Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Märzen/Festbier Review

So far this year I have drunk at least 53 examples of lager made wiith Oktoberfest in mind. I say "at least" because there are a couple that I didn't subject to my rigorous scoring system, rather just got merrily blattered with friends and I didn't want to be rude.

I still have 13 examples of märzen and festbier in my various beer fridges, including a slew of Texans sent up by Ruvani, aka Amethyst Heels, so I hope to get round to drinking those and probably posting about them at some point later this month.

Rather than present a massive list of breweries, beers, and scores, I figured I'd use the general format of my annual "review" posts, where I highlight the top three beers in the following categories:

  • Virginia
  • Rest of USA
  • Rest of the World (let's be honest it's just Germany in this case)
Out of those beers I will then select a winner in each category and eventually an overall "Fuggled Oktoberfest of the Year" award that has no monetary value, and probably a miniscule amount of shock value.

Let's get started here in Virginia then:
  • Devils Backbone Brewing - 1872 Steinlifter
  • Ballad Brewing - Oktoberfest
  • Port City - Oktoberfest
It's probably not wildly surprising that Devils Backbone and Port City make it into this three given that I think they are two of the best lager brewers in Virginia, Ballad though was something of a surprise. I have enjoyed a few of Ballad's beers in recent year, most notably their Fast Mail mild ale - one of the few milds in Virginia that is a core beer, but I couldn't recall having a lager from them, it was a very pleasant surprise. Although I wasn't shocked by Devils Backbone making the finalists, the fact that it was their 1872 Steinlifter rather than O'Fest was interesting. Steinlifter is an old school 19th century style märzen where O'Fest is a modern, paler, festbier, and you won't find Steinlifter in any stores as it was a brewpub only beer. Port City's Oktoberfest is, in common with most of their beers, an excellent example of style and technique. It is not as heavily malty as some märzens that get made over here, but it is delightfully complex and moreish at the same time. However, the beer going forward to represent Virginia in the final three is Devils Backbone 1872 Steinlifter.

On then to the rest of the US, here we have:
  • Von Trapp Brewing (VT) - Oktoberfest
  • Bierstadt (CO) - Oktoberfest
  • Jack's Abby (MA) - Copper Legend
The most  telling thing with these three is actually the names of some of the breweries that missed the cut, the likes of Olde Mecklenburg, Harpoon, Bell's, and TRVE Brewing were all up there in the running. Both Von Trapp and Jack's Abby are readily available in this part of Virginia, and when it comes to Vermont's finest I am always happy when I see the flash of blue that denotes their märzen. In the absence of Sierra Nevada's Oktoberfest Amber Märzen, Von Trapp picked up the slack and became my go to beer for the season. I had the Bierstadt Oktoberfest when I was over in Denver last month, and in common with the other lagers I tried from them, whilst geeking out on the glorious brewing system, it was excellent, and thankfully not overwhelmingly malty. Jack's Abby have only recent bee available in Virginia, and so I am slowly making my way through their range, and again it was an excellent example of the older märzezn style, and eminently drinkable. However, Von Trapp takes the plaudits as the Best of the USA. mving on to the final three.

  • Rothaus - Eiszäpfle
  • Ayinger - Oktober Fest Märzen
  • Weihenstephaner Festbier
Yeah, yeah, I know, there is not a single official Oktoberfest beer in my list, but there is a reason for that, they are all too syrupy for my taste. Even though Eiszäpfle is a year round beer in Germany, it only makes its way to the US in the autumn, which you could argue is just plain cynical marketing, but when a beer is this tasty, who really cares? Ayinger, which is the current Fuggled Oktoberfest champion, is the single most hunted out beer at this time of year for me. Last year I managed to only get a single 4 pack, so I took no chances this year, buying and stashing a couple of 4 packs a week while it lasted. Decidedly old school in its thick, chewy maltiness, it is wonder beer regardless of which autumnal or winter month it is. Weihenstephaner Festbier is unrepentantly modern, pale, noticeably hoppy - got to love those noble hop grassy, lemony, and subtle spice notes - and it looks grand in a maß. For fear of being labelled boring, the Ayinger takes the plaudits here, and was actually the highest scoring beer of the 53 examples I had.

The three finalists all scored over 34 out of 40 in my ranking system, with Ayinger scoring 35, Devils Backbone 34, and Von Trapp also 34. Rather than just declare Ayinger the winner though, I wanted to think a little about the drinking experience a bit more. In terms of volume drunk, Von Trapp has been the most regular visitor to my fridge, followed by Ayinger, and then Devils Backbone - don't forget though that Steinlifter was a brewpub special, and thus I had that on draft there and a couple of crowlers that I brought home. Ultimately I think is comes down to which beer did I enjoy the most, and the winner therefore is Devils Backbone 1872 Steinlifter. It has all the malt complexity of the Ayinger, but was more drinkable, perhaps by virtue of being fresh from the serving tanks at the brewpub, but either way it was an absolute delight.

Friday, October 21, 2022

TRVE and Golden

I've been home from Colorado for almost a week now. The twins have turned five, developed attitudes, ahem I mean "personalities", and I haven't found the requisite few minutes to mention the other breweries I visited while at the foot of the Rockies. If you are here looking for my thoughts on Bierstadt, with a side note about Reverence, and Cohesion, you have come to the wrong post.

The day after our colleague gathering at Cohesion, it was planned that the team I am part of would have our quarterly planning meeting at TRVE Brewing (pronounced "true" I am informed) before heading out to Golden for the company retreat that formed the second half of my week. On looking up the brewery on Google Maps, the entry claimed that they opened at 3pm, which was problematic as our meeting was scheduled to start at midday. My original plan had been to Uber over there with a colleague, but things transpired that I just fancied walking the mile and a half, with my backpack slung over my shoulders as I had to also check out of my hotel. By the time I made it there, and discovered to my delight that Google was wrong and the brewery's website was right that they open at 11am on Wednesdays, I needed a beer...

Now, I am sure there are some who must wonder why I am constantly drinking pale lagers of some provenance, rather than the latest, hypest, hazy IPA that looks like sheep phlegm topped with shaving foam. They are just my sweet spot, and they tell you how good a brewer actually is as you can't hide flaws, so if a brewery has some form of pilsner, helles, Dortmunder, or just plain old pale lager on tap, that will invariably be choice one. In the case of TRVE, it was an excellent indicator, clean, crisp, beautifully bitter, "Cold" is their kellerpils and it was simply lovely. Also delicious was Xtra Good, a collaboration with Austin's fantastic Live Oak Brewing. Xtra Good is a light lager made with corn grits, and really highlighted that light lager need not be flaccid and boring, it was superb. The highlight though was "Bloodaxe" a "Nordic Farmhouse Ale" made with orange peel and grains of paradise, dropping a fairly hefty 7% abv into your bloodstream. Not something I would usually go for, but so good were the kellerpils and light lager, I figured I'd give it a bash and it was well worth it.

Unrelated to the beer, TRVE tout themselves as a "metal" brewery meaning the soundtrack to our team meeting was a eclectic mix of speed and death metal - I loved it. With the meeting wrapped up, it was time to head out to Golden for the first in-person company retreat since pre-March 2019.

