Showing posts with label beer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label beer. Show all posts

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Fly In The Ointment

Mrs V and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday as we have every year since moving to the US in 2009, at her parents' place in South Carolina. The only beer I took with me was the homebrew I make each year specially for Mrs V's uncle, my plan was to just go to a supermarket for a load of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and then maybe squeeze in a trip to one of the Green's Warehouse Discount Beverages to pick up some stuff that I can't get locally.

After six and a half hours on the road, including sitting in traffic around Kannapolis in North Carolina (traffic is always bad there it seems), the last thing I really felt like doing, having stretched my legs a bit, was to jump back in my car and go to a beer shop. Then Mrs V's mother mentioned that there was a new bottle shop just round the corner from their house, so naturally I was happy to check it out rather than going to a Bi-Lo or Piggly Wiggly hunting for nuggets in the morass of BMC.

Said bottle shop is called, conveniently enough, Bottles Beverage Superstore and they run the full gamut from soft drinks to spirits, they even stock ingredients and equipment for homebrewers. Oh and their selection of beer was excellent. Lots of local South Carolina beers, including the River Rat Broad River Red Ale which I have enjoyed muchly on my last couple of trips to SC, and the staff actually seemed to know their stuff which makes a pleasant change.

Naturally they had endless banks of IPAs from across the US, and they have a really good choice of Central European beers, though I tend to think stocking lager on a shelf at room temperature is a major no-no. I even managed to pick up a couple of beers from the Black Isle Brewery back home in Scotland. Oh and the prices were pretty damned good, $7.99 for six packs of Sierra Nevada beers??? If the in-laws come visit for Christmas I'll be putting in a bulk order for Kellerweis, which is rarer than hens' teeth in this part of Virginia.

I have a feeling that Bottles is going to be a regular stop whenever we are in Columbia, perhaps because of their 30-odd tap growler filling station, however I do have one gripe, and it is a gripe I have made about bottle shops before, selling out of date beer. Checking the dates on bottles has become something I do with British beers, especially Fullers as there are still loads of the old bottle style floating around, and the 4 packs of London Porter being sold at $11.99 (I think) were a couple of months past their best before date. The one that got my goat though was a bottle of Kru?ovice Imperial I picked up on a nostalgia kick that when I inspected it having got home (yes, yes, I know, caveat emptor and all that jazz) had this on the label

Born on the 24th July 2015, more than 16 months before I decided to drink it on Saturday afternoon. Keep in mind that this is a beer that would have been fermented at cool temperatures and then lagered at near freezing, before being sent out in distribution, where goodness knows what perils it has gone through, to sit on a shelf at room temperature for goodness knows how long.

It has got to the point now where I am going to check every single bottle and six pack of beer that I buy, especially beer not brewed in the US (and even then if it's not from the east coast I'll check that too), so I am not paying full price for a sub-par product. Also as a side note, perhaps it is time for bottle shops, large and small, to seriously consider their stocking strategy. Sure, shelf after shelf of the weird and wonderful looks fantastic to the casual shopper picking up their 18 pack of Budweiser or 12 pack of IPA depending on their particular brand of beery conservatism, but leaving slower shifting stock to sit around until Ragnar?k is frustrating to say the least.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Letting the Side Down?

Mrs V and I are in the middle of training to hike the West Highland Way, a 96 mile long hike through some of the most dramatic countryside in Scotland. The hike starts in Milngavie, just outside Glasgow, and finishes in Fort William.

Almost every weekend at the moment we are out in the Shenandoah National Park hiking up various mountains and getting used to wearing backpacks filled with everything we will need - admittedly we are staying in B&Bs along the way so we don't need to carry a tent and everything else that goes with camping.

Given that we mostly hike in the morning, by the time we are done we both have a hankering for a good pint and thankfully the pubs are open so we'll take a detour to our favourite watering hole in Charlottesville, the Three Notch'd Brewing tasting room and knock back several pints of Bitter 42.

After one particularly grueling hike recently though we just wanted to get home and flake. We still wanted to have a decent beer when we got there though. The fridge being strangely empty and my keg of homebrew stout not being what I fancied in that moment we swung by our local petrol station, that has a pretty good booze selection.

I was hoping that they had Port City's wonderful Downright Pilsner, a beer I have waxed lyrical about on here before. What would be better than pouring half a six pack into my 1 litre glass and sitting on the deck in the spring sun? There, on a high shelf stood a couple of six packs of the beer I wanted, and so I reached for it....and was slightly perturbed that it was covered in dust, clearly it had been there a while. Sure enough, on checking the 'bottled on' date, said six pack of this lovely pilsner was bottled sometime in February, 2015.

Now maybe I am wrong, but a beer that is unfiltered and unpasteurised is not likely to be at its best after at least a year of unrefrigerated existence, regardless of how excellent said beer started life out as. Trust me on this, Downright Pilsner properly cared for and fresh is a pale lager that would give any coming out of the Czech Republic a run for its money. Having pointed out the age of the six pack to the staff in the store, and picked up a 12 pack of Founders All Day Session IPA instead, I went home to relax in the sun, muttering, ruminating, and wondering why this kind of experience is sadly not rare - there is a well regarded beer and wine store within yards of my workplace that had Williams Brothers Scottish Session Ale on sale at full price a year past its 'Best Before' date. Ultimately I guess the joke was on me because when I got home I noticed that the All Day Session IPA I had paid full price for was 8 months old....sigh.

It's possible that the kind of beers that I like to drink shift slower than the endless rafts of indeterminate IPAs and so linger longer on the shelves, but shouldn't retailers and distributors be keeping a closer eye on their stock? This is especially important because if someone were to wander into the very same petrol station and by a full priced six pack of sub-prime Downright Pilsner it is not the retailer that will suffer, or the distributor, but the reputation of the brewery will be shot with that consumer, who will likely tell more friends of their negative experience than they would of a positive one.

