Thursday, April 23, 2009

47 people get off a bus and walk into a brewery

A picture perfect Melbourne Autumn day, one large coach (and driver), three beer-filled destinations ahead and 47 Ale Stars – is there a better way to spend a Saturday?

The Local Taphouse in St Kilda was the launching point for the first Ale Stars Road Trip and the Yarra Valley was the beneficiary of our company, our cash and our special brand of beery comedy. That is to say that the cash and the company came first, the comedy would emerge relative to the volume of beer we would consume.

Our first port of call was Coldstream Brewery for a guided tour and late morning samples of their fine small batch brews, but not before a rambling tour of Melbourne’s leafy inner Eastern suburbs before hitting the Eastern Freeway and allowing Steve to deliver the itinerary and the ‘Muck around and I’ll turn this bus right around and there’ll be no beer for anyone-don’t make me come down the back of the bus!’ talk.

As the closest thing to a ‘local’ it was up to me to point out to those around the various places of historical and cultural interest as we moved further out from the city. Loud gasps and hushed awe alike were heard as I directed attention to landmarks such as Eastland Shopping Centre, the Lilydale quarry and Car City. The majestic National Trust listed home of Dame Nellie Melba just outside Healesville was universally ignored.

Coldstream Brewery sits at the doorway to the Yarra Valley and, while from outside it looks as though it could have been a corner store in a previous life - and Shandy was surprised to find it ‘nestled amongst the servos and the sand n’ soil joint, rather than in some idyllic locale’ – it was certainly a warm and beery welcome that awaited.

Brewer Rod Williams led the halved group through the brewhouse while the other half parked themselves in the very homely bar and sampled the fruits of the brewer’s labour. Coldstream Lager and Bitter were followed by the seasonal Autumn Porter which was then transmogrified into the local version of a Black &Tan. Anybody who felt that the trip was in any way becoming like a school field trip with educational information and guided tours was soon relieved of this misgiving.

As we were about to re-board (re-embark?) the coach our little beery haven was filled to the brim with Morris Dancers – you know, hanky dancin’, noisy bells on their balls, silly boaters and antiquated English traditions? The Coldstream Cider was obviously of a very fine quality and the jolly folksters arrived en masse at the sound of the tapping of the coi-dair keg. They gave us a quick exhibition of their jaunty craft in the car park as our coach pulled out and some were heard to declare that the road trip was now really underway.

The short drive into Yarra Glen was made to feel even quicker as the now primed Ale Stars spent the time laughing, piss-taking, and providing rather well orchestrated choruses of the word ‘photo’ – or ‘phooor-tooor’ as Shandy would have it.

Hargreaves Hill Restaurant & Bar is housed in the old Colonial Bank building in Yarra Glen and despite losing the actual brewery in the Black Saturday bushfires at Steel’s Creek, Simon and his staff were able to keep us well refreshed with both his own stellar craft brews as well as craft brews from Red Hill and Temple breweries with a real treat – Chimay on draught.

The Ale Stars were then treated to a lunch fit for a King – or 47 reasonably well lubricated jokesters making fun of Shandy’s accent – and a procession of tasting glasses featuring all six tap beers. While opinion was divided on some brews (particularly those of us sipping what we were TOLD was a pilsner, but was confusingly a saison! D’OH!) The main interest lay in the noticeable difference in taste between a small sampler and a full size glass. The ratio of liquid dispersal to oxygenation regimes with a friction co-efficient factored in and the physical ratio of depth to width was commented on by nearly everybody. (Ding-Ding, tech foul)

We were fortunate to have a good hour and a half at Hargreaves Hill as this was roughly the amount of time our coach driver, Bubbly Bob, required to un-jam the bus from between the fence and the pedestrian bollard. Having 47 now very well lubricated Ale Stars offering advice and pissed giggles probably didn’t help, as it turned out. A few of us looked after him by shifting some temporary fencing. Well, it was temporary after we shifted it.

