Beer Tasting

  • Return to the Golden Goodness of a Pilsner

    by Malia Paasch for HRGrowler

    When interviewing candidates at The Birch, one of the questions we ask is, “What is your least favorite style of beer?”

    Nine times out of 10 the answer is lagers and pilsners.

    It’s understandable. New beer drinkers often explore radically different styles from the normal macro lager offerings. However, most of my hires would now say they have developed an appreciation for craft-brewed lagers and pilsners.

    The main difference between ales and lagers is the yeast used to ferment and the temperatures needed to make magic. Lagers use bottom fermenting yeast that requires cooler temperatures. This slows the yeast’s activity, resulting in a longer maturation time.

    In other words, a brewery has to be willing to take up precious fermentation tanks for longer periods to brew a lager. This is one reason why a brewery’s initial offerings almost never include this style. But fortunately, the market has seen a rise in craft lager choices, giving us the opportunity to experience what a well-brewed pilsner should taste like.

    The style originates from a town called Pilsen, in the Czech Republic. In the mid-1800s, the Czechs experienced a decline in beer quality. So they built a brand new facility and hired a Bavarian, Josef Groll, as the brewmaster.

    Groll was tasked to recreate a brown Bavarian-style lager. Little did the Czechs know, Groll had smuggled some lager yeast from Germany with him, and in October 1842, the first golden pilsner was poured.

    The Czechs didn’t trademark this new style and brewmasters all over Europe started making their own interpretations. The two best known versions are the original, Czech pilsners, which are golden and have more sweetness, and German pilsners, which tend to have a straw-like color with more of a hop aroma and bitterness.

    So why are craft beer lovers reaching for pilsners more and more often? If you make enough rounds through the IPAs, stouts, and sours, you’re probably ready to experience the nuanced flavors of a pilsner with a new appreciation.

    So, if you haven’t had a craft pilsner before, I challenge you to try a few this summer and enjoy its refreshing golden goodness. Cheers!

  • Feed Your Need for Mead

    by Malia Paasch for HRGrowler

    Mead, one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world, has been mentioned in mythology and folklore, with mortals and gods enjoying its benefits. Some even speculate the beverage, also known as “honeywine,” is responsible for the term “honeymoon.”

    This dates back to when civilizations, such as the Babylonians, used lunar calendars. The bride’s father was expected to give a dowry to the couple that included enough mead to last an entire month. Because, of course, this magic elixir was not only an aphrodisiac, it promoted fertility. And if it was good enough – pure enough – a son would arrive nine short months later.

    Mead is still somewhat difficult to find, despite its status as the fastest growing segment of the American alcohol industry, according to the American Mead Maker Association.

    Most of the well-known meaderies are overseas, such as Dansk Mjod in Denmark and the Makana Meadery in South Africa. But lucky for us, Virginia has a few to boast about; many of them aren’t far away!

    Mead from Melo Lion Meadery in Yorktown and Black Heath Meadery in Richmond can be found locally, and mead from Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg is available on its website.

    Broken down, mead is simply honey, water, and yeast; many of its final flavors come from specific pollen. Die Hochland Imker, a meadery in Austria, places its hives in a lime grove, which produces mead that tastes like limes without ever adding a drop of juice. Other meaderies add fruits and juices. B. Nektar Meadery’s Milton’s Madness (reviewed next page) has lime juice and zest added to create a margarita flavor.

    Traditionally, mead has a bit of a syrupy mouthfeel and leaves a lingering honey sweetness on the
    palate. But the creativity of the mead makers has brought us many interpretations.

    And of course, just like beer, mead comes in a variety of different styles, including Melomel (made with fruit), Braggot (made with malted grain), Cyser (made with apples or apple juice) and Metheglin (made with added spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves).


    Mead is a great addition to any meal as an aperitif or a digestif. It can be chilled or sipped at room temperature. And in cooler weather, it is nice to heat up and consume warm. Cheers!

  • Take Your Taste Buds Down Under

    by Malia Paasch for HR Growler

    One of the most exciting things about the craft beer revival is that it stretches beyond our country’s borders.

    America is not the only place facing choices between mass-produced macro beers and the smaller, usually more tasty, craft selections. When you think of Australian beer, what comes to mind? Fosters? Well, that’s now owned by SABMiller. How about Italy? Peroni is also owned by SABMiller. Heck, even Moratti is owned by Heineken.

