Monday 30 July 2018

Lagunitas Waldos' Special Ale 11.3%

"In 1971, the Waldos met one afternoon at 4:19 as to not be later and set out in a ’66 Impala armed with a treasure map on a journey to find a spot near Point Reynes, They never found the spot……...But they kept lookin’. The Dankest and Hoppiest beer ever brewed at Lagunitas was made with the help of the Waldos,  for all treasure hunters."

Confused? Well if not, you darn well ought to be, because I know I was, and to a certain extent, still am!

From time to time I get sent bottles of beer to taste and review. Several months ago I received a beer called Waldos' Special Ale; an 11.3% Imperial IPA brewed by Lagunitas. Described as the dankest and hoppiest beer ever brewed at Lagunitas, it's also presumably one of the strongest the company has brewed as well.

I don't mind strong beers per se, but I have to be in the right frame of mind, and also in the right place, to want to drink one. It's perhaps not surprising then that this particular bottle sat unopened in my fridge for all that time.

Waldos' Special Ale is described as either a Triple IPA or an Imperial IPA. With an ABV of  11.3%, it is a not a beer for the faint of heart. It has a vinous feel, with a real resinous mouth-feel, no doubt due to the copious amounts of hops used in the brewing.

Underlying this is a thick syrupy maltiness which helps to offset the strong bitter hop finish. As if proof were needed of this, I could taste the strong earthy, pepper-like notes directly on my tongue and the roof of my mouth.

So definitely not an everyday beer, and not even one for special occasions,  but despite this, or perhaps even because of it people on sites such as Rate Beer and Beer Advocate are all over this super-strength beer. This may possibly have something to do with the rather ridiculous and over-hyped story behind it.

The story involves a group of five American students, called the Waldos, who attended San Rafael High School in Marin County, California . The students called themselves the "Waldos" because their chosen "hang-out spot" was a wall outside the school. They had a plan to search for an abandoned cannabis crop that they had learned about, based on a "treasure map" made by the grower of the weed.

Most days they used to meet up after school at 4:20 pm, next to a statue of Louis Pasteur, in the school grounds, mainly just to hang-out, smoke the odd joint and make plans to go in search of this mythical abandoned cannabis crop. The story goes that because of the 4:20 pm meeting time, the number 420 ended up as an obscure coded reference to marijuana.

Well I expect you're feeling as under-whelmed as I am by this story, and  probably wondering why  this obscure non-event was chosen as the inspiration behind this limited edition beer?  Perhaps if your origins are steeped in West Coast "counter-culture," the "Waldos" might mean something, but for the rest of us the story is definitely something of a turn-off.

A shame really as it's an interesting beer, and some may even say a truly great one. I haven't drunk enough of these high-octane, uber-strength IPA's to be able to form an opinion, one way or the other, but I'm still pleased to have had the opportunity to enjoy this one.

So Lagunitas, thanks for the beer, but next time please spare us the obscure, far-out, trippy-hippy, Californian references, because most of us just don't dig it, man!

Saturday 28 July 2018

Road to Damascus

Following close on the heels of my last post, which bemoaned the loss of a regional identity amongst Britain's brewers. Now I want to take a brief look back in time to the early 1970's, which was the start of my drinking career. I describe the journey I went on as being like on the Road to Damascus, because towards the end of that particular stretch, I experienced a real "epiphany moment."

The acquisition of CAMRA's first Good Beer Guide in 1974, acted as the catalyst which sparked my life-long interest in good beer and good places in which to drink it. The list of breweries at the back of the guide, whilst sparse on detail, opened my eyes to the delights which still awaited the eager beer lover in the British Isles, and I embarked on a quest to track down and sample as many of them as I could.

For the record I managed to sample beers from the majority of the breweries listed in that pioneering guide, although the fate of brewers such as Grays of Chelmsford and Melbourne's of Stamford, had already been sealed by the time the publication reached the bookshops.