Our last stop before heading back to civilisation was the yet-to-be-opened White Rabbit Brewery in Healesville. This is a project by the Little Creatures people in WA and intends to produce just a single, ‘styleless’ beer as well as providing a nice place to stop and watch the brewing process while enjoying some fine beer. The point of difference here is the use of an open fermentation tank which is locked away in a sterile room and visible via a CCTV set up. You wouldn’t think that watching a TV showing a vat of vigorously overflowing foaming yeast would hold much interest but there were plenty of our number glued to the screen. Certainly more value in this show than in ten seasons of Big Brother.

Arguably the highlight of the road trip came next as we were fortunate enough to sample the test brew straight from the maturation tank – the first to try it after only the brewer. Can’t say you have that kind of opportunity too often.

As we loaded back onto the coach, happier but slower, plans were already being hatched for the next Ale Stars Road Trip. Steve at The Local Taphouse did a fantastic job of organising the itinerary and the details as well as managing the rather hefty tab left over due to the extra numbers attending and for all of this we are very grateful. 2009 – Re-building the Bush, One Beer at a Time – was a massive success and all agreed that a very fine and beery time was had by all.

...and we have the “phooor-tooors” to prove it.

Prof. Pilsner

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Disc Golf

You may remember that in the last review of the Ale Stars meeting I made mention of fellow Ale Star Ben and his recent International sporting championship win. He even brought in his International sporting championship winning trophy for ‘Show & Tell’.

Ben managed to beat all comers in his division and at the same time keep down a fairly impressive quantity of the sponsor’s product, Barefoot Radler. Thinking back on this, I’m not sure which is the more noteworthy achievement.

Now, before you get all huffy and say that piffin’ a plastic flying disc around a public park is NOT an international sporting championship worthy of the distribution of international sporting championship winning trophies, hang on, it’s much more than that. Remember that these people compete against other like minded folk who also enjoy piffin’ a plastic flying disc around while drinking beer AT THE SAME TIME!! And they got to go all the way over to Perth to compete! Well, not the ones FROM Perth, obviously.

Plus, these sportsmen and women have their very own website, so ... well .... so .... SO THERE!!

It seems to me that disc golf – which is pretty much like piffin’ a plastic flying disc around a public park but at the same time aiming at a certain spot on the ground – is just like real golf but with the benefit of (A) Not having to walk around quite as much, (B) Not having to dress up like a fat American tourist without the camera, and (C) You don’t have to hang around with people who like real golf. And, you can drink beer.

Well done, Ben, you have made your fellow Ale Stars proud.

Anyone who wants to learn more about piffin’ plastic discs around a public park, click here.

Prof. Pilsner

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Raise a Glass

You may have gathered that I am no huge fan of the largely spiritless corporate brewing giants who appear to be in the market for money rather than for the pursuit of beer and beery excellence. Don’t get me wrong – I understand why they do what they do and that there has to be big brewers so we can better appreciate the little guys – I just pay them that much attention.

Which is probably why this promotion caught my eye. It seems that, while it is clearly part of a marketing campaign to raise brand awareness and cement revenue streams, this particular ploy appears to have some element of social conscience and respect for culture and tradition.

The ‘Raise a Glass’ campaign is driven by Foster’s major brand, Victoria Bitter, in conjunction with Legacy and the RSL. The first thing that struck me is that the whole VB branding is almost invisible, set into the site as a subtle understatement rather than a fan-faring ‘look at me, look at me!!’ kind of grandstanding. The purpose of the promotion (apart from shifting units) is to remember and honour those who have served in military conflicts around the world over the past century.

Timed to tap into the ANZAC Day commemorations the program is as much about raising awareness as it is about raising funds. Funds are raised by donations through the website as well as through sales at bars and clubs. RSLs and other clubs will also have kegs of VB donated by Foster’s.

But it is the website and ad campaign that convinced me that there may actually be a heart beating faintly somewhere within the beast that is Foster’s as they both tap into a deeper understanding of the sacrifices and courage of our fallen diggers. The site provides a kind of forum where ex and currently serving soldiers and their families can contribute pictures and stories that will ensure that the events and incidents which don’t qualify for the history books are not lost when the last of these men and women pass away.

For anyone who enjoys a beer and a good yarn and has some sense of the ties that really bind a Nation’s culture, this site is worth a look. And if you can, get out on ANZAC Day and raise a glass to those who fought so that you could have a nice cold beer and not have to ask for it in Japanese or German. Even if it is only a VB.

