Category Archives: Travels with beer

Světlý ležák

We spent a few days in Prague earlier this month – I was there for work and my wife was tagging along. Never having been to Prague – or anywhere else east of Berlin – I asked around on Twitter, then took the plunge and shelled out for a copy of Max‘s book on the subject. Which, if I’m honest, I found first overwhelming and then frustrating – so many bars were described in glowing terms, and I had so little time! To make matters worse, Max doesn’t rate pubs on standard tourist guidebook criteria, but only on whether they’re nice places to sit and have a pint of something decent and maybe something to eat – and OK, fine, that’s how I rate pubs myself, but how was I ever going to find the Top Five Utterly Unmissable Pubs Of Prague that way? Max doesn’t even go into much detail about the beer – some breweries are better than others, but at the end of the day it’s just this pale lager (světlý ležák), only apparently it’s really satisfying in some way… Baffling. Feeling rather stymied by the whole thing, I set up a Google Map with a semi-arbitrary top 28 pubs (and getting it down to 28 was quite hard enough), and trusted I’d be able to work out an itinerary or two on a quiet evening.

Then life intervened; running downstairs to check something on the morning of my departure, I slipped and fell hard on my back. No real damage was done – I can still feel all my toes – but it was not at all comfortable, then or afterwards; two weeks on, it’s subsided to the level of a permanent nagging backache. Adrenalin got me through the journey to Prague; once there, though, anything more than a half-mile walk was rather challenging. My view of Prague was perhaps slightly jaundiced as a result – although when it was good, it was very good.

On our first night we ate at a restaurant called Poja, which was quite near our flat in Žižkov and served beer from the Ježek brewery. The brewery’s name means ‘hedgehog’; there’s a picture of a hedgehog on their logo, with a slogan that seems to translate as ‘beer with spines’ (it probably works better in Czech). And it’s true, the beer wasn’t quite as smooth as I was expecting; a distinct aroma-hop spikiness came through, not entirely in a good way. I ordered what was described as a potato pancake (bramborak) stuffed with meat, reasoning that I’d get a crepe made with potato flour or something. I thought it couldn’t possibly be what I understood by a potato pancake – i.e. a Kartoffelpuffer or latke, grated potato bound with egg and fried; I mean, you can’t make one of those big enough to roll up and stuff with meat, can you? It turns out that you can in fact make Kartoffelpüffer the size of a dinner plate – and they do. It was very nice but a bit overwhelming, what with the assorted meat filling and the mound of grated cheese on top; after that meal I don’t think I felt hungry again until we were back in Manchester.

Lunch on the second day was at a pub about three-quarters of a mile from my work venue, which I realised halfway was a bit of a long haul in my condition at the time. Specifically, I went to U Sadu, where I had halves (well, 300 mls) of (their own) Sádek 11° and a Klášter 12°. (For an approximate ° Plato to a.b.v. conversion, divide by two and then subtract one – so roughly 4.5% and 5% respectively.) Both were good, but the (unfiltered) Sádek… perhaps I was thirsty, but the only way I can describe it is to say that it drank itself. I sat down, I looked at the food menu, I looked at my glass – 2/3 empty. Philip Larkin wrote a poem about the difficulty of getting enough to drink at receptions; it begins

I never remember holding a full glass
My first glance shows the level halfway down

That was me and Sádek – and it wasn’t the last beer in Prague to have that effect.

As for food, still being half-full from the night before I scoured the menu for something light and came up with “Švejk toast” – toast with egg and bacon. (The waiter was quite disappointed – “Is that all?”) Švejk toast turned out to mean two slices of rye bread, fried till crisp (possibly deep fried), then spread with mustard and topped with two fried eggs and a couple of rashers of bacon (all fried together), which in turn were hidden beneath a pile of chopped tomato, onion and pickled cucumber. Basic, maybe; light, no.

We just had a sandwich that evening.

The next day, still feeling of rather limited mobility, I had lunch at U Jary – which wasn’t on my list but was basically the closest pub I could find that I hadn’t been to. On finding it I was pleasantly surprised to see a sign advertising Pardubičky Porter (I’d been meaning to try a dark beer), then pleasantly startled to realise that I was at the bottom of the street with our flat on it. (Not that it was any use to me – my wife was out sightseeing, with the only key.) But what was the beer like? Most beers at U Jary are from Pernštejn (of Pardubice); I had a 12° světlý ležák called Premium, described on the menu as bitter (hořký), followed by a 13° amber beer called Granát. I chose this after chickening out of the porter on realising that it was 19°, which is to say 8%; some over-hasty mental maths convinced me that this would be like having five halves instead of two. (It’s strong, but it’s not that strong.)

Anyway, both the beers I did have were beautiful – and went well with the pork in paprika sauce from the à la carte menu (which cost less than the previous day’s Švejk toast) – but the Premium stands out; it positively threw itself down my throat. The Granat was, perhaps, more subtle and interesting – it was certainly more complex – but the relative cleanness and simplicity of the Premium somehow elevated it to another level. Back at the flat at the end of the day, I checked Max’s guide and discovered that he rates U Jary very highly. I don’t know why it wasn’t on my shortlist; I’m just glad I found my way there. (And embarrassed at how little Czech I know – going in completely cold, I found it wasn’t the nouns and adjectives I really missed so much as words like “and” and “the”. Still, I did manage to order two beers and a pork (vepřové) dish, without being asked to repeat everything in English, so I’m pleased about that. (I didn’t go near that ř sound – just treated it like a ž.))

That evening we went to another nearby restaurant, U Slovanske Lipy, where I had what would have been my second choice at Poja – roast duck, red cabbage and dumplings. The dumplings were bread-based and not particularly enticing, and the duck was well done going on charred; the meat tasted lovely, though, and it went really well with the red cabbage. But what about the beer? Half a litre of a 12° from Vedova did the now-familiar disappearing act; I remember saying to my wife that it was a bit like drinking water when you were thirsty, only more so. I followed it with a dark beer from Šnajdr, a pleasant light stout which gave me an instant earworm.

The next day we were leaving, but before we went we hit the Old Town. Now, I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Florence, I’ve even been to London, but nowhere have I ever seen such a concentration of tourists, over such a wide area. The entire pedestrianised area of the Old Town seemed to be entirely given over to tourists, who were out in force. To say that local businesses had adapted to these conditions would be an understatement; wherever you looked there were sweetshops, coffee shops, ice-cream shops and souvenir shops, and very little else. Prague is a cheap city if you’re coming from the West – presumably for historical reasons – but prices in the Old Town have adjusted to the influx of tourist euro, dollars and pounds. Whatever a beer, a coffee, an ice-cream cost in Žižkov, you could guarantee that in the Old Town it would be twice that, while still seeming reasonable relative to prices ‘back home’. (Two pounds for an espresso instead of one? Can’t complain really, can you?)

