Friday, 8 January 2016

DRINKING NOTES FROM A BIG COUNTRY (PART 3) - NEW YORK AND BROOKLYN DECEMBER 2015




DRINKING NOTES FROM A BIG COUNTRY (PART 3)

 

A Morning at Meatpacking

On day two of the New York tour Laura and began in the morning by heading down to Chelsea Market, in the meatpacking district. This trendy indoor market has arisen in the bones of an old biscuit factory. With many remaining features of the original industrial interior still firmly in place, it gives the impression that some of the pipework and machinery was just more hassle than it was worth to remove. Strangely this gives the place a unique character and 'modern-post-industrial-retro' feel (if such a thing exists, if it didn't it does now).

We had breakfast amongst the scrap metal with some incredible pancakes from Sarabeth's bakery and felt set up for the day before heading off to explore the rest of the market.


A view into the bakery from the main corridor with redundant pipework adding a character I struggled to capture in just one photo.

 

The High Life

After a spot of Christmas shopping we continued the theme of rejuvenated industrial assets by heading off in search of The High Line Park. The High Line is a park built on an elevated section of a disused New York Central Railroad. The park extends for a mile and a half and offers a great elevated view of the city. I loved the idea behind this park. As with the market it showed that new life can be brought to old, run down industrial eye sores without knocking them down and starting again. We walked the full length of the park on what felt more like a Spring day than Winter and loved every minute of it.

Mud not blood on the tracks - First elevated to avoid pedestrian collisions, now boot leather is the only way to travel this line.


The High Line offers some great views from above street level

A Bridge to Brooklyn

After the thirsty work of walking a mile and a half we made our way to Brooklyn to visit the Brooklyn Brewery and have a wander around the area. The North side of Brooklyn has supposedly undergone a rise in popularity. It seemed like a cool but sleepy place on a sunny Sunday afternoon and was we enjoyed some great street art and a fantastic view of Manhattan.

Manhattan from Brooklyn

A Piss Up in a Brewery

The main reason for heading to Brooklyn was to check out the Brooklyn Brewery. Their Brooklyn Lager is probably one of the most famously exported craft beers from the states and I was keen to see the brewery and taste some of their less widely available efforts. We were not disappointed! The brewery was open for tours and tastings and there was a busy tasting room with a great selection on draft and regular small group brewery tours.

The tasting room operated the usual token system with some of the rarer or stronger beers requiring two tokens to buy which made them a bit pricey by comparison but the whole experience was great. We went on a brewery tour and were shown around both the brewery itself and the bottling line by a very friendly but very hung-over member of staff. Apparently it had been the Brooklyn Brewery Christmas party the night before and if anyone knows how to organise a piss up I suspect it is this lot!

The tour was funny, informative and had a good balance of brewery history, science and some well rehearsed gags. The whole tour lasted about half an hour and I think the guys showing us round were glad they'd done it a number of times before as they managed to sail through it in auto-pilot. I'd say without breaking a sweat but the poor lad giving the tour was dripping by the end of it. Those post epic session beer sweats sure are a killer! After enjoying the tour we headed back to the tasting room to work on the following day's hangover.

Where the magic happens

Tasting room. We may have had more than just a taste.

Ooh Mammy!

After the brewery it was time for a bite to eat. Whilst wandering around we stumbled across Umami Burger. This place had craft beer and with a name like Umami, just cried out 'Gourmet Burgers'. The burgers were fantastic, the staff were the friendliest we met anywhere in New York and we had a couple of pints of Sculpin IPA by Ballast Point Brewery. This is a beer I've had a few times in tins and is an excellent  modern American IPA and the draft version did not disappoint.
 


Just off shot the maple bacon sweet potato fries... Ooh Mammy!


The saddest thing about Umami Burger was that we shared a burger between two as we really wanted to head to another place we'd heard about which turned out to have food which was nowhere near as good as Umami.

I won't mention the place we went to but we had slow roasted pork (service took so long I did wonder if they failed to prepare it in advance!) the rest of the dish was cold.

Not sure how it was possible to ruin such a great looking dish

Best thing about this spot was the communal benches which always makes me think of German Beer halls and allows for easy meeting of neighbours and encourages hearty quaffing of beer and slapping of leather clad thighs. In this case it didn't seem to boost the atmosphere and just as we were planning on leaving the bloke sat next to us actually apologised for making too much noise. I didn't have the heart to tell him that not only had we not even noticed his presence up until that point but that his general bar presence was about on par with the coat rack. We were, of course, polite but giggled about this on the way home.

Something else we giggled about on the way home

Blinded by the Lights

After our outing in Brooklyn we headed back to Manhattan and jumped off the subway at Times Square. This most famous of intersections is often referred to as 'The Cross Roads of the World' apparently... I must admit I just didn't get it.


