Seeking the Aurora Beerealis

As some of the regular readers of this blog may have realized by now, I stem from the country of Norway, which is situated way north of most sensible latitudes in Europe. Sharing a border with my home country is another country called Finland, also a weird place, covered in snow and saunas. However, should you happen to look really carefully at the map, you may find a third country stuck between the two aforementioned ones – and if you can be bothered to look up the statistics for this country you’ll also find that it is both bigger and more populous than either. This, dear beer lover, is the country of Sweden.

Sweden is a country with a long history of aggressive behaviour. A few hundred years ago, the king would round up an army at regular intervals and go marauding down in central Europe, mainly to escape the long winter nights and the endless supply of pickled herring back home. The army would pillage, rape and murder, but eventually they’d meet someone who could actually fight and promptly retreat homewards. Finally, after many years of such expensive tomfoolery, they simply decided that they preferred pickled herring and long winter nights and declared themselves forever neutral.

Having finished the mandatory history lesson, you now know pretty much all that’s worth knowing about Sweden – except what the beer situation is like. It’s really lucky that I’m writing this blog entry now and not 10 years ago, because back then it would have been summarized in a single word: simply awful. The sober ones amongst you may have realized that this was three words. Never mind. My point is: Sweden’s beer scene has actually improved massively, and can now be summarized in four words: not as awful as it used to be.

Sweden, like most countries, used to have loads of local and regional breweries that would output stuff suitable to quench the thirst of the local populace. The story continues as expected: as transport improved and capitalism started to bite, breweries got bought out by others, and the beer scene steadily converged on a handful of national brands, which then got bought out by the big international you-know-whos. The unusual thing about Sweden, though, is that the politicians decided to add a bureaucratic twist to the story by banning the sale of beers above a certain alcohol percentage from being sold in normal stores – more or less exactly what was done in Norway, too. The depressing thing about Sweden is that they set the limit at 3.5% instead of the Norwegian’s more sensible 4.7% - which means that all normal beer styles can no longer be sold in normal shops.

What followed was a disaster for people who like good beer. The 3.5% limit meant that all breweries focused on alcohol percentage rather than taste – the stuff in the normal shops was weak and undrinkable, whereas the stronger stuff sold in the state-controlled shops known as “Systembolaget” was, well, stronger – but still pretty much undrinkable, even though it at least did a decent job in getting you drunk. In fact, for many years Swedes would simply order "en stor stark", which translates as "a big strong", in this case meaning beer, completely without regard to which beer style or brewery was behind the alcoholic beverage that would subsequently appear in your glass. Luckily, the story does not end here. Slowly, but surely, the Systembolaget shops started to put foreign beers on the shelves, and discerning Swedes (and foreigners in Sweden) realized that there were other types of beer than just “weak” and “strong”.

Rewind forward a dozen years or so, and the Systembolaget stocks hundreds of imported beers as well as a reasonable selection of new Swedish beers made by recently established breweries keen to join the beer revolution. Since my arse is currently sat on a lovely Swedish wooden chair in the far-north city of Luleå, and since I have just had the pleasure of trying 3 of these Swedish beers, I thought I’d write an insanely long introduction before getting to the main point of this blog entry: beer.

Typical Swedish strong beer - nowadays brewed by Spendrup's
Oh, before I forget, since I may have been slightly unkind to Sweden at the beginning of this text, I will now try to balance this by saying that I find both the beer selection and the prices in the Systembolaget (conveniently situated around the corner from my hotel) excellent, especially seen with my Norwegian eyes. Both Norway and Sweden have a reputation for eye-wateringly high taxes on alcohol, but the beer is still about HALF the price in Swedish shops. This, of course, reminds me of the Great Scandinavian Beer Relay: Norwegians pop across the border to buy cheap Swedish beer, the Swedes pop across to Denmark to buy even cheaper beer, and the Danes to the same thing in Germany. I took the shortcut straight to Germany.

So what have I been drinking today to inspire such a wonderfully eloquent entry? Well, I started off with a St Eriks IPA. This brewery is situated in the wonderful capital of Sweden, Stockholm, a city worth visiting for many reasons, not least the chance of visiting the former pride of the Swedish navy, the Wasa, a ship so fantastic that it capsized in calm weather about 1300 metres (yes, metres - less than a mile for the lovers of imperial units) into its maiden voyage and then spent the next 300 years on the bottom of the sea before being salvaged and put into a rather magnificent museum. The St Eriks IPA certainly did not capsize, although I have to say that it didn’t massively impress either – good, but not great.