Prof. Pilsner

... and speaking of VB

I got a call from Dr Lager the other day.

“I’m over here in Singapore. Whaddya reckon they charge you for a stubby of VB? In a restaurant? Normal size? Go on, have a guess! You won’t believe it!!”

“I dunno ... twelve bucks?”

“ ......(silence) ...... Yeah? Howdya know?”

Mrs Pilsner and the eldest Pilsner spent a few days in Singapore on the way back from a trip to Thailand and that was one of the first things they relayed back to me. What I hadn’t realised was that there is some kind of official ‘Don’t Drink Beer’ campaign going on in this island state that is very disturbing.

According to Dr Lager, and confirmed when he popped over and we scoured the net together for menus and price lists, even local draught beer is priced so as to deter the average drinker from being able to afford to get even a little bit tipsy.

$38.50 for a jug (1.25 litres or so) of draught beer and $8 for a glass!! What?!? Think about that the next time you are charged ‘over the odds’ for a pint.

I still can’t get over the fact that you can pay $12 for a VB. If I’m paying twelve bucks for VB – which I wouldn’t – I want to see him chaperoned by at least three of his little green labelled mates. I don’t know what’s worse, actually. The fact that someone is charging that much for VB, or the mere fact that VB is available in Singapore.

Fair dinkum, there oughta be a law.

Prof. Pilsner

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Funny Stuff and satays

We have a growing tradition in our family where me and Mrs Pilsner get together with her brother and his wife and we celebrate our birthdays with dinner and ‘a something’ rather than buying each other presents.

Last year we went along to Monty Python’s Spamalot after dinner together in a great little place in Melbourne’s Chinatown. This year we decided on a show from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and dinner in a great little place in Melbourne’s Chinatown.

We headed straight back to the same little restaurant as last year. We choose our Chinese restaurants based n a simple three point plan;

1) No Neon lights in the signage
2) No pictures of things on the menu
3) Must NOT have the following words in the name;
Jade, Palace, Dragon or Pebble

Golden Orchids is an absolute cracker of a restaurant. Small but comfortable, busy but cosy, generous but not expensive. It still has the same wallpaper it had when it opened in 1973 and I suspect some of the staff are of the same vintage. A simple menu specialising in satay and claiming to be Melbourne’s first Malaysian satay restaurant, it is just a top spot. Tucked away at the quiet end of Chinatown it is a hidden gem.

There is the obligatory young girl out the front touting for customers and we sat for a while just watching her work. When we arrived we took the second last four-top downstairs and noted that there was one, maybe two, two-tops left. Upstairs is tiny with a small extra room off to the side of that and based on the floor plan this couldn’t be any bigger than half of one side of the downstairs area. Despite this and the fact that they were pretty busy (for a Thursday early evening) this lass kept dragging them in and finding them all a spot to sit. As a walk-in of eight uni students was led upstairs we guessed that she knew when they were actually full when the she couldn’t push the front door in any more.

The guys who looked after us were friendly and efficient – if you can get our entrees to the table at almost the same time as our first beers and the beers get there quick, well, you’re doin’ OK. And here’s the best bit. Tsing Tao - $5.50, Boag’s Premium - $5, Crown Lager - $5.50, VB - $4.50. But by the end of the three courses and four beers each we were left with a bill (for four of us) of $80! How good is that!? Well, it’s even better when you go outside to head to the theatre and right next door is a little bottle shop run by a little Asian bloke who knows his beer and he puts you onto an ‘export only’ 600ml longneck of a Taiwanese beer you’ve never even heard of!

A couple of quick takeaways and we off to see a very funny Adam Hills pull laughs from everything from a warehouse workers fluro socks to the Dutch word for hymen. Funny, funny stuff.

The cheap beers had nothing to with it.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival Get out and catch a show if you can. And if you pop into the Golden Orchids, tell em that the Beer Blokes sent ya!

Prof. Pilsner

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Beer Awards 2009

The Australian International Beer Awards has grown to become the second largest beer awards in the world and, while the results are often the subject of much discussion and debate, the quality of the entered beers remains the real focus.

