We are on the cusp of a proper change in season here in central Virginia.
The threat of frost has receded, and most mornings when I walk Honza, our Cairn Terrier, it is a rather pleasant 55° Fahrenheit, that's about 13° Celsius for those of you that live in the 21st Century. With the warming days and shortening nights I tend to find that I am drawn to paler beers as my beloved porters, stouts, and dark lagers are banished for these painful weeks until the Summer Solstice has passed and I feel alive again - I am a winter soul through and through.
To wave farewell for a few months, I decided to do an Old Friends post on one of my absolute favourite beers, Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout.
Samuel Smiths' beers are probably the easiest British beers to get on this side of the Pond, and our local Wegmans carries most of their range, including the Organic Lager which may feature more regularly in the coming months' drinking.
Is there an Oatmeal Stout out there that is more closely associated with the style than Sam Smith's? I honestly can't think of one, it is as synonymous for me as Guinness is with Irish Stout, Sierra Nevada with Pale Ale, and Żywiec with Baltic Porter. So how was this most famous, and august, brew?
As you would imagine it poured as black as India ink, and interestingly, just as lustrous. Having mastered the art of pouring into a nonic glass, there was a mere half inch cap of foam that lingered for the duration of the drinking, protecting the precious liquid below. I have given up drinking Sam Smiths beers from my Sam Smiths glasses due to the etching on the bottom of the glass that creates a massive head. The aromas were exactly what you expect from a stout, coffee, chocolate, you know the deal, though I always find with this one that a trace of pipe tobacco forces it's way through the head to make you think of Gandalf the Grey enjoying the finest pipeweed in all of The Shire.
The aromatic themes, as is so often the case with stouts, carry on into the flavour department, think a slice of grannies bestest chocolate cake, served with a fine Italian espresso, then add in the silken mouthfeel of the oats and you have a luscious pint of dessert. Having, as is my wont, let the beer come up to cellar temperature, the carbonation was unobtrusive, just enough to clean the palette and leave you wanting more.
What a simply glorious way to bid farewell to the colder days of winter and early spring, though admitted I am already looking ahead to autumn's return.
Last week I was in Cleveland, Ohio, for a conference. Having admitted in several posts that I am a terrible beer tourist, I have determined that whenever I am away on a business trip I am going to try and change that narrative. Naturally I had done some research on Cleveland and had a list of breweries whose wares I at least wanted to try, time can often be at a premium on these conference trips and so I usually find a well regarded pub with a decent local selection so I can at least try a few new things.
Then I saw the magic words "Hofbräuhaus Cleveland" and knew without a shadow of any doubt that if time allowed then I would be going. Inspired by the thought of Bavarian style booze and food, I checked Google Maps and discovered it was 0.4 miles from my hotel...yeah, you know I was going there. Thus it was having landed in a much colder than Virginia Cleveland, and spent the afternoon getting set up for the conference exhibition, I took a stroll and allowed my mind to wander back to central Europe...
It being a Wednesday night, the Hofbräuhaus was not exactly busy and so I strode past the classic bench tables of a bierhalle, headed straight for my favourite place to drink, the bar itself.
Behind the bar stands the heartbeat of any brewpub, the coppers, and in this case actually copper, or at least copper clad, shining brightly. I was actually thrilled when I saw them, I knew their beers would be brewed in the US rather than shipped from Germany, but for some reason I hadn't expected them to be brewed in house. The thought of fresh, brewed in situ, Hofbräuhaus lagers filled my heart with joy. Yeah, I am a sucker for pretty much all beer and food related Teutonic things, I would say "German" but let's not leave out the Austrians shall we?
When in Rome and all that jazz, I started out with a half litre (yes!!) of the Hofbräuhaus Original...
Original is a Helles that is clean, crisp, with a nice noble hop bite and enough malt body to make it wonderfully easy drinking without dissipating into wateriness. It was a lovely beer with which to stare in bafflement at the food menu - how exactly does an avowed teutonophile decide between schnitzel and wurst? With a half litre of dunkel perhaps?
As I said it was cold in Cleveland, about 30°F when I arrived and there it had stayed in anticipation of warmer times, and so the dunkel just seemed more like cold weather drinking. This was lovely, rich, spicy, gently warming, touches of cocoa, tobacco, and that light cinnamon thing that you get with German hops. With a decision made on the food front, jägerschnitzel, another half litre was duly ordered as I had found my beery muse for the night.