What I want to write about here though, is the beers I drank before I first became aware of CAMRA and interested in beer in general. The early 1970's was a time of great social change. People were becoming more upwardly mobile and their aspirations and expectations of life were becoming more rigorous and more demanding. Nowhere was completely immune to these changes, and the licensed trade naturally followed suit.

Pubs and the beer they sold began changing, as brewers responded to want they saw as a demand for more sophisticated and more forward looking tastes. Pubs became more comfortable and less divisive in terms of class. Partitions between different bars (public and saloon) were removed, and pubs became more comfortable and more appealing to women. No longer were they places for the men folk to gather in and get drunk, but rather places where different sectors of society could meet and get together on equal terms.

Unfortunately the rush to remove many of the historic features and often attractive features from these pubs, had the effect of creating characterless and totally soulless "drinking barns," with all the appeal of a wet weekend in Bognor.

Worse was to come though, as along with the pubs, brewers felt the need to offer something more modern in the way of beer. To be fair, the consistency of traditional cask-conditioned beer had always been a little hit and miss, especially where there was an inexperienced or sloppy licensee involved, so the brewers took the opportunity to remove this variable from the equation.

No longer would they allow an incompetent publican to ruin their carefully crafted beer, they would instead carry out the all important maturation at then brewery and then present the licensee with a product that only required a spanner to couple it up to a beer line and a gas cylinder, before it was ready to serve. Brewery-conditioned, container or keg beer was the way forward and the public were just going to love the new totally consistent and crystal clear product that modern pubs would be serving up.

As a highly impressionable teenager and fan of all things modern, I lapped up these changes and even embraced them. That shiny illuminated box on the bar, was the source of the beer of the future; it was the way to go, and keg beers like Courage Tavern, Whitbread Tankard and Ind Coope Double Diamond was what it was all about. These were the beers I sought out when I first embarked on my drinking career.

Keg beers were not universally welcomed though; much to the brewers surprise. They may have provided consistency as well as reducing wastage, and they also made the cellar-man's job much easier, but they were served too cold, were lacking in flavour and were often far too gassy.

I can still remember the look of disdain on the face of the landlord of our village pub when I sidled up to the bar and meekly asked for a pint of Tankard. It was probably the only pint he'd served all week, and me asking for a pint of fizz, must have seemed like an insult to a man who prided himself on the quality of the cask beer he kept and served from barrels behind the bar.

I was unabashed, and continued my love affair with keg beer. On a school trip to Thanet I was introduced to a couple of hitherto unknown keg brands. I was studying A-level geology, and we were out on a day's field trip, examining the base of the chalk cliffs at an area between Broadstairs and Margate, known as Botany Bay.

The cliffs are rich in fossils, and from memory we found some corals and the odd sea urchin, but one particular friend had a better idea and suggested a few of us adjourn to the nearby, cliff-top hostelry, known then as the Fayreness Hotel. Unlike my mother and father, Roy's parents were regular pub goers, and the habit had passed on to their son. I'm not sure how he knew about the Fayreness, but it didn't take long for him to guide us up the steep path, between a gap in the chalk cliffs to the hotel.

Today the pub has been renamed as the Botany Bay Hotel, and has been much extended, which is why photos of the place look completely different to the pub I remember. There were two totally unfamiliar fonts on the bar; one was red and dispensed a beer called Mc Ewan's Export; the other was black and dispensed Younger's Tartan.
I had never heard of either of these beers, but one member of our small group had and we ended up trying a pint of both. I was more than slightly inebriated afterwards, as we made before making our way back down to the beach to carry on with the fossil hunt as though nothing had happened.

A few months later another school friend discovered Mc Ewan's and Younger's beers on sale at the Five Bells, in a village called Brabourne. The latter was effectively the next village to Brook, which was where the family home was situated, and the Five Bells was a well-known local free-house.

