Monday, March 3, 2014

The Night We Almost Lost Eddie

This year's European beer trip was another incredible journey through the beers, breweries and the brewing
I had this, and suarbraten, for lunch.
cities of the Old World. I got to revisit Munich finally, having been there for a few days in 2011. It is refreshing to see places that just don't change. Here in America, everything is changing all the time. No problem. That's what we're good at. But in some places, they like everything just the way it has always been, and they don't plan on changing a thing. An American beer drinker these days expects something different every time they walk into a beer bar or store, and in general they get it. If that's what you want, and you get all bent out of shape when you don't get it (you know who you are), then stay out of Munich. They make just a few styles of beer there, and they make them really, really well. What I love about Munich is that these classic beer styles, which are mainly overlooked now in the American craft beer scene, have subtle differences from brewery to brewery. Think you're knowledgeable about beer because you drink every wacky beer you can get your hands on? Try picking out the nuances between six different versions of the same style of beer with essentially the same recipes. Just shellacking your tongue with flavor every time you sip a beer doesn't do a whole lot to fine tune your beer drinking abilities. Plus, why did we all stop drinking hefeweizens? I pounded those things all over that town and loved every minute of it. Go out and buy a real Munich hefeweizen, pour it into a real hefe glass, keep the fruit off the damn glass (!), and enjoy. They don't put fruit in their beer in Germany, and you shouldn't either. They do, however, drink a lot of what is called a Radler, which is beer and lemonade. I had one, and it was delicious. One of my fellow travelers swore by them as a morning beverage.

We rode in a bus over to Austria to visit a newly accredited Trappist brewery call Stift Engelszell. The monastery was very scenic as you would imagine, resting on the edge of the Danube river. The brewing facility is relatively new, but they also make some phenomenal schnapps in just about every flavor imaginable, and some great stinky cheese. They didn't quite expect the enthusiasm for schnapps from our group, being a group of beer lovers that we were. But once the schnapps samples started flowing, things got a little lively in that tiny distillery. They had some that were super thick, like eggnog, and one with poppy seeds that looked like salad dressing. There was hazelnut, herbal liqueurs, and every fruit you could think of. I got a bottle of strawberry that we drank on the bus the next day. Should have bought two and brought one home. Oh well.
Beer and schnapps from the monks.
  
We also visited a small farmhouse brewery in Austria called Hofstetten. They make a beer called Granite Bock that is cooled in granite tubs, and then red-hot granite rocks are added to caramelize some sugars for added flavor. Very cool and very tasty beer. They also make some great lighter beers, including an unfiltered lager, and an incredible pilsner that is dry-hopped for nine months. No kidding. It takes the same amount of time to make a baby. Well...you know what I mean.

Vienna was our next stop, and it is truly a spectacular city. The beers are relatively boring really, especially if you had just left Munich. Austrian beers are like German beers, but just not as expertly done. However, there is a brew pub in Vienna called 1516 that makes a variety of beers like oatmeal stout, wit bier with quince, and a Victory Hop Devil that they made on site. What? Yep, they have guest brewers come to their little spot in Austria to make a clone of their American craft beers. Frequent readers may recall that Spike, brew master and co-founder of Terrapin Beer Company, is on all of these trips I have taken to Europe, and that he typically brews a collaboration while over there. This time he just helped this Austrian brewer make a batch of Terrapin Rye Pale Ale. So in a few days, the beer drinkers of Vienna will be enjoying fresh Terrapin Rye, brewed right in their own little brew pub. Pretty cool, don't you think? Now I am trying to get a Heavy Seas brewer set up with this guy over there so the Viennese can get some Loose Cannon.

Next stop was Pilsen in the Czech Republic, home to Pilsner Urquell. And guess what Americans? They pronounce the "u". It is not "pils-ner ur-kell", it is "pils-ner ur-kwell". The brewery was impressively large and clean as you would expect, but the cellars were like a trip back in time. Huge open vats made of wood for fermentation, and what seemed like miles of giant lagering barrels. We got to drink some unfiltered Pilsner Urquell on a few occasions, and it was definitely packed with flavor.
Open fermentation at Pilsner Urquell.
  
