Land of Hops and Barley

Every so often, I just have to sit down and see what happens. I don’t mean on the toilet – that’s much more predictable – I mean in front of the PC, with a blank sheet of virtual paper in front of me, a couple of beers down the hatch already, and another one sitting nicely in the glass, just waiting for me to nip into it. I guess I’ve had a bit of blogger’s block lately, which explains a very long dry patch where little or nothing has been written despite a serious amount of beer drinking going on. What can I say? Well, nothing, since this is a blog.

Now then. As you can tell, I’m off-piste and slightly pissed (in the British sense of the word) here. The title of this blog post is actually a play on a very famous ultra-patriotic British song with a great sing-along tune. Every year in London, there’s this thing called the Proms Series, which culminates in the Last Night of the Proms, a pretty grand spectacle in the Royal Albert Hall where people from seemingly all over the world come together to sing a selection of the most British songs you can imagine, including “Rule Britannia!” and the one I have shamelessly mangled for the title here. I kind of like the idea of Germans or Norwegians or whatever travelling to London to sing along to these tunes. What does this have to do with beer, I hear you scream? Nothing, my friends, absolutely nothing. It does however, bring me nicely on to the main topic of this blog post: beer.

The United Kingdom is a country which consists of Britain and Northern Ireland, and Britain is an island consisting of the three countries England, Scotland and Wales (in order of population) or Scotland, Wales and England (in order of highest mountain). I spent 13 years of my life living in England, and I guess this is where I really learnt to love beer. When I arrived in 1996 things were not so great. Most pubs had a few beers on tap, some of which were so-called “continental lagers”, most often Carlsberg, Kronenbourg or Stella Artois, all of which tasted very little if you were lucky, or a bit like industrial waste if you were not. A few pubs also had English traditional beers, commonly referred to as “bitter”, which were a bit better – though many of these were, unfortunately, poorly kept, and together with the fact that they were lukewarm and flat it took a little while before I grew to like this style of beer.

Being born in the early 70s turned out to be one of the cleverest things I ever did. Not only did this mean that I grew up before the internet and mobile phones, which means that there are loads of things I can enjoy that young people today don’t even understand (and no, I’m not referring to analogue porn), but most of all it means that I have experienced almost the entire beer revolution that’s swept the planet, from the first tiny experimental breweries to the recent explosion of choice both in terms of new and crazy beer styles and in terms of variety in pubs and supermarkets. USA led the way here, but England wasn’t far behind, and I was delighted to experience the biggest expansion in quality and quantity of beer in modern and ancient times.

The traditional beer style in Britain is ale. This means a top-fermented brew, which typically gets more of its taste from the yeast than the bottom-fermented varieties do. Furthermore, since the beer has less carbonation and is served at a higher temperature than most beers elsewhere in the world, it is actually possible to taste quite a few different flavours, such as gun powder, treason and plot. Or was that a poem? I forget. Anyway, where many countries have generally regarded beer as something that has to be ice cold and fizzy, the Brits have always hung on to the notion that beer should taste of something, probably because the weather is generally rubbish. To cut a very long story short – Britain is nowadays a fantastic place to drink beer. If you choose your pub wisely, you will get some of the best beers in the world in your glass, and you get to drink the beer in one of the nicest environments imaginable, namely the Great British Pub.

Classic English Pub

You may not be surprised to hear that I spent a great deal of time in the pubs when I lived in England. Normally, it happened a bit like this: someone would say that it was a “special occasion”, or it was Friday, or some other day of the week, or it was a rare sunny day, or it was cold and rainy, or there was some other great excuse, and we’d head down to some pub for “a swift half” or “a couple of pints”. This would usually lead to an all-night session where we’d sit and drink beer and talk bollocks continuously for however many hours we had until the barman called “last orders” at 11pm, at which point we’d all shuffle out and head home. This may sound like a terrible idea during the week, but it was actually pretty OK due to the fact that British beer tends to be a bit weaker than the continental ones (around 4% instead of 5.5%), so even after half a dozen pints I could survive the next day at work.

I do miss those days. I don’t spend nearly as much time in the pub these days – I guess the culture here in Germany is slightly different, though there are places and times, especially on weekends and during the summer, when it comes close. I guess I am phenomenally lucky to live in a day and age where it is actually possible for a Norwegian to move around Europe and live in different countries in order to drink beer, and it is sad to see that Britain and other countries are taking steps to become less open to us foreigners. Much as I respect the right of any nation to decide its own future, I also think that the best way to avoid sliding towards a situation where war is no longer unthinkable is to encourage people from as many nations as possible to spend as much time as they can in the pub together whilst drinking good beer. On this thoughtful note I shall wish you all a happy 2017 even though a large chunk of it is already behind us, and hope that I will meet all of you in some pub or other somewhere in the world, where we can say “CHEERS BIG EARS” and clink glasses. I can’t think of a better plan to save the planet than that, at least not right now.


