Our Trip to Europe – A Beer Drinker’s Perspective.
My wife, Vicki and I recently went on a trip to the UK to see my sister or the first time in a decade, and do a bit of beer drinking and brewing “research”.
I’ve covered everything from the Hong Kong Lager to the worlds best beer, Westvleteren 12 brewed by the mystic Trappist monks in rural Belgium.
A one-night stopover. We went to the local night time markets to browse the stalls and have dinner. As you’d expect, the only beer on offer was lager and so we had a couple of bottles of Haizhu.
Unexpectedly, it tasted really good! Perhaps because it was stinking hot and I was knackered?
London – Weybridge
Weybridge was our base and our local became The Old Crown – a typical English pub with low ceilings and lots of wood.
The Old Crown is a Freehouse which means it is an independent pub and not tied to any particular brewery. The beers on offer were fairly typical of most pubs we visited. There were 4 handpumps of what is known as “Real Ale”. Real ale is defined as: a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
Reinheitsgebot without carbonation, I suppose.
There were also another 4 taps with lagers such as Peroni, Heineken and Kronenbourg 1664. And a cider tap. However, I’m not particularly interested if there’s an ale around.
After more than 2 decades away, I thought I might not be quite so keen on the British beers. Initially, this was true but as the days went by I reacquired my taste for them rediscovering the subtle character and variations therein. I tried all the real beers here: Courage Directors, Young’s Ordinary, Courage Best and Marstons Pedigree.
My preference was the Directors which is a clean, medium body, malty bitter with a touch of bitterness at the end.
The other pub worth visiting is the Elmbridge Arms in the middle of the high street. This also has the 4 handpumps including Sharp’s Doom Bar Cask Bitter which I came across a lot during our trip and two tea based beers.
I don’t get these – as far as I’m concerned, beer and tea just don’t mix, but there seems to be a lot of them around (even in Australia) so someone must like them. However, along with the standard lagers and cider, they also had BrewDog IPA on tap, which is a full flavoured, classic IPA and a very welcome change.
London – Kingston on Thames
While my wife went shopping, I continued my research at the Wheelwright Arms. They have Theakston’s Best Bitter on tap. A very enjoyable, easy drinking bitter at 3.8%.
Cotswolds – Whiteshill
After a short road trip to the west we found ourselves at the Cotswolds. Staying at the Star, an old pub up in the hills above Stroud that sold Cornish ales straight from the cask such as Cornish Knockers, Alfie’s Revenge and Tribute. All very nice, smooth and malty.
Next day we went off to the Gin Distillery in Stourton. This is a very popular tourist attraction but we got there too late and missed the tour. However, we did buy a bottle of their Cotswold Dry Gin. If you like gin, get a bottle of this! It really is delicious. Look them up at www.cotswoldsdistillery.com. I believe you can get it at Dan Murphys.
Description from The World of Fine Spirits:
The first release from Cotswolds Distillery, a dry gin made from wheat spirit and nine botanicals – juniper, coriander, angelica root, Cotswolds lavender and bay leaf, grapefruit, lime, black pepper and cardamom seed. A fruity gin with a spicy backbone.
As we missed out on the gin tour we went for lunch at a pub in nearby Whichford, The Norman Knight:
This was the stereotypical pub on the edge of the village green with a cricket oval. Having the usual huge lunch (the size of country meals in England is just like country Australia – ginormous). I had a pint of Malty Pig bitter.
To me, this was probably the best bitter I had on the trip. Full-bodied, malty and caramel, slightly sweet with a slightly bitter finish. Nectar!
We also got talking to the owner of the pub and she recommended that we visit the local brewery at Hook Norton. So off we went, only to find that we had missed the tour of that as well! But the brewery looked so interesting that we decided to come back the next day, which was one of the best decisions we made during the trip.
Hook Norton Brewery was one of the highlights of my trip. As you can see, it’s a very tall building, 6 brewing stories high in fact. It was built in 1849 and works mostly by gravity. There is a steam engine on the ground floor (picture below – it was a bit dark!) which pumps the water to the top of the building which then works itself down the through the different levels during the brewing process. The steam engine is only used one day a month these days to keep the tradition and they have replaced the original copper cooling bath with a plate chiller but much of the rest of the process is still as it has always been.
They also still deliver their kegs by Shire horses within the local area. They are big on tradition, and while their core beers reflect this they also make some very tasty seasonal beers.
For more details on this fascinating brewery, go to https://www.hooky.co.uk/
Belgium – Bruges
Our next expedition was to Belgium and initially to Bruges. It was so easy – we simply drove onto the train that goes through the Channel Tunnel and we got to Bruges from London in little more than 4 hours.
Bruges is a mediaeval, historic town which has been maintained, mostly undeveloped. Canals lined by houses, narrow cobbled streets and several large, ornate churches.
