Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2016 - The Year in Beer

After the beery and travel excesses of 2015; a year which saw me celebrating my 60th birthday in style, 2016 was rather tame in comparison. Five overseas trips which took in four different countries, was always going to take some beating and 2016 saw other events either clashing or taking preference.

At the end of each year I like to look back at what I have achieved in various areas of my life. With just four and a half years before I reach thee state retirement age, there is still much to do before I can swap the nine to five with something different, and potentially more rewarding. Part of my strategy is to complete the outstanding work on the house and pay off the mortgage.

The latter is probably progressing at a faster rate than the former, due to the inability of the great British workman to turn up when he’s supposed to, and do the work he’s being paid to do. This seems to be a common complaint amongst friends and acquaintances at the moment, so perhaps I need to find an East European builder quickly, before our illustrious leader has them all deported.

A family wedding put paid to mid-summer travel plans, along with a major audit at work. The latter put most of June out of the running, but on the plus side we passed the audit, and can continue selling our products in the United States. I also made a number of trips up to Norfolk to visit my father, and to assist my sister in clearing out my parent’s bungalow. The last of these trips was pretty manic, as the property had just been sold and the new owners were pushing for vacant possession.

Earlier in the year, I managed a long weekend in Barcelona; ostensibly for the Barcelona Beer Festival but also to spend some time exploring the Catalan capital and just generally chilling out. The weather was kind, with wall to wall sunshine, and whilst the locals were still parading around in coats and scarves, I was walking around in a T-shirt and a hoody. I can certainly recommend Barcelona as a great place to visit, and also a city where the interest in beer is rising exponentially.

August is often an unsettled month, as far as the weather is concerned, and my trip to Amsterdam for the EBBC certainly proved this to be true. After a fantastic day exploring the countryside around the southern Dutch city of Den Bosch, the rest of my visit was marred by rain, which turned out to be torrential at times. I did, however, renew my acquaintance with the lovely laid-back city of Amsterdam; a place I last visited 40 years ago.

The reverse was true, weather-wise, of our family holiday to Regensburg. This took place at the end of September, and sunny days, with temperatures in the mid twenties, combined with warm evenings, proved the perfect introduction for my wife to the delights of a holiday in southern Germany. I managed to drink reasonable amount of beer there as well.

Of course no look back at 2016 can ignore the year’s major political bombshell of June 23rd. By allowing itself to be dumped out of the European Union following a reckless political stunt by the then Prime Minister, the United Kingdom has shot itself in the foot, in a big way. It borders on the absurd that the future of the entire country can be decided on the strength of a simple yes/no answer on a ballot paper.

What’s even worse is that “Call me Dave” didn’t have the remotest inkling that the vote might go against him and, as we soon found out, had no plan and no idea of how to enact “the will of the people”. You really couldn’t make this sort of thing up; it’s like deciding one’s whole future on the toss of a coin!

The surprise election of the Donald, as President of the United States, could also have dire consequences for global prosperity or, even worse, world peace. We shall see, of course, but if anything these populist uprisings have only hastened my resolve to get working on something different and to get out of the rat race whilst the going is still good.

That’s enough of the doom and gloom; instead let’s talk about happier things and look back at the beery events of 2016.

Best Brewery Visits
Unfortunately I missed out on the trip organised by my local CAMRA Branch to Bedlam and Dark Star breweries, as it clashed with one of the aforementioned “bungalow clearing” visits to Norfolk. As if by way of compensation, I managed to visit three breweries in the Netherlands, as part of my attendance at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam.

The breweries concerned were, in chronological order: Abbey of Koningshoeven at Berkel-Enschot (La Trappe), Jopen Brewery in Haarlem, and De Molen Brewery in Bodegraven.

The highlight was without doubt, De Molen; no surprises there, but La Trappe at Koningshoeven came a close second, even though it was totally different and rather more commercialised.  As you can imagine, the peaceful setting of an Abbey, with its well-kept grounds and atmosphere of peaceful contemplation, takes a lot of beating. For sheer technical brilliance and innovation though, plus the setting of the bar and restaurant in an attractive old windmill, De Molen were worthy winners, and even getting soaked to the skin whilst walking down to the station, in order to catch the train to Boedegraven, could not detract from a fantastic experience.

