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.

Of Minnesota Oktoberfests

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