    So what does one do if they want good beer down under? How about checking out Nomad Brewing Company, a collaboration between Australian craft beer importer ExperienceIt and Birra del Borgo, Italy’s premiere craft brewer.
    ExperienceIt is owned by Kerrie and Johnny Latta, who moved from Australia to Italy in search of a new adventure. The couple started their importing company, initially focusing on Italian wines.

    Soon they fell in love with craft beer and started importing to Australia as well. The company also imports American craft beers into the country, including selections from Deschutes Brewery, Stone Brewing and Sixpoint Brewery.
    Birra del Borgo was founded by Leonardo Di Vincenzo, a biochemist who became fascinated with home brewing. You may have heard of Birra del Borgo from its collaboration with Dogfish Head Brewing.

    Together those two companies made My Antonia, an imperial pilsner recipe created using Dogfish Head’s continual hopping technique. Del Borgo’s beers, imported by ExperienceIt, made their debut at Australia’s Good Beer Week in 2012. Di Vincenzo made the trip to Australia, and return several times after to judge beer festivals, and host beer events. He soon was enticed by the country’s burgeoning craft beer scene.

    The Lattas and Di Vincenzo decided to combine their passions for beer and love of travel into a new Australian brewery called Nomad. The name is fitting. The project’s head brewer is Brooks Caretta, another global wanderer. He began his career as an intern at Del Borgo in 2009, and was soon whisked off to New York City as head brewer of Birreria Eataly. He also helped open the Eataly in Rome.

    He says the beers the brewery specializes in are made for “people with passion and a desire to seek out new experiences.” For example, Nomad’s Long Trip Saison is brewed with some truly Aussie ingredients; wattle seed and Tasmanian black pepper. The brewery also adds coffee beans to the mash giving it a subtle coffee note. Another beer, Freshie Salt and Pepper, is brewed with real sea water harvested in Sydney. So even if you aren’t planning a trip down under this summer, take your taste buds on an adventure and enjoy a pint of the Aussie life.

  • What's a Gypsy Brewer?

    by Malia Paasch for HR Growler

    Mikkeller, Evil Twin Brewing Company and Stillwater Artisanal Ales: What do these brewers have in common?

    They don’t actually own a brewery.

    These three are among the few who have found a way to make beer without a brick-and-mortar footprint. Known as “gypsy brewers,” they are some of the most innovative producers in the world.

    Mikkeller of Denmark was the first gypsy I ran across. The brewer’s two founders, Mikkel Borg Bjergso and Kristian Klarup Keller, started in college. They continued their “kitchen experiments” for two years, often sharing their homebrews with friends at their beer club.

    During a blind taste test against commercially brewed beers, Mikkeller came out on top. The two men decided to try producing on a larger scale at a local microbrewery. Mikkel’s twin brother, Jeppe, had a bottle shop in Copenhagen and started selling the beer. Now the brand exports to 40 countries and has a dozen Mikkeller Bars all over the world.

    Speaking of those bars: Originally Jeppe and Mikkel had a pact that each would stay in their own worlds, retail and production. But when Mikkel opened his first bar and retail shop down the street from Jeppe’s bottle shop, the brother decided it was his turn to start brewing.

    He created Evil Twin Brewing Company in 2010. Evil Twin is not quite the size of Mikkeller, but his beers are nearly as well known. He exports to 12 countries and has a bar in Brooklyn named Torst.

    Brian Strumke, known to the beer world as Stillwater, is one of our own stateside gypsy brewers. A native of Baltimore, Strumke was a DJ and techno producer who started home brewing around the same time of Jeppe and Mikkel.

    The story goes that Strumke was asked to bring some of his brews to Max’s, a bar in Baltimore. From that, Stillwater Artisanal Ales was born.

    These three produce their beers in large quantities by contracting recipes to breweries with free fermenter space.

    Mikkeller mostly uses De Proef in Belgium. Evil Twin moved most of his production stateside to Westbrook Brewing in South Carolina and Two Roads Brewing in Connecticut. Stillwater uses Pub Dog Brewing in Maryland and travels the world crafting collaboration beers.

    The gypsy brewers are at the forefront of the beer market. Evil Twin moving production stateside has enabled him to sell his beers at a lower price. Stillwater has been collaborating with fledgling breweries in South America. Mikkeller’s latest announcement is that he is opening his first brewery in San Diego with Alesmith, using their brewing facility.

