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.

Best Beer Ever!

Shock, horror, a new post at Fuggled! Yes, it has been a while, but mitigating circumstances, I have been heads down writing my first book, ...