But for me, the main attraction is the multitude of Belgian beers on offer.
I’m a huge fan of these and they always figure in my homebrewing plans; my favourite styles being Dark Strong and Dubbel. You can buy beer from almost any shop in Bruges and a 6 pack generally cost around $10. A lot of the beers in the shops were familiar from back home, but there were also plenty of surprises.
I spent one glorious afternoon at the “Beerwall”, a bar that has around 20 beers on tap. It is on the river and we sat at a table sampling the beers in paddles. They offer paddles according to the ABV, low, medium and high so we worked our way through them in that order. I’ve always loved Delirium Tremens but my favourite was the Bourgogne des Flandres, a Flanders Red that was dark red and fruity with just the right amount of sourness coming through. Perfect on a hot day!
Belgium – Westvleteren
Westvleteren 12 is generally regarded as the best beer in the world. Sort of silly, how can you compare an English Bitter with a New England IPA? Anyway, it scores 100 on Ratebeer and is always among the top contenders.
The beer is a Trappist beer and is brewed in the abbey at Westvleteren, out in the middle of nowhere. You can only buy it at the brewery and availability is very limited. You have to phone and book a time to collect and simply getting through on the phone can take weeks because they don’t always answer. If you do manage to get through, you can only buy 2 cases and you are not allowed to buy again for at least 90 days.
This is a picture of the bottle shop with a very unhappy monk looking at me. Shortly after the photo, I was told “No Cameras!”
You are strictly not allowed to resell but I this does occur at greatly inflated prices, of course. They take your name, phone number and car’s license plate number to try to enforce this. Their policy is that they only want to sell enough to support the Abbey and a few charitable cases.
I never got through on the phone but we rocked up anyway to find a long queue of cars waiting patiently at the gates. On speaking to the bloke organising the collections, he said if we joined the queue he would sell us one pack (containing 2 bottle and glass) for each person in the car. So we queued and got 4 packs. There’s no labels on the bottles, the only piece of branding is on the cap.
I now have them back home in Newcastle and letting them settle before furthering my research via a chilled glass.
Italy – Rome
The next stop was Rome. We went to all the standard tourist destinations – a beautiful city, full of energy, style and restaurants.
However, it’s pretty barren territory for a beer drinker. Fortunately, I like my red wine too so I managed to get by without too much difficulty.
We did find one beer that I thought was going to be a real treat at a café near the Colosseum. It was a Peroni (as usual) but the label called it “Peroni Gran Riserva Dopio Malto” which I believe translates to a “double malt beer” and it has an abv of 6.6%.
England – Canterbury
On returning to the UK, headed to Kent and stopped for a night in Canterbury.
Canterbury is another city which is very old and has not been overly developed. It seems to have a pub on most corners which is just as well as it was also crammed with tourists while we were there. The cathedral is, of course, the main attraction but we also got to see the play War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre. This play features life-sized horse puppets which are incredibly lifelike in their detail of movements. If you haven’t seen this, do so if you get the chance. We dined on beef and Guinness pie at the Lady Luck and drank Doom Bar Amber Ale. Nice.
England – Tonbridge Wells
On our way back to London we stopped at Tonbridge Wells. This is a lovely town without all the tourists we’d been surrounded by for the previous few days. We also found a pub, the Duke of York that had an ‘A’ frame outside promoting craft beers.
To my delight I saw a few cans of Yeastie Boys IPA in the fridge behind the bar. Easy choice this – “two of those please!”
Back at our table, I took a sip – warm! Not even as cold as an English bitter – actually warm! Took them back to the barman who looked blankly at us and just said “sorry, we’ve been having problems with that fridge”. We asked for our money back and he responded with (I kid you not), “Would you like me to put some ice in it?” We both stood there stunned as a couple of mullets. the barman eventually decided to get the manager. And eventually sorted it, giving our money back. We replaced it with a pint of the iconic Fullers London Pride instead, and proceeded to have a very pleasant lunch.
From there it was back to Weybridge, and back to the Old Crown.
We had a couple of day trips into London. Went to Borough markets one day which I would highly recommend to anyone that likes food. There are all sorts of food on offer and some fruit and vegetables that I’ve never heard of such as golden beetroot which actually tastes more like an apple.
Several pubs visited during these days. The most memorable being the Bunch of Grapes opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum. Memorable because it had Greene King Abbot Ale on tap which was the beer we always sought out in my late teens back in Bishop’s Stortford because it was the strongest beer around at 5%. How times have changed!
Then all too quickly our time was up and it was off to Singapore for a stopover on our way home. By this time we were far too knackered to get up to much and it was far too hot for exploring. Went to the markets, had some local lager and then on to Sydney.
We’re now back in Newcastle and I’ll be heading to the Grain Store shortly.