Despite its tucked-away location, the pub became a popular meeting place for my friends and I, being easily reachable by motorbike in my case, and by car for those whose parents were slightly more affluent. It continued serving the two Scottish beers, and we continued to give it our patronage. By the time I went off to university in Salford in the autumn of 1973, I thought I knew all there was to know about beer; boy was I in for a shock!

As well as keg beer I had developed a liking for Newcastle Brown Ale. This legendary bottled beer was available in local Shepherd Neame pubs, but it came at a price. It was only sold in half-pint bottles, which meant it was virtually double the price of  Shepherd Neame Bitter (it wasn't called "Master Brew" back then), but to someone who wasn't that keen on Shep's (probably because it was too distinctive and too bitter), it was a godsend.

Seeing it available in the Salford University Students Union bar, in clear pint bottles, at a price that was only marginally more than the draught Younger's Tartan or Tetley Bitter, was even better; or at least I thought so.

One evening I attended a function in the "posh" side of the union building. This was the academic section, normally reserved for the teaching staff and off-limits to students. The lecturers had proper glass mugs on their side, unlike the awful plastic "Skiffs" us students had to put up with.

I can't remember what the function was about, but as well as "freshers" like me, there were students from the years above mine, and also a sprinkling of post-graduate students. I recalls getting into conversation with a couple of these more mature students, and them querying my choice of drink. In my naivety I told them Newcy Brown was the "beer of the north."

I was soon put in my place and told that my chosen tipple was "chemical beer" - the sort of stuff which sent people mad. According to these two "experts" there was even a special ward in the Newcastle Royal Infirmary, for recovering Newcastle Brown Ale addicts!

Although naive,  I wasn't that gullible, but something of what they said struck a chord with me. Slowly, but surely, I began switching my allegiance back to bitter. I was certainly spoilt for choice in the Greater Manchester area and within a short distance from the university, there were pubs belonging to Boddington's, Greenall Whitley, Tetley and Bass. A bit further away there were pubs selling Holts, Wilson's, Robinson's and Threlfalls (Whitbread).

We will leave things here for the moment, as we've almost reached Damascus. Next time I will describe my "epiphany moment" which happened as I neared the end of my metaphysical journey, on the road to beer nirvana.

Wednesday 25 July 2018

In search of good beer

Regular blogger The Pub Curmudgeon aka Mudge,  posted an excellent piece about the joys of drinking in the 1970's; a time when it was possible to tell whereabouts one was in the country, by the local beer on offer.

He describes "a patchwork of independent breweries the length and breadth of the country, ranging from regional giants such as Vaux and Wolverhampton & Dudley to tiny firms like Bathams and Burts. Each had its own territory, its own distinctive beers and very often its own style of pub. It was a lesson in geography, with strongholds, heartlands and outposts."

Now that is a situation I not only remember very well, but also empathise with strongly, and I stated as much by a comment on that particular post. Mudge certainly managed to capture the sheer joy of travelling around the country, and the sense of anticipation which went with visiting certain towns, or areas, knowing that the beers you were going to drink weren’t available anywhere else. This made travelling a fulfilling and pleasant experience, but also made the destination much more rewarding and enjoyable.

Basically providing you knew your beers, you knew where you were in the country. As a beer lover, you also knew which parts of the kingdom would offer the best choice, or the most distinctive beers, and which areas to avoid.

For example the Greater Manchester conurbation could boast one of the best selections of beer anywhere in the country, as there were around half a dozen independent brewers operating in the region, alongside a couple of national breweries which also turned out a decent drop of beer.

Contrast this with the county of Norfolk, where a series of takeovers and mergers had left most of the county's pubs in the grip of one large brewer; the infamous Watney Mann. Watney's, of course, had abandoned cask beer altogether and, as early beer campaigner Richard Boston so eloquently put it, "had placed all their kegs in one basket." If you didn't like cold, weak, fizzy and characterless beer and lived in Norfolk, you were out of luck.

