Sunday, 3 January 2016

2015 - The Year in Beer

Rather than follow the crowd and go along with the “Golden Pints” thing (reminds me rather too much of boring beers like Bombardier Burning Gold and GK Old Golden Hen etc), I thought I’d take a look back at the beery highlights of 2015. I went through a similar exercise last January, but as there were so many beer-related high points in 2015, I thought I’d change the format around and list what, for me, were the crowning moments of a “Year in Beer”.

It’s worth noting that 2015 saw me undertaking far more overseas trips than I’ve ever done before. Turning sixty last year, was the excuse I offered myself, but really I don’t feel the need to apologise for going off in search of good beer. I had a great time, I visited some fascinating and often beautiful places, I met some interesting people and, most important of all, I drank some great beers. So before launching into the various categories here, in alphabetical order, are the countries, and places I visited.

Austria (Salzburg); Belgium (Brussels & Bruges); Czech Republic (Česky Krumlov, Jihlava, Prague – twice); Germany (Nuremberg).

Best Brewery Visits
I undertook three brewery tours last year, and it’s worth mentioning them all. The first tour (Bernard) was in the Czech Republic; the other two (De Halve Maan & Rodenbach), were in Belgium.

Gleaming coppers at Bernard Brewery
The wet and windy late May day I spent  at the Bernard Brewery, which naturally culminated with a tasting of some of the products, was one of the highlights of the late spring  visit I made to the Vysočina Region of the Czech Republic, as part of a tour organised by MMK CAMRA.

Situated in the small town of Humpolec, Bernard have long been one of my favourite Czech breweries; their beers having an excellent reputation, both at home and abroad. It was good to be able to enjoy them on their home turf.

De Halve Maan
The new at De Halve Maan
And the old
Unlike the other two brewery tours, I haven’t written about my visit to the De Halve Maan Brewery in Bruges. Situated right in the heart of this historic city, the brewery is a strange mix of both old and new, with the state of the art Steinecker Brew-house, contrasting with the much older original brew-house, which now functions as a museum.

Our attractive and informative guide took us all over both plants, culminating in a vertigo-inducing climb to the top of the old brewery, from where we had one of the best views imaginable over the rooftops of Bruges. We also had an excellent lunch, with beers chosen to match, in the brewery restaurant; all this being courtesy of the local “Visit Flanders” tourist agency.

This tour was also courtesy of “Visit Flanders”, who organised one of the post-European Beer
Historic maturation vats- Rodenbach Brewery
Bloggers Conference excursions. The visit to this fascinating and historic brewery took place after dark, but we had the privilege of being shown round by legendary Brewmaster Rudi Ghequire.

The highlight of the tour was walking through the world-renowned maturation halls, where the beer ages and ripens in a series of massive oak vats or “foeders”. There are 294 of these vessels, and some are 150 years old. As I wrote at the time, “the visit to Rodenbach will certainly live on in my mind as one of the best and most fascinating brewery tours I have been privileged to have been party to.”

Best Beer Festivals
I only attended three beer festivals in 2015 (must be slipping!), and I list them in reverse order; starting with the most recent event.

Spa Valley Railway
West Kent CAMRA branch’s own festival, run in conjunction with Heritage Railway group, Spa Valley Railway is always a good one, albeit a logistical nightmare for those running the event. Although I wasn’t involved on the organisational side this time around, I am pleased to report the festival was a roaring success offering an excellent range of beers, spread over several locations, all linked by vintage trains running through some of the most attractive countryside the south east has to offer.

Kent Beer Festival
The famous cow-shed - home of the Kent Beer Festival
What could be better than a day out on the farm, sampling a fine range of beers which includes examples from every Kentish brewery? No visit to the cow-shed is complete without the obligatory thunderstorm, although this time the rain held off until we were back in Canterbury. The bonus of the festival was bumping into Erlangernick from Franconia, and then joining him on a visit to a couple of excellent pubs in the city.

Fränkische Bierfest
Waiting for the crowds to arrive - Fränkische Bierfest
It had long been an ambition of mine to visit this festival which showcases beers from around 40 of Franconia’s finest breweries. Held in the incomparable setting of the castle moat, against the backdrop of Nuremberg’s massive and imposing Imperial Castle, I spent a most enjoyable day here in the company of the aforementioned Erlangernick who, armed with the knowledge only possessed by locals, acted as my guide.

In over 30° of heat, I drank far too much beer, but I enjoyed soaking up every minute of the fantastic atmosphere which characterises this festival. I enjoyed it so much that I am arranging a return visit; this time taking a group of friends across with me.

Best Beer on Home Turf
A difficult one, as I have drank many excellent home-grown beers over the course of the past year. The one which really stands out is:

Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale
I’ve always been a huge fan of this seasonal dark ale, but because Harvey’s appear to restrict its availability to their own tied estate, I rarely come across it. The vintage coach trip I embarked on with Maidstone
Harvey's Old available here
CAMRA, back in October, took us to the unspoilt Hatch Inn at Coleman’s Hatch, on the edge of Ashdown Forest.

It was here that I drank the first of this winter’s Harvey’s Old, and it was pure nectar! I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a pint in a pub, quite as much as I enjoyed that one. Pure “class in a glass”, and just the thing on a drab, damp late-autumn lunchtime.