How many people are being turned off excellent examples of classic beers because of shoddy stock management practices? How many distributors actually care enough about the products they place on the shelves to pull any that are past the 6 months since bottling point? Oh and why are there massive fridges in stores stocked to the gunwales with pasterurised, canned, macro lager that is unlikely to go off any time soon?

While I fully agree with the idea of caveat emptor, I also think that retailers need to sort their shit out when it comes to stock control and start discounting beer that is past its prime, if not pull it completely. A store wouldn't do this with cheese, bread, vegetables, meat, or any of the other essentials of life, so why do it with beer?

A few weeks later I was back in the same petrol station and Downright was still there, still unrefigerated, still over a year old, but the six packs had been dusted, I guess that constitutes 'care'.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Coming Full Circle?

As I took my dog for a walk this morning I was thinking about beer. Not about the beer I drank yesterday to mark my 40th birthday, the highlight being a couple of litres of Rothaus Pils at Kardinal Hall in Charlottesville, but rather how my tastes in beer seem to be ever increasingly skewed toward classic styles well made.

As I said, the highlight of my drinking yesterday was as simple a German style pilsner as is humanly possible. Other recent highlights have been a Helles lager from South Street, positively gallons of Sierra Nevada's collaborative Oktoberfest, and in the summer plenty of Three Notch'd Session 42 best bitter.

The thing that ties all these beers together is simplicity. There are no extraneous ingredients, no aging in barrels that once upon a time held a spirit of one kind or another, nothing experimental at all. I would say that my drinking life has never been richer.

Sure, it helps that each of the beers is very well made, but simple beers made poorly are often the worst beers a brewery puts out because the brewer can't hide behind the innovative band-aids that disguise their shortfall in brewing technique. I have said it many times, but show me a brewer that can put out a consistently high quality, and flavourful, classic beer style, such as pilsner, and you are showing me one worth his or her salt.

Thinking over my 22 years of legal beer drinking, from that first pint of Guinness to last night's Rothaus, put me in mind of Bunyan's pilgrim who sets out on a journey of discovery that takes him through many adventures but eventually comes full circle home. I feel as though I am coming full circle, where all I really want when I am having a beer is something that tastes great, is a well made iteration of a recognisable style, and is an aid to the occasion not the whole point of it.

I almost had a sense this morning that craft beer is starting to grow up and appreciate simplicity in all its glory, though in all likelihood reality is less prosaic and more a case of my having found my sweet spot in beer, and it is really isn't all that far from where I left from when I started this blog.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

'Merican Mild Month?

Each May in the UK, CAMRA encourages drinkers to indulge in Mild, a style of beer that is perfectly suited for drinking several of during a session.

CAMRA's definition of mild is as follows:
Milds are black to dark brown to pale amber in colour and come in a variety of styles from warming roasty ales to light refreshing lunchtime thirst quenchers. Malty and possibly sweet tones dominate the flavour profile but there may be a light hop flavour or aroma. Slight diacetyl (toffee/butterscotch) flavours are not inappropriate. Alcohol levels are typically low.

Pale milds tend to have a lighter, more fruity aroma with gentle hoppiness.

Dark milds may have a light roast malt or caramel character in aroma and taste.

Scottish cask beers may have mild characteristics with a dominance of sweetness, smooth body and light bitterness.

Original gravity: less than 1043
Typical alcohol by volume: less than 4.3%
Final gravity 1004 - 1010
Bitterness 14 - 28 EBU
I think I can count on the fingers of a single hand the number of milds I have drunk since moving to the US in 2009, two in particular stand out, Olivers Dark Horse and a pale mild brewed at Blue Mountain Brewery last year.

When I talk to my beer drinking mates, not all of them beer bloggers, craft aficionados, or IPA addicts by any stretch of the imagination, a common theme comes up again and again, they wish there was more session beer available, and what could be better than encouraging breweries to make milds, whether dark or pale, hopped with British hops or not, there is so much scope for brewers to play around with in this particular style?

In my homebrew messing about I have brewed several iterations of American hopped dark milds and have found that hops like Citra and Cluster lend themselves very well to complement the light roasty notes of a good dark mild. If you were to brew a pale mild, I imagine New Zealand hops such as Motueka and Pacifica Jade would work well.

Come on brewers, show us the mild mannered Clark Kent beers for a change instead of Superman!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Localising the Revolution

For some reason that escapes me, I have been thinking about the so-called 'craft beer revolution' an awful lot so far this month. Maybe it's the absence of alcohol in the bloodstream? Anyway, I was thinking about the origins of this 'revolution', (though I prefer the term renaissance) and in looking at early pioneers there seemed to be a common theme. Essentially it boiled down to taking established beer styles from the UK, Germany, Belgium, chucking in a shit ton of Cascade, Centennial, or Columbus hops and labelling the beer an 'American 'Insert Beer Style'. Imitation being the highest form of flattery, lots of aspiring brewers jumped onboard and thus the American Pale Ale was born, an offshot of the English Pale Ale, the American IPA was born, an offshot of the early English IPAs, and so on and so forth (this may be an oversimplified view of history, but I think it holds water as a general scheme of things).

The best thing about this renaissance was not being cowed by a given beer style, for want of a better word, and using ingredients that were more readily at hand to create something both identifiably within a tradition but also unique, and the drinking world would be all the poorer without Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, perhaps the archetype of my theme here.

Skip forward some thirty years to the modern day and you have a situation where the 'craft beer revolution' has spread beyond its American heartland to the wider world. Breweries in the UK, Germany, Czech Republic, and Belgium, for example, are taking American styles and brewing them for their own markets. Personally I think this is a pity in many ways.

