Friday, December 29, 2023

Fuggled Boozer of the Year

Originally I considered doing a "brewery of the year" but as I don't want to drag this year end review into 2024, or try you good folks' patience with endless posts about 2023, I ditched it and decided to just have boozer of the year as my final fling, especially as this year I have travelled outside the US a couple of times, so a rest of the world category is actually a possibility.

My definition of "boozer" here is pretty all encompassing, places where I can get a full serving of beer, whether that be a pint, half litre, or 12oz bottle, so brewery tap room counts as well as a cafe with decent beer selection. A Prague park bench at 2 in the morning with bottles of Bernard from the potraviny though doesn't count, mainly because it was bloody cold. Onward then to the places...

  • Caboose Tavern - Vienna
  • Devils Backbone Basecamp - Roseland
  • Patch Brewing - Gordonsville
Honorable mentions: Kardinal Hall - Charlottesville; Beer Run - Charlottesville

There are some places that are just special to me, and every single one of the boozer in this list are places I go to regularly and that I love drinking in. In several of them, I know the staff well enough that it is almost a stupid question as to what beer, or at least beer style, I want to drink. One place though stands out simply because I am convinced my drinking life over the last 14 years would be all the poorer if it didn't exist. I am talking, of course about the original Devils Backbone brewpub down in Nelson County. While the campus, for want of a better word, is far more extensive than it was in 2009, it has maintained the vibe of an Alpine lodge, especially when the weather is dreich outside and the fires are going. On our last few visits I have become somewhat misty eyed looking around at the now worn in and comfortable building and how much I love going there. It helps that Jason makes some of the best beer in Virginia, and founder Steve's vision is very much being honored to this day.

Rest of the US
  • Live Oak Brewing - Austin, TX
  • Olde Mecklenburg Brewing - Charlotte, NC
  • Savage Craft - West Columbia, SC
Honorable mentions: Hofbräuhaus - Pittsburgh, OH; Hunter-Gatherer Hangar - Columbia, SC; Scholz Garten - Austin, TX

I love beer gardens, especially beer gardens that have air conditioned tap rooms as well, which is basically every beer garden in the South. Life in this part of the world would be awful without air conditioning. I have a particular fondness for the kind of beer garden that has large mature trees that dapple the sunlight, water stations dotted around, a kids play area, and some of my favourite beer to boot. Every time Mrs V and I head to South Carolina for some family function, we drive within a mile of Olde Mecklenburg Brewing and their 8 acre beer garden in the heart of Charlotte. Now, every time we are driving to or from SC, we stop and stretch legs, have a beer, and let the kids run around for a while in the play area. We are so enamored with Olde Meck, that even though it is 4.5 hours into our 6.5 hour drive rather than the midway point, we always stop there, and look forward to it muchly.

Rest of the World
  • Hostomická nelevarna - Prague, CZ
  • U Slovanské lipy - Prague, CZ
  • Fjöruhúsið Hellnum - Hellnar, IS
Honorable mentions: Dobra Trafika - Prague,CZ; Únětický Pivovar - Únětice, CZ; Café Captein & Co - Amsterdam, NL.

No surprise here that the list is dominated by pubs in Prague, Czech beer culture speaks to my soul, and I always feel deeply at home in a traditional Czech pivnice, hospoda, hostinec, pick your Czech word. It is also not a surprise that the best boozer in the rest of the world is the place where I had my favourite session this year with my favourite people. Obviously then I am speaking about Hostomická nelevarna (sorry Evan), where my friends an I revelled in world class beer, great snacks, and the kind of time that only a great pub can produce.

That is also the reason that the Fuggled Boozer of the Year is also Hostomická nelevarna, a pub so small that I could in theory recreate it in one half of my garage if I had the skills. It is everything a proper old school boozer should be, unfussy, unpretentious, maybe a little rough around the edges, but with world class beer and the classic Czech vibe of being a place dedicated to the drinking beer with friends. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Fuggled Beer of the Year

Having whittled down my long lists to short lists, we come to the final beer list of my annual review, the winners of the three categories. To recap then, the winning beers were:
  • Pale - Fabián 10° - Pivovar Hostomice, CZ
  • Between Orange and Brown - Tabolcloth - Selvedge Brewing/Tabol Brewing, Virginia
  • Dark - Sláinte - Three Notch'd Brewing, Virginia

I knew when I was planning my trip to Prague that I would find the necessary time to get round to Pivovarská Nelevarna, the city tap for Pivovar Hostomice. I knew that I wanted to introduce my friends to what I think of as one of my favourite pubs on the planet, as well as, in my unhumble opinion, the best lagers in the Czech Republic. That Fabián 10° took the plaudits as the Fuggled Pale Beer of the Year was pretty much a shoe-in. My friends and I went to Pivovarská Nelevarna the night before we all had to head back to our parts of the world, met up with Evan as well, and drank exceedingly liberal amounts of desítka. Moreish, redolent with Czech Saaz hops, a nice bready malt body, and a finish that is both crisp and soft at the same time - don't ask me, it's just how it feels. It is drinking sessions like this that make it difficult to bother with desítky when I get back to Virginia because it just highlights to me again that you simply cannot make an authentic Czech style pale lager without the traditional process as much as ingredients. You know what I mean, and nothing will change my mind.

I mentioned in the post for beers between orange and brown, that I had made a mad dash across Charlottesville to try Tabolcloth from the 10 litre stichfaß, managing to snag the very last half litre as it kicked in under an hour. A week later and I was back at Selvedge Brewing to try the regular draft version of this delightful 5% vollbier inspired by Josh's love of Franconia - and not the one in Northern Virginia. Although this was a collaboration between Selvedge and Richmond's Tabol Brewing, there was a difference between the version available in Charlottesville and the one in Richmond. Selvedge had fermented theirs with TUM-35, a recently rediscovered Franconian yeast strain that I find leaves a slightly fuller body and a gently rustic character. I would often imagine drinking Tabolcloth sat in a village beer garden somewhere in the hinterlands of Franconia as I sat with yet another half litre. Tabolcloth was basically my beer of the summer this year, so often did I swing by Selvedge, either on draft or in crowlers for home drinking.

There is something about a regular strength, Irish style stout that I find deeply appealing, and in many ways I am sure this could apply to many of my favourite types of beer. It is deeply unfussy, unpretentious, and yet flavourful and invigorating. There is also something fun about having to order your second pint when you have had a mere mouthful or two of your first, simply so it can get up to the proper temperature. Three Notch'd Sláinte, once suitably warmed, had all the classic roasty flavours you expect from a stout, coffee, dark chocolate, slightly singed toast, and all so beautifully blended together that you could easily forget that it was only 4.2% abv, the medium full body belying it's relative lightness. It is the kind of beer that I wish was more readily available in my local brewery taprooms.

Choosing a single winner from these three beers is, as it seems to be every year, difficult, as were any one of them a permanent feature of drinking central VA, I would likely drink it an awful lot. However, only one of them could actually claim to have been drunk fairly regularly this year, and so the Fuggled Beer of the Year is...Tabolcloth Vollbier from both Selvedge Brewing and Tabol Brewing. It was simply wonderful, and I hope it makes a comeback when Selvedge open up in their new venue in the new year.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Fuggled Beers of the Year: Dark

Having meandered through the shades of ochre that makes up the spectrum from orange to brown, we move into the properly dark beer category. Let us then descend into the darkness...


