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!


Drinking beer so that you don't have to!

Beck’s is Germany’s best-known international beer brand with availability in more than 90 countries. It has for a number of years been owned by the biggest brewing behemoth on the planet, namely AB InBev, a company that brews more than 45 billion litres of beer per year (almost 7 litres per living human being), has a turnover in excess of US$47 billion (about the same as the gross domestic product of Lithuania), and generates more than US$15 billion in profit for its shareholders. Not surprisingly, the company has a reputation for bland beers, cost cutting, buying and shutting breweries and other such shameful shenanigans. Therefore, many beer lovers (myself included) try to avoid their products, preferring to spend our hard-earned money supporting brewers that care more about taste and quality. However, as I was browsing the beer shelves in my local supermarket the other day, I failed to avoid noticing that Beck’s have jumped on the Craft Beer Bandwagon (CBB), launching three new beers on the market: an amber lager, a pale ale and a “traditional” pilsner (called “1873 pils” in reference to the year that Beck’s was originally founded), and providing the consumers with a very handy 3-pack containing one of each, making the purchase process very smooth indeed.

Needless to say, I saw it as my sacred duty to you, the faithful readers of this blog, to purchase one bottle of each of these and conduct a tasting session, to save you from having to go through this potentially costly and painful experience yourselves – and so it came to pass that last night a few weeks ago, I opened said three bottles and poured them into a glass with a minimum of pomp but an appropriate amount of circumstance. The first one out was the 1873 Pils, and it poured nicely – as you would expect, it left the bottle willingly once I had remembered to remove the bottle top and tilted the bottle the required amount, and since I had cunningly positioned the glass underneath, nothing was spilled. There was some head, which is always nice, though this disappeared disappointingly quickly, which on the positive side gave me a golden excuse to drink the beer faster. On the nose, the beer felt wet and a little bit fizzy, but once it found its way down my gullet it revealed a fair amount of taste. Where most German pilsners from the north are quite dry and hoppy, this one was malty and had a touch of sweetness. Certainly not unpleasant, but not something to write a poem about either, except possibly a mediocre limerick.

It's pils as it was back in 1873, apparently.
Next up was the Amber Lager. Some of my favourite lagers are amber and some of my favourite ambers are lagers, so I had high hopes that this would be one that would make its forefathers in Vienna proud. Unfortunately, it was on the bland side. Not unpleasant, just lacking something – a bit like a bee happily buzzing around pollenating some fairly attractive flowers, but knowing in its tiny little heart that if it had only found an extra “r” it could be a beer instead.

Don't underestimate the power of the amber side.
Finally, there was the Pale Ale. This had more hops and certainly a more flowery sort of taste, though this was also miles away from some of the finer interpretations of the style both in terms of the overall attack on the taste buds as well as the subtler aspects. However, credit should be given for a decent effort – it was quite drinkable, and I finished the whole bottle without having to force anything down. I could go on about notes of freshly mown grass and lightly used badminton rackets, but for some reason such descriptions never enter my head whilst drinking, only when I sit down afterwards to write about a taste I have long since forgotten… so I won’t.

It's pale and presumably ale, but is it pale ale?
In confusion, this was an eminently forgettable, but nevertheless not unpleasant drinking session. My prediction is that these beers will disappear from the market as suddenly as they appeared, and looking at their web site just now this is exactly what seems to have happened – the focus is back on the standard pils and the crazy mixtures they concoct up there in Bremen, like beer mixed with lemon, lime and other citrus fruits that really should go nowhere near a decent brewery’s drink portfolio. Never mind – Beck’s marketing department probably has an idea or two on how to continue to contribute healthily to AB InBev’s profits, and they don’t need my help, even though I’d be happy to provide expert advice for a very reasonable 10% cut. Meanwhile, I shall shift my attention to other parts of Europe – I have travelled a bit lately, which has enabled me to expand my beery horizons even further. In other words – stay tuned. As they say in Thailand despite the fact that I haven't been there for 20 years: Chok dee!