We were staying at a place called The Eddy Taproom and Hotel, which had a few own label beers available in their bar, the pale ale being a respectable American pale ale which hit all the right C-hop notes. In terms of breweries though we only went to one while we where there, on our way to dinner on the Thursday night...Golden City Brewing.

Golden City Brewing is located in a mostly residential part of Golden - imagine trying to do that in NIMBY-centric Virginia! - and it being a Thursday night was very quiet. With just an hour to go before they shut for the night we ordered, at Jerry's instigation, a round of The Geologist, a 9% abv doppelbock that frankly has no right to be such easy drinking, and very appropriate given we work in geoscience publishing. I was being sensible though, and pacing myself in line with the rest of the group rather than pouring it down my neck and getting another.

I loved that in the middle of a residential area was a brewery with a fairly expansive beer garden to complement its bar area. It actually reminded me in terms of the vibe of Bar Chýše in the Čimice district of Prague. So taken was I with Golden City that I returned the following night, with just a single colleague as most of the company had flown home. This time I had their imperial milk stout, Eyes Wide Shut, and nursed that for the half hour or so we were there.

The contrast to the Thursday was stark. The place was heaving, as in genuinely busy and buzzing. The food truck on the road seemed to be doing a roaring trade, and something that was evident from the wide age range present was that this is clearly a community hangout spot. Kids, parents, single adults, grandparents all happily mingling and having a good time in their local, it was heartwarming to know such places can exist in the heart of an American residential area. Feeling drained from the constant go of conferencing and company retreat, I finished my beer and retired to my room at The Eddy, a cracking little hotel by the way, ready to fly home to Virginia and my wee family.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Cohesion Brewing...dokonalost

I first heard about Cohesion Brewing through an Instagram post, which showed an attempted pronunciation guide for several Czech beer words which I described at the time as "iffy". One of the founders of the brewery, Eric Larkin, reached out to me to see if I could give some pointers, which I was more than happy to do. My conversation with Eric so impressed me that I knew if I ever got to Denver then Cohesion would be an absolute must visit brewery. I absolutely visited last night, though unfortunately Eric was unable to be there, hopefully next time.

As I mentioned yesterday, I am over in Denver for work and yesterday several of my colleagues, including Jerry Fagerberg, arrived in town for our company retreat in the next few days. We bundled into an Uber and made our way to the brewery, which is in an industrial area, past many over workshops and businesses, that actually reminded of getting to Caboose Brewing in Vienna on a previous company night out.

Walking through the door my heart leapt for joy at the site of horizontal lagering tanks, and a chalkboard list of beers where everything included the °P, mostly 10 and 12, as well the Czech style designation, including diacritics! We weren't expecting to see the name of one of Jerry's local breweries from Minnesota though, Utepils have done a collaboration 10° pale lager with Cohesion, of which more later.

I actually wish I had taken a picture of the bar itself, as it was a delightful setup, with a pale green tile bar back, a pair of beer towers which housed the 6 Lukr taps, gleaming brass, an unexpected British beer engine, and all manner of Czech paraphernalia - nice to see you again Private Švejk. We started with the Cohesion 10° pale lager.

Look at that lovely cap of frothy wet foam...and what a gorgeous beer this is, as good a desítka as I have had in many a moon. Had I been served this in a pub in Prague, I would be a very happy camper. Much in the same spirit as Bierstadt, tradition is an honored thing at Cohesion, they decoction mash for example, which is always a good sign to me with lager breweries - yes, you can make good lagers with infusion mashing, but decoction just adds things to the beer that no amount of carapils can. Four mouthfuls and I was ready for a second I popped things up a degree or 2 and went for the Ovce 12°.

Again a wonderful beer, I was back to not bothering with notes, I was just enjoying really good examples of some of my favourite types of beer. Absolutely dripping with Saaz, this is a beer that would delight any fan of noble hops, I was delighted. Eventually we moved on to the Utepils collaboration, again a 10° beer, a bit paler than Cohesion's own desítka, and noticeably bitter, with a long lingering dry finish, another absolute banger of a beer.

By this point I had noticed a corner of the taproom that was set up in such a way that it reminded me of many a Czech boozer I have frequented, places like u Slovanské lipy or Hostomická nelévárna...maybe it was the wooden paneled wainscoting, sure still a bit clean in its newness, but I insisted our group abandon our table so I could create some hospoda nostalgia for myself.

By this point I had settled on another collaboration beer as my go to, Herald 12° brewed in conjunction with Brewery Novalis in New York and using Saaz hops grown in New York state as well as Premiant hops. Another delightful brew that would more than pass muster in Czechia. With closing time approaching and swag having been bought, new brewery hats for the twins, the barman brought us over taster glasses poured in the mlíko manner, and it was actually the first time I had ever tried beer in this way - yeah I know, boring me for sticking to a regular pour. I don't recall which beer he brought over, but that foam was sweet and malty, and delicious. I am not sure I will ever become a devotee of mlíko but it was fun to try it.

I am sure plenty of others have waxed lyrical about Cohesion, and so I can only add to that chorus, what a fantastic brewery and taproom it is. Every beer we had was on point, the venue itself was a delight, and that little hospoda corner just capped the night to perfection. I also loved the fact that not a single beer was over 4.8%, and in the case of the 10° lagers, Cohesion's own was 3.9% and the Utepils collab 4.1%.

When it comes to Czech beer, it is easy to get snared into 14° and high dark lagers, but the 10° has been the go to beer for generations, it is the beer you drink in the hospoda with your mates, you maybe have 5 or 6 in a night and get up for work the next day none the worse for it, Czech beer culture is ultimately a drinking culture, and Cohesion seem to get that.

What a fantastic place and if you are ever in Denver and only want to visit one brewery, make sure it is Cohesion.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Of the Cupolas of Bierstadt

I am currently in Denver for work, having arrived on Sunday evening and staying here for a week before heading home to Virginia in time for the twins 5th birthday.

Even though I admitted recently to being an abysmal beer tourist, in the sense that I very rarely plan travel around breweries to visit, when I travel for work I do my research and pick out some places that I want to try. Given that Colorado is known for its lager brewing, I had plenty of options, but I knew straight off the bat that Sunday night would be Bierstadt.

In the week before I flew out social media was full of pictures of Bierstadt's legendary Slow Pour Pils beer as it seemed that everyone and his mate that attended the Great American Beer Festival had made a beeline there.

I was pretty wiped out by the time I got to Bierstadt on Sunday, and my palate may not have been in the best of shape, having had a couple of airport porters, a brown ale, and when I got to Denver a couple of excellent Mexican lagers from Reverence Brewing. If you are ever in Denver you should go there, it's a fantastic place that feels like a community bar that happens to have damned good beer.

Having grabbed a seat at the upstairs bar, I ordered the obligatory Slow Pour Pils, and a Helles to drink while I was waiting...

The thing that hit me most about both beers was just how insanely clear they are, almost in a fuck you juxtaposition to the hazy IPA world. I wasn't taking notes, preferring to just mess around with my camera in the very cool art deco/industrial fusion surroundings. Knowing that I had some spare time on the Monday, I decided that I would head back once work was done for the day, and also so I could think a bit more about the Slow Pour Pils, as Evan Rail had asked for my thoughts on Instagram.