  • Sláinte - Three Notch'd Brewing, Charlottesville
  • Spire City - Wheatland Spring Brewing, Waterford
  • London Porter - Superfly Brewing, Charlottesville
Honorable mentions: Break Out Your Wellies - Selvedge Brewing Company; Schwartz Bier - Devils Backbone Brewing, Roseland; Porter - Port City Brewing, Alexandria.

If you lingered around Fuggled for any reasonable length of time, you will no doubt have seen me comment about how Guinness was my first legal beer, on my 1th birthday at the Dark Island Hotel back home on Benbecula. Irish style dry stouts have long been one of my favourite styles, especially when watching the rugby - which this year included the World Cup, in which Scotland got the group from hell (seriously, Ireland AND South Africa in our group). Anyway, Derek, one of the owners of Three Notch'd is from Ireland, and a fellow rugby fan, all round good bloke, and randomly meeting him in a pub back in 2012 still counts as one of my favourite things since living in Charlottesville. So when we met at Three Notch'd to watch Scotland lose heroically to an excellent Ireland side in a magnificent game of running rugby, I was thrilled to see a 4.2% dry stout on tap, and once I had let it warm up to the proper temperature it was magnificent, I might even dare to say on a par with O'Hara's...

Rest of the US
  • Schwarz - Von Trapp Brewing, Stowe, VT
  • Karlův 13° - Schilling Beer Co., Littleton, NH
  • Dunkel - Von Trapp Brewing, Stowe, VT
An example of each of the major dark lager styles makes up the final three from the US in the dark beer category, dunkel, tmavé, schwarzbier. But the winner is, in my mind at least, clear. Von Trapp are one of my go-to breweries in general, and when they brought out a schwarzbier as a special release way back in February I was a happy camper. I have long been a fan of the style in general, I prefer the roastiness and dry finish of a schwarzbier to the sweeter finish of a dunkel or the more classic iterations of tmavé. Von Trapp's Schwarz is a little stronger than the Köstritzer, the extra body being very welcome. I hope they release it again soon.

Rest of the World
  • 14° Tmavý - Pivovar Hostomice, Hostomice, CZ
  • Antidepressant Autumn Dark Lager - Klášterní Pivovar Strahov, Prague, CZ
  • Svijanská Kněžna - Pivovar Svijany, Svijany, CZ
A clean sweep for Czech breweries and each of these beers was had with my best friends whilst wandering around Prague in November on an extended birthday shindig. The winner though is the one that I was most excited to see on tap, even though it wasn't listed on the menu when we arrived, is Strahov's lovely Autumn Dark Lager, one of the inspirations for the tmavě I designed for Devils Backbone back in 2010, called Morana. Lots of toasty bread, a subtle bitter cocoa note, and a nice sharp hoppy bite to snap everything back to attention makes this a far too easy to drink beer, and had we not had plans to meet up with friends later that day, I would happily have sat in the brewpub at Strahov and drunk it all afternoon and evening.

Friends and dark beers seems to have been a theme this year, indeed just yesterday I met up with a couple of friends here in Central Virginia, went to watch the Liverpool vs Arsenal match, and had the London Porter from Superfly Brewing mentioned above. The winner also ties in with a sporting event, in this case watching Ireland beat Scotland in the rugby world cup back in the autumn, Three Notch'd Brewing's Sláinte Irish style stout. A fantastic version of one of my go-to styles, and one that I wish were a regular part of the Three Notch'd lineup, especially if there is rugby to watch at the same time.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Fuggled Beers of the Year: Between Orange and Brown

BOAB is such a catchy little moniker isn't it? I almost changed it for ORB - orange, red, and brown - but having laid down a marker with BOAB, thus is shall remain. Let's look at the beers for this category though shall we?


  • Tabolcloth Vollbier - Selvedge Brewing, Charlottesville & Tabol Brewing, Richmond
  • Franconian Kellerbier - Port City Brewing, Alexandria
  • Alt Bier - Devils Backbone Brewing, Nellysford
Honorable mentions: O'Fest - Devils Backbone Brewing, Nellysford; 80/- - Decipher Brewing, Charlottesville; CU Later - Patch Brewing, Gordonsville; Dunkel - Caboose Brewing, Vienna.

Back in the dog days of summer and early days of autumn, I raced across Charlottesville to drop the twins off with Mrs V at her school so I could make to a taproom for a stichfaß of a new lager from a brewery I have come to love. The lager in question was inspired by the brewer's love of all things Franconian, and was a collaboration beer to boot. Obviously I am talking about Selvedge and Tabol's magnificent Tabolcloth vollbier, a 5% amber lager that simply reeked of Franconian rusticity, and I drank literally litres of it, both at Selvedge and at Tabol's taproom in Richmond. Beautiful to look at and a delight to drink.

Rest of the US
  • Copper - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, Charlotte, NC
  • Oktoberfest - Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA
  • Augustin - Schilling Beer Co., Littleton, NH
Having one of your favourite beers validated as an outstanding example of a style by someone you respect deeply is incredibly satisfying. So when Evan Rail posted to his Instagram account that he thought Olde Mecklenburg Copper was better than many altbiers from Düsseldorf I may have smiled broadly. The fact that it is a core part of the Olde Meck lineup means that I am able to stock up every time I pass through Charlotte to or from South Carolina. One of the things I appreciate most about Copper is that unlike many other US brewed altbiers, it doesn't use crystal malt, and thus isn't a brown syrupy mess of a beer. Proper ingredients and methods are so important.

Rest of the World
  • Polotmavé - Klášterní Pivovar Strahov, Prague, CZ
  • Arctic Pale Ale - Einstök Ölgerđ, Akureyri, IS
  • Oktober Fest-Märzen - Privatbrauerei Ayinger, Aying, DE
This one might come as a shock to some, but in a surprising turn of events, a top fermented beer beats out a pair of bottom fermented. Mrs V and I took the boys to Iceland this summer for 10 days and passing through the airport we took the advice to buy beer there on the way out rather than paying full price in a regular store. I picked up a 12 pack of Arctic Pale Ale mainly because I already knew it is good and a beer I will always happily drink. When we got to our accommodation and I broke out the cans to put into the fridge, I noticed the packaged on date was the week before we arrived in Iceland - seriously fresh beer. Wow, the hops in fresh Arctic Pale Ale absolutely pop and it took all my will power not to cane the 12 pack in a couple of sessions.

Three stellar beers from four breweries that never cease to impress me, each of them has earnt that special place in my world where I will try their more outlandish beers simply because I know they do the classics so damned well. As it is, I can only choose one beer to be the Fuggled BOAB of 2023, and that title goes to the Tabolcloth Vollbier collaboration brew from Selvedge Brewing and Tabol Brewing. Good beer in my world is the kind of brew that a single pint or half litre is simply not enough, and Tabolcloth was moreish beyond words. I hope that it becomes a regular feature at both breweries as it is a simply wonderful beer.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Fuggled Beers of the Year: Pale

Ah...the first day of two weeks of Yuletide holiday. Time to make mince pies, plan menus for the various festive days, and to wonder if I even bother buying beer given the amount of cider in the alcohol fridges. It is also time for the annual review of the year, which thanks to having managed to get out of the country a couple of times will include both a drinking den and a brewery of the year. As ever though, we start with pale beers, those that are yellow or golden, without veering too much into orange.