Beerection day!

I have noticed lately that every fourth year is a lot longer than the intervening three. This is partially due to the fact that this is the leap year and therefore contains an extra day – February has the cheek to add an extra day even though it’s in the middle of winter – but the real reason this particular year is so incredibly long is that it happens to be the year when Americans elect their president. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of democracy and the idea of chucking your ballot into a box to say “good luck” to your chosen candidate and “bugger off” to the rest, but for some reason or other, the good people residing in the United States of America have decided to make this contest into a year-long event. This would not be so bad were it not for the fact that the rest of the world, containing 95% of the members of the human species, also decides to fill 95% of available space in their newspapers with speculation and analysis concerning the aforementioned American election. In contrast, the main (parliamentary) election in my own home country of Norway, home to almost 0.07% of the world’s population, has never generated as much as a comma in any foreign newspaper.

Now I am also, through this very blog, part of the world’s media, so it would seem foolish not to write about the election at all. As you may have noticed by now, the main topic of the blog is beer, which also happens to be the most wonderful and diverse drink on the planet. It has therefore surprised me very much that neither of the two main candidates have, as far as I can tell, ever mentioned what their policies are regarding the juice of the barley. It is therefore my duty, dear readers, to investigate this important issue, and to write about it.

I had no idea how to approach this task, so I basically googled “how should I approach this task”. Evidently, Google has some clever algorithms, because it simply suggested “google it”, which I really ought to have thought of myself. Anyway, having been enlightened, I proceeded to google “Trump beer” and “Clinton beer”.

Trump’s first google hit was that gay bars in Pennsylvania and Maryland have apparently decided to boycott Yuengling beer because of the brewery’s support for Trump – it seems that Yuengling has taken the step of actually endorsing Trump, and that this has caused a bit of a backlash amongst the drinkers who don’t share the brewery’s view on this matter. Next comes the story of a Chicago brewery not quite as fond of Trump that renamed some leftover beer they had “Chinga Tu Pelo”, which is Spanish and translates to “fuck you hair”. Nice.

Clinton’s results weren’t quite so interesting. She apparently went for a beer sometime in May to showcase the fantastic American craft brewing industry, and was pictured pretending to like some mysterious concoction that looked a bit like a chunk of black hole in a glass. The only other noteworthy hit on the first place was that someone had come up with the ultimate election night accessory – a Chillary Clinton Can Holder. What more could beer drinkers want whilst either celebrating or drowning their sorrows?

So there you have it – neither candidate has made a big effort to win the beer drinker’s vote, and neither seems to have spent much time in pubs drinking beer. Herein lies the problem, I think. The campaign will be remembered mostly for being the nastiest in democratic history, with each candidate spending most of the time telling the unfortunate voters what a terrible person the other candidate is. Beer drinkers don’t tend to act like that, mostly because we’re a sensible bunch, but also because we realize that there are more important things in life than politics, such as beer. In fact, I am convinced that televised political debates would be much less venomous, as well as much more fun, if they were conducted in a pub serving great beer. You only hear the truth from children and drunk people, they say, and I could imagine the debate ending after like the seventh pint when Clinton and Trump embrace and declare their love for one another whilst agreeing to move the White House to an old brewery in Wisconsin from where they will share the presidency and brew great beer. Then they would invite all the world leaders over for a giant beer festival where, simultaneously, no boring lager would be served and all the world’s problems would be solved.

On this optimistic (though perhaps ever so slightly unrealistic) note I shall wish you all a happy November 8th, regardless of which country you may reside in and whether you have the opportunity to vote today or not. Remember, though, that if you’re in the supermarket, the pub, or perhaps somewhere else where different beers are on offer, you can always vote for your favourite beer by exercising your power as a consumer. Vote and drink wisely, my friends! Cheers!



Humans are very weird. For some strange reason, we have decided that the number 10 is a great base for counting when 12 would have been much better, and for some even stranger reason we find it endlessly fascinating when we’re dealing with so-called “round” numbers – such as the numbers 5, 50 and 500. Imagine my delight, then, when I dis-covered that these particular three numbers all ganged up on me last weekend to provide me with the ultimate excuse to both drink beer and then subsequently write about it.

The number 500 should require no explanation. It is, after all, the main anniversary of 2016 since it marks 500 years since some Ludwig or other suspected that brewers at the time added too much dodgy stuff into their brews – apparently, some were chucking in horse manure, soot and various poisonous herbs to make the beer taste better or last longer – and thus declared that beer was only allowed to be brewed using three ingredients, namely water, hops and malted barley. Of course, brewers have since discovered that a fourth ingredient sneaks into the beer as well, namely yeast – without which there would be no alcohol in the beer – so the actual law has been updated accordingly. However, apart from this, the law has remained in force for 500 years except that it hasn’t since the EU banned it after the Belgians complained.

