Pils pils me

Insomnia is less fun than drinking beer, and it’s also less fun than sleeping. In fact, insomnia is one of the least rewarding hobbies available to mankind. The only positive aspect is that you get a few extra hours in the middle of the night which you can use to update your blog, and write about fun things such as sleeping, beer, or sleeping after drinking beer, so I guess it could be worse.

Today I thought I’d write about the World’s favourite beer style: pils, pilsner or pilsener. This incredibly successful brew originates in the town of Plzen, known as Pilsen in German and once upon time part of the massive Habsburg Empire, but nowadays situated in the westernmost part of the Czech Republic. It was here, in the 1830s, that a handful of breweries united to form a citizens’ brewery (Bürgerbrauerei) in order to improve quality and compete efficiently with the Bavarians, whose beers had a far better reputation. They recruited a young brewer named Josef Groll from the town of Vilshofen in Bavaria, but it was quite clear that this lad wasn’t satisfied with merely trying to copy the dark, bottom-fermented lagers that were commonly brewed just across the border. Instead, he started experimenting with paler malts and proceeded to combine this with the lovely soft water from the wells in Plzen as well as a generous helping of Saaz hops to create something the world had never seen before. He presented his first batch of beer to the unsuspecting drinkers on the 5th of October 1842.

The rest is, as they say, history.

The brewery where the Pilsner beer was invented
The drinkers in Plzen loved the new golden beer, and presented in the new see-through glassware that was becoming popular (replacing the old ceramic tankards), the visual appearance of the brew also played a major part in its success. Soon, others started copying the style, and before anyone realized what was going on (mainly because they were too busy drinking, I suppose), 150 years had flown by and breweries were churning out their various interpretations of pilsner all over the world.

Lovely looking kettles, now used to show tourists how lovely they look
A few years ago I visited the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery which made, and still makes, the Pilsner Urquell (which means the “original source” in German). This was a very mixed experience. On the one hand, you’re standing in the exact spot where Josef didn’t brew the first batch, but at least you’re not far away, and you get a real sense of brewing history. On the other hand, you very quickly realize that ever since the brewery was bought out by the giant corporation SABMiller, the emphasis has shifted from tradition and quality to marketing and brands. They take you on a big tour around the brewery and serve up one claim after the other about how they’ve modernized and changed everything but ensured that the beer tastes exactly the same. Then you get to see the vast network of underground passageways containing wooden lagering casks kept at a constant 4-5 degrees Celsius, and they tell you that this is no longer in use because it has been replaced with modern tanks. Finally, they actually give you a glass of unfiltered beer from one of the few wooden casks they still use “for quality control purposes”, and you get to taste what may well be the best pilsner in the world. In fact, this is also a great place to bring the kids if you have some, or rent a couple if you don’t, because they also get a glass of beer which you can swiftly confiscate as long as they’re under 16 or 18 or 35 or whatever you find appropriate. I was ready to adopt a couple of the most gullible-looking kids on the tour, but their father politely refused before guzzling their beers with a very happy smile on his face.

Underground passageway with beer casks, some with very good beer in them

After the tour you’re ushered into the brewery tavern where you can drink more beer from taps conveniently located at your own table. They serve the filtered version from the modern tanks this time, and it still tastes pretty good, even if it lacks the magical wonderfulness of the unfiltered beer straight from the cask.

It’s only when you come home to wherever you live and you pick up a bottle of Pilsner Urquell in your local supermarket that you realize what’s really wrong with this whole enterprise. Not only is the beer brewed at several different breweries hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from its home (making a complete mockery of the “original source” claim), it is also likely that the beer will taste absolutely nothing like the wonderful stuff you quaffed back in Plzen. It’s not just that this beer doesn’t travel well, I think it goes a bit deeper than that. SABMiller have bought up the brand and shamelessly exploited its heritage whilst disregarding quality and tradition. Perhaps it’s just the way of the world nowadays, but I personally find it a bit sad. May it one day spectacularly backfire.

