Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Hit the North!
August 19, 2010

My quest for LOL or Life Outside London continues this weekend with a jaunt to see my brilliant friend Jenny and perhaps visit Liverpool and Manchester and environs.  We may also be hiking around North Wales for a bit as well, depending on the weather & my health.

I’m hoping RedNev will have a few pointers and Darren at blogobeer has suggested The Marble Arch in Manchester.  Any other ideas would be most welcome.

Beer Tribes
May 5, 2010

Hastings May Day Revelers in the ruined castle

Sometimes I’ll be at a pub and see people drinking one thing or another and wonder how they came to that decision– these burly footie fans drinking Guinness– did their father’s drink it?  And the lager drinkers, did their mates give them the first sip, ages ago?  To change their beer is to change teams.  There’s something tribal about it, even the real ale drinkers– or perhaps especially.  Is Timothy Taylor Landlord the tribal beer of the ale nerd? I’ve never had a decent pint of the stuff, though I’ll admit to ordering it when I think someone’s watching and there’s nothing else.  I always regret it.

But what if it’s the May Day bank holiday weekend and you find yourself in Hastings (with the inimitable Pete Brown no less) amongst a sea of people painted green, festooned with leaves, dancing in the street and singing.  What do you drink?

Most of the pubs are Shepherd Neame, and the brewery has made a beer just for the Jack in the Green Festival. It had a lovely malt character, laced through with ripe green hops, very fitting of the day.  But I didn’t drink a lot of that.  I’ll admit I’m put off Shepherd Neame beers because of their ad campaigns– the “Bishops Finger” still manages to make me queasy whenever I even see the name, and the “…and a bowl of water for me bitches” campaign just compounded my dislike, making it difficult for me to enjoy their beers.

But what beer is most loved among the greenery?  It’s Harveys Best Bitter.  Two years ago I happened upon some neo-pagan shenanigans in the City.  These folklorists of the street had  fashioned a giant tree in the Market Porter pub, and it was worn by someone and paraded through the streets of the financial district with the help of green leafy bogies, while everyone followed, playing music on tin whistles and accordion, getting more blotto with every pub and bank we passed.  It was the best pub crawl, ever.  And we drank Harveys.

The similar festival in Hastings, Jack-in-the-Green,  is much bigger and even more life affirming. Harvey’s was on offer at the Dolphin, a sea-side pub right by the imposing black net huts and the motley fleet and fishing equipment strewn about this working beach. I could have stayed there drinking that all day.

It was interesting to note that one of the Shepherd Neame pubs in the old town, the Stag, was filled with song on Saturday afternoon– everyone in the room seemed to know the folk songs and the tiny room reverberated with their voices which welcomed spring with a melancholy certainty that these songs might be forgotten, and soon.  One gentleman had written his own clever lyrics to old tunes and he mentioned a wayward lover who’d sneaked away with the green folk to sing and dance and drink Harvey’s Best. That’s exactly what I would have been drinking, had the pub served it, because two years ago a kind man with a green beard put a pint of it in my hand and at that moment, which is this moment, it was the loveliest beer.

New Beers Resolutions
December 31, 2009

The Beer Chicks have asked us for our best and worst beers of 2009.  There is a tie for best– between the sublime BrewDog Zephyr, and Pete Brown’s traditional Burton IPA– the same beer brewed for his voyage which he documented in Hops and Glory.  After fermenting for two years, it took on all sorts of mysterious, vinous, lambic-like characteristics.  Really haunting and complex, made moreso by its role in such a marvelous narrative.

In 2009 this blog turned one.  It started as a whim and has now become central my lens on life and London.  The days of the lone blogger are over; I’m part of a community.  It’s introduced me to fascinating people, many who are now friends.

My biggest leap of faith in 2009 was investing in BrewDog.  Why did I do it when so many in the blog-o-shire put forth compelling arguments not to?  When it’s not really an investment? When the Equity for Punks promo material was clearly sexist? When the guys at BrewDog went one stunt over the line and reported their own beer to the Portman group?  I confess the lifelong 20% sweetened the deal but really, I believe if anyone can inject new life into brewing in the UK and turn on a younger generation to craft brewing, it’s BrewDog.  Their beers excite me and capture my imagination. James’ sincerity and passion have won me over. I want them to do this thing– the new brewery, the brewpub, everything. It’s going to be amazing, the kind of thing that is already alive and well in the US. The Equity for Punks scheme is a bit crazy, but it just might work, it might be this kind of craziness that’s needed to ring in this sea change. What a coup it will be if they pull this off. These are exciting times in terms of craft beer, especially in Scotland, but in the whole of the UK.  I don’t want to miss it and I want a front row seat.

