Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Old Friends: Joseph's Brau PLZNR

I have to admit that there really are not that many things that I miss as a result of this pandemic. I am sure that comes as something of a surprise for people who know how much I love going to the pub, but I am lucky that in my part of Virginia most pubs are open with restricted seating and so I can get my fix at least weekly. As a result of the changes brought about by the pandemic, I have limited my choice of boozers in Charlottesville to basically just Kardinal Hall and Beer Run, mainly because I can rely on them to have a good selection of lagers worth drinking.

Perhaps the main thing I miss is the fact that I haven't been on a business trip since last March, when I went, with much trepidation, to Austin for a conference. Usually when I travel for work, I try to fly through Atlanta, simply because I really enjoy sitting at the bar of the Gordon Biersch restaurant on concourse A. It will come as no surprise that my beer of choice when I am there is their Czech style pale lager, served in a half litre glass no less, though often served well over the half litre line, not that I am complaining...

All that is a long winded backdrop to saying, having not been through Atlanta airport for the longest time since I started my current job, I woke up one day in December with a hankering for a pint of Gordon Biersch Czech Pilsner. Said craving may have been stoked as a result of the news that they were closing down their Virginia Beach location, to which I had never made it. All was not lost though as due to the wonders of contract brewing, of which I am a fan, my craving would go satisfied by virtue of Trader Joe's. As you are likely aware, Gordon Biersch are the contract brewer behind Trader Joe's "Josephsbrau" range of central European lagers, and as I understand it, Josephsbrau PLZNR and Gordon Biersch Czech Pilsner are one and the same beer.


As is appropriate I poured a bottle and a half into my half litre Chodovar glass that I purloined from a pool hall in Prague, side note, I hate 12oz bottles for beers like this, is it really so hard to package them in the half litre that such beers warrant?


Ah the classic rich golden colour of a well made Czech style pale lager, it really is a thing most beautiful, especially when the beer is crystal clear and topped with a decent half inch of white foam. The head didn't linger as some Czech beers I have had, dissipating to a patch quilt network of bubbles that clung tenaciously to the side of the glass. The aroma was mostly grainy cereal with subtle hints of honey and fresh bread that made me wonder if there was just a touch of something like CaraBohemian in the grist somewhere. The hops also made an appearance with the spicy, hay, lemongrass notes that I have come to associate with the noblest of noble hops, Saaz. Tastewise, you should know the form by now if you have had a Czech style pale lager ever in your life, a gentle toasty character, with spicy hop flavours as a counterpoint to the malt. Very simple, very classic, very much what I expect, and enjoy.


Whether it is being sold as a Gordon Biersch or Josephsbrau beer, this is a lager that I am always happy to see in the fridge or on tap. While not rippingly bitter, it has a good firm bite to it that cleanses the palate leaving you ready for more. The bitterness is helped along by an excellent clean fermentation that gives the various elements of the beer voice. The finish is dry and with a delicate balance that reaches a high note before collapsing to that moment when another mouthful is required.

I will admit that I have a slight preference for the draught version that I enjoy when I am in Atlanta airport, for all the usual obvious reasons. Bluntly put, draught beer is better beer. Until the conference world restarts, and I am in no rush to get back to "normal" (if "normal" is really something worth getting back to), I will be more than happy to get more PLZNR from our local Trader Joe's, and at $7 a six pack, you really can't complain, unless you are the pretentious wanker type that wants a pilsner for $90 a six pack.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Coming Darkness

One of the many things I love about lager is its sheer variety. Now, if you are the kind of poor, misguided soul that thinks lager is some wan, piss coloured, fizzy liquid then you need to give your head a wobble and do some learning.

In recent years in particular I have been thrilled to see a steadily increasing range of lager styles available to the discerning drinker on this side of the Pond. Naturally I am most thrilled by the number of Czech style lagers that are being brewed.

While I have been known to grumble (what? me?) about the fact that many allegedly Czech style pale lagers tend more toward světly speciál rather than světly le?ák, I am just happy to have some Czech-ish to drink. More recently it has been the dark Czech lagers that are becoming more common, and having designed what I believe to be the first authentic tmavé to be brewed in Virginia, it is a trend I keep a thoroughly interested eye on.

It was with this interested eye that I liked a picture on Instagram from Jeff Alworth of a tmavé called Tmavá Sova, which translates as "Black Owl". Naturally I approve mightily of getting the grammar right, so of course I went to take a look at the website of the makers, Matchless Brewing from Washington State and I think they make the kind of beers I like. My only beef, and thus the genesis of the this post, was the description for Tmavá Sova, which defines tmavé as being:

"a re-emerging style from the Czech Republic".

Forgive me if I am being a little touchy here, but there is no way on Odin's green Midgard that tmavé is a "re-emerging style" for the simple reason it never really went away. That's not to say that the style makes a huge proportion of beer sales in Czechia, but as far back as I can remember most breweries have at least one dark lager in their range.