Next up was the Organic Ale from Sigtuna brewery. Sigtuna is a small town situated just outside Stockholm, and was apparently founded by the Vikings more than 1000 years ago. The brewery is considerably newer, having been founded in 2005. As it happens, their internet pages have just told me that this brewery shares its premises with St Erik. Oh well, I guess this might explain why this beer was also good, but not great. It’s a pleasant beer but without anything to set it apart from the bunch.

The final beer was from a brewery called “Oppigårds”, and the very promising label said “Thurbo Double IPA”. My expectations were unsurprisingly sky high, and in this case the beer did not disappoint. This was a hoppilicious beer, a bit like hopping on a hop field whilst chewing hop gum and being generally hoppy. In fact, I have already thought about immediately planning to write to them and suggest that they change the brewery name to “Hoppigårds”. If you’re now chuckling to yourself, rest assured that you have the same crappy sense of humour as the author, also known to myself simply as “I”.

OK, what’s the conclusion? Well, don’t go to Sweden just because of the beer. The same can be said about the food, the scenery, the weather and the skiing. However, Sweden is a bit like the Volvo – safe, without being terribly exciting. You might find that it’s the combination of many things that makes Sweden a worthwhile place to visit. That, and the Wasa ship. Imagine making one of the world's greatest museums out of your biggest, most embarrassing naval disaster. This alone is worth a trip, and when you’re in Stockholm you might as well drink a few tasty beers from the new breweries that have sprung up in the last decade or so. Have fun, and don’t forget to skål with the locals. Skål!


Back to Bavaria once again!

Every so often, when I travel around Germany for no, one or perhaps several good reasons, I come across strange little places that somehow stick out from the bunch. Most villages in Germany are actually pretty boring – they usually consist of a few well-kept houses clustered around a through road, with perhaps a church, a bakery and – if you’re really lucky – a pub to add a minor amount of interest. The two things that can make a German village leap from complete obscurity to a permanent place in my consciousness are a splendid name and the presence of a brewery.

Village names are usually forgotten as soon as you’ve cycled through, but since there are almost as many villages as there are people in Germany, some are bound to differentiate themselves by naming themselves a bit more adventurously. It could be argued that a handful have taken this too far – the village of “Fucking” situated on the German-Austrian border certainly have their fair share of people driving through with screwdrivers and angle cutters to purloin the signs. There are a few other ones that were no doubt named some time before English became the world language – my favourites, though, are the ones that don’t make sense in English (or any other language I know), but simply sound funny. Which brings me to the main topic of this blog post: beer.

I may have mentioned once or twice that I like beer and that Germany has both good beer and an amazing number of breweries. The fact that I, who likes beer, live in Germany and travel to Bavaria whenever I have the chance, is a happy coincidence. And so it came to pass that, for my lovely wife’s birthday weekend last week, I booked us a nice escape in, you guessed it, Bavaria. I managed to wrap the weekend present in fluffy things such as a gourmet meal, a race, a trip to the local spa/swimming complex and a bit of geocaching, all of which camouflaged the beer hunting agenda very nicely, except that I had made the somewhat obvious “mistake” of booking a hotel next to the local brewery, namely the Löwenbräu (incidentally a very boring brewery name) in Bad Wörishofen. The “bad” actually means “bath”, and was something just about every town that discovered some kind of natural spring decided to stick in front of their name to attract the hordes of tourists that seek to immerse their corpulent bodies in the allegedly healing qualities of the water. There are so many of these “Bad” towns nowadays that the humorous value of reading the name in English has completely faded, with the obvious exception of “Bad Kissingen”.

Another brewery we stumbled  upon
Anyway, having enjoyed a very expensive, fancy and incredibly gourmet meal on my wife’s actual birthday, I managed to convince her to sneak in a little nightcap half-litre in the brewery’s very pleasant and cosy bar. Fresh beer straight from the brewery seldom fails to hit the mark, and the very sturdy beers they had on tap both impressed – the Urtrunk was quite dark, malty and full-bodied whereas the Helles was also malty, but unsurprisingly a bit spicier and lighter.

The real jewel around Bad Wörishofen is a place about 10km away, though – and I’m talking about none other than the world not very famous village of……… DIRLEWANG. Now there’s a village name straight from the top drawer. I have no idea how they managed to come up with such a classic, but considering they also had the sense to reject closing the local brewery, I now officially declare the village of Dirlewang the best tiny place in Germany to visit for between 5 and 10 minutes, unless you’re not driving in which case you should stop for a few beers. As it happened, I was in a car, but I nevertheless stopped for 4 beers, which I requested to be surrounded by brown glass and sealed with a crown cap, a bit like a working class king if you see what I mean. Anyway, the brewery bar itself was an interesting place – probably refurbished sometime just after the Napoleonic Wars and populated by a bunch of geezers who were a smidgeon too young to have fought in them. The reception was friendly though, even though the local dialect can be a challenge, and I was allowed to take away said 4 beers for the princely price of €3.20, which I rounded up to €4 to ensure that the brewery remains profitable.