The architecture is beautiful and historic, but the lack of anything resembling real life, the relentless price-gouging and – most of all – the sheer number of people got to me after a while. The nadir for me was the Charles Bridge, which we crossed in what might as well have been a ten-wide marching column. Once over the river and into Mala Strana, we stopped for a drink at a bar specialising in beers from the Clock brewery; I had the desítka Hektor. Not far beyond that, the pedestrian zone ended and my spirits lifted – not that I’m a fan of cars and trams, particularly, but it was nice to see that the architecture and the history could coexist with ordinary Czechs going about their business.

We crossed back over the river by the Legions’ Bridge and had our final Prague meal at a Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant. Just as I had at U Sadu, we both found ourselves combing the menu for something smaller than a full meal. In what was basically a ‘bar snacks’ section (“Between Beers”) we discovered the makings of an ample, indeed fairly hearty, lunch: pork sausages baked in a tomato and paprika sauce for me, pickled pork sausages (utopenci) for her and a bowl of fries between us. (How do Czechs manage it? Nobody we saw seemed particularly fat.) And the beer? The beer was divine; all the cleanness and uncomplicated drink-me goodness of the best beers I’d had, plus a hit of herbal bitterness in the aftertaste; I’m not saying it was the best beer I had in Prague, but it was certainly in a four-way tie for first.

So that was Prague. If I’d been more mobile I might have done more than scratch the surface. Perhaps some time I’ll go back and do it properly, although I’m not sure what I’ll do between beers – the thought of sight-seeing in Prague doesn’t make my heart beat faster, except perhaps with panic.

Postscript: a brewery recommended by Max, whose beers I regretted not trying, was Svijany; I regretted it all the more because there was a bar serving them right across the street from our flat, and normally it would have been the easiest thing in the world to wander across for a 13° nightcap. At the airport we were doing the usual thing of using up our coins in the shops, when I spotted some cans with the Svijany logo. I bought one – it was only about 50% more expensive than it would have been in a bar – and brought it home in my hand luggage. A few nights later I opened it. The first impression was both sweet and sharp, but this settled down into something more familiar and clean-tasting; a really nice beer, even out of a can. Max was right: světlý ležák is a plain, simple, straightforward style, so much so that it’s hard to say what’s good about it – but a decent světlý ležák is a really good beer.

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Brighton by the pint

I was in Brighton for three days last week. My parents lived there for the last twenty-odd years of their lives, so I knew the city quite well for a while, and still know my way around without needing to think about it. Naturally, I planned to spend my free time (a) walking along the seafront (b) walking around town and (c) drinking beer, particularly beer I couldn’t get at home and particularly particularly Harvey’s Sussex Best. The last time I spent any time in Brighton was before the ‘craft’ thing got started – before this blog got started, come to that – but I had some distinct beer memories. There was the range of interesting stuff they used to have (on draught) at the Quadrant and (in bottle) at an offie further up Queens Road; there were the Dark Star beers up at the Evening Star, near the station. Above all, there was the Harvey’s Sussex Best and all the unassuming little pubs that served it – there seemed to be one round every street corner. Walking, drinking, more walking, more drinking, that was the plan for my leisure hours – and heavy on the Harvey’s Sussex Best.

Well, you know about best-laid plans. The first thing I realised when I arrived in Brighton was that the new shoes I was wearing – perfectly comfortable up to then – had given me blisters on both ankles, making the prospect of walking anywhere a lot less attractive. The next thing was that some of my beer memories badly needed updating. The offie with the interesting beer? Gone (or possibly converted to an offie without interesting beer, it’s hard to be sure.) An interesting range of beers at the Quad? Not so as you’d notice. As for all those unassuming little pubs serving Harvey’s, I scoured the centre of town looking for them, as far as my ankles would permit; eventually I gave up and downloaded the brewery’s pub-finder app (which I recommend if you’re ever down there). Some of the specific pubs I remembered weren’t there any more; one had closed, but two had turned into something… different. You’ll look in vain for the Princess Victoria on North Road: it’s the Craft Beer Co now (with, to be fair, some very reasonable prices on cask beers, a phrase which here means ‘under £4’). As for the Prince Arthur, that’s now the… brace yourself… Brighton Beer Dispensary. I only stuck my head in there briefly, so my fleeting impression of the BBD – which involved Edison lightbulbs, furniture made from railway sleepers and £5 portions of chips – may have been misleading. I didn’t fancy stopping, I’ll say that. (The Arthur was a lovely little pub, too. O tempura, O morays.)

Mmm, murk…

My visit to the Arthur-as-was was on my first evening in Brighton, spent mainly wandering around the centre disconsolately, looking for something to drink that was (a) decent and (b) local. After I’d done this for a while I realised it was 9.00 and went for a meal. So it was that my first beer in Brighton was a bottle of Chang lager, which was pretty awful (the mussaman curry was excellent, though). But I went for a drink afterwards in the Spoons by where I was staying, where I had a pint of (Sussex-based) Firebird Parody IPA. It was seriously cloudy – not something you often see in a Spoons – and my first impression was that it was just plain off. The sharpness I tasted at first modulated into an apple-y fruitiness, which wasn’t at all unpleasant; I guess you’d call it juicy. On the other hand, none of the pictures of this beer on Untappd show any haze – let alone the floc party that was going on in my glass – so maybe it was just a badly-kept pint. I’d already taken against that Spoons after I ordered something different (something else from Firebird) only to be told, with a wave at a whole bank of pumps, “all of these are off”. I told the guy that if that was the case he should turn the clips round, but apparently that would be too much trouble. (Also, their wifi was off every time I went in there. Decent breakfasts, though.)

The next day, on a lunchtime trip to the Dorset in the North Laines, I was finally reunited with Harvey’s Sussex Best. If I say that my first impressions were ‘sweet and heavy’, that will probably give you completely the wrong idea. There is a lot of malt there, in the old-school heavy mouth-filling style, but this isn’t a sweet or heavy beer; it’s not hard to drink and it’s certainly not bland. There’s a tannic bitterness running right through it, building to a really clean, refreshing finish – like every good session beer, it’s decidedly moreish. Nice to see you again, HSB.

My next beer, though, was another meal accompaniment, and a bit of a bad choice on my part. Manju’s is a rather fine Gujarati vegetarian restaurant, with – unusually – a fairly extensive beer list; I was tempted by the beers from Hepworth’s, a local brewery specialising in gluten-free beers (for what that’s worth). Greed got the better of me, though; I noticed that the standard Indian lagers were priced up at £2.50, and that the table next to mine had a 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher. Bargain, I thought, and duly ordered a bottle of Kingfisher. “Small or large bottle?” asked the waiter; yes, the £2.50 price was for the 330 ml bottle. I was too British to backpedal and order something else, so 650 ml of Kingfisher – which turned out to be £4.50 – it was. Still, the food was excellent. Afterwards I made my way to the nearest Harvey’s pub – the Lord Nelson, a spit from the station and a fair old hike from the seafront (as my ankles reminded me). I had a pint of Sussex Best and one of Harvey’s Armada; not a hop bomb by any means, but a bit lighter and more aromatic than the Sussex Best. Harvey’s brew an extraordinary range of beers, mostly for bottling, and the bar had rows of 275 ml bottles on display (not in the fridge, as far as I could see). I bought a bottle of the Elizabethan Ale; I was initially intending to drink it there, but the place was empty and the landlady clearly wanted to call it a night, so I took it away with me.

