Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Fuggled Beer of the Year

 So...I know I originally said that I would add a "Beer of the Year" category to my post on Dark Beers of the Year, but that obviously didn't happen. I decided I just wanted to think a little more of the three category winning beers and decide on an overall winner.

As a reminder, the three category winners were:

  • Pale: Session Pils - Notch Brewing, MA
  • Between Orange and Brown: Alt Bier - Devils Backbone Brewing, VA
  • Dark: Loonar Eclipse - Utepils Brewing, MN

If you have been following Fuggled for much more than 17 seconds, you will know that I love Czech lager. Having lived there for the best part of a decade, and drunk copious amounts of pale lager, whether Gambrinus, Budvar, or Kout na Šumavě, it is an itch that I still want to scratch regularly. While there does seem to be an increasing number of Czech style pale lagers being brewed in the US, there are few that reach the heights of the real thing. Notch Session Pils is such a beer, and I love it all the more for the fact that it is a desítka, brewed to 10° Plato. One of my major beefs with many a US brewed Czech style pale lager is that they are usually in the Speciální Ležák category, which means they are brewed to 14° Plato, thus an ABV in the 5.5% range. I mentioned in the Pale post that were Session Pils available in Virginia it would be in my fridge more often than not, as in pretty much every weekend.

Altbier, like so many of the beer styles that I gravitate toward is something of a rarity in the US. Few of the ur-typs from Düsseldorf make it across the pond, and of those that do, Central Virginia doesn't seem to get much beyond the occasional sticke or doppelsticke from Zum Uerige. That fact is why whenever Jason at Devils Backbone makes another batch of Alt Bier you can guarantee that I will be there for pints, and will be bringing several crowlers of it home. I mentioned in the BOAB post that since the Devils Backbone Basecamp got an open fermenter and horizontal lagering tanks to augment the decoction mashing in completing the authenticity circle, Jason's Central European beers have gone up an additional step, and they were already superb. One of the things that I really appreciate about Alt Bier is that it doesn't have the crystal malt sweetness that so many US versions seem to have. Sweetness from German malts is different in my experience from that of UK and US malts, balanced with a nice dryness that avoids a syrupy slickness, and thus enhances drinkability. The only downside to Alt Bier is that it is not part of the core lineup at Devils Backbone.

Ah tmavé, the family of Czech dark lagers. Not really a style, in that under Czech brewing law you can have a výčepní tmavé brewed to 10° Plato just as much as a tmavé speciální at 15° Plato. Even the term "tmavé" can be a little confusing, meaning simply "dark", and dark lagers in Czechia run the gamut from dark red to pitch black. But don't think there is a stylistic difference between černé (black) and tmavé, there isn't, as evidenced by the ruddy brown of the best selling Czech dark lager Velkopopovický Kozel Černý. I used the Utepils Loonar Eclipse as the tmavé in a recent comparative tasting and it was a revelation, reminding me of a couple of well regarded dark lagers from Prague, U Fleků's legendary 13° and the Autumn Dark from Klášterní Pivovar Strahov. If you were to take a Czech Vánočka and slather it liberally with Nutella, you'd be in the right ballpark. Given my experience of Utepils Brewing beers, I hope to try more of them in the coming year, and should travel become an option again next year (le sigh) I hope to find some excuse to head to Minneapolis and try them at source.

Three beers then that sit perfectly within my wheelhouse. Well made Central European styles, without silliness, no hype ingredients, no "our twist/spin" on daftness in the descriptions, just simple styles made properly, and traditions treated with respect. As my colleague Jerry recently said on Twitter, I am an "old school lager fanatic", and I am perfectly ok being just that. Deciding on just one as my overall Fuggled Beer of the Year is obviously very difficult, but needs must.

The winner then is Loonar Eclipse from Utepils Brewing as it is one of the best examples of Czech style lagers I have had in the US. Tmavé is a "style", for want of a better word, that I feel deeply invested in, as daft as that sounds. Whenever I have a new example of the style I recall conversations I had with Jason at Devils Backbone over a decade ago. While brewing a Czech pale lager we talked endlessly about the Bohemian tradition of dark lagers and lamenting that they were practically unknown in the US. From that conversation came months of multi-lingual research, discovery, and investigation that led to the first recipe I ever designed for a brewery, Devils Backbone Morana. Perhaps it is pure ego, but I like to think that the Morana project, a beer that has been brewed 6 times in the intervening decade, had some small part in tmavé becoming better known, and more regularly brewed, in the US.