Why am I telling you all this? Mainly because I haven’t got anything else to say and that I have just tried one of the four beers, just to celebrate the end of yet another working day. And boy was the beer good, in fact even better quality than the work I did today, which wasn’t too bad either. A satisfyingly full body was livened by just the right amount of hoppy spiciness to ensure a pleasurable passage down my thirsty throat. The best news is that I still have two beers left from Dirlewang as well as a six-pack from a very nice brewery in Ottobeuren as well as a few more local ones that I picked up in a bottle shop. Feel free to pop by for a little tasting session.

A real Dirlewanger waiting to be consumed
All good things must come to an end, they say, and so it was with both the weekend in Bavaria, the bottle of beer from Dirlewang and this blog post. All that remains is to observe that the evening is dark and that the temperature is dropping. This, surely, means that winter is around the corner, and that the Christmas beer is sitting somewhere, maturing, and waiting to be wheeled into the shops and supermarkets, or – if you’re in Norway – the state-controlled monopoly outlets. The only benefit of this monopoly is that they’ve got a catalogue of all the beers you can supposedly buy there, so it makes it much easier to compose your Christmas wish list. In fact, perhaps I’ll just send the entire catalogue off to Santa Claus’ North Pole lair and hope he doesn’t drink it all before he delivers it down the chimney in time for the annual Christmas beer tasting. As they say amongst the Inuits up in that part of the world: Inuuhiqatsiaq!


Beer of Flying

I’ve been flying a lot lately. I like travelling, and end up jetting around quite a lot both for business and pleasure. I also like beer, as some of you may have gathered by now. How, then, do these two things go together? Are there hoppy pleasures to be had thirty thousand feet off the ground? These are questions I know most of you have been tempted to consider dying to ask, so I thought I’d share my experiences with you on this absolutely fascinating topic.

As with all serious subjects, a little historical background is a great way to waste a paragraph or two. Flying’s been around since some pre-historic birds first climbed up a convenient tree to fling themselves at the ground, and missed. However, it took a long time before humans developed wings – quite a few tried emulating the birds, but usually failed to miss hitting the ground in what was undoubtedly a very painful fashion, and so it wasn’t really until the Wright brothers combined two oversized ironing boards and a lawn mower on a beach in North Carolina in December 1903 that the concept of flying for humans really, and quite literally, took off. Humanity hasn’t looked back since, though quite often down.

The inflight service on the very first flight was probably quite limited, especially since it lasted less than a minute. Apparently, the first flight attendants appeared only about 30 years later, complete with a friendly smile and an appropriate amount of hard liquor to settle the nerves of the passengers, who back in those days had a relatively high chance of hitting the ground very hard and therefore regretting not taking the train. Luckily, the situation nowadays is very different – flying is just about the safest way to travel, so there’s absolutely no reason not to sit back, relax and enjoy a little luxury such as a fine brew or two, if only such pleasures had been widely available.

Those of you who have actually bothered to drag your arses to the nearest airport to board a sardine box that, in complete breach of most of the laws of physics, lifts itself from the ground and brings you relatively quickly (unless Icelandic Volcanoes are throwing some lava into the mix) to your preferred destination (unless you’ve made the classic mistake of boarding a plane to “Torquay” instead of “Turkey”, or “Dakar” instead of “Dhaka”), will know that (unless you’ve re-mortgaged your house to pay for business class) the stuff you get for free (or, more accurately, included) is, at best, very limited. In fact, many airlines won’t give you anything at all unless you pay extra through a nostril of your choice, though they usually accept credit cards. However, despite all this, most airlines do have at least one beer on offer.

A very common sight up there.

Unfortunately, the beer revolution that has resulted in an incredible increase in the number and styles of beers on offer in the average pub or supermarket has completely failed to lift off the ground. The average inflight trolley will contain a few cans of what is simply known as “beer”, whereas the wine buffs at least get to choose between “red” and “white”. To make matters worse, the “beer” on offer is typically one of the big industrial blands (sic), so if you fancy a “beer” with “taste”, you are probably out of luck. There are some exceptions though: the main airline in Switzerland, cunningly named “Swiss”, actually serves up quite a decent local beer from Appenzeller land (a rural Canton in the north-east for the many geography buffs among you), which – at least for people who like lager – has a nice hoppy taste. For the time being, Swiss is also one of the few airlines that will let you have a can or two without charging you for it. Not sure if this justifies always flying via Zurich regardless of where you want to go, but it’s clearly worth bearing in mind.