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Ironically, a sure sign of what it isn’t

The next evening I went, again, in search of unassuming, ordinary pubs in the centre. I fetched up in a tarted-up Nicholson’s gastro-pub with bulls-eye glass in the windows; really not quite what I had in mind. (Not the one with the sign pictured here, though – I have got some standards.) Anyway, they had Dark Star Hophead on, and it was very welcome. It was about as different from the Harvey’s beers as it could be – pale yellow, with a loose, soapy head, and hoppy; really very hoppy. Then I headed stationwards again, to check out the Evening Star. Dark Star Six Hop was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment – it’s 6.5% and tastes like it, in the sense that it tastes like they were trying to make Hophead (a) even hoppier and (b) nearly twice as strong. Effortful, really, which is rarely a good look. (What with Hophead, Magic Rock Ringmaster and Marble Pint, I’m starting to think that 3.8% is actually the sweet spot for pale’n’oppy beers.) On keg they had – among much else – Mad Hatter Tzatziki Sour and Lost and Grounded Apophenia. I can report that the Tzatziki Sour actually does taste of cucumber, and that L&G may not be quite there yet on the tripel front, that being what Apophenia is: there was an initial sweet heaviness, that didn’t dissipate but combined with the herbal notes that come in later, to produce a kind of beer equivalent of winter mixture. I had a third, and it took a while to get through.

After this slightly disappointing session I looked for something to eat, although – being, on a rough count, four pints down – I was seriously considering having a soft drink with it. Nu Posto, a vaguely crafty pizza place, surprised me with another interesting beer list, including a couple from Hepworth’s. I went for a bottle of their Gold pale ale, which frankly tasted of very little – as golden ales go it was less Summer Lightning, more Rolling Rock – but did have an extraordinary aroma. I’ve never known a beer like it – I put my nose over the bottle and I was getting freshly-baked bread, cut with something sharp and herbal, perhaps sage or thyme. Then I actually tasted it and it was… fine. (And no, it wasn’t the garlic bread I could smell.) Back in my room, it was getting late, I was already pretty drunk and I didn’t really have anything to stay up for, but what can I say, the Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale was calling to me. It’s a big, dark, strong, sweet beer, tasting exactly like I’d expect an old-fashioned beer to taste. Very nice indeed, and easily my beer of the evening.

At close of play the next day I was heading home, but before I trudged up the hill to the station – again – I wanted to have at least one drink in a nice, ordinary pub that I remembered from my previous trips to Brighton. Eventually I managed to locate the Lion and Lobster in Hove – probably not a very long-established pub (or not under that name), but old enough for me. And they had… Dark Star Hophead! Harvey’s Sussex Best (with the old ‘barrel’ pump clip)! Dark Star APA! Old Dairy Blue Top! I was very tempted by… well, everything: the first two for obvious reasons, the third because it’s possibly even hoppier than Hophead and the fourth because it comes from Ed‘s old gaff. But I was still feeling a bit worse for wear from the previous day, and wanted to dial the a.b.v. right down, so Hophead it was: pale yellow, loose, soapy head, hoppy as a very hoppy thing. And that – apart from an Oakham Citra IPA from the M&S at the station – was it for Brighton.

Overall impressions: Brighton’s changed a surprising amount in ten years. Almost everywhere seemed solidly geared to a specific, high-spending clientele: tourists, stags & hens… hipsters. I’m sorry I didn’t go back to the Craft Beer Co – I think I could have had quite a pleasant session there, even if most of the beers were from that London – but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending any time in the Brighton Beer Dispensary; the vibe I picked up wasn’t just hipper-than-thou, it was considerably-more-hip-than-yow. (I may be doing the place a disservice; I was in a foul mood that evening and looking for a very different kind of pub.) Ordinary little pubs round the corner seem to be in very short supply. On the plus side, it’s a lot easier to get decent beer with a meal than it used to be. What’s more, Harvey’s beers are still there if you look, and both HSB and Dark Star Hophead are as good as they ever were. The beer abides.

There’s a B in both

We spent a weekend in Exeter recently. We stayed in a Premier Inn just opposite the main station; handy as far as it goes, although we soon discovered that getting anywhere at all from there (e.g. the city centre or the university) involved climbing a steep hill. Visitors beware!

At the top of that hill, though, you’ll find the Imperial, a huge and rather extraordinary Wetherspoons; you can read about the history of the building here. Rather than pay Premier Inn rates, we had our breakfast there; to be more precise, we took our breakfasts in the Orangery. There, indeed, is posh. We also went there one evening, and it’s actually the beer I had then that I want to write about: an American Pale Ale from Long Man (a Sussex brewery named after the nearby hill figure). What was interesting about this was both what it was and what it wasn’t. For a start, it wasn’t yellow, or even a pale amber; it may have been a ‘pale ale’ in style terms, but it certainly wasn’t an ale that was pale. It wasn’t particularly bitter, and it certainly wasn’t a hop-bomb. With a dense, almost chewy body, it was well adrift of Gazza Prescott’s ‘mid-Atlantic‘ style guidelines (“The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!”). On the other hand, it wasn’t just a brown English bitter with a misleading name: there were (aroma) hops in there, making fruity and herby patterns above the luxuriant ground-level maltiness. I enjoyed it.

The following night we were down on the Exeter waterfront – a hip and happening location which, unless I missed something, offers 3 (three) different places to eat and drink. We ate at the Humbledy Ha Hum… a pub of which I remember very little other than that it had a commendably short food menu and advertised itself as part of the Heaviside layer chain. I do remember the beer, though, which was Otter OPA. As the initialism implies, this was another pale ale; it was also amber rather than gold and light rather than bitter, and it also featured aroma hops doing their thing on a malt crashmat.

Well, that’s the South-West for you, you might say; craft hasn’t really made it that far down the M5, you might say. And I might agree with you, if – returning to Manchester – I hadn’t tried Marble‘s new Tuckerlovsky Session IPA. What’s that I can taste? Fruity aroma hops. What’s that I can’t taste? Marble‘s usual, tonsil-scouring, bitter finish; all very light in that respect. And what else is that I can taste? Yes, it’s malt; it’s a big, malty body, of just the kind I always looked for when I first came up here. (Course, I’ve acquired the taste for the big golden hop-monsters now. Too late now.)

Two’s coincidence, three – in different parts of the country – starts to look like a trend. What’s up, then? Is it something to do with the rumoured hop shortage – are people being forced to ring some changes on styles with a reduced hop bill? Or is brown (but hoppy) bitter coming back into fashion? If so, I promise not to go around saying I was into it before it was cool. (I totally was, though.)

