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?

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 ...