Pilsner remains one of my favourite types of beer, but I’m getting increasingly picky. Most of the pilsners in Germany and the Czech Republic are good, with a decent amount of bitterness as a result of generous usage of hops. This is how it should be. The Czech versions tend to have a bit more of a malty body, whereas the German ones are a bit drier, but the best ones from both countries are wonderful beers, especially on a hot summer’s day. The rest of the world, unfortunately, is not so lucky. Although there are some glorious exceptions, most “pilsners” that you buy are fizzy, cold, and taste either next to nothing, or have this unpleasant chemical taste that comes from the use of sugar, maize, rice, polluted water or, perhaps, chemicals. The emphasis is on producing vast quantities at low cost. To avoid scaring off customers, the marketing people that instruct the brewers what to do tell them to avoid using too much hops in case the trendy young people who bought the beer because of the great design on the new label should accidentally taste something.

As you can see, I have a love-hate relationship with the pilsner. I love the ones in my fridge, but I hate the big global beer makers that buy out the small players and promote their tasteless brands instead. Too often the choice is a big brand or no beer, but increasingly often I see smaller breweries sneaking into bars and restaurants, so perhaps there’s hope. I’m using my consumer power for all it’s worth, buying the good stuff and avoiding the crap, and I encourage you all to do the same. This way, we’ll support local brewers and hopefully retain the diversity we enjoy – at least in some countries – today. Man, that’s enough preaching for today, I think. I’m sleepy. Good night!


Let’s go clubbing!

Germany is a country with a very complex history, but nowadays things seem to have settled down quite nicely. Everything works, perhaps not quite as predictably as in Switzerland, but there are very few aspects of life in Germany that gives me a reason to complain. Therefore, I find myself occasionally getting annoyed about what I can only call “luxury problems” such as the queue at the post office or the general reluctance to accept payment by credit card. Therefore, to avoid becoming a grumpy old fart, I decided to avoid the queue at the post office and sign up for the fantastic-sounding “Packstation” service, which is basically an automatic post office where you can deliver and collect parcels 24 hours a day by swiping a card and entering your pin number. The flaw in the plan was that approximately 100% of Germans as well as some suspect foreigners were already using this service, which meant that this thing is always, erm, packed, and my parcels get re-routed to..... the post office. You may at this point wonder why I’m telling you this less-than-enthralling story. The reason, of course, is that the parcels I’m trying to receive contain beer.

Still space for a few breweries in the Germany selection..
There are more than 1200 breweries in Germany still brewing, and the vast majority of these are traditional and family-owned with a portfolio of perhaps half a dozen different beers that they distribute locally. There are some national brands, of course, but the loyalty to the local beers, especially in Bavaria, is still very strong. I like this quite a lot. I may sound like a grumpy old burp, and it is perhaps one of the aforementioned luxury problems, but it makes me sad when I go to a new town or city with its own history and culture, but find that the local brewery shut down a few years ago and all you can drink in the pubs is Heineken or Carlsberg.

I have therefore decided to spend my beer Euros wisely and I generally refuse to buy beers from the big multinational mega-conglomerates which worry more about the design of their labels and logos than the taste of their beer. Instead, I joined the Bierclub – a great little club which sends you a nice clunking parcel once a month containing a selection of beer from a brewery you’ve never heard of, situated in a town you had no idea existed. Christmas, in other words, happens every month nowadays (and twice in December!!), even if I have to grumpily queue for 12 or 13 minutes in the post office to retrieve my presents.

A wonderful ex-Bock in front of a package sadly not containing beer

A few days ago I received the November box, from the Schwarzbräu brewery in Zusmarshausen in Bavaria. Not exactly the most famous place in Germany I should think, yet this brewery manages to supply 118 local pubs and brew a respectable 130,000 hectolitres every year, according to the invaluable Good Beer Guide to Germany by Steve Thomas. The selection was excellent – a helles, a dunkles, a pils intriguingly named Schwedenpils, two bocks, a dunkleweizen, a helles weizen and one just called “spezial”. Needless to say, I wasted no time putting these lovely bottles in the fridge to await consumption.

Later in the evening, having emptied four of the bottles, I concluded with some satisfaction that Germany remains the best country in the world in which to drink beer. I started with the helles, which was light and straightforward, ideal for quenching the thirst after a long run. I had, coincidentally, just been for a long run. Then, I tried the spezial – this had plenty of hops in it and was therefore tasty and complex, yet not too demanding – ideal to whet the appetite. This was, coincidentally, just before dinner. After dinner, I deliberately chose the bock as my dessert and what a very good choice it was: a rich, malty full-bodied beer which invited me to take small sips to prolong the pleasure. I think I had one more, but as I was busy trying to beat my wife at Trivial Pursuit at the time, I cannot remember what it was like. I do, however, give it the credit for my astonishing victory where I came from way behind to record perhaps the most stunning win in the history of TP.