Quite a few cans of decent lager taking off.

Another airline that takes beer a little bit more seriously than most is good old British Airways. Last time I flew with BA, I actually had the choice of no fewer than FOUR beers, though since three of them were predictable global tasteless lagers, there wasn’t really much of a choice. The last one, though, was one of the fairly safe British bitters, namely London Pride. Never a truly great drinking experience, but hardly ever a disappointing one either, Pride for sure might just probably be perhaps the best beer you’re ever likely to get served in, on or above the clouds.

Having said that, a bit of internet research reveals that, mirroring the situation on the ground, North American airlines seem to provide both the worst and best beers in the sky. Some of the biggest airlines (which I have flown with), which I shall refrain from naming and shaming, stick to the old “making love in a canoe” ones, whereas at least a handful (including Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, neither of which I have been on) have started serving craft beers – a round of applause is merited, I think. I clearly need to travel more.

So who’s the winner? Which is the world’s best beerline? I can't decide, so I'm just going to say that it’s the train. It may be slower, but this simply means more time to savour your beer – and best of all, you can buy a couple of great beers and bring them on board with you. Apparently, it’s more environmentally friendly too, although getting to Canada, Australia and Japan from Europe on the train remains a bit of a challenge.

On this lofty note I shall end this informative and highly entertaining blog post, and wish you all a lovely autumn (or spring, should you read this from the southern hemisphere). My advice to you for the coming weeks until the next post appears is to drink beerfully, fly high, train hard and don’t worry – be hoppy. As they say in Finland: Kippis!


Try Trier!

Every year, exactly 7 weeks after the predictably unpredictable holiday we call Easter, occurs another, slightly shorter holiday, which in English is known as Whitsunday. In Germany and some other countries that like their days off, the Monday following more or less directly after Whitsunday is a public holiday. The main reason for this extra holiday, regardless of when it happens to show up in any given year, is to drink beer. Therefore, my wife and I headed off to one of the few cities in Germany where I hadn’t been, which also happens to be the oldest, namely Trier, mainly because it is one of the few that rhymes with Bier – which is German for beer. With such a cunningly clucked out plan, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters I had booked the train to get there. Despite the Germans’ reputation for efficiency, their train system seems to be riddled with delays, which caused us to miss a connection, get re-routed through an entirely different region and arrive nine minutes late. As a result, all the beer drinking of the weekend was delayed by nine minutes, though I am not sure if this made a huge difference.

Trier was founded by the Romans, those dodgy wine-drinking folks that spread their forums, amphitheatres and hot baths around most of Europe before imploding in their own orgies. It is situated on the river Mosel, which meanders its way through vineyards and pretty towns, before emptying into the great river Rhine. Unsurprisingly, Trier has a lot of history, and also some pretty passable Roman ruins that you can enjoy looking at if you’re into that sort of thing.
The "Black Gate" (Porta Negra), Trier's most famous Roman building
The best thing about sight-seeing is that it makes you very thirsty, so it wasn’t long before we set off in search of the first Trier Bier. Always trying to increase our productivity by doing multiple things simultaneously, we were also busy pondering the following question: if you, like me, like to try beers, are you then a beer trier? Whilst mulling over this we observed something slightly odd: no matter where we looked – east, west, north, south, up, down, left, right or anywhere in between, the beer on offer was called Bitburger. This is a beer I’ve had many times before, as it is one of the biggest brands in Germany. There’s nothing wrong with it – it can, in fact, be quite good at times – but it wasn’t what I had arrived nine minutes late for. I was, of course, aware of the fact that the town of Bitburg, presumably named after the brewery, is situated only a couple of dozen kilometres from Trier, but I hadn’t quite expected such outrageous dominance. So, I gave in and order one. It was refreshing, quite tasty and in many respects acceptably local. However, I wanted more.

