Friday 31 August 2018

Amtrak across the USA. Part Two - Washington D.C. - Chicago

So after a brief interlude it's back on the train again, as we travel on the second and much longer section of my journey on Amtrak. This time we'll be travelling all the way from Washington D.C. to Chicago; a journey of around 17 hours.

After making the relatively short journey from Richmond VA, I boarded the impressive double-deck Amtrak Superliner at Washington, and the previous article ended with my train pulling out of Washington's Union station. We were already 20 minutes behind schedule as we rolled through the capital's suburbs, and after a hot and humid afternoon, it was not surprising that we ran into a couple of  really heavy thunderstorms.

As I sat in my comfortable compartment, watching the changing scenery outside, I felt a real sense of excitement to be travelling on the legendary train known as the Capitol Limited. The following morning the train would be pulling into  Chicago's main station, also called Union, but that would be tomorrow and for the time being, I wanted to enjoy the now.

I described my "roomette" compartment in the previous article, but what I didn't mention was it was on the lower deck of the train. So not wanting to see things from track level, I decided to head up to the dining car.

I found out where this was from a woman I'd met in the queue, whilst waiting to board the train. Her name was Jamie and she turned out to be quite a seasoned traveller on Amtrak, so when she chanced to pass by my compartment, I decided to join her upstairs for dinner.

I was busy chatting and nearly missed the train pulling into the historic settlement of Harper's Ferry. I mentioned this town before, and the part it played at the start of the American Civil War, but it wasn't until we crossed the River Potomac, at a point just upstream from where it is joined by Shenandoah River, that I realised we were there.

This point also marks the state boundaries between Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. There would be a further four such boundaries before reaching Chicago, but before then I had dinner on my mind.

I sort of knew what to expect, as a friend had warned me that Amtrak have recently abandoned their traditional "silver service" dining on certain routes. So passengers no longer sit down to a freshly prepared, three-course meal, but are instead "treated" to airline-style, pre-prepared dishes.

The bonus was I didn't have to wait long for my meal as, after showing my ticket to the dining car manager, my food arrived pretty quick. The rib beef with dumpling, vegetables and gravy, served in its own plastic dish, was quite palatable and there was dessert to follow.

I sat there chatting with my new-found companion, and also with several other occupants of the dining car. With windows on both sides, and its prominent top-deck position, it was just the place to sit and admire the passing scenery.

The scenery was certainly spectacular, as our train made its way along the course of the Potomac Valley, with the hills slowly becoming steeper and more prominent. These views were certainly the most spectacular of the whole journey, as by sunrise the following morning, we were passing through the comparatively un-interesting flatlands of  northern Ohio and Indiana. During the hours of darkness, we had travelled through Pennsylvania, but I slept right through all that, including the train stopping to change crews in Pittsburgh.

I didn't turn in straight away as, along with a number of fellow passengers, Jamie and I were roped in by the dining car manager, to play a panel type game, called "Family Feuds." The manager told us that she and one of the stewards, arranged this game on most evenings, once food service had finished for the evening. It helped pass the time before they turned in for the night, and was a good way for people to get to know each other.

We were sufficient in number to make up four teams of four, and as we started playing I realised that "Family Feuds" was the same as our TV game "Family Fortunes." It was good fun, playing along and although we were a real mixed bunch of travellers, this was a good way to get to know each other. The team I was in came second, with the winners receiving a bottle of wine to share between them.

I had already decided to have a booze-free day, following the excesses of the previous three days, so wasn't bothered about missing out on the wine. I'd even forgone the earlier "Happy Hour". With the conversation turning to drink,  Jamie told me that her favourite tipple was Stella Artois; a beer I didn't know was available in the States. I didn't mention that Stella is sometimes known as "wife-beater" back in the UK.

When I got back downstairs, I gave the attendant a call and he made up my bed. It was all very ingenious the way the two opposing seats slid together. The mattress, complete with ready fitted sheet and blanket, was then retrieved from the upper bunk. After a quick trip along to the toilet and washroom, I undressed and slid into my cosy and surprisingly comfortable bed. I latched the door shut, and was soon slipping into a restful sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train.