Anyway, to wrap up this rambling blog post, I guess I’ll just say that being a member of a club that sends you beer is great fun, especially if you happen to like beer or being a member of a club, or both. Variety is the spice of life, they say, and I can only nod approvingly. The main problem is that I get only one box per month, and that the box usually is so interesting it doesn’t take many hours before the box weighs less and I more. Another luxury problem then quickly arises – what on earth should I drink whilst waiting for the next one? That’ll be the topic for a future blog post when I have run out of other ideas in a decade or two. See ya!


Oh Canada! We stand on guard for beer!

Canada, for those who haven’t heard of it, is a rather large country conveniently situated where most people would rather not live. The vast majority of its landmass is practically uninhabitable, and therefore extremely sparsely populated, whereas the rest of the country is uncomfortably jammed up against the world’s only remaining superpower, and therefore dominated by the culture and politics south of the border. No wonder that the Canadians, many of whom stubbornly remain in their home and native land, are a fiercely proud people, refusing to pronounce the letter Z “zee”, spelling colour with a “u” and measuring their distances in kilometres rather than miles. Basically, the main defining feature of a Canadian is that he or she is not American.

Things to do in Toronto: take a trip up to the top of the tower.
I have been lucky enough to marry one of Canada’s many fine womenfolk, and I therefore get to visit this vast country regularly in order to visit the in-laws and drink beer in no particular order. The beer scene in Canada resembles the one in the USA. Until 20 or so years ago, the market was completely dominated by a few big brands which sold their bland, industrial lager beer to the great masses. These behemoths still supply the vast majority of what Canadians knock back in their pubs, and not unlike similar breweries in the rest of the world they seem to take pride in inventing new and trendy concoctions that taste almost, but not entirely unlike beer.

Luckily, the beer revolution that hit the US has also spilled into Canada, though perhaps on a slightly lesser scale. This means that it is nowadays generally possible to find at least one microbrewery or brewpub in every major city, and some of the bigger micros (as it were) are sold in the Norwegian-inspired state-controlled alcohol shops, which in Ontario come in two flavours: the LCBO, and the ingeniously named “Beer Store”. There is, in other words, plenty of good beer to be enjoyed if you know what to look for.

The area around Kitchener-Waterloo (about 100km southwest of Toronto) seems to have more than their fair share of microbreweries, so if you’re desperately searching for something more exciting than Molson Canadian or Labatt’s Blue, you may want to head in this direction. Just outside of Waterloo is the city of Guelph, surely the only city in the world which name resembles the sound of having had one beer too many. There’s a splendid pub near downtown called the Woolwich Arrow with a very long beer menu dominated by local breweries. I spent a happy lunchtime there in glorious sunshine a couple of weeks ago, and I can only recommend that you pop in for a swift half or an all-night drinking session or something in between.

Another personal recommendation is the Shepherd’s Pub in the tiny hamlet of Elora, about 30km north from Waterloo. It’s an extremely cosy little place, with live music and great beer. If you’re really lucky you can experience an Irish-style session where local people playing flutes, fiddles, banjos and other dodgy instruments will accidentally sit at the corner table and then equally accidentally start playing tunes that everyone happens to know. It’s excellent fun listening to such shenanigans whilst knocking back a few pints carefully selected from the extensive beer menu.

Kitchener-Waterloo also has its own version of the Oktoberfest, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post. I only had time for a brief visit, and I was able to confirm with some dismay that the main beer on offer was Molson Canadian served in rather small plastic glasses. They did have a selection of more interesting bottled beers sold at Norwegian-inspired prices, also poured into unlovely plastic glasses. Are Canadians so wild that they cannot be trusted with proper glassware, or is it simply a cost saving measure? In either case, I strongly disapprove.
The K-W Oktoberfest at 3pm on opening day. Not the best time to go.