Mrs V and I are planning to head back across the ocean again this year, though this time back to what we consider in oh so many ways our spiritual home, Prague. We are both looking forward again to long walks by the Vltava, the Christmas markets, and sitting with our friends drinking excellent beer in watering holes like Pivovarsky klub. I am already looking forward to my first p?llitr of a well made desítka. I doubt I will be drinking much in the way of pale ales hopped with Cascade, Amarillo, or Citra. What would interest me though would be a Czech brewery doing Czech interpretations of the 'new' styles that are sweeping the beer world (there's an interesting circularity in that but I won't unpack it here). Imagine a Czech IPA, hopped with Kazbek, Saaz, or Premiant.

Maybe brewers in other countries could do likewise? A German stout using Tettnang and fermented with an altbier yeast strain, a Belgian IPA where all the ingredients are actually Belgian rather than just the yeast, more British 'craft' breweries having faith in both traditional and new British hop varieties

I guess my fear here is that the wave of innovation, creativity and excitement around beer could be diluted if 'craft beer' becomes defined in the minds of many as being 'pale beer made with New World hops', much like the multinational brewing industry became defined as being 'pale lager of indeterminate flavour'. The seemingly inexorable rise of American hopped IPA (and variants) is, in my as ever unhumble opinion, in danger of becoming as dull and uninspiring as the mass produced pale lager.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Session: Who Do I Think I Am?

This month's Session is being hosted by Ding, and is based around the theme of who are we in our beer 'scene', or to put in in Ding's own words:
"So, where do you see yourself? Are you simply a cog in the commercial machine if you work for a brewery, store or distributor? Are you nothing more than an interested consumer? Are you JUST a consumer? Are you a beer evangelist? Are you a wannabe, beer ‘professional’? Are you a beer writer? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above? Where do you fit, and how do you see your own role in the beer landscape?"
I am not really a fan of excessive introspection, which is perhaps odd for an introvert, but when I look at the beer milieu in which I find myself, it becomes clear that I have irons in plenty of fires.

Obviously I have this blog, which I have been writing since 2008, when I still lived in Prague and was delving into the wonderful world of Czech beer beyond the confines of Gambrinus. Writing this blog has afforded me lots of opportunities which I doubt I would have had without it; being invited to brewdays at breweries; working on recipes for breweries; being trusted to design and brew a beer for a local brewery. Would I have met as many interesting, informed, and knowledgeable people if it weren't for Fuggled? Some of the people I have met since I started Fuggled I am sure I would have met and become friends with anyway, but would I have had experiences like hearing people I had never met talk about how they went to that particular pub because of this blog they love called 'Fuggled', obviously not. Would I call myself a beer writer? I am not sure really, it is true I write about beer, and not just in this forum and medium, but it is something I do just because I enjoy writing, not something I do for a living, so I'll let others make that distinction.

If you've followed Fuggled for any length of time, you'll know that I also work for a brewery, Starr Hill Brewing in Crozet, just down the road from Charlottesville. I work in the tasting room, pouring flights, giving tours, talking about beer. It's work that I very much enjoy, especially when people comment about the 'gregarious Scotsman with a wry wit' who gives a great brewery tour. Working behind the bar often makes me wish I had my own pub, where I could have total freedom to run my bar as I saw fit (though I'd likely go bust pretty quick because I would probably serve almost exclusively real ale, which is a tricky sell over here).

Even a cursory following of Fuggled will tell you that I am a homebrewer, involved in my local homebrew club, and all that entails.

I am not someone who 'loves' beer or is 'passionate' about hops/malt/yeast. I have got over the ridiculous notion of youth that I need to go about bashing people over the head with a beer Bible and evangelise them into drinking 'craft beer'. Random side note, my favourite quote from the original Fever Pitch film is that football fans are 'like bloody missionaries, they bore you to death until you give in then they fuck off' - which actually sounds a lot like many a self proclaimed 'beer evangelist'.

So yes I brew, serve, and write about beer, but the most important thing in my opinion when it comes to my 'place' in the beer world is that I am a pubcentric beer drinker. I am a man who can think of nothing he would rather do than sit in a good pub, with a pint of something that meets my standards for good beer, with or without friends, and just enjoying the taste of well made, flavourful beer. I will do flights and samples mainly so I can find something I want a pint of, ticking and its online equivalents is not something I really understand.

So that's who I say I am, first and foremost I am a beer drinker. That I am an opinionated gobshite of a beer drinker is kind of secondary.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Get Your Smokey On!

Tomorrow sees the release of a very exclusive beer at the Starr Hill tasting room, where, I am sure you are aware if you've been reading Fuggled or a while, I occasionally work behind the bar and give tours of the brewery. The beer in question is hopefully the first in a series of brews designed and brewed by the tasting room staff, and available only in the tasting room.

This first beer is a smoked altbier, brewed with Pilsner, Munich, and Carafa II malts, as well as mesquite smoked malt from the Copper Fox distillery in Sperryville, Virginia. In terms of hops we used Perle as a first wort hop, and for the bittering addition, with Hallertau for flavour and aroma. Rather than using Starr Hill's standard top fermenting yeast, we used the Wyeast German Ale strain, which is from Düsseldorf's Uerige brewery.

A few weeks ago at the monthly tasting room team drinkies we got to sample the beer before it sat in cold conditioning, and it was everything we wanted it to be. The smoked malt is evident, without overpowering the rest of the beer. The Munich malt adds body and a malt richness, and the hops balance everything delightfully. At 5.6% and a deep brown colour, this really is a fine beer for an autumnal Friday evening. It's only a shame there is no fire place in the Starr Hill tasting room.

The name of this august brew? Smokey Das Bier, and it will only be available tomorrow from 5pm at the tasting room in Crozet.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Not a Number

Numbers are part and parcel of beer loving, and brewing, whether at home or professionally.