The other Switzerland

If you’re a seasoned traveller in Europe, you probably have a fair idea where both France and Switzerland are situated on the map, and you may even know that these two countries in German are known as “Frankreich” and “Schweiz”. What may come as a surprise to you, though, is that a large section of what is technically Bavaria doesn’t like to call itself Bavarian at all – rather, the proud inhabitants call this region “Franken”, in English referred to as “Franconia”, and a sub-section of this even calls itself “Switzerland” – or “Fränkische Schweiz” in the native tongue. Sounds complicated? Well, at least there’s a pretty solid reason for you to find this place on the map and book your next holiday immediately because this, ladies and gentlemen, is the region with the highest density of breweries in the world. Furthermore, these are not just any breweries, these are old, family-owned small breweries that soldier on in tiny villages, serving the local population and a handful of tourists with some of the best beers known to mankind.

The natural focal point for beer lovers in Franconia is, of course, the city of Bamberg. This city is so charming and pretty that every other city in Europe effectively ends up looking like a rubbish tip in comparison. It also has a crapload of breweries and it is the spiritual home of the “rauchbier”, or smoked beer in English, a beer style that for beginners may come as a shock since it tastes suspiciously like bacon, but for those who like this sort of thing is just about reason enough to move there. However, Bamberg has become rather touristy of late, so if you want to head off the beaten path you should rent a beer-friendly vehicle like a bike or a toy tractor and head off eastwards towards Switzerland (as it were).

When you arrive there, it’ll be immediately unclear why it’s called Switzerland since it looks nothing like its bigger (and much more expensive) sister country to the south. There are a few hills and some rocks sticking up, but no banks, no holey cheese, no yodelling and not a single referendum in sight. However, unlike the other one, you’re not unlikely to accidentally crash your bike or tractor into a brewery, because there are several of these on every street corner. Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration, but there are literally a couple of hundred dotted around an area not much bigger than a relatively small section of Belgium.

Once you’re there, one great way to explore the region is to park your bike or tractor and proceed on foot. There are several beer trails of varying lengths that coincidentally lead you past a brewery every kilometre or five, where you can stop for suitable refreshment. One of these is simply called the “Brauereiweg”, or “Brewery Way”, a very simple and ingenious name for a 13km long countryside walk that crashes into four very nice little breweries along the way. The great thing about the walk is that you can sober up a little bit between breweries, the great thing about the beer is that it makes the walk so much more fun, causing people to break into song, cow-tipping and other shenanigans along the way.
The Kathi-Bräu in Franconian Switzerland

Then there’s the beer. Oh, the beer. My talent for waxing lyrical falls light years short of the kind of celestial celebration I would like to write in its honour, but I will attempt it nevertheless. Picture Bach, Beethoven and Mozart getting together for a little jam session where they would combine their talents to compose the greatest symphony ever written, and picture listening to this in the most beautiful place you can imagine, such as a particularly nice pub. That would perhaps come close to the sensory experience of taking a sip of one of the beers that these breweries make. OK, perhaps this was slightly exaggerated and somewhat influenced by the sensory enhancing effects of the beers themselves, but you get my point. There aren’t many places in this world where you can drink better stuff, and you can perhaps even remove the “m” in “many”, though I have not been everywhere yet so I can’t be sure.

Another brewery, another beer.
For those of you who may wonder what the beers are like from a more down-to-earth point of view, I also have some information. First, there’s no Pilsner and second, the lightest beer colour you’re likely to see is amber. Most of the breweries brew only one or perhaps two beers, and the main one will be the style known as “Landbier” or “Vollbier”. These are malty, yet very well balanced brews that are full-bodied without being sweet, refreshing without being tart, and served cold without being frosty. Make sure that you order the brewery’s own beer on tap (“vom Fass”) – they may also stock some bottles from well-known national brands just to cater for those who think McDonald’s is a restaurant.

As if by magic, we came across yet another brewery.

As mentioned, there are many brewery walks in this region, and it is possible to do circular, triangular, square, straight and gay walks spanning anything from a couple of hours to several days. Some breweries even offer comfortable lodging, and if you can distract yourself long enough from the singing and cow-tipping whilst walking, you may also appreciate the scenery which is pleasantly rural with rolling hills, river valleys and occasional rocky parts where you may decide to climb up, fall down and kill yourself unless you bring a rope, in which case the rope may save your wife. Enough rambling (no pun unintended), the conclusion is simple: this is a great region for beer lovers, and you should make a pilgrimage at least once (a year). Explore Bamberg first, then rent the aforementioned bike or tractor and head towards Switzerland, do a few walks, drink some great beers, meet some new friends, say goodbye, meet the same new friends at the next brewery, and so on. You can’t go wrong, there are signs everywhere and it’s really confusing. As they say in Mongolia: Tulatsgaaya!!