Spontaneous similitude

As a footnote to the previous post, here’s something I noticed about the pricing of cask and keg beers in two bars I’ve visited within the last 48 hours.

The Library in Durham is a nice, laid-back bar, appealing (as far as I can tell) equally to students and locals. They have two beer blackboards, one labelled ‘cask’ and the other ‘craft’. They’re certainly not pitching to the cognoscenti, but it’s interesting that they think it’s worthwhile to offer a range of keg beers that they can call ‘craft’. The keg beers are fairly wide-ranging – I’ve seen Guinness on a ‘craft’ tap before now – but generally include something from BD (5 am Saint today). They also have a cask offering which is generally just on the interesting side of mainstream – Landlord, Bishop’s Finger and Black Sheep today – plus a cider on handpull. (It was a still cider today (rather a nice one from Cornish Orchards); there was a sign on the bar saying that if anyone wanted a head on their cider they’d be happy to knock one up with the steam arm from the coffee machine. We didn’t take them up on the offer.) The food’s good, incidentally – and served on metal trays, which are at least more practical than boards.

The Font in Chorlton – what can I tell you about the Font, other than that we refer to it in our house as TumbleTots? There were, unusually, no families with pre-school children in when I visited last night; I’d say the average age must have been right up in the mid-20s. (Yes, it was a Saturday night, and yes, that was unusual.) Anyway, they have eight cask beers and no fewer than sixteen keg taps; even allowing for a few, mostly rather uninspiring regulars – Flensburger pilsener, a keg cider – that generally makes for an impressive range of ‘craft keg’ options. Plus a 25% CAMRA discount, no less, although obviously this only applies to cask.

What struck me in both places was the pricing, which displayed a definite uniformity. A couple of years ago, there was a period when the Font’s keg board routinely listed prices for halves and even thirds, on the basis that (a) the price for a pint would just be too scary (b) you wouldn’t actually want a pint or (c) both. Cask beers were going for £3.20-£3.80 a pint, but a good half of the keg options were up in the £8-9 region; very nice some of them were too, but the disjuncture was a bit glaring. Then there was a period when the two sets of prices seemed to be converging – if the cheapest ‘craft keg’ option was under £5 and the dearest real ale was £4, surely it couldn’t be long before we were looking at one range of prices rather than two.

Or so I thought – but then they diverged again. With the exception of Magic Rock Cannonball – a fixture alongside Camden Ink – the really spendy big hitters seem to be a thing of the past: I’m no longer getting my late-night half of something silly from the Font. What’s happened now is that the keg beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in one price range, and the cask beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in another. I first took note of this yesterday because the ranges in question are both on the high side: £3.80-£4.90 for cask, £5.60-£7.20 for keg.

Meanwhile back in Durham, the Library has implemented a similar price standardisation policy, also with two price ranges – or rather price points: you could pay £3.35 for a pint of Landlord or Bishop’s Finger or that still cider from Cornwall, or £4.70 for a pint of something ‘craft’. The really daft part of it is that the ‘craft’ range included König Ludwig Weissbier and Grimbergen Blonde – the latter of which (coming in at 6.7%) is surely worth £4.70 of anyone’s money (even at Durham prices). 5 a.m. Saint, maybe not. (It used to be fantastic on cask, though. Trust me on this.)

The point of all this is that, when we talk about beer pricing, we’ve tended to look at it from the point of view of brewers. (For reference, here are the points of view of Cloudwater, HardKnott, Beer Nouveau and Siren.) It’s understandable that we should be sympathetic with brewers’ point of view – by and large, we’d like them to stay in business, after all. But that can easily slip into seeing the world (of beer) in brewer-centric terms, as if the problem of pricing was one that they could solve by gently pushing their trade price up a bit and (in the words of the Siren blog) “educating the market”, building a following of people willing to pay that bit more for beer from Siren (and other comparable breweries).

What both my recent blackboard encounters suggest is that it isn’t going to work like that. Until quite recently you wouldn’t have seen any cask beers at the Font above the £4 mark; those prices have gone up, no question. But the point is, they’ve all gone up – and the prices of the keg beers have gone up accordingly. Has every single brewery supplying the Font been pushing for prices in the £4+ range? Come to that, have Grimbergen, König Ludwig and BrewDog had a meeting and resolved not to supply the Library unless bar prices were pegged above £4.50? Obviously not. The bars have set their prices – partly in line with what their suppliers are asking for, certainly, but mainly in line with what the market will bear. (Both bars were buzzing, I should say.)

Bars will set prices where they can – they’ll set them as high as the market will bear, but no higher. Supply beer that usually goes for £2.50 a pint – and has a wholesale price set accordingly – to a bar where everything’s £4 or above, and it’s not likely to go on at £2.50. On the other hand, try and supply beer that usually goes for £4.50 a pint to a bar where everything’s £3 or under, and it’s not likely to go on at all. What you’re never likely to see is a £2.50 cask beer alongside a £4.50, or a bar selling beers at a whole range of price points from ‘cheap’ up to ‘scary’. (A range of price points from ‘expensive’ up to ‘scary’ is another matter – see under ‘craft keg’; although if the Font’s anything to go by this may also be a hard sell.)

Bars set price ranges, based on the costs they have to cover and what their own particular market will bear; where cask beer is concerned, by and large what they set is a single price range, the price range for ‘cask beer’. Changing that assumption – and turning the cask beer list on a pub’s blackboard into something more like a restaurant wine list – may be even harder than cultivating the perception that the beer from this or that brewery is worth a bit extra.

Deutsches Bier

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To you, six quid the lot

Just got back from a holiday in Germany. It was a two-centre holiday of sorts – we had a week in Wiek, a fairly remote Baltic coast resort, and three days in Berlin. The bottles in the picture above were bought in Wiek, at the local supermarket; one of them cost €1.45, but the remainder were between 88c and €1.15 including bottle deposit.

So that’s one of my impressions of Germany: good beer, and local beer – and if you’re lucky good local beer – is readily available in supermarkets & the like. (Above: seven beers from three nationally-distributed breweries and three locals – Rostock, Störtebeker, Vielanker. I could have bought fifteen or twenty different beers at that supermarket, about half of them brewed relatively locally. The rough British equivalent would be a Mace in the depths of Pembrokeshire or Cornwall.) Also, it’s insanely cheap. The strength of the £ helped – we bought our euros at €1.40 – but even at euro/pound parity this stuff would be… well, insanely cheap. Bar and restaurant prices, interestingly enough, were much closer to the British norm – usually €3 or above for half a litre of anything decent.