It all starts with building the recipe, working out the percentages of grains we want to use, taking those percentages and turning them into weights to match the capacity of our mash tuns, to reach the our target gravity, either as specific gravity or degrees Plato. Then we work out the number of bitterness units we want in the beer, and break them down by hop addition, and the number of minutes to boil the hops for. With the original gravity decided, the hopping set, we decide on a yeast to give us the amount of alcohol we want.

Number, numbers, numbers, just think of all the numbers we track when we brew, or that become a point of reference when drinking:
  • OG
  • FG
  • ABV
  • IBU
  • SRM
Yet not a single one of those numbers will tell you anything about what matters when it comes to the most important elements of drinking a beer, flavour and aroma.

Numbers will never explain the flavour and aroma differences between Saaz, Cascade, and Kent Goldings, to use three classic hop varieties as examples. Numbers will not explain the difference in sweetness between Munich and crystal malts. Numbers will never explain how a great session beer can be infinitely more satisfying that a run of mill booze fest.

Numbers are part of life as a beer lover, but they are not the meaning of life (no, not even 42). The satisfaction that flavour and aroma bring to the drinker sitting in the pub with a pint in his or her hand, is all that is important.

Ultimately there can be no objective proof of a good beer by appealing to numbers, not even sales numbers. Since beer is entirely subjective, you either find the flavour and aroma of a beer appealing or you don't, and that is the only qualification of a beer's 'goodness' that matters.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Praise of Subtlety

If you have been reading Fuggled for a while now, you will likely know that I am a fan of certain beer styles. For me there are few greater beers to drink than a properly made Czech style pale lager, any of the bitter family, or a dry stout. Beers that in their basic ingredients are painfully simple, usually not much more than a couple of malts, maybe a couple of hop varieties, yeast, and water. They are beers that when well put together seem to be made for the best way to drink beer, in the pub with your mates.

There are times in the craft beer world that these kind of beers don't get the attention they deserve, seemingly because they don't have the latest hipster hop variety that tastes like stewed lychee and dill, or perhaps they haven't been aged in bourbon barrels, or worse yet, they are simply not extreme enough for the people that want every drop beer that passes their lips to be an experience that blows them away. Simply put, they are probably too subtle.

Subtley in beer is something that I greatly appreciate, delicate flavours, refined aromas, and the mysterious communion of such simple ingredients being made complex at the hand of the master brewer. The problem with subtle beers, as I talked about briefly in my previous post, is that a couple of ounces in a shot glass will simply tell you nothing about the beer, other than the dominant characteristics. I would argue that even a full pint is not enough to really get to grips with a subtle beer. Subtle beers need to be drank many times because there are many facets to pick up, it's just that they are delicate and not likely to charge down the doorway of your tastebuds.

I am lucky in many ways though that several of my local breweries, and some of the not so local but still Virginian, make wonderfully subtle beers. Devils Backbone's lagers immediately spring to mind, whether the Vienna, which is a perennial favourite of mine, or even the Gold Leaf, and how I long for the day they re-brew the Trukker Ur-Pils. Likewise Starr Hill's Dark Starr Stout, a beer that I am convinced would do well in Ireland, it is that good a stout, and of course there is the magnificent Downright Pilsner from Port City Brewing.

Subtle beers, the ones you drink pint after pint of with your mates, are, in my unhumble opinion, the very height of brewing. They are the ones that are so painfully simple in terms of ingredients, but so wretchedly difficult to do well and avoid the trap of blandness or the pitfall of an absence of balance.

Let's celebrate them.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


It's something that has been pottering around my mind for a while now, and with Boak and Bailey's post this week about the indicators of a 'healthy beer culture', perhaps this is as good a time as any to spout forth.

First let me say that I think the brewing scene in this part of Virginia is fantastic, and vibrant. In the last year and a bit we have seen several new breweries open, already established breweries expand, and seemingly not a week goes by when there are whispers of a new brewing operation in the area. Taking a broader perspective, the sheer number of breweries, and types of beer, being brewed in the US means that it is difficult to not find something worth drinking, even for those of us whose beer of choice is a properly made Czech style pale lager.

There is however something that bothers me, and I speak here purely for myself and not for any particular caucus. I wish there was more of a drinking culture.

You see, I like a drink. I rarely go somewhere with a view to sampling as many beers as possible to then write up notes on websites that advocate the rating of beers. I find myself in full agreement with Mr Swiveller in Dickens' 'The Old Curiosity Shop' when he cries that beer 'can't be tasted in a sip!'. This may also explain why my idea of a beer festival worth going to is the kind of festival where the drinking of half pints and pints is the norm. Not for me standing in a queue for a couple of ounces.

You can have the palette of Oz Clarke, BJCP certifications aplenty, and the vocabulary of Chaucer, you simply cannot get a full handle on a beer from a few ounces. The best you can get is whether you want a full pint in order to explore further. Rating a beer on the basis of a couple of ounces is the equivalent of landing in the Caribbean and declaring to have discovered India and jumping straight back to Spain on one of your remaining ships.

I suppose this is really at the heart of my love of, and encouragement for, session beers. I love sitting in the pub, with friends, maybe playing pool, inflicting my choice of music on the jukebox (I love pubs with jukeboxes, a fact I realise that puts me in a minority in certain circles). You simply can't have a good session with some 8% double IPA, here I am defining a session as being at least 5 pints of beer, less than 3 is called lunch.

Perhaps I am an outlier, adverse to the hype of special releases, cynical of the craze for putting random shit in mash tun or kettle, and never more happy than when sat with a pint of some classic beer, in a pub, with friends. That really is the sign of a healthy drinking culture. Friends, with beer the social lubricant, but very much in a supporting role.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

To The Heart of Beer

I am sat here in Central Virginia. On the table in front of me is a glass of beer which could very well be a microcosm of my worldview on the amber nectar, though it is more golden than amber.

