside and just watch the back yard get ever greener. Sweet toffee and subtle bitter chocolate notes, married to a distinct nuttiness, just seem to work perfectly on such days, this is brown ale as it should be in my world.
  8. Devils Backbone - Schwartz Bier (5.1%). I love a good schwarzbier, and there are few on the planet, never mind just in Virginia, that can top the glories of Devils Backbone Schwartz Bier. There are very very good reasons this has won a gold medal at the World Beer Cup, it is a spanking combination of fresh toast with nutella and beautifully floral noble hops, finishing clean, clean, clean. It is simply a delight.
  9. New Realm - Euphonia Pilsner (5.0%). Firstly, I have a confession to make. I was surprised to see this win the Virginia Beer Cup in 2019, and I wasn't wildly impressed when I first tried it, but I came back to it, and liked it more. So I came back to it and liked it even more. Now I like it quite a bit to be honest as it showcases the fact that you don't need to use the latest, greatest trendy New World hops to have a beer loaded with wonderful hop flavour and aroma.
  10. Port City - Rauch Märzen (5.5%). Ah rauchbier, a beer style I love, though preferably when we are talking walloping great doses of rauch rather than weedy "hints of bacon". When I first poured Port City's autumnal offering in my glass I was reminded of the gorgeous Märzen at Spezial in Bamberg, and what a lovely drop of beer it is too. The smoke is very much the heart and soul of the beer, but this is no fire pit. Clean, medium bodied, and with a lingering dryness in the finish that makes me want more, I am sure it will take up plenty of fridge space again this year.
For the first time this year I have decided to hand out a few honorable mentions too:
  • Basic City Brewing - Our Daily Pils (4.7%)
  • Alewerks Brewing Company - Protocol Porter (5.6%)
  • Champion Brewing - Gordonsville Lager (3.8%)
I say this every year, and there is no need to change, this is an entirely subjective list based on my own drinking since the beginning of August 2020, which explains why is it so bottom fermented heavy, I am a lager drinker more than anything else. If you have a Virginia brewed beer that you think is so existentially magnificent I should hunt it out, let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Going for An English - Lager Edition

Pale lager, it's just my thing people.

Whether it's a pilsner, of German or Czech extraction, a Helles, a Maibock, or a Kellerbier, if it's pale and lager I'll give it a bash. Some might draw the line at drinking mass produced pale lagers, but I have a soft spot for Tennent's (if anyone fancies sending me a slab of those beautiful yellow cans, feel free), and from time to time I quite like a Budweiser, not Bud Lite, proper Bud.

English lager is not really a common sight over here in Virginia. Once upon a time our local Wegmans stocked Charlie Wells Dry Hopped Lager, which was ok, but more recently they have started stocking Pure Brewed Lager from that bastion of ale brewing, Samuel Smiths. In one of those spur of the moment things, I picked up a four pack as I had no recollection of ever having tried it, though I did recall that the Tadcaster brewers used to brew under license for Ayinger, so I guess they know what they are doing.

The cans themselves don't really give much away in terms of style, but the beer has an abv of 5% and won a gold medal as an "International Style Pilsner" at the US Beer Open in 2018. In a rare moment of brand consistency, I poured the 16oz can into one of my several Samuel Smiths pint glasses...

Pretty looking beer there, I think you'll agree. However, I have a minor gripe, nucleated glassware often does my head in, you know the kind of thing, glasses with laser etchings on the base that ensure the head is constantly refreshed, I am just not a fan. Next time I try it, I will use one of my standard German beer glasses to get a better sense of actual, unaided, head retention.

So, yes, top marks for looking exactly as a pale lager should do, suitably golden, crystal clear, and all topped off with white foam. That anything in the aroma made it though that mass of foam is a wonder, but there was some lovely floral notes, some grassiness, and the very subtle toastiness of a Vienna malt. The breadiness was evident in the drinking as well, with a lovely lemoniness that firstly put Tettnang hops in mind, but then made me think of lemon curd on toast, minus most of the sweetness of the curd though.

Overall, a very respectable pale lager that put me more in mind of a Helles than that grab bag of naff that is the "International Style Pilsner". Assuming that the 4 pack I snagged at Wegmans on Saturday wasn't the last they will ever have, I still haven't forgiven them for no longer stocking Black Sheep Ale, then this might just become a frequent visitor to the Velký Al beer fridge.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Too Much?

Nelson County in central Virginia is the very definition of bucolic. Rolling, forested hills, the beautiful Rockfish and Tye rivers, farmland aplenty, and not a single incorporated town, the county seat, Lovingston, de-incorporated in 1938.