The Beer Blogger seeking inspiration for his 50th beer blog post
The numbers 5 and 50 both relate to this very blog, though – for it was here, 5 years ago, that I took my first beerful steps into the world of online, unedited publishing, hoping that my ramblings may reach an audience of millions and providing me with endless product placement opportunities from all the good breweries in this world. It hasn’t quite gone to plan, but I have still managed to keep writing – and what you’re reading is blog post number 50. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey as much as I have, and feel free to send me more beer.

Back to the aforementioned law. It is known either by its German name, the “Bayrische Reinheitsgebot”, or by its somewhat meek English translation, “the Bavarian Purity Law”. You can discuss until the cows come home whether or not German is a beautiful language, but you cannot deny that some of the words carry more weight than their English equivalents, mostly due to them being about ten times longer. What is beyond reasonable doubt though, is the fact that the law was signed in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt, a smallish town sat nicely on the mighty Danube about halfway between Munich and Nuremberg.

An authentic recreation of the first proclamation of the Reinheitsgebot

The Germans usually know how to put on a good party, whether it is the world’s biggest – Oktoberfest – or a small village event in some dog-forsaken place that no-one’s ever heard of. These parties usually revolve around drinking loads of beer and listening to some oompah band playing cheesy tunes whilst dancing on the benches in a big tent. It was therefore exactly such an event I foresaw when I spotted an ad for Ingolstadt’s 500-year celebration party, to take place on the weekend of the 23rd of April 2016, exactly 500 years to the day after the Reinheitsgebot was signed. For this reason, it came as a big surprise when we finally got there and discovered that the theme was distinctly medieval and based on a surprising number of bands sporting bagpipes and drums in various combinations of bagpipes and drums, though I also spotted a flute. These bands toured around three or four stages set up in a couple of streets in the old city, farting their pipes and banging their drums so loudly that the only thing to do was to buy beer and sit down to listen and tap a foot or two. Needless to say, it was fantastic fun.

What was also nice to see was that this fest actually did celebrate beer instead of merely using beer as a lubricant to get the party going. Nine different breweries had set up stands where excellent beer was dispensed and where real choice was on offer, from standard Helles through Rotbier to a hearty Bock.

We made loads of friends in Ingolstadt
Furthermore, there was an absolutely superb guided tour that took you through the history of the Reinheitsgebot – unlike many such tours, this was anything but dry since was it both extremely well narrated by people who knew how to entertain an audience, and more importantly broken up nicely by visiting all nine brewery stands for tastings. These were supposed to be 0.2 litres each, but every time our goblets were filled we seemed to “accidentally” get a fair bit extra, so by the end most people had imbibed at least two litres plus perhaps what their other halves could not handle. The general mood of the tour was, therefore, continuously getting more boisterous – and then, the grand finale! A water fountain was ceremoniously turned into a beer fountain, thus finally making sense of the concept "drinking fountain", and we were once again allowed to fill our tankards to the brim. I have since decided to start a political party with the sole aim to get all drinking fountains to occasionally dispense beer. What a day – and it was not yet 3pm!

The popularity of the fountain increased exponentially once it started dispensing beer
Sadly, we had to catch the train home just after this, which turned out to be a major anticlimax. However, looking back at Ingolstadt, the Reinheitsgebot and everything I have ever known about German beer, I think I can safely say that this was one of the highlights of my beer-loving life. A lot of beer aficionados debate whether the Purity Law is good or bad these days – some think it stifles innovation, others think it encourages brewers to maintain or improve quality. What is beyond unreasonable doubt though, is that Germany has some of the best beer in the world and that the Law has done its reputation no harm whatsoever. Having witnessed a tendency for German brewers to be a little bit “stuck in the past” over the last decade, I am also happy to announce that the beers on offer in Ingolstadt included several made by young, enthusiastic and innovative brewers who seem happy to experiment a little, even though they may prefer to do so with only water, malt, hops and yeast.

Anyway, this turned out to be a relatively long 50th post, but I nevertheless hope that you’ve enjoyed reading my beery ramblings for the last 5 years or so, and if you haven’t then you should probably try and read them all again since they’re awesome. In some ways I’ve come full circle – I intended the blog to be mainly about German beer, but it has turned out to be more international than I had anticipated – so on this massive occasion of the 50th post it is nice come back and give my adopted home a good whatever the opposite of bollocking is. Don’t worry, I shall be back writing about foreign lands soon enough, I’ve got several plane tickets booked and I’ve packed a toothbrush. As they say in Kuala Lumpur: Sorakan!