As it turned out, a 10-minute walk past the amphitheatre, my favourite people in Trier had founded my favourite place in Trier back in 1998 – the exquisite little brewery known as “Kraft Bräu”, where they not only brew their own beer, they also allowed me to drink as much of it as I liked. This fantastic combination was hard to resist, and given the lack of other choices in Trier I thought why not, give me the beer menu (they had two) and let’s get to work. Their standard beers were the same as most places in Germany: a light Helles, a dark Dunkles, and a wheat beer. These were all very good – unfiltered and refreshing, just right for everyday drinking, especially on a hot day (it was a hot day). Then they had their “special selection” – a pale ale, an IPA, an outrageous IPA and a pilsner. Combined with a lovely beer garden, perfect weather, superb food and a relaxed atmosphere, this place was so good that we just had to come back.
Fantastic brews from Trier's only remaining brewery
Another feature of Trier is its proximity to one of Europe’s most anonymous nations, namely Luxembourg. A small super-rich country which has seemingly never offended anyone, and therefore stays out of the news and most people’s consciousness. However, a country is a country and if I have the chance to drink a beer in it, I surely will. Thus, we rented bikes and set off on the lovely cycle path along the river until we crossed a bridge which also turned out to be the border. Gone were all the signs with “Bitburger” written on them, replaced by signs saying “Bofferding”. This mysterious-sounding beer turned out to be… very drinkable. And that’s just about all there is to say about Luxembourg, because after we finished our beers we caught what must be one of the shortest international ferry journeys in the world (sixty-seven and a half seconds) back to Germany, thus avoiding crossing the same bridge twice. The cycle ride back generated just enough thirst to warrant another visit to Kraft Bräu, where the beers turned out to be even better now that the weather was even hotter.

Luxembourg! The country is considerably bigger than the beer mat.
The last day in Trier, just before the train was due to leave, we noticed that there were loads of people drinking wine, and we also heard a rumour that the Mosel Valley is world famous for its wines. As this was the only thing you could drink in Trier not made by Bitburger, we decided to try some. Oh well, we all make mistakes sometimes.
Waiting for the international ferry (sadly no duty free onboard).
Since everything was nine minutes delayed due to our unfortunate late arrival, it came as no surprise that our return train was also nine minutes late. The unfortunate thing about this was that we then missed our connection to the only train that ran on time in Germany on this particular day. We then proceeded to make our way home on trains that, at some time or another, had every possible delay between 5 and 105 minutes. Needless to say, this was great fun, and we made inappropriate jokes about all the world’s train systems except the Swiss one (which we only made appropriate jokes about) until we arrived back home sometime in the middle of the night.

In conclusion, Trier was a nice and interesting place to visit, but the dominance of a single pilsner-only brewery makes it a little bit boring in this respect. However, if you search you will sometimes find, which applies to both geocaching and breweries – and so it came to pass that both the beer blogger and his wife found what they were looking for. A couple of weeks later, we completed an epic journey from Copenhagen to Karlsruhe by bike and beer, so check out this blog in a few weeks’ time and perhaps you'll be lucky enough to find a summery summary. Until then: Zum Skål!


Are you being serbed?

I don’t often get to add a whole new country to the rather long list of countries from which I have sampled one or more beers, and it’s a similar story when it comes to countries I have visited. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when last week I got to add a country to each list – and not just any old country, but a relatively new one, namely Serbia.

Serbia, with its capital Belgrade, is one of the many countries in Europe with a rather unfortunate history. Dominated by either the Turks or the Austrians for centuries, the country was attacked, sacked, burnt down, rebuilt, reburnt and otherwise molested dozens of times all the way up until 1999, when (hopefully) the last bombs finally fell. Belgrade, meanwhile, went from being a Roman settlement through a fortified town and then on to become the capital of the rather substantial country I was used to seeing on the European maps of my childhood – Yugoslavia. Then bit after bit fell off, until today we’re left with a smallish landlocked country that roughly half the world think is about the size of Kosovo smaller than roughly the other half of the world.

Belgrade itself is a very interesting city, though you do get the feeling that it’s past its heyday – lots of buildings are crumbling and the pavement is anything but even. However, there’s also a vibe and a big bridge in the city that suggests it may be heading back towards former greatness, and what better place to start than to be the main topic of a blog post by the famous beer blogger? Which, incidentally, reminds me nicely that I need to move on to the main topic of this blog: beer.

Belgrade: interesting city, but more gritty than pretty.

I had, of course, done some homework on Belgrade before leaving, so I knew that it would be unwise to expect a huge variety of fantastic beers. However, being both an optimist and a strong believer that I am almost always lucky meant that I attacked the task of drinking my way through the Serbian beer selection with no small amount of enthusiasm. The first problem I encountered was actually buying the stuff – when I got to the supermarket, the selection was remarkably biased towards the big European brands you can buy almost everywhere – Staropramen, Carlsberg, Amstel and all the others you should always try to avoid. However, I managed to find a handful of beers that I thought looked sufficiently local, not least due to the label having cyrillic letters, and put them in the fridge in the small apartment we had rented.

The first two beers I tried were the “Niksicko Pivo” and the “Niksicko Tamno”, a pils and a dark beer, which I subsequently discovered were actually brewed in the Trebjesa brewery in…. Montenegro. Oh well, the beers weren’t that good and the brewery is, unsurprisingly, owned by one of the big bad guys, namely Molson Coors. So on went the quest for my first Serbian beer.