I mentioned latching the door closed, and whilst this provides security whilst the roomette is occupied, the compartments cannot be locked from the outside, whilst they are unoccupied. This does mean it is a wise precaution to take valuables, such as laptops etc, with you when leaving the compartment.

As mentioned earlier, I slept really well; the motion of the train helping to rock me gently off to sleep. I did wake a few times in the early hours, mainly to try and get some idea of where we were when the train drew to a halt. Some of these stops were due to having to give way to freight trains; more on that subject later.

I made it up to the dining car at around 7am, and found that breakfast was being served. It was a healthy option of sliced melon and other fruit, with a yoghurt to go with it. Personally I would have preferred something more solid, but I told myself the fruit and yoghurt would do me good; but not as good as the unlimited coffee, which was available from urns strategically situated in each coach.

I bumped into Jamie on my way back down to my compartment. She had overslept and consequently missed breakfast. With several hours to go before reaching Chicago, I put the time to good use and bashed out a few draft posts on the laptop, whilst keeping an eye on the changing scenery from time to time. The attendant gave out announcements on the tannoy every time we stopped, mainly to inform us that the delays were due to heavy freight traffic.

We ended up running two and a half hours behind schedule, so I was pleased I'd changed my original plan, which was to travel by Greyhound Bus from Chicago to my sister's place, close to Cleveland. I'd initially thought that a couple of hours would be ample to make the connection, but a conversation with a friend, prior to my trip, had persuaded me other wise. Instead I'd booked a flight from Chicago to Cleveland, with a late afternoon departure.

As the train neared Chicago, we passed through what can only be described as the mid-west "rust-belt." With blast furnaces standing empty and silent, and massive gantries rusting away, this was an eerie landscape, but it wasn't long before I could make out the windy city's towering skyscrapers in the distance, glistening away on the horizon.

Eventually we pulled into Union Station, which was journey's end. Alighting from the train I made my way to "baggage reclaim" where, just like at an airport, I waited for my suitcase to appear. I then made my way out to Chicago O'Hare Airport by means of the CTA mass transport system.

My flight to Cleveland took just over an hour, but due to hazy conditions I saw little of our course over lakes Michigan or Erie, which was disappointing. My brother-in-law picked me up from the airport, and 30 minutes later we were pulling onto the drive of the picturesque, weatherboard house, he shares with my sister.

I spent six very pleasant and enjoyable days there, and after the travelling I'd undertaken, it was nice just to chill out and relax with the American members of my family.
We visited our fair share of bars and brew-pubs of course, but my brother-in-law and I also got plenty of walking in.

I will be writing about some of these later, but for now I will just say that the beer scene in northern Ohio, is every bit as good as what I experienced in Virginia, earlier in my trip.

Monday 27 August 2018

The Fifth Continent

Well after tales of foreign parts, "awesome" beers, lengthy train journeys, cool dudes and even cooler Vikings, it's time for a short break and a return to home shores for a post more suited to the domestic market.

The piece which follows takes its lead from prolific blogger and Good Beer Guide "ticker" extraordinaire  Retired Martin, and on the basis that imitation is the finest form of flattery, it contains elements which I'm sure followers of Martin's blog will recognise. However, the content, observations and underlying theme are entirely my own.

The idea for this post came to me whilst the family and I were wandering around a small town in South East Kent, after a rather nice lunch at a nearby pub. With the Bailey family freed from work for the duration of the long Bank Holiday weekend, we decided that a drive to the coast and fish and chips by the sea, would be a good way to spend some time together.

And where better to go than one of our favourite places; the far south-eastern corner of Kent, known as Romney Marsh. This sparsely populated wetland area, which stretches between the counties of  Kent and East Sussex, has long held a fascination for the Bailey family.

 It is one of England’s most distinctive landscapes and consists of wide, flat fields, endless skies, meandering ditches dotted with isolated farms and villages. Much of Romney Marsh lies below sea level and covers about an area of around 100 square miles. 