What else did I have? The rest of my beer drinking was done in cafes and restaurants: this was very much a family holiday with no bar-crawling element. On the plus side, this didn’t hold me back. “I can’t get over how you can drink, like, everywhere,” I overhead an American saying to another at Mauerpark (a park on land formerly occupied by the Berlin Wall, where a huge antiques fair/fleamarket/craft fair/mini-festival takes place every Sunday) – and you could certainly get decent beer pretty much everywhere, whether you were getting pizzas in a tourist restaurant, taking the weight off your feet at a beach-front cafe or getting a sandwich at the zoo. In ten days, in two different regions, I think we only went into one cafe that wasn’t serving beer – and not once was I reduced to ordering Carlsberg or Heineken, or even Beck’s. As well as the obligatory Berliner Weiss (brewery not specified), I had Bitburger, Lübzer and Berliner Pilsner, Köstritzer Kellerbier and Dunkel, Hefeweizen from Erdinger, Schöfferhofer and Memminger, a Memminger Kellerbier and a few others whose names I’ve forgotten. I also ordered something called Alsterwasser, which turns out to be what you or I would call a lager shandy, and tried to order a Fassbrause, which is an apple-flavoured lemonade (the barmaid kindly warned me off). (NB a Diesel is beer and coke, and a Potsdamer is beer and Fassbrause… we think.)

What was it like? Here’s where the good news gets a bit more qualified. With hardly any exceptions – one, to be precise – these beers were fine; clean-tasting, well-balanced, seemed like good examples of their style, etc, etc. The dud was the Störtebeker “Hanse-Porter”: sweet, heavy and strongly reminiscent of Coca-Cola; it got a bit better when I told myself to think of it as a Dunkelweizen rather than a porter, but only a bit. (The same brewery’s (helles) Hefeweizen was… well, fine.) And with only a handful of exceptions, they were no more than fine: 3s or 3.5s on a 5-point scale. The good ones were the Jever (natürlich); the Rostock Bock Dunkel, which (uniquely out of the beers I drank on the trip) was over 6%, and had the big, enveloping quality of a dark old ale; and a Memminger Kellerbier that I had on tap at a restaurant in Berlin. This was a fresh, aromatic, hoppy number that caught my attention straight away; it was the only beer I had in Germany that made me feel I was drinking something interesting.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t come across German craft beer – I wasn’t exactly seeking it out. (Family holiday, etc.) What is surprising is quite what a broad range of good, locally-produced beer I did find. My ideal for beer in England – the goal that I think CAMRA should work towards above all others – is a situation where locally-produced beer produced using traditional methods is available in every pub you walk into; whether any of those pubs would be serving beer in a multitude of different styles, or even beer from very far away, is secondary. In Berlin and on the Baltic coast, at least, it looks as if this ideal was realised long ago – if anything, it’s been realised in bars and then rolled out to cafes, petrol stations, roadside sausage vendors etc. And all this without blowing anybody’s tastebuds off or turning bars into multi-coloured beer style swap shops.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed that Memminger Kellerbier – and, after ten days of beer that was fine, but rarely any more than fine, I did start to hanker for a hoppy taste-bomb or two. I guess I’m living with the curse of sophistication.

It’s a cold place in winter

…is old Hartlepool. It’s not so warm in April, either.

I spent the weekend in the oldest part of Hartlepool, for the Headland Folk Festival. Organised by esteemed folk trio the Young ‘Uns, the Headland FF didn’t aspire to be a competitor to Cambridge or the Green Man – no James Yorkstons or Ukulele Orchestras here. There were concerts – Polish shanty singers Brasy were particularly memorable – but the main business of the weekend was the singarounds. In my memory the weekend is already blurring into one continuous singaround, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon (when the Young ‘Uns and the Wilsons led everyone who was still there in a mass rendition of… Sea Coal, what else.)

Anyway, over the weekend I spent a fair amount of time in pubs, and here’s what I saw. And drank.

The rather ironically-named Cosmopolitan had one handpump, offering Hobgoblin. I swerved it and looked in the beer fridge, which had some passable supermarket-ish bottles (Maxim, Marston’s EPA, that kind of thing) – including one from a brewery I’d never heard of. Local speciality ahoy! I ordered that one and turned it round to check the details of the brewery on the label. The details of the brewery on the label began with the word “Lidl”. (The beer wasn’t great either.) To be fair, I never saw that beer again – and I checked that fridge every time I went in the Cos, what with not really fancying the Hobgoblin. Next time I was in, the most interesting thing I could see in the fridge was the Maxim, which I duly asked for; the barman said it had only just gone in the fridge and would I prefer Newcastle Brown. “I’ll have the Maxim,” I said. “Right, Newcastle Brown,” he said. (I don’t think he was doing it deliberately – I had terrible trouble making myself understood the whole time I was there. Simple things like asking a bus driver for a £1.70 fare – my whole intonation was off, somehow.) Anyway, I had the Newkie Brown, which was… well, what do you want, it was Newkie Brown; it was OK. What I will say for the Cos was that they did a very nice roast meat bun with chips and gravy (even if the barman tended to hear the word ‘pork’ as ‘beef’); they also hosted quite a few acts over the weekend, including the self-explanatory women’s vocal group She Shanties. Nice pub, shame about the beer, basically.

The programme for the Folk Festival listed one venue as Harbour of Refuge (Pothouse); I assumed this was a pub called the Pothouse which the organisers had romantically designated the Harbour of Refuge for festival-goers. It’s actually a pub called the Harbour of Refuge, which everybody calls the Pothouse – or rather, the pub management call it the Pothouse (it’s even on their beermats), and everybody else calls it the Pot. They had two handpumps, serving Jennings’ Cumberland and Cameron’s Strongarm; I naturally went for the latter, only to find it was just going off. I had a genuinely local bottle, Lion’s Den Headland Bitter, which unfortunately didn’t appeal to me at all (can’t remember why, but I don’t think it was an interestingly strong flavour of any description – I think it was just rather insipid). The next time I was in I noticed a barmaid pulling half-pints of Strongarm with enormous frothy heads into pint glasses, then stashing them carefully in the beer fridge; I took this as a hint that there was still something wrong with the Strongarm and had a bottle of Black Sheep. When I finally got a pint of Strongarm at the Pot it was pretty good – a red-brown bitter, with a big, densely malty flavour.

Having half an hour to kill one morning I wandered into the Globe. The Globe is an unpretentious boozer, which hosted acts and sessions during the weekend but on that particular morning hosted nobody but a bunch of regulars and me. The landlady clocked me as a folkie the moment I walked in and asked, “Are you going to be entertaining us?” Er, no, I muttered – to which one of the old boys standing around said, “Ah, but y’already are.” Cheers. My pint of Strongarm was served with the biggest head I’ve ever seen – a massive Mr Whippy thing, standing two or three inches proud of the top of the glass and making the beer quite difficult to drink (what are you supposed to do with it?). (This may also explain the thing with the half pints at the Pot.) The beer, when I got to it, was rather good – it was very cold and bordering on flat (unsurprisingly) but somehow both of those things worked in its favour. The flavour was better than it had been at the Pot and quite distinctive – a dark, woody maltiness, not at all sweet. Cheap, too. The prices at the Cos, the Pot and the Fish (see below) were at what I think of as Stockport rather than Manchester levels – £2.50-90 rather than £3.20-60. The Strongarm at the Globe was going for £2 flat.