Each year I pick the top 3, plus any honorable mentions, in each category, from Virginia, the rest of the United States, and the rest of the world, culminating in an overall beer of the year for a given category. That said, let's crack on:


  • Kelheim Märzen - Tabol Brewing, Richmond
  • Yourn Czech Lager - Devils Backbone Brewing, Nellysford
  • Batiste - Selvedge Brewing, Charlottesville
Honorable mentions: Found Artifacts - Wheatland Spring Brewing, Waterford; Pylon Pilsner - Patch Brewing, Gordonsville; How Bout It - Black Narrows Brewing, Chincoteague.; Downright Pilsner - Port City Brewing, Alexandria.

This is always the hardest category to choose from as Virginia brewed pale beers, ok let's be honest, pale lagers, are my go to and so I drink far more of them than anything else. The winner though, and to be frank, choosing from among those three beers is a real challenge as I would happily only drink those beers all year if need be, is the beer that I having driven about 40 miles more than once for. Maybe it is his CEE heritage, maybe it is the well water that is basically an analogue for Plzeň, maybe it is decoction mashing, open fermentation, and extended horizontal lagering. Whatever it is, Jason Oliver at Devils Backbone simply knows how to knock it out of the park when making Czech style pale lagers, and Yourn, a 10° lager, was glorious. Simple as.

Rest of the USA
  • Keller Pils - TRVE Brewing, Denver, CO
  • Gold - Live Oak Brewing, Austin, TX
  • Captain Jack Pilsner - Olde Mecklenburg Brewing, Charlotte, NC
Honorable mentions: Überholt - Jack's Abby Craft Lagers, Framingham, MA; Purge Under Pilsner - Savage Craft Brewing, West Columbia, SC; Helles - Von Trapp Brewing, Stowe, VT; Jakobus - Schilling Brewing, Littleton, NH.

I was sat in the winning brewery's tap room, escaping from the heat - being a child of the north Atlantic, I don't do great with hot weather, especially when there is the option of an air-conditioned tap room. I ordered the winning beer, sat at a long trestle style table, and watched as a single tremulous bubble wandered its merry way up the side of the Willibecher glass. I tweeted at the time something along the lines of "proper lager isn't fizzy", and this was a proper, proper lager. I fully expected to crush on Live Oak Pilz when I visited their beer garden and taproom out near Austin airport, but their German style pilsner, Gold, stole my heart, it was everything you could want from a Bavaria style pilsner, and a banger in every sense of the word.

Rest of the World
  • Nr. 1 Bríó - Borg Brugghús, Reykjavik, IS
  • Fabián 10° - Pivovar Hostomice, Hostomice, CZ
  • Únětické Pivo 10° - Únětický Pivovar, Únětice, CZ
Honorable mentions: Tannenzäpfle - Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus, Grafenhausen-Rothaus, DE; Icelandic White Ale - Einstök Ölgerđ, Akureyri, IS.

Damn this is hard. While I was in Prague in November, Evan told me that for the first time in well over a century, 12° has overtaken 10° as the most regularly drunk strength of pale lager. My best friend Chris, who I met in Prague many, many years ago, and I though are devotees of the desítka and thus I guess old school. And it is old school that is the only way I can think to separate the pair of desítky, and even then it is decision between an old school village beer hall and an old school urban pivnice. It all comes down to intangibles I guess, and in my mind Hostomice's 10° has a certain rusticity that really appeals to me - I wish there was a better way to explain that, but I can't think of one off the top of my head.

Three absolutely world beating beers make the final three for the Fuggled Pale Beer of the Year, and I guess it will come as a surprise to precisely nobody as to which beer walks away with the plaudits and absence of monetary prize. Pivovar Hostomice make, in my as ever unhumble opinion, the best beers that I have ever had in Czechia. If I ever decided to upsticks again and move my family back to Czechia, having a local boozer that sold their beer would be a major plus in deciding where to live. Unfussy, uncomplicated (please don't confuse complicated with complex), and so moreish that day drinking could happily lead into all night drinking, Fabián 10° is beer at its best, not just Czech pale lager at its best.

Friday, December 1, 2023

The Simple Life of the Emperor

The year is 1879.

The famous Blackpool Illuminations are turned on for the first time.

John Henry Newman is raised to the position of cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, having converted from Anglicanism in 1845.

Fulham F.C. is founded.

In Vienna, Emperor Franz Joseph has been on the imperial throne for 31 years, having acceded in 1848, just 18 years old after the abdication of his uncle Ferdinand, and his father Franz Karl's renunciation of the throne.

I don't usually write about the lives of European royalty, but as I was researching something utterly unrelated on the French national newspaper archives website, RetroNews, I bumped into this little snippet.

La Patrie, the newspaper from which the above snippet it taken, was a conservative Bonapartist newspaper that was in print from 1841 to 1937, and on April 28th 1879 they published this brief guide to a day in the life of the Austrian Emperor.

Rising at 5 in the morning every day, starting the day with a cup of coffee and a cigar made with Virginian tobacco, La Patrie describes him as being "the greatest worker in the entire monarchy". Other than his morning coffee and cigar, the only thing we know, from this snippet, about his dining habits is that lunch was "very simple: black bread and Pilsner beer are on the table every day".

In 1870 Pilsner Urquell had become an official supplier to the Viennese Imperial Court, by which time the daily trainload of Pilsner Urquell to Vienna was well established. In 1885 the Emperor himself made the opposite journey to visit the brewery that was shaking up brewing across Europe. He is quoted as having said:
"it is rather odd that no brewery has been able to duplicate the singular and delicious taste of Pilsner beer".
While it has long been known that Pilsner Urquell was a popular brew in Vienna, one thing that caught my eye in the snippet was the idea that the ruler of largest empire in mainland Europe had his lunch table set every day with "black bread" as well as his Pilsner beer. It would be easy to assume that this bread, on which Franz Joseph chewed every day, would be some kind of pumpernickel, and so here I ended up going down the rabbit hole of what "black bread" would mean in an Austrian context.

Translating the French "pain noir" into the German "schwarzbrot" pointed me in the right direction as it would appear "schwarzbrot" is a traditional Austrian bread made primarily from wholegrain rye flour, and with a rye based sourdough starter. Hmmmm...this is starting to sound familiar you know. As I dug further, I came across a type of schwarzbrot called "hausbrot", which according to this post from The Bread She Bakes, is a classic Austrian bread made with mostly rye flour, some wheat or spelt flour, a sourdough starter, yeast, and "Austrian bread spices", a mixture of caraway, fennel, coriander, and anise. Hmmmm...this really is starting to sound very familiar.

One of the things I love about central Europe is the continuity of foods as you go from the Baltic to the Balkans, whether it's the staples of pork, cabbage, and dumplings or a seeded rye bread. There are regional variations of course, and it always makes me chuckle at everybody in the region claiming that their variation is the original.

I really can't think of anything more emblematic of central Europe than the image of the Emperor sitting down each lunchtime to the kind of bread and beer enjoyed by all classes within his empire. According to the piece in La Patrie, this simple life:
"without the slightest ostentation, entirely devoted to the happiness of his people, naturally explains the trust, respect and loyalty which are everywhere and so rightly shown to him."
Whether or not that is true I don't have any clue, but at least he had good taste in beer and bread.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

In Praise of...Czech Beer Snacks

The very first post of 2023 on here was "Year of Czech...Snacks", in which I held forth on the notion that if 2023 was to be the "Year of Czech Beer" then I really hoped that we would also see more elements of Czech beer culture come to the fore. With just a few weeks until the end of the year, I can honestly say that I have not really seen a noticeable increase in the number of Czech style lagers available in this part of the world. The cynical side of me kind of wonders though if "America", when it comes to beer trends, is largely limited to the West Coast, Colorado, and New England. Czech beer styles really haven't swept the nation in any meaningful way, and I say that with a tinge of regret, for obvious reasons, and a tinge of relief for equally obvious reasons if you know me at all.