With work commitments out of the way, at least until a late dinner, I headed back over to do some more considered evaluations, and also make sure I had a palate more up to the task at hand - as in I remembered to drink plenty of water. Again I went to the upstairs bar, and ordered myself a pils, pulled out my phone and shock, horror, I took notes about a beer I was drinking in a bar! So here we go...

  • Sight - pale gold, huge rocky white head (duh), crystal clear
  • Smell - crackers, crushed water biscuits, very subtle floral hop aroma
  • Taste - classic pilsner malt graininess, almost flinty mineral note, grassy hops with a hint of wildflower
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5
Advertised as a Northern German pilsner, I was expecting more bitterness upfront, maybe the slow pour kicks some of it out of the beer? The mouthfeel was softer than I expected, which makes the beer feel sweeter. I realise the slow pour part of things is the star here, but I was left wondering how it would taste hladinka style in a mug, especially unfiltered - can't remember where I read it is filtered, but I am sure I did. It is though a thoroughly delicious beer, if I didn't have plans for another couple of breweries...I'd likely be back.

I didn't take notes about the helles, I just sat and enjoyed a lovely iteration of one of my favourite styles, I did though make sure to try the first märzen of the trip, and it was likewise excellent, though poured from a can as they were done with draft, and it scored a very respectable 32/40 in my points system, which places it currently joint third, along with the likes of Port City and Olde Mecklenberg.

The thing I had hoped to do while I was at Bierstadt was to get a peek at their brewhouse...and I wasn't really paying attention as I walked to the bar when I noticed a copper dome. The brewhouse is right there for all the see, and what a thing of beauty it is.

From what I understand the brewhouse was originally housed in the local brewery in Ammerndorf, a small village just outside Nürnberg, and was built in 1932. Bierstadt shipped it to Colorado and essentially rebuilt it exactly as it had been in Bavaria. To my mind, this kind of thing is what makes a "craft" brewing business truly artisanal. I may have geeked out looking at those glorious copper domes.

I am not sure when I will ever make it back to Denver, but whenever I am here I know I will go to Bierstadt, not just to enjoy the triple decocted beers, though the Pils is double decocted, but to look at that rescued brewhouse and be glad it is still churning out great lagers.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Dreich Delights

Dreich is perhaps my favourite Scots word, I can think of few words that more perfectly fit what it describes. Dreich means "bleak" or "dreary", and is most commonly used to refer to the weather, those grey days, awash with a dispiriting drizzle, where the clock seems to slow to a crawl, as the tick and the tock ring louder in your head. A dreich day is one where the clouds are a uniform mirk, without even the occasional white patch to give you a merest glimmer of hope that the rain will end. Although I grew up primarily in the Western Isles on Scotland's west coast, my folk are actually from the other coast, from the Fraserburgh area. When I think of dreich, I am reminded of a miserable stroll in Aberdeen as a teenager, the rain settling on my jacket and staying put, the clouds so heavy with moisture that even the city's famous granite took on an enhanced, lustreless, grey.

Saturday in central Virginia was dreich, gey dreich, as the remnants of Hurricane Ian drifted up the Shenandoah Valley. It was a day for comfort clothes, pots of tea, and whatever mindless shite the kids wanted to watch on the idiot box - I am starting to worry about their love of screens, but that's not the point of my post. I pondered lighting the first fire of the season, but the wind was whipping along at 20mph and I have an in built fear of a chimney fire. Into this revelry of gloom came a text message from Jason at Devils Backbone...

Alt Bier was on tap and wouldn't last the weekend, also on tap was Ein Kölsch, O'Fest, and a bevvy of other Germanic delights that Jason knows I am fan of. I hadn't known that the Alt Bier was on because the Devils Backbone website didn't have it on the beer list, I had seen nothing from them on Instagram or Twitter, and I don't do Untappd. Barely 15 minutes later Mrs V and I had bundled the twins into the car and were headed off on the near 50 mile drive to the original Devils Backbone brewpub, Basecamp, in Nelson County. The rain was incessant, the clouds pressing down, but the thought of an afternoon at Basecamp was lifting our spirits, well mine at least, Mrs V lost her voice last week so god knows what she actually thought. The kids also love a trip to Devils Backbone, when we told them we needed to get ready to go, the oldest one, Fin, ran to fridge, grabbed a bottle of O'Fest and proclaimed "we can drink this at Devils Backbone"...well, daddy can, soon enough Fin, soon enough.

Thankfully my theory about dreich weather and it's impact on the touring classes of American life held up and Basecamp wasn't wildly busy...sat in a booth, there could be only one beer to begin with.

Altbier is something of a rarity in the US, at least in this part of Virginia, an altbier that is made without the "benefit" of crystal malt even rarer - I have said this many times in various contexts, but crystal malt sweetness in Germanic style beer just tastes wrong. Assuming that Jason brewed this batch in the same way as the most recent handful, there are even fewer US altbiers being brewed with open fermentation and extended lagering in horizontal tanks. It is a beer that I love and would usually have stuck to for the duration of our stay, but it is the time of year for all things German, or at least Germanish, and I wanted to have O'Fest on tap - very, very nice it was too.

The Germanic theme was carried over on to the menu, wurst and schnitzel galore, including a dish called "Elk Jägerschnitzel" that sounded marvellous, so I ordered it, eschewing a potato based side and sticking with the cucumber salad as accompaniment. The schnitzel was topped with roasted mushrooms in a brown gravy like sauce, and if you have never eaten elk then hunt it out. It was as the schnitzel was being devoured that I looked around the brewpub that Mrs V and I have been frequenting since 2009 and it dawned on me just how much I love the place. It is irrelevant to me that the business is owned by Anheuser-Busch, Basecamp is pretty much as it has been all along, nothing much has changed. Sure it is bigger, and has more facilities, but sat in the booth it was evident that the heart and soul of Devils Backbone still beats there.

Feeling vaguely nostalgic, as much as one can do for a place that still exists and has barely changed, I had a half litre of an Oktoberfest themed beer that you won't see in the shops, 1872 Steinlifter. 1872 is touted as an old school märzen as opposed to the modern pale festbier that you would be served in Munich. O'Fest on the other hand is a modern Festbier, and in my opinion a damned excellent one. As we were leaving, I picked up a crowler of both the O'Fest and 1872 to do a side by side tasting, with a slightly heretical notion pottering around my head as I drove home listening to the gemütlichkeit that is Versengold's "Funkenflug" album...


Yes, that is a hurdy-gurdy. The world needs more hurdy-gurdy.

Come Sunday afternoon I had abandoned plans to taste the modern and ancient Oktoberfest lagers side by side, the dreich of Ian's remnants lingering on. I wanted to test my heretical theory that had been on my mind. 1872 reminded me distinctly of my favourite beer at this time of the year...Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen, and with a fair old stash in the fridge what better opportunity to compare them.

Having poured half a crowler's worth into my Chodovar mug, it was clear to me that the colour of 1872 was very much in the same ball park as Ayinger. The malt complexity likewise reminded me of Ayinger, with lots of crusty bread, crackers, and honey all layered on top of each other, finishing with a slightly spicy hop finish, think nutmeg and cinnamon. Where the two beers really parted way though was that Ayinger is heavier in the finish, with a wallopingly dense mouthfeel that 1872 doesn't have to such a degree. Here is my heresy then, 1872 is more drinkable, more maß-able you might say.