I am fairly sure that Hofbräuhaus Cleveland will not win many friends among the punks and illuminati of the craft beer world, but for those of us who love a well made, classic, German style lager, it is a great place and one that if ever life takes me to Cleveland again will be due another visit.
Thinking about it in light of the news that Stone had sold their Berlin brewery to BrewDog, maybe the problem was craft beer's attitude to Germany rather than Germany's attitude to craft beer, after all Bavaria basically invented "traditional ingredients". Perhaps in the beer drinking heartlands of the world, there is less demand for beers "with a twist", and perhaps craft beer largely fails to understand that for the normal German drinker something like a helles, pilsner, or dunkel is as good as they want it to get? And who is to say they are wrong? Not this guy, that's for sure.
I have mentioned many times that I am an abysmal beer tourist. Here in the Charlottesville area there are plenty of breweries I just haven't bothered to go visit, a fact perhaps influences by many a local brewery's lack of lager in their lineup - it's a post for another day but recently I have been feeling as though I have come full circle in wanting mainly to drink properly made lagers to almost the exclusion of all else.
At the tail end of last year, Mrs V's cousin took up a job that had her and her husband transplant from Greensboro, North Carolina, to the interminable gridlock that is Northern Virginia, Alexandria to be precise. This weekend just gone, Mrs V and I went up, with the Malé Aličky to tow naturally, to visit, and I saw an opportunity to rectify my errant ways. Alexandria is home to one of my favourite breweries, Port City, and it really was high time for me to darken the door of their tasting room/bar.
Given the high regard in which I hold Port City, it is perhaps odd that I don't post about them more often, though there is a major mitigating circumstance. For some reason, best known only to the distributors and retailers in this part of the world, their Downright Pilsner is rarer than hens' teeth. Their majesterial Porter is something I save for the darker nights of autumn and winter, once I get my fill of the annual Oktoberfest, which is always a fine brew. Usually I have to limit my Downright consumption to the occasions when I see it on tap.
Well, on Sunday it was on tap just a few yards from where it had been brewed as I dragged the family along to get my fill of fresh Downright before Mrs V drove us back to central Virginia.
I am sure I have said this many times before, but there is simply no other Virginia brewed pilsner, whether Bohemian, German, or American in style, that is anywhere near as good as Downright Pilsner. There are a couple that come close, looking at you Devils Backbone Meadow Bier and South Street Shake Your Teal Feather, but Downright has so far held off all comers looking to take that particular crown.
Perhaps it's the simplicity of the recipe, just Pilsner malt and Saaz hops? Perhaps it is the 6 weeks of lagering, or maybe the mildly untraditional dry hopping with Saaz? Perhaps it's the 43 IBUs that all that Saaz brings to the table (yes you read that right, an American made Czech style pilsner that hops it with the best of Czech made Czech lagers). Perhaps it's the fact that Downright is a dvanáctka, that's a 12° Plato beer for the non-Czech speakers of the world?
Actually, it is all of the above. Downright is done right, and when you do things properly you get good results. Could Downright stand up if served on the taps of august Prague establishments like Pivovarský klub? Damn right it would. In fact, I am convinced it would quickly become a favourite among the cognoscenti of the Czech beer world.
Now then, when can I get back to Alexandria, given that my crowlers are finished and already I am hankering for more...?
It's fair to say I now have a house beer. Well, let me qualify that a little by saying it is fair to say that I have a house grist and yeast combination, the hops I tend to mess around with. My house beer is my best bitter recipe that in the hands of Three Notch'd is known as Bitter 42, but in these here parts is still called Session 42 when I use Goldings, and 42 when I don't.
Such has been my focus in the last couple of years on brewing best bitter, I have neglected entirely my good friend, Ordinary Bitter, that even lower gravity beer that is ideal for pouring into a pottle sized jug and forgetting all about the week just gone by. I may have mentioned elsewhere that I have become the de facto brewer for house parties and concerts at my wife's fiddle teacher's place, and we have one coming up in May with a rather well known fiddle player, and so naturally I have my thinking hat on.
The easy thing to do would be another keg of the Limelight Witbier I brewed for the St Patrick's Day festivities and which kicked in under 2 hours. Given that May is American Mild Month, brewing a pale mild crossed my mind, but mild is always a tricky thing to explain, even more so when it isn't dark, and being honest I am yet to hit on an Americanised version that I really love. The even easier thing I guess would be to take the Session 42 recipe and scale it down to ordinary bitter strength, but as my dad always says, if it's easy, is it worth it?