Anyway, congratulations to all three finalists, but especially to Utepils! Long may their fine lager brewing continue, and may more of it find its way to me in Virginia.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Fuggled Beers of the Year: Dark

Here at the dark end of the spectrum, life can sometimes feel a little more tricky. For all the pale lager I drink, and I do drink a fair old whack of the stuff, it is the darker beers that I spend more time thinking about. There is something comforting about dark beers, especially in the depths of winter, which is also my favourite time of year, I just love dark nights and cold air.


  • Schwartz Bier - Devils Backbone Brewing
  • Schwarzbier - Port City Brewing
  • Protocol Porter - Alewerks Brewing
So far this year I have done a couple of tastings of schwarzbiers, a style that I seem to have found more of this year than in the previous 11 in the US. I am hoping this is the beginning of a lasting trend as I am big fan of dark lagers in general. In both of the tastings, Devils Backbone Schwartz Bier was my favourite example of the style. It is a beer that I drink pretty regularly and in my opinion is one of DB's best regularly available brews. As part of their Lager Series, Port City have a regular rotation of lager styles, and for some reason I missed the Schwarzbier last year. This year I made sure to rectify that fact and I was very glad that I did, it is pretty much nailed on. Talking about mass tastings of dark beer, earlier in the year I had planned to do such a tasting with porters available in Virginia. It never materialised, other than one combination of Protocol Porter from Williamsburg's Alewerks, a gloriously luxuriant, rich, sipper that makes for wonderful drinking, especially at cellar temperature. Of the three, Protocol Porter is my Virginia Dark Beer of 2021 - I know you are shocked that a top fermented beer beat out a couple of dark lagers, but heck who am I to be predictable?

Rest of the USA
  • Loonar Eclipse - Utepils Brewing, MN
  • Modernism - Schilling Beer Company, NH
  • Trösten - Von Trapp Brewing, VT
Honorable mentions: Landbier Dunkel - Schilling Beer Company, NH; Dunkel - Von Trapp Brewing, VT; Steinbier - Bierkeller Columbia, SC.

Oooo....shock, horror, bottom fermented beers walk it for the best dark beers in the rest of the USA. It is perhaps truly shocking that two of the three are Czech style dark lagers (sorry I can't do the whole pluraling of tmavé by just adding an "s"), shocking in the sense that finally the American craft beer world is waking up to the reality that tmavé is distinct from dunkel and schwarzbier. Both Loonar Eclipse and Modernism are excellent examples of the category - style is not really an accurate term to describe the tmavé family. If either of those were served in Czechia, they would be very, very well regarded. Trösten is something of a rarity when it comes to rauchbiers in the US, it is actually nicely smoky rather than just having a "hint" of smoke, "hints of smoke" rauchbiers just do nothing for me. On draft, this offering from Von Trapp Brewing in Vermont is a delight, again especially when you let it warm a little to unlock all the complexity of the beer. The winner of the best Dark Beer in the Rest of the USA for 2021 is one of my favourite types of beer, from a brewery that is new to me, and everything I have had from them has been fantastic...Utepils Loonar Eclipse it is!

Rest of the World
  • O'Hara's Irish Stout - Carlow Brewing, IE
  • Foreign Extra Stout - Guinness, IE
  • London Porter - Fullers, UK
Honorable mentions: Köstritzer Schwarzbier - Köstritzer, DE; Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock - Brauerei Heller-Trum, DE.

A final three entirely devoid of lager? Whom am I? What have I done to myself? Fullers London Porter is for many the archetype of what a porter should be, and while I don't really drink it often, it is always a delight. There is something alluring about the classic range of porter flavours, you know all that coffee and chocolate stuff, coupled with the signature Fullers yeast marmelade thing, it just works. Both the O'Hara's and Guinness are tied to one of my favourite drinking sessions of the year. Back in October I went up to Rhode Island for my best mate's birthday weekend. On the Sunday morning we were sat in an Irish pub for brunch, and they had O'Hara's on tap. The pints were going down very well, when I noticed the pub had bottles of FES...such a classic beer that makes me wish that regular Guinness was available without the abomination of nitro. The winner though is the Fullers London Pride, an old friend that never disappoints.