Anyway, unless you have been under a rock recently, you will know that I spent a few days back in Czechia a couple of weeks ago. As you can tell from the last pair of posts, I drank a lot of seriously good beer, and there are several places and beers that I simply haven't mentioned. Drinking tankové Svijany in a pub in Malá Strana was a delight, as was Plzeňský Prazdroj at Pod Petřínem, all of which happened before midday. While it is true that Czechs make the best beers in the world, sorry everyone else, they also have the kind of pub culture that resonates most with me - admittedly my decade living in the city sorely colours that, but for a deeply shy person (I know some of you will be stunned by that admission), Czech pub culture is a safe space lacking the forced bonhomie of much of the modern Anglophonic world.

Essential to such a pub culture are snacks, small bites of something to mop up the booze that is going down in prodigious amounts. Sure, many tap rooms and bars over here do snacks, but a side of fries or a pile of tortilla chips with cheese just don't do much for me.

On the Friday afternoon, I got to introduce Dave and Chris to the place that is, for me, the epitome of a proper Czech pub. A place that doesn't have a bank of taps serving dozens of beers from breweries of varying quality, there were only 3 beers on tap that day. A place that doesn't have garish lighting, modern fixtures and fittings, or a sign in English, or even a menu in English. A space with just the bar and about 6 tables total, I have said this many times, but if I had the building skills to do so, I could replicate it pretty closely in one half of my garage. I am referring, of course, to Hostomická nelevarna (sorry Evan for drawing more attention to it), the brewery tap for Pivovar Hostomice, and a bastion of Czech pub culture in an ever more westernised (read generic) experience in Prague.

As Chris and I were starting our journeys home the next day, we were planning to only have a few pints before relatively early nights. Well, that was the plan, but it went out the window. The only picture I took while we were there was this one.

Despite the mug of desítka in the foreground, that was not the focal point of the picture, rather the three plates and basket between it and the glass in the background. When the munchies hit, we looked at the board of available snacks and just decided to get one of each of the options, knowing that they all came with bread. And, so we had nakládaný hermelín, utopenec, and škvarková pomazánka, with classic Šumavský chleb to spread all the unctuous goodness onto. I am not going to go into detail about how to make the snacks, I did that in the post from January, though since being back I realise that Mrs V and I sorely need to make more of the first two, and I really need to get on with making my own škvarková pomazánka.

While this is the only picture of snacks that I bothered to take, we had similar morsels in several of the places we went to, always accompanied by dense, chewy Czech bread. At Únětice we had a delicious game pâté, and at Pivovarský klub a magnificent duck liver pâté and more škvarková pomazánka. All of this delightful food got me thinking about what makes a good pub snack?

Let's start with the basics, it can't be fiddly. Food that you have to mess about with is a pain in the prdel in general, but when it is accompanying good beer and fine conversation, it is even more important that it be easy to eat. When I think specifically about Czech pub snacks, grease is the word. Nakládaný hermelín, a piquantly spiced wheel of soft cheese, somewhat akin to Brie or Camenbert, is marinaded in oil, and served with a pool of said highly flavoured oil. To eat it, you smoosh the cheese, oil, onions, and any of the spice paste that came along with it into an unctuous goo to be spread on a slice of the dense bread. While not marinaded in oil, the škvarková pomazánka being made with lard and crispy bits of unrendered meat is likewise a study in greasiness, again spread on a slab of rye bread.

The more I think about it though, I think the key is actually the bread. Now, I will happily own the fact that I am a big fan of Czech bread. I love that it isn't some fluffy, light, airy nonsense, but rather dense, chewy, and it sticks to your ribs. Sure, you can buy seeded rye bread here in the US, and while it may taste similar, it doesn't hold a candle to Czech rye bread. The tight crumb is ideal for spreading whatever cheese or meat based snack it is that you want with your beer. Another superb traditional Czech pub snack is some form of topinky, basically fried bread, sometimes with a topping like a cheese paste, or with cloves of garlic to be rubbed across the crispy bread.

I feel as though I could wax lyrical about Czech pub grub ad nauseum, but for the sake of my grumbling stomach I will stop, and work out some plans to make more versions of my own.

Monday, November 27, 2023


I worked out the other day that each day I was in Prague I walked about 7-8km, which is about 4.5-5 miles in old money. The longest walk though was on the Thursday, when I dragged my mate Dave - well ok then, not much dragging was involved - up to the park at Letna to recreate one of my favourite wanders from when Mrs V and I called Prague "home".

Taking the tram to Letenské náměstí we walked to the edge of the park that overlooks the Vltava, along the escarpment to the Metronom where once the world's biggest statue of Stalin stared out at the city. We carried on, eventually to the castle, and thence on to the abbey at Strahov and a place that I was gutted I failed to visit back in 2019, Klášterní Pivovar Strahov. Strahov, both the abbey and the brewery are special places in my world, perhaps even liminal in that I always feel a deep sense of peace and well being there. I have been fortunate enough to go into the abbey beyond the usual tourist realms, by virtue of a friend of mine being friends with a priest who ministered to the brothers there - I even got to sign the visitors book on the same page as King Charles, though he was merely the Prince of Wales at the time.

Strahov's flagship 13° polotmavé was the hair of the dog that day, and very welcome it was too after walking for quite a while. It was pretty much everything I recalled from many years ago, solidly tasty amber lager, very much in the mold of what most folks call a Vienna lager. We sat outside in the courtyard to begin with, but it was a touch nippy, especially when the sun ducked behind the clouds, and so we took up stations at the bar inside, and I perused the beer menu, gutted that the Autumn Dark Lager was not on the list.  For reasons that escape my mind right now I decided to take a look at the tap clips and discovered to my delight that the dark was on tap, just not on the list, an executive decision was taken and two pints were soon in front of Dave and I.

When I designed Morana for Devils Backbone in the dim and distant past, this was one of the inspirations, and I traded emails with the brewer at the time, Adam Matuška, who went on to create Pivovar Matuška with his father Martin. Now, some 13 years later it still hit the spot perfectly. I then did something that would likely have had many of my friends here in the US scratching their heads and wondering if I had taken leave of my senses. I ordered their current special, a doppelbock flavoured with povidla, that's plum jam to you, poppy seeds, and vanilla.

It was lovely, like a koláč in a glass. Admittedly it would have been all the more lovely if the vanilla had not been bothered with, I am yet to have any beer, by any brewery, or in any style, where vanilla has actually made a positive difference. If you want that flavour profile, a little whisky barrel aging will serve you better. My willingness to try it though highlights something that I really feel is important, being able to trust a brewer to make quality classic beers. I will try something like this doppelbock purely because the brewery has shown to me that they are competent technical brewers rather than just clowns tossing shit around. One was enough, but I enjoyed it. And off we the most beautiful view of Prague, the one from the path on Petřín hill.