With a judging panel that is a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of beer writing and brewing, both commercial/multi-national and craft – and the number of entries from around the world growing each year the gold, silver and bronze medals seem almost interchangeable.

This year’s crop of champions was dominated by the Feral Brewing Company of Western Australia which took home a slab of medals as well as the title of Grand Champion (highest scoring exhibitor) Champion Small Brewery and Champion Hybrid Beer. Some great beers have been produced by this outfit and the Brother-in-law recently visited and sent me some SMS updates on the merits of their tasting paddles. I have only sampled a couple of their offerings and my notes suggest I was less than blown away by them in comparison to others. I will now go out and pick up some more – I guess that’s a side effect of the AIBA awards.

This year’s Premiers Trophy for best Victorian beer was won by a Victorian beer which was a nice thing. You see, last year the State’s boss gave the gong to Stella Artois – brewed in Victoria by Foster’s, but probably still really considered to be Belgian, you dumbarse – so perhaps someone had a quiet word to the new Premier before this round. By the way, I don’t mean to imply that the previous Premier was punted for this oversight, it was a little more complicated than that, but ... if I was running the show, you can bet that Government Ministers would be sacked on the spot for even lesser beer-related misdemeanours.

The winning beer was Mountain Goat’s Rapunzel - a strong Belgian blonde that is NOT Kim Clijsters. The Goat Guys first up crack at a Belgian beer was worthy of recognition and a deserved winner.

The Champion Lager and Champion Large Brewery were taken out by Imperial (Honduras) which surprised me a bit – not the least because I checked my tasting notes and thought their lager was less than ordinary, but what do I know – but also because it seems to be barely a lager. A quick check of reviews puts it everywhere from a light, unbittered refresher to the favourite all time beer of an Irish backpacker (because it was the cheapest) through to the Silver medal winner at last year’s World Beer Cup in the category of Australasian, Latin American or Tropical Style Light Lager. Having said that, it may be a completely different beer. There is an ‘Imperial’ from Costa Rica which keeps coming up in web searches as the same looking beer(?)

I’m still surprised ... not sure if I will be getting another of these to confirm my initial thoughts. And I can’t help thinking that there are plenty more lagers around that are far more worthy.

Best wheat beer went to Weihenstephan Dunkel and there is little to argue with on that one. Weihenstephan tends to snag a gong every year thus maintaining its reputation as one of Beer Bloke’s favourite brewers.

Champion Ale was the Feral Hop Hog from Western Australia’s Feral who also picked up the best Scotch/Barley Wine ensuring that local beers were well represented in the awards. Joining these were the Blackwood Valley Brewing Co in WA who collected best stout, Flying Horse Bar and Brewery (Vic) who won the porter category for their Dirty Angel and Sunshine Coast Brewery who scored for their reduced alcohol Summer Ale.

Full results here.

Prof. Pilsner

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Our favourite brews

This heading caught my eye in the local Melbourne paper last week. I’m always a little sceptical of beer articles in the mainstream news because they always seem to fall into one of two categories – highlighting and over-exaggerating alcohol fuelled street violence or thinly disguised advertorial for one of the big breweries.

This article fits the MO of the latter and, in this case I think they’ve given a free hit to one of the big beer barons*. It claims to have ‘unearthed’ the most popular beers in Melbourne. And by ‘beers’, they mean Victoria Bitter – VB – and by ‘most popular’ they mean the stuff sold through Melbourne’s largest single beer-barn style retailer – Woolworth’s, which includes Dan Murphy’s cellars and a thousand hotel bottle shops.

We all knew that VB was the single biggest selling beer in Melbourne because, well, it’s the biggest selling beer in Australia – has been since God’s dog was a pup! What we didn’t now was that “the beer we drink does vary according to our postcode,” the article suggested. It then contradicted itself by saying that VB was the top-selling beer in liquor shops IN EVERY STORE SURVEYED IN MELBOURNE AND REGIONAL VICTORIA. Excuse me, but have you seen my ‘variance’??