Obviously things have changed over the past half century, and good beer is not only far more widely available, but comes in a myriad of different types, styles and strengths. Beer Agencies - companies that distributed a variety of different beers, from all over the country, coupled with the parallel rise of the “beer exhibition”  pubs, which served these beers meant that in many cases punters could drink beers from the length and breadth of the British Isles, just by working their way along the bar!

Whilst many drinkers welcomed this vastly increased choice, for drinkers like myself it took much of the fun and excitement out of travelling around the country. Gone were the joys of a visit to Dorset, where the delights of Eldridge Pope, Hall & Woodhouse and Palmers awaited the thirsty drinker, or pitching up in rural Lincolnshire to enjoy a few pints of Bateman's.

A weekend in Oxford meant being able to sup the much missed Morrells beers, whilst a little further back along the Thames Valley, saw one in Henley-on-Thames, where the incomparable Brakspears Ales were available, in some of the most unspoilt and picturesque pubs imaginable.

One year, the previous Mrs Bailey and I took a holiday in the Cotswolds, and based ourselves near to Stow-in-the- Wold, with the purpose of visiting and drinking in as many Donnington pubs as possible.

Even more memorable were the forays we made, by bicycle, from south London, into Surrey where there was a handful of pubs belonging to legendary Horsham brewers, King & Barnes. Their Horsham PA, pale in colour, low in strength, but packed full of flavour and crowned with a flowery hoppiness, made the effort of all that pedal-pushing worthwhile.

Further afield, a trip into the area of East Sussex, centred on Lewes, meant the chance of enjoying the delectable and, in my view the still unbeatable, Harvey's Prize Sussex Ales. Another area of interest to the beer drinker was Suffolk, where beers from Adnam's, Greene King and Tolly Cobbold were widely available.

Whilst Tolly Cobbold have gone to that great brewery graveyard in the sky, Adnam's and Greene King beers are now nationally available, and the same has happened to other well-regarded brewers, such as Timothy Taylor's and Shepherd Neame, to name just a couple.

At least these companies are still independent and still brewing, in the main, good beer, unlike Boddingtons, the iconic beer from Manchester, which was bought up by a large brewer (Whitbread), turned into a national brand, dumbded down and bastardised, before suffering the ultimate indignity of seeing its brewery and original home closed and razed to the ground.

Slowly, but surely, the uniqueness that characterised the British beer scene has been eroded, and whilst there has been an unprecedented rise in the numbers of new brewers entering the market, producing some outstanding beers (as well as rather too many mediocre ones),  the decline in the numbers of independent family brewers, coupled with the rise of voracious pub owning companies has made pub-going a real lottery for many drinkers.

Whilst the potential choice of beers available to today's drinker would seem unimaginable to one from 40 years ago, much of this choice is random in its distribution and often haphazard in nature. Like Pub Curmudgeon, I look back to the years of mid 1970’s, with a real fondness. Today too much choice really does mean less, and I feel we have definitely lost something which is both unique and rather precious.

Sunday 22 July 2018

The Dog Days of Summer

Well it’s certainly been the hottest and the driest summer we’ve had for many a long year, and it looks as though it’s set to continue for a while yet. It’s also been a rather strange summer; neither here nor there, as Bill Bryson so eloquently put it.

The strange feeling to the summer began at the beginning of June, following the sudden and totally unexpected death of our company General Manager. It’s worrying when someone who’s younger, fitter and considerably slimmer than yourself collapses suddenly and dies; especially when it was without any warning.

We’ve been rather in limbo since then, having lost a well-regarded colleague who was also a generally all-round, good bloke, who cared passionately about the company and the people who work there. For the moment we find ourselves somewhat rudderless, with no-one to pilot the ship through increasingly rocky waters, but the real tragedy is that Barry’s wife and children have lost a loving husband and father, who was looking forward to retirement in a few years time.