Mrs PBT's and I both have fond memories from our respective childhoods, of visits to the Marsh, and this tradition continued when we first became a married couple and then a family. We spent our honeymoon at Rye and later, following the birth of son Matthew, had several family holidays in the area. For several years running, we rented a cottage at Winchelsea Beach, in the shadow of the dunes and the seawall, and literally a stone's throw from the sea.

A short drive from Winchelsea is the southern tip of Romney Marsh, where the great sweeping expanse of shingle known as Dungeness, juts out into the English Channel. It is the largest such shingle structure in Europe, and was the first stop on Saturday's trip to the coast.

There were a couple of alternatives for fish and chips available to us; one which meant eating indoors, whilst the other entailed sitting in the car and eating our lunch out of the paper, whilst looking at the sea. So the first choice was the legendary Pilot Inn at Dungeness and the second the equally well-known Greatstone Fish Bar, a short drive along the coast.

We decided to try the Pilot first, having been thwarted on a previous trip to the coast, when the pub was packed to the gunwales. On that occasion fish and chips, straight out of the wrapper, in the car park behind the dunes was perfect, but with Mrs PBT's preferring something a little more comfortable, we were keeping our fingers crossed there would be room at the inn.

We were in luck as not only was there room in the car park, there were quite a few spare tables inside the pub, so we grabbed one and went and placed our order. The Pilot is renowned for its fish & chips, so I went straight to the bar and ordered our lunch; cod and chips for Matthew and me, huss and chips for Mrs PBT's.

We also required something to drink and a house beer, called B17 and brewed specially for the pub by Romney Marsh Brewery, fitted the bill. Described as an American Pale Ale, this refreshing beer weighed in at 5%, and as well as going well  with the cod, scored a well deserved 4.0 NBSS. 

It is several years since I last set foot in the Pilot, and it was every bit as good as I remembered. The service was good with our food arriving within 10 minutes of us ordering. There were plenty of diners in the pub, enjoying the food and there were quite a few sitting outside as well.

The Pilot is practically on the beach, and has views right across the curve of St Mary's Bay to Dover and the White Cliffs. Running to the rear of the pub is the world-famous Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway; the 15 inch gague light railway which runs between Hythe and Dungeness.

Upon leaving the pub we drove along to the tip of Dungeness, and after parking in the shadow of the nuclear power station, took a quick walk down to the shoreline. There were a few hardy souls fishing off the steeply shelving shingle beach, but apart from them and the ever present seagulls, we had the place to ourselves.

Now for the second and slightly more offbeat part of the post - the one with the quirky photos and the section which takes its lead from Retired Martin. We drove into nearby New Romney, parked the car and went for a wander around.

New Romney holds a particular affection for me, as towards the end of his career with the Royal Mail, my father was the town's Postmaster. The original  post office has long gone, after the Royal Mail sold off most of the so-called "Crown Post Office Buildings." 

Ironically dad's last job before he retired was the rather thankless one of having to go round and close most of these iconic 1930's buildings, because the Royal Mail were changing their business model.

So what of New Romney itself? Well it is one of the original Cinque Ports, with a harbour  at the mouth of the River Rother, adjacent to the town's medieval church. Today, the sea is a mile and a half away, and the Rother flows into the sea several miles away to the south-west, at Rye.

There are several pubs remaining in the town, but the two which caught my eye were the Smugglers' Alehouse and the Cinque Port Arms. The former is a micro-pub, which has been open for two and a half years, whilst the latter is a traditional pub, dating back to the 16th Century.

We didn't go in either, but another time perhaps? and whilst one should never judge a book by its cover, the Cinque Ports Arms would get my vote;  especially as I am not a huge fan of micro-pubs. The photos of the two pubs, together with those of the Mexican restaurant and the Fish & Peri - traditional fish & chip shop, should help to convey the quirkiness of the town.

On the way home, we called into Jempson's Superstore at Peasmarsh, just outside Rye. Jempsons are a local company and their shop is well-stocked with from the surronding area. As well as filling up with cheap diesel, we purchased for our tea, some of the tastiest sausage rolls, sliced beef and artisan crisps we have tasted in  long while. It's probably just as well we don't live in the Rye area, as we would be both broader in beam, and poorer into the bargain, but it's good to see an independent, family-owned supermarket more than holding its own against the bigger boys.