New year – more beer!

January’s one of those months that seem to just zoom by in some kind of a blur. It always tends to start off on a great note – together with old friends for a great party, good food and beer, and a superb atmosphere as the clock strikes midnight. Unfortunately, the rest of January usually doesn’t follow up in the same vein, so the fact that we’re already in February is quite OK – the days are getting longer and what the Germans call the 5th season – carnival time – is just around the corner. Loads of opportunities to drink good beer, in other words.

The reason I sit down here feeling inspired to write a blog entry is something that did happen in January, though: together with a couple of old friends from university, I went skiing in the Austrian Alps. This was very nice in its own right, but these great chaps had also thought further ahead and bought a few great beers from the duty free store as a gift for yours truly. And therefore, since the beer blogger always tries to acknowledge free beer by posting some ramblings on the internet about it, I will acknowledge the generosity of my friends by posting some ramblings on the internet about it.

One of the first and also most successful micro-breweries in Norway is called “Nøgne Ø”. You may think that this name has a lot of zeroes or other strange characters in it, but the letter “ø” is actually the 28th one in the Norwegian alphabet. It’s quite simple: you take an “o” and you slash through it, and you get something that’s pronounced more or less the same as the vowel in “turd”. The brewery’s name translates simply as “naked island”, presumably a nudist's paradise, and their slogan is “the brewery that does not compromise”, presumably by refusing to wear clothes even in winter. These days their "no compromise" attitude rings a little bit hollow since they allowed themselves to be bought out by a big brewery multinational, but their beers are still very drinkable even though the brewery is situated in a place called “Grimstad” which means simply “ugly town” in Norwegian - a corresponding name in the English-speaking world may be "Shitville" or "Crapton". They don’t lie when they say that Norwegians tend to get straight to the point.

Once you go black....
Today’s beer was the “Imperial Stout”. Imperial, no less! Defined by the internet as “relating to an empire” – I guess only “global”, “solar systemal”, “milky wayal” and “universal” would trump that. It is also interesting since Norway is one of the few countries that have never been part of an empire, even though the empire did strike back in Norway when they filmed it up in the freezing mountains back in 1980. This beer is black. In fact, it’s so black that it seems that it sucks the light out of the room, like a black hole. It’s also very thick – like crude oil with a head, only much more expensive and, hopefully, better tasting. And tasty it was – a full frontal assault on the taste buds, delivering massive amounts of firepower to make you instantly forget whatever else you had been tasting that day. In fact, it’s got notes of every single taste you’ve ever come across except apricots and aardvark droppings, so even though the beer was great there’s clearly room for improvement. I hereby confidently predict that they will release a “Universal Stout” later this year that will have notes of every single taste known to man and/or woman (and/or his/her dog).

So, what else is going on? Germans have a great way of saying this: “was ist los?” Which just goes to show that not all German words have 17 or more letters in them, unlike “Dampfbierbrauerei” which is a great little brewery in Oberstdorf, way down south in the Bavarian Alps. We went there to do some skiing, but since it got dark conveniently early we also managed to fit in a couple of hours in this fantastic place where you can sit at the bar and look at the staff dispensing huge amounts of beer that has been brewed in the kettle situated just behind the bar. The brewery is right next to the train station, so if you’re somewhere in Europe you can always think of these great beers as just a train ride away.

Well, the effects of the Imperial Stout are slowly wearing off, so inspiration is turning to tiredness, which means that I better wrap this post up before I start yakking on about things that nobody really cares about, like trees. Don’t get me wrong, I love trees, especially oak, which is one of the most suitable trees for making oak barrels in which you can mature beer. But you see my point, this is a beer blog and not a tree blog, so I’ll try to stick to that. Finally, I wish you all a great beery 2015, or at least what’s left of it. As they say in large parts of East Africa: Maisha marefu!