My big mistake of 2009 was not brewing enough of my own beer, not finding enough time, bottles, gumption.

The Beer Chicks have also asked us what kind of beer-o-phile do we want to be in 2010.  For me that would be a home-brewster beervangelist of a higher order.  Brewing stronger, bigger, tastier.  I want to take the beer message to the people.  And by people I mean non-beer drinkers.   In 2010 as in life, I want beer to dictate my travel itenerary and season my travelogue.  I want to eschew the role of foodie in favor of beer bard and alethropologist. I want to have a green knees up in Hastings at Beltane. I want to be my own surveyor of a beer map of Scotland and hunt for booze in Bruges.  And all this I can do, provided the Border Agency sees fit to keep me.

Happy New Year, beer-0-sphere!

Beyond the light and dark: Beer in Berlin
November 21, 2009

Cotton wool beers at Marcus Brau

Beer in Berlin: the consensus in the (English speaking) beer-o-sphere is that it’s a bit of a limbo; there’s nothing much going on.  I arrived armed with Ron Pattinson’s pub guide and an open mind.  In many bars I went to they just ask you if you want a light or dark beer, and that’s it.  Dunkel or pils, basically.  Maybe they were just simplifying things for the tourist, but I doubt it.

Light or Dark? Commemorative beer mats by artist Jean-Ulrick Desert

Much of my visit to Berlin, a very white town, could be shook down to that question.  The troubled notion of race here coupled with the amazing history of survival, heroic struggle and attrocity makes that simple question poignant. At the Schwules or Gay Museum, I spied Artist Jean-Ulrick Desert’s commemorative beer mats from Negerhosen 2000, a performance piece where he traveled around Bavaria in traditional costume, having his picture taken with Bavarians.  The project was essentially a playful take on Bavarian conservatism, and the artist is very much a Berliner, and the piece is very Berlin– ironic, sly, complex.  I wondered what would be the beer that would go with the mats? Something trad but playful, throwing something new into the mix.  I looked, but have yet to find that beer.

My go-to beer for the trip was a beer not brewed in Berlin, and yet it was everywhere: Warsteiner, which I first had with amazing vegan pho at a little nameless place in Danziger Strasse– the white grape note of the beer stood out brilliantly against the fresh basil and chili.

BarMas at the BittenBullet has a recent take on conservative German attitudes to brewing, and it’s true that the Reinheitsgebot, or the 16th brewing purity laws which most brewers still follow, would limit the chances brewers could take, and in turn the styles that are brewed.  Most German beer I’ve had  is perfectly pleasant, consistent– it asks little of the drinker.  Various smoky rauch beers aside, it is rarely extreme.

Mit or red?

Except when you consider Berliner Weisse, a young beer which, without the compulsory syrup, tastes very much like a Belgian lambic.  Sour in the extreme, what I consider refreshing others might see as undrinkable.  The mouthfeel is less of the lambic’s barley wine and more of a lively ale.  The most popular beer in Berlin in the 19th century, it’s now only brewed by Berliner Kindl. I drank it both with and without syrup, and confess to really loving the grün, or woodruff syrup, called waldmeister or forest master– a candy cocktail suitable for the great god Pan.  It’s normally drunk in the spring but if it was on the menu, that’s what I ordered.  I was pretty smitten with the unusual sourness and the lively mouthfeel.  Drinking it mit schuss made me feel like I was celebrating something. Others have compared drinking the cocktail to an alcopop, but I don’t see it– at 3% it’s not exactly a “get hammered fast and sweet” sort of drink.  It didn’t taste like a softdrink.  Even with the syrup you could taste the earthy wheat of the beer and a chamomile-like fruitiness, but of course these were more pronounced without the sweet additive.  Why it is served with a straw I’ve no idea!  Berlin is a cocktail-crazy town, full of fun little bars offering swanky, original takes on trad cocktails and it’s in this spirit the Weisse should be had.  In one particularly inspired version I had it with passion fruit liquor.  Still, no matter what local tradition dictates, I’m not drinking beer through a straw.