I am also very happy to report that my request for free beer in a previous post has been fruitful. A very friendly Canadian sent me two lovely bottles from the Unibrue Brasserie in Quebec. This is the French-speaking part of Canada, so the beers had the suspiciously foreign-sounding names “Trois Pistoles” and “La Fin du Monde”. The former is dark and has a rich, vinous and full-bodied taste whereas the latter is light, cloudy and also very rich – a bit like a Belgian golden ale (such as the famous Duvel) on steroids. In fact, it had so much taste that I had to numb my taste buds with liquid nitrogen just to get it down. Or perhaps I was exaggerating a little bit just there. Anyway, both of these beers are strong (9%), tasty and very well brewed.

A little bit of Canadia in our living room.

So, what’s the conclusion? Canada is a huge country inhabited by friendly people that don’t tend to shoot you, and there are lots of things to see and do, at least if you think ice hockey is the main reason to live. As for the beer, well, there’s plenty of good stuff to be found, but it’s not a country I would recommend visiting just for this reason. Just like the country itself, many of the new breweries are a bit wild and untamed, brewing stuff full of taste and adventure, but perhaps lacking the mature subtleness of their more established counterparts in Europe. That's it folks. Have a great day!


O’zapft is!

The beer lover’s calendar has many highlights throughout the year: Christmas beer tasting, the release of the Maibock, the long summer evenings in the beer gardens, the dark winter-warmers by a log fire in the middle of winter. However, the highlight, at least for drinkers lucky enough to live in Germany, kicks off in the middle of September. I’m obviously referring to the Oktoberfest.

These days, there are many such fests in many parts of the world, but the original one is the one in Munich. First celebrated in 1810 to mark the wedding of one of the many Prince Ludwigs to the one and only Therese of Saxe-Hildeburghausen, it quickly became a tradition to gather at the Theresienwiese in central Munich to drink as many litre-glasses (known as a Maß) as possible before passing out. Today, the festival attracts about 6 million happy drinkers from all over Australia as well as some Europeans and Americans. It’s a very jolly affair, with lots of drinking, singing and thigh-slapping by people in traditional costumes such as the lederhosen worn mainly by the manly men, and the cleavage-friendly dirndl dresses donned by women, some of which are employed as waitresses able to simultaneously carry six full litre-glasses in each hand whilst taking payments from one table and throwing out bottom-pinching drunks from another.

An author and a Maß, both to scale

Personally, I’ve only been once, a couple of years ago. We turned up what we thought was suitably early, at 10am, and tried to get into one of the massive Festzelts. Not a chance – they were already packed. We ended up strolling around the festival grounds for an hour or so, just admiring the craziness of the place – a massive fun-fair with roller coasters, ghost trains and the normal fairground activities, but interspersed with enormous drinking “tents” (actually enormous structures resembling mobile sport halls with fancy facades) that accommodate up to 8500 drinkers each. We eventually managed to squeeze onto a table outside the Hacker tent, and having achieved such a success we remained there for the next 10 hours or so. The litre-glasses of beer kept coming, the Euro-notes kept vanishing, and we made friends with a merry bunch of Germans, Australians, Norwegians, Croatians and a wannabe Scot who defended his ancestral claim on his ability to say “it’s aboot fook’n time”. The atmosphere was extremely friendly, everyone simply just wanted to drink beer and have a laugh, and everyone proceeded to do exactly that.

I've certainly fallen asleep in smaller tents than this one!
Apparently, the atmosphere changes as last orders approaches at 11pm, and tends to get a bit less friendly and more overtly drunken. We therefore decided to leave the grounds around 10pm to catch a train back to the town where we stayed. My girl friend at the time carried me to the train station, put me on the right train back to the town where our hotel was, and then proceeded to marry me as soon as I had sobered up about a year later. It would have been an unforgettable day if only I had remembered a bit more of it.

What’s the beer like, I hear you cry. Well, the Oktoberfest beer is strong – about 6% - even though I’ve heard claims that it’s watered down in some of the tents (I don’t actually believe this, based on experience). We were sat at the Hacker tent, and they served the most amber version, which was malty, full-bodied and very good. The other tents have paler, but still strong, malty-sweet beers on offer. I’ve tried Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr this year, the latter is by far the best of the two.