The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh.

(Rev. R Barham, writing as Thomas Ingoldsby, in The Ingoldsby Legends,1840s).
Ever since, the Marsh has been referred to as ‘The Fifth Continent’.

Saturday 25 August 2018

Not quite wrecked in Reykjavik

A fortnight ago, I wrote a short piece about Iceland, following the brief stop-over I made in the country on my way to the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference in Virginia, USA. 

Although my stay in Iceland was a short one, the country made a lasting impression on me, and I am determined to return for a longer break, which will take in much more of the island, apart from the capital Reykjavik.

At only three hours flying from southern England, Iceland is far closer than many people think and although there is much to see, including some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, in this article I want to concentrate on the capital Reykjavik, and its drinking scene in particular.

Before going any further it is worth noting that virtually all drinking establishments, in Reykjavik, and I include restaurants and cafés here, offer a "Happy Hour." This is often for an extended period of between 2-3 hours, but typically this will only apply during the late afternoon/early evening (4-7pm or 5-8pm is quite typical).

I strongly recommend you take advantage of "Happy Hour", as there will be a significant reduction in the price of your drinks (up to half-price). Some clubs and bars will also offer reductions after midnight, but unless you are a serious night-owl, I wouldn't go for these as you just know that any reductions will be starting from prices that are already on the high side.

Typical prices during "Happy Hour" will be  around the 700 - 900 ISK mark, (about £5.50- £7.00) for a half-litre glass. The price varies according to the strength of the beer - pretty much like it used to, and still should be in the UK.

The other thing to note is that central Reykjavik is quite compact and easy to get around on foot. It is also a clean and very safe city, although in parts there are examples of that scourge of modern city life - Graffiti. Fortunately the mindless scribbles are at quite a low level, but this need to deface buildings in the name of "art," which seems to possess certain people, is beyond me.

So where to go, baring in mind I was governed by the strictures of  Happy Hour? I'd already downloaded a list of possibilities, but in my rush to get my desk clear and everything up to date before I finished at work, I forgot to print it off! I therefore ended up wasting half an hour or so looking up suitable sites and then writing them down.

My rather basic apartment was less than 10 minutes walk from the centre of Reykjavik, so with my research fresh in my mind, I set off to enjoy a few of Iceland's finest beers.

Just before I reached Reykjavik's main shopping area, I passed the iconic Kaffibarinn. With its frontage of red, corrugated iron and a large London Underground symbol set over the entrance, this is one of the bars which helped secure Reykjavík's reputation as a party city back in the 1990's.

Unfortunately for me, Kaffibarinn's reputation meant that even on a Wednesday evening the bar was packed out. A brief look through the window confirmed it was standing room only, so reluctantly I gave the place a miss and headed for the next place on my list.

This was a bar called Bravo, and it is one of the most popular bars in Reykjavík, due  to its location on the Laugavegur shopping street. According to my guide, Bravo also boasts the longest Happy Hour in the city, but to my chagrin, this honour no longer applied.

On the plus side there was room inside and whilst all the tables were spoken for, there were a couple of free seats at the bar. I made a beeline towards these and plonked myself down on one of the available bar stools. There were taps for five different draught beers; four from Viking and once from Einstök.

I went straight in at the deep end and opted for a Viking Stout. This was an excellent, full-bodied stout brewed in a typically Irish dry style. At 5.8% it packed quite a punch and was by far the best of the three beers I sampled in Reykjavik that evening.

It was a mistake going for this one first, as the Viking Lager, which was the next beer I tried, paled into insignificance in comparison to the stout. This is despite Viking Lager being Iceland's best known and highest selling beer.

I enjoyed sitting at the bar, observing the comings and goings. There were quite a few Americans amongst the mainly young crowd, but with Happy Hour fast drawing to an end, I decided something to eat might be a good idea. A basket of nachos with a bowl of hot and spicy dipping cheese to accompany them.

The bar itself is cosy and atmospheric, helped by gentle lighting and soft-furnishings. I was tempted to stay for a further pint, despite Happy Hour being over, but the sun was still shining outside and I wanted to see a bit more of Reykjavik whilst it was still light.

