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.


  1. Having read you blog for 10years plus? I have gone from mild and bitter through to ipa then murky craft ,west coast ipa,neipa and am now firmly in the fruited adjunct stouts.As you still like the Czech style beers are you stuck in a time warp or do the various new styles don't rock your boat.regards

  2. I will try the newer styles when they come along, but I find that very few of them rock my boat and to be honest the standard of central European style beers in the US has gone through the roof in the last 10 years. I find with mild and bitter that if I want those it is better to brew my own, which hopefully I will have more time for this year now that my twin toddlers are old enough to listen and follow directions, kind of.


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