Two porters and a tmavé to choose from for the 2021 Fuggled Dark Beer of the Year, but in the immortal words of Connor McLeod, there can be only one...and that one is from the dark north of Minnesota. I wish Utepils were available in Virginia in general as I would love to try the rest of their selection given how impressed I was with both the Receptional Oktoberfest and Loonar Eclipse. Any beer that reminds me of a beer I loved back in Czechia has to be good, especially when those memories are of the Autumn Dark Special from Klášterní Pivovar Strahov, that should tell you just how good Loonar Eclipse is.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Fuggled Beers of the Year: Between Orange and Brown

Darker than pale, lighter than dark brown is something of a mouthful, hence I renamed this part of the annual review of year simply "between orange and brown". Still suitably vague and subject to my capricious whimsy, but "BOAB" is less of a painful acronym than "DTPLTDB". Onwards then to the runners and riders...


  • Franconian Kellerbier - Port City Brewing
  • Alt Bier - Devils Backbone Brewing
  • Fest! - Beltway Brewing Company
Honorable mention: A Stone in the Woods Brown Ale - Patch Brewing Company.

I know dear reader you are shocked that the best three BOAB beers of 2021 are examples of German style beers. While it is true that I didn't drink as much Franconian Kellerbier this year compared to last, it was just as fantastic and went just as well with harvesting chores like shelling peas. For about a month in the late spring and early summer of this year, Devils Backbone had their Alt Bier on tap, and every weekend for about a month Mrs V and I would traipse down, often with friends, and sit in the sunshine with half litres of frankly gorgeous Düsseldorf style beer. Fest! was the winner of the Virginia section of my annual Oktoberfest tasting, and was a rich, nailed on märzen that would have been the overall winner but for a beer we'll mention later. While it is difficult to separate out a winner from these three, and it is the one I am happy to drive 75 minutes to get a few pints of...Devils Backbone Alt Bier.

Rest of the USA
  • Receptional - Utepils Brewing, MN
  • Munzler's Vienna Lager - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC
  • Vienna - Von Trapp Brewing, VT
Honorable mentions: Copper - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC; Oktoberfest - Sierra Nevada Brewing, CA/NC; Celebration - Sierra Nevada Brewing, CA/NC.

When my colleague Jerry Fagerberg sent me a selection of Minnesota Oktoberfest lagers the name Utepils rang bells from somewhere, somewhere I still can't place. Receptional came top of my MN Oktoberfest league, and it was a fantastic, fantastic beer, a beer I would happily drink all year round given half the chance. In each of the last handful of years I have wanted to try Olde Meck's spring seasonal Vienna Lager, Munzler's, and finally this year I made it to the brewery in time. I was so glad that I finally got to try another example of an excellent lager from Charlotte's finest. Von Trapp are an old faithful brewery, a regular in the fridge, and as such it is all too easy to take them for granted. As a permanent part of their line up, Von Trapp Vienna is quite possibly to my mind the best regularly brewed Vienna lager in the US, as such it wins the best BOAB beer in the US for 2021.

Rest of the World
  • London Pride - Fullers Brewery, UK
  • Oktober Fest-Märzen - Privatbrauerei Ayinger, DE
  • Eiszäpfle - Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus, DE
Fullers in bottles is a fairly common sight here in Virginia, and Kardinal Hall seems to have it in that format regularly, and I enjoyed several throughout the year. Recently though they had it on draft, not cask sadly but such is life, and so it was a no-brainer to go get some, and it was just perfect, once the chill of an American draft line had worn off. Oktoberfest season is when I get excited for the Fest-Märzen from Ayinger. Sure it's an outlier in terms of German "Oktoberfest" lagers but I love the big malty chewiness. The only downside was finding a mere pair of four packs in the store during the appropriate season, and then only 330ml bottles, where were the half litre bottles this year? I didn't know that Rothaus have a year round märzen, Eiszäpfle. Now I do, and now I want to see it in the store year round and not just in the late summer, early autumn, delicious. Of the three, the plaudits, and title of best BOAB beer in the rest of the world for 2021, return to the UK for a second year running with Fuller's London Pride.

Three absolutely cracking beers, but in this case the local hero wins hands down. Since Devils Backbone got an open fermenter and horizontal lagering tanks to complete the authenticity circle when it comes to their central European style beers, everything has gone up a level, from excellent to just plain perfect. Altbier is one of those styles that I wish we saw more properly made iterations of here in the US, and the fact that one of my locals brews it at least once a year makes this Germanophile a very happy camper indeed. Well done Devils Backbone Alt Bier for being the BOAB beer of 2021!