Times Square 5th December 2015

We later went on to check off a few other touristy glitz by heading to the Rockerfeller Centre to see the tree, the Christmas glitz and the ice skaters. 

Giant balls at the Rockerfeller Centre

St. Patricks Cathedral

One For The Road

A final pint in Rattle and Hum, a great little rock bar with plenty of craft on tap, and we were ready for a stagger back to the hotel. I had a dogfish head 90 minute IPA. Not a local brew but a fantastic drop I'd been looking forward to trying ever since reading about the history of Dogfish Head Brewery which went some way to inspiring me to start this blog!

One more cup of IPA for the road

 

They Won't See us Waving from Such Great Heights

The last morning in New York was a bit of a rush but we swiftly rushed to see the 911 memorial and the relatively new One World building which now stands on the site. At 561m tall it is the tallest skyscraper in the western hemisphere and the 6th tallest in the world. The view from the top was stunning and after a very brief trot around the observation deck we rushed back to the hotel to pack and head to our separate airports (I flew on to Pittsburgh from Newark airport and Laura flew back tot he UK from JFK.) Both our taxi's got us there in time and, deservingly, got a nice tip.

I was actually in good time for my flight until the security decided they had detected explosives in my laptop and after a rather impolite interview with the police and explosives experts I persuaded them that despite the engineering background, the job in the chemical industry and having spent significant amounts of time in the middle east I was, in fact, not a terrorist! A fairly intimidating experience but one to laugh about afterwards. Thankfully they didn't resort to a cavity search! 


Couldn't stick around to finish watching the sunset. But it was a sublime sight from what we saw.

 

Next Up...

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thanks for bearing with me! Christmas has meant that most of this blogging is catch up.


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

DRINKING NOTES FROM A BIG COUNTRY (PART 2) - NEW YORK DECEMBER 2015




DRINKING NOTES FROM A BIG COUNTRY (PART 2)

 

Loco Motives

I'm in Rehab (Saudi Arabia) again this week and it's a great opportunity to reflect on the second part of my US tour, New York! After leaving Texas I caught the Friday night flight out of Houston. I stopped briefly in Charlotte, North Carolina airport and whilst waiting for my connecting flight and, having a thirst, managed to hunt down some of the local craft. In this case it was NoDa Brewing Companies offerings which lured me in with their "Hop, Drop 'n' Roll" (A classic American IPA) and "Coco Loco" (A complex malty number) both great beers an a treat to get some good local craft from a state I didn't realise I'd get a chance to sample anything from. 
 

A Hell of a Town

After a couple of beers in Charlotte I carried on to New York and met Laura in JFK airport and we shared a cab to the Empire Hotel in Manhattan, our base for the weekend.

The fare came to about $63 and we got some serious agro from the taxi driver when I handed over $65. Apparently by this point I still hadn't got the hang of the whole tipping thing.

It being late and us being hungry we headed out to the local pizza parlour which came highly recommended by the hotel. We ordered a pepperoni and I had a Negro Modelo. Not exactly craft or local but it's one I've wanted to try ever since I was in Taiwan and dreaming of Mexican Amber Lager. (A topic of a future post perhaps.)
The pizza place owner was basically Mr. Panucci from Futurama... "Pizza going out... C'MON!!!"

 


More Like a Goat than a Goat

The following day we headed down to the Museum of Modern Art after being lured in by a poster advertising a Picaso sculpture exhibition.

More like a goat than a real goat? Seems like one of those "wetter than water" type comments.

My favourite piece was this recently excavated fishing boat which had been shot at by hundreds of arrows. It was inspired by the story of a Chinese general. The legend goes that the general's army was running out of arrows so he took a boat filled with straw men and feigned an attack on the enemy. When the boat returned it was so pin-cushioned that the general was able to replenished the armies supplies. I loved this story because of the sheer cheeky audacity of the general.


Or it could just be a very abstract hedgehog..


There was also the papier-mâché star spangled banner for some reason.

A Walk in The Park

After the museum we headed down to Central Park. It was hard to believe that it still felt like Autumn in early December. The weather was mild and the trees were still flush with their autumnal plumage. We came across a talented group of lads managing to rob a crowd blind out of sheer peer pressure. They did eventually pull of some stunts but I estimate they made $1000 in donations in less than 30 minutes. This goes to show what the power of true entertainers can achieve. They did this by doing a couple of quick backflips and handstands and getting a bit of a crowd going. Then with well rehearsed lines and speaking in perfect unison to naturally amplify themselves to a crowd of hundreds, they whipped up the crowd into a frenzy with some gags and by celebrating every donation they got. Dozens of people offered them up and each was greeted with a "Hey Guys! I just got twenty dollars!", "From Who?", the rest of the lads would hail in time, "This girl" "Where's she from" and so it went on. They really built up the tension and managed to get hundreds of dollars in donations. President Obama may be interested in change but these guys were interested in tens, twenties and fifties! They eventually managed an impressive finale involving jumping over about half a dozen people in a line. Impressive in itself but not as impressive as how successful their little show was.