1872 is only available, to the best of my knowledge, at the Basecamp brewpub, so if you are in the area make a beeline for it, though keep in mind there is a music festival down there this weekend, so you'll need to get there before Friday or after Monday. If you are going to Hoopla and you see it on tap, have at it, there are few darker style märzens available in the US right now that are this good.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Places Me

I am sure I have mentioned this several times, but I am an abysmal beer tourist. I do have a rule that I like to give a new brewery at least 6 months before visiting so they can get the hang of their equipment and start churning out the best beers they are able to. If brewing systems were just plug and play, we wouldn't need brewers now would we? The problem with my 6 month rule is that I am not strict about getting to places once that 6 months is up, and so there are a handful of breweries in central Virginia that I haven't visited because, well, like I said, I am an abysmal beer tourist.

Recently though, I have resolved to try and be better at getting to some of the newer breweries within easy reach of my house, as a result of which I have found a few places that have become, or are very likely to become, fairly regular hangouts.

Patch Brewing is just on the outskirts of Gordonsville, basically a large village that for some reason gets to call itself a town. It is not the first brewery in Gordonsville, that honour goes to Champion Icehouse, but it is the one that I go to with way more regularity. Housed in a former Veterans of Foreign Wars building, they have, I think, 14 acres of land, and plans to basically become a beer hall, beer garden, pick your own berry farm, and several other things all rolled into one. The brewer, Erik, spent several years working under the tutelage of Jason Oliver at Devils Backbone Basecamp, and so you know he knows what he is doing.

Despite being open since October 2021, they have only recently got their own brewing equipment installed (yay COVID!), and so have been brewing at Devils Backbone. Erik has clearly brought some of the Devils Backbone influence to his equipment with him, with horizontal lagering tanks being part of the setup - maybe I am crazy but horizontal tanks are just nicer to look at that endless rows of CCVs. My first trip to Patch was actually last November, when they had only been open for about 6 weeks, as my best mate was in town and we'd been hiking in the Shenandoah National Park, along with my neighbour, stop 1 was so horrific that I will never grace the place with my presence again. It was our second stop of the day before heading home for continued boozing around the fire pit. Being something like a 7 minute drive from my house to the brewery, it is supremely convenient, and I have several friends who work there, so it is always good to get along for a pint, or three.

On the beer front, their Pylon Pilsner is a good, solid German style pilsner, replete with the requisite, at least in my world, noble hop bitterness that so many other pilsners seem to shy away from. I also have a soft spot for their brown ale, A Stone in the Woods. Hopefully this weekend I will find some time to venture out into the remnants of Hurricane Ian as it impacts central Virginia and try their new märzen, Germanna, and a dunkelweizen (a rarity in the US) called 1714 for the year the first German colonists came to Orange County.

Heading into Charlottesville, one new name on the Fuggled Top Ten Virginian Beers this year was Decipher Brewing, and I can tell you now that they will be featuring quite a bit for the annual Fuggled Review of the Year in December. But first a story. As you may recall, I made a batch of my homebrew best bitter with Murphy & Rude Malting Company back in the late spring, using just their malts - which have now become the standard for that recipe as they improved it so much. On the day that I was due to go and try the beer with Jeff and co at the malthouse, Mrs V and I arrived early, so wandered up to Decipher Brewing for a quick pint whilst waiting for Jeff. There were still 10 minutes to opening time, but the bar staff that day welcomed us in and soon enough a pint of their 80/- Scottish ale was sitting in front of me, and I loved it. When I saw that they had a Czech style pale lager coming soon, I naturally inquired as to dates, and resolved that the following Friday I would get along to give it a bash, and I loved it.

Saaz, lots of Saaz, that's how I would describe Krypto, in the case of the picture above poured from a Lukr tap. This is a very, very respectable Czech style pale lager, if I were to quibble (what? Beer bloggers quibbling? Never!) then I would say that it would be even better with a decoction, or two, chucked into the mash schedule for some Maillard reactions to fill out the malt profile a little. Sitting in their little garden area with a pint after work on a Friday afternoon has become something of a thing for me in recent months. The beer is very good, as evidenced by their taking the Virginia Craft Brewers' crown this year, the ambience is chilled out, laid back, and decidedly unsceney (Mrs V and I have a shared aversion to places that become scenes). Oh, and they did a grodziskie, and I loved it.

Oh, and they did a smoked bock, and I loved it.

Decipher are one of only 4 Virginia breweries that are pouring at the Great American Beer Festival next week, so if you are there, check them out - I believe they will be pouring Krypto and the smoked bock.

Last week I got a message on Instagram from the brewer at Selvedge Brewing, also in Charlottlesville, just round the corner from Decipher actually. The message, accompanied by a picture of a fine looking glass of beer, was to tell me that they were releasing a German style festbier and that he knows I do a big Oktoberfest (märzen and festbiers) tasting around this time year, come on down and try the wares...

A couple of days later I tested positive for COVID, so that had to go on hold until the 10 days of quarantine were over. With that suitably out of the way, I finally made it to Selvedge, which is located in a renovated wool mill, in the Woolen Mills area of the city. Think repurposed 19th century brick and glass built factory and you'll get a sense of how it looks, as a fan of industrial architecture, I loved the high ceilings and light streaming in through the windows. There was an outdoor event going on when I was there, thankfully the inside bar was empty, so I pulled up a seat and ordered a pint of Tracht...

What a lovely beer it is. The crackeriness of pilsner malt, the sweet bready malt of Munich, and hops, a good amount of hops for a clean bitterness, if I remember rightly from Perle, and dollops of Hallertau Mittelfrüh for a slightly spicy finish. While I was sat at the bar, Josh, the brewer, came and sat for a chat and we discussed his plans for the brewery, having only taken the reins in the summer. From what I understand there will be a new larger location in the near future, and he plans to make authentic lagers a central theme of the brewery - any guesses how excited I am at that?

Naturally I tried a couple of the other beers on tap. Poplin is an Italian Pilsner - admittedly a style that seems a little contrived to me, if dry hopping a German pilsner a la Tipopils makes it Italian, does that mean Port City's dry hopping of their Czech style pale lager, Downright Pilsner, makes it a Virginia Pilsner? Either way, Poplin is a veritable carousel of noble hop flavour and aroma that I rather enjoyed, though I have to admit to following it up with another Tracht. 

One of the beer styles that I often find annoying in the US is Kölsch, I just find that they don't live up to the bright, sparkling, refreshing beer that the breweries of Cologne churn out, Selvedge's Linen bucks that trend, and is glorious into the bargain. Mrs V is a fan of the Kölsch style, so I look forward to getting a baby sitter to deal with the twins, so we can have a date afternoon/evening. As we sat discussing the merits of decoction mashing, open fermentation, and the like, Josh mentioned that it took being in Cologne for 16 hours to really get a sense of what Kölsch should be, and how important authentic yeast is to the style, pointing out that many a US brewery just uses good old neutral Chico...and thus it made sense why I found it disappointing over here. For fear of being type cast, I followed it up with another Tracht, did I mention yet that it is a lovely festbier, and hopefully there will be some still knocking around this weekend.