My first ever Serbian beer. It was crap.

Next up was a beer called “Lav”, which is a light industrial lager that made the unfortunate, but not uncommon mistake of insulting the beer blogger by tasting of next to nothing, though when I tried really hard I thought I detected a slightly unpleasant hint of metal. A quick look on the bottle confirmed my suspicion that the brand is owned by Carlsberg, but since it’s brewed in Serbia it was, and remains, the first beer I have ever tried from this country – sadly, it was rubbish.

Much better head and much more taste.

The next two beers were from a brewery in a small town called Valjevo. First down my throat was the “Bajbebcko Tufo”, which turned out to be the most interesting beer of the session – first and foremost it poured with a good head, and then it actually tasted of something. In fact, I thought I detected a hint of smoke on the palate, but it could just have been the cigarette smoke that was present all over Belgrade – not a city for people who can’t stand smokers, by the way. The second beer, called “Atlas Pils”, was therefore a huge disappointment – it tasted as if it was brewed with stuff that shouldn’t go into beer such as maize, rice or armchairs, though to be fair it was slightly better than Lav.

Could be worse - see above.

I didn’t find the final Serbian beer of the holiday until the next day – we had been walking around the very picturesque castle area, and stopped for refreshments at a café when I saw the brand “Jelen”. I wasted an infinitesimal amount of time before ordering a half litre, which duly arrived after a considerably longer waiting period. This draught beer was actually very pleasant - nice hops and a medium body complemented the sunshine and the rising temperatures perfectly. I later tried it in a bottle, where it wasn’t quite the same, and I also discovered that the brewery, called “Apatinska” and founded in 1756, is nowadays owned by – you guessed it – Molson Coors.

Sunshine and draft beer is seldom a bad combination.

Serbian beer was, in conclusion, a lot less interesting than the country itself. My advice is certainly to visit Belgrade some time, and if you fancy a half litre of your favourite tipple, then there are hundreds, if not thousands of bars that will happily take your order and charge you a remarkably small percentage of your holiday budget for the pleasure – roughly €1.50 seemed to be the going rate. So what Belgrade lacks in beer quality you could certainly make up for in quantity without necessarily breaking the bank, which incidentally was exactly what the river was doing as we visited, apparently due to four months’ worth of rain falling in two days just prior to our arrival.

So, go ahead and book your plane, train or bus ticket to Belgrade unless you happen to live there already, and spend a few days checking out this very lively and friendly place where old decommissioned Swiss trams still rumble around on rickety tracks and the floating bars on the river are heaving until the early hours. Most people are happy to speak English, but if you do fancy trying out the local language you could do worse than ordering a beer and shout “живели”, or “Ziveli”, which apparently means “let’s live long”, which surely is something worth drinking a non-fatal amount of beer to.


The bitter taste of..... beer!

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the blog! It’s been a memorable winter, mostly because it never arrived, and we now have early summer instead of spring. Summer is definitely one of my top four seasons in which to drink beer, so the arrival of warm days and long evenings has also spurred me into making sure that my fridge is well stocked with bottles of my favourite tipple.

My wife asked me a few weeks ago why I never take her on a guided tour of the different beer styles of the world, and she had a point. We’ve been cycling around Germany several times, visiting dozens of lovely breweries in the process, but there are many beer styles that are hard to come by in Germany which are also worth sampling. Furthermore, by sampling them all as part of one guided tour, perhaps she would learn to appreciate the differences between them, and appreciate the vast variety of styles and tastes a bit more.

As a direct result of this, I wasted no time in waiting a few weeks before finally getting around to inviting a couple of friends over for a big tasting party. I originally had this concept that I’d order in beers from various online beer stores to get a real global selection, but of course the weather was too nice and I left it too late. So, instead, I cycled to the local super-supermarket, the one where they have more beer than you can poke a shaky stick at, whatever that means, and proceeded to buy a decent selection.

I wanted to mix a few typical German beer styles with a couple of typical non-German ones. I quickly chose the former: a Pilsner, a Märzen, a Munich Helles, a Munich Dunkles, a Doppelbock,a Kölsch, a Bock, a Schwarzbier and a Zwickl. That clearly leaves out a dozen or so styles from this country, but I figured there will be other occasions. The international selection wasn’t great, but I was able to find a lambic – an Oude Geuze from Boon no less – as well as an American-style Pale Ale. That meant that we had 11 different ones to drink our way through.