I will never tire of this view, I could have stood there all afternoon just gazing at the city that for 10 years I called home, though this time tinged with melancholy. I was missing Mrs V, and the Malé Aličky, and promised myself that next time I come back to Prague, they will be coming with me. Several times as we strolled through the orchards on the side of the hill, I stopped and just listened, marvelling that such peace and quiet is still possible in a major European capital city. Coming off the hill at Ujezd I spied a brewery sign I hadn't seen in many years, that of Primátor, and then noticed the sign behind it was for one of our old hangouts, Dobrá Trafika.

Serendipity was calling my name, so obviously we stopped in for one, or maybe 4. It was as if time had stood still, nothing had changed. Even the other customers could so easily have been plucked from one of Mrs V and I's many visits back in the Noughties. Dobra Trafika has always attracted a young, artistic crowd, and today it was no different, other than a pair of 40 somethings drinking jedenáctka.

Time was getting on, and threatening to get away from us. We still needed to meet up with my mate Chris for dinner before heading up to u Slovanské lipy to meet up with as many folks as possible given the short amount of time I was in Prague. As in 2019 my hotel was 2 doors down from Pivovarský klub, though these days owned by Břevnovský Pivovar and having been renovated with a very sleek, modern aesthetic. Where once the house dvanáctka was Štěpán, today it is Benedict, one of the most flavourful, bracingly bitter, and intensely hop forward Czech pale lagers you will find in Prague. I am a big fan for sure.

Refreshed, both with liquid and food, we took the bus up to Tachovské náměstí, u Slovanské lipy, and an eclectic gaggle of friends with whom to roll back the years, and it was in so many ways like old times, both in people and place. 

To bylo dokonalost.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

An Out of Prague Pilgrimage

I was in Prague last week for a few days.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to be in Amsterdam for a conference in the middle of November, he pointed out that I may as well make use of the whole being in Europe anyway thing and hop over to Prague. Naturally I agreed entirely, and so did my best friends, one that lives in Slovakia and the other in Boston.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the last few months trying to decide what breweries and pubs I definitely wanted to get to, and often it came down to a choice of 2 for an out of town excursion, Únětice or Hostomice. I even considered the possibly of doing both in a single day, then looked at the logistics of public transport and train, yeah, no. It is a mere 60km, or 37 miles, from one to the other, but it would take 4 hours by public transport and train, so no. The deciding factor was the fact that Hostomice has a brewery tap in Prague itself, so we got the metro to Dejvická and bus 355 to Únětice, Na Parcelách, wandered down the hill a wee bit and stumbled into the cavernous, and practically empty on a Wednesday night brewery beer hall.

We didn't care that it was empty, only that it was open. Also need to give a shout out to the ticket inspector that we met on the way. For those who remember Prague ticket inspectors of the Noughties, you will understand the cognitive dissonance of a younger guy who was polite, helpful, and when my Czech ran out, spoke good English. My best mate that came up from Slovakia speaks very good Slovak, but as the Czech Republic and Slovakia drift further apart in terms of shared tv channels and the like, it seems fewer and fewer young Czechs readily understand Slovak. Anyway, having checked our main tickets on the metro, he then got on the bus out to Únětice, for which we had got the required additional ticket. I seem to recall him nodding appreciatively when we told him we were going to the brewery.

Any way, back to the brewery beer hall - sorry but terms like "taproom" or "pub" just don't do justice to central European beer halls, even though they serve the same purpose. I fully expected to sit down and order a half litre of 10° pale lager, yet my heart leapt when I saw the magic word "tuplák", which in Germany would be called a maß. My first beer in Únětice would be a litre of their desítka, and I knew right then that many of my favourite US made Czech style lagers would struggle for my attention when I got home.

If I remember rightly from a conversation with Evan Rail, recently the venerable 10° has been overtaken as the most commonly drunk Czech pale lager, usurped by it's stronger brother the 12°. My mate that lives in Slovakia and I though are devotees of the old school and love desítka, Únětice's is as classic a classic as you could ask for, and I may have wondered out loud more than once why it is that US made 10° lagers for all their trumpeting of authenticity and faithfulness to Bohemian beer just consistently fall a little short of the real thing, and that includes those that take the time to do decoction mashing, etc, etc. Maybe it's a sitz im leben thing, I really can't tell, and maybe it is ostalgic (not a typo) revelry on my part, maybe it's the firm 30+ IBUs that are crammed into the best Czech desítky? 

I am sure I followed the tuplák with another, this time with the filtered 10.7°, and then eventually the 12°, I wasn't taking notes, and clearly as the only 2 pictures I took are on this post, I was doing a shoddy job of thinking about blog content. That just wasn't the point of the visit, we were there to enjoy absolutely world class beer in supreme company. I do regret though not taking a picture of the game pâté that was a revelation, various forms of meat products and Czech bread were to be a feature of the trip.

Anyway, if you're ever in Prague, take the time to make the trip out to Únětice for some of the best beer on the planet and if meaty snacks with rye bread are your thing, that too.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

My House, My Rules

A couple of weeks back I wrote a post about the concept of a "house beer", in which I ask the question:

"which of your brews is the one that is the highest expression of you as a brewer, of the business that is your brewery? Which one would you stake your entire reputation on?"

Having put that question out there into the interwebs, several friends have asked me which of my various beers that I brew would I consider my "house beer"?

Obviously, here I am talking about my homebrew rather than any of the recipes I have provided to professional brewers. As such, while I love Morana to bits, my tmavé that was first brewed in 2010 with Devils Backbone and coincidently again this week, I would not call it my house beer as I haven't brewed my own version of it in over a decade. The same could be said of Session/Bitter 42, a best bitter that I did with Three Notch'd Brewing, and hasn't seen the light of their brewpub for nearly 4 years now.

However, in terms of the style of my house beer, it is a best bitter, for the very simple reason that any kind of bitter, other than overly heavy stabs at ESB (seriously American brewers stop making them all grain and use some invert sugar to lighten the load and enhance drinkability), is rarer than a speckled hen's tooth. I do have an ordinary bitter recipe that I will brew from time to time, but it is my best bitter that I probably brew more than anything else, at least 4 times a year, or about a third of all my brewing projects.

The recipe does have similarities with Session/Bitter 42 in that I don't use any crystal malts at all, my single specialty malt is a biscuit malt, the Three Notch'd version uses Briess Victory malt. I moved away from Victory for my version as I prefer the sweeter character of biscuit to the toastier notes in Victory, it rounds out the beer for me. In terms of base malt, I have also moved away from using one of the "traditional" British pale malts (fun fact, Golden Promise long ago stopped being Scotland's barley of choice, the most common these days for malting and brewing is a variety called Laureate). My base malt of choice is Murphy & Rude English Pale Malt, which is a tad bit darker than their standard pale malt, but still uses Virginia grown barley. I have made it my goal to use exclusively Murphy & Rude malt where possible, and I feel that using seriously fresh malt has made my beer several steps better than previously.

The grist then for my house best bitter then is:

  • 88% Murphy & Rude English Pale malt
  • 12% Murphy & Rude Biscuit malt
Hops is one part of this recipe that I change pretty often, purely on a whim. The classic version though uses East Kent Goldings to get about 40 IBUs, a little bit lower than the 42 IBU that goes into Session/Bitter 42. The targeted number of IBUs at each addition is pretty much set in stone regardless of the hop variety in use:
  • 25 IBU for 60 minutes
  • 10 IBU for 15 minutes
  • 5 IBU for 5 minutes
When it comes to yeast choice, I will happily admit that I use one particular strain far more than any other whether I am brewing my brown ale, stout, or best bitter. I love the reliability and character of SafAle S-04, the very subtle floral and fruity esters play nicely with the malt in particular. Oh and it flocculates superbly, leaving me with a lovely clear beer without having to fine my brews with isinglass or gelatin.

