C'est la bière

Paris is the city of love, allegedly. It is also a city of culture, fine wining and dining, history and the Metro. What Paris is definitely not known for is beer, and for this reason (as well as some minor other ones) I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the French capital. It’s definitely an interesting and, at times, a great city to explore, but I’ve also had bad experiences with insane traffic, rude people, dog turds on almost every pavement, and last, but for me definitely not least, expensive and bad beer.

My birthday gift to my lovely wife last year was a pair of tickets to a concert with the acapella group King’s Singers, who happened to be singing at a festival on the outskirts of Paris. One thing the French do better than most is trains, and they’ve been considerate enough to build an insanely fast high-speed line between Strasbourg and Paris, which makes it possible for us to travel from our home in the south of Germany to Paris in just over five hours – and so it came to pass that we headed off towards Paris on Armistice Day 2016. Naturally, my secret plan was to do some beer drinking when there was nothing else to do, which luckily was most of the time.

France’s history as a beer drinking nation is almost laughably pathetic. There are essentially two regions of this rather big country that can claim any historical beer culture at all, and both just because the beer culture of the neighbouring country accidentally or through repeated invasions spilled across the border. The north-east region, known as Flanders in English, has a solid tradition for the Saison beer, a style similar to one of the many found in neighbouring Belgium, whereas the historically contested area around Strasbourg in Alsace, which has changed hands between France and Germany more times than anyone cares to remember, unsurprisingly has a beer culture inspired by the latter. The most visible and well-known remnant of this is the enormous global beer brand Kronenbourg.

Paris, on the other hand, has nothing. If you feel like a beer in Paris, you will most likely be offered a choice of Kronenbourg on tap or some Belgian beer from the bottle – and you’ll be required to pay the best part of 10 euros, a price that only Oslo, as far as I know, comfortably beats. Either way, it’s a disaster, and since you’re likely to choke on traffic fumes, be spat at by rude waiting staff, have your wallet pickpocketed and repeatedly step in dog shit, you’d be well advised to go nowhere near this god-awful city.

Pondering the next blog post...

At least, this is what I feared. I am happy to report that things have taken a massive turn for the better in the world’s favourite French capital. First and foremost, someone has cleaned the pavements – there was hardly any turds to be seen, so instead of constantly checking where you put your shoes, you can instead look out for crazy motorists and try not to get run over. Except that even these were not as bad as they used to be – Paris now has cycle lanes everywhere, and a few roads, including a scenic one along the Seine, have been pedestrianised! Whatever next – perhaps there’s even good beer to be had?

The selection from the Guette d'Or microbrewery.

A quick bit of googling revealed three promising locations – a microbrewery called Guette d’Or and a bar called Super Coin, both not far from Gare de L’Est, as well as “Academie de Biere” or something like that a bit further away. Since the bar did not open until 5pm, we headed for the micro first, and what a wise move that turned out to be. We rolled in around 4pm to find a guy basically serving up free samples to anyone who was vaguely interested, including an older couple from Portland, Oregon – home to the greatest concentration of microbreweries in the USA (or so they claimed), so I was curious to know why they even bothered leaving home, never mind travelling halfway across the world to the beer desert that is Paris. The beers on offer were good – fairly typical for a microbrewery, with the mandatory IPA as well as a Red Ale, a Saison, and an interesting one brewed with chai that tasted a bit like old shoes in the positive sense (i.e. ones that had never stepped on a turd).

Super Coin taps.

After the tasting session, we were in the mood for somewhere warmer and cosier, and the Super Coin bar could not have been a better choice. There were three beers on tap – a Czech pilsner and two ales from France, including one that was surprisingly tart. The real treasure was the bottle collection, though – including a few red ales from local and not-so-local microbreweries at very sensible prices by Paris standards. The bar, empty when we arrived, filled up rapidly with happy Parisians clearly enjoying the opportunity to drink some good ales instead of having to force down another glass of crappy red wine. Sadly, their food selection was much more limited, so it was with heavy hearts that we had to bid adieu to this great place after a couple of hours in order to locate some food. The food selection in Paris is, of course, legendary – but do take care not to be dragged into tourist traps by sleazy men trying to cajole you into their dodgy restaurants where you’ll inevitably end up paying an arm and a leg for pretty sub-standard food. We found a great Moroccan place, always a good choice in France – and could confirm that though the food was excellent and the wine list extensive, the beer choice was either “crappy” or “none”.

Beer drinking in Paris can be a nice experience if you know where to go!
In conclusion, Paris took a big step up the list of my favourite cities starting with the letter P after this visit. It will never be a beer lover’s paradise (unlike several other cities starting with the letter P), but in some ways the treasure hunt is even more rewarding when the gems are hard to find, so in that sense I enjoyed the beer scene very much. I probably won’t be heading back there for some time, but once I do, I shall look forward to finding even more little gems hidden in obscure alleys. For those of you who plan to go there before me, I hope that this post has inspired you to go a bit out of your way when you search for good beer, and thereby increase demand – paving the way for even more little adventurous breweries and beer bars to try their luck in this winey city. C’est bien – bon voyage, et santé!