One of the Oktoberfest traditions is that only the “big six” Munich breweries are allowed to sell their beers at the Oktoberfest: Spaten-Franziskaner, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Augustiner, Hofbräuhaus (HB) and Hacker-Pschorr. Nowadays, Spaten-Franziskaner and Löwenbräu are brewed in the same place and owned by the monstrously big Belgian-based InBev group. The same is true for Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr, except that they are owned by the almost as massive Heineken group, based in the Netherlands. Therefore, if you want to drink proper German beer, you only have the choice of HB and Augustiner, the latter of which is my favourite Munich brewery.

If the Munich fest is a bit too much or a bit too far away for you – and it is, by a considerable margin, the biggest party in the world – then there are hundreds of local copies. Canada’s biggest Oktoberfest takes place in Kitchener-Waterloo in October (!), and it looks like a North American full-on celebration of every German stereotype that exists, plus some they’ve invented just for fun. I might go this year, though I suspect that Molson Canadian won’t be as satisfying a beer as the ones in Germany.

Ah, doesn't that make you thirsty?

Regardless of whether you’re planning to go to an Oktoberfest or not, this is a great time of year to pour yourself double the usual amount of beer into a massive glass, assuming you have such a glass, and if you don’t you can use a vase, and toast the Bavarians and their royal ancestors who came up with such a fine tradition. I can almost hear the crowds singing “ein Prosit, ein Prosit, in Gemütlichkeit”, which means something like “a toast, a toast, in pleasant togetherness”, something which makes a lot more sense once you’ve magically started speaking fluent German after a few Maß. Das ist alles, folks!


Summertime – and the drinking is easy

I’m looking out the window and it’s as dark as a serious porter. A few weeks ago it would have been more pils-coloured out there at this time of day. This can mean only one thing: it’s time for another blog post.

Today I thought it’d be a great idea to review the summer of 2011, in other words the very season which still hasn’t quite finished. The less said about the weather, the better, so I shan’t bore you with statistics about record levels of rainfall and the fact that even though it’s felt like a coldish summer, it’s actually been warmer than the long term average. The topic of this blog is, after all, beer.

One question which causes much debate, serious disagreements and perhaps a minor war or two every year is: what is the ultimate beery refreshment on a hot summer’s day? There are many candidates, but most people will agree that a summer beer should be light in colour, very cold, and perhaps also light in body and taste - perhaps a bit like making love in a canoe, to quote a famous Monty Python sketch. Personally, I disagree. The most refreshing summer beers are not necessarily light in colour and most certainly not light in taste, though I concede that I prefer them coldish. Another aspect of summer beers is that they probably shouldn’t be monster strong in alcohol terms, so that you can have “a few” without necessarily needing the entire autumn to recuperate. This, unfortunately, excludes most beers from Belgium, though the Belgian will no doubt disagree, albeit somewhat drunkenly.

Sometimes, a dark beer in summer is just right

Personally, I find that the Germans, as per usual when it comes to beer, have got everything about right. Their Pilsners are mostly well brewed, and a fair number of them are quite heavily hopped, at least if you compare to the average “global brands” (I’m sure you know which ones I’m talking about and if not I promise to write a severe post where I slag them off properly sometime). The hop presence in the German pilsners is very refreshing and tends to make you fancy just one more before you meander home from the warm evening in the beer garden.

Of course, there’s also the wheat beers. Nobody brews these better than the Bavarians, which probably explains why these people are so fond of their beer gardens. These are so omnipresent that it sometimes comes as a surprise to find pointless things like buildings, parks, roads and tomatoes between them. In fact, quite a few Bavarians live in the beer garden pretty much all summer, having a reserved table called a “Stammtisch” where nobody else is allowed to sit. There they quench their thirsts with the best wheat beers, most of which are wonderfully tart and über-refreshing even though they’re sometimes not particularly light in colour.

The Berlin version of the wheat beer also deserves a mention. This beer is so sour it makes lemons taste like lollipops in comparison, but with a bit of practice and some patience, you should be able to enjoy its taste even if your face may suggest otherwise. An added benefit is its surprisingly low alcohol content – at only 3% or so you can have quite a few before you lose control of your legs, though what it would do to your stomach is a different question.