The water just comes straight out of my well.

Assuming everything goes to plan when I brew my best bitter, which I don't really have a name for beyond [hop variety] Best Bitter, I end up with something like this in the glass.

Can't be bad, eh?

Thursday, October 26, 2023

What Price a Pint?

Yesterday, the following image popped up in my various socials:

Said image was accompanied by the following text:
"Starting today all pints will be $3.50. Share, spread the word, and show us some love so we can keep it going for the full month… or forever, should the response be undeniable; either way, this is the price that pilsners should be. Come and take advantage!"

Three things immediately sprang to mind, firstly that is a damned fine looking pint, secondly, I don't think I have ever paid $3.50 for a pint of beer in my 14 years living in Virginia, and thirdly bravo to Tabol Brewing!

Tabol Brewing are based in Richmond, and given that I very rarely go that way I have yet to actually get to their taproom, where all pints are now $3.50. I have, however, had a few of their beers in cans, on tap at Beer Run, or in the case of my favourite beer of late summer/autumn their collaboration Franconia inspired vollbier with Selvedge Brewing. Everything I have had from them has been superb, and the vollbier, Tabolcloth, is very much a contender for the Fuggled beer of the year.

A while back, I wrote a post about what the price of a pint would be if we followed the pricing restrictions of Reinheitsgebot as well as the ingredients, and unless my maths is entirely atrocious (eminently possible), based on the average daily wages of a manual labourer in Virginia and it's purchasing power compared to 16th century equivalents, Tabol's new price point is pretty close.

I reached out to Travis at Tabol to share the post I mention above, and while he admitted that he could "proffer zero opinions with regard to the maths of the various European currencies" he did tell me his reasoning behind the change:

"my cans are sold, to-go, at $3.50 a piece in their 4 packs and more expensive packaging. I figured I could cut my pint prices in half, and still be making as good or better profit than my to-go sales in cans".

I have long muttered under my breath about the price of a pint at a brewery's taproom, especially when you consider the number of markups removed from the brewery to drinker process when you buy a pint in the taproom. To see a brewery actually take action on behalf of the consumer then is both refreshing and in my opinion absolutely fantastic.

Travis continued:

"I'd like the working man's beverage to be affordable. I just want to know it it's enticing enough to drop the price. Instead of seeking hype and notoriety for a brand, maybe my traditional style lagers should be more traditional in price? If we can make it work".

I am pretty sure this move it going to stir the pot in craft brewing circles in Virginia, especially given the number of breweries where they are changing $7 and upwards for a pint at their taproom. I am sure that Travis and the Tabol team have considered all the economic implications around the change, and to be perfectly honest I desperately want them to succeed, even though I am unlikely to get to Richmond any time soon and take advantage of $3.50 pints of superb lagers.

I also love the fact that Tabol don't shy away from the fact that beer is the everyman drink rather than a niche product for the upper middle classes. I realise every brewery is different, and for many where their primary outlet is a brewpub, dropping prices so dramatically might not be possible given the added overheads of being a restaurant. But where a brewery's taproom is exactly that, a place to drink a brewery's beer, in situ, as fresh as fresh could possibly be, without the additional logistical steps that drive up the price, then cheaper than draft or packaged retail should be the norm. If this move drives down the cost of a beer, that is a good thing in my world. After all, isn't that one of the supposed benefits of increased competition? 

We have shit loads of breweries now, so why are prices not coming down in line with the alleged economic orthodoxy that increased competition is good for consumers?

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

House Rules?

Blimey, it's been a while since I posted, these things happen from time to time, you know how it is...

Anyway, a few weekends ago I was touring cideries as research for a book I am writing about the cider industry in Virginia, scheduled for release next year. One of the places I visited, with my long time collaborator, photographer, and all round good bloke, Mark, was Troddenvale Cider.

Troddenvale Cider is located on the historic Oakley Farm, owned and run by husband and wife duo, Will and Cornelia. The farm is set in some of the most glorious countryside that we have in Virginia, deep in Bath County, among the valleys and mountains that form the Blue Ridge. To say I reveled in the drive from Lexington to Warm Springs would have been an understatement.

Coming from a wine background, Will and Cornelia approach cider from the viewpoint of it being the highest expression of the fruit that they press, and as such they are insanely patient as their pressings ferment and age in wooden barrels for months, and even years at a time. Their orchard, just a few years old but already producing apples for the press, contains several French and Spanish cider apple varieties as well as many of the American standards.

Their tasting room, and to be honest that term is simply insufficient for the delightful space where they serve their ciders, it really reminded me far more of a country pub, is a charming space that if we didn't have an appointment in Monterey, Virginia to get to, I could have happily sat in all day drinking their stunning cider. When time allows I will be taking Mrs V over the mountains for a tip.

While it is true that the single varietal made from Dolgo Crab Apples that is in the picture above was an absolute revelation - puckeringly dry, intensely fruity, with aromas of strawberry and cranberry, and it goes absolutely stonkingly with a West Country farmhouse cheddar (shock, horror, right?), I have been thinking about the "House Cider" since that trip.

More specifically I have been thinking about something Will said about their House Cider. Given their oenological background, Will lamented that the term "house" has come to mean the most basic wine on offer, something almost cheap and cheerful, but decidedly not excellent. His aim with House Cider is to be the exact opposite, to be the very best that Troddenvale puts out, and it is a magnificent cider, easily up there with the best being made in Virginia today, no I didn't take notes, I was too busy enjoying it.

This got me thinking about the concept of "house" products when it comes to beer. We quite often use the term "house beer" in homebrewing circles to refer to something that we brew regularly, but I don't recall a brewery, at least not in my neck of the woods, hanging their entire reputation as a brewery on a single "house" beer. Is it perhaps that modern beer drinkers are constantly on the hunt for the new, or is it a case of fear of missing out by not pushing every possible style out the door in case the crowds choose to go somewhere else?

I feel as though the concept of a "house beer" is distinct from flagship beers in the sense that flagships are often based on commercial decisions. Plenty of breweries come out the door with their flagship beers and as commercial reality bites they often change. Flagships are more often than not just the best selling beers a brewery offers.

Quite often in interviews with brewers, and I have done this myself, we ask the question "what is your favourite beer that you brew?" Invariably there follows some umming and ahhing, mutterings of chosen your favourite child, before a beer is chosen. Perhaps a better question would be "what is you house beer?" as in, which of your brews is the one that is the highest expression of you as a brewer, of the business that is your brewery? Which one would you stake your entire reputation on?

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Taking Up the Alworth #MyDreamBrewery Baton

We've all done it I am sure, dreamt about what our ideal brewery or pub would look like. I have done it many times, whether sat in a taproom with a drink or sat at a desk letting the mind wander, I may even have written about it once or twice in various media. Jeff Alworth over at Beervana wrote a great post a few days ago about his dream brewery, which in a stunning turn of events turned into a dream pub - his dream after all. The thing with dreams, even the nighttime type, is that they evolve and change with new inputs from our waking lives, and so while I recognise much of my dream pub in 2016, I have an additional 7 years of lived experience to integrate.

In keeping with Jeff's post, I am not going to attempt to name my pub, though in the various business plans I have written over the years (yes, I have got to the point of writing business plans several times) there have been names, but they all seem cheesy to me now.