Each of the three breweries here have been open since at least last November, and in Decipher's case for a few years now, but as I said, I am an abysmal beer tourist, even on my own front door. I am glad though that we have them, and when I talk to folks working in them about their plans, I feel like times are going to be good ahead for this unbashed lager boy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Of Style and Substance

I can almost hear a collective groan as I type the following style.

Beer styles are simply part of life, it's how a brewer indicates to a drinker what to expect from the liquid they are about to consume. Styles are essentially shorthand, if I tell you I am drinking a Czech Pale Lager, it puts an image in your mind, likewise porter, amber ale, and so on and so forth. 

Styles also have their place in the beer judging world for competition, I know of at least one instance for example where an excellent "Scotch ale" was entered by a local brewery here in Virginia as a "Scottish ale", and got roundly panned for being too strong, too sweet, altogether "not to style". Well, of course it wasn't "to style" because it had accidently been entered into the wrong style.

Sometimes though, the "style" just isn't apparent from the label on the can. Take this for example:

I wasn't entirely sure what "style" of beer I was buying here. The name didn't really help much either, was it a helles or was it a festbier? Of course, festbier is basically a strong helles, so again we are perhaps going round in unnecessary circles. I wanted to know though as it is the time of year when I gather up as many märzens and festbiers that I can lay my hands on for my annual Okotberfest Maß Tasting. Anyway, a quick text to the brewer and it is being marketed as a helles, a 5.5% abv helles, hopped with 30 IBUs of Hallertau.

According to the GABF style guidelines, the booze is spot on, but the hopping is too much for the Munich Helles style. The BJCP guidelines on the other hand have it both to strong and having too many IBUs. As a "Festbier", which GABF calls "German Style Oktoberfest/Wiesn", it is just a touch too strong, and again has too many IBUs, but BJCP has it being too weak and with too many IBUs for its Festbier definition.

A random thought popped into my head, maybe it's a Dortmunder....? Nope, GABF says it has too many IBUs for Dortmunder, but acceptable abv. In BJCP world, where Dortmunder is called "German Helles Exportbier", both ABV and IBU are within the expected bounds. Do we have a winner here then, it would appear to be a German Helles Exportbier?

But wait, what about the guidelines for the European Beer Star categories? Basically it could be either a Festbier, or an "Export"

There are times when I have flashbacks to my days studying theology and everybody having their version of beer styles, while the lay community are not interested in how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Anyway...Dave at Three Notch'd told me that is is a helles, and it really is a rather bloody nice beer whatever you want to brand it. The balance of malt and hop is just right, the cracker character of pilsner malt is evident, and the hops add a lovely counterpoint to that. There are some floral aromas floating around as well as the classic hint of spice that Hallertau brings to the table. All round yummy good stuff in the glass, regardless of how it is styled. 

I am looking forward to polishing off the other three cans that are currently in the fridge, and then restocking. I can see this becoming my go-to palate cleanser after several syrupy sweet märzen malt messes.

These kind of pale lagers are very much the happy place of this Mitteleuropaphile.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Without Farms There is No Booze

First there came the beer, the colours, the aromas, the flavours, the multitude of things you can do with just four inputs, malt, hops, yeast, and water. Think of beers as diametrically opposite as a Czech 10° pale lager and jet black imperial stout, and everything in between, and you have wildly different interpretations and expressions of the same four basic inputs. 

I am deliberately avoiding adjuncts here because the word "adjunct" just means something is non-essential, and rice, corn, marshmallows, breakfast cereal, invert sugar, etc are not really all that essential to make beer, they have their place, but they are not essential to beer per se.

Beer is a product of the genius of humanity, of our innate desire to experiment, our love of getting a buzz on - you folks going on about unsafe water supply, explain why most human settlements are beside rivers or have wells, we know how to find good water sources. Humans like to get tipsy, some humans enjoy getting drunk, they may even be the occasional weirdo who loves a good hangover, and as age creeps up on me, I am not assuredly not one of those.

None of this would be possible without the agricultural revolution that kicked off in the Neolithic period, when human beings started domesticating their meat supply, and their grain supply, by forming communities of farmers. Beer does not exist without agriculture. This simple fact is something I have back to time and again this year in my reading. Whether it is crop reports for barley and hops in various newspapers in the Austrian National Archive, or learning far more about malt than I could squeeze into a single Pellicle article, none of this is possible without farmers.

Of course, it is not just beer that is reliant on agriculture, cider, perry, wine, and basically every spirit known to man would not exist without farmers growing the raw ingredients. It fascinates me that basically every ancient culture created some form of fermented drink to use in rites of passage, celebrations, memorials, or their religious practices. If memory serves, it is in the Epic of Gilgamesh that the definition of being civilised is to eat bread and drink beer.

As I referred to at the top, first came my interest in the beer itself, then came my interest in the ingredients that brewers use to make the stuff, and so I started brewing my own. As a result of my interest in malt in particular, an appreciation of the grains and their producers is becoming an endless source of fascination. The fact, for example, that not all barley strains are created equal, you can't just turn any old barley into malt, and even malting barley needs an expert hand as it grows.

This may be one of the reasons I love the concept of the farm brewery, a distinct form of brewery license here in Virginia. They are perhaps the purest form of "craft" brewing, especially when using malt made from the grain they themselves grew, as is the case with Wheatland Spring, maker of many magnificent lagers, including the pilsner I crowned as number 1 in my recent Top 10 Virginian beer post.

Farmers are very much the unsung heroes of the booze industry, without them, there are no raw ingredients, and without raw ingredients to couple with the genius of humanity for creating buzz inducing products, there would be no booze.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Czeching out Cola Town

Since the demise of the Flying Saucer I have been somewhat bereft of places to drink when I am in Columbia, SC visiting Mrs V's family. Having recently discovered the delights of the Cock n Bull, and with Bierkeller Columbia opening up their beer garden this autumn, things are decidedly looking up. One thing though that I have neglected when we go south is discovering the local breweries, beyond buying the occasional six pack at the shop. With summer holiday time winding down this past weekend, I resolved to put that right.

First stop on my planned itinerary was Columbia Craft Brewing, which from Google Maps would seem to be at the heart of an area with plenty of breweries to visit, including the package brewery for Columbia's oldest brewery, and a personal favourite of mine, Hunter Gatherer. I walked through the door, surveilled the situation, it was actually pretty packed outside, but relatively quiet inside, so I grabbed a seat and did something I very rarely do, ordered a flight.

Flights are not something I often do mainly because I am not convinced that you can really judge a beer's merits based on a few ounces of liquid. With my plan to visit a couple of other breweries though, I figured that a flight and a pint would be the way to go. My 4 choices then at Columbia Craft were:
  • Columbia Craft Lager - a 4.8% Munich style helles
  • Carolinian - a 4.7% American blonde ale
  • Pull - a 4.5% Czech style pale lager
  • Pint - a 5.6% English style "pub ale" - basically an ESB
I made the mistake of starting from the lowest abv beer...the 4.5% Czech style pale lager, which makes me assume it had a starting gravity of 10° Plato, a desítka. It was a mistake, because one mouthful in, I knew my plans to hit another couple of breweries that afternoon were in danger of being curtailed to perhaps one other brewery.