Not a bad little action shot
 

Solid Gone

After walking through the park we headed to the Natural History Museum. The museum has a staggering collection of dinosaur fossils and my incredible replicas which really to help to bring these magnificent beasts to life. I think My favourite was the triceratops but I'm not really sure there was so much to see. It wasn't hard to find Laura's favourite.


Being big fans of the jungle book I couldn't help but see the resemblance in this Fossil to the dancing bear Baloo. "Solid Gone".
After finishing the museum tour with a dazzling display at the Hayden Planetarium, we made a dash to see the full size blue what they have displayed which we were keen to see after seeing them a few weeks earlier in Sri Lanka (maybe I'll blog about that trip at some point). By this point it was getting late and was time to make a prompt exit through the before the exhibits started coming to life. This unusual phenomenon has been recently documented.

Saddle Up

With the sun setting and the Saturday night vibe starting we both agreed it was time to get into our drinking boots and head out to see what we could find. After a couple of Anchor Steam Beers in the reception we headed to The Pony Bar. We both got IDed on the way in with the bouncer giving us a friendly grin and simply stating "Business before pleasure". The Pony Bar is a lively place with over 20 taps. We tried a couple of the local efforts. First up was a Captain Lawrence Effortless Session IPA which had a slightly rough bitterness but was crisp and refreshing. Next I tried a Great South Bay Bourbon Barrel Aged Scotch Ale which can only be described as syrupy bourbony goodness! Laura had a Sierra Nevada Kellerwies Hefeweizen which was a little heavy on the banana and bubblegum notes for me but still very nice.

In Tacos Veritas

Next we headed for tacos at Cascabel Taqueria where we washed some great tacos down with some Dogfish Head Aprihop. The apricot notes in this beer are quite subtle given that they have actually added apricots. I can't help but think the same effect could have been achieved with just selecting the right hops for the job. Vic Secret is a great hop for adding apricot notes in my opinion although Mosaic does well too.

Mmmm... Tacos!

To Prop or not to Prop

Final place we headed to for the evening was The Ginger Man. At first impression this dimly lit joint was a great place to rest our weary legs and enjoy some good music. They had around 70 taps and with a selection like that we could have quite happily stayed for a few. After sitting for a while with no service I approached the bar and ordered a couple of beers. "Where are you sat?" asks the barman. I pointed to the table we had in the corner and was about to order when I was told "You'll have to wait for the waitress, I can't serve you unless you're sat at the bar."

Unfortunately this place wasn't the only place I've been that operated this ridiculous system of service whereby because we weren't actually sat at the bar we couldn't order beer. So I returned to my table to continue to wait for the tardy waitress to make her way around to us whilst the barman stood idle and after half an hour of waiting we eventually got our drinks. I had a Stone 'Enjoy by 25/12/15' which I have to admit is probably the best beer I have ever tasted. It was perfectly balanced and so crammed full of fruity notes I might as well have been munching down a packet of fruit pastels! I ordered a second pint and again marvelled at how the waitress seemed to be operating in an entirely different time-zone to the barman.

I realise this absurd system of having to be served by a waitress if not actually sat at the bar is to enable them to work for their tips. In this case it totally backfired as not only was the service so poor we sat most of the time waiting and not drinking. The horror on the face of the waitress upon realising we'd not tipped seemed to suggest she held this atrocity worthy of a trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague. She seemed deaf to the viewpoint that, in our view, she had actually significantly impeded our drinking and we would have drank more if she wasn't there at all.

A Candle Light Nightcap


I've a vague suspicion we might have stopped somewhere else for a night cap but this is as far as I'll take it for day 1 in New York. In day 2 we stopped off at the Brooklyn Brewery for a tour of their facilities and a few samples amongst a few other interesting places so keep an eye out for that post.




Sunday, 13 December 2015

DRINKING NOTES FROM A BIG COUNTRY (PART 1) - TEXAS DECEMBER 2015




DRINKING NOTES FROM A BIG COUNTRY (PART 1)



Lone Star State

Sitting on my own in the airport at George Bush (first of his name) International Airport in Houston feels like an appropriate time and place to reflect on the adventure of the last couple of weeks. It's hard to believe that it has been only 12 days since landing in the US and that since then I've managed to grab a few local craft beers in five different states.