The concept for the evening was straightforward: the participants did not know which beer was served, but they got a list of all the beers with tasting notes from the RateBeer web site. The challenge was then to try and identify the beer on the basis of colour, nose, palate, mouthfeel and luck.

These tasting notes you find online are actually quite interesting. Not seldom do you see people describing beers using phrases like “freshly mown grass”, “old leather”, “not quite ripe raspberries” or “hints of a 15-year old single malt whisky”. Personally, I divide beer tastes into three categories: “malty”, “hoppy” and “yeasty”, which nicely corresponds to three of the four main ingredients in beer (I also use the last ingredient, water, to describe beers sometimes, but usually not in a positive context). Anyway, this didn’t help the participants of the evening very much, so I was forced to elaborate by claiming that malty is a bit like biscuit-y or bready, hoppy a bit like spicy, and yeasty a bit like flowery or fruity. As you can tell, I’m not very good at this myself.

The sheet with tasting notes and a handy pen
Nevertheless, as the evening progressed, it became quite clear that the taste buds had been sharpened, because one beer after another was correctly identified, at least by a majority of the participants. It turns out that individual tastes and colour perceptions vary, so there was considerable discussion and a couple of minor fist fights, but all in all an impressive amount of correct answers were given. Interesting was also the favourite beers of the group – the clear winner was the Belgian Lambic, which considering its sour taste is not one that usually wins out amongst people used to “normal” beer. The clear losers were the bitterest of the beers – the Pilsner and the American Pale Ale in particular.

The winning beer was a bit of a surprise
At the end of the evening, I was challenged to do a blind taste where I was not allowed to even see the beer before drinking it, and although I correctly identified the American Pale Ale, I managed to mistake the Munich Dunkles for a Pilsner. Yes, you read correctly. Even I, the taster of a thousand beers (and some), can make such elementary mistakes. It turns out the science of tasting is heavily influenced by sight, smell, mouthfeel, mood, and, last but not least, how drunk you are. Oh well, better luck next time.

The take-home message from the blog post is: try something new! If you regularly choose to stock up your fridge with the same “safe” selection, you’re missing out on some amazing taste experiences that you probably never knew existed. Even if you think that you don’t like beer very much, perhaps it’s simply because you have never tried the type of beer that suits your particular palate. With online beer shops sprouting up everywhere and beer selection improving in almost every supermarket, you’ll be spoilt for choice unless you live in some beer-forsaken place like Iran. Then, after you’ve stocked up, do a little research on the internet, invite a few friends over and try to taste the beer whilst having fun drinking it. A competitive element like blind tasting adds to the fun, as does having the next day off work.

In conclusion, I've learned a few things about beer. First and foremost, I've reconfirmed that I like pretty much every style of beer on the market. Then, I have observed that people who don't count themselves as particularly into beer can still enjoy drinking it. Finally, I have learned that it's not always easy to know one's arse from one's elbow, even though you perhaps thought you had those body parts figured out years ago. On this happy note I shall say a very merry night to you all - and may your fridges forever be well stocked. Terviseks!


Size matters!

The world had not heard the word “microbrewery” until a couple of dozen years ago. Then, all of a sudden, there were thirteen to the dozen of these things. Nowadays, even obscure villages that nobody’s ever heard of, including the people living there, are sporting microbreweries. What the heck happened?

There was a time when big breweries thought they could rule the world – in particular, there was one very evil, big brewery – let's call it SauronBrew – that kept buying out all the other ones, using the One Recipe (crap lager) to bind them all into the idea that mediocre beers that could be brewed cheaply but sold reassuringly expensively was all you needed in order to be successful.

Then, just as it looked as if SauronBrew would indeed conquer the entire brewing world, one or two enterprising individuals – let’s for simplicity’s sake call them FrodoBeer and SamAle – came along and started to brew on an experimental basis, creating new (or re-creating old) brews that actually tasted like proper beer, or at least tasted like something other than branded industrial crap lager. Scholars disagree exactly where FrodoBeer and SamAle started their fight against SauronBrew, but what is quite clear is that their fight has been crowned by some success, even though the One Recipe has still not been destroyed, but continues to cast its spell over way too many Gollum-ible individuals throughout the drinking world.

OK, enough references to that famous trilogy. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please use either Google or (preferably) your local pub to seek wisdom. An undisputable fact is that during the last 20 or 30 years, several thousand microbreweries have sprung up in most countries in this world, including Iceland, and in the last couple of months I have had the pleasure of tasting the brews from no less than five of these countries: Poland, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

It started off with Poland. A country I have written about before, more known for its particularly terrible history than for its brewing heritage, but nevertheless able to brew some decent beers. A good friend of mine, who happens to come from this place, brought back no fewer than four lovely bottles of absolutely superb beer from his latest trip back to his homeland. These were all from breweries I had never heard of or had any chance of pronouncing correctly, yet they had everything a beer lover loves: plenty of taste, a refined balance and a lingering aftertaste – without losing the ability to be refreshing. Poland, be warned: I am coming to visit again – my last visit was almost 10 years ago and I’ve clearly missed some important events in my absence.