When I first moved to Prague, back in the 20th century, I was a dedicated Guinness drinker and gravitated quite naturally to dark lagers such as Herold Bohemian Black Lager, a beer well regarded by Michael Jackson. Of course there is the legendary U Flek? 13° dark lager with roots back to the 19th century, when dark beers in Bohemia were still top fermented.

While it is true that there are exceedingly few Czech dark lagers actually from Czechia that make it to this side of the pond, I can think of all of 1 that is easy-ish to find, Budvar's lovely version of the style, that should not be taken as a sign of a style dying in its heartland. Pretty much every regional and local brewery in Czechia has at least one dark lager offering. Often that beer is a 14° plato beer, the type that was the inspiration behind Morana, though as is common with all Czech beers, gravities for different colours can be all over the map, Kozel ?erny is a desítka for example.

Now, I know this will come as a shock to some, but there is more to beer than craft breweries making styles of beer which are little known in a brewery's sitz im leben. If I remember rightly tmavé represents about 5% of Czech beer production, which in 2018 was about 18.1 million barrels. As such somewhere just slightly north of 900,000 barrels of tmavé was brewed that year, just shy of the total production of New Belgium Brewing.

So, where am I going with all this? Simply put, just because something is new to you doesn't mean it is new, or re-discovered, or re-emerging. Tmavé is not like Grodziskie, Broyhan, or even Kulmbacher that needs to be resurrected, it is alive, well, and even evolving in its heartland.

On a less snarky note, I would love to try Tmavá Sova, and I applaud any brewery that takes a gamble on a less well-known style of beer, especially if it happens to be a lager style from central Europe. As I said at the beginning, lager is not some just wan, piss-coloured, fizzy drink for the masses, but rather a noble family of beers that have their roots in central Europe and make up some of the best beers you will ever drink, so explore, go find a brewery that is making the same kind of decisions as Matchless, and discover what real lager can be.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Happy to Schill

September 4th. The first time in the course of the whole pandemic thing that I went to the pub without a reservation, and to meet someone for a drink that I do not live with.

At that point, Virginia had been in phase 3 or something like that for a while, and my good friend Dave and his family had been sheltering in much the same way as Mrs V and our little family. It had been a damned long time since we had gone for a bevvy. We decided that it would be safe for Dave and I to meet for a beer, as long as the venue was somewhere we could sit outside and have a little physical distance, a beer garden perhaps. On a side note, both Dave and I hate the phrase "social distancing", preferring "physical distance", human beings are social animals and we can be socially close without being physically close. 

Anyway, it was a beautiful sunny afternoon as I sat on the benches of Kardinal Hall's beer garden waiting to finally see my friend for the first time in what seemed like forever. By "see my friend" I mean sit, drink, and talk shit without anyone else around. Sorry wives and kids, love you loads but sometimes I just need to have some bloke time. I had arrived a little early and already had my first litre sitting in front of me...

Said beer was from a then new-to-me brewery in New Hampshire, Schilling Brewing Company, the beer in question was Alexandr, a rarity in these parts, an actual desítka!! Technically speaking a desítka is just a beer that has a starting gravity of 10° Plato, usually though they are also pale, though more often than not they don't pack the same 5% abv punch as Alexandr. Even so, I wasn't quibbling, I was too busy reveling. Alexandr is quite simply a wonderful pale lager, clean, flavourful, moreish, is it any wonder that I declared it the Fuggled Pale Beer of 2020? Nope, it isn't.

Other than their very nice Oktoberfest lager, Konstantin, again at Kardinal Hall, I had kind of given up on getting to drink much more of Schilling's range as their beers appeared to be rarer than hens' teeth in this part of Virginia. There was a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth at this situation because I kept seeing folks I follow on Twitter and Instagram posting about another Czech style pale lager in their lineup called "Palmovka".

Other than the obvious reason for wanting to try it, Czech style pale lagers are just my thing and I am willing to try any beer that claims to be one, sadly much to my own disappointment. The second reason though was that for a year or so of my decade in Czechia I lived in said part of Prague. Palmovka is one of Prague's main transport connection hubs, with a metro station, bus station, and tram stops all clustered round a crossroads. I was living just a couple of tram stops up the hill from Palmovka during the flood of 2002 when the metro station, and a fair old chunk of the surrounding area, was completely inundated by the water. I also thought the can label was just wonderful, showing the three metro lines that criss cross the city. 

Random fact, when I first moved to Prague I lived in an area called ?erny Most, right at one end of the yellow line (that's line B if we're be officious) and a couple of stations were still under construction, Hloubětín and Kolbenova. The maps back in 1999, however, showed the future Kolbenova as being named ?KD, after a large Czech engineering firm that had a factory nearby once upon a time.