Well, the only variance comes in when you look at an outlet in the CBD and one in Toorak (Melbourne’s most prestigious address). Here VB comes in at number five and four respectively. But the results for these two are nothing to be proud of either. In the CBD the alpha-beer is Corona. In Toorak it is Pure Blonde. I can understand VB at the ‘top’ because it is so widely available, has been drunk by everybody’s father, grandfather and great grandfather and is supported by the longest running series of ads in print and on radio and TV.

But Corona!?! The greatest practical joke ever played on a beer drinker and possibly the greatest supporter of the citrus fruit growing industry. Pure Blond!?! Pure marketing bullshit! It should have a warning on the label; “MAY CONTAIN TRACES OF BEER. MANUFACTURED IN FACTORIES WHERE BEER PRODUCTS ARE MADE” Any less taste of beer and you’d need to call it ... well, Corona.

Now, in case you think I’m becoming a beer snob (maybe the bulk of the population are just beer slobs??) I’m not, I’m just using these pages to lament the fact that award winning craft beers and imported offerings are never given the sort of full page spread that items, like this, of dubious merit or educational worth seem to get regularly. If you want to make up a full page ad for a big brewer, just say so.

Just don’t pour cheap beer down our backs and tell us it’s raining.

Prof. Pilsner

Friday, April 3, 2009

'Beer Funny' Jokes

Welcome to the Beer Blokes new series, ‘Jokes that are funnier when you’re drinking beer’.
Any and all gags – no matter how sad, bad or otherwise – will be welcomed with groans or guffaws as is appropriate.

Number one (Thanks, Mrs Pilsner)

Q. Where do you go to learn to be a pirate?

A. You don’t learn to be a pirate .... you just ‘AAAAAARRGHHHHH!!!’ one.

Cheers, Prof. Pilsner

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Samichlaus the Christmas Beer

It’s Austrian, it’s beer and it’s a very festive 14% ABV.

Samichlaus is brewed on December 6 and then matured for 10 months before release. Produced from a fair whack of Pilsner malt with a little Munich 25 it is brewed using a double decoction method and, as a result, shows some kettle caramelisation in the flavour and the colour. Two hop additions ensure a balanced flavour profile and a hardy yeast able to withstand the workload required of a 14% beer give it an estery fruitiness.

I haven’t tried it yet. I am drawing my descriptions from the writings of the late Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson. The other Michael Jackson (skinny white guy with no face, one glove, lunatic) is still alive but he’s slowly working on it. So am I.

Michael Jackson wrote of Samichlaus beer back in 2000 when the Castle Brewery at Eggenberg revived the brew after a four year break. It was originally produced in 1979 for release in 1980 and sold up until 1997 when the brewery went bust. From what I can gather it has been brewed every year since then by the Eggenberg boys in conjunction with the original brewers. Subsequent batches were designed for cellaring to round out and enhance the flavours overall. The piece is well worth a read as it details the secrecy with which the brewer guards his craft and the stealth with which someone who was as good at his own craft as Michael Jackson guesses the rest.

Known as the Santa Claus beer I can only imagine if the jolly old fat bloke from up North had even one of these beers before taking off his reindeer would turn into pink elephants and he’d be lucky to back the sleigh out of the Pole without hitting it. Two or more and he wouldn’t be able to find his own arse with both hands. The actual translation of the word Samichlaus is Santa Claus in ‘Swiss-German’ but I suspect it’s actually Santa Claus in ‘Pissed-Idiot’. As in “Sami .... Shammi ... Shaaa-aaa-aaa-mY, Mate!!!! ORLUVYOOO!!! Nah, seruss-ly, mate ... mate ... ma-a-a-a-ate. FEN LEGEND MATE!!!”

It is interesting to note also that some insist his beer is a Doppellbock, while others will proudly call it the world’s strongest lager. Don’t know wether either is necessarily wrong, but it highlights the ways in which beer ‘labels’ can serve to confuse and divide opinion. As long as it’s liquid and beer-flavoured, I’ll give it a crack and leave the pedigree up to those who want to play those games.

Thanks Chris for the gift of the Christmas beer and thanks to the good folk at Sword’s Select for stocking these kinds of beer. I’m on call this week so I won’t be into the Santa Claus beer until next week when I will let you know what I think of it. For what that’s worth.

Prof. Pilsner