The beer in question is quite possibly the Virginian beer that I presently derive more pleasure from than any other. The glass is from a legendary British brewery that makes some of my go-to beers when the mood for well made classic British styles hits. The style of beer in the glass is the one that I talk about most, and quite happily believe to be the very height of the brewer’s craft. I am drinking a Port City Brewing Downright Pilsner, from a Samuel Smith’s tulip imperial pint glass. It is the very image of perfection in my world right now.

Something though is missing. That something is probably the most important element of beer in many ways, because without that something, the beer in my glass would never exist. People. That’s what is missing. People are the true heart of beer.

We can talk long and loud about the beer in our glass being a natural product, made from agricultural ingredients, but the fact remains that the beer in my glass will never be a natural product. Malt does not exist in nature, it is man-made. Wort does not spontaneously boil, nor hops of their own volition leap from bine to pot, or even decide to reside in post fermentation beer to add more aroma. Neither yet do hops so prized in Bohemia simply up sticks and cross oceans to land themselves in an American wort.

Everything in my glass is the product of man. A man, one whose hand I would heartily love to shake, who decided to make a Czech style pale lager, and hop it exclusively with Saaz hops, and chuck some more in for a wonderful dry hopped aroma. Said man also decided to lager the resultant brew for an adequate amount of time, and then to forego the filtering process so as to leave a slight haze to the beer. A man made this beer which I delight in, which I come home from work and ignore all other brews in the fridge for.

Still, something is missing. The thing that is still missing is probably the most important element of beer in many ways. Without this something, the beer in my glass is just another beer in the glass. People. That’s what is missing. People are the true heart of beer.

I enjoy the fact that I can pour a glass of this golden delight at home and sit, with the TV on the background, Mrs V on the sofa doing some first aid training course for her job, and each and every taste of my beer is wonderful. The people element though is still missing, because there is a place, and there are people, that I would rather be enjoying this pint of beer with.

Were I back in Prague I would want to be sat in Pivovarsky klub, with Klara, Ambroz, or Karel behind the bar, and perched on barstools beside me would be any of Evan, Max, Rob, Mark, or a cast of dozens whose company I value, and very deeply miss. Here in Virginia you would likely find me at McGrady’s, with the guys from Three Notch’d, or my colleagues from Starr Hill, or people from my homebrew club. Where there is beer, there are people. Fine people. Good people. Fun people. I could tell the same story about people in Ireland that I would love to drink with more often, people at home in the UK that I haven’t seen for many, many years, people from Uist that randomly come into Starr Hill the one day of the month that I am working there. These people, my people, are the very heart of beer.

I often have this feeling that we lose the humanity of beer in all over hoopla about barrel aging, souring, randalizing, and adding cocoa nibs. As though there is something un-craft about a simple, perfectly brewed, Pilsner enjoyed in good company in a pub with no frills, no banks of taps arrayed like howitzers attacking the Vimy Ridge. It is also as though in our striving for the next great high, we fail to realize that life really doesn’t get any better than this. Perhaps I am a strange chap, and it has been commented on before, but I would rather drink a constant stream of golden lager in great company than have all the great craft beers of the world with a bore of a human being.

It is often commented on how beer people are good people, and something I have found to be generally true is that beer people have an ability that many seem to lack in our ever more polarized world. The majority of people I have met through our attachment to the demon drink have the ability to rise above the petty squabbles of religion, politics, and culture, to see into the heart of honest people and recognize a kindred spirit. Yes I know many people whose beliefs I find baffling, and who I will debate with over pints of beer, both warm and cold fermented, but they are sincere, honest, and willing to listen even if never the twain shall meet.

I have said many times on this blog that many of the best people I know have been met over a pint or several of beer, and that is a truth that I hold on to regardless of the quality of the beer being consumed in many a session (in my world sessions begin at the fifth pint, the first four being proof only that a beer is pintable). Given the essential humanity of beer, beer must ultimately take second place to the quality of the humanity one is imbibing with. Many of my favourite, and most memorable, nights out have been whilst drinking beer which would be considered by many a geek as mere swill, Gambrinus in particular springs to mind.

So, in bringing this vaguely rambling, and longer than normal piece, to a close let us remember one simple truth, beer is really nothing more than a vehicle to a raging headache the morning after without the people in whose company you choose to spend your time drinking. Whether you see those people most weekends, a couple of times a year, or just once every half decade or so, treasure them more so than you treasure the beer itself, because it is they that bring real joy to the experience of drinking.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Stuff of Life

For almost as long as I can remember I have enjoyed drinking beer.

When my father turned 40, my little brother and I helped serve his homebrew on our patio at his part, surreptitiously sneaking the occasional glass for ourselves. As teenager I liked the odd can of Tennent's Lager, though whether it was the beer or the alluringly attired women on the cans is something of a moot point, in the original sense of the phrase. When I was finally old enough to go to the bar and order my own drink it was Guinness that I chose, and I have a continuing love affair with stout as a result.

Yesterday evening I got home from work and spent a couple of hours in garden planting our autumn veg; swede, carrots, and chard. With a couple of beds filled with seed, only one drink could possibly go with dinner, beer.

Beer is always there, whether celebrating, commiserating, or just plain hanging out with mates. It is refreshment, comfort, or a well earned treat. Regardless of season, there is a beer for every day of the year.

Beer, you just have to love it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Break Time is Over

I seem to have inadvertently taken a month off.

It's not that I haven't been drinking, I have had some wonderful beers in July, not least the simply magnificent Downright Pilsner from Port City in Alexandria. Why, oh why, don't more breweries do what it takes to make a pilsner in the proper, Czech, style? Masses of Saaz hops, lagered at length, and then as an added bonus unfiltered, as I said, simply magnificent.

