Before going any further, it is worth noting that the brewing process is the same the world over. There may be some variants, particularly as many continental breweries employ a two or three stage mash regime and fermentation times are typically longer; especially for lager-type beers, but the basics still remain much as they do on these shores.
There were actually two of these, which followed each other in quick succession. Both took place in the summer of 1975, when I was travelling around Europe, by train with a friend from university.
We were travelling on an InterRail ticket, journeying in a roughly circular route in a clockwise direction; a route which took in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Both cities are home to world famous breweries, although today both companies have move out of their inner city homes to green-field sites. Anyway, let’s get started.
The Dutch giant’s original home was right in the centre of Amsterdam, and even 40 years ago was offering brewery tours on a daily basis. The tour cost the princely sum of one Guilder; I haven’t got a clue what that equated to back then, but it was token amount, and anyway the money was donated to charity.
Unfortunately I remember very little from the tour, apart from the brewery being an impressive brick-built brewery, which was just a short walk from the city centre. The tour, which was conducted in English, ended with at least one complementary beer and possibly two. The brewery closed in 1988, when Heineken opened a much larger complex on the outskirts of Amsterdam.
Carlsberg’s original Copenhagen home was a bus ride away from the city centre, in what appeared to be a well-heeled leafy suburb. Like the Heineken tour it’s all rather blurred now, but I do remember the enormous bottling hall, and the famous “Elephant Gate”, with its ornate carvings. The photo below, shows a rather youthful me standing at the gate.
First and only visit behind the Iron Curtain
This trip involved a visit to Pilsner Urquell, in the southern Bohemian city of Plzeň (Pilsen). It took place in 1984, when Czechoslovakia, as the country was then called, was firmly in the Eastern bloc, and controlled by a totalitarian communist government. The trip organised by CAMRA Travel, a short-lived subsidiary of the Campaign.
Our tour took place in the morning, when many of us were already suffering from the previous night’s over-indulgence, and I’m pretty sure we had glasses of beer plonked in front of us before the tour even commenced.
I remember the impressive brew-house with its polished copper kettles, but the highlight was a trip underground to the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the brewery. Here the beer slowly fermented in open wooden vats, before being transferred into massive wooden casks, where it underwent a period of extended maturation. The tunnels maintained an even temperature of 6ºC all year round.
In 2012, I re-visited Pilsner Urquell, over a quarter of a century later from that original tour. The brew-house looked much the same; although it has been extended, but most of the fermentation and maturation now takes place on a forest of massive, vertical stainless steel tanks. We were again taken underground, as a small number of the wooden vessels are still in use, for taste comparison purposes, and we were even “treated” to a small sample of the unfiltered beer, straight from one of the wooded casks.
Largest overseas brewery:
This was a visit to the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, whilst I was in the Irish capital for the 2014 European Beer Bloggers Conference. We’d been invited to the brewery for a sneak preview of Guinness’s brand spanking new No. 4 Brew-House which, at the time, was not fully commissioned.
Despite us being sworn to secrecy and forbidden to take any photos, there was precious little to see. I have to say new, hi-tech breweries don’t do much for me; in fact they’re a huge turn-off. Give me a working Victorian brewery any day, complete with levers and pulleys, plus various wheels to turn, rather than a soul-less steel-framed shed, and I’m much more interested. The new brew-house is extremely versatile and is capable of brewing both ales and lagers, but that’s about all there is to say about it.
Rodenbach was a brewery I had desired to visit for many years; having seen photos and read descriptions of the place in books by the legendary Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson. Roger Protz also wrote about it. What really inspired me were the photos of row after row of massive oak vats, all containing beer which was quietly maturing away.
Rodenbach is a Flemish Red-Brown Beer. These beers are a blend of young acidified, mature acidified and oak-matured beer, which result from a lengthy maturation in oak casks. This lowers the pH of the beer and gives it a longer shelf-life. The sour beer imparts a complex and agreeably refreshing flavour, thus imparting this blended beer with a distinctive edge, and making it the perfect aperitif.
My visit to the brewery in the town of Roeselare was the final port of call on a whistle-stop tour of West Flanders, which was part of the European Beer Bloggers post conference tour in 2015. Arriving in the evening gave a very atmospheric feel to our visit, especially whilst walking through the maturation rooms, filled with row after row of massive oak vats, and it’s no exaggeration to say the tour more than exceeded my expectations.
The visit to Rodenbach leads nicely on to the next brewery which took place the following day, in the picturesque city of Bruges. After an overnight stay, in a rather swish hotel, we were treated to a trip round De Halve Mann Brewery, which is right in the heart of Bruges. De Halve Maan brews beers under the names of Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrik, and prior to our tour, we were able to try both beers over a very nice lunch.
We were first shown the new brew house, which has been shoe-horned into the rather cramped city-centre site, and now occupies much of the downstairs area. Of more interest was the old brewery, which is constructed on a traditional tower principle.
I have undertaken several other tours around foreign breweries, including two back in May, as part of the trip I made to Düsseldorf. Our group visited Schumacher, which is one of the oldest and certainly one of the most traditional Altbier breweries in Düsseldorf, and we also visited Brauerei Sünner; a Kölsch brewery in the neighbouring city of Cologne.
was Chotěboř Brewery in the town of the same name.
Bernard is an old established brewery which has been given a new lease of life, following significant investment; some of which came from overseas. Chotěboř, on the other hand, is a brand new concern, but still no less interesting. You can read more about these trips, here.
All of these breweries are in Europe, but next year I am planning a trip to the United States, so possibly I may end up touring a brewery or two over there.