Amidst old Buicks in the garage adjoining Fifth Season Gardening Co., a recent beer brewing demo was one part Mr. Wizard, one part Overhaulin’. More than two dozen coffee-carrying, beer-craving people came early to watch Starr Hill lead brewer, Levi Duncan, mix up ten gallons of Dark Starr Stout.
While waiting for his mash (crushed grains steeped in water held at a constant temperature for 30 minutes) to reach 172 degrees (the temperature at which alcohol burns off), he went off on yeasts, especially unwelcome mutant ones. “Yeasts are crazy little organisms—they’ll drive you nuts.” With another seven steps and hours before it’s even time to add the yeasts (not to mention the one to two weeks of fermentation time), there’s a lot of downtime to philosophize.
A show of hands revealed that half of the crowd were home-brewers coming to study a pro, although, Duncan doesn’t like delineating between the two. He started out at home and still learns a trick or two from home-brewers. “Opinions in brewing are like doorknobs—everyone has one,” he joked.
Turns out that home-brewing and fermenting have quite the following. In addition to a wide range of beer- and wine-making kits, Fifth Season sells kits for making cheese, yogurt, compost, and soon, vinegar and kombucha (a fermented tea with East Asian origins and widely touted health benefits before its potential alcohol levels led to a nationwide recall). The recipe and supplies to make your own Dark Starr Stout are available at Fifth Season for $42. Mash now and drink by St. Patty’s Day.
Despite this recent publicity, home-brewing has a long history. Records from 1772 show that Jefferson’s wife Martha oversaw Monticello’s brewing operations, producing 15 gallon casks of beer every two weeks to serve nightly with meals. Jefferson’s brews used barley, corn, and wheat grown on the plantation. With these same ingredients and Starr Hill’s help, a Monticello Reserve Ale (in 750 ml bottles) will be released on President’s Day with a ceremonial keg-tapping and sampling at the Visitor’s Center from noon-3pm. Now there’s a president with a most honorable legacy.
Beer me now
Looking for something a little more, well, immediate? Here’s a six-pack worth of brews low on effort, high on taste.
Blue Mountain Brewery Sandy Bottom (American Wheat Ale)
Devil’s Backbone Dead Bear (English-style Imperial Stout)
Flying Dog Raging Bitch (Belgian-style IPA)
South Street Brewery Satan’s Pony (American Amber Ale)
Starr Hill Double Platinum (Imperial IPA)
Victory Prima Pils (German-style Pilsener)
A modest pour for the Gov’s Cup
True: You’ve got to play to win.
Also true: Those who don’t play aren’t necessarily losers.
Intending no lack of graciousness towards this year’s contenders for the Governor’s Cup, the highest statewide prize in winemaking, we simply want to point out that some outstanding wineries eschew the competition, which makes them simply non-contenders rather than failures.
With that out of the way, congratulations to 2011 Gold Medalists Keswick Vineyards (2009 Cabernet Franc), Hiddencroft Vineyards (2008 Cabernet Franc), Afton Mountain Vineyards (2009 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon), Fox Meadow Winery (2008 Meritage), Barboursville Winery (2008 Petit Verdot) and Coopers Vineyard (2008 Norton). The Governor’s Cup for red wines, which will be announced at the Virginia Wine Expo in Richmond on Friday night, February 25, will go to one of these half-dozen. The Expo will continue throughout that weekend at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, making for a bustling one-stop shop for those wanting to try many (but not all) Virginia wines at once.
Finally, 147 wines were awarded medals this year, with 58 percent being bronze. In a reassuring move away from what might be termed grade inflation, a scant 4 percent of entries took the gold.