    Is it every gypsy brewer’s dream to have a brewery? This move may signal a change in the gypsy brewing market; only time will tell.

  • The ABC’s of Ordering Beer

    By Malia Paasch for HR Growler
    Photo by Chrystal Culbert

    Asking for a beer seems a simple enough process, but what happens if you just don’t know what you like? This happens more often than you might think. Craft beer’s growing popularity has led to more people trying it; not all of them are even remotely aware of what they want. The key is understanding flavors and being aware of the ones you like. I’ve heard some crazy descriptions: types of candy, exotic seasonings, nail polish remover, vinegar, and even dirt. But don’t be shy. Anything can help give the bartender a starting point to your palate. Here are a few of the most common scenarios my staff and I encounter when we’re trying to find someone their perfect beer.

    Scenario 1: You tell the bartender you like (or dislike) hoppy beers.
    Most beers have hops, but that doesn’t mean all beers taste like an India Pale Ale. There are 124 named hop varieties and each has its own special flavor. There are hop varieties that aren’t even bitter.

    If you like hops, tell the bartender what other IPAs you like. This provides a clue as to what kind of hops you already enjoy. Common hop descriptors in IPA include pine, spruce, grapefruit, and citrus.

    Otherwise, explain why you don’t like hoppy beers. Is it because the hops are bitter or is it the aftertaste? It could be that you enjoy fruity hops and not the piney ones.

    Scenario 2:  You ask the bartender for something light.
    Do you mean light in color? Light in alcohol, or body? Does that mean tart or are you looking for a wheat beer? A diehard IPA fan might consider a 7 percent IPA to be light, while others are looking for a more traditional interpretation and want a pilsner. Again, the simplest way is to give an example of a beer you like, even if it isn’t a craft beer.

    Scenario 3: You don’t really like beer.
    It’s not often you’ll find yourself in a position where a bar doesn’t have alternatives to beer, but in some cases it does happen. Tell the bartender what alcoholic drinks you like. If you like margaritas, you might like something crisp, slightly tart, and a bit fruity. A red wine drinker might enjoy a mild sour beer. White wine lovers usually like a witbier or Belgian tripel.
    Of course the best way to learn more about beer is to drink some. But don’t be shy about chatting up a knowledgeable bartender. You never know what you might discover.

  • Don't Sour on Sours Yet

    by Malia Paasch

    This week I’m hosting my fifth annual 43 Hours of Sours at The Birch, a craft beer bar in Norfolk’s Chelsea neighborhood. And while sours continue to grow in popularity, I still field a fair amount of questions about them.

    So here is a little tutorial. The term “sour” applies to beers that taste acidic, vinegary, funky, or tart. There are a variety of techniques to make one, but the foundation is based on the yeast or bacteria used. Bacteria metabolize sugar in the wort and produce lactic acid. Brewers will use a combination of bacteria to obtain the desired acidity, and in most cases end up blending different batches together.

    The second aspect to making a sour involves the manner in which bacteria are added to the beer, and how it is aged. Historically, German brewers would throw malt to get a lacto sour going because the husks are loaded with lactobacicullus.

    The kettle sour method and barrel aging are other methods of the process. Sours can take on the flavors from the liquids that were previously in the barrels. Plus the barrels also hold microflora and microorganisms, which will also affect taste.

    Making sours is not easy and in some cases takes years. But they can be worth every second of the wait. I’m convinced there is a sour for everyone, but the search may take time.

    First, identify you flavor profile. If you are more of a wine drinker, there is a good chance you will prefer wine barrel-aged sours. But if you like Sweet Tarts or Sour Patch Kids, you might want to steer toward a Berliner Weiss or a dry-hopped sour IPA.

    Here are some classic sour styles and their tasting notes for you to use as a guide:

    •Flemish Reds: smooth, slightly sweet, sometimes fruity
    • Goses: salty, tart, light
    • Gueuze: bitter greens, vinaigrette
    • Berliner Weiss: refreshing, lemony, crisp
    • Wild Ales: dry, funky, can be fruity or tart
    • Basque Ciders: tart, vinegary, olive

    At our 43 Hours of Sour festival, we create tasting notes for every beer on draft and customers can opt to get a 4.5 oz taster pour instead of committing to a whole glass. Some other great places to find sours in the area are Esoteric, The Lynnhaven Pub, Dog Street Pub, and The Bier Garden, or Total Wine, Grape and Gourmet, Bottlebox, and Exception(Ale) for take home.