Bavarian beer gardens are great places to live in summer
Less traditionally associated with summer, but nevertheless refreshing, are other well-hopped beers such as Pale Ales. You won’t find many of these in Germany, but adventurous brewers in North America and lately also in Europe, are brewing some really good examples. What could be better than watching the sunset from your terrace on a warm evening whilst enjoying a chilled pale ale?

In summary (or should that be summery?), I think it’s safe to conclude that beer, without a shadow of doubt, is the best summer drink available. Sure, beer is also the best autumn, winter and spring drink, but that’s not the point. Assuming the weather is half-decent, summer gives you great flexibility since you can be inside, outside, poolside, seaside, offside, backside, countryside or even ribonucleoside and still enjoy a cold brew. For this reason, I have no hesitation in placing the summer firmly amongst my top four favourite seasons, and encourage you all to raise a glass to the last few warm days remaining before, conveniently, the Oktoberfest kicks off.


The best things in life are free!

As many of the regular readers of this blog already know, I am quite fond of the noble drink we commonly refer to as beer. There are many types of beer – golden, amber, dark, black, white, wheat, great and crap. However, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite type of beer is... free.

Some wise idiot once said something along the lines of “there’s no such thing as free beer”. Well, he – or she – was wrong. Apparently, this blog is now so popular and well-liked that people have started giving me free beer, presumably so that I can subsequently write about it. It’s happened twice so far. But let me say this: I am fairly corrupt as long as it benefits me. I will write about beers that are given to me, assuming they come from breweries that aren’t owned by multinational conglomerates, and that the beers are at least worth trying.

The first lot of free beers I got was from some friends who had been on holiday to other parts of Germany and very thoughtfully brought back three beers from a brewery they were sure I’d never heard of. Of course, they were wrong about that. Nevertheless, I gratefully accepted three beers from the Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle in Brandenburg: a kirsch, a porter and a schwarzbier (black beer). A kirsch? Isn’t this Germany? What about the Reinheitsgebot? Clearly, the Germans are increasingly less conservative, if you catch my drift. For those who wonder: a kirsch is a beer where cherries have been added either before or after the fermentation of the beer. It usually makes the beer taste awful, but it can sometimes be quite tart and refreshing. In this case it was kind of halfway between – I neither liked nor disliked it. No wonder they say Norwegians are born diplomats.

The porter was good. I like porters as long as they’re dry, which they are usually not. But this one was well-balanced and had strong notes of the things you expect in a good porter: coffee, chocolate and burnt toast. The schwarzbier, though, was diabolical. Someone had clearly accidentally dropped about a million tonnes of sugar into the mix, because this was undrinkably sweet and I was forced to give it to my wife, who actually drank it. I guess I still don’t understand women.

You won't find many better dark beers than this one.
A couple of weeks later, a colleague of my wife’s, also apparently a devoted reader of this blog, did the only sensible thing he could do: he brought in a massive litre-bottle of lovely dark beer and gave it to my wife so that she could share it with me. This time, I had actually NOT heard about the brewery before. It’s called “Bräuhaus in Ummendorf” – which is 81.6km north of Konstanz – and the beer was called no less than “Placidus Cobaldus”. You’ve got to have pretty big balls to name your beer in such a way, and I was very much hoping that these would also extend to the taste of the beer. I was not disappointed. It was a great example of a well-balanced dunkles (dark) beer: not too dry, not too sweet, not too malty, not too hoppy – simply very good. I wish I had another.

I must end this post by apologizing. I have received another free beer, but this was before I started blogging. A friend from Norway came to visit about 4 years ago, and this guy is a genius. He brought perhaps the finest beer that has ever been brewed in Norway: Dark Horizon, from the brewery Nøgne Ø. I was so overwhelmed that I kept this beer in my cupboard for 4 long years, frequently eyeing it up, wondering what taste sensations were hidden within. However, last week I abruptly decided that the waiting was over and cracked it open. Again, I was not disappointed. This beer had such a complexity and depth of flavour (as well as a respectable 16% alcohol) it made me feel all fuzzy, warm and very, very happy. When mankind is capable of brewing beer like that, then there’s no limit to what we can achieve, I thought.