For a 14 mile stretch of Virginia State Route 151, Nelson County is home to many of the area's local wineries, breweries, a couple of cideries and at least one distillery. From its junction with US-250 to Devils Backbone, about 14 miles, is home to 15 businesses that produce and sell alcohol. Being in such a beautiful part of the world, many of the local wineries in particular have a sideline as events spaces, especially weddings, and local breweries also have live music. In more "normal" times, the area is positively heaving with visitors.

Now it seems that some of the local residents have had enough. Yesterday Mrs V and I went to Devils Backbone again as they currently have the latest iteration of Ein Kölsch on tap, and I noticed a sign on the side of the road, having just turned of US-250, that said, and I paraphrase:

"No more alcohol, event spaces, amplified music, and increased traffic in our rural areas."

I have to admit, and I realise there is a hefty dose of irony here, that I can sympathise with the attitude presented on the sign. Mrs V and I rarely bother with Route 151, other than to go to Devils Backbone, simply because the traffic can be crazy and many of the more popular spots, such as Blue Mountain Brewery and Bold Rock Cider, are often packed before lunchtime. Several places along the road have undertaken projects to increase their parking capacity, even so seeing cars parked along the verge is not entirely uncommon. When I think to when Mrs V and I first moved out here, there were only two breweries on Route 151, Blue Mountain Brewery and Devils Backbone, with about 12 miles of wineries in between, not a single cidery or distillery.

This got me thinking about the point at which all this development becomes a burden rather than a boon to a local area. In 12 years living in central Virginia, I can only remember a single major road works project on Rt 151, otherwise it is still a run of the mill, rural, one lane each way kind of road. According to the Nelson County Comprehensive Plan, this 14 mile bit of road sees an average of 8500 trips per day. Obviously the majority of the traffic is personal cars, though at weekends there will be literally bus loads of booze tourists visiting the area.

It's very easy for us to celebrate the fact that we have such a wealth of options on our doorstep, and very beautiful ones at that. As I mentioned last week, I love going down to Devils Backbone and enjoying superb beers in a frankly stunning location, but would I want to live on this little stretch of road that constantly hums to the noise of the infernal combustion engine? I also have to ask myself the question, how will I feel if the proposed breweries coming closer to my neck of the woods create something similar?

I am not going to propose any solutions, as a few jotted thoughts on a blog post are hardly a suitable substitute for the consideration, planning, and balancing of the needs of various stake holders. Though I can honestly say I feel a sense of understanding for the people putting out signs like the ones referenced above. It's a difficult question for rural areas, how do you balance economic development with maintaining the very idyll that makes an area such a draw in the first place? Is having ready access to excellent beer really worth the added strain on infrastructure, increased noise pollution, and a sense of your home becoming someone else's playground?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Feel the Schwarz

I love doing a comparative tasting. I find that taking a selection of beers from a range of breweries really helps me calibrate my expectations of a given style. Given that part of the aim of a comparative tasting for me is to educate, or often re-educate, my palate on a given a style, I often make sure to have an archetype of the style being tasted in the mix.

A style that I have been keen to do such a tasting for is that Thuringian speciality, bratwurst, no wait sorry, I meant schwarzbier...though schwarzbier and bratwurst could easily be a weekend lunch or dinner.

The archetypal schwarzbier is of course from Köstritzer, and while I have regularly seen it on tap in my local area, only recently has it started turning up in packs of four half litre cans. At the same time, my Schilling Beer Company kick shows no sign of abating, and their Feldberg happened to be on the shelves of Beer Run when I popped in on Friday afternoon. No schwarzbier tasting would be complete without two time World Beer Cup medalist (one gold, one bronze) Schwartz Bier from Devils Backbone.

Having considered doing the tasting blind and ranking the three beers in order of preference, I opted just to drink them sequentially, starting in Germany...

Köstritzer Schwarzbier

  • Sight: dark brown, garnet edged, half inch tan head with decent retention
  • Smell: roasty, mostly well toasted bread, some dark caramel, slightly woody, earthy hops
  • Taste: again toast, not quite burnt toast, but not far off, some coffee, unsweetened cocoa
  • Sweet: 2/5
  • Bitter: 3/5
A good start to the tasting. While it is clearly a "big brewery" product, Köstritzer being part of the Bitburger empire, it is a big German brewery, which usually means the beer will at least be clean, technically proficient, and well made. It might be just a little thin and marginally one-dimensional, but would I drink it happily every day? Why, yes, yes I would.

Schilling Beer Co. Feldberg
  • Sight: dark mahogany, brown highlights, ivory head, good retention
  • Smell: earthy/oaky upfront, milk chocolate, grassy and floral hop aroma
  • Taste: rich chocolate, earthy, petrichor, traces of coffee
  • Sweet: 3/5
  • Taste: 3/5
The Schilling love in continues! This is one nicely balanced beer, rich without being overwhelming, there is something of a coconut character floating about that made me think of Bounty bars. The fuller mouthfeel and more medium body help to make this a more complex, and satisfying, beer.