A smokin’ cold country

The Nordic countries are, as the name indicates, situated to the north of just about everything except the North Pole. Made slightly warmer than the latitude would justify by the presence of the Gulf Stream, these countries are populated by people who enjoy lots of daylight in summer, endure lots of darkness in winter, and imbibe lots of beer all year. The Nordics consist of five independent countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, which together measure about 1.32 million square kilometres (about three-quarters the size of Alaska) and are home to about 26 million people (about 35 times the population of Alaska). By far the least populated, most mysterious and furthest away of these is Iceland, a volcanic pile of rock situated so far out in the Atlantic that you can practically smell North America.

Growing up in Norway, we learnt a fair bit about Iceland in school, mainly because the country was settled by Norwegian Vikings who seemed to think that it was a great idea to abandon the relatively mild (!) climate in Norway and start a new life in conditions that even then would have pushed the boundaries of harshness. Naturally they brought their language with them, but because of the remoteness of the island the language evolved much slower than back in Norway, with the end result that to this day, Icelandic is essentially the Old Norse that was spoken by the Vikings more than 1000 years ago – vaguely familiar to modern Norwegians when written, but utterly unintelligible when spoken. Having learnt all this in elementary school back in the 1980s, I have always been fascinated by this place, but never had the chance to visit – that is, until a couple of weeks ago.

In the end, work sent me to Iceland, and the capital Reykjavik to be specific. Reykjavik is actually a fairly big city, housing around two thirds of the entire population of the country. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around unless you’re facing the icy wind, and it’s also full of nice pubs, bars and restaurants that serve up food and drinks of high quality with prices to match. Of course, my main interest once work had finished for the day was to explore the beer scene. On that note, Iceland has possibly the saddest history of all European countries when it comes to beer. After a failed experiment with prohibition of all alcoholic drinks in the early 1900s, wine and spirits were allowed back in the shops in the 1930s, but for some utterly unfathomable reason beer remained banned for another half century. No doubt they knew that the soon-to-be-famous beer blogger would turn 18 in 1990 and thereby start his quest to drink all the beer in the world, so Iceland decided to legalize beer a few months before, on March 1st 1989 to be precise. Iceland has not looked back since, though they may have looked forward to my finally getting around to visiting.

As in almost all countries, a couple of big breweries have risen to become the suppliers of the industrial lager that most people drink – regular readers know what I’m talking about. Of course, since the total population of Iceland is only about a third of a million, there’s a limit to how big these breweries can actually get, and I did not expect a big selection of interesting beer. Imagine my unbridled delight then, when I discovered that there are surprisingly many microscopic breweries on this island, some of which brew very good beer indeed. The main craft brewer seems to be one called Einstök from Iceland’s second city Akureyri, and it was also this brewery that, in careful consideration of my visit, had sent a selection of their finest brews to the first restaurant I happened to stumble upon.
The beer was much better than this picture
I went about the tasting job methodically by ordering one of each. First up was “Icelandic White Ale” which proved to be surprisingly tart and fresh, much better than most continental European equivalents. It was an excellent aperitif beer which doubled nicely as a starter. Next up was Arctic Pale Ale, a pleasantly hoppy interpretation of this style which also had a firm malty body. It was an excellent second beer which also doubled beautifully as the main course. Finally, the highlight of the evening: Icelandic Toasted Porter. Unfortunately, I had not brought a tuba with me because this beer was so good it was worth at least one oompah session, maybe two. As the name hinted, the toasted barley was as much in evidence on the palate as on the label, and since it also avoided the normal porter-trap of being too sweet – in fact, it was delightfully dry – it was perhaps the best porter I have ever sampled. The only problem with it is that my wife also likes it, which means that the small selection I brought home for my fridge is in constant peril. It was an excellent dessert beer which also doubled exquisitely as the cheese plate, espresso, grappa and cigar.

The Toasted Porter.
Impressed and very satisfied, I left the restaurant to explore the city. There were definitely more bars than volcanoes, and loads of people out drinking even on a Monday. It looked like a fun place, but the real Iceland is elsewhere – and you don’t have to travel far to find it. Hop in a car or a tour bus and you’ll find somewhere that emits some kind of steam and/or reeks of sulphur within minutes. The whole place looks about to blow up, but in the meantime you can dive into various hot springs for a revitalising dip. Just make sure that you check the water temperature before you do, since some of them are more suitable for boiling eggs. You can also gawp at wonderful scenery, especially if the fog lifts to reveal it, and if it doesn’t you can always check out Google Street View to see what it would have looked like if you’d visited in whichever year the sun last paid a visit.

The scenery is quite impressive despite some low clouds
In conclusion, Iceland should be on the shortlist both for beery and non-beery reasons. It’s a fascinatingly remote and wild country, and the population speaks excellent Icelandic when they’re tired of showing off their flawless English. I only sampled a tiny portion of both the beer and the country, but I was very impressed. An added bonus is that you can fart as much as you like, because the hot water is not heated, but tapped straight from some sulphuric hell-hole that causes everything to stink anyway. So, go ahead and read up on a few of Snorri Sturluson’s old sagas to get in the proper mood, then book a flight, bring a weatherproof jacket and head off. As the Vikings used to say before cracking open a beer or a skull or whatever happened to be in the path of their axes: Skál!