The whole tour has been an absolute blast and I'll talk about it in several digestible parts to give me a chance to collect my thoughts and give anyone reading this a chance to grab another beer between chapters. 


It seems quite fitting that I finish this tour where I started, in Texas, and I'm please to report, like all six airports I've been to in the states (I did a few connecting flights), it's not hard to find local craft beer on tap. I'm currently enjoying a St Arnold Christmas Special, a quite drinkable light ale which keeps the added seasonal spices at a suitably subtle level.

Houston We Have a Problem, a Drinking Problem...

Driving around Texas just gives you an idea of the scale of this country. I can't quite get over how much space they have here. The Texans for the most part came across as very friendly and quite excitable at times. When I first landed I was greeted with a hearty "How are y'all doing!". A brief look over either shoulder confirmed it was still just me stood there and I struggled to hide my confusion at the use of the somewhat plural greeting. I wonder if it comes from living in a state where it's often hard to believe it's all just one person stood before you.

A little research told me the craft beer scene here seems to be thriving and with a couple of nights to spare exploring I was looking forward to see what I could find.

The first place I checked out was the Hay Merchant in Houston. Arriving on a Tuesday night was a stroke of good luck as it was steak night and being Texas it frankly seemed rude not to. The thick slab of perfectly cooked steak came with a caramelised fish sauce which wasn't fishy at all but just packed bags of flavour and I wolfed it down before you could say Umami.


The tap handles in this place are amazingly varied and rustic


A quick glance down the beer menu, consisting of around 50 taps, it was staggering just how many draft beers were on offer and just how strong most of the beer on offer was. The weakest thing on the menu being 4.8% and with the average closer to 7% and I knew I'd need the steak just to soak up the booze. It's clear that the local taste for beer is heavily in favour of the strong hoppy styles. I sampled the Karbach Hopadillo and the St Arnold Art Car both hop-a-licious IPAs as the menu promised and at $5 a pint it was a welcome relief from some of the expensive beers I've had recently in other countries.

One Horse Town

Following the conclusion of a 2 day conference in Houston, myself and a work colleague headed over to Beaumont to visit an industrial site. After sitting through a safety induction (which seemed to focus mainly on handing in your guns before entering and not feeding the crocodiles whilst walking around the site) I knew I was in for another cultural experience. 

On the evening we asked the hotel to call us a cab and they handed us the card of the only taxi they knew of (everybody drives themselves everywhere here it seems). The business card stated "Just Call Wayne" and 15 minutes after following these instructions our carriage arrived. After getting in the cab I asked the Stetson wearing driver if he was Wayne. With a look of confusion he replied "No, I'm John, Wayne does the day shifts". I had to resist the temptation to suggest that he should therefore rename the taxi company "Just call John / Wayne".

Driving through Beaumont it seemed a sleepy industrial town and apparently has a population of 118,000 although quite what they all do on a night is beyond me. We headed to a place called Suga's (Imagine saying "Sugar's" in the style "Bubba's") which came highly recommended as the most happening place in town. As the two of us walked in and the patronage of the establishment doubled I couldn't help but wonder if they ever managed to fill the place which had easily enough seating for 200. In terms of local craft the barman offered up a bottle each of St. Arnold Elissa IPA (a more malty, East Coast version of the Art Car I'd had the night before), a St Arnold Amarillo Hefewiezen (which fruity hoppy character slightly distorted the style but made it far more to my liking) and a Shiner Bock which was fairly light bodied and bland for a Bock in my view but was a pleasant final bottle of the evening. 



At one point I commented to the barman that none of the beers were labelled with the alcoholic content and that in the UK that would be illegal, to which he just smiled and said "Welcome to Texas!" At the end of the meal (some fantastic deep south style seafood) the barman called a taxi for us. When John / Wayne showed up to give us a ride I really got the impression that Beaumont is just a one horse town.

A Wonder I Found the Place

On my last day in Texas I headed over to 8th Wonder Brewery with the promise of a tasting room and a brewery tour. This place is a little off the grid (a popular system of road layout in the US) and the taxi driver asked to use the satnav on my phone in order to navigate to the address. After a few minutes of driving through a rough looking industrial estate with some fantastic street art I finally reached my destination. It took most of my will power to not respond to the driver's request for a tip with a retort along the lines that he should have in fact tipped me for my navigational services. But smiling amiably I gave him a dollar for the trouble (it was only a $5 ride) knowing full well I might be jumping straight back in if the place ended up being closed.