Great Polish beer, but try to order it at the bar and see what you get...
Next my lovely wife and I flew to Canada to see the family. Canada is a country more known for its massive size and its abundance of tundra, nothingness and arctic cold than for its brewing heritage. Nevertheless, the revolution that has spawned the creation of several thousand breweries south of the world’s longest unguarded border has also spilled across the very same border, perhaps due to it not being guarded. Microbreweries are popping up everywhere, and nowhere is this more visible than in one of the cutest towns in Canada – Niagara on the Lake – which happens to be my favourite place in Canada because it has no less than 3 breweries and because I got married there (in no particular order).

My mother-in-law does not conform to the stereotypical one that would hate my guts – on the contrary she clearly thinks very highly of my liver since she bought me a brewery tour for Christmas. So we packed into the car (this is, after all, Canada, so there are no buses or trains), and headed off to the Oast Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This brewery resides in an old barn or something, and despite opening only 18 months ago is astonishingly well run. A knowledgeable and pleasant young lady gave us plenty of samples and showed us the bowels of the brewery where we also got to chat to the Brewmaster, who despite (or perhaps because of) his young age had conjured up a few memorable brews, including a Belgian-inspired Saison and a very nice Pale Ale. Needless to say, we bought both souvebeers and souvenirs.
My Christmas present!

The next brewery was called Silversmith, located in an old church just down the road from Oast. Although the beers were also very drinkable, they lacked some of the subtlety of the Oast ones, and the reception at the brewery was also much less friendly – no brewery tour, only tasting – so it wasn’t quite the same. Still, if you have a few hours to spare in the Niagara region, and you’re not desperate for a wine tour, you could do much worse than coming to Niagara-on-the-Lake to check out its various breweries. There is a third bonus one too.

Later during Christmas I made my way to Norway, a country more known for its fjords, northern lights and astronomical prices than for its brewing heritage. As I have repeatedly commented on this blog, the politicians in this country have done their utmost to eradicate what little brewing heritage there is, but despite this there are a dozen or so microbreweries operating around the country, One of them, Haandbryggeriet, is located in my home town, and I take no small amount of pride in declaring that this is also Norway’s best micro. I had the pleasure of tasting their full range of Christmas beers as well as their “Dark Force”, which is no less than a Russian Imperial Wheat Stout packed with an unbelievable amount of taste, and their “Dobbel Dose”, which is a seriously hoppy beer designed to make you outrageously happy.

The only problem with these lovely beers is that they are very expensive, which means that a lot of bars don’t actually stock them because there are cheaper alternatives from abroad. And so it came to pass that when I went skiing in a fashionable ski resort, I was forced to order brews from Sweden in my own native land. The only alternative was industrial pilsner, and since the actual brews were in fact quite good, I didn’t mind so much – though I forget exactly what I drank. The point is... when a local Norwegian microbrewery is rejected in favour of a Swedish microbrewery situated several hundred kilometres away because the Norwegian one is simply too expensive (this was what the bartender told me), there’s something seriously wrong. I can solve this problem, but I am sadly lacking in dictatorial powers.

Happy blogger with hoppy beer
Finally I was in Denmark, a country known for its brewing heritage, and could once again confirm that the Danes, as with most things, are way ahead of their Scandinavian brethren, both in terms of making their industrial lagers taste of nothing and in terms of making their microbrews taste amazing. I happened to be in Odense, the biggest city on a small island called Fyn, but regardless of where you are in this small, flat country you'll find yourself fairly close to good beers, despite the terrible things the best-known Danish brand has done to the world.

Amazing Danish beer number six-and-half-five-score
In conclusion: I love microbreweries. I love what they’ve done to increase the choices I have, I love the fact that they’re not afraid of experimenting with new recipes, and I love the fact that they're making their brews taste like real beer. Not all of them are equally good, and eventually the lesser ones will disappear, but as long as the good ones keep supplying my fridge and the bars I go to when I travel, I don't mind. So let's all adopt the following new year's resolution in time for the Chinese New Year: next time you're in a fancy restaurant or bar and have the choice of a hundred fantastic wines and one crappy beer, demand justice and a microbrew. On this challenging note I shall say farewell and wish you all a very beery 2014. Sjabbeduings!