Given this is, now, my dream I find that as I grow steadily older, the grey in my beard is migrating beyond just my chin, I have a deep longing to "go home". That's not to say that I am unhappy in central Virginia, far from it, I love living here and it would genuinely grieve me to leave behind the couple of acres of land that I have planted fruit trees on. However, my family holiday to Iceland earlier this summer reminded me of the deeper magic. I am not Icelandic, obviously, but I am a child of the North Atlantic. I grew up mostly in the Hebrides, my ancestry is overwhelmingly from the coastal communities that ring the North Sea, and this summer again I remembered just how much that world resonates with me. I am not talking here about being a beach bum, I hate sand with a passion, but being by the North Atlantic for an extended period of time again just made me feel reconnected in a way that is hard to explain.

One afternoon in Iceland we were sat at the local cafe, watching the twins play among the rocks and pools of the inlet, much like my little brother and I did when we were their age, when a group of Icelandic women joined us at our table as we had space and they needed it - I love that aspect of European social life. We got speaking with them, Mrs V about knitting, me about mythology and the shared worldview of Northern Atlantic people - one where we don't see a barrier in the ocean but a highway, we share stories, the names may be different but the themes are common, much like the stories of the Carpathian Mountains as they wend their way through Central Europe.

So my dream pub would be by the North Atlantic ocean, whether clinging to a vík or sitting just off the machair, the ocean is an all pervading presence, the smell of the sea permeating everything, the cry of sea birds echoing, low clouds scuttling across the gun metal sea, both broody in its darkness, and enervating in its lightness.

As to the building itself, the apostate in me loves the simple architecture of churches, whether presbyterian of some degree of freeness, continuity, or associatedness (IYKYK) or Lutheran. Simple, solid, battered by storms, defiant, a comfort, seemingly hewn from the very rock of the islands themselves, reminders of the great halls of old. My pub is a place of community, a place where all are welcome, and welcomed, my pub is not truly mine, it is the community's, I am the custodian.

This will no doubt come to the horror of many, but kids will be fine, assuming that they have parents who are responsible and considerate of the place they are in. In my experience the problem is rarely the children but invariably the parents deciding to use the pub as a nursery with booze for the adults. So, your kids will be welcome, they are part of the community after all, and how will they learn how to behave in a pub if they are excluded? However, you will be asked to leave if you are not managing them well, and if it becomes a regular thing, you will be asked to only come without them in future.

In the 2016 post on this theme, I mentioned that I would want my pub to have rooms so that people could find a place that suits them. Given my great hall style architecture though, discrete spaces would be created through furniture and furnishings rather than walls. You will be able to find a place to hide as much as a place to be seen. I also mentioned that the day's newspapers would be available, which is something I would maintain, but expand to have a wall of books available for reading, many of my favourite drinking sessions have involved me losing myself in a book. I would hand pick many of the authors on the shelves, Seamus Heaney, Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Umberto Eco, Iain Banks, there would be non-fiction as well as novels, poetry, and sagas.

There will be no television.

Did I mention the fireplace? It will be large, and when the weather requires it will be roaring, fed a steady stream of wood and peat - you will have to love the smell of peat smoke to really enjoy the place in winter when the North Atlantic roils and crashes on the rocks. I imagine the Scottish deerhound of my dreams (he'd be called Wulver) stretched out on the stone hearth.

The Offer

This is my pub, so what will be on the taps? In common with the last time I pondered on my dream pub, I will not be having a bank of dozens of taps lined up on the wall. For a long time now I have thought that the optimum number of taps is 6, pure coincidence I am sure that 6 taps is how many there are at Pivovarský klub...

Of those 6 taps I would be keeping 4 within defined characteristics, not given over to any particular brewery, my pub is resolutely a free house. The remaining pair of taps would be split between a seasonal style and whatever special one-offs I feel like putting on. With this being a pub in dreamland, there are no dumbass three tier distribution systems in play, I can buy directly from the brewery, oh and the notion of tariffs and import customs have been consigned to the dung heap of history, so I can get exactly what I want, when I want it.

My pub is primarily a session pub, a fact reflected in the 4 regular taps, with strong beers being reserved for seasonals, specialties, or the range of bottled beers. Tap 1 is pale lagers with starting gravities below 14°, so an ABV of 5.5% or less. Tap 2 is for bitter, regardless of colour or strength, so a rotating tap of ordinary, best, and extra special. Tap 3 again sticks to an ABV below 5.5%, but this time features amber, red, or brown beers, top or bottom fermented, it will have the most range, sometimes with Vienna lager, sometimes mild, sometimes Oud Bruin. The 4th tap is for the truly dark beers, and here the ABV ceiling is a bit higher at 6.5%, get ready for tmavé pivo, American porter, Export Stout, night cap beers.

My bottle cellar would be well stocked in the rarer and stronger beers, Fullers Vintage Ale would feature, as would North Coast Old Stock Ale, Samichlaus, and Sierra Nevada's Narwahl. It would be fun to find a local brewery to contract specialty brews specifically for the pub, my current fascination, as a result of an article by Lars Marius Garshol, is Danish skibsøl, or "ship's beer", a low gravity smoked beer that was an essential part of the daily ration in the 19th century Danish navy. 

Cider would also feature, though here I get particularly snooty as my preferences in cider veer very strongly to the traditional. I would keep a healthy stock of Albemarle Ciderworks, Big Fish Cider, and Castle Hill Cider products in the cellar. Cider has long been my summer booze of choice, going back to my early drinking days when I wanted something lighter and more refreshing than beer. Traditional, artisanal, cider and perry will always find a place in my offerings, and in the case of Albemarle Ciderworks, I would be buying as much of their Harrison and Dabinett blend as I can lay hands upon.

This will likely sound contradictory given the stated aim of tap 1 and the previous paragraph, but my pub will always give precedence to local products, not just those made locally, but those using local inputs in their creations. If I were able to source a great pilsner, made with locally grown barley that was malted locally, and then hopped with locally grown hops, then I will have that on tap regularly as supporting fellow local businesses would be important to me.

It is in this spirit that I would be sourcing food for the pub. My interest is in booze, I have no ambition to own and run a restaurant, but brought in pub grub, sure. Fun fact, my first ever paying job was making hot water crust pie shells for the bakery in the village I lived in. Said cases were filled with minced lamb to form the traditional Scottish meat pie, but also chicken curry, and the ever popular sausage, beans, and mash. Assuming such a place was within striking distance of the pub, I'd be selling a range of hot water crust pies, sausage rolls, and pasties. I might consider a daily pot of soup or stew, bringing in fresh bread from the bakery as well. You might see a bit of a theme here, I like simple hearty food, nothing fancy with juliennes of this or gastriques of that, peasant food. I once had this daft notion that a peasant focused restaurant called "The Hearty Peasant" would be fun, but then remembered I have no ambition to run a restaurant.

My hope is that my pub would be a place of solace, a place of joy, a place of intellectual stimulation, a place of discovery, a place where people of good faith find community. And in the heart of it all, you will find me, behind the bar serving great beer.

* Yes that is me in the last picture, my youngest son was messing with my phone in a restaurant in Arnarstapi, Iceland while I was lost in thought. I think he has a good eye for one so wee.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Flying Through Columbia

You can tell the end of July is approaching in VelkyAl world because I am invariably in Columbia, South Carolina, on the way back from a beach week in Florida. Rather than drive 12 hours to central Virginia, Mrs V and I take a few days at the in-laws' place, and this year I decided to be like a beer tourist and actually get round to a few taprooms rather than just picking up cans of local stuff at Bottles. 

