Wednesday, November 17, 2021

All Consuming Darkness

Back in 2010 I wrote a post on the old RateBeer forums advocating for Czech tmavé to be recognised as a distinct beer "style" rather than simply lumped together with schwarzbier or dunkel. While I no longer bother with RateBeer or BeerAdvocate, and have never bothered with Untappd, it was interesting this morning to look at those sites and see how tmavé is being categorised in each instance. Ratebeer, seemingly in keeping with the consensus on the thread from 2010, has a broad "Dark lager" category, with dunkle and tmavé bracketed together. Over at BeerAdvocate, most versions of tmavé are seemingly put in one of the "Schwarzbier", "Munich dunkel", or "Lager - European Dark" categories. Untappd would seem to be the most simplistic option, going for just "Lager - Dark".

I don't want to rehash the arguments about whether Czech dark lagers are a unique beast when compared to their German counterparts, though I will continue to maintain that they are. The history of dark beer in Bohemia is fascinating, with it seeming that unlike their Bavarian neighbours, the Bohemians were top fermenting their dark beers until the very cusp of the 20th century. If you have ever had U Fleků's wonderful 13° lager you will know just how similar it is to a modern day stout. In the early years of the First Republic, the oldest brewery in České Budějovice (hint, it isn't Budvar) was advertising a dark beer with the name "Původní Českobudějovický Porter", or "Original Budweiser Porter". If I remember rightly, said beer was brewed to about 13° as well.

Sitting by our new firepit on Sunday afternoon, watching the twins charge around like maniacs, it occurred to me that I had examples of all three dark lager styles in my fridge. Do a tasting I thought, do a tasting I did! My three dark lagers were:

Starting at the beginning, to one of my favourite things...

Ah Von Trapp, goodness me how I love their on point lagers. Dunkel is, as if the name itself is not a hint, dark brown, with glints of garnet when held up to the light. The foam is firm, light tan, and doesn't disappear entirely as you drink. In one of my half litre krugs, it is a mighty damned fine sight. Ok, aroma, crusty toast, not burnt but definitely well toasted, with a light hop spiciness floating around in there too, think a märzen style Oktoberfest lager with more Munich malt oomph and you're not far off. The complexity of the malt really becomes evident when you finally stop looking and sniffing. Rich with toffee, toast, and subtle cocoa hints, there is a nice clean hop bitterness that cuts through it all, leaving the finish dry and moreish. Of the many dunkels I have enjoyed over the years this is one of the best, and one day I will get to Vermont to drink it at the Von Trapp Bierhall.

If Utepils beers were ever distributed to Virginia I would likely be a very happy man. As it is, I am grateful to my colleague Jerry for shipping this nectar to me, which likewise makes me a very happy man. Loonar Eclipse is their Czech style tmavé, which at 5.1% abv is likely to be a 13° Plato beer, and thus right in line with the U Fleků urtyp. It felt appropriate to pour this into my Purkmistr půllitr mug, and pour a very, very dark brown it did. The highlights were deeper than in the dunkel, gleaming like polished mahogany, topped with a healthy inch or so of dark ivory foam. Making their way gamely through the head were aromas of light coffee, a little unsweetened cocoa, and herbal hops, the nose was on the nose. One mouthful and I was transported to days drinking tmavé in Prague, in particular the autumn special from Klášterní Pivovar Strahov. Those coffee and cocoa notes were present in the flavour department too, joined by a bit of cola, and rich crusty, and slightly nutty, bread, almost like mazanec. Just plain lovely is what it is, beautifully rich and smooth, with a clean finish from the hops and fermentation character. My best friend is coming to visit this weekend, so we'll share the remaining pair of cans by the firepit.

Changing up the glassware for the third time, I poured the Port City Schwarzbier into my Chodovar Salzburg High mug, and living up to its name, this was black, black, black, with dark brown edges. The foam was again nice and healthy, but a touch darker than the previous beers, still it clung around for a while. The dominant aroma here was a combination of dark toast and espresso, backed up by a hint of cola. Again, the flavours paired up nicely with the aromas to be deeply rich layers of coffee, dark toast, a general roastiness, and a slightly herbal hop bite to keep everything in balance. Damn if this ain't a fine execution of the style. When I get back from South Carolina for Thanksgiving, I will be doing a comparative tasting of schwarzbiers, and with this teaser I am very much looking forward to it.