So a brand new ordinary bitter recipe is the decision, and given the challenge of brewing something low alcohol and not woefully insipid, it something I am looking forward to. The recipe I have settled on does share some characteristics with Session 42, mainly in that it is on the paler side of the bitter spectrum. The recipe looks like this:
43% Maris Otter
43% Golden Promise
7% Victory Malt
7% Crystal 15L
19 IBU First Gold for 60 minutes
6 IBU First Gold for 15 minutes
Safale S-04 yeast
Apparently this will give me a starting gravity of 1.039, which once the yeast has done it's thing will give me a 3.8% ABV beer to back up the 25 IBUs of First Gold hops. In terms of colour I am looking at about 6-7 SRM, or nicely dark gold.
If I have the time and can find the equipment I might be tempted to put it into my cask and serve it from a gravity tap, but I never carb my beers too much anyway in the keg so it would mostly be for novelty value.
The name for this particular brew, Boatman - I was listening to The Levellers as I designed the recipe.
Sadly this is not an Evan Railesque travelogue of drinking eponymous lager in the capital of modern Austria. Though when the boys are a bit more grown up a tour of the drinking cultures of central Europe sounds like a grand plan, after all them turning 18 and me 60 coincide quite nicely, and in winter as well so a tour of the Christmas markets could be fun. Anyway, I digress.
As you well know, dear regular reader, I am a big fan of Devils Backbone Brewing just down the road from us here in central Virginia. They were one of the first breweries we visited after moving here from the Czech Republic (sorry, but bollocks to Czechia) and have been a constant, and consistent source of lager beers to keep the lagerboys (and girls) amongst us happy. Of course I should also mention that Jason at Devils Backbone has been kind/crazy enough to brew a couple of my beer recipes at the brewpub.
Unlike many a craft brewery, Devils Backbone's flagship beers are lagers, the trailblazing Vienna Lager and the one time bestseller at the brewpub Gold Leaf. Between them they have picked up 13 gongs at various competitions, including the World Beer Cup. For a long time though if you wanted some Gold Leaf you had to go to the brewpub, which is no great travail, but the days of an hour's drive for a couple of pints are gone for the time being, twins eh? Those days though are over for a reason other than parenthood, Devils Backbone now package Gold Leaf.
Gold Leaf, described on the can as a "Golden Lager", is very much in the tradition of central European every day beer, which given Gold Leaf's nicely modest 4.5% abv makes it a grand session beer. I imagine the starting gravity is around 11° Plato - I can't remember who told me this but if you take the ABV and times it by 2.5 then you have an approximation of the starting gravity. Made with 4 different malts, and 3 hop varieties, including 2 of my favourites (Tettnang and Saaz), to give you 21 IBUs, it is a very easy beer to drink, and that my friend is it's charm.
No doubt I sound like something of a scratched record on this, but I have no time for the vast majority of silly shit beers, you know the kind of thing, porter with peanut butter, IPA with breakfast cereal, gose with fruit, anything you care to mention with vanilla. Gold Leaf is the kind of beer I love to drink, simple, classic, flavourful without being challenging, refreshing, and ideal for sitting on the front porch on a Sunday afternoon. Best of all right now, it is available in our local Wegmans as a 15 pack of cans for $15, you really can't beat that.
Unless of course you want something a little stronger, then get a 15 can pack of Vienna Lager for the same price and pour three into your 1 litre maß....
If you follow pretty much any of my social media accounts, you will know that I am a devotee of lager. I love the stuff, absolutely love it. That's not to take anything away fro, or cast aspersions at, their top fermented cousins, but given the choice, I will always choose a well brewed lager beer. Just to give you an idea of my love for the lagering arts, here's a quick selection of my favourite posts on the subject:
This morning as I had my coffee and watched YouTube videos, having dispatched Mrs V to work and the Malé Aličky to daycare, a video was recommended to me by the Craft Beer Channel about lagers...here it is:
Busting myths about lager with We Are Lager festival! #ad | The Craft Beer Channel - YouTube
What a fantastic video! Thank goodness for people out there telling the truth about the various lager styles. If I were in the UK you bet I'd be trying to get along to the lager festival mentioned in the video, and if you are in the UK, do try and get along.
Last night I was about to send out a tweet to the effect that the six pack of Anchor Porter I was starting on was likely to be my last beer from that most august of craft breweries, and that fact actually made me sad. I really like Anchor beers, and they are not that easy to come by for some reason in this part of Virginia, so when I go to South Carolina I make sure to get a six pack of either their Porter or Liberty Ale.