Devils Backbone Schwartz Bier
  • Sight: near black, garnet edges, half inch light brown head, good retention
  • Smell: deeply bready, some cola, chocolate cake, floral hops
  • Taste: very well toasted bread, espresso, light cocoa
  • Sweet: 2.5/5
  • Bitter: 3/5
There is a reason this beer has a gold medal from the World Beer Cup for the schwarzbier style, it is a damned fantastic beer. Supremely balanced, the body is somewhere between Köstritzer and Schilling, and the finish is long and clean. Beautiful, simply beautiful.

As I said , the aim of this tasting was not to pick out a winner, but rather to calibrate my palate as well as take the opportunity to see where Schilling would stand in relation to the archetype and one of the world's best iterations of the style. Very handily is the answer to that particular question. However, at $7 for a couple of litres of good beer, it is difficult to look past Köstritzer, though it is great to finally have options when it comes to beer to drink with bratwurst...

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

In Praise of the Brewery Steve Built

I learnt this morning through social media that Devils Backbone founder Steve Crandall had died. Now, I didn't know Steve particularly well, having only met him a couple of times, but if you have been a regular on Fuggled for any length of time you will know just how much the brewery he founded means to me. I do count several Devils Backbone folks as friends, and knowing the strong family ethos that permeates the company, I know they are hurting right now.

If memory serves, the genesis of Devils Backbone was Steve, and his wife Heidi, wanting to create something akin to an alpine gasthaus in a part of Virginia that at the time was better known for its wine than its beer. The first time Mrs V and I went down to Roseland I remember the joy of seeing such a beautiful brewpub in some of the finest surroundings I have ever seen. The original building, which is still the beating heart of a much increased venue - they have a distillery, campgrounds, outdoor bar, and probably more stuff since I was last there - was built largely from reclaimed materials. My personal favourite "feature", for want of a better word, is the solid wooden flooring, it is just beautiful.

Over the years that followed, Devils Backbone became something of a regular haunt, indeed at one point I remarked to Mrs V that it was the only local brewery that we had taken all of our visitors too. A fact that is still true, whenever friends come to visit us for the first time, the hour long drive to Devils Backbone for beer and a feed is de rigeur.

I don't believe it would be an understatement that the Virginia beer scene would be infinitely poorer without the work of Steve Crandall and Devils Backbone. They were instrumental in the founding of organisations like the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, as well as the Virginia Craft Beer Cup, which they hosted for the first few years, and won 3 years in a row.

In the 12 years I have lived in Virginia, Devils Backbone have been a staple of my drinking life, and the brewery about which I have posted most on Fuggled. As such, I am incredibly grateful that Steve followed his vision to create a place to drink world class beer in one of the most beautiful parts of Virginia. With that in mind, I will be raising a glass or two of Vienna Lager in his memory.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Introducing...The Dave Line Project

Once upon time, back in the late 1980s, my dad starting making his own beer. Through the hazy fog of time, I can vaguely recall a collection of carboys, airlocks bubbling, as the generally brown liquid fermented away before being racked into large polypins to essentially become cask ale. I don't remember my dad ever really getting beyond the "buying a kit from Boots stage", no doubt something like those still available from Munton's, with a sachet of yeast under the lid, and the kind of thing that was my own first steps into homebrewing.

While I have no recollection of my dad's homebrewing from a taste perspective, I was well and truly underage when my younger brother and I offered to "help" pour beer at dad's 40th birthday bash and indulged ourselves in the illicit nectar when folks weren't looking, one thing that stuck in my brain was a book...

Dave Line's "Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy" was a well thumbed tome during my dad's homebrewing years, and I remember dipping in and out of it as a teenager. There was something intriguing about all these foreign beer recipes, their strange sounding names, exotic ingredients, and in some cases recently revolutionised countries. I couldn't in all honesty tell you what I found interesting about the book, but when I started brewing my own beer back in 2009, I knew I wanted to hunt down a copy of my own, dad's having been lost in any one of a series of moves.

The version that I eventually got my hands on is a revised edition from the 2000s and takes into account changes in the homebrew market in the 25ish years between the original publication and the newer edition. Dave Line himself died in 1980, but I am sure that he would love to see what has become of homebrewing in the 40 years since, and that his books are still available. I also recently bought the the "Big Book of Brewing" for reference, and I love the hand drawn illustrations as well as the wealth of knowledge the book contains. I reveled in homebrew nostalgia, I thought to myself that it would be fun to try and update some of the recipes in "Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy" with a view to actually getting round to brewing again soon (twins, seriously). Thus the Dave Line Project was born, and I am slowly working my way through the book, updating the recipes to modern ingredients and methods.