Leaving the best of the Headland to last, I can’t think of anything bad to say about the Fisherman’s Inn, except that it’s carpeted throughout. This is a disadvantage because it means that when a group of rapper dancers turn up to do their thing (after making themselves the bare minimum of room in the midst of a crowd of shanty singers) you can’t actually hear their feet on the boards, which in turn means that seeing it from two feet away is merely gobsmacking rather than outright incredible. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Fish (they don’t have much truck with long pub names in Hartlepool) is a lovely little pub with a great atmosphere; it’s also got great beer and some appreciative punters, judging from how quickly the guest beers turned over in the course of the weekend. I had Wold Top Headland Red (a mildly hoppy variant on the local dark bitter style), Bradfield Farmer’s Bitter and Stout, and Burton Bridge Porter; nothing outlandish (and certainly nothing pale’n’oppy), but all good solid beers and all in good nick. They also do pork pies for £1 – sadly, I never got round to checking them out. Should fate for any reason guide your steps to the Headland, get yourself down there; I’d even say it’s worth the detour from Hartlepool proper (10-15 minutes on the bus, don’t try walking it unless you absolutely have to). And if, like me, you get the chance to push your way into the pub while it’s crammed to capacity with people singing shanties very loudly, don’t miss it. I was hoarse the next day, but it was worth it.

A pound, or even a guinea (£1.05), won’t buy you a lot of beer these days. In a Spoons on a Monday, I’ve had a £1.99 pint knocked down to £1.49 with a token, but that’s the absolute limit – or so I’d have said. I’d come to Hartlepool with a walletful of Spoons tokens, and back in Hartlepool proper on the Sunday I found myself with half an hour to kill before my train at the Ward Jackson, one of Hartlepool’s two JDWs. At the Fish I’d been intrigued by some old pump clips above the bar from Black Paw brewery – a micro down the road in Bishop Auckland, it turns out; when I saw Black Paw Bishop’s Best on the bar at the Ward Jackson, I had to go for it. Another brown, malty, not particularly sweet, vaguely woody-tasting beer; it reminded me of the way Holt’s bitter used to taste. On form it would have been really interesting, if a bit challenging (i.e. it would have taken me two or three pints of the stuff to actually get to like it – another similarity with old-style Holt’s). Unfortunately the pint I had was rather noticeably lacking in condition, either because it was ready to go off or because sparkling those enormous heads had sucked all the CO2 out of the cask (Are you sure about this? Zymurgy Ed.) Not at all dislikeable – I’d have it again – and at least it didn’t break the bank. At my local Spoons, the session-strength guest beers are priced up at £2.25; at the Ward Jackson they were £1.55. With the beard voucher, that made it £1.05. Not all the prices were affected; they were offering two cans of Sixpoint for a fiver, same as in town.

I didn’t go into the Ship; as a bloke I met on the bus put it, “A lot of people won’t go in there, they think it’s a bit rough… well, it is rough…” Then there was the bizarrely polysyllabic Gaietys, which looked closed every time I passed; from the outside it somehow managed to combine the dourness of a Scottish back street boozer with the teenage tackiness of a 70s sports pub (“that’s more of a modern place” – bloke on the bus). After the Globe I was in no mood for mingling with the locals, or not without a bit of folkie backup. I somehow doubt I missed much in the way of beer. (I saw lots of Whitbread Trophy, incidentally – on keg it’s still big in the north-east, apparently.)

I was ready for a pale bitter by the end of the weekend – but then, by the end of the weekend I was ready for a number of things, including a good night’s sleep. By Sunday evening I’d been to two concerts, sung eight songs at seven sessions (two at the Fish, the rest at the Pot), drunk thirteen pints in five pubs, and slept for about twelve hours. It was a good weekend.

‘And yet, Lady Alice, even pigs have feelings.’

Quick bleg: That London.

Yes, I know it’s a big place (see above). But for this trip, just to make things more interesting, I’m working under a set of arbitrarily-imposed* constraints, viz. and to wit:

  1. Nowhere that doesn’t serve cask, I don’t care who you are.
  2. And I’m not going to bloody Hoxton. (Let’s face it, I wouldn’t like it, it wouldn’t like me.)
  3. In fact, let’s think central. Bloomsbury, West End, South Bank, that kind of manor.
  4. Only not the City. Tried drinking in the City. Didn’t like it. (Great scrums of Agent Smiths outside every single pub.) Ended up in a Spoons.
  5. Oh, and (IMPORTANT) I’ll have three non- or occasional drinkers in tow, one of whom is aged 14 & gets uncomfortable in predominantly male environments (see previous).
  6. And (ALSO IMPORTANT) we’ll be looking for food, more often than not.
  7. And we don’t want to end up in Spoons, again.

Have at it in comments, you who know these things.

*Not really.

Update We’re back. Where did we get to? Glad you asked. We got to

The Holborn Whippet. Wow. Saved the best for, er, first. I had a fair-to-middling winter ale whose name I forget and a Redemption Trinity, which was fab. This was from a choice of eight cask and as many keg beers, which I could have happily worked my way through had time allowed. We were there for lunch & had a 16″ pizza and a plate of chips between the three of us; it was all good. Great beer, great food – reasonably priced, too (the beer was cheaper than at some of the pubs in Chorlton, which is quite something for central London). I’ll go there again as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Many thanks to Reading Tom in comments for this recommendation.

The Grafton Arms was the next day’s lunchtime destination, chosen (a) because it was there and (b) because it didn’t look rammed (a cursory search for pubs on Tottenham Court Road had been called off the previous night for lack of (b) qualifiers). The food came 35 minutes after ordering – not particularly remarkable, except that we’d been warned that it would take an hour; not sure if this was inefficiency or cunning expectations management. I had Portobello Star, which was fine if not especially memorable, and Meantime Pale (keg), which was a bit thin (and fizzy). The food was good and, again, cheaper than we’d expected. (The G. A. is a Taylor Walker pub; not a chain I’d seen before, but there seem to be a few of them in That London, complete with identical food menus. I think you could do a lot worse.)

The next day’s early-afternoon stop was the Elgin, which is now run by a chain called Geronimo, although at one time (according to Somebody On The Net) it was “the second dodgiest pub in Ladbroke Grove”. Whatever – it’s a big place with what look like some genuinely old fixtures and fittings; the overall effect is somewhere between a junkshop and a small stately home. We weren’t lunching that day (two words: Premier Inn), but I had a Young’s Special, which once again has failed to make any noticeable imprint on my memory (I ought to make notes, really).

And then there was the near-obligatory station stop, which in our case means the Doric Arch. Bengal Lancer was on draught, and very nice it was too.

Summing up: some nice pubs, some good food, some oddly unmemorable beers. And the Holborn Whippet.

All the good people know

In the unlikely event anyone was wondering about it, here’s what I made of those bottles I brought back from Belgium.