Best Beers Abroad
Three beers really stand out; the first one is an old favourite, whilst the other two were new to me.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
Altes Lokal - Schlenkerla, Bamberg
This world classic beer needs little in the way of introduction. I enjoyed a couple of Seidlas (half litre glasses), of this superb coal black beer with its intense smoky aroma and taste, in the timeless surroundings of the lovely old Schlenkerla Tavern, right in the heart of historic Bamberg. What’s more I managed to get a table in the left-hand bar, known in German as the "Altes Lokal". It is here that the beer is served, direct from oak casks, perched up on the bar.

Westvletern Blond
I enjoyed this excellent and refreshing blond, Trappist beer at the In de Vrede café, right opposite the Abbey of St Sixtus where Westvletern beers are brewed. Although over-shadowed by its stronger stable mates, Westvletern 8 and 12, the Blond, at 5.8% was just right for sitting at a table, outside the café in the company of fellow beer Bloggers. I would say it is one of the finest beers of this style I have tasted.

Augustiner Bräu Kloster Mülln Weinachtsbock
It was third time lucky as on my two previous visits to the legendary Augustiner Bräustübl in Salzburg, the Christmas Bock was unavailable. At 6.5% it is not really a beer for drinking by the half litre, but by God it was good. Rich, malty and strong enough to taste the alcohol this beer doesn’t take many prisoners, but after a walk up to the monastery, on a cold and frosty night, it is just the ticket.

Bucket List
The trip I made with my son, back in October, to Cesky Krumlov, meant I could cross another item off the “bucket list”. I had desired to visit this medieval time-warp town since first reading about it in CAMRA’s first Good Beer Guide to Prague & the Czech Republic. Published in 1996, and written and researched by CAMRA founding member, Graham Lees, this book really wetted my appetite, so when the opportunity for a return visit to the Czech Republic arose, we combined a stay in Prague with a stay of equal length in beautiful Cesky Krumlov.

The town did not disappoint, and I would urge anyone who appreciates great architecture in a spectacular setting, to take a trip to this lovely South Bohemian town.

Best Locations to Enjoy a Beer
Without a doubt, Tunbridge Wells in the UK. A read back through posts I have written over the past year, will reveal just what an excellent choice of beer and drinking establishments this nearby spa town possesses.

Augustiner Bräu Kloster Mülln
Overseas, Bruges, Cesky Krumlov, Prague and Salzburg, all delivered in terms of fine places to drink in, and in many cases fine beer to be enjoyed there as well. I would have added Bamberg to the list, but my fleeting visit back in June, didn’t really do justice to this lovely old city and its excellent pubs.

Best Days Out
Two superlative days out crown my year in beer, and are days I remember with much pleasure and fond memories. They represent a fitting climax to my beery adventures in 2015.

EBBC Post-Conference West Flanders Excursion
Beer bloggers outside the Hop Museum, Poperinge
There is so much to cram in here that it would be best to refer to the two blog posts I wrote about this post-conference trip. The highlights were lunching at the Belgian Hop Museum in Poperinge. Visiting a working hop farm, complete with its own brewery. Sitting out in the late August sunshine, sampling the legendary Westvleteren Beers at the In de Vrede café, right opposite the Abbey of St Sixtus, and finally the aforementioned visits to both Rodenbach and De Halve Maan.

Visiting a few of Franconia’s finest Bier Kellers
This was definitely the highlight of the year for me; being taken on a tour around the idyllic Franconian countryside, on one of the hottest days of the year, by someone with good local knowledge of the regions best Bier Kellers.

Erlangernick was my guide, chauffeur and companion for a wonderful day out, which introduced me to some excellent local beers and some equally fine places in which to drink them. Starting at Roppelt’s Keller, we moved on to the tiny village of Aisch, where we sat out in the small shady beer garden opposite the Rittmayer Brauerei & Gasthaus. It was here that I tried Spargel (white Asparagus), for the first time.

We then visited two Kellers, both perched up on hills overlooking some really attractive rolling countryside. Herrmann Kellerbier from Ampferbach, and Müller Kellerbier from Reundorf, were the beery
delights at these two stops; the latter beer being enjoyed in the grounds of the substantial Schmausenkeller, high on a hill.

This snapshot of some of Franconia’s best beer and drinking establishments really was the highpoint of 2015’s “Year in Beer”, and my grateful thanks are due to Nick for arranging it.

So there we have it; it’s going to be difficult to top that little lot, but who knows what beery delights 2016 may have in store.


Anonymous said...

At risk of sounding like a stalker, I did similar European trips last year Paul (Ghent, Bruges, Linz, Cesky, Bratislava, Berlin, North-west Germany), though I really missed not getting to Nuremeberg & Bamberg). All great places.

A couple of years ago I would have been astonished by your acclaim for Tunbridge Wells; just shows how quickly a pub scene can get new energy.

Paul Bailey said...

If you want to stalk me this year Martin, I’ve only got two trips planned so far. The first is an invitation to attend the Barcelona Beer Festival, at the beginning of March. The second is a return visit to Nuremberg, for Fränkische Bierfest at the end of May; this time taking a group of beer enthusiasts (mainly local CAMRA members), along with me.

I would like to visit my sister in the United States; possibly calling in on a cousin who lives in Canada as well. Much of this depends on the location, and dates for this year’s European Beer Bloggers Conference; along with practicalities such as available finances and amount of annual leave.

BTW. Tunbridge Wells certainly has turned into a surprise beer destination; it’s just a pity that none of it has percolated through to Tonbridge yet”!