Being something of a contrary sod (you've all noticed that too right?), I decided to go for a deeply uncool recipe, and what could be less cool than mild? While I was being uncool, I decided that it would be fun to go for a recipe from a much reviled brewery, thus the first beer to get the VelkyAl treatment was Watney Mann Special Mild.

Admittedly I have stuck pretty close to the recipe in the book, though I don't intend on adding hop extracts or saccharin tablets after my boil, and I'll be kegging rather than bottle conditioning. My recipe then is:

  • 77% Golden Promise
  • 17% Invert #3
  • 4% Flaked Barley
  • 2% Molasses
  • 20 IBUs of Fuggles for 90 minutes
  • Safale S-04
For all of that, the aim is to get a beer that has:
  • OG: 1.031
  • ABV: 3%
  • IBU: 20
  • SRM: 8.4° (somewhere between dark gold and pale amber)
I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised by how pale this recipe came out, especially with 17% of the fermentables being from a 50° Lovibond invert sugar syrup. Perhaps I should bump up to invert #4? If anyone reading this recalls Watney Mann Special Mild, let me know what colour it was. My choice of base malt and yeast are simple capricious whimsy, after all the title of the book is "Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy" not "Brewing Beers Exactly The Same As Those You Buy".

If all goes to plan (looking at you twins to cooperate and let daddy find a few hours to get something done for a change), I hope to have the first Dave Line Project beer ready in time for Mild Month, also known as "May". In the meantime, I'll be working on a few more recipes from the book.

Update: based on David's comment about the beer being dark brown, I changed the recipe to use invert syrup #4, and the SRM went to 21°, which is seemingly darker than a red ale, but not as dark as a dunkel, so I think #4 will do the trick.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Old Friends: Devils Backbone Gold Leaf

I spent last weekend camping at the Westmoreland State Park, on the banks of the River Potomac, with my family and our good friends. Whenever we go camping, having a cooler full of beer is a pre-requisite as once all our children are in bed, we stoke the campfire, and enjoy a good drink.

As I was working, it was up to Mrs V to get to the shops for supplies, including at least part of the beer for the weekend. Not wanting to burden her with multiple trips to various shops with the twins in tow, I was more than happy for her to just get a 15 can pack of something, and the first beer that popped into my mind was Devils Backbone Gold Leaf.

Gold Leaf is kind of difficult at times to pin down in terms of style. Sure it is as pale as a German pilsner, but only weighs in at 4.5% abv and is relatively unbitter with 21 IBUs. Sure you could call it a helles, though you would be more in the ballpark of Andechs Vollbier Helles than say Spaten's.

Having had the 15 pack on ice for the best part of the day, it finally came time to have a beer. The kids were suitably knackered from running around and relatively quietly eating their dinner, so pssst went a can and without taking notes or bothering with a glass (the picture is from an old post) we tucked in...

It is quite often that you see people talking about how the context of a beer is important, usually when drinking some mega-swill from a frosted glass on the beach in Greece, but Gold Leaf hit the spot perfectly. Yes, it is a somewhat subtle beer, but those 21 IBUs include judicious amounts of Saaz and Tettnang, giving the beer a lovely floral taste that always makes me think of alpine meadows, replete with all singing all dancing Teutonic maidens in dirndls. 

There is enough heft in the malt side of things to keep it from being watery, and that just aids the refreshment. It took about 3 mouthfuls to polish off the can, and without thinking pssst went another one, and so on, and so on until the 15 were gone, the embers of the campfire were beyond smooring, and sleep beckoned.

An inspired choice then, so huzzah for old friends like Gold Leaf!

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Bauhaus Brauhaus

New England has become something of a theme in my drinking of late. I refer not to the murky swill that is all the rage among drinkers of IPA, a beer trend that I find simply baffling. If I want my fruit juice to be alcoholic, I'll bung in some vodka. Nope, I refer to the gratifying number of breweries from those northern climes who make quality lager, you know, the kind of beers I love.

The current object of my affection is New Hampshire's Schilling Brewing Company, makers of the delightful Alexandr 10° and Palmovka 12° Czech style pale lagers. I recently also had their Augustin 13° polotmavé, which was a very respectable drop, though not one that will take the place of its pale stable mates. The same can not be said for their tmavý ležák, Modernism...

Modernism has a relatively modest abv for most American made Czech style dark lagers, at 4.8%, which if I were back in Czechia I would assume a starting gravity of 12° Plato. This is however no shrinking violet of a beer, packed as it is with the classic flavours and aromas of Czech dark lagers. Yes coffee, yes some cocoa, also hints of cola, and even some sweet Munich notes. Being very much in the modern vein of dark lagers, a hefty wallop of floral, spicy noble hops. Complexity without overdoing it, I approve. Goodness me I like this beer muchly, thank goodness I still have some cans in the fridge, alongside which now reside a 4 pack of Schilling's Landbier Dunkel...