I took a walk down towards the harbour, in order to get a view of the mountains on the other side of the sound. There was a chilly wind blowing off the sea, but the view of the mountains, lit against the backdrop of the setting sun, was worth feeling a little cold.

By the time I climbed the hill back into the city centre I was feeling more than a little peckish. I tried a couple of cafés first, but they were full to bursting point with all tables and chairs occupied. Instead I found space at the Lebowski Bar, an American-themed establishment designed around a cult film, that I've never heard of, called the Big Lebowski.

The bar seemed to be thinning out, so I had a whole table to myself. I ordered a cheeseburger (without fries), which was really tasty, but cooked a little too rare for my liking. Apparently that is how Icelanders like their meat.  Fortunately it didn't have any after-effects. I ordered a pint of Gull Lager, brewed by the Egill Skallagrímsson Brewery, to go with my burger, and sat there enjoying the food and drink and just being there in the moment.

I left Lebowski's at around 10.30pm, to make my way back to my apartment. The sun was just sinking below the skyline and when I turned in 30 minutes or so later, there was still a twilight glow in the sky. The educated amongst you will know that due to Iceland's northerly position, close to the Arctic Circle, the sun sets quite late in the evening during the summer months. The opposite applies during winter, of course, but it was good to have experienced this effect for myself.

After breakfast, I spent the morning doing tourist stuff. Amongst the highlights, was a look in side the world famous Hallgrimskirkja Church, which is the city's main landmark. Its tower can be seen from almost everywhere in the city, and at 74.5 metres high, it is the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures in the country. I also had a good look around the shopping area of central Reykjavik, which occupies the flat land close to the harbour.

I had to vacate the apartment at midday, so I returned to collect my suitcase and to drop off the keys. I then walked along to the bus station and took the bus back to Keflavik Airport. I had a couple of hours before my flight to Washington was due to leave, so I had some lunch and did a bit of shopping as well. Amongst other things were three bottles of beer from Borg Brugghus
Brewery, which include a Porter and an IPA,

I haven't opened them yet, but I will do before too long. I will then be able to report on a few more Icelandic beers.

Thursday 23 August 2018

Post Conference Excursion - Richmond, Virginia

The post Beer Bloggers Conference excursion to Richmond was one of the highlights of the first part of my North American adventure. The excursion took place on the Sunday and involved a short coach journey from the conference hotel, to the city which formed the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Our coach departed at 9.30am sharp, for a journey which should have taken around two hours, but as it was heavy traffic on the four-lane freeway, reminiscent of rush hour on the M25, added an extra 45 minutes to the journey. Our coach was only half full, as many of the conference attendees were driving down to Richmond, as they would be travelling back to their respective homes the following morning.

The trip gave me the chance to enjoy the countryside, which was heavily wooded in places, and more open in others. The afore-mentioned traffic problems occurred around the town of Fredericksburg where there was some quite heavy congestion, but even so we were only 20 minutes behind our scheduled arrival in Richmond.

The coach dropped us off at the well-appointed Omni Hotel, right in the heart of the city, and after an "express" credit card check-in, we left our bags to be dropped off at our  respective rooms later in the day. It was then back on the coach, and off to our first brewery off the day.

As with previous Beer Bloggers excursions I have been on, we were looked after by representatives from the local tourist board; in this case Visit Richmond VA. Our two guides were to remain with us, for the duration of the day. It was very hot and incredibly humid outside; a portent of the thunderstorms which arrived later, but it was nice and cool on the coach, as we journeyed through the historic heart of downtown Richmond, heading in a southerly direction.

I won't go into detail regarding all six breweries we visited that day, but one underlying theme emerged, which rather carried on from what we'd experienced on the two previous days. Over the course of the weekend it became abundantly clear that the North American Craft Beer movement has a current fixation with sour and barrel-aged beers; and with one major exception, all the breweries we visited over the three-day period, were intent on showing us their barrel-aging, and foeder-style maturation facilities.