Happy birthday eh!

Canada’s national day is July 1st every year. This day is known across the world as Canada Day, which I have persistently campaigned to be shortened to “Canaday”, though this has yet to catch on. The day commemorates the joining of the colonies Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec to form a “kingdom in its own right” within the British Empire known as the Dominion of Canada. This momentous event took place in 1867 – exactly 150 years ago today! If this isn’t worth celebrating, nothing is.

Canada is a huge country even if it’s not that old by global standards. Somehow those pesky Canadians, most of whom are of European descent, managed to grab, discover, buy or steal enough land to make it the second biggest country on Earth, only surpassed by Russia. If you were to fly from its eastern to its western edge, say from St. John’s in Newfoundland (airport code: YYT) to Victoria in British Columbia (airport code: YYJ), the distance would be just over 5000km. However, Canada’s population is relatively small – only about 35 million people call this massive chunk of land (and ice) home – which means that, in theory, each person has about 350,000 square metres (that’s 86 acres) for him or herself – yet almost 90% of the population lives within 100 miles of the US border, presumably because the rest of the country is pretty much uninhabitable due to cold, black flies or both.

The Yellow Belly Brewery in St. John's - worth a visit!
OK, that’s enough facts about Canada. This isn’t a history lesson, this is a blog about beer. What, then, could I write about to celebrate Canada’s birthday yet stay on topic? Well, one particular subject springs readily to mind: Canadian beer! I bet you didn’t see that one coming! I have written about Canada, beer and Canadian beer several times already in this blog, so in order to avoid repeating myself, I shall not read my previous posts to avoid repeating myself. This makes perfect sense, since nobody likes reading my blog posts when I repeat myself.

Beer was introduced to Canada by European settlers, the most famous being John Molson, who founded a brewery in Montreal in 1786. Others followed suit, including Alexander Keith and John Labatt – names that sound oddly familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to purchase beer in Canada. In fact, by the 1970s, the brewing industry was almost exclusively dominated by Molson and Labatt, both brewing the same tasteless industrial lager that we nowadays love to hate. Luckily, things began to change in the 80s and 90s when craft breweries started appearing, so if you wish to raise a glass of Canadian amber liquid to celebrate today’s anniversary, you have the choice of more than 500 breweries – most of which are small craft breweries that produce very tasty beer indeed.

Visiting one of the 500-odd breweries in Canada.
Sadly, I have yet to visit all 500 or so breweries, though I have had the pleasure of sampling quite a few on the Niagara peninsula, the area where my lovely wife was born and raised – to be precise, in Niagara Falls, which is both a well-known beautiful waterfall and a town that caters mainly to honeymooners who seem to think that watching billions of litres of water crashing down in a ravine whilst being surrounded by casinos, chain hotels and tacky museums is the perfect setting for consummating their marriage. Personally, I got married a few miles to the north, in Niagara-on-the-Lake – and, luckily, so did my wife. This town is the exact opposite of Niagara Falls – quaint, quiet and quaffing – the latter due to the presence of no less than three craft breweries, the best of which is simply called Oast House Brewers. I’ve been there twice now, the last time on a scorching hot summer’s day when I sat outside and found it very hard to stop having another one, something I sadly had to do if I was going to be able to cycle home without ending up in the river. Their beer range is extensive, so I’m just going to say that this place is well worth travelling a few thousand miles for – and you could always combine it with a pleasant stroll through downtown where you’ll find a very nice pub called The Olde Angel Inn.

Happy blogger!

I’m now sat at home in Germany. Since it’s more than a year since I last visited Canada, I’m starting to miss the place. My wife’s favourite sister recently went on a holiday with her husband to the Maritime Provinces – New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. They sent us no less than four (4) postcards, only one of which mentioned anything other than beer (not quite sure why). It sounded like a fantastic trip. The agenda was simple, yet exceedingly clever: travel for a bit, find a craft brewery, order the sampler (anything between 4 and 12 small glasses containing the different beers and ales on offer), go to the next one, locate another one, pitch the tent within stumbling distance of the final one of the day…. and repeat this for two weeks. Do throw in a walk or two in some national park or other to build up thirst, though.

Celebrating Canada Day in Germany.
Anyway, time to start wrapping up here. Since it’s not just July 1st, but also Saturday, I’ve just cracked open a Canadian beer from the Hopcity brewery called “Barking Squirrel”. Suffice to say it’s nutty and delicious, and the fact that this great nation celebrates its 150th anniversary today simply adds to the pleasure of drinking this brew. There is no finer way to celebrate, unless you’re actually in Canada, in which case you can drink beer and watch some fireworks. On that note, I hope you will all raise a glass to this country, also known as The Great White North, Canuckia, Lumberjack Land and The Sensible Part (of America). Inuuhiqatsiaq!


Land of Hops and Barley

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

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

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

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

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

Classic English Pub

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

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