The town of Pilsen, however, was packed with weirdos. I felt uneasy in that town from the minute I stepped off the bus. It is a very blue-collar town, but in an Eastern European kind of way. The people, you could tell right away, have seen some hardships in their lives. Almost as if their whole lives had been as cold, damp and dreary as the day itself. It seemed like every building had some sort of seedy activity going on, and sure, I don't speak the language, so I had virtually no basis for thinking that except that seedy activity is kind of an international language. It's the looks on the people faces and their body language that oozes no good. You don't have to speak the language to identify creepy. You also don't have to speak the language to knowingly walk into a creepy looking place late at night in a foreign city, which is exactly what I did. This, folks, is a "casino" called Non Stop in Pilsen. I did not realize it at the time, but I think the translation to English is actually, "No Really, Do Not Stop Here. This Place Sucks, And You Might Get Stabbed."
This is technically called a "casino". No kidding.
In a nutshell, very shady looking people chain smoking their asses off in front of electronic gambling machines. And it appeared as though the only light in the room was coming from those machines. Next to the front door was a cooler with beer bottles in it, and there was a counter with a very small and devious looking, dark complected man with a pencil thin mustache. Oh yeah, creep city. This guy's English was non-existent, as is my Czech, but we managed to negotiate the sale of the beer and a shot from some bottle he had behind the counter. I may have gotten ripped off, but I can't complain about that. I was the one who walked into a seedy looking building on a dark corner of a foreign city in the middle of the night. I would expect to get ripped off in a place like that. Once I surveyed the room and realized that I had absolutely no business being there and should leave right away, I couldn't. I had a full beer. So I sat down at one of these slot machines and fed some money into it. I pressed the button and the things whirred around and the machine made what I thought were positive noises. Ding, ding ding! I couldn't read what it was telling me, but ding, ding, ding sounded good, so I pressed the button again. Same thing happened. I figured I was cleaning up. This went on a few more times and then it stopped. Didn't print out a voucher for cash. Didn't do anything at all. Apparently ding, ding, ding means you get diddly squat. That was OK, because the locals were starting to eye me suspiciously by then, so it was time to leave anyway. 

In defense of this town, others in my group claim to have found some very charming places to get local beer. That's all fine and dandy, but it's not exactly the same experience I got by wandering off from the group. Sometimes you just need to explore on your own. And sometimes you get stabbed by a bunch of foreigners and have a kidney stolen. Luckily that didn't happen to me.

We spent two days in Prague, which is reputed to be the most beautiful city in Europe. Having not been in all of them, I can't say that is 100% true. But I can say that it is the most beautiful city that I have ever visited, and I would go back in an instant. The world's oldest brew pub is there, called U Flecku, and has been since 1499. They make one kind of beer, and it is outstanding. The black lager they make is so flavorful, yet light on the palate. Black lagers have a way of doing that, and it is one reason why I love them so much. I keep thinking that more American breweries will catch on to this style, but so far it remains pretty scarce here. Moonlight Death And Taxes out of northern California is the best I have had from an American brewery. It is the first tap handle I look for when I am in the Bay Area. But in Prague at U Flecku, they have an accompaniment that I will remember fondly for as long as I possibly can. They serve this stinky cheese with dense brown bread, whipped butter and raw garlic. Yes, totally raw cloves of peeled garlic. Spread the butter on the bread, stick a hunk of stinky cheese on there, slice off a chunk of garlic and eat it all. Wash it down with the black beer, and let me tell you something, it does not get much better than that. And they serve the beers to you until you tell them to stop, which I have encountered before in northern Germany. You don't order beer. When you sit down, they just bring it to you. And they keep bringing it to you until you tell them to stop, which is difficult, because they move quick and don't ask a lot of questions. You just might find yourself with a serious attitude adjustment and an afternoon of raw garlic burps after a few hours in this place. I did. And I would do it again tomorrow if I could.