Schilling, in common with that other New England staple in my beer life, Von Trapp Brewing, just don't seem to put a foot wrong at the moment, and this lager boy is most assuredly not complaining.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Head Turning Folks

I created a variant on a popular meme this week, you may have seen it on my Instagram and Twitter accounts if you follow me there, and if you don't the feel free to do so. The meme was this:

It has been a mere 28 days since I wrote a post about a couple of porters that were supposed to be harbingers of a mass porter tasting that I have plans to do. In that post I claimed to be "tasting my way through a rag bag collection of this style over the next few weeks". Needless to say, given the meme and the absolute absence of shock it garnered, that tasting is yet to happen.

Blame Central Europeans, or at least blame lagers brewed in the US that are inspired by the traditional Central European styles that I am an unashamed fan of. Lager boy? Me? Yes, absolutely. Hmmm, do I pick out the Anchor Porter from the fridge or...oh what's that...Olde Mecklenburg Captain Jack Pilsner? You know who's going to win that little battle don't you? That's right, the pilsner, or the dunkel, or the helles, ah heck, good lager is just always going to win for me.

This last weekend I resolved to at least have a couple of porters to get the tasting back on track...oh what's that at Beer Run...?

Folksbier Brauerei from, erm, Brooklyn, were a new brewery to me a few weeks back when I spent some time imbibing their pilsner at Kardinal Hall, and boy did I like it. On a recent trip in to Beer Run they had it in cans, as well as the one above, "Old Bavarian Lager", a helles. As a style, helles is becoming an ever increasingly common sight in the fridge, so I was keen to given OBL a bash..

Definitely looks the part, pouring a nice light golden yellow with a voluminous white head that you could also call rocky. Fighting their way through that resolute cap of foam were aromas of a classic pilsner malt graininess, bordering on a light breadiness, also flitting about were hints of lemon and, perhaps I was imagining it, very subtle melon notes. Tastewise, the bread character came through, offset by a solid though unobtrusive pithy bitterness and that floral character that goes hand in hand with noble hops. Take all that and make sure your carbonation isn't prickly, the body is medium, and the mouthfeel is smooth without feeling cloying, and you have a damned fine helles lager. 

Hmmm...I think when Olde Meck and Port City bring out their summer helles specials, I'll have to get some more of this, and the Von Trapp Helles, for a mass tasting that might actually happen.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Take Comfort

I love comments on blog posts, reminds you that people actually still read this stuff! Admittedly I don't get many comments anymore, but we'll blame that on kids these days having the attention span of a gnat shall we?

On my recent post about mild, a regular commenter on my witterings here, kaiserhog, described a mild ale available in Arkansas as:

"accommodating and relaxing. This may sound silly but it is comfortable. I order at every chance I see it on tap."
I just love the idea of describing beer as "comfortable", in fact it might just be my favourite descriptor of many of my favourite brews.

Think for a moment about comfortable things, like your favourite armchair, slippers, or even cardigan if that is your thing. I guarantee that whatever you thought of is well worn, perhaps a bit battered, but use has seen to it that it conforms to you in such a way as to elicit a deep sigh of knowing.

Comfortable beers are those that you know so well, that have probably been around for a long time, whether in general or just since you started drinking. You know you don't have to think too hard about it, because the beer suits you just right. They are the beers that you likely keep a stash of in the fridge, and maybe you overlook them for weeks on end, but when you come back to them they don't make a fuss, like seeing a true friend for the first time in years.

When you come back to that comfortable beer, it hits you just right, eliciting a deep sign of knowing.

I am sure we all have a couple of beers we would immediately regard as "comfortable", which trigger a deep seated sense of well being, and all being right with the world.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Mad for Mild

American Mild Month may just be one of my more daft ideas.

I am quite happy to own the fact that advocating for a deeply, deeply uncool beer style in the land of hazies, imperials, and pastry stouts probably puts me on the same level of madness as the man who claims to be a boiled egg. Even so, I love mild.

Perhaps it is cruel to refer to mild as uncool in the US, the reality is more likely that it is simply a largely unknown quantity. I have sat at several a brewery tap room bar (remember doing that?) and the barstaff have no idea of what the style even is.

We are perhaps a little lucky here in Virginia that I can think of at least 3 breweries off the top of my head who brew mild, at least 2 of them on a regular basis. Of the 3, I have only tried one, Fast Mail from Ballad Brewing, which made it on to my top 10 Virginian beers last year and is a delightful beer. The others are from the Virginia Beer Company in Williamsburg, and I am yet to try them, though now they are distributing to this part of the Commonwealth I hope to get them soon. The third was an instant drain pour, though I am reticent to blame the brewery given it was on tap at a bar, and folks seem somewhat adverse to ordering mild if they aren't British, or fans of British beer styles. so I don't know how long it had bee sat around.