Fortunately the place was not only open but heaving and as I walked into this converted industrial unit with it's innovative use of beer kegs for structural supports, cable drums for tables and butchered shipping containers for outdoor shelters I couldn't help but be impressed. It's a fantastic testament to the allure of this place that so many people had made the effort to venture to the area, so bereft of anything else worth seeing other than the graffiti.


8th Wonder's Outdoor area "Wonderworld"

The bar at 8th Wonder was serving a selection of beers brewed on the premises and, like many such establishment, were operating a beer token system to speed up service at the bar. Thankfully this helped the three capable bar staff easily deal with the crowd. Unfortunately the one solitary soul operating the beer token counter was not managing quite so well under the sheer demand for the branded bottle caps which passed for hard currency in this place. Fortunately for me I'm British and queuing without complaining for lengthy durations is undoubtedly in my genes and the roaring atmosphere and friendly fellow endurers of the line made the time pass far smoother.

I grabbed a Hopton IPA which smelt and tasted incredible with the cascade dry-hop it boasted certainly packing a citrusy punch. I also sampled the Alternate Universe, a German Alt Beer which was well balanced and definitely malt foot forward, and the Mission Control, a Brown Porter which packed a hit of coffee and toffee notes in. All in all the three beers were excellent and for $15 including the branded glass and with a food van serving pulled pork sandwiches out back I thoroughly enjoyed the visit and it more than made up for the disappointment of not getting to see the brewery itself.

Taco's Saved My Life

As I left the brewery I took in some more graffiti. I do believe that some good street art in the right places can help to brighten up the place. As the inevitable march to all live in concrete jungles continues it's important that the environment in which we live is attractive. 


"Anyone that knows me well will know how I can relate to any graffiti artist stating that tacos saved his life"

So Long and Thanks For All The Fish Tacos

So it's time to leave Texas now and disappointingly I've got to fly back to the UK via Saudi Arabia so any hopes of bringing some of these great beers back with me have been dashed. Thanks as ever for reading on, please comment post and share away and stay tuned as next I'll be talking about the other places I checked out on the trip including New York, Pittsburgh and Denver!


Saturday, 28 November 2015

WE'RE GOING ON A BEER HUNT - BAHRAIN NOVEMBER 2015




WE'RE GOING ON A BEER HUNT



What a Beautiful Day, We're Not Scared...

So it's the weekend in The Middle East and I've retreated to the island nation of Bahrain for a bit of R&R prior to flying to the states on Sunday night. Unlike Saudi Arabia, alcohol isn't illegal here and so with the sun shining, no sign of civil unrest and without much else planned for a Saturday afternoon I decided to hunt out any semblance of craft beer to be found.

A little Internet research told me I was probably going to be hard pressed on my quest as alcohol sales seem rather limited to hotel bars but I found a large mall containing an international supermarket so decided to try my luck. So I set out for the day with low expectations on what beer I might find, barely enough local currency to get me to the mall and no idea where the nearest ATM was.

Fortunately my concerns over the rather empty state of my wallet were relieved when I had just the right amount to pay the taxi driver. I handed over three notes coming to a total of 2 Bahraini Dinar and proceeded to the self proclaimed 'hypermarket' to see what I could find.

No prizes for guessing the children's book which inspired this post.

 

Splash, Splosh, Splash (the Cash)

As a side note, Bahraini Dinar is the second most valuable currency in the world and one of only three to be worth more than a British pound sterling. The top three, unsurprisingly, are all middle eastern countries (Oman at #3, Bahrain at #2 and Kuwait at #1). Small wonder then that it's worth issuing the currency in factional denominations - something I have never seen before anywhere else in the world.

Allow me to further digress with this quick travel tip - Always research in advance the value of the currency before heading any country you visit. Some friends I met on holiday recently recounted a tale of returning from the ATM having managed to withdraw a staggering 50p worth of Sri Lankan Rupees. My unfortunate acquaintance, having been sent back to the ATM for more money by his brother, realised he'd also left his card in the machine. The luckless brother's card had been re-swallowed by this point, never to be seen again. Suffice to say the beers were not on him that night.

A Half Dinar note (about 88p or $1.30 USD)
 

We're Going on a Beer Hunt

So back to the tale at hand... Having found the 'hypermarket' and what passed for the drinks aisle I can't quite express my disappointment when there was not a drop of beer to be found. Not even the titans of Coors, Budweiser or Heineken had managed to grace the shelves. I did, however, find a remarkable selection of non-alcoholic 'beers' or 'malt beverages' as they style themselves. It won't come as a surprise to say that not one tempted me to open my wallet, There was, however, one which caught my eye and reminded me of an story I often tell about my girlfriend, Laura.