It's also not as if I haven't been brewing. I recently bottled another version of my ongoing bitter project, as well as a rarity for me, an American IPA, which I am actually rather pleased with. In a couple of weeks it is the Dominion Cup, Virginia's largest homebrew competition, and I will be judging as well as having entered a slew of beers.

It's not that I haven't been hanging out pubs, talking with friends and colleagues about whatever stuff is going on in life. I have had some fantastic nights out, drinking good beer, with good people, in good places such as McGrady's.

Nope, I just fancied an inadvertent break.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Defining Passion

It seems to be a particularly modern malaise that it is no longer enough to be good at the work you have chosen to do, you have to 'passionate' about it. Whether we are talking about making beer, selling financial products or even cleaning the bogs in the Prague Metro, passion has become de rigueur in practically every industry.

Often, it seems, this 'passion' is presented as being excited by what it is you do (quite how one could be excited at the prospect of cleaning the bogs in the Prague Metro though escapes me), with all the attendant hoopla that seems to go with it. In the context of beer, as that is the main theme of Fuggled, every new product is greeted with the zythophilic fervour of Beatlemania, the constant pitch of the marketing efforts gets higher and higher, like the crescendo of noise which is cicada time. When a beer though fails to live up to the hype, the damning verdicts on Twitter, Ratebeer and the like is akin to the Hindenburg going down in flames.

It is time that we re-evaluate our understanding of what 'passion' means in a brewing context to bring the demand side understanding of passion for beer with one of the common attributes of every professional brewer I know, the passion to do things properly.

When I am working at the Starr Hill Brewery tasting room I quite often overhear people talking about how some breweries are 'passionate' about beer because they put all manner of stuff into their beer, making it 'innovative' and various other adjectives which I am not convinced aren't a cover term for 'a right bloody mess'. The implication in these witterings, often though not always from a spotty yoof out to impress the accompanying spotty yoofs with his deep knowledge of beer, is that the breweries that make classic beer styles, and make them well, somehow lack 'passion' for beer.

I often think of Budvar, and not just for drinking purposes. Here is a pale lager, perhaps the most disparaged beer style on the planet, which, as far as I am aware, is still made in the same way as when the legendary Mr Tolar was the master brewer. Budvar's flagship beer, as I have mentioned before, takes 102 days to make, 12 days in primary fermentation and then 90 days in the lagering tanks, that's 12 weeks, or 1 week for each degree of Plato in the beer, as was the traditional norm in Central Europe. Would most consumers know the difference if they cut the lagering time to 45 days and thus instantly doubled their capacity? I would venture that very few would, but therein lies the heart of a consumers' confidence in Budvar, they do things as they have always done. This is passion as I understand it, sticking to doing what generations of brewers have handed down to you, because it makes the beer which the consumer wants to drink. There are few finer beers in the world than Budvar, admittedly preferably on draught. On a hot day, a cold half litre of golden liquid from ?eské Budějovice is liking drinking the nectar of the gods.

We often talk about the 'fires of passion', as if passion should be all noise, flame and smoke. To take this analogy in a little bit of a different direction, when you first light your grill, you don't cook your burgers, sausages and chicken drumsticks straight away, you wait for the flames to die down and the charcoal to be good and hot. Passion is much the same, sure the flames and noise are impressive, but until they are gone and you know the coals are burning thoroughly all you have is light and noise.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Drinking Commercial

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you are a homebrewer who has decided that the time has come to 'go professional'. One of the first things that you do is form the company that will eventually be the public front of your dreams.

During the process of making your dream a reality, you write a business plan, a marketing plan, engage in a feasibility study, study the numbers and only if you are convinced you can make a living out of the business you are starting, and pay back your investors, do you move forward.

Eventually you have your location, your equipment, your staff, and your recipes. Your opening day looms and the first customer walks into your tasting room, assuming of course that you have one, and hands over money for either a flight of samples or a pint of your beer. Welcome to the world of commerce.

The word 'commercial' seems to get a bad rap in the beer world, heavily linked, as it is, to the multinational conglomerates that churn out millions of gallons of beer a year. The reality though is that every brewery, regardless of size, is commercial, for the very aim of being in business is to make a profit, without which your bills don't get paid and you end up losing everything.

All the romance, passion and craft in the world is no replacement for solid business practices coupled with professional sales and marketing activities, an area that I tend to think ranges from bloody awful to just mediocre in a sizeable swathe of breweries. I have read many brewery business plans that simply have no marketing plan or budget from the get go, which makes me wonder how the business expects people to know they exist, and no, Twitter/Facebook/Social Media Fad of the Week do not replace proper marketing.

Let's be honest people, as beer drinkers, we all drink 'commercial beer' simply by virtue of paying for it, which allows the business making it to make more, assuming they are doing everything on the business side of things well. In reality, the only non-commercial beer is homebrew.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Missing the Point? Twice?

I consider myself lucky.

As an army brat I moved around a lot, we lived in Germany for a long time, as well as various places in the United Kingdom. When I became an adult I carried on moving, first from my home in the Hebrides to Birmingham, to study, then eventually to Prague and now I am in the US, who knows where is next? I have visited many countries, Belarus, Romania, and France to name a few. I have drunk in bars and pubs in three continents and something is true in almost every culture I have experienced, alcohol is part of life.

Whether sat in a pub in Dublin, drinking stout and listening to old fellas lamenting the falling standards of bar staff, a wine bar in Bergerac, eating pig snout salad, or a club in Minsk, downing shots of vodka, booze is an essential part of being human. Some will claim that beer was an essential player in the evolution of civilisation, I tend to think it is broader than that, it was alcohol in general.