Light or Dark? At the Marcus Brau Microbrewery

I went to two microbreweries in Berlin– there might be more but I couldn’t find them.  The first was Marcus Brau, a microbrewery housed in a side street of tacky shops in the rather grim shadow of the Fernsehturm, on the outskirts of Alexanderplatz. Like many other bars, the choice here is simple: light or dark? Young Marcus himself, rather bored and annoyed to be interrupted from his web surfing, served us.   Mr. Malting had the pils and I the dunkel. we sat in a wooden booth, surrounded by blinking fruit machines and homey decorations from the 1970’s, possibly older than the brewer himself!  A table of three regulars consumed what little service there was to be had.  Mr. Malting wanted another pils and the guy couldn’t seem to be bothered. When he finally ordered, Marcus forgot to bring the beer.  I couldn’t finish the dunkel.  I know Boak and Bailey have often used homebrew-like as a pejorative and I didn’t quite get it until now.  The dark beer tasted like something had gone wrong, there was a iodine-aniseed note that was really hard to get past and I just kept thinking, homebrew. The pils was free from this aftertaste.  It was drinkable, but pils is not my favourite style.  It had a very subtle cilantro note, and was a bit grassy in a pleasant way.  Still, nothing special and certainly not worth waiting 20 minutes for the brewer to quit talking to the regulars and bring it to you.

photo of Brewer Philipp Brokamp of Hops and Barley by skpy on flicr

The other microbrewery we tried was far better. Hops and Barley brewpub in the happening neighborhood of Friedrichshain is an elegantly tiled bar with a smoking and non-smoking room (a big deal in Berlin if you are a non-smoker!).  This place has a real welcoming, community feel and is run by two friendly guys, one of which is Philipp Bokamp the brewer.  They let me taste everything, and even asked me if I was a homebrewer, and what styles I liked to make.  It’s clear they are passionate about beer here! The one guy kept chiding me about my “little black book of beer”– the Moleskine notebook where I was taking notes.  They wanted to know what else we’d had in town and what we thought of it.  I loved the beer I had there– everything tasted very clean and fresh.

The Friedrichshainer Amber was my favourite– with a kumquat nose and strong presence of Brewer’s Gold hops. Philipp said there was another kind of hop in here as well, something that grew near a large lake in Southern Germany, but I didn’t write it down because I confess I was rather tipsy.  The dunkels had a big chocolate front with a very light mouthfeel, making it easy to drink more of it despite the richness.  My second favourite though was the delightful cider: cloudy, tart and just sweet enough to round out the yeasty, grassy middle.  Beautiful stuff!

At one point I asked Philipp if he would ever consider brewing his own version of the Berliner weisse (the name is proprietary– technically only breweries in Berlin can make it.)  He explained, politely, no way.  It would be too much of a risk for a small scale brewery to willfully use lactobacillus, something that is considered an infection in a normal beer. He felt that weisse is basically a brewing error now marketed to people who don’t know any better, and if he were to make it no one would drink it, and if no one drinks his beer he would have to close up shop.   That would be a very bad thing, indeed.

(My discussion of my (non-beery) Mauerfall visit to Berlin can be found at Feral Strumpet Teatime. )

What’s the perfect snorkel beer?
May 13, 2009

Conch fritters and Red Stripe at Vies Shack on St. John, the Virgin Islands.

Conch fritters and Red Stripe at Vie's Shack on St. John.

A lot of beer connoisseurs resort to local lager in the holiday heat.  It’s true things we value in good beer can’t really be tasted if the beer is served cold, so if you are overheating why not drink something like a super-chilled, crap lager? Is this what’s known as a “lawnmower beer”? Having never had a lawn to mow, these beers seemed exotic, but after sweating off sunscreen while hiking and swimming for a week, I think I get it.  What would be my “Snorkel Beer”?  For most of my holiday in the Virgin Islands last week, I drank Red Stripe.  I confess I have a weakness for the stuff.  I love how the little squat bottle feels in the hand, the simple screen-painted label is perfect branding.  Plus, I like the sweet malty character and it went perfectly with things I was eating like conch fritters, fried plantains and red beans and rice.

But, luckily enough, my drink of choice wasn’t reduced to rum cocktails and Red Stripe, as there is a microbrewery on the island, St. John Brewery.  It was located in a charming villa of shops called Mongoose Junction (the island seemed totally overrun with rikki-tikki-tavis).  The Tap Room of the brewery had some beers from other east-coast micros on, and two of its own seasonal beers, the Tropical Mango Pale Ale and the Island Summer Ale.  As far as names go these are pretty unimaginative, and I had my sights set rather low.

Mr. Malting had the Island Summer Ale, which was too malty-sweet for me but he loved it.  I then tried the Mango Ale, worrying it might be even sweeter, but I was pleasantly surprised.  There was mango, but it was mainly a sweetness from the malt, totally cut with a dominant, grapefruity hop.  This wasn’t really a fruit beer at all, any estery-earthiness  reminiscent of mango came from something other than fruit, though according to their website this beer contains “essence of mango.”  (Hey, the sun’s out, I’ve been swimming with garish, gregarious fish and I have the Caribbean sea soaked into me; does it really matter what “mango essence” is?) In the dense heat this beer became addictive and brought on a buzz happy enough to buffer any and all Jimmy-Buffet-Bob-Marley saturation (the Muzak of the Islands).