Jopen’s original brewery, in a converted church in central Haarlem, was also worth seeing; as was the Jopenkerk itself. We also enjoyed an excellent barbecue, plus a sampling of Jopen beers at the company’s new, hi-tech brewery situated on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Haarlem.

Best Beer Festivals
I only attended three beer festivals last year, so again it’s worth mentioning them all.

Great British Beer Festival. The grand-daddy of all home-grown beer festivals, GBBF continues to be a spectacular success, and acts as a showcase for all that is best in British cask-conditioned beers. Obviously with the rise of craft-beer, GBBF is probably missing out on a few tricks, but as the Campaign for Real Ale’s flagship event, you could hardly expect it to focus on other types of beer; or could you?

Unfortunately the festival itself was far too crowded for my liking. There is nothing worse than having people three deep at the bar, and then finding the person in front of you is not only getting a round in, but wants a beer from the other end of the bar!

The increased numbers are great for CAMRA, as this means most of the beer gets sold and the festival makes a profit. However, I can’t help thinking that the event has now become a victim of its own success, and if visitors start to feel the same as me, then it is time for a re-think. This certainly applies to the chaotic layout. Not all of us are fans of cryptic crosswords; and many of us don’t do lateral thinking either. Please simplify the bar layouts and make it easier to find the beers we want.

Kent Green Hop Beer Festival. Organised as part of the Kent Food & Drink Festival, this annual event takes place in Canterbury’s Dane John Garden, in the shadow of the city’s historic stone walls. The festival aims to feature every Green Hop Beer produced by Kent breweries, and it usually succeeds with this aim.

The festival is an open air event, which is a huge plus in my book, and although fine weather must obviously be factored in here, September is usually a time when conditions are more settled than at other times of the year. The sun certainly shone this year, and it was great just chilling out, with friends, listening to some live music whilst enjoying a few of Kent’s finest Green Hop Beers. Without a shadow of doubt, the Kent Food & Drink Festival was my favourite by far, of the three events I attended.

Spa ValleyRailway Real Ale & Cider Festival. This is the event which my own (West Kent) CAMRA Branch organises, in conjunction with the preserved Heritage Railway, which runs from Tunbridge Wells down to Eridge. The festival has grown year on year, since it first started back in 2011, but has probably now reached its limit. The concept of having different beers available at the stations up and down the line, as well as on the trains themselves, is a great idea, but can be a logistical nightmare.

Working at the festival, as well as being one of the organisers in previous years, means I don’t get to enjoy the event as much as I would if was an ordinary punter; but its undoubted success is good for both the railway and for CAMRA. If you enjoy preserved railways, as well as beer, then I highly recommend this festival.

Best Beer on Home Turf
Harvey’s Sussex Best. For everyday drinking, no beer comes close to beating; a real classic and one of the best examples of a full-bodied and well-hopped southern bitter. If I could only choose one cask beer to drink for the rest of my days, then this would be it.

There were two best seasonal beers; both of which are dark ales.
Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale, a fine mellow, traditional old ale, reminiscent of a strong mild.

Larkin’s Porter, is stronger and packs in masses of flavour. Despite the relatively mild winter so far, I have drunk more Larkin’s Porter this year, than I have in previous years.

Best Beers Abroad
La Trappe Dubbel and Isid’or; both in the peaceful setting of the grounds of the Abbey of Koningshoeven, in the south of the Netherlands.

Brouwerij De Prael, whose 6.5% ABV, true to style India Pale Ale was, without doubt the best beer of last August’s visit to the Netherlands. Enjoyed at the brewery tap; a modern multi-level bar housed in a much older building,  tucked away down a very narrow side street, on the edge of Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

Bucket List
I didn’t manage to knock anything of note off my bucket list (the one which isn’t written down and which changes on a fairly regular basis!). My return visit to Amsterdam was a minor desire fulfilled, as was the return to Regensburg combined with my visit to the brewing nuns at Kloster Mallersdorf, (see below).