The other beers in the flight were all very good, but the pull of the Czech pale lager was too great, so I had a half litre, poured from a Lukr tap, and served in a Tübinger glass...

The first thing that hit me was unlikely many a US brewed pilsner poured on a Lukr tap, Pull didn't have a craggy head that towered over the rim of the glass. The head was nicely wet foam that sat on top of the liquid for the duration of the drinking, which to be honest wasn't particularly long, maybe 5 mouthfuls at best.

The star of the show though for me was the masses of delightfully spicy Saaz character bursting through the foam, both as aroma and flavour. With just a single decoction as part of the brewing, there were enough Maillard characteristics to fill out the body, making this anything but watery. This is a seriously, seriously nice beer.

Needless to say I didn't make it to any other brewery on Saturday afternoon and got myself a couple of crowlers of Pull to nurse through the evening. The next time I make it to Columbia, I expect that Bierkeller's beer garden will be open, this delight on tap, and with the Cock n Bull in which to watch footie, I will have plenty of options for places, and beers, to enjoy.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Brewing with Murphy & Rude

Hopefully by now you have read my article about Charlottesville's Murphy & Rude Malting Company on Pellicle. One thing that I mentioned in the piece is that I have brewed several times with their malt in my own homebrewing shenanigans, usually as a specialty malt on top of a base of Golden Promise or Maris Otter. When Jeff suggested then that we brew a batch of my best bitter recipe using just his malt, I jumped at the chance. For the eagle eyed among you, you will have noticed us doing so in some of the pictures on the article.

It was actually Jeff who suggested brewing the best bitter, and I am never one to turn down the opportunity of a collaboration, though it is definitely the first time I have brewed with a malting company. I momentarily played with the idea of creating a new recipe specifically for this project, but when I mentioned it to Mrs V she suggested that we stick with my tried, trusted, and oft brewed best bitter that is the basis of Three Notch'd Bitter 42. Fun fact, the first time I met Jeff, at Kardinal Hall, to discuss the article his first words were "you're miss Ashley's husband, right?" - Mrs V is a Montessori teacher, and Jeff's kids went to her school, though were in a different teacher's class.

Anyway, I took a look at the Murphy & Rude website to decide what malts would take the place of my regular Golden Promise and Briess Victory combination. The base malt was pretty obvious, Jeff does an "English Pale" that he describes as:

"Well-modified pale ale malt kilned to slightly higher temps at the end of curing to release the slightest bit of nutty sweetness (Grape Nuts®, saltines, sunflower seed, honeysuckle) and unlock hints of pretzel and pizza crust."

With a Lovibond rating of 3-3.5° it is just in the same ballpark as both Golden Promise and Maris Otter from the UK.

The specialty malt to replace Briess Victory was more of a challenge as they do a Biscuit malt, which I had previously used as a substitute for Victory to good effect, and a Belgian Amber that sounded intriguing. The Biscuit is described as:

"A fantastic malt for adding body, smoothing out competing dark malt flavors, or delivering buttery or baked dough sensory attributes mid-palate. Biscuit malt is also a great selection when seeking additional body for sessionable beers without adding significant color"

while the Belgian Amber thus:

"Built upon a higher kilned base malt to deliver exponentially more depth than a traditional Amber. Flavors of biscuit bottom, roasted peanut shell, toasted Grape Nuts®, Bran Flakes®, and hard pretzel, with the slightest bite in the background. Great for big Belgians, Fall seasonals, spiced beers, Double IPA".

I took Mrs V's advice though and stuck with the Biscuit, which is a bit paler than the Briess product.

The only challenge in the brewing was the temperature, it was bloody hot that day. If memory serves it was the first 95°F day of the year in central Virginia, though it was much cooler a few weeks later when it came time to drink the beer and see how it had turned out. Throughout the fermentation process, Jeff kept me up to date on how things were progressing, and basically we hit every number and milestone as expected.

Other than a touch of chill haze, the beer was exactly as I had hoped it would be. We went classic with this version of the recipe, using East Kent Goldings for the 40 ish IBUs, and my house yeast strain Safale S-04 to get to the 4.2% abv. One thing that really took me by surprise was just how much additional flavour came out by virtue of using really fresh malt, rather than just freshly milled malt. In the Pellicle article, Josh Chapman at Black Narrows Brewing commented that closing the circle between supplier and producer really benefits the beer, and that freshness really shone through in the beer that we produced.

With the new brewing season almost upon us, I rarely brew during the summer, I have started to work out how I can get back to doing all grain brewing rather than extract brewing. I have nothing against extract brewing, indeed my kegerator currently houses a 100% extract ordinary bitter that is delicious and I plan to brew it again soon. However, with all grain back on the horizon as a viable option, I plan to use Murphy & Rude malt wherever possible.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Distributed Denial of Standards

It should come as no surprise that I spent Saturday afternoon in the pub. It was, after all, the traditional English football season curtain raiser, the FA Community Shield - though my brain still thinks of it as the Charity Shield. I am a Liverpool fan, have been since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and so by virtue of winning the FA Cup last season we got to play Premier League champions Manchester City. Enough though of my footie choices, this is a booze blog after all.

I was sat in the pub, the kind of place that is owned by Brits looking to recreate something of the British pub on foreign shores, the kind of place that I love. Mismatched tables and chairs, dark wood, an almost forbidding air. Even though my first visit to the place was for the Champions League final that Liverpool lost, I had a great time and decided this pub would be a place to visit whenever I am in Mrs V's hometown of Columbia, South Carolina.

The pub in question has a decent number of taps, with a blend of well regarded national craft brands and a clutch of local brews from throughout South Carolina, as well as the stock in trade Guinness, and the usual domestic suspects in cans. The atmosphere during a match was almost like being back in Zlatá Hvězda, raucous, a distinct blue tinge, and not from cigarette smoke, with plenty of banter between fans of different clubs. I was kind of in my element, at least during the Champions League final, as the Community Shield didn't attract anything like a sizeable crowd, but I was cool with that given the ongoing pandemic.

Anyway, having tried a couple of local brews that didn't do anything for me, and the one I really enjoyed on a previous visit having kicked, I had a Guinness while I pondered my next beery move. They had Devils Backbone Vienna Lager on tap, so I decided on a pint of that. It was pure vinegar, a fact that my server recognised when she tried it and apologised, taking the beer off tap. That was how I got talking to Lesley (I am assuming on the spelling here), the Cicerone Certified Beer Server, who also works at Hunter Gatherer, Columbia's original craft brewpub that I have a massive soft spot for.

We got talking about line cleanliness in particular and I learnt something that was actually new information for me. Line cleaning, at least in the US (meaning this likely varies state to state), is a service provided by beer distributors. Having not heard this before, I sent a quick message to a mate of mine that used to work for a big Virginia distributor and is now general manager of a brewery near my house. He confirmed that it is indeed the standard that distributors clean lines, so I bluntly asked:

"So shit draft beer is the distributor's fault?"

His response was just as blunt...