I was planning to write a post today bemoaning the wine-ification of beer and how those that advocate the gentrification of our favourite drink are missing the point of beer when it hit me, they are also missing the point of wine itself, and spirits. Let me give you an example, if you take a trip to the south eastern part of the Czech Republic, Moravia, you will find row after row of vines, sometimes it seems like everyone has their own sklep - an underground cellar for aging their wine. Wine in Moravia, just as with beer in Bohemia, is deeply unpretentious, it is just the alcohol of choice for that part of the Czech Republic.

Coming away from the Czech lands, I am reminded of being in a small bar in Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of France. Mrs V and I were squeezed into this room that couldn't have been much bigger than my deck (140 sq ft, or 13m2), we were drinking beer, while everyone else was drinking a local wine, I know, I know, I am terrible and uncouth. There was no deep inhaling of the aromas, swirling the glass to 'release the aromatics' or any other daft fripperies that go on, just local people drinking local wine and enjoying each other's company. Thankfully Mrs V and I have found a vineyard near us which is likewise very unpretentious and has nice wines.

Wine, just like beer, is an every man drink - enjoyed by peasants and presidents throughout the ages in those places where viticulture thrives. The problem is clearly not the drink itself, but rather the people that want to take it away from its heartland and make it something aspirational, something inspirational and ultimately invest in it a meaning that is entirely irrational. Such people have missed the point of wine and beer, much to the detriment of both.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Lost In Details

I love reading. Whether it be blogs, magazines, or books, I love indulging in the written word, getting different perspectives on things and learning more about a given subject. I will books time and time again because with each reading you notice something that perhaps you glossed over before. I read a fair bit about beer in particular, in between bouts of David Hume, Umberto Eco or Douglas Coupland, and this morning I picked up Stan Hieronymous' 'Brew Like A Monk' to remind myself what he said about Orval.

I have half a mind to try and brew my own version of Orval at some point in the future, when I have restored my complement of carboys back to 4, so I am working through a recipe in my mind. As I read, a comment from legendary brewer Jean-Marie Rock leapt off the page:
"It is impossible to produce a good beer with details"
I sometimes wonder, especially when listening to beer geeks waffle on about IBUs and alcohol by volume, whether we lose the wood for looking at the trees?

I really couldn't give a shit if your Imperial IPA has sufficient IBUs to strip the tastebuds from my tongue, stamp them into submission and leave them screaming for mercy. I am not impressed that you have managed to freeze distil your beer to the strength of a whisky. All I care about is how your beer tastes. IBUs, ABV, SRM and all the other numbers used in brewing are just that, numbers, details. They tell me little about the flavour, aroma and complexity of a beer.

Rock's adage could quite easily be extended to:
"It is impossible to appreciate good beer by focusing on details"
I am sure I am just as guilty when it comes to getting hung up on certain details, such as the 'black' in Black IPA or Black Pils, so I remind myself here as much as anyone, it is only beer and appreciating the aromas and flavours involved is what it is really all about, preferably with mates, and preferably in a pub.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Defining 'Good'

Yesterday my good friend, and once upon a time drinking buddy, Pivní Filosof, tweeted the following:
"Too many people trying to define what "craft beer" is or isn't, not enough talking about what makes a beer good..."
So, I thought that what would be a better way to mark the 750th post on Fuggled than to finally try and define 'good' beer? I am perfectly aware that I might be on a hiding to nothing here, but here goes.

Firstly let's think about words for a moment, what does 'good' mean? Well, if you do a search on, you will see that it lists many possible meanings as both a noun and an adjective. I won't list all the options here, but if you click the link then you can check them all out for yourself. One thing I will reference here though is the etymology of the word, which apparently comes from Old English:
"god (with a long "o") "having the right or desirable quality,"
Apparently the Old English is itself derived from the Proto-Germanic 'gothaz' meaning "fit, adequate, belonging together".

Using the definition of 'good' as something which has the 'right or desirable quality' brings us rather quickly to the sticking point in trying to define 'good beer', what is the quality in your beer that is 'right or desirable'? Ultimately 'good beer' is a very personal thing, something unique to each drinker, which then raises the question, what is 'good beer' for Velky Al? Let me answer that question.

The 'right or desirable' qualities that I look for in a beer can be best summed up as:
  • flavourful
  • balanced
  • refreshing
I realise that even within that fairly short list there are any number of personal preferences as to what constitutes flavour, balance and refreshment, but as this is my definition of good beer, let me attack those one at a time.

I like beer that tastes good, again that awkward word 'good' pops up. Good tasting beer to me is one where you can taste the elements of the beer as expected for that particular style or type of beer. If I am drinking a stout for example, I want to be able to taste the roastiness, coffee and chocolate that you expect from that kind of beer. Likewise if I am drinking a Vienna lager, I want none of the roastiness of stout, but rather the toastiness that comes with using Vienna malt. You could argue that it is about 'authenticity', is this really how stout, pilsner, mild or whatever is supposed to taste like?

I sometimes wonder if 'balance' is becoming something of a dirty word in the beer word, in much the same way 'session' is interpreted by some as meaning 'insufficiently sexy'. In my definition of 'good' beer though, balance is important, mainly because I like drinking beer. I am not the kind of person who is happy to go to a beer festival and sample 10 to 15 2oz samples, I prefer beer festivals where you order a half pint, or a full pint, and you stand around drinking and talking with friends. In my experience, beers which are imbalanced are not beers that I want to drink more than a single serving of. An absence of balance normally, though not always, means that a shit ton of hops have been dumped in making the experience of the beer like sucking a grapefruit. Alternatively imbalanced beers can have too many hop varieties, and when I read the hopping list of some beers having 7 or 8 different high alpha hops I can't but wonder if the brewer is simply having a lupulin wank.

Drinking is primarily about refreshment, whether after a day of manual labour or sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen, both require refreshment and there are few feelings in the world as wonderful as that first sup on a pint at the end of a day. A refreshing pint can just as easily a stout as it can be a witbier, indeed when I was laid off last week I found the couple of pints of Left Hand Milk Stout I had at McGrady's very refreshing, especially as one definition of 'to refresh' is 'to cheer' and I certainly felt happier after the pints than before.