The somewhat crude and simplistic story was a favourite of mine when introducing potentially gullible friends to her for the first time. I'd proudly proclaim that it was a little known fact that she was part native American Indian and that her seldom used cultural name literally translated means "Three Horses". When the inevitable question came as to how it was pronounced in her native tongue I'd relish in the delight of reciting it clearly... "Nag Nag Nag".

Laura isn't currently with me in Bahrain but I couldn't help but send her the photo and remind her how much I missed her nagging at times. Laura and I are due to meet up again in New York next weekend to check out the craft beer scene there so make sure to keep an eye out for that report.


Anyone for a non-alcoholic malted beverage? ... Neigh!

So the search continued and by this point trying to find a drop of beer in the middle east was feeling a bit like trying to find water in the desert. After leaving the 'hypermarket' I tried not to get too downhearted and looked for any restaurants or bars which might be worth checking out. I passed a TGIs and a Chilli's (both dry) and a myriad of other restaurants including this one which sold no beer and seemed to be named entirely for the purposes of taunting me:


At first I thought this was a mirage but IHOP soon turned to despair

Just as I was losing faith I came across an information counter which was kind enough to point out that the only places with alcohol licenses in the mall where the two hotels which shared the premises. The Meridien and the Westin.


A Narrow Gloomy Cave

So saddling my horse (there was no horse) to cross the desert (a rather bustling city centre mall) I headed to the Meridian. The entrance was a long thin corridor with an interesting art exhibition on display where an unknown and unrecognised artist had seemingly wondered the streets of Bahrain taking a photo every minute for 24 hours. As you'd probably expect the photos were rather hit and miss but I like the idea. 
At the end of the art exhibition was the Meridien Hotel bar. I couldn't believe my luck when I spotted the following sign at the entrance. Burgers and a hoppy beer? Yes please!
Hops on the House! Is this another Mirage?

My rising hopes of hops were soon dispelled as the 'hops on the house' advertised was a free pint of Stella (no alternatives available) which by this point I'd have been happy to settle for but unfortunately after sitting down in this place I found it the dingiest, smokiest most uncomfortable bar I've visited in years. It's been many years since the smoking ban in the UK and I found the thick, unventilated, pungent atmosphere too much to bear. What's worse there was no outside area to enjoy a burger and a pint in anything resembling fresh air. So, coughing and spluttering, I took my leave to try my luck at the Westin.

The Westin Hotel bar was called 'The Boudoir'. It was a modern, spacious and comfortable enough place and I passed several private curtained booths as I made my way to the bar. The curtains on the booths, I assume, predominantly cater for the more conservative middle eastern families, providing a degree of privacy to allow for the women to remove the veils of their Niqābs whilst eating out with the family.

The bar itself didn't have much to write about in the beer department other than a slack handful of standard lagers on tap. They did, however, have Paulaner in bottles. I'm not usually the biggest fan of hefe-wiezens but on this occasion it had been thirsty work hunting down something more flavourful than a generic bland lager and I was happy for the relief. Finally, I had my beer! I sat down with my hard earned pint and waited for my ride back to the apartment to arrive.

Beer in the Boudoir

When the bill came to 7 Bahraini Dinar a quick check on my phone told me this was only 15 pence short of the most expensive pint i'd ever bought at a whopping £12.35 or $18.50 USD!

 

Shut The Door and Back Upstairs

 
After enjoying my pint and pondering on whether the day had been a success or a failure I realised it had been another adventure what could be more important than that. I enjoyed the pint and afterwards retreated to the apartment for the evening to watch the sun set and the fishing boats leave the harbour for their evening of hard graft whilst care free local millionaires motor boated up and down the coast.

The apartment I'm staying in belongs to a colleague from work who's been kind enough to allow me to stay here for a few days whilst he's out of town. At first I was concerned he'd given me the wrong keys but eventually realised what I was doing wrong after following the instructions on the key ring.


Thankfully the instructions don't refer to some outmoded music hall tradition but to which side needs to face upwards when inserting the key into the lock.
 
Goodnight Bahrain

We're Not Going on a Beer Hunt Again (Until Next Week!)

Next week I'm in the states and hope to report back on far more beer related adventures. I'll also be taking a look into how the American cities I visit are managing their green spaces and hopefully meeting with people involved in transforming old spaces from wasted inner city concrete to gardens and parks which pull the local communities together. So comment, like, share, wave your hands in the air like you just don't care and, as ever, thanks for reading.

At this point I'd also like to thank Laura for her continuing support (being one of the few people who I can trust to give me brutally honest feedback) and my good friend Chris, who's help in setting up the website, designing the logo and generally giving me blogging advice has been invaluable.


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

CAMEL BURGERS AND FRUIT JUICE - SAUDI ARABIA NOVEMBER 2015

 

 

CAMEL BURGERS AND FRUIT JUICE

 

How Dry...