Speaking of Virginia Beer Company, they are one of American Mild Month's most loyal and vocal supporters and have been almost from the beginning.

What though makes mild such a wonderful style in my opinion? In many ways it epitomises the best of traditional British beer. Most milds, whether dark or pale, have about the same alcohol content of an ordinary bitter, somewhere in the 3%-3.8% range, though there are exceptions. Sessionability is a key factor, this is beer that sure you can have a couple of over lunch, (remember going to the pub for lunch?), but even better to pull an all nighter with in your local.

In order to pull an all nighter though, you need something that will keep you coming back for more, and that's where a well made dark mild comes into its own. Malt complexity is the hallmark of the style, crystal malts, roasted malts, amber malts, brown, chocolate, black, rauch you name it, they all find a place in a mild. My most regularly brewed homebrew mild includes pale chocolate, pale crystal, dark crystal, and a smoked malt on top of the Golden Promise base. Just within dark milds you can run from ruby beers that are sweet, with toffee and caramel notes, all the way to pitch black and lots of coffee and chocolate. There is so much scope for differentiation. My aforementioned mild is very dark, like a fire ruby when held up to the light, whereas the mild I brewed for a friends album release party was much more red, and dripped with honey malt sweetness.

Low alcohol is not an indicator of an absence of flavour, indeed, great milds are incredibly complex and tasty. Perhaps part of the problem is that mild, modern mild at least, is not generally known for being hoppy, and we all know how folks wank obsess over their hops in the craft beer world. This may be an unpopular opinion then, but if a beer drinker only imbibes IPAs of various types then they likely have a pretty one dimensional palate. Given the current rage for hazy, fruity, juicy IPAs, that one dimension is clearly a popular, rainbow inspired candy, how innovative to make it an IPA.

We come then to perhaps the biggest difference between traditional British brewers and the modern craft world. Yeast. The vast majority of US brewers seem to use either a very clean top fermenting yeasts with roots in California, or the very clean fermenting yeast that originated, apparently, in Scotland. Without a distinctive yeast doing the actually turning of wort into ale, you basically have a combination of sweet, bitter, and booze. A characterful yeast adds esters to the mix, and thus you end up with things like the famous Fuller's character that is derived from the yeast, and noticeable to varying degrees in all their beers.

Mild is one of the great misunderstood, misrepresented, and underrated beer styles of the world, and the whole point of American Mild Month is to make May a month of brewers and drinkers giving mild some love, try it, I think you'll love it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

A Thoroughly Good Egg(enberg)

When you say the word "Eggenberg" to me, two breweries cross my mind. Firstly, and probably obviously, is the Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg in Austria, but also Pivovar Eggenberg in Český Krumlov, where I remember having a decent feed and a reasonable dark lager many moons ago, and where took a picture of a Budweiser Urquell sign.

For today's post though I am not heading back to Czechia, but rather about 70 miles south to Vorchdorf and the Austrian, dare I say more internationally renowned, Eggenberg. If you have any interest in strong lagers then chances are that you have tried the magisterial Samichlaus or the beguiling Urbock 23°. Today though we are going to the other end of the spectrum.

Hopfenkönig is Schloss Eggenberg's pilsner style lager, and as you can see from the picture it is very pale, and comes in a half litre can!! Side note, half litres need to be the norm for any lager under about 5.5%, and the more European lager makers send over beer in cans, or participate in B United's cold shipping program, the better.

As is now traditional in my pub drinking I took no notes. On this particular day there was a chill bite to the breeze so my mate Dave and I ventured to a table inside Kardinal Hall...the first time I had drunk inside a pub in almost 10 months. The potted highlights though of the beer were dry and crackery like a German pilsner but with more of a hop presence, approaching maybe even Czech hop levels. I am not sure if "Austrian Pilsner" is a definable, or accepted, variant on the pale lager branch of the beer world, but I would drink a lot of that style if it were.

This got me thinking about Austrian beer in general. From memory, I think I have had a grand total of 4 Austrian beers, this, Samichlaus, Urbock 23°, and Edelweiss, a very refreshing wheat beer that I wrote about back in the Prague days. Austria has a population just shy of 9 million, and those fine people are only just behind the Czechs to the north when it comes to per capita beer consumption. Austrian brewing holds a very important place in the history of lager development with Anton Dreher's creation of Vienna lager in 1841 being the palest lager on earth prior to Josef Groll coming up with the eponymous pale lager of Plzeň. The village of Horn in norther Austria was famed for its "horner bier" a white ale made with malted oats, and likely akin to Berliner Weisse, that was a favourite tipple of Mozart. Yet with all this brewing history, Austrian beer just doesn't seem to make it across the ocean, or even up the road to Bohemia if memory serves.