Thankfully with those criteria of 'good beer' there are many individual beers that I consider 'good' and am more than happy to drink, regardless of corporate structure, method of dispense or style. Good beer is really something intangible, indefinable in some ways, as it is, in the final analysis, what the individual likes to drink.

Perhaps that is why more people want to try and define 'craft beer' because that is, seemingly, an easier task, though as I have written about before, a pretty daft one.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Notions Challenged

I am perfectly happy to admit that I am somewhat opinionated, one thing I do hope though is that when someone or something contradicts my opinion then I am open to listen and change my viewpoint.  On Saturday, whilst working in the Starr Hill tasting room, I had two of my preconceived notions given a good battering.

If you have followed Fuggled for more than a few posts, you will know that I have a problem with the whole "black" IPA thing - originally on the basis that the concepts of 'black' and 'pale ale' are mutually exclusive, but mainly because several versions of the 'style' I have tried have overwhelmingly been dreck. In general, my experience of beers where dark malts have been added to a traditionally pale beer have been negative, but given that hope springs eternal I will try most things when I have the opportunity. On Saturday such an opportunity presented itself.

One of the delights of this part of Virginia is that it is an alcoholics paradise, vineyards, cideries, distilleries and of course for the beer lovers there is the Brew Ridge Trail, which consists of 6 local breweries, , Wild Wolf, Blue Mountain, Blue Mountain Barrel House, Starr Hill and South Street. Every now and again the brewers get together to make a collaboration beer and the latest iteration of said brew was on tap at the tasting room on Saturday, it was a 'black' tripel. It really had the potential to be the perfect shit storm of things I am not a fan off (say it quietly, but I don't really dig tripel as a regular tipple, unless it actually comes from Belgium, or Canada for that matter). Dutifully I poured myself a sample so I would be able to explain the beer to visitors, and low and behold I liked it. The dark malt lends the beer a light roastiness which roughens up the sugary sweetness that you expect from tripels and judicious use of Saaz hops gives it slightly spicy edge. It is a very nice beer, though quite how it differs from a Belgian Dark Strong Ale is beyond me. If you are at any of the breweries on the Brew Ridge Trail and they have it on tap, then look it out and give it a bash, it's good.

About half way through a somewhat quiet shift, it was also the Top of the Hops beer festival on Saturday, one of my other notions was thoroughly debased. A little back story first, in 2006 I worked as the Tour Manager for a stag party organising company in Prague for a few months. One thing that always filled me with dread was when we would have a hen party, that's 'bachelorette' party for my American readers. My experience of large groups of girls together is that they were uniformly louder, more drunken and more of a nuisance than a similar sized group of men, I am not entirely sure why. We didn't have a hen party come into the tasting room on Saturday, we had a bunch of girls from a sorority at Longwood University - about 20 or so in total, with 12 doing the tasting. The tasters ended up on my side of the bar, and were good fun, with plenty of laughs and frivolity all round - and I stand by my comment to one of them that the Soviet Union would have won World War 2 eventually without the Normandy invasions. I also enjoyed the ego stroke of most of them thinking I was in my late 20s, early 30s (I am 36, nearly 37).

So there we go, one shift, two preconceived notions thoroughly challenged and by the time I got home, to the blaring tunes of The Jam, The Clash and The Doors it was time to hang with friends on the deck and booze the evening away. A pleasing prospect that pleased immensely.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Beer is NOT Wine, Deal With It!

Yesterday I tweeted the following:
"winos jumping on the beer bandwagon is a bad thing for the industry...discuss".
In response to a few requests for further elaboration, here goes. First though let me say that I quite enjoy wine from time to time, indeed I spent much of Saturday in vineyard tasting rooms in our local area sampling some very nice wines, and some bloody awful ones, so don't go getting it into your head that this is some kind of anti-wine rant, it isn't. Having said that though, I do think beer is an infinitely more interesting drink, but that for another post sometime.

The genesis of my tweet came from some comments I overheard in one of the vineyards on Saturday. The bar area at the final vineyard we visited, Barboursville Vineyards to be precise, was fairly crowded, so rather than adding to the mêlée with four extra bodies, Mrs V and our friends waited on the periphery whilst I went back and forth getting samples. During one such trip, a couple just in front of me was discussing how "craft beer is the new wine" whilst simultaneously complaining that brewery tasting rooms were "too industrial" and that they couldn't take beer seriously until it "became like wine".

Now, I don't want to tar all wine lovers with the same brush as these pseuds, but as I have posted about plenty of times before, I am not convinced that wine people are capable of appreciating beer on its own terms. Yes they may have refined palettes able to detect strawberries dressed in rubber gimp suits or some such bizarre combination, if you have never heard Jilly Goolden waffle on then count yourself fortunate, but trying to force beer into the wine frame of reference is pointless, and does a disservice to beer.

There are times, and I accept that I may be oversensitive about this, that I get the feeling that there are too many people trying to gentrify beer, to take it away from being the drink of the everyman and make it a niche product for those with pockets deep enough to pay for it. That's not say to that beer is the lowest common denominator drink, but rather that is transcends class and status, and it infuriates me when some people try to intellectualise beer by comparing it to wine.

As I said in a post a couple of weeks ago:
"I often find myself rolling my eyes at the seemingly endless attempts to turn the drink of the everyman into something antithetical to its very nature, something fancy. We often read and hear about beer "achieving the status of wine", as though middle class respectability with its chunky knit sweaters, Volvos and wine and cheese parties is something worth aping."
There are times when my sincerest wish is that the people trying to "raise" beer to the level of wine would just spit the dummy, throw their toys out of the pram and bugger off.

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 ...