The brewery’s story began in 2001 with two castaway college grads and a $50 brewing kit. They decided the island didn’t have the kind of beer they wanted to drink so they made their own.  Their response seems perfect to the place, the “demands” of the islands, the sabor. The mango ale would have been great with saltfish, johnny cake or West Indian curry.  In short it tasted of the genus loci of the island, something only a good microbrewery could capture.

In The Tap Room of St. Johns Brewery

In The Tap Room of St. John's Brewery

A Mild for my Old Man
February 19, 2009

So this post is no longer topical, being a Valentine’s post. I’ve returned from America and blame the jet lag.

With the help of my friend Bob, I brewed a mild, which happens to be Mr. Malting’s favourite kind of beer. I smuggled back a very large bottle of the Blackout Mild, swaddled in bubble wrap and tee shirts and I gave it to him on Valentine’s Day.

We drank it together and he said it was second only to his favourite, Harvey’s. On occasions like this I would really welcome hyperbole and maybe even some white lies (what do you mean it’s not the best thing you’ve ever tasted?) but he’s not that kind of guy. It was malty and smooth and at 3.5% it seemed really true to the style. The crisp carbonation, which I really enjoyed, seemed a slight departure.

Can I reproduce another successful beer without the help of my friend Bob? It remains to be seen. I still have to buy some basic equipment, most of which I can get from Wilkinson’s down the way. But those of you that do brew at home, would you recommend an online seller?

Dignity Takes a Holiday
December 10, 2008

Mr. Malting drinking lager at Butlins, ATP

Mr. Malting drinking lager at Butlins, ATP

Last weekend we went with a group of friends for a heavy metal weekend at the Butlins holiday compound in Minehead.  It was All Tomorrows’ Parties, a music festival headlined by the Melvins.  I’d never been to a Butlins before, and was even misspelling it as Buttlands (I blame my inner Beavis) until I’d seen the sign. I didn’t think about beer until I got there and was confronted with the range of mediocrity: a couple forgettable lagers, Guinness and Blackthorn cider.  The first night I drank the cider which made me feel as if I were poisoning myself, and not slowly.   I looked longingly at all the people carrying around their pints of Guinness.  Guinness is usually my choice when confronted with nitro-banalities.  I thought how bad could it be?  Guinness was my gateway beer– paving the way for my adventures in real ale.  I would drink it and feel nostalgic, right?

Wrong.  It was a terrible pint– thin, too sweet and flat.  And it cost £3.50.

The next day we went into town and stopped to get some local beer– Cotleigh and RCH, both Somerset breweries, have yet to disappoint.  I finished the Exmoor Beast (Exmoor Ales), a beer I’d enjoyed at the Twickenham Beer Festival.  It’s a straight up porter with a warming alcohol front.  I watched as Mr. Malting drank not only the Barn Owl but the Pitchfork as well… (I curse the day I coaxed him to try better beer!  That Barn Owl was mine!) I was left to bang my head to Mastadon while sober, or drink the nitro swill.

You can guess what option I chose. I wondered if the camp looked better to those who were drunk?  If really getting hammered would have lessened the feeling that we were all in a human storage unit?  If it would have dulled the flashing machines waiting to eat our money and blotted out restaurants serving ration-like food that had been dried, frozen or tinned and blanked the bars serving the same yellow lager that was soaked into the carpets. In short: beer, beer everywhere and not a drop to drink.

So, when confronted with a mediocre line-up, what is your tipple of choice?  Or, for those of you with a penchant for the heavy, what is your perfect metal brew?

Wild Gift
October 20, 2008

Me drinking gueuze in A la Morte Subite

Me drinking gueuze in A la Morte Subite

Last week I went to Brussels on the Eurostar.  I stayed in a swanky five star hotel and drank myself silly.  After being unemployed for so long it’s hard for me to really take the apocalyptic money talk of the banking crisis seriously.  I have so little to lose I might as well spend it.  On beer.

Beer has become an excuse for me to have adventures.  The best beer is of a place: a way to literally drink in wherever you find yourself.

Before going to Brussels the only Belgian beers I’d tried were the kind you can get in those aspirational gastropubs in London that serve Hoegaarden, Leffe and Fruli. Based on my sampling of these I thought I wouldn’t really like Belgian beer and would have to stick with Chimay, or maybe Orval which I’d had in bottles.