Anyway, obviously the take-home message from this blog post is: send me beer. I promise to drink it, and if it’s worth writing about it’ll be mentioned on this blog. And then you’ll be indirectly world famous, because this blog has readers on all three continents. Just remember to write “fragile” on the box.


A Fjord Fiesta

Last week in Norway had something of everything. The bombing and shootings were some of the most appalling events ever witnessed in my usually quite peaceful home country. On the other end of the spectrum, I personally had the pleasure of travelling from the very north to the very south, first by boat and then by car, experiencing the best Norway has to offer: magnificent mountains, fjords and valleys. However, great scenery looks even better when enjoyed together with a lovely beer or two, so here's a summary of what Norway has to offer the beer lover.

The northernmost brewery in the world is, according to fact or legend, Mack in Tromsø, and this happens to be where we started our voyage. This brewery is so far north that you probably wonder how they source the raw ingredients necessary for brewing. The water should be frozen, the barley shouldn't grow and the hops should be snatched up by breweries further south long before it got this far into the Arctic. However, due to the magical current we call the Gulf Stream, Tromsø isn't actually that freezing, at least if you're wearing lots of clothes. There wasn't much snow there in the middle of summer, anyway.

Two of the more drinkable beers from Mack
The brewery isn't hard to find. You walk up or down the single main street, and if you've walked 5 minutes in one direction without finding it, turn around and you'll be there no more than 10 minutes later. It's got a splendid tap called "Ølhallen" (which simply means "beer hall"), where they serve all their beers on tap until it closes ridiculously early at 6pm. The main disappointment is their standard industrial pilsner, which is no doubt their best selling beer for some unfathomable reason. Well, it's rubbish. Served at arctic temperatures it's probably not that bad as a thirst quencher, but as soon as it's above zero degrees and your taste buds start working, an unpleasant sweetness starts dominating. Luckily, it wasn't their only choice. Much better were a high-strength lager called GullMack, a Bavarian-style dark beer called Bayer, and a tasty golden lager called Haakon. Rumour has it that they've also experimented with small-volume microbrew-style beers, but we had already forked out 10 euros for every half litre several times by then and decided to prioritize having a little pocket money left for the rest of our holiday.

Then started our long journey southwards, and what a dreadful journey it was - seen through the bottom of a beer glass, at least. The scenery was unbelievable and we even had good weather, but it was depressing to have the same conversation with the bartender every time we went for a drink:

- Hi, I'd like a beer please! What do you have on tap?
- We've got pils, pils, pils, pils and pils.
- Ah. And what do you have in bottles?
- We've got Carlsberg, Corona and Budweiser.
- I see. And why don't you have anything worth drinking?
- Mainly to annoy people like you.

I don't understand why it's seemingly impossible to stock a few bottles of interesting ales, for example from Nøgne Ø or Haandbryggeriet. These have an almost infinite shelf-life, and though they take up a little bit of space they can also be sold at higher prices than the standard stuff, believe it or not. Norway's beer scene reminds me of what the US would have been like 25 or 30 years ago.

The scenery is infinitely better than the beer in this part of Norway.
There are some exceptions, of course. I've already written about Drammen and the Aass brewery which manages to brew a good pils as well as many other styles, and Oslo has a few pubs where the selection is excellent. But by and large I'm sad to report that even in 2011, Norway has very little to offer a serious beer lover except prices that are so eye-wateringly high that you actually end up enjoying the beer more simply because it was so bloody expensive. I can't say that I blame the Germans who fill up their huge campervans (or motorhomes or RVs or whatever you call them) with beer and head up to Norway for a few weeks every summer.

The holiday ended on a high though. I gathered a bunch of friends in exceptionally nice weather last Saturday and we sat down with a huge amount of beer and some nice food. I had bought loads of pils from Aass, of course, but I had also managed to find a couple of really good pale ales from Haandbryggeriet. These were so tasty I felt like inviting them to spend the rest of the summer with me, but by the time I thought of that they had mysteriously disappeared. Anyway, lubricated with splendid beers we had a fantastic evening and the spirits were high. We solved most of the current problems in the world, and we laughed constantly doing it - another proof that good beer is, well, a good thing. At least from time to time.

I've now returned to Germany to try and earn enough money to take another holiday one day, so the focus for the next post will switch back to the Fatherland. Auf wiedersehen, pets!