Monday, December 13, 2021

Fuggled Beers of the Year: Pale

As Yule swiftly makes its approach, the time has come to reflect on the year's drinking and give some shout outs to the beers that I have enjoyed the most in 2021. As in previous years I will have three posts:
  • Pale - basically anything that is yellow or gold
  • Darker that Pale Lighter than Dark Brown - running the gamut of oranges, reds, and browns that you can easily see through
  • Dark - dark brown or black
As ever I will offer up the three best examples from Virginia, the US, and the World, as well as any honorable mentions, and then pick a winner in the category. In the final post, I will add an overall Fuggled Beer of the Year. Let's dive on in with pales then...

  • Optimal Wit - Port City Brewing
  • Our Daily Pils - Basic City Brewing
  • Ein Kölsch - Devils Backbone Brewing
Honorable mentions: Downright Pilsner - Port City Brewing; German Pilsner - Port City Brewing.

Unlike last year, the best Virginian pale beers of 2021 are not all from a single brewery, or even from a single family of beers (Port City pale lagers dominated last year). That's not to say that standards have slipped at Port City, but just that this year I have enjoyed other beer styles, and in the case of Optimal Wit come back to a beer I would have from time to time, to discover that it hit my zeitgeist perfectly for a while. As such, the Fuggled Pale Virginian Beer of 2021 is Port City's award winning Optimal Wit, a more perfect witbier in the US is difficult to imagine, and yes that includes Allagash White.

Rest of the USA
  • 10° Plato Pivo - Elder Pine, MD
  • Session Pils - Notch Brewing, MA
  • Captain Jack Pilsner - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC
Honorable mentions: Pilsner - Von Trapp Brewing, VT; Helles - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC; Leichtbier - Bierkeller Columbia, SC; Carolina Keller - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, NC; Nordertor - Schilling Beer Company, NH; Landbier - Schilling Beer Company, NH; Old Bavarian Lager - Folksbier, NY; Alexandr - Schilling Beer Company, NH.

2021 has been a stellar year for pale beers from the rest of the USA, as evidenced by the number of honorable mentions, any of which could easily have made it into my top three. Of the top three, Captain Jack is the single most common Olde Meck beer I drink, Notch's Session Pils is something I have long wanted to try, and it more than lived up to expectation, and Elder Pine's desítka was a unexpected delight. The winner though of the best pale beer in the rest of the USA is actually pretty simple, Notch's magnificent Session Pils. If they are ever regularly distributed in Virginia, it would become very quickly the staple pale lager in my fridge, it is that good.

Rest of the World
  • Únětické Pivo Nefiltrované 12° - Únětický Pivovar, CZ
  • Hopfenkönig - Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg, AT
  • Icelandic White Ale - Einstök Ölgerđ, IS
Honorable mentions: Radler - Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg AT; Plzeňský Prazdroj - Plzeňský Prazdroj, Plzeň, Czechia; Jahrhundert Bier - Ayinger Privatbrauerei, DE; Arctic Lager - Einstök Ölgerđ, IS.

One of my beer highlights of 2021 was being able to get a case of Únětický Pivovar's lovely 12° Czech pale lager from Beer Run, and then to have a Czech night by pairing it with half a roast duck and cabbage. Sitting at the beach in Florida come summer though, and it was an Icelandic witbier that more that scratched the itch for something pretty light, tasty, and refreshing to cut through the heat. I actually feel as though I should drink Einstök Ölgerđ's beers more in general as they are all excellent in my experience. The winner though of the best pale beer from the rest of the world is the unexpectedly delightful Hopfenkönig from Austria's Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg, probably better known for Samichlaus. If Austrian pilsner is a thing, then it falls somewhere between it's Bohemian and Bavarian cousins, making Hopfenkönig a go-to beer whenever it is on tap at Kardinal Hall.