Still the show must go on, as Freddy Mercury sang, and we’ve had two senior people over from our parent company in Japan, not just for moral support, but to make sure the company stays on track. Our order book is at a record high, which kind of brings its own problems, but these are nice problems to have, and I’m sure that by pulling together we’ll succeed in meeting our customers’ expectations.

On the home front, Mrs PBT’s continues to improve and is busy planning a “stay-cation” for us later in the year. Regular readers will know that I’m off to America next month – in fact in just over a fortnight’s time, so I’ve been pretty busy planning the trip, and booking flights and accommodation.

The fact that I’ll be away for a fortnight, has meant I’m a little reluctant to eat further into my annual leave entitlement. There’s been quite a bit occurring on the local beer front recently, culminating in a trip which a number of my friends made on Friday to Canterbury, for the Kent Beer Festival. I gave this a miss, for the above reason, but there's also not been time for walking a few more sections of the North Down’s Way. Fortunately the high temperatures have not been conducive to long-distance walking, so I don’t feel as if I've missed out on too much.

Last weekend saw licensees Fran and Richard, celebrating their first year at the Greyhound, Charcott; an event they marked with a mini-beer festival. That unfortunately clashed with a friend’s 80th Birthday party, which had a theme based on characters from the Beano. Eddie was born in 1938, which was the year the legendary comic first hit the news-stands, so all the guests were asked to dress up as characters who have featured in the comic.

I have to say, there were a few too many Dennis the Menaces,  but Mrs PBT’s went along as Minnie the Minx and yours truly appeared as Lord Snooty. A good time was had by all, with copious quantities of drink consumed along with  just the right amount of food to soak it all up.

Last Monday evening, I attended my local CAMRA branch’s business meeting, which was held at the recently opened Nelson Arms, in Tonbridge. We had a turn-out of 14, which was something of a record, and whilst the meeting did drag on a bit, it was good to catch up afterwards with friends I hadn’t seen for a while. 

The beer too was good, with the Young’s London Gold and Whitstable East India Pale in fine form. A beer which was well worth finishing up on was “4 Hop Men of the Apocalypse,” a strong and well-hopped IPA from Totally Brewed.

On Friday a colleague and  I called in for a lunchtime drink at the Greyhound. Having seen some of the punters enjoying a nice cool, tall and refreshing glass of Hofmeister, I decided to forgo the cask and grab a glass myself. It was good, and streets away from the brand with the same name that was flaunted about by Courage, back in the 80’s, and promoted by a “Jack-the-lad,” bear character, called George.

“For great lager, follow the bear,”  was the slogan at the time, but the re-launched and totally re-vamped Hofmeister is now a beer worthy of serious attention. Produced at an un-named brewery in Bavaria, do give this beer a try if you see it on sale. It is certainly going down a storm at the Greyhound.

The pub itself was packed with both drinkers and diners, and it is so good to see the place thriving under its current owners. It demonstrates just how important the owners and the people behind the bar are to the success, or other wise of a pub.

Yesterday evening, my wife and I were guests at yet another party; a summer one this time. The party took place at the Carpenter’s Arms, Three Elm Lane, on the outskirts of Tonbridge. It’s an annual event thrown by the boss of a building  firm who Eileen does work for, as a means of saying thank-you to the loyal and hard-working employees.

This was the third year running that we’ve been to this event, and I think it was also one of the best. As is previous years we sat out on the patio, at the front of the pub enjoying some excellent buffet finger food - runny Scotch Eggs, miniature beef burgers, home-made sausage rolls and a rather nice asparagus quiche. There was an open bar, and this time people were far more sensible, and in the main didn’t take advantage. Certainly there were far fewer virtually full pints, or barely tasted glasses of wine left abandoned on the tables at the end of the evening.

