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!