Boak was good enough to share with me a last-minute list of recommendations, which I elaborate on here.  One especially became a haunt of mine.  A la Morte Subite or “Sudden Death” is a cafe with its own range of beers named after a card game that bank employees who drank there would play. I fell in love with their gueuze which was extremely tart with an almost vinegar pucker. It is the most sour beer I’ve ever had. I exclaimed to the waiter who seemed a bit worried that I had ordered the “difficult” beer, “This is amazing!” He winked, “There’s more if you want.”  I liked this place.

I also thought their lambic was impressive– it had a creamier mouthfeel with a white peach overtone.  While there were a handful of tourists here at any one time, most of the people seemed to be locals, passionately engaged in conversations I couldn’t understand.  The faro and kriek were also quite good if a bit too sweet for me.

Another stand-out beer was the Girardin Kriek which I had at a lovely cafe called Het Warm Water.  This place served creative dishes that were light and flavorful.  The kriek I later found out was made with frozen cherries but this didn’t seem to matter as it was delish. It had a buttered popcorn and myrrh nose, redolent of the decadent, foodie perfumes from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.  The cherry was a halo-presence with the lambic’s grain-wine flavor taking prominence. The tang was upfront, with a light butter-caramel finish above the sourness.

Vintage bottles at the Cantillon Brewery

Vintage bottles at the Cantillon Brewery

The most remarkable beer of the trip came from the Cantillon Brewery, which is a working museum.  There is a self-paced tour which is punctuated by a sampling of the different beers made there, and a very knowledgeable woman was able to answer all our questions and suggest other places in Brussels which had stand-out beer.  I was charmed by the plentiful spiders and webs in the brewery which are a natural way for the brewery to keep the insect problem in check.  Also, the attic-like room with a large copper bath where the wild yeast innoculation takes place had the feeling of a chapel or sanctuary.

There was a small crowd in the tasting area: an American guy with an Obama hat, a French couple and group of Irishmen all sipping contempatively– this was more like a wine tasting.  Some people were wincing and frowning, and with good reason– this beer is intense. The gueuze had a musty, animal fur nose, with a hint of wood. It was extremely acidic, but unlike the other gueuzes I’d tried, I could taste the hops in this which added to its perfect dry finish.

The kriek brought back an olfactory memory– my mother giving me a permanent wave as a pre-teen.  Though this brew was candy-colored, all the sugar had been fermented out leaving only a kind of “attar of cherry”– the essence without the sweetness. A dutch couple gave us their faro to sample and we didn’t care for it.  There was a note of vegetal rot that was hard to get past. The lambic was pefectly flat and oily, like a grain wine– I said how wonderful it would be with cheese so the woman at the brewery recommended we go to Moeder Lambic.

Chez Moeder Lambic

Chez Moeder Lambic

Chez Moeder Lambic is beer heaven.  They have several interesting beers on tap in rotation and hundreds of bottled beers to try. I tried the Cervesia, which was made in the “old way” with herbs instead of hops.  It reminded me of a lighter, sweeter verson of Froach.  The friendly owner and server were happy to go out of their way and recommend beers and locally crafted cheese to go with them.

beer and cheese at Chez Moeder Lambic

beer and cheese at Chez Moeder Lambic

Across from us, a table of guys ordered Jupiler, a beer that was as common as Stella Artois (I assumed it was lager-like and didn’t try it.) Moeder Lambic didn’t have this beer so the bartender recommended another and when one of them tried it he actually shivered and shook his head. This really isn’t the place to have, in British terminology, a “session” drinking something “quaffable.”  Though I am sure there are some easier beers at this place, I wasn’t interested in them.

If you do find yourself getting tipsy the only food you can get here is cheese.  And what amazing cheeses they had!  The cheese was served with barley and fresh bread and the one we ordered had been, in the words of the waiter, “Showered in beer”.  As we drank round after round the cheese warmed and our corner of the cafe was filled with the ripe, earthy smell.   The standout beer for me was the Oude Kriek, almost black in colour, this Lambic was blended with fresh cherries by a one-man operation– Karel Goddeau. The bottle was dusty from being aged and we laughed at how we must have looked to the locals drinking– two Americans taking notes and photos and drinking dusty beer. But it was some of the most beautiful beer I’d ever had– so far away from any modern notion of “beer” that to drink it was to feel transported to a time when beer was a miraculous gift of something wild and mysterious visiting from the air.

Detail of a Bruegel Painting

Detail of a Bruegel Painting