Homebrew, sweet homebrew

As I have mentioned multiple times in this blog, there has been a large increase in the number of brewers in the world over the last 20 years or so. The increase has been fuelled by the so-called Craft Beer Revolution, which started in the USA when a handful of people got sick of the poor and bland selection of beers offered by a small number of massive breweries that had aggressively bought up most of the competition. The new breweries were often quite small, and thus called themselves microbreweries (oddly, the obvious intermediate stage “millibrewery” was simply skipped). It didn’t take long, however, for these microbreweries to grow quite big – former micros such as Sierra Nevada now output more than 100 million litres per year. This created the need for a new description of breweries that are genuinely small – so please welcome me in raising a nano-Olympic-pool-sized glass to the arrival of the nanobrewery, though apparently these are also getting bigger now so I guess it won’t take long before the first picobrewery is opened.

An old friend of mine, resident in the fine city of Drammen situated in the shockingly expensive (at least when beer is concerned) country of Norway recently decided that his house contained way too few breweries, namely zero. To remedy this very unfortunate situation, he invested in appropriate equipment as well as various types of malt, hops and yeast – and started his own nanobrewery. This, incidentally, is one of the few legal ways to avoid paying some of the world’s highest alcohol taxes – the taxman in Norway has yet to start invading private homes in order to collect about €0.50 per litre and also per alcohol percentage by volume that you have to pay in the shops, bars and restaurants (for example, also including 25% VAT on top, you pay about €2 only in taxes for a half litre of 5% beer). Anyway, my friend also happens to be the type of person who takes his hobbies seriously, so when he invited a select group around for a tasting session of his first 15 or so brews, I knew that this was the opportunity of a lifetime to taste some of the best beers ever brewed in that particular house. I immediately booked a flight, made sure to get a connection through Brussels, and sat down to twiddle my thumbs.

A few days later the plane left on time with a thirsty beer blogger on board. I stocked up on a Big Bottle of Belgian Beer in Brussels, which I thought could serve as a baseline for what the pros typically achieve, and flew onwards towards Oslo in a cute little jet (which should be called a jetlet, I think). The next day, I rang my friend’s jolly-sounding doorbell at the exact time specified in the invitation. Seldom have I been more excited about a beer drinking session. Another great thing about my friend is that he doesn’t waste time on small talk, so no words needed to be exchanged on meaningless topics such as the weather, which incidentally was very rainy and not at all like the winter weather used to be when I was young, back when we had to shovel through about a metre of snow just to get to the front door before even leaving the house, if we were LUCKY!

There were two beers on tap. The first one I tried was called “Flying Penguin IPA”, which was, unsurprisingly, an India Pale Ale – usually a beer that most brewers manage to not screw up completely. Full of beery anticipation, I put the glass to my mouth, tilted, and poured an exploratory amount into my mouth. I immediately knew that this could indeed be one of the finest beer tasting nights of the decade. The beer was actually a bit darker than pale, and thus had a firm, malty body – but best of all was the balance between the hops and malt. It was, simply put, very good.

A very good IPA from a very small brewery
As the evening progressed, we tried out the entire available selection, all bottled, named and labelled with great care: the aforementioned IPA, an American Pale Ale (“Thirsty Crow APA”), a Pils (“Pilsen Pils”), a Bitter (“Humpty Dumpty”), a traditional Christmas Beer (“Evil Santa”), a Stout (“Toxic Waste”), a Kölsch (“Drammen Kölsch”), a Belgian-style Abbey Ale (“Sacred Prayer”) and two Oktoberfest-style Märzen (“For Fulle Mugger” and “Vinterøl”). Every single beer was true to its type, and with the exception of the APA (which I suspect just needed a few weeks of maturation), they were all beautifully balanced and either very good or excellent – these beers would have been top notch even for a commercial brewery. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, so I was probably quite sad to leave this splendid place, though my memory was getting a bit hazy by then since we also tried out both the Belgian beer and a bottle of Pilsner Urquell, purely for scientific comparison reasons you understand.

A truly outstanding example of a traditional Christmas beer

So, what have I learned? First and foremost: beer remains the finest drink on the planet, and the supply of this splendid drink keeps being expanded in ways that favour drinkers who value taste, quality and variety. Second, opportunities to taste a home-brewed range as splendid as this one are as rare as a hen with a single tooth, and it’s an honour and a privilege to have been allowed to participate in such an occasion. Third, home brewing isn’t for everyone – the amount of time and money you have to invest is rather large, and although the pleasure of drinking beer in Norway is undoubtedly enhanced by the knowledge that not a single krone goes to the taxman, it is not something you would do to actually save or make money. Fourth, if you do decide that home brewing is worth pursuing as a hobby, then it is possible to make excellent beer.