For all that, I am glad that Hopfenkönig is available at Kardinal Hall, and likely at Beer Run if I fancy doing a more in depth analysis of this delicious beer, it is a serious contender for the Fuggled pale beer of 2021 already. Taking a broader view, if you know of any other Austrian beers available in central VA that are worth a try, let me know, especially if you have a source for Trumer Pils!

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Brown, Robust, English, American?

Once upon a time, according to the BJCP at least, there were 3 types of porter, brown, robust, and Baltic. Baltic porter is, putting on my product manager hat for a moment, out of scope for this particular conversation/project, so really I am thinking about brown and robust.

When you look at the 2008 BJCP guidelines for Porter, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the difference between brown and robust was largely based on the side of the Pond your drink came from. Listed as commercial examples of brown were:

"Fuller's London Porter, Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, Burton Bridge Burton Porter, RCH Old Slug Porter, Nethergate Old Growler Porter, Hambleton Nightmare Porter, Harvey’s Tom Paine Original Old Porter, Salopian Entire Butt English Porter, St. Peters Old-Style Porter, Shepherd Neame Original Porter, Flag Porter, Wasatch Polygamy Porter"

A predominantly English list. Over in the robust corner though was a generally American list:

"Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Meantime London Porter, Anchor Porter, Smuttynose Robust Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Boulevard Bully! Porter, Rogue Mocha Porter, Avery New World Porter, Bell’s Porter, Great Divide Saint Bridget’s Porter"

The current guidelines basically codified the lists as being English Porter and American Porter respectively and the commercial example lists are in essence the same as in 2008.

As I mentioned in last week's post about Fuller's London Porter, I am tasting my way through a rag bag collection of this style over the next few weeks. What started out as not much more than a reason to indulge in a style I have overlooked lately has started to morph into a look at the history of beers called "porter" on this side of the Pond, though more of that when I have something of long read length to inflict on the world.

In the meantime, I am drinking that lays claim to the style's English heritage and one clearly in the American camp, both brewed in Virginia.

Elementary, yeah the name stretches along the top of the label and is thus too long for a simple picture, is a 5.8% English Porter from Harrisonburg's Brothers Craft Brewing, over the mountains in the Shenandoah Valley. Interestingly, their website describes the beer as both an English and robust, what's in a name? In my glass though it looks rather more like a glass of cola, topped with a reasonable half inch of off-white foam. Held up to the light it has very distinct chestnut brown highlights, English, brown, and with monikers. From the glass came a light coffee aroma, think your bog standard Starbucks drip coffee, hints of milk chocolate, toasted brioche, and subtle earthy hops. Upfront in the taste department are the kind of classic roasty notes you come to expect from porters, with that cola thing drifting in and out, mostly though it reminded me of a pale roast coffee with some herbacious hop notes chucked in. I will own that I was disappointed, and perhaps with the Fuller's still fresh in my memory I had expected something approaching the archetype of English porters. I found the finish to be a bit watery and on the light side of medium, it was just kind of dull.

Heading east to Williamsburg, and one of my most trusted, if not most regularly drunk, Virginian breweries. Alewerks Protocol Porter is a tad lower in alcohol than Elementary, 5.6%, and described as being both American and robust on the Alewerks website...more fun with monikers. Oh boy this is a dark, dark, dark beer, swallowing all the available light into a black hole. The ivory head is likewise subject to the gravity of the beer as it dissipates fairly quickly, leaving a mere signatory trace on the glass to remind you it was once there. It's a porter, so the roasty aroma is expected, and it is there in spades, specifically roasted coffee, more in the dark roast realm than a medium. Flitting about in the background, in turns hiding and revealing themselves, were floral and subtle citrus hop notes. Drinking this was like a French roast coffee that you could stand your spoon up in, rich and almost gloopy, but not in a stodgy, syrupy sense, think a rich dark chocolate cake with layers of espresso ganache, and you're there. This is an elegant, smooth, beer that basically demands to be drunk leisurely in an art gallery.

It is clear which of these beers I preferred, but given the remaining clutch of examples in the cellar to be enjoyed, it is too soon to say whether I have a definite preference for a certain sub-style of porter, though my internal league table is currently:

  1. Fuller's London Porter
  2. Alewerks Protocol Porter
  3. Brothers Craft Elementary
How will that change in the coming weeks? We'll see...

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Old Friends: Fuller's London Porter

In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather left rural Somerset and moved to the metropolis to be a porter. Sadly for any tie-in to this tale, he wasn't the kind of porter for whom London's most famous beer invention was named, he was instead a parcels porter for the London and South Western Railway, eventually becoming a Foreman Parcels Porter. Thus it was that the first of my paternal ancestors moved to London, settling first in Battersea, then moving to Merton, and spreading out from there.

I've mentioned before that my dad grew up in Chiswick, just a few miles up the river from Battersea, though on the north side rather than the south, and as such I have a great affection for Fuller's. The fact they make damned good beer helps, obviously. Having already done an Old Friends post for each of London Pride and ESB, it only felt right to complete the hat-trick and pour myself a dimpled mug of the legendary London Porter.