Winter has definitely arrived in the UK , or at least so I'm told by friends and family. I, however, am spending the week in Saudi Arabia (business of course). At the moment I'm spending about one week a month here and this is about the fifth time I've been.

As you may have gathered by now I usually try to spend my free time on these international jaunts looking for good drinking establishments, but alas this is not possible here. Whilst it would be fair to say that the craft beer revolution hasn't quite reached Saudi yet, it wouldn't exactly tell the full story. Saudi is dry in more or less every sense of the word. Specifically in this case, it is dry of any form of alcoholic beverages. It's sale and possession is entirely illegal and has been the subject of some news recently.

My Local

When I have to be in Saudi I stay at the Intercontinental Hotel in which the décor could best be described as 'Set from obligatory black tie event at the villain's mansion in a 70's bond film' by which I mean it's more or less a bunker done out on the inside in dated furniture and garish chandeliers. It is, however, very comfortable which makes staying in Saudi for short periods of time entirely bearable (even for a craft beer fanatic like myself) and offers a great chance to relax, rest up, plan future trips and catch up on blogging. In fact it's kind of like being in a detox retreat. Which is why I think that the hotel 'bar' is so perfectly named that it can't be a coincidence!

"They tried to make me go to Al Rehab..."
The last time I ate at Al Rehab I ordered a camel burger and a fruit juice. The camel tasted dreadful (and it was dry too!) and the juice was so acidic the only thing it was good for was getting rid of the taste of the burger. These days I stick to the sparkling water and a choice of excellent Lebanese dishes.


...Not So Dry!

You'd be forgiven for thinking "Well at least a little winter sun can't hurt" but the last two days have rained and whilst it hasn't been cold it hasn't exactly been hot either. Four days rain a year and I get two of them in one week!

In case you didn't believe me!

What's Up Next

So no beer tasting to report this week but on the brighter side these few evenings staying out of trouble have given me a chance to plan the next two weeks adventures which will be in the USA. I'm planning on a few days each in Texas, Pittsburgh, Denver and the one I'm looking forward to the most... New York City! So stay tuned!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

POLAR BEARS AND POLAR BEERS - NORWAY OCTOBER 2015

 

POLAR BEARS AND POLAR BEERS


A Most Northern Beer Pilgrimage

October brought the opportunity to travel to Norway for on business. So how could I resist using it as an opportunity to explore the craft beer scene in Oslo, taste some Nøgne Ø on it's own turf and take a trip to Macks Ølbryggeri (The Mack Brewery), the Northernmost Brewery in the World!

So grab a great beer and read on!


 
 

A Grand Opportunity

Landing in Oslo it was immediately apparent that it is a beautiful city and the very essence of autumn was on display with an amber hue on the surrounding landscape and in the city's many green spaces as the trees prepared for the oncoming winter.

Whilst in Oslo I stayed in the Grand Hotel which is a stunning old building and is where the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are housed when that most auspicious circus is in town. I doubt I had either President Obama nor Nelson Mandela's old pad but nevertheless it was an incredible place to stay and in a great central location being situated in the main square between the houses of parliament and the royal palace. This offered a fantastic base for exploring some of Oslo's best cultural sights and craft beer offerings.

So it was from here that each night, wrapped up tight with a fist full of Norwegian Krone and my warmest drinking boots on, I went exploring.

Rebel Without a Coors

Whilst walking around the Oslo harbour area I stumbled across a small place called "Burger Joint". It's a recently opened burger bar where the retro style burger van has made it's way into the internal décor, a nice touch I thought! It offered a couple of taps of local craft beer, various bottles and some of the best burgers I've tasted. I managed to get a laugh from the barman when I asked for my burger to go and kindly requested he throw in one of the bottles of beer in the bag too, hoping to polish off the burger on the walk back to my hotel and the bottle when I got back there. When he smiled and laughed at me I asked "What's funny?", to which he said "Oh you're serious?! You can't take beer to go - that's illegal in Norway!". After explaining that my request wasn't out of a rebellious nature but good old fashioned ignorance, I settled for a swift pint of Amundsens Pale Ale whilst waiting for the burger to be cooked. So good was the burger that half way home I almost turned back to order another. I settled instead for visiting again the next day and then again later on my last night in Oslo.

Thanks to those at Burger Joint for allowing me to use their photo (far better than mine!) 

Everybody's Shuffling

Another great find near the Harbour Area was Beer Palace. A vibrant and bustling sister establishment to Burger Joint, with a wide selection of draft craft and bottles as well as two long shuffleboard tables (it's like the pub games equivalent of indoor curling) and a darts board to boot. I couldn't get a go on the shuffleboards either of the times I visited this pub as it was so popular.