Best Locations to Enjoy a Beer
In the UK

Tattershall Castle.  A converted, former river ferry, moored just off Victoria Embankment on the River Thames, which can be hired out for functions. The boat acted as the venue for this year’s British Guild of Beer Writers’ pre-GBBF party, and sitting out on the top deck, set against the backdrop of the river, whilst enjoying some excellent beers, sourced from several of London’s many up and coming breweries, made for a fantastic evening.

Further afield

Spitalgarten Regensburg, Bavaria.  My all time favourite beer garden, set besides the River Danube, with views across to the old city and its towering medieval cathedral. Combine that with warm late autumn sunshine, excellent beer brewed next door, hearty Bavarian food, plus the company of my family, and what more could I want.

Black Lab Brew-House & Kitchen, Barcelona. Just a stone’s throw from the city’s bustling marina, and situated in a block of old warehouses which has now been converted into a series of shops, restaurants and bars. The pub interior is bright and modern-looking, and at the rear, behind some glass screens, are a series of fermenting vessels. The actual brew-kit is housed in another part of the pub. This was a great place to enjoy a few of Black Lab’s excellent house-brewed beers, along with a spot of lunch.

De Wilde Mann, Amsterdam. On a grey and rainy day, this unspoilt, traditional Dutch pub was the perfect place to escape both the crowds and the weather. Combine that with friendly and knowledgeable staff, an interior which can’t have changed in decades, plus the chance to talk to fellow pub and beer enthusiasts, and it definitely made for the best place to drink in Amsterdam.

Best Days Out
Two days stand out here, although there have been several others which would be worth mentioning in a longer post.

First: the EBBC pre-conference stop-over, in the lovely southern Dutch city of Den Bosch. A day of superlatives, which not only included the aforementioned visit to the La Trappe Brewery at Koningshoeven Abbey, but an hour long cycle ride through a forest and then along the banks of a canal to the village of  Oirschot, which has its own micro-brewery.

As if that wasn’t enough, once back in Den Bosch, we were given a boat ride along the network of canals which ring the city. Some of these canals were defensive, and some were used to bring goods right into the city. Others were used mainly as open sewers, and nearly all the canals pass through underground tunnels at some point. This was a great way to discover a hidden part of Den Bosch, and on a hot summer afternoon, the perfect way to relax.

Second: my visit to Kloster Mallersdorf; the only remaining nunnery in Europe where the Holy Sisters brew their own beer.  The convent is perched on a hill over-looking the village of Mallersdorf-Pfaffenberg. My train journey from Regensburg; took me through the picturesque Bavarian countryside, which was looking particularly good in the late September sunshine; with fields of ripened sunflowers, waiting to be harvested, formed a memorable sight against the backdrop of the steadily rising hills.

Once at the abbey, I sat in the small garden area, of the privately-owned and family run Klosterbräustüberl, adjacent to the convent gates. It was a glorious late September day, and I enjoyed a couple of mugs of the cool, refreshing beer brewed opposite. Afterwards, I called at the abbey and bought a couple of bottles, from one of the nuns, to take home with me.

Biggest disappointment
This year’s EuropeanBeer Bloggers’ Conference in Amsterdam being the final one. After a run of six conferences, the North American organisers, Zephyr Adventures blamed falling numbers, plus the difficulties of finding suitable host cities and sufficient sponsors, to make these events viable. Hence their decision to cull the event in its current form.

Although I have only attended three conferences, I got to know many bloggers and writers drawn from countries all over Europe; as well as several from North America. Quite a few attendees have become friends, and as each conference was announced I looked forward to catching up with them, and the excitement of meeting up in a different location each year, only added to the enjoyment of the occasion. For me the social aspects of the conference were every bit as important, if not more so, than the conference proceedings themselves.

I could go on, but that’s probably more than enough to be going on with, and besides, so let’s see what 2017 brings

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