Being at the in-laws' place also gives us built in babysitters so Mrs V and I can engage in shocking behaviour like having a few hours social life sans enfants. So we went to Savage Craft Ale Works on Saturday night. We had originally planned to go there way back in spring when we were last here, I don't remember why we changed our minds, but I was glad to finally get out to the fantastically renovated space in West Columbia.

Looking up their website before we headed out, I saw those wonderful, magical words that mean so much in my world, yes you know the ones "German pilsner", and then looking at the name of it "Purge Under Pilsner" a bell began to ring. It struck me that purely by change I had picked up a four pack of their pilsner at Bottles, largely because the can mentions decoction mashing. Yes, I am predictable, I know.

Given that I was out on one of the rare occasions my wife and I manage to get away for some adult time, I wasn't taking details notes, but Purge Under Pilsner is a lovely German style pils. Nicely bitter, good cereal malt character, and a clean finish that is long as midsummers in Iceland, just the kind of beer I love. I tried their American style pale ale too, and it hit all the right notes. Maybe next time I am in Columbia I'd get round and try more of their range, but suffice to say that Savage Craft is a welcome addition to the city's improving beer scene.

Notes were however very much part of my plan for the following afternoon. While Mrs V and the twins swam in the pool, I ventured off to hunt out some of the taprooms of Columbia's breweries that I hadn't visited before. I mentioned I am a terrible beer tourist, right?

First up on my list of places to go to was Hunter Gatherer, a brewery I have written about before, and one I have a very large soft spot for. Their brewpub, aka "the Alehouse", in the centre of Columbia is one of my favourite places to drink, it has the perfect old school craft brewpub vibe, but I had not got to their production brewery before.

The newer venue is known as the Hangar, and is, somewhat unsurprisingly, located in an old airport hangar. Known as the Curtiss-Wright Hangar, the building was erected in 1929 as part of Columbia's original airport, known in the area as Owens Field. Finding myself a seat at the bar, I ordered my first flight of the day...

The four beers I chose were:
  • Lager 29 - 5% copper lager
  • Golden Ale - 4.5% blonde ale
  • Pale Ale - 4.7% English Pale Ale
  • ESB - 5.2% Extra Special Bitter
Rather than bore you all to tears with my tasting notes, I will say that all four beers were very good, clearly well made by proficient brewers, and I would happily drink any of them, but in plumping for a pint I went for the Pale Ale. At 4.7% it really is in the best bitter world, but US drinkers seem to have an aversion to the concept of "bitter" and hence you end up with English Pale Ale, Pub Ale, or some other moniker that avoids the concept of bitterness. Pouring a dark gold, with flashes of orange, and a decent white head, it actually looks somewhat like Timothy Taylor Landlord or Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted. The aroma was mostly cookie dough, laced with spicy hops and a hint of stone fruits in the background. Tastewise, the cookie dough became more like digestive biscuits (is there a better biccy in the world?), and again the spicy English hops shone through, and the light stone fruit flavours were present as well. It's a really nice beer, and if I hadn't been planning to get to at least a couple more breweries, I'd have done my usual and thrown the plan out the window.

The next brewery on my list was River Rat, another brewery whose products I have had and enjoyed either in Columbia itself or brought back home to central Virginia - indeed they have made the Fuggled Review of the Year a couple of times. It was stinkingly hot on Sunday in South Carolina, so I was very relieved to find a parking place completely shaded by trees, even after a mere 5 minute drive from Hunter Gatherer. Again I found myself a seat at the bar and ordered a flight, this time a set of 6 rather than 4, oh and my second pint of water for the afternoon - hydration is important folks.

Included in my wheel of beer this time were:
  • Luminescent Lager - 4% American Light Lager
  • Dry Hopped Pilsner - 4.9 American Pilsner
  • Broad River Red Ale - 5.3% American Amber
  • American Kölsch Story - 5% Kölsch
  • Hazelnut Brown Ale - 5.4% Brown
  • My Morning Stout - 6% Stout
This time round my selections were much more of a mixed bag. Nothing was terrible, or to be honest even bad, but the first four in my flight left me underwhelmed. The Luminescent was thin and watery, and I get that American Light lagers are, in the words of the old joke, like making love in a canoe, but experience has taught me they really do not have to be. I have had some wonderful light lagers brewed with corn in the last year or so, whether at Black Narrows in Virginia or TRVE Brewing in Denver. I felt the pilsner had a rough, vegetal bitterness that did nothing for me, and the Kölsch and Red were decent. However, the Hazelnut Brown Ale was a delight, maybe it had been sitting in the heat for just long enough to reach cellar temperature, but the lovely nutty character coupled with a subtle, earthy hop note was delightful, even at 95° Fahrenheit. The stout was also very nice, striking the ideal balance of milk chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, and espresso. I decided not to have a pint of anything, being a vaguely responsible human being from time to time, and I had one more brewery that I wanted to get to, but it was shut. I am clearly illiterate as I had checked Google before heading out and missed the fact that "Opens at 2pm" means something entirely different when you remember to read the "on Monday" part of the sentence.

So I went to Steel Hands Brewing instead, winding my way from West Columbia to Cayce, over some railway tracks, down by a steel mill, and parking in the the glaring sun. There was a band just winding up their set as I arrived, major kudos to them for playing outside in that heat. Before the baking heat could weld the soles of my sandals to the pavement I made my way inside and ordered my third and final flight of the day.

My choices for this particular foursome were:
  • Lager - 4.7% pale lager
  • Run for the Pils - 5% German style Pilsner
  • German Amber Lager - 5.3% Düsseldorf Altbier
  • Dunkel - 5.5% Munich Dunkel
Fun fact, I had been led to believe at River Rat that Steel Hands was the kind of brewery I am not wildly fond of, specialising in beers with lots of silly shit chucked in. To be frank I am glad that I applied a hermeneutic of suspicion and checked out their website to confirm I could get some brews in styles I am a fan of. All four of my chosen samples were well executed examples of the styles, which is saying something for altbier in particular as US breweries have a tendency to use crystal malts for sweetness rather than Munich and it just tastes wrong. Given the flight was just a foursome rather than 6 I decided to have one last pint before heading back to the family, and plumped for the Dunkel.

It pours lightish brown, with some red highlights, definitely paler than many a dunkel I have had in the US, but well within the norms in Germany. The nose was slightly toasty with a bit of unsweetened cocoa, and a pleasant herbal hop aroma. As you would expect with a Munich style dunkel, the taste was dominated by that lovely bready character that you get with German malts, lightly toasty and with a subtle earthiness rounding everything off nicely. All in all it was a fine way to round of an afternoon brewery hopping.

I had been hoping that Bierkeller Columbia would be open in time for my annual late summer sojourn in Columbia, but alas it was not to be. They will hopefully be fully operational by the time I next head south for Thanksgiving. 

When I think back to my early days of living in the US, Columbia was something of a good beer desert, so it is fantastic to see it improving, even if my go-to pub from those days is no more, and a couple of breweries have also gone under. A metropolitan area the size of Columbia, with a population of nearly 900,000 should be well able to support a good beer scene, and with these four breweries, and Columbia Craft, already operating, there is definitely a far greater choice of locally brewed beer than in 2009, and that makes me one happy camper.

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