The beer selection was also good, with some excellent pints of Dark Star Hophead (3.0 NBS) and Harvey’s Sussex (4.0 NBSS). The Carpenters was tastefully renovated in a contemporary style, several years ago, and is now a popular destination for Tonbridge people wanting a touch of the rural life, without having to drive too far from the town centre. (There is even a bus service which operates during the day).

So the “dog days” continue on towards August, with no sign of a break in the hot weather and no sign of sense prevailing in UK politics either. The strangeness and the uncertainty from the "increasingly rocky waters", I referred to earlier, look set to continue for quite a while yet!

Sunday 15 July 2018

By train and plane across the USA

The other night I made the final booking for my forthcoming trip to the United States, and the travel arrangements are now complete. It's been a little complicated at times and I've had to make a few changes, but now with the last of five flights and two train journeys, plus hotels in two different locations booked, I can sit back and do the interesting stuff - like searching out the best bars and breweries where I can enjoy a few beers.

I won't bore people with all the details, but basically I'm flying into Washington Dulles, and then spending three nights in nearby Loudon County, Virginia, at the hotel which is hosting this year's Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference.

The conference, of course is one of two reasons for my trip; the second being spending a few days with my sister and her husband at their home in a small Ohio town to the south-west of Cleveland.

Once the conference has finished, I've got to travel between the two locations, but before doing so I will be heading south-east from Loudon for a brief visit to Richmond, on the BBW Post-Conference trip. This will be a whistle-stop tour of some of Richmond's finest breweries and bars.

I mentioned before that Richmond was the Confederate State Capital during the American Civil War, but I don't think we'll be seeing much from those times, as the city was razed to the ground by the victorious Union forces in the closing days of the conflict. I'm certain though, that in the intervening 153 years, Richmond will have had plenty of time to rise from the ashes, reinvent itself, and get brewing some amazing beers.

CC BY-SA 3.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons
The following morning it's time to let the train to take the strain, as I'll be heading back to Washington on the first leg of a two stage journey, which will take me all the way to Chicago. So it's a three hour train ride into central Washington and then a 17 hour journey to Chicago, on the Amtrak service known as the "Capitol Limited."

CC BY-SA 3.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons
I've booked a "roomette" for this stage of the journey, as the train will be travelling through the night, but there's a further civil war connection en route. From Washington the rail line follows the valley of the Potomac River, and passes through the historic settlement of Harper's Ferry; best known as the location of John Brown's raid on the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry.

The raid took place in 1859, and Brown's objective was to start an armed insurrection amongst local slaves. The skirmish certainly escalated tensions and alarmed many of Virginia's slave owners, and was one of the contributory factors which led to the secession, a year later, of the Southern States from the Union; an event which led directly to the  start of the American Civil War.

The rail-line then follows a winding route up through West Virginia and into Maryland, before crossing into Pennsylvania. The train reaches Pittsburgh at around midnight, and I had considered leaving the train and spending the night there, before taking a Greyhound bus to my sister's the following morning. Amtrak's poor time-keeping record (more on that later), plus the hassle of checking into a hotel in the early hours of the morning, persuaded me it was best to stay on the train, and sleep the night away in the comfort of my roomette.

The following morning we will be journeying through Ohio and up towards Cleveland. I could have asked my sister to meet me there, but as our arrival would be around 2am, it didn't really seem fair to ask her and, as I've said already, I fancy a decent night's sleep.

The train is due in to Chicago at 8:45, having travelled from Ohio, across the state of Indiana and into Illinois. In theory this should have left ample time for me to walk across to the Greyhound bus station and take the 11:15 service to Elyria; the nearest large town to my sister's place. I mentioned earlier though about Amtrak's poor time-keeping, and this somewhat threw a spanner into the works.

A friend of mine, who has travelled extensively all over the US by rail, told me that it is not unusual for delays of several hours to Amtrak services. I did some checking of my own and discovered this was indeed the case. The delays are due to the fact that Amtrak do not own any of the tracks their trains travel over. Several large railroad companies own the majority of America's remaining rail routes, and freight, rather than passengers, is their main concern.