The reason I was on the verge of a one man boycott was the way management were stifling attempts of Anchor workers to unionise and use the power of collective bargaining to improve salary and conditions. To make sure I had my fact straight, I made sure to check on the old interwebs for stories about the situation, to be presented with news that the workers had successfully voted to unionise. Naturally I was very pleased, and assuming Anchor's management does nothing to punish or interfere with the workers' rights to be in a union I will continue drinking Anchor with a clean conscience.
However, this got me thinking about how few craft brewery workers actually have union representation at their place of employment, and also the generally poor levels of remuneration and benefits for what is a dangerous job. Based on a survey of salary and benefits done by Jeff at Beervana, it is very rare for a head brewer/brewmaster to earn north of $48,000 - which equates to £36,200 or €42,385. Jeff goes into much more detail here, and it is worth checking out his analysis, and subsequent posts.
Given a median individual income in the US of $31,000, it would appear at face value that brewmasters are doing ok, earning 54% more than median, but let's take a moment to step away from the folks at the top end of the brewing totem pole. According to Jeff's analysis, a lead brewer is earning $38,000 per annum, still above the national median, but pretty much on par with the median in Virginia.Once you get to the bottom rungs of the brewing ladder, you dip just below the median salary.
And yet, according to the Brewers Association, the craft beer market in 2017 was worth $26 billion, that's $26,000,000,000 (US billions being smaller than European billions, much like standard beer serving sizes). That $26 billion is in retail dollars, so let's remind ourselves of this breakdown of the costs of a six pack of beer.
According to this infographic, 52% of the cost of the six pack is markup from the middle men that come between me and my beer, distributors and retailers. So using that number as a guide, the production value of the craft beer industry is about $12.5 billion. The most shocking part of that breakdown though the cost of labour, just 1% of the cost of your 6 pack is the hours the brewers spent making that beer. Risking physical injury and even death in the event of a tragedy, to earn a single percent of the pie, the same single percent of the pie as the yeast gets.
Perhaps it is the left wing blood that flows through my veins, being the grandson of a leader in the National Unemployed Workers' Movement in Scotland that lead hunger marches in the 1930s, but so little regard for the value of the workers making a company's beer sickens me. That may explain why when I hear stories of breweries that victimise workers for having the temerity to stand up to management and demand better working conditions (and some breweries I have seen the insides of are death traps) and better pay I will always stand in solidarity with the working brewers and thus not drink that brewery's products until workers are free to unionise. In the meantime, cheers to the workers at Anchor Brewing!
Leaving the flagship beers of central Virginia behind, I want to take a quick trip down Route 29, I-85, and just a tiny bit of I-77, to Charlotte, North Carolina.
It is almost embarrassing when I think about it just how many times since Olde Mecklenburg Brewery opened its doors in 2009 Mrs V and I have driven right past without stopping in. The brewery and its 8 acres of beer garden, yes you read that correctly 8 fucking acres of beer garden, stick that in your poxy patio with a potted tree pipe and smoke it, is literally a couple of minutes off the interstate on the last stretch of the drive to my in-laws in South Carolina.
Then when you look at the beers that they make, you probably think, what the fuck have you been playing at Al?? Everything they make is central European in origin, mostly German, and you know me, I am a complete Teutonophile. Best of all? Not a single IPA in sight, yeah can you believe it, a craft brewery in the USA that doesn't have an IPA as its flagship. What does it have then? A pilsner perhaps? A kölsch? Nope neither of those, the flagship is a Düsseldorf style altbier, named Copper.
Copper has become one of my go-to beers when I am able to get hold of it, which basically means whenever Mrs V, the Malé Aličky, and I go south, or the in-laws come north and I put in a beer order. As you can imagine from the name, and see in the picture, Copper is exactly that, a lovely transparent copper orange, topped with a nice, healthy, rocky foam, as you would expect from even Düsseldorf's finest (which is Schumacher since you didn't ask but I'll tell you anyway). Admittedly you probably look daft taking a big sniff from a half litre mug of beer, but who cares when the aromas of bready malt, floral hops, and orange blossom coming wafting through the foam? Those themes dominate the drinking, fresh bread with a schmeer of honey, meadowy floral hops tinged with something citrusy, think lemon and orange rather than grapefruit, and a good solid bitterness to cleanse the palate. You can't get away from the fact that this is a nailed on version of a classic beer style, one that is old school, and all the better for it. This is serious beer flavoured beer for serious beer drinkers, none of your daft silly shit ingredients to muddy the waters here thank you very much.