THE POSSIBLE DUD

I was quite keen on Fort Lapin Tripel when I had it on tap; I noted at the time that it had a bit of bitterness to it, unusually for a tripel. I don’t know why there should be a big difference between the keg and the bottle, but a big difference there was. No bitterness at all, and rather a lot of sweetness. It wasn’t sweet enough to get cloying, but it was a lot sweeter than I’d expect a tripel to be; fruity, in fact, and not in a good way. By halfway down I was tiring of it, not least because it had started to remind me vividly of… something else. Something other than beer. As I finished the glass it came back to me: Fort Lapin Tripel, or at least that bottle of it, tasted exactly like perry – and a sweetish perry at that. Disappointing and rather odd.

(That’s almost certainly going to be the fullest review of any of these beers. Unfortunately, disappointment makes better copy.)

THE MERELY LOVELY

I don’t need to tell you about Westmalle Dubbel. It’s a Trappist dubbel and it’s lovely. Big, dark, malty, but very drinkable.

Rochefort 8 is in a similar area. Big and fruity – prune-and-rhubarby, really – but light enough to go down easily.

Kwak… well, you know Kwak. (Not one of my purchases, in fact – my son bought me a bottle and a glass, complete with wooden stand, as a birthday present.)

THE VERY LOVELY INDEED

Rochefort 6, for me, worked a lot better than the 8. The 8 tasted a bit like a watered-down version of the 10; although the 6 was lighter in alcohol, I thought it had a more interesting flavour and less thinness on the palate. Slightly less sweet than the 8, and malty more than fruity; a fairly complex taste that developed nicely.

Fort Lapin Quadrupel made up for the Tripel and then some. Black, sweet and intense, but without the stewed fruit and cake spice overtones of a lot of Belgians; it reminded me more of an Old Tom or Owd Roger, if you can imagine one of those brewed to 10% a.b.v.

THE EVEN BETTER THAN THAT

Duvel Tripel Hop is being imported, or at least has been imported. Get it if you see it – it’s a bit special. It doesn’t have the distinctive (and deceptive) smoothness of Duvel, but it does have an awful lot of hops. It’s a surprisingly good combination.

Rochefort 10 is a world classic and I don’t care who says otherwise. (Probably nobody, but you never know.) It’s 11% a.b.v. and tastes of prunes, which should make for a cherry-brandy-like novelty nightcap; it’s so much better than that, though. It’s as if a crack team of monks had set out to make a distinctively Belgian take on your favourite old ale, but finished early and spent the rest of the day making it twice as good as that. Then come back the next day, doubled its strength (possibly through the power of prayer), and then stayed late to make it twice as good again. It’s a very, very lovely beer, I bought it in a supermarket where it cost me the euro equivalent of £2 exactly (including bottle deposit), and I want another one right now.

Bah.

Saving the rarest (and biggest) till last: Mont Des Cats produces one beer, which I spotted in ‘t Bierpaleis in a 75 cl bottle, going for €7.50 (about £6.40). (I don’t know if they bottle it in any more user-friendly sizes; that was the only bottle I saw.) I bought it, I took it home and – some time later when I had a free afternoon – I drank it. It’s a darkish, coppery tripel: full-bodied, herby, not too sweet, and all in all not a million miles from Orval. Very nice indeed, although I’d recommend whacking straight through the whole bottle if you do get a big one – I left mine standing half-full for a couple of hours, and the condition suffered quite badly (should have put a teaspoon in the bottle).

Mmm, Belgian beer. Very lovely and all gone. Actually not quite all – I’ve still got one bottle left: an Orval, which (having had it ‘young’ in Bruges) I’m leaving to age in the bottle for six months. Roll on February!

(It’s in Belgium)

We had a long weekend in Bruges a bit back. Bruges is as beautiful as you’ve heard it is, and very nearly as beautiful as it looks in the film (and if you haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favour and seek it out pronto). The beer was pretty good, too. Here are the tasting notes I jotted down on my iPod, with added commentary.

Brugse tripel (Palm)

This was at a bar called De Gilde in Oude Burg, a street which seemed to be on the way to (or back from) most places we went – we walked down it about three times every day. I ordered it under the impression it was a local beer (what with the name) & was disappointed to find it was one of Palm’s. It was fine, though.

Leffe Radieuse: fruity, surprisingly hoppy

There were a few Leffes we don’t get over here. Radieuse is marketed as “Leffe goes hoppy”, and it was, a bit. I had this with dinner the first night. Mmm, Flemish beef stew.

The next few are from what’s probably my favourite bar of the trip, ‘t Brugs Bieratelier. (Thanks to Chris M for tipping me off to this – although, as it was two doors down from our hotel, I probably would have found my way there eventually.) The Bieratelier specialises in draught – which is to say, keg – as distinct from the massive bottle menus offered by most places. I had two lots of three small beers – 100 ml? 200? I’ve no idea how much I was actually getting, which is a disadvantage of beer from the tap – at least, it is in a country which hasn’t gone through the kind of standardisation we take for granted in the UK. Anyway, you got three beers for €8 (plus complementary peanuts) which was basically fine by me. It was a quiet, laid-back weekday late night, which meant there were only a handful of English people ordering pints of lager (in English) and only one stag party (from Holland). But, in all seriousness, it was a quiet, laid-back place – the atmosphere was so relaxed that it seemed to soak up the rowdier elements without being affected by them. The quiet soundtrack of Dylan album tracks may have helped.

Anyway, here are my six beers:

Guldenberg tripel

Fort Lapin: pale and interesting

St Bernardus: mmm

Gouden Carolus dubbel

Timmermans lambic: aargh!

Novice black tripel (???): extra f’in ordinary

Fort Lapin (“strong rabbit”?) was a new name to me; their tripel was rather nice & a few steps away from the usual “pale, strong, a bit fruity, a bit herby” template. There were hops there, I’ll be bound. I’ve been slightly sniffy about St Bernardus before, what with them not being Trappists, but the dubbel was extraordinary (it knocked the Gouden Carolus into a cocked hat). Not as extraordinary as Landtsheer Novice “black tripel”, though. It was basically what you’d get if you spliced the genetic material of a tripel with a black IPA. Very hoppy, very roasty, very Belgian – quite unusual!

As for the lambic, I have drunk it before – some years ago, when the relative strength of the pound made Belgian imports a regular buy – but it was a bit of a shock to the system coming in among those dubbels and tripels. I think getting properly into lambic would take an evening of its own, or possibly a trip of its own. The barman saw the face I made after my first swallow and apologised – “It’s not very sour, is it? That’s the only lambic we can get in a keg – the good ones are only available in bottle.” Let’s just say that the problem I’d had with it wasn’t a lack of sourness.