Our conversation continued, and of course pubs can clean their own lines if they have the necessary equipment, which I get the sense many an American pub doesn't, and are thus at the mercy of the distributor's commitment to cleanliness. Imagine being at the mercy of the one part of the American beer system that gets precisely none of the shit for a bad beer. How many customers had the Devils Backbone Vienna Lager and decided that obviously the brewery is shit because it is owned by AB-InBev, when the problem is the distributor not caring for the product appropriately, and ensuring that it cleans lines regularly.

This experience left me wondering about beer distribution in this part of South Carolina in general as it was the second egregious experience with bad beer while I have been down here. I only realised the first when I got to Florida for our beach week, having muled a mixed case of beers down. The case included a couple of four packs of a go-to pilsner of mine, Eggenberg's lovely Hopfenkönig, I wish I had checked the bottom of the cans earlier...

I seriously purchased beer that was canned before the pandemic began...28 months ago. I opened a can and while it was far from terrible, it was not the great pale lager I have come to love. Of course there is a large dose of caveat emptor here, especially given I have had out of date beer from this retailer before. I have to admit that I feel far less sympathy with a bottle shop in this instance than with a pub, unless distributors actually have a sale or return element to their contracts by which they remove out of date goods from the shelves - which I believe is not a common thing here. Being an idiot I turned down the option of a receipt, and so have no recourse to get my money back, but I will be far more careful in future buying from this particular retailer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2022

This is the tenth iteration of my annual list of the top ten Virginia brewed beers that I have drunk in the last 12 months. I say this every year, but it is worth repeating, this is a purely subjective list of the beers I have enjoyed most. I have not tried every single beer in Virginia in the last 12 months. Neither is there some arcane, near gnostic, scoring system in place, just the beers I enjoyed drinking most, after all that's what this whole beer malarky is about surely, finding stuff you enjoy drinking. Anyway, let's dive in:

  1. Wheatland Spring Farm and Brewery - Found Artifacts Unfiltered Pilsner (4.8%). A new brewery to grace the list, and to take away the coveted top spot into the bargain. I had tried a couple of other Wheatland Spring lagers earlier in the year, so when I saw the words "Unfiltered Pilsner" on the label in Beer Run I just picked up a couple of 4 packs. While it may be unfiltered it is far from being some hazy mess, indeed it was an clear as you would expect from many a "filtered" beer. Found Artifacts is as good a German style pilsner as I have ever had, and sitting under our awning in the boiling Virginia heat it went down an absolute treat. I will be buying plenty of this whenever I see it in the store.
  2. Port City Brewing - Franconian Kellerbier (5.0%). For the third year in a row, Port City's delicious Franconian Kellerbier is in the top 2 beers of the year for me. This year was a little bit special though as I was up in Northern Virginia for work and had the chance to try it on tap at the brewery itself. What a treat that was, and as usual it has been a regular in the fridge while it has been available. The only downer was that it came out a little earlier than previous years and so I had to find something else to drink while shelling peas in early summer. It's a hard life.
  3. Starr Hill Brewing - Dark Starr Stout (4.2%). Something of a comeback kid here as Dark Starr is no longer a regular part of the Starr Hill constellation of brews, but this year they made a special batch, and even canned some. Fair to say that I got my arse to the new Starr Hill tasting room in Charlottesville and caned several. It was everything I remembered, roasty, smooth, and thankfully not adulterated with nitro. I would be thrilled if it were to complete the comeback by being a permanent again.
  4. Devils Backbone Brewing - Alt Bier (5.8%). I can't remember the exact reason for heading down to Roseland to visit Devils Backbone, might have been because it was a Sunday or something equally meaningful. I don't need an excuse to go to the original Devils Backbone brewpub and grab a seat at the bar, but when Alt Bier is on tap you can guarantee I will be there. Not only is altbier a style that I love, but Jason knows how to do it properly and makes a moreish delight.
  5. Port City Brewing - Downright Pilsner (4.8%). Another common visitor to my fridge that I have raved and written about many times before. There is a reason I spent 18 months bugging the beer buyers at my local Wegman's to stock this, it is just a great Czech style pale lager. The thing that keeps me coming back is that it is properly bitter and hoppy, without being over 5% abv. I don't know what it is about Czech style pale lagers that terrifies American brewers, but 44 IBUs at 4.8% is the right ballpark rather than 25 IBU at 5.5% that seems to be the norm.
  6. Decipher Brewing - Krypto Pilsner (5.5%). The second new brewery on this list, Decipher is based on an industrial estate in Charlottesville, which is overlooked by Monticello. On my first visit to Decipher I noticed they had Krypto on their "coming soon" list, and they have a Lukr tap, so I wanted to make sure I had some when it was available. What came out of the tap was a lovely 14° pale lager, that went down with inordinate ease. I had several, and it cemented in my mind that Decipher's tasting room and beer garden will be a place I visit plenty. Have to admit though that this would be higher up the list if there were a decoction or two in the mix as the Maillard reactions involved would elevate an already good beer.
  7. Basic City Brewing - Our Daily Pils (4.7%). We seem to have a slew of good pale lagers in Virginia these days, and I am most certainly not complaining! Our Daily Pils shares a trait with many of my favourite pale lagers, it is actually bitter, not shying away from the almost pithy  character that I just love. It also has a fuller, more pillowy body that makes it a delightful drink - and makes me wonder if they are using a different yeast strain than many of the other local breweries who use the Augustiner strain. Whatever yeast they are using, it makes a very nice beer.
  8. Beltway Brewing - Fest! (5.8%). In my annual mass Oktoberfest tasting, Beltway's Fest! was kind of a surprise winner. I had it on tap one Friday afternoon at Kardinal Hall, when note taking is most definitely not on the agenda, and so enamored was I of it, I ordered a second to put some thoughts on my phone. Usually I prefer the paler modern interpretations of Oktoberfest beers, but when a darker märzen is not a syrupy crystal malt mess then I enjoy them too. Such was Fest!, not as dark as many US brewed Oktoberfest lagers, but with plenty of malt heft and a clean finish to make more than a couple a distinct possibility.
  9. Decipher Brewing - 80/- (4.3%). Not only are Decipher a new brewery on the list, but Scottish Export as a style is making its debut too. Mrs V and I popped into Decipher for the first time, and given the place was empty just grabbed a couple of seats at the bar while we killed half an hour. Scottish Export ales are not something you see very often in Virginia, but served up in a nice dimpled mug it was a deep crimson reminder of home. In my experience many American brewers overload their Scottish ales with crystal malts and so you end up with intensely sweet swill that you just don't actually get in Scotland (hint, most of the colour comes of roasted barley). Decipher avoided that pitfall and produced a lovely session beer into the bargain.
  10. Port City Brewing - Rauch Märzen (5.5%). Holding steady in 10th place this year, Port City's rauchbier reminds me so much of Brauerei Spezial's rauchbier that was such a delight when I visited Bamberg in 2019. I really don't like rauchbiers where the brewery waffles on about the beer having a "hint of smoke", and Port City has way more than a hint, smoke is the soul of the Rauch Märzen. Once the nights really start to draw in and the brewery release this again, my fridge will be well stocked.
So there we have it, my top ten beers from Virginian breweries in the last 12 months. It is great to see new breweries on the list, as well as the return of an old favourite. I say this every year, but this is a purely subjective exercise and I make no claims to having tried every VA beer out there. I am always open to recommendations of good beers to try, so leave them in the comments...