So, coming back to the original theme, this little experiment has me satisfied that dunkel, tmavé, and schwarzbier are distinct "styles", for want of a better word. Yes they are clearly similar, but I think that the differences in ingredients as well as flavour and aroma profiles show that the differences are sufficient to celebrate each in their own right. Of course, the challenge here with tmavé is that under Czech brewing law it can be 8° as much as it can 18° - though not above that, then it becomes a "Porter", such are the joys of trying to shoehorn Czech brewing traditions into an Anglo-American taxonomy, which applies just as much to světlé and polotmavé as to tmavé.

To thoroughly bastardise the maxim of Karl Barth..."let pivo be pivo"

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Young and the Old - IPA Edition

12 days earlier than the norm and central Virginia has had its first frost. Samhain has barely come and gone, and already the Yule beers are starting to appear on the shelves. We are at the cusp of that most cultural warfare of times....the Holidays. 

It is around this time that I also perform an annual ritual, that of buying a 6 pack of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale to drink a couple of and blithely forget about until this time next year.

I have a personal heresy when it comes to Celebration Ale, I think it is better with a year in the cellar to allow the fresh/wet/green/choose a descriptor hops to tone down a bit. I realise that kind of defeats the purpose of it being a "fresh hop ale" or in this year's case a "fresh hop IPA". At 6.8% abv, Celebration Ale does actually fit quite nicely within the definition of an Old Ale, even the 65 IBUs aren't wildly out of keeping with the style guidelines as promulgated by the BJCP. Sure a year sitting in a cellar is not long enough to really get some of the old ale characteristics associated with the style, you know all that oxidation, lactic, Brett, kind of stuff, but what about a decade?

As I was pottering around in the cellar the other day, mainly wondering why on earth I have so many growlers, and how to dispose of the vast majority of them, I discovered a bottle of Celebration Ale from 2011. A bottle so old that it's original cellar was the outside storage room of Mrs V and I's first abode in Virginia. A bottle so aged that it is now on its third US president, and was in the cellar before I last went to France to stay with my parents, when they lived there, for Christmas, and when I did a comparative tasting of fresh and aged Orval. I also noticed that I still have bottles from 2019 and 2020 floating about, but there was something more appealing about the direct 10 year comparison than doing fresh, 1 year, 2 year, and then 10 year old versions. I started with the fresh...

The autumnal sunlight streaming through the door to our deck made the copper liquid glow, flashing amber highlights at the edges of the glass, all topped off with a steady, persistent half inch of just off white foam, god it's a lovely looking beer. From experience of preferring it with a little age on it, I didn't bother to top up my pint dimpled mug with another can. Without even having to get the glass close to my nose, the hops are evident, all those classic American "C" hop aromas just bursting all over the place. Masses of grapefruit, pine resin, lots of pine resin, and spicy undertones, quite the heady brew. Ok, let's drink this...bracingly bitter, bracing, like jumping into a cold pool after a banya in the Belarusian countryside. Next time you have a grapefruit, eat the peel and the pith and you'll get what I mean, this is ripping citrus, and somewhere underneath it all is a toffee malt sweetness, not enough to give even the merest semblance of balance, but it's there. This is a brute of a beer, big, bruising, and powerful...I hope being in cans now means it won't stay the same after a year in the cellar.

With such a walloping mass of flavours to process, and the fact dinner needed to be made, twins put to bed, and all that jazz, it was a few hours later, and darker, that I got to the 2011 bottle.

Straight off the bat, the size of the head surprised me a little, I expected it to be more of a schmeer than the half inch it was, well at least there was still life there. Lacking sunlight, the amber highlights were only really noticeable when held up to the kitchen lights, but the deep copper was very similar to the young version. Ten years of sitting around had obviously impacted the massive hop aroma, though pine resin and grapefruit were still heavily involved. In the mix now was a stone fruit character that I really didn't expect, as well as a subtle sherry thing, which I kind of did. The years though have been kind to the malt, a fuller, richer malt flavour is present now, like dulce de leche spread on fresh from the oven scones. There is still a pithy bitterness, but it too has calmed down, though I expected it to have calmed further, even so this is a remarkably hop present beer for its age.

I still have most of the 6 pack of 2021 Celebration Ale in the cellar, will any of it make it to 2031? Who knows? If somehow I manage to ignore a beer for another decade, then at least if this experiment is any indicator, it'll still be a good, bitter, old ale when the time comes.

All Consuming Darkness

Back in 2010 I wrote a post on the old RateBeer forums advocating for Czech tmavé to be recognised as a distinct beer "style" rat...