The next day we stopped around 12.00 for a portion of chips (with mayonnaise), accompanied by

Hoegaarden inna can

for about 50p. (The Belgians never got the memo about minimum pricing.) Having noticed a distinct groundswell of English people ordering in English, I was determined to use what little Flemish I had. (Belgium is bilingual, but Bruges – which we should call Brugge really – is deep in Flanders; French is about as useful there as Spanish.) “Drie groote frites, alstublieft”, I said to the guy behind the counter. “Three large chips – what would you like on those?” he replied, not missing a beat.

We stopped for a proper lunch later on, with a

Maes pils

for what that’s worth. That night we had an Italian meal at a rather fine restaurant called La Riva del Sole (very nice zabaglione); I know I had something with it, but what it was, my iPod and I cannot tell you.

Another late-evening outing took me to De Garre. Among others, Beersay‘s writeup had raised my expectations somewhat:

Dating back to the 1700′s, De Garre is one of those places where the gentle atmosphere and ambience has your mind wondering how many people have sat here before you. What joys, tragedies, laughter, crimes or drunken buffoonery have these four walls witnessed in their lifetime?

The Tripel arrived in two large goldfish bowl like glasses, with the thick white creamy head massively outweighing the liquid content by about three parts to one, there being only approximately three quarters of an inch of beer sitting at the base. Either by sensing our unconscious looks of disappointment or by the daily experiences of newcomers to his bar, the barman softly whispered “wait, it will come”.

Each tray of beer is served with a small portion of chopped cheese, which I’m led to believe is a compatible match for most Belgian beer, it was soft, creamy and when finally, patience rewarded we got to taste the Garre Tripel went perfectly with the beer.

Here’s my writeup:

De Garre tripel: not brilliant and much too strong

I arrived to find a tiny and brightly-lit bar with every table taken. (No standing at the bar in Belgian bars.) The barman caught my eye, held up one finger and pointed upstairs, then shouted something indistinct which I (correctly) interpreted as “you want the Tripel?” Upstairs was a slightly larger but even more brightly-lit bar with every table taken but one, right in the far corner, directly under a couple of halogen lamps. I manoeuvred the furniture around until I could get behind the table. The barman brought my drink. (It came with peanuts, and soft whispering was not involved.) I tried to concentrate on (a) my beer and (b) my paper but found I was fighting a losing battle with (c) the glare and (d) the noise of what appeared to be 300 English and American beer geeks having animated conversations all around me (“as for what I’m thinking, nobody has the RIGHT to censor what’s in my MIND“.) I got to the bottom of the glass sooner than I expected and looked up to see the barman standing over me. “ANOTHER!” he enquired. I shook my head and got my purse out. And that was about it for De Garre. As for the beer, it was a very heavy tripel; it would have been pretty nice but for an unpleasantly strong flavour of alcohol. Basically it tasted like a tripel which had had a tequila dropped in it. I was seriously considering going into the Bier Bistro on Oude Burg on the way home for something more palatable in a more relaxed atmosphere, but the atmosphere that night was a bit too relaxed – by the time I passed it was shut.

There wasn’t any daytime drinking the next day. In the evening I had the bright idea of going out before dinner instead of last thing at night, and found my way to bar #2 on my hitlist: ‘t Brugs Beertje. It was rammed – so much so that I had to share a table – and absolutely everyone was speaking English, but somehow the atmosphere was much more laid-back than it had been in De Garre. And the beer was great.

Pannepot: a vision of Virol loveliness

Orval (young): interesting but too young

That’s De Struise Pannepot, De Struise being a newish local brewer (est’d 2001). I’m not sure how you’d classify Pannepot: it’s very dark, very strong and made with spices. Possibly a Quadrupel? It was very nice indeed, whatever it was. Very malty, as my tasting notes suggest (Virol was a ‘malt extract’ given to babies; I was once found, aged two or three, eating it out of the jar). As for the Orval, the Beertje will serve you a young Orval for €2 or one that’s been aged in the bottle for six months for €2.50. I guessed, rightly as it turned out, that the ‘aged’ variety would be what I’d had before, and ordered the ‘young’. It was… interesting. Much lighter than the Orval we know and love (although presumably it’s just as strong); I was reminded of ginger beer. I wish I could have followed it with an ‘aged’ bottle, to compare and contrast, but I had to get back to base camp.

That evening we ate at a really superb restaurant called De Schilder, where (with my rabbit) I had a

Bourgogne des Flandres: good but too light (5%) for its fruitiness

and followed it with a

Westmalle tripel: stern but beautiful

Can’t improve on that, except to say that drinking a Westmalle tripel out of a Westmalle glass really does feel special.

Lastly, with a sandwich lunch on the final day, I had a

Brugse Zot: light, refreshing, aromatic 6%er

Regrets, I’ve got a few. I didn’t get around to the Halve Maan brewery tour, which famously concludes with a freebie Zot; I didn’t get to the Bier Bistro, Cambrinus, the Café Rose Red or the Trappiste; and, of course, I barely scratched the surface at ‘t Brugs Beertje. My son, who recently turned 18, was less enthusiastic about the drinking than I’d hoped; he’s decided he’s into cider, which wasn’t a big feature of the local bars. Another time.

Also, beers – I’ve got a few of them, too. There are tourist-oriented bottle shops all over Bruges; in one of them I saw, and declined to buy, all three of the Westvleteren beers (semi-illegal and at ridiculous markups). But really there are only three places to buy beer, and two of them are supermarkets. Here’s my till receipt from the Carrefour near our hotel.

Receipt

Mmm, Rochefort

“Leeggoed” = bottle deposit; in effect everything came out 10c dearer than it looked (or 50c in a few cases, such as Delirium Tremens). But the selection was frankly extraordinary, and the prices were mind-boggling. That €1.09 for Westmalle Dubbel isn’t unusual; the Rocheforts and the Duvel (Tripel Hop) were the pricey ones. (And the prices went down if you bought a six-pack. Six-packs of Trappist beers in the equivalent of Tesco Express – what a country!) The bottle shops were all selling these same beers for €2.50 and €3.50; they could actually stock up in Carrefour and still make a profit.

As for the third place to buy beer, it’s called the Bierpaleis or Beer Palace, and it puts the rest of the bottle shops to shame. It was there that I bought a couple of Fort Lapins (tripel and quadrupel) as well as the find of the trip, a big bottle of Mont des Cats – the Trappist beer that isn’t (it’s brewed by Trappist monks, but on the Chimay brewkit rather than within their own abbey). In all I came home with nine bottles, of which I’ve drunk two (the Westmalle and the Tripel Hop); they didn’t disappoint. I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest. Also looking forward to another trip to Bruges…

In Bruges (shortly)

Title says it all.

Except for the inevitable question: where’s good in Bruges (Brugge if you prefer)? No, I mean, where’s really good? And – just as importantly – where’s actually not that good?

I shall be travelling with two non-enthusiasts and one non-drinker, so being non-beer-fanatic-friendly (and e.g. serving food) will be a definite plus.

So, who’s been to Bruges, and where would they like to be back right now? I know, Martyn‘s done this one already, and it’s not hard to find bar reviews online. But I thought I’d ask anyway.