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...

"Yes"

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.

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"...