Next time the family and I go south, probably in the summer, we will definitely be breaking the journey at Old Meck's beer garden, let the boys stretch their legs and run around while mum and dad enjoy several fresh altbiers. Every prospect pleases.
It's fair to say that I like Blue Mountain Brewery, and have pretty much from the moment we first walked through the, original, door back in 2009. We have watched them grow, both as a venue with the original brewpub at least doubling in size, and as a company, adding the Blue Mountain Barrel House and South Street Brewery to their fold. I have named a beer for them, Isabel, and we did a historic brewing project together, introducing central Virginia to the delights of 1920s Old Burton Ale. It is also fair to say that I simply do not get down there often enough, thankfully there are plenty of places in town to find their beers on tap.
Weighing in at 5.9% abv and with 60 IBUs, Full Nelson is Blue Mountain's flagship, a beer that when I found my notes from our first visit in 2009 I described as being "a delight". That was also my opinion when I most recently had a couple of pints, again sharing a pitcher with my mate Dave.
As you can tell from the picture, Full Nelson is squarely in the old school American Pale Ale category, old school of course not being any denigration of a lovely beer. Despite the 60 IBUs, there is enough malt to balance that out and make for one very drinkable beer, perhaps not a session beer, but certainly something worthy of a few pints in a single sitting.
Being an old school American Pale Ale, you get a good wallop of bitterness as well as the classic pine and citrus flavours that the style is known for. That bitterness though is softened by the almost Plzeňesque water source, which gives the beer a roundness that pale ales made from a harder water source lack, and in my world that makes it a more pleasureable drinking experience. In many ways Full Nelson is a throwback to simpler times in the craft beer world, before the IPAification of everything, before beer as murky as sheep phlegm, before endless new releases. In other words, a flagship, pure, simple, and endlessly enjoyable.
In the nearly ten years since Mrs V and I upped sticks from the Czech Republic (not sorry, but I will never refer to the Czech lands as "Czechia"), Charlottesville and it's immediate environs have experienced something of a brewing boom. In 2009 there were just 4 breweries within about 20 miles of the city, and only one of those in Charlottesville itself. The oldest of those 4 breweries, and the only one in the city of Charlottesville proper, is South Street Brewery. Established in 1998, the brewpub has always been one of my favourite spaces in which to drink, though until 2015 the beer was, all to often, undrinkable, as I wrote about here.
Apparently it hadn't ever been thus. Prior to starting Blue Mountain Brewery, Taylor Smack had been the brewer at South Street, and they had a good reputation. When 8 years later Taylor bought South Street, he and his wife Mandi set about restoring that reputation, to superb effect. South Street beers are now worthy of the space they are brewed and consumed in, and in doing so they also restored the flagship, Satan's Pony.
Satan's Pony is a rarity among flagship beers in that it is not an IPA, rather it is, officially, an Amber Ale. I tend to think of it though as more of a ruby mild in the tradition of Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby as it is 5.3%. Sadly I think the term "ruby mild" would sell less than "amber ale". The picture above was taken a couple of weekends ago at brunch, my good friend Dave and I shared a pitcher of Pony, and once it had got to cellar temperature it was quite revelatory. With only 12 IBU, malt complexity comes to the fore. It has a lovely biscuity base, British biscuits that is, think Rich Tea. On top of the base is layered toffee, a subtle toastiness, and the soothing flavours of unsweetened cocoa. With hops basically there to add bitterness for balance, this is anything but a one dimension hop fest, and it is all the better for it. It is simply delicious.
Now, if you know me in the slightest, you'll likely be reeling from all the glowing positivity above, so let me say this about Satan's Pony, it doesn't get the love it deserves.
South Street is one of the few places I know in Virginia that has a beer engine, and thus the ability to have real ale hand pulled at cellar temperature, and I can think of no better beer in their range to be elevated to the heights of real ale than Satan's Pony. When I say elevated, I mean no silly shit ingredients, I don't want a pastry ruby mild, or dry hopping, or cocoa nibs, or, well, anything else really. Satan's Pony, properly cask condititioned, then properly cared for by the cellarman, pulled, when ready, through a sparkler, would be a thing of beauty.
This year sees the 21st birthday of South Street, and Satan's Pony has been a major part of that ride. You could make a strong argument that Pony is the flagship craft beer for Charlottesville and central Virginia, and in the spirit of Flagship February get out there and try it folks, then thank Taylor and Mandi for restoring its lustre (before bugging them for having it on cask...)