There is, interestingly, a trend for small groups of people (typically known as “friends”) to gather together their financial and temporal resources to invest. As quality keeps increasing, this could create an interesting situation where more and more people who would otherwise buy their beer in shops instead get all the beer they need for home consumption from their share in their own little brewery. Currently, this would only work if enough people were willing to take their turn at the wheel as it were, but it will be interesting to see how this evolves, especially in a country like Norway where the tax situation creates a real financial incentive. I shall stop speculating at this point, but should I ever move back to Norway, well, suffice to say that I may find a few kroner to invest. And on this note, I shall raise a glass of German Glühwein to all the home brewers of this world, since I’m heading out to the local Christmas Market. PROSCHT!


Greece Me Up!

What’s up with Greece then? Thousands of years after the great minds of Aristoteles, Plato, Socrates, Archimedes, Euclid and a host of other famous scientists and philosophers thought so hard that they pretty much created civilization as we know it, there seems nowadays to be nothing other than bad news about Greece in the average newspaper. Despite this, I figured that any country where the road signs and newspaper headlines look like giant mathematical equations can’t be that bad and has to be worth a visit, so as soon as I found a cheap flight I didn’t book twice.

The city of Thessaloniki is nicely situated on a massive bay, a pleasant and scenic half-hour flight north of Athens. It’s surprisingly big – apparently, more than a million people live there – but the central part is relatively compact and, assuming you don’t mind constantly dodging cars and motorbikes that seem hell-bent of running you over, it’s quite a pleasant place to walk around. The seafront is especially nice – a great long walk next to a busy road next to a seemingly infinite number of busy bars. There was certainly not much sign of the Greek economic woes here – every drinking hole seemed to be filled up with smart looking young people sipping cocktails, coffees and perhaps even beer. Which brings me nicely to the main topic of this blog post: beer.

The Greek beer scene has, apparently, been very sad, if not tragic. Beer has traditionally been regarded by locals and tourists alike as a golden, fizzy, ice-cold drink that doesn’t need to taste anything as it is thrown down the gullet to quench a sudden thirst, so the selection in bars and restaurants usually boils down to either “beer” or “no beer”. Therefore, it was with very low expectations that I googled “the best beer bar in Thessaloniki” when I arrived at my hotel. Imagine my delight, then, as the first result that popped up was a recently opened place called “The Hoppy Pub” that had managed to receive an amazing number of glowing reviews on the Ratebeer.com web site. Needless to say, I wasted no time, since time is money, and the last thing Greece needs is someone wasting time not spending money in their bars.

The pub is not hard to find if you know where it is, so I figured out where it was and walked there at a brisk pace, avoiding both the temptation to be distracted by other pubs and bars along the way and the hordes of cars and motorbikes that tried to run me over. Once there, I located the door, opened it, and went in. The scenery inside was simply wonderful. Along the bar were 12 taps, each of which contained a fresh, interesting craft beer. Along the walls were craft beer bottles, posters and other beautiful decorations reminding you of, well, beer. Behind the bar were a bunch of fridges containing an amazing selection of craft beers from around the world. If beer was religion, this would be the place to worship. If beer was music, this would be Greece’s best concert hall. If beer was more than just a fizzy, cold, tasteless drink, this would be the place to drink it.

The Greek tap craft beer selection was the best (and only) I've ever seen.

I like to try the local stuff if it doesn’t look too awful. Greece is not a big country, so I decided that any Greek beer would be local, especially since I had already travelled about 2000km that day in order to drink it. I therefore asked the bartender, who happened to be a very friendly and knowledgeable guy, what Greek beers he’d recommend. “Ah”, he said, “I’ve got this IPA from a brewery called Septem which is very good – nicely hoppy and fresh, yet balanced and sophisticated”. It felt a bit like I had won the lottery, though since I’ve never won the lottery I may have to recalibrate this sentence once I do. The bartender then proceeded to do what all good beer pubs should do, namely offer a taste. It was great – a really good IPA, worthy of comparison with the best.

It turned out that the bartender (who was also part owner) was a real Greek Beer Geek (henceforth simply GBG), and there aren’t many of those. The Greek scene is still lagging behind some of the more enlightened (in the beery sense) parts of Europe, but things seem to be slowly changing, with new GBGs emerging from the shadows all over the country. Furthermore, there seems to be a Europe-wide network of like-minded geeks – my bartender’s favourite brewery turned out to be Haandbryggeriet from my home town Drammen in Norway, so we had plenty to chat about. I managed to try a couple more local beers on tap too, a Red Ale from the same brewery, which was also excellent, but the evening’s highlight was an unfiltered Pilsner-style beer from a brewery in Crete which had unusual, but absolutely wonderful hops, no skips and just a hint of jumps. I’m pretty certain that this was probably the best 3rd beer I’ve ever had.