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Brewing Local

I am just going to set my stall out right from the beginning..."local" should mean more than just the location of the factory. To put it another way, don't ask me to support local businesses if said business is not also supporting local businesses. I have posted about this before in the context of breweries, but my train of thought here was triggered by homebrew stores.

I have this crazy notion that I would like to brew a beer using only Virginian ingredients. The malt is not a problem, Charlottesville is home to Virginia's only craft malting company, Murphy & Rude, and I have brewed with their malts before and think they are excellent. Not only is the grain malted in Virginia, it is grown on Virginian farms. Hops though...I went to my nearest homebrew store and they don't stock any Virginia grown hops, in fact they looked at me like I had grown an additional head when I asked about sourcing locally grown hops.

Thank goodness though for the internet. I could, had I so wished, buy VA grown hops from a homebrew store down in Roanoke, but the shipping costs were about three times that of the couple of ounces of hops I wanted. I reached out then to a hop grower directly, in this case Mountain View Hops in Floyd, VA, mainly because they grow Challenger hops as well as the more usual C-hop suspects, you know Chinook, Cascade, etc. Challenger is a British hop variety that I have used before and really like for it's orange and spice character - think adding ginger and cinnamon to marmalade and you're kind of there. To make it worth their while I bought half a pound of whole leaf hops, which arrived just the other day and is now in the freezer.

I was however more concerned, if that is the right word, about yeast. Could I call my beer a truly "Virginian" beer if I chucked in a packet of my go-to yeast, Safale S-04? Well, not really, in my opinion, which I assumed left me with the option of doing a wild fermentation by putting the wort in a fermenter outside, perhaps near my apple trees, and letting nature do its thing. I might still do that to be honest, but not for this first project, I would want to learn how to collect and isolate actual yeast from my environment rather than a hodge podge of yeast and bacteria. Enter into the scene RVA Yeast Labs, based just down the road in Richmond.

I did a Google search for "Virginia yeast company" and the guys at RVA Yeast popped up, as did another couple of options, but I decided that I will buy my yeast for this project from them for one simple reason. They have a selection of "Native Yeasts" that includes a strain from a brewery about 35 miles from my house, Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery - maker of some of the best beers in central Virginia and possibly the most beautiful brewery to sit and drink at. Apparently this strain has:

"citrus esters, a nose of sweet honey and a dash of phenolic spice, this strain will complement a variety of dry Belgian style beers. We highly recommend this strain for Belgian triple and Saison."

Now...if you know me you will know that Belgian tripel and saison are not something I drink very often. For this project then, I am trying to get myself out of the standard taxonomy of beer style to create something that is as technically competent as I can make, tastes good, and that I enjoy drinking, those are my metrics of success, my "north star" you could say...

So here's my recipe:

  • 65% Murphy & Rude English Pale
  • 21% Murphy & Rude Biscuit
  • 11% Murphy & Rude Malted Corn
  • 3% Murphy & Rude Roasted Barley
  • 17 IBU Mountain View Challenger for 60 minutes
  • 9 IBU Mountain View Challenger for 15 minutes
  • 4 IBU Mountain View Challenger for 5 minutes
  • RVA 806 - Lickinghole Creek Ale yeast
In terms of the numbers for this experiment:
  • OG - 1.050
  • IBU - 30
  • SRM - 18.7° (deep amber/brown)
  • ABV - 5.2%
The malted corn is in there as a nod to the fact that I live pretty close to Thomas Jefferson's plantation, Monticello and he hunted out a copy of Joseph Coppinger's "New American Brewer and Tanner" precisely because it contains a method for malting "Indian corn". Obviously the water will be coming out of my well.

I plan to brew this as one of the first brewdays of my next homebrew season, Virginia summers can make brewing outside a nightmare, so I tend to only do so between September and May, especially if I am doing an all grain batch rather than chucking extract in a pot and boiling for an hour or so.

So coming back to my original theme, if you want to hold on to the moniker of "local homebrew store" how about making a point of selling locally grown and sourced ingredients for homebrewers to play around with? Until such a time, maybe we just refer to them as the "nearest homebrew store", after all there is more to local than location.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Genius of Marketing

There was a fairly simple plan, recreate the glassware experiment that I did a decade ago, but this time with Guinness rather than Victory Prima Pils. Having bought a four pack of Guinness Draught, the one in nitro cans, from my local Wegmans I picked out what I felt was a suitable selection of glasses for such an experiment...

The selection consisted of, in no particular order, a "Franconia" glass, dimpled mug, tulip pint, straight edged pint pot, and a Willibecher. My intention was to pour the beer from the cans in the exact same manner - straight down and slowly lift the can until it is drained - so that I could ascertain whether the glassware had any impact on the pour itself, and then see if there was any noticeable difference in aroma, flavour, and all that jazz.

First up was the tulip pint glass, in this case a Samuel Smith's branded glass as it is the closest thing I have to the classic Guinness glass that preceded the current one with all its angles and shapes.

Obviously the can is smaller than a full imperial pint, hence the head space there that would send a "to the top" warrior into apoplexy. Still, it looks the part, decent half inch of foam, had a lovely bubble cascading thing going on, and took a couple of minutes to really settle out. It looked like a Guinness. It even smelt like a Guinness, with it's roasty notes and a bit of graininess, an aroma I know well from nearly 30 years of regularly drinking the stuff. The "like Guinness" theme continued with the flavours and all that other stuff that people go on about, it even had a goodly amount of foam that clung to the glass as I drank.

Ok, time for the dimpled mug...

If there was one glass that I thought might make a difference to how the beer poured, and therefore looked, it was my trusty old man dimpled mug. As I said earlier, the pouring method was exactly the same for all the cans I drank, so imagine my surprise when it looked basically the same as the previous pint, with the foam cap almost identical. It also smelt, tasted, and all that other stuff, imperceptible from the tulip glass.

Third time's the charm so they say, on then to the straight edged pint pot...

Erm...the same again. Looks, smells, tastes, other stuff, the same, again. I was starting to think that to get something even marginally different from the tulip pint I would have to get out a wine glass - I don't own any of those fart arsey stemmed glassware Teku things so beloved of true believers. Maybe next time I will try that, as it was I just knocked the experiment on the head, pretty sure that the Franconia glass and Willibecher would make next to no difference.

The whole notion of "proper glassware" is something that I find deeply suspect, like the old imperial dude wandering around in his birthday suit with nary a bairn to point out his nudity. That's not to say I don't like different shaped glasses, take one look in my cupboards and you'll find mugs of various kinds, pints of various kinds, snifters and goblets, and even a hand blown glass from Williamsburg. I just don't buy into the idea that a particular shaped glass is the proper option for a given style, or even beer from a particular country. Take a look on Ebay at the range of glasses available for Guinness, Pilsner Urquell, or even PBR, and it is clear that breweries are more than happy to slap their branding on basically anything transparent and used in a bar.

Having done this experiment twice so far I am still in the "nope, doesn't make a difference unless you want it to" camp, but as a marketing tool, glassware is pure genius.

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