We saw some other great places in Prague, including spending a few hours at the Prague Castle. It is definitely worth the trip to visit the castle, but be warned: This structure was built to defend the city from attackers, like most castles. So naturally it is on the highest point in the city, and there are no escalators folks. Stairs. A seemingly endless sequence of stairs going up and up and up. When you finally reach the top, you are almost there. The castle itself is on a hill at the top of a hill, so keep climbing. But it is worth it. The castle, cathedral and views of the city are spectacular. At the bottom of the stairs you can buy some fun street food, including a Czech favorite, corn on the cob. It's true, there's corn for sale all over that country. Not sure where they are getting fresh corn in February, but they've got a ton of it. Nothing soothes your aching joints after a vigorous hike up and down a mountain like a piece of corn, that's what I always say. What I needed was a wheelchair, not a piece of corn.

We sampled a lot of local beer at a few small breweries and a beer bar owned by an American. In addition to serving a bunch of Czech beers from 30 taps in his "Prague Beer Museum", he has his own beer called Two Tales. It is the same black lager style I love, with a ton of American hops. So basically a super hoppy black lager, or a black IPL if you want to go that direction. It was delicious whatever you want to call it. We found a bar off the beaten path--WAY off--that specialized in high-end European beers and a few American craft beers. Think lots of Mikkeller and Brew Dog stuff. Those folks were very cool, and our group of 28 people filled up the entire place. Prague was a very cool town, and I feel like two days was good, but I could have used at least one more there. Plus, if I had three days there, I could go to U Flecku three times.
Tale 1: Open; Tale 2: Enjoy. The End.

Our last day began on the bus early, and like all of these trips, we realized how much beer was left to be drank in a short period of time. The guys at Hofstetten had apparently loaded us up with a sizable amount of beer, and we had one last day to drink it. So by the time we arrived at the Weltenburg abbey in Kelheim, Germany for a brewery visit, everybody had to pee. You know how many bathrooms they have in a monastery? One. You know how long it takes over 20 people to go to the bathroom one at a time? Depending where you are at in that line, it can feel like an eternity, that much I know firsthand. We had a bathroom in the bus, but no one thought to use it because we were about to stop. You only use the bus bathroom when you really need it. Try peeing in a moving, bouncing, turning vehicle. It's not easy. Now drink a bunch of beer and try it. Doesn't get any easier. But anyway, once we got all of that squared away, we toured the beautiful monastery and the brewery on the grounds. We sampled their beers, and they were terrific. The brewery is a separate entity from the monastery, with the monks having nothing to do with the brewing. One notable thing that I saw on the road leading out of Weltenburg was a marker of remembrance to the American soldiers who lost their lives in World War II. I have seen a few of those in my travels through Europe, and it is nice to see that these folks put up permanent stone markers to thank the United States for sacrificing a lot of people to liberate Europe in the 1940's. We also saw one in Vienna for the Russian soldiers that liberated their city. Let's hope that none of those markers need to be erected in any more countries in our lifetimes.

After a nice lunch at the Schneider brewery (also in Kelheim), we arrived back in Munich. We had time for a few beer halls before a big dinner at Ayinger. The beer and food were so good, we almost lost Eddie. In a combination of eating, drinking and breathing, something went down the wrong way. Eddie made a series of noises and turned a series of colors that no human should make. Anyone nearby was immediately and seriously concerned. Like, "Is this guy going to die right in front of me?". Thankfully, after about fifteen minutes in the bathroom, he managed to get over or around or through whatever it was, and he did not, in fact, die that day in Munich. In fact, after a round of Underbergs, he was back to his old self. There was a moment when I thought, "This night is going to end in a hospital," or, "How do you tell his wife that her husband was killed by beer and sausages?" and, "Well, at least he died doing what he loves". But we were able to bring everyone home alive yet again.

That wraps up the short version of my trip. If you have been reading this blog for any considerable amount of time you know that I will have a slide show of many pictures posted from this trip. You will also know that this might take me a month or so to do. It's time consuming, and I get distracted. Please be patient. 

Have a great week everyone. Sorry for the long delay in posts. Things got in the way, like work and stuff. I am back now and totally caught up. Stay tuned for more adventures in beer. Bye for now.
Take me to the bridge.
    





From My September Trip-Sierra Brewhouse

From My September Trip-Sierra Brewhouse
This is the top floor of the brewhouse, with buckets of fresh hops about to go into the kettles.