The best pilsner in Greece

My final beer was a bottled beer, and at this point the GBG produced the ultimate GBG tool, namely a bottle opener that did not bend the cap so that I could bring it undamaged home to my collection! Never have I felt more at home in a pub. I was practically ready to move in. Unfortunately, though there was a good supply of popcorn and other beer snacks, I got hungry.

The final beer, opened with the best bottle opener known to mankind.
Thessaloniki has hundreds of places to eat, but I decided to try only one, in fact the one conveniently situated about 20 metres from the beer pub. This turned out to have great Greek food, and since I was in a great Greek mood I decided to have another Greek beer. The selection was, unsurprisingly, very limited, but they had at least avoided the foreign crap (Amstel) that seems to get shipped to Greece by the boatload, probably because the Dutch themselves don’t want to drink such rubbish, and offered a beer from the interestingly-named brewery “Fix”. The beer was actually OK too, with a decent hoppy taste.

OK, time to start wrapping things up, it’s only a few weeks to Christmas after all. The Greek craft beer scene exists, but you have to do some research (the internet helps) to find it. Once you do, you’re likely to be surrounded by a bunch of very friendly GBGs that are happy to talk about anything as long as it’s related to beer. If you can’t be bothered and decide to just order the standard Mythos, Alfa or (Bacchus forbid) one of the Dutch imports, you’ve missed out big time, especially if you’re in Thessaloniki. I read somewhere that the Michelin guide defines a three star place as “a restaurant that’s worth an entire trip by itself”, and that’s exactly what I would say about The Hoppy Pub. Yes, it’s that good. I’d suggest going for a few days, or perhaps even make it a full Greek Beer Geek Week. The airport code is SKG, and the bus into town costs 2 euros. See you there! Στην υγειά μας!


Fancy a wee pint?

Scotland is a country that far too many people regard as merely a part of something else. The worst offenders are the ones who somehow think of it as a part of England. This is a bit like saying that France is part of Spain, or that chicken is part of Turkey – it’s not just wrong, it’s so wrong that anyone who says such a thing deserves a tender Glasgow kiss. Others may regard Scotland as a part of Britain or the United Kingdom, both of which are true – at least until the next time Scotland votes for independence – but it would be a mistake to assume that this means that Scotland is not a proud nation with a long and turbulent history of its own, and a culture, mindset and dialect that differ distinctly from other English-speaking peoples that live south of various borders.

Scotland was for many centuries completely independent – even the Romans gave up trying to conquer this remote country – and fought many wars with their arch enemy, England, before somewhat unexpectedly entering into a political union with the very same enemy about 300 years ago. Before that time, the royal crown of the two had been united through the English adoption of the Scottish Stuart king, James VI, who then became better known south of the border as James the FIRST. These little oddities persist to this day – the current Queen is commonly referred to as Elizabeth the Second, but since the first one was never queen in Scotland, many Scots will insist on referring to her as Elizabeth the First.

There are many stereotypes associated with Scotland, from anything to do with men wearing heavy woolen skirts known as kilts (and not much underneath) to barren, windswept mountains, rugged coastlines, heavy whisky drinking and caber tossing, the latter being a sport that involves throwing an entire tree trunk as straight (distance apparently does not count) as you can, making sure it flips at least once so that it does not land on your own toes. What isn’t currently a stereotype is Scotland as a fantastic place for beer lovers, so it was with curiosity and anticipation that my lovely wife and I boarded the flight that would take us to Aberdeen one warm and sunny July morning.

Scotland - green, remote, scenic - and sometimes even sunny!

Arriving in Aberdeen was a little bit of a shock to the system. Central Europe had been basking in a sunny heatwave for a couple of weeks, so when our plane finally emerged from the cloud over Scotland only to find that the distance between the rain-soaked ground and the cloud was about 5 metres, we knew that the shorts and sunglasses we had carefully packed at the top of the backpack would perhaps not be urgently needed. What I had forgotten to pack was, of course, a rain jacket – a schoolboy error if ever there was one. First stop, then, was the shopping centre conveniently located next to the bus station where they had a fantastic selection of wet weather gear at exorbitant prices. Apparently, demand is high.