Anyone who has travelled through America cannot failed to have been mesmerised by the sight of some of the incredibly-long freight trains, hauled by two or sometimes even three powerful locomotives as they pass by. On a still evening, you can hear them from my sister's house, as they emit their ghostly whistles whilst rumbling onwards through the night.

Although they are not supposed to, the railroad companies will normally give priority to these massive freight trains; after all they are their bread and butter and the fees they collect from Amtrak pale into insignificance compared to a lucrative shipment of coal, timber, iron ore etc. Amtrak's own site indicated that delays of up to three hours are not uncommon on the southern section between Washington and Pittsburgh, whilst from Pittsburgh to Chicago delays of up to 90 minutes may be experienced.

I decided to change my plans, swapping road transport for air, and booked a flight of just one hour 20 minutes back to Cleveland. It was considerably more expensive than what Greyhound would have charged me, but it not only gave me a lot more "slack" time to play with at Chicago, it also saved me a bus journey of almost nine hours!

So after two days and one night's travelling, I will have five and half days to spend with my sister and her husband. I know my brother-in-law has booked a few days off work, and if my last visit, nearly 10 years ago, is anything to go by, there will be quite a lot of beer drinking involved.

My brother-in-law developed a liking for decent beer during his 13 year deployment with the USAF at Lakenheath airbase in Suffolk. Returning to the states, with my sister in tow, some 20 years or so ago, he managed to track down plenty of interesting local beer, and I imagine what was a burgeoning brewing scene back in 2008, will have changed out of all recognition.

Cleveland-based, Great Lakes Brewing are now one of the major players locally, but there are plenty of others. One place I know we will be visiting, is a place called the Brew Kettle. This establishment, in the suburbs of Cleveland, acts as a place where enthusiasts can visit in order to brew their own beer, as well as enjoying a few of the multitude of different ales on tap at the Brew-Kettle bar and  restaurant.

The good news is that a branch of the Brew Kettle has opened in the town, where my sister and her family reside. We can now just stroll down the road, and all enjoy a few excellent local beers, without any of us having to moderate their consumption for the drive back.

I've left the "there and back" part of the trip until last, but it's no less interesting. I'll be flying with Icelandair, who operate out of Gatwick, and fly to both Washington Dulles and Cleveland, via Reykjavik. On the outward journey it's significantly cheaper for me to break my journey, and when I say "significantly," I mean virtually half-price!

I'll therefore spending a night and a morning in the Icelandic capital - not the cheapest place for a beer, but another destination to cross off the list.

A quick final word about the photos. Most were taken on my previous visit to America, back in 2008,and several of them relate to places described in the narrative.