It is so rare that a beer lives up to the hype that gets generated around it. I remember being a little let down the first time I had Porterhouse's Oyster Stout for example, but the overall pale beer winner more than bucks that trend. The first time I drank Notch Session Pils was in Rhode Island, visiting my best mate who has recently moved up there. We had finally managed to find a 12 pack, but it was a couple of months past it's best before date, yet still it was fantastic. When my mate returned the trip by coming to Virginia for my birthday, he bought with him a fresh 12 pack, and it was a revelation, a truly perfect Czech style pale lager. Kudos then to Notch Brewing up in MA and their magnificent Session Pils for being the Fuggled Pale Beer of 2021.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Come to the Schwarz Side

One of the reasons I had all the necessary dark lagers to do the dunkel-tmavé-schwarzbier triumvirate tasting in a previous post was because I have been stashing schwarzbiers since the end of October to do a distinctly schwarzbier tasting. My planned set of examples was complete when Mrs V and I headed back from South Carolina after Thanksgiving, picking up a couple of six packs of Olde Mecklenburg's Solar Eclipse that her cousin had put aside for me after one of his trips to Charlotte.

My collection of German style black lagers then was:

For those of you playing along at home, you may recall that I did a small schwarzbier tasting with three of these beers back in May, Devils Backbone, Köstritzer, and Schilling, but given examples from another couple of my go-to breweries, a do over seemed appropriate. Let's dive on in...

Köstritzer Schwarzbier
  • Sight - pitch black, dark brown edges, firm ivory foam, nice lacing
  • Smell - roasty, caramelised sugar, dark toast, some spicy hops
  • Taste - cold espresso, light cocoa, clean hop bite
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
There is a reason this is a classic, perhaps even the ur-typ of the style. It is freaking delicious, smooth, balanced, really easy to drink, and just reliable in the way that all the best archetypes are. It is perhaps a tad thin in the finish, but I quibble.

Devils Backbone Schwartz Bier
  • Sight - black, garnet highlights, solid ivory head
  • Smell - rich coffee, toasty, generally roasty
  • Taste - French roast coffee, sachertorte, clean hop bitterness
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
This beer has won multiple awards and for good reason. Sure it is a touch heavier than the Köstritzer, but it is just as smooth and drinkable. I have to admit that I go through times when this is a very regular part of my drinking, it just hits every note on the nail. Fun fact, my notes on this one are very close to when I took notes in May. Also, it makes an excellent řezané with Devils Backbone Gold Leaf.

Schilling Feldberg
  • Sight - black, red highlights, tall ivory foam
  • Smell - molasses, subtle coconut, toasty
  • Taste - medium roast coffee, light molasses, dates
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Another smooth bodied, tasty black lager. Schilling really have become something of a go-to brewery for this lager boy, when their beers actually make it to the central Virginia area. If there was one downer with Feldberg, and this may be a product of age, the finish felt slightly muddled, lacking a crisp snap that I usually associate with lager.

Port City Schwarzbier
  • Sight - inky black, dark brown edges, thinnish off white foam
  • Smell - well toasted bread, not burnt but well toasted, coffee hints, some treacle
  • Taste - espresso, light molasses, spicy hops
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Port City make some of my favourite lagers, and their schwarzbier is definitely a good example of the style, if just a tad bit astringent in the finish. Speaking from pretty recent experience, it does make a fine beer round the firepit of an evening.

Olde Mecklenburg Solar Eclipse
  • Sight - dark brown, garnet at edges, thin off white head
  • Smell - light coffee, dark toast, spicy hops
  • Taste - toasty, think märzen but with extra deep sweetness and toast, lots of Munich malt?
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
I have to be honest, this one confused me from the get go as is poured so much paler than the others, I am not sure I would call it schwarz in any meaningful sense of the word. So confused was I that I checked out the BJCP style guidelines, which read:
Medium to very dark brown in color, often with deep ruby to garnet highlights, yet almost never truly black. Very clear. Large, persistent, tan-colored head.

Seemingly the colour is fine then, though every black lager I have had up until that point had been distinctly schwarz, as the GABF guidelines would expect, "dark brown to black". Even so, another cracking beer from the folks in Charlotte.

There we have it then, 5 excellent examples of one of Germany's most ancient beer styles. While I wasn't intending this tasting to rank the beers, there were two that stood out, Köstritzer and Devils Backbone. The others were all very good beers, but those two just had a little something more that appealed to me, and thankfully both are regularly available in this neck of the woods.

If I see more breweries making this style I will likely repeat this tasting and see if anything can match up to the original and the local hero.

Homebrew - Cheaper than the Pub?

The price of beer has been on my mind a fair bit lately. At the weekend I kicked my first keg of homebrew for the 2024, a 5.1% amber kellerb...