Our mood was not at all affected, though, because I had already from the airport bus spotted one of Scotland’s main tourist attractions – the original and first BrewDog pub. For those of you unfamiliar with BrewDog, here’s a little bit of background: In 2007, two industrious gentlemen (and their dog) decided to bet everything they had (including the dog) on the beer revolution, which was starting to take off at that point (unlike the dog). However, instead of doing what most other budding brewers in Britain did at the time, namely brew traditional beers only in smaller batches, they tossed the rulebook (but not the dog) out the window and started the process of redefining what beer is about. Borrowing some ideas from the US craft beer scene, they quickly started brewing beers that pushed the boundaries of taste and decency, and they also came up with some interesting and adventurous concepts in marketing. Fast forward 8 years or so, and BrewDog is the most successful brewer of craft beer in the UK, with more than 20 own-brand bars, significant export and a turnover in excess of 30 million pounds. Does this mean that they’ve become one of the big bad boys? We set off to find out.

One of Scotland's finest tourist attractions
We rolled into the BrewDog bar around 2pm and found the place pleasantly full of people and beer. They had 8 or so of their own brews on tap, and 5 or 6 guest brews, all of which looked really interesting. Beware, though, that if you’re a die-hard cask beer fan and the first thing you look for when entering a pub is the number of hand pumps, you will be disappointed – all beers are dispensed pressured. Although I personally like cask beer as well, I have nothing against the slightly colder and fizzier beers dispensed with the help of some CO2, so I went ahead and bought the beer sampler, which included 1/3 of a pint of 4 beers of your choice. These are then placed on your sampler tray in order of alcoholic strength, typically between 5% for the weaker ones up to perhaps 12% for the humdingers. You can also buy a tiny sample of the whopping 41% beer they made for the latest installment in a tit-for-tat beer strength contest with the German brewery Schorschbräu, which was given the less than politically correct name “Sink the Bismarck”. Their beers vary in quality, but since the scale goes from “very good” to “amazing” this wasn’t much of an issue. To top it off, the pub has board games instead of TVs and therefore a lovely atmosphere, so it was with heavy hearts that we had to leave to catch the ferry to Orkney.

This sampler was worth a trip to Aberdeen
Orkney is a group of islands situated immediately to the north of the Scottish mainland. It is Norwegian territory, having been “settled” by the Vikings in their own unique and charming way a thousand or so years ago and then pawned to Scotland by some retarded Danish king in 1468 for 50,000 Florins, so I felt very much at home. The locals are very friendly, the scenery fantastic, the summer temperature marginally above freezing, and the rain less horizontal than in winter, so there really was nothing to stop us from having a great time. However, this fantastic situation improved dramatically when we entered the first pub: I discovered that Orkney has not just one, as I had anticipated, but TWO great breweries, thereby unexpectedly doubling the amount of drinking I had to do. However, as the old saying goes: it can’t be a coincidence that there are 24 hours in a day and 24 beers in four six-packs, so I grabbed a stash of cash and got down to business. The beers were simply great. The most famous one is called “Skull Splitter”, apparently named after some Norwegian Viking gentleman who acquired this nickname from his tendency to use his axe to settle arguments conclusively, and this was a barley wine that certainly hit the mark at the top of my head. However, the outstanding beer is one called “Dark Island”, a wonderful dark concoction of roasted barley, coffee notes and the mystery of what goes on in the dark winter evenings up on these remote islands. All in all, the two breweries had around 20 different beers and every single one we tried was very good. The final bonus: some beers were available both bottled and from the hand pump, allowing the lucky drinkers to choose between the fridge-cold and slightly fizzier version and the cellar temperature, smoother version.

This is Stromness in Orkney. They had beer there too.
The biggest disappointment in Scotland was the fact that the Scots themselves don’t seem to like their own beer very much. After the holiday I attended a conference in Glasgow, and at every social event there was beer on offer… from Italy, of all places. Now there are good beers in Italy as well, but they don’t send those to Scotland, no Sir, they send mediocre ones that are, if my memory serves me right, called Craponi and Crapetti. These are then presented to the thirsty hordes at truly astronomical prices. The main problem, I think, is that Scots nowadays are so polite that they smile stiffly and force this stuff down instead of doing the sensible thing, namely to start a riot – and thus, this travesty is allowed to continue, at least until the majority of the population has read this blog post.

Well, it’s time to come up with some kind of conclusion before I start rambling on in ridiculously long sentences that simply go on and on without actually containing any sort of sensible information that you may or may not find moderately interesting or entertaining. My advice is unambiguous: go to Scotland and check this country out for yourself – unless your idea of a holiday is to lie at the beach, slowly letting the sun cook your own flesh whilst sipping sickly sweet drinks with tiny umbrellas in them, I think you’ll have a great time. There’s also that other famous drink, in Scotland referred to as whisky (or “a wee dram”), which is also worth sampling – it is, after all, just distilled beer (without hops) that’s been allowed to slumber in a cask for a dozen years or so. And, oh, lots of historic sights, great scenery, good (if perhaps a bit wet) mountain walks, friendly people and fantastic pubs. Did I mention that you can also find very good beer? Good! As the Viking probably used to say: Skull!