To cut a long story short, I was in Beer Run picking up some other stuff, checking on my order of a case of únětické pivo when they mentioned that they had some Schilling stuff, namely Alexandr and Palmovka. If you were in the queue that day when I dashed off to grab a couple of 4 packs of Palmovka and kept you waiting, I can but apologise again, and thank you for being so gracious. How I waited the couple of hours needed to get the beer down to a decent temperature is baffling to me now...

Oh. My. Good. God. What is this nectar? A perfect example of a dvanáctka, starting gravity of 12° Plato, but you knew that, that's what. Again there is the slight cognitive dissonance of a dvanáctka being 5.5% (would be closer to a 14° beer based on multiplying the abv by 2.5), but in terms of Maillard reaction breadiness dancing on your tongue, gorgeous Saaz hoppiness - grass, lemon blossom, and a light spiciness - all singing together into a glorious whole, this is as good a Czech style beer I have ever had in the US. I am not sure I could have chosen between this and Alexandr had I tried Palmovka before writing my Pale beer of the year review.

Now I want to buy everything I can in their range that makes it to central Virginia, and drink gallons of Alexandr whenever it is on tap at Kardinall Hall. Beer Run currently has Alexandr, Palmovka, and a 13° Polotmavy called Augustin that looks like a fantastic beer from the reviews I have seen. I fear a sly trip to the bottle shop is in order to add supplies to the already groaning beer fridges is in order, even if I will be waiting until February to actually tuck in.

Based on these two beers, and also their Oktoberfest lager Konstantin that I had one afternoon, I can safely say that another New England brewery has been added to my list of favourite lager brewers in the US. Properly made lagers seem, finally, to be a more prominent part of the craft brewing scene on this side of the Pond. When you have the likes of Schilling, Olde Mecklenburg, and Von Trapp churning out consistently great beer it is becoming easier to ignore the IPAs, fucked up goses, and daft pastry stouts that take up too many taps, and revel in my own personal Ostalgie.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Keep on ur-Trukking

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the halcyon days of 2010.

The lovely Mrs V and I had been living in Virginia for a mere matter of months, I was working in the tasting room of a local brewery, and one afternoon I read a blog post by the head brewer of Devils Backbone Brewing about plans to brew a recreation of Josef Groll's original pilsner recipe from 1842. I sent an email to the brewery asking for the planned release date as I was very excited to finally have a properly made, triple decocted, Czech style pale lager from one of my local breweries. Jason got back to me pretty soon after and invited me to the brewday, a day in which I learnt insane amounts about brewing in general, and decoction mashing in particular. We also laid the ground work for the first of our collaboration beers, Morana.

The beer was to be called Trukker ur-Pils,  and when it was released I drank a lot of it. It also took the plaudits as the Fuggled Pale Beer of 2010, being described thus:

"Authentic ingredients, traditional methods and a spectacular result. This is what craft brewing is about in my opinion, and the Trukker Ur-Pils hit the mark in every conceivable way".

Skip forward then to late November 2020 and again I get an email from Jason, letting me know that Trukker ur-Pils was currently lagering and would be released at the brewpub before the end of the year, just in time to be amongst the last beers of the year for me. Included in the email was that they had decided to change the name to just "Czech Pale Lager" on the basis that beers bearing the moniker "pilsner" just don't shift at the brewpub.

Thus it was on the Monday after Christmas that Mrs V and I decided to take the drive out to Roseland to pick up a few crowlers from Devils Backbone's curbside pickup set up. I have to give a shout out to Devils Backbone in general on this front, every interaction and experience I have had with them since the pandemic started has been superb. Their system is well thought out, supremely executed, and has meant we have able to enjoy several "as normal as possible" afternoons over food and excellent beer. After a few hours in an already well stocked fridge, I could wait no longer and cracked into the first crowler...

This year's version of the beer is 5.5% abv and in place of the regular Augustiner yeast, Jason used the Weihenstephaner strain 34/70 this time round. Weihenstephan's characteristic additional malt presence is certainly present when compared to the dryness of Augustiner. I didn't actually take any notes, but reviewed previous notes while drinking one of the other crowlers and this version stands up very well to previous ones. It also got the Mrs V nod of approval. Mrs V doesn't drink much beer these days, mainly due to the fact that she just doesn't like American craft beer, and hankers for well made Central European style pale lagers that aren't overly fizzy. Getting the Mrs V nod is always a good sign for a beer.

I really hope there is more floating around when I return to my beer drinking ways in February as the thought of having to wait until Jason gets the opportunity to brew this again is painful, it is that good. As far as I am aware, it is only available down at the brewpub in Nelson County, so if you are in the area make a point to get out there and get some, either over a meal or some crowlers to take home, one is not enough.

Thinking about it, my 4 crowlers were not enough...

Old Friends: Joseph's Brau PLZNR

I have to admit that there really are not that many things that I miss as a result of this pandemic. I am sure that comes as something of a ...

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