Tuesday 10 July 2018

A touch of Spargel

I mentioned in my post on Würzburg, about how much I enjoyed a plate of white asparagus at the beer garden of Würzburger Hofbräu. Served with hollandaise sauce and new potatoes, it really was a dish fit for a king. That was not my first experience of the seasonal vegetable the Germans call Spargel; that happened three years previously, when I was staying in Nuremberg for the Fränkisches Bierfest. 
Whilst at the festival, I met up with ex-pat American and local beer enthusiast, Erlangernick Nick. Nick acted as my guide to the best beers at the festival, as with close on 40 breweries with stands there, some were bound to be better than others. It was therefore really good to be guided by someone with both knowledge and experience of the beer scene in that part of southern Germany.
I really enjoyed Nick’s company. He encouraged me to converse with him in German, so this  provided a good opportunity to practise both my listening and conversational skills. 
The festival itself was great fun and there were lots of interesting beers to try, but it did get very busy and rather crowded; and this was on the Friday afternoon! Saturday would no doubt prove even busier, so at Nicks ’s suggestion we decided it would be nice to get out of the city and experience some of the Franconian countryside.
The following day we met up at Roppelt’s Keller, in the tiny village of Stiebarlimbach, to the north-west of Forchheim. Nick had arrived by car, and would therefore not be drinking much, but explained his proposal to drive the two of us around a few Kellers in the area. There were a couple he wanted to check out, and he thought I would also like to visit some which were well off the beaten track.
Too right; I jumped at the chance, so after I had finished my beer, we set off in his car in order to sample a few of Franconia’s finest breweries and Kellers. Driving through the unspoilt countryside of the Steigerwald, in search of good local beer, with some vintage Yes playing on the car stereo, made me think “life doesn’t get much better than this,” and when we arrived at our first port of call I was right.
This first stop was the tiny village of Adelsdorf-Aisch; set on a hill overlooking the River Aisch, and its surrounding meadows. On the edge of the village, and overlooking the flatlands is the Brauerei & Gasthaus Rittmayer Aisch. Nick  informed me that there are three breweries in the region, all sharing the Rittmayer name, but the one in Aisch is the smallest. Just up from the pub and the brewery was the village church, making up that classic combination of pub and church which is so common in English villages as well.
We both went for the Hausbrauer-Bier and to eat the obvious choice was the local white asparagus, known in German as Spargel. This was my first experience of Spargel, and wrapped in slices of ham and served with boiled potatoes, it was delicious. The beer was good too, and sitting there under the shade of the chestnut tree, against the backdrop of the pub, brewery and the splendid view was really as good as things can get, so in some ways it was a shame we had to move on.
That first experience of Spargel was memorable, as was the location plus the company, and I deliberately went into a lot more detail than was strictly necessary for this write up. A handful of fellow bloggers, who know Nick better than I do, will appreciate the reason for this, so I won’t elaborate further, but on the off-chance that he does accidentally stumble upon this piece, I want him to know that his friends in England, and I’m sure in Franconia too, are thinking of him. For my part, I would like Nick to know, just how much I enjoyed that memorable trip we took together three years ago, on that baking hot day in late May, around some of Franconia’s finest Bierkellers.
Returning now to Spargel, and a word or two of explanation. White asparagus is really no different than normal green asparagus, expect that it is grown underground in small mounds. This prevents photosynthesis from occurring, thereby keeping the stalks from turning green. The white variation has a slightly milder and sweeter flavour than green, although in a blind tasting, you would need to be a connoisseur to tell the two apart. 

Green asparagus is usually best when picked early, because it will become woody and quite tough. White asparagus, on the other hand, can be grown for a while and the thickness has no impact on the tenderness. However, white asparagus should always be peeled before cooking. I brought some white asparagus back from my recent trip to Bamberg, and whilst I did mention this tip to my wife, she obviously wasn’t listening, and our Spargel was quite chewy.
The Germans take the Spargel season very seriously, probably because, like in England, the crop is only available for a short period. This starts in May and runs through into June, and take a walk through any local fruit and vegetable market during this time,  and you will see bundles of white asparagus piled up on display.
Most pubs and restaurants will feature at least one Spargel dish on their menus. It is estimated that 82,000 tons of Spargel are actually produced in Germany each year — which only meets around 60% of consumption needs. I understand the balance is imported from neighbouring countries, with France being the major exporter.
Asparagus thrives best in loose, sandy soil which is not too moist, but in theory can be grown on any soil that does not contain too many stones and is not waterlogged. Each region of Germany claims to grow the best spargel, but the states of Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony are the two most important asparagus areas. Further east,  the town of Beelitz, in the state of Brandenburg, is famed as the “AsparagusTown,” and even has a museum dedicated to Spargel.
As for me, whilst I have obviously enjoyed my encounters with White Asparagus in Germany, I still prefer the much more usual green version. I find it more tender and more subtle in taste, but this is probably down to familiarity, than anything else.
One final point, and just to muddy the waters even further, there is a much rarer purple variety of asparagus, but in order to appreciate the purple colour, it has to be eaten raw, as it turns green when cooked!