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.

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"...