Now whilst I find these beers interesting, they are not the type I want to drink on a regular basis; and there lies the rub, as again, with few exceptions, there were very few pale ales or IPA's below 6% for us to try. To my mind this was "extreme beer" and I was honest enough to say so to my hosts, when asked. I won't dispute the fact that the USA has some amazing beers available for people to try, but by the end of the weekend I'd pretty much had my fill of high-octane, hop-monsters.

There are two breweries in particular that stand out from the Richmond excursion, plus a couple of others which are worth  writing a few lines about. First on the list, and our first port of call, was Triple Cross Brewing whose brew-house and restaurant is situated on a hillside, at Fulton, on the edge of downtown Richmond. As well as nicely appointed premises the company also have their own wood-fired pizza oven and, after being ushered into the main public area, we were treated to some pretty mean and pretty amazing pizza.

We also got to sample several Triple Cross beers, including Falcon Smash American IPA, Proximity Project March Hare American "Wild Ale" and Salinity Sour Gose with Lime. We had a brief tour of the brewery, which included the obligatory barrel-ageing facility, but tucked away in the corner was the company's "piece de resistance," in the form of their own, shallow, open-tray cooling vessel. Also known as a "cool-ship," I have seen these vessels before, most noticeably at Elgood's |Brewery, at Wisbech, deep in the heart of the East Anglian fens.

The next stop was Stone Brewing, whose massive plant, located in a former industrial facility, over-looking a creek, opened in 2016. Many beer lovers will be familiar with this highly respected brewery, who are based in Escondido, California, and are now the largest brewery in the state.

 Following on from this success with the opening of a plant in Berlin, Stone Brewing looked to build a brewery on the East Coast of the United States. In the face of stiff competition from other east-coast cities, Richmond was chosen, and having now visited and toured the plant, I have to say it is a place of real superlatives. I started taking notes during the tour, but couldn't keep up with the amount of facts our guide - the site's Brewing Process Manager, was trotting out.

What I did manage to jot down is that Stone's Richmond Brewery is a 250 barrel Steinecker plant, capable of mashing four times a day. It is the dog's b*ll*cks in terms of energy efficiency, and is fully automated. Each one of the umpteen stainless-steel fermenters can hold a full 250 barrel brew, and the plant is designed so that there are no hoses. Instead, electronically-controlled, in-line cleaning systems, take care of all the post-brewing, clear-up work.

Seven fully-qualified brewers, supervise the brewing operations which take place across two shifts. Of particular interest to someone with my background, were the four quality control labs; although we didn't get to see inside them. Richmond is responsible for just over a third of Stone's total production, and whilst beers from the two North American sites are carefully taste-matched, containers are coded to indicate point of origin.

The sheer size of the plant, combined with all those facts and figures was making us thirsty, so when a member of our party asked "when can we have a beer?" in response to the guide's request for any more questions, we were led back into the tap-room and restaurant area at the front of the brewery, over-looking the creek outside.

We got to sample four beers, but my notes only record two of them: Scorpion Bowl IPA 7.5% and VirtuAle IPA 7.7%. Both beers were excellent and very quaffable, despite their high strength and the comments I made earlier. Before leaving, we were also given a "goody bag," which included a pint glass  (left behind at the hotel) and a 16oz can of Fear Movie Lions - Double IPA 8.5% which survived two train journeys and three flights, and is currently sitting in my fridge.

Our visit to Stone Brewing’s Richmond plant was, for me, the highlight of both the excursion and the conference, as the sheer scale of the site and the massive investment which must have gone into it, could not fail to impress. Apparently, there is more to come with the green area, over-looking the creek, destined to become a landscaped outdoor patio where customers can enjoy some alfresco drinking and dining. There is also scope for further expansion of the brewery itself, with ample room for more equipment and storage facilities behind the current plant.

So, much as it pains me to use that over-worked adjective, so beloved by our cousins across the Atlantic, I have to say that amongst an afternoon of superlatives, Stone Brewing’s Richmond site was well and truly AWESOME!

This then is probably as good a place as any to take a break, as the second part of the day didn't go according to plan - thanks to a combination of the aforementioned thunderstorms and quite a lot of free beer, so more about that next time.