It is perhaps sad to admit to, but it took we a while to decide on which of my various British style pint glasses to use for this tasting. Eventually though, as you can see, I stumped for my nicely old fashioned dimpled mug for no other reason than my own capricious whimsy. For whatever reason my tulips, nonics, and pint pots just didn't seem right.

Anyway, enough of glassware, we are after all more interested in the beer itself. As you would expect from a porter, it is dark, very dark. With the sun streaming through the window it was a deep inky pitch, topped with a half inch of tan foam. There is something about dark beers, top or bottom fermented, that I just find alluring to look at, perhaps it harkens back to my early drinking days of Guinness and Gillespie's? Maybe there is something about the darkness that exudes an air of mystery that isn't really present in pale beers as you look right through and see the other side of the glass? Turning momentarily to face the sun and see the beer with the light coming through, the darkness becomes a deep, deep chestnut brown, flecked with auburn. The foam thinned out a little and then just hung around, clinging to the glass as it went down.

Taking another little side perambulation here, why are porters and stouts invariably "paired" with dessert at the end of yet another unimaginative beer dinner menu? Sure I get it that the aroma often contains chocolate, but chocolate goes great with beef too you know. Chocolate was present here too, a rich dark chocolate in the vein of Bourneville rather than Dairy Milk. I own the fact that perhaps my sense of smell does odd things, but I also get a hint of soy sauce as well as some molasses to add a savoury note to the bitter chocolate. Under all of that is the classic spicy tobacco that Fuggles brings to the table. I have never been a smoker, but sometimes when driving through the tobacco growing region of Virginia between Lynchburg and Danville, I have been known to wind my window down and breath in the smell of the fields. That's what I have in mind when I say Fuggles reminds me of tobacco.

All of that rich aromatic complexity is present in the tasting as well, yes the dark chocolate, laced with Italian espresso, toast, even hints of molasses, and an earthiness that brings an agricultural element to this most industrial of beers. While it is nowhere near as prevalent as in its stable mates, the "Fuller's" yeast flavour is there, loitering with intent behind the goings on in the foreground. 

I am a fan of porter in general, and would love to see Three Notch'd rebrew Blackwall London Porter, the 19th Century style version that I designed, but in Fullers London Porter you have in many ways the archetype of a great modern porter. The luxuriant silky mouthfeel, rich mélange of aroma and flavour, and the sheer ease with which this beer is drunk, quite rightly puts this in the very highest echelons of beery excellence. In the coming weeks I will be drinking a bevvy of other porters alongside the Fuller's to see if any of them can truly ever compare. It promises to be a fun little experiment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

In Praise of Flagships

I will confess that I had completely forgotten about Flagship February until Jeff Alworth tweeted the following:

Despite my forgetfulness, I think celebrating flagship beers is most definitely a good thing.

Flagship beers tell you so much about the brewery behind them, as well as giving the drinker a sense of what to expect from a brewery's core line-up. If the flagship is a well made beer, regardless of style, you can usually be fairly confident that the rest of the range is likely to be worth drinking. The flagship beer is the one that opens the door, builds trust, and carries the persona, for want of a better word, of the brewery.

A prime example of this would be Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, perhaps the most flaghshippy craft beer in the entire craft beer universe, and a very strong contender for being the flagship of craft beer, full stop. When Mrs V and I moved over from Prague to the US back in 2009, I knew I liked SNPA having tried it in Galway, and so I was thrilled to have easy access to what is by any grown up's standards a classic, world class, beer. Having established trust in a brewery, I was happy to spend cash on other Sierra Nevada beers, including at one memorable night at Beer Run doing a side by side comparison of Torpedo on regular CO2 and pulled through a beer engine. Ah those were the days, when Beer Run had a beer engine and regular real ale. I don't drink as much Sierra Nevada beer as I once did, but still 12 packs of canned SNPA are a ready go-to beer, as is Southern Gothic whenever I see it, and as a result of that trust built up I'll try their versions of styles I rarely drink, such as Bigfoot.

When I think more closely on my drinking these days, I find that I drink far more flagships that rarities, special releases, collaborations, or any other such marketing gimmick beers. I am sure that likely says more about me as a drinker than the beer industry, but I actually dread the day when breweries are little more than revolving doors of one-offs.

Flagship beers are statements of identity. They tell you how the brewery perceives itself, and how it wants you, the consumer, to perceive them. Perhaps more so than the calling cards of marketing such as logos, type faces, and colour choices, it is the beer marked out as the leader that defines a brewery.

Of Minnesota Oktoberfests

 At the beginning of this month, Minneapolis based writer Jerard Fagerberg started work at the same organisation as myself. The subject of ...