A Craftsmen's Lodge

The best pint I had in Oslo was in a charming and rustic little pub called Håndverkerstuene which my best efforts to translate from Norwegian comes out at 'Craftmen's Lodge'. A very fitting name indeed in my eyes as this place's beer selection was the very epitome of the craft beer culture. Championing delicious local craft brews with knowledgeable and passionate staff. If there was a place to be converted to the craft it's here and with the stained glass windows you could be forgiven for having a near spiritual beer experience here. My favourite drop in Olso was from here, the 7 Fjell Kniksen India Red AleA fine example of how the maltier IPAs can really bring more balance to a hoppy beer.


Håndverkerstuene's Bar. I especially like the way the black board beer labels are strung to the taps.
At this point it's probably worth mentioning the extremely high price of beer in Norway. A 400ml glass is at least 80 Norwegian Krone, about £6 or $9 USD. This can make a night out very expensive but the way I see it is if you're going to spend that much on a pint then it had better be a good one and all mine have been!


The One about the Fishmonger, The Mack Beer and The Seagull Eggs

As the first weekend approached it was time to say goodbye to the Grand Hotel and meet my girlfriend Laura in Oslo airport to fly to Tromsø in the far north of Norway. Full of excitement we ventured 200 miles north the arctic circle, dreaming of the northern lights, killer whales and the Mack Brewery.

Coincidentally there is an obscure legend linking The Grand Hotel and The Mack Brewery that I discovered whilst researching the history of the brewery.


The story goes that a fishmonger from the far north, who within a short space of time had earned a great fortune, travelled to Oslo and one day visited the Grand Café. The waiter came to take his order.

The fishmonger asked: "Have you got Mack beer?" to which the waiter replied that unfortunately they did not but that the café had many other excellent beers to offer. The fishmonger then asked: "Have you got seagull eggs?". Again the waiter replied that they did not, to which the fishmonger remarked "shit hotel" as he disapprovingly left the establishment.


Disappointingly, the famous Grand Café in the hotel had recently closed it's doors so I didn't get to rehearse the scene with the waiters.


The reason I love this story though, is it gives a perfect image of the stark contrast between the very civilised and pristine capital of Norway and the ruggedness of the far north and of those trappers and fisherman who made it their home.

Today, however, Tromsø is commonly regarded as the largest city in the arctic and has more students than trappers or fishermen. The University of Tromsø, like the brewery, is also the northernmost in the world.


We decided to stay in the Radison Blu Hotel, a fairly standard hotel but with great views over the sea to the mainland and The Arctic Cathedral.

The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø which, very aptly, a seagull was kind enough to pose for.

Polar Bears and Polar Beers

After the irresistible charm of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, the interior of the Radisson Blu came as a bit of a let down. A fairly standard hotel as you'd expect from a big chain. About the only thing which gave a hint of the romantic fishing and trapping efforts of the northern wilderness of old was the stuff polar bear in the reception. A somewhat sorrowful beast missing claws and without name or recognition of it's threatened status. 

Our moods lifted when we entered the Rorbua Pub connected to the hotel which did offer a fantastic rustic ambiance with fishing nets on the ceilings, old traps and ship's steering wheels on the walls and yet another stuffed polar bear. This turned out to be one of our favourite places in Tromsø to stop for a pint and had live music and a good selection of beer including 8 taps worth of the local Mack offerings.

We tried the
Bayer, a fairly clean and drinkable amber lager as well as the Mack 1877 a quaffable and refreshing Pilsner with surprisingly more character than you'd expect for a beer of this style.
 
The bear, the bear and the maiden fair.
 
As impressive a sight as these beasts are we felt quite ambivalent seeing them stuffed and on display like this but chose to take it as a tribute to the history of the city as opposed to a disregard of the plight of these creatures. To learn more about the dangers which threaten these magnificent creatures please check out the following link to the world wildlife fund's page on polar bears.

After Rorbua we headed off to a nearby bar called Circa for another pint, this time a couple of
MACK IPAs and a bite to eat in the upstairs Presis Tapas restaurant. Oddly enough some of the seating in this place are just swings hanging from the ceiling. As we couldn't trust ourselves to behave on them we settled for some more regular seating in the corner. The tapas was fantastic, I especially enjoyed the reindeer carpaccio. The IPA was a fairly solid offering if a little harsh in bitterness.
 

Is it a Bird, is it a Plane or is it Something to do with Methane?

On the way back to the hotel from the restaurant a seagull (our new lucky sigil) flew by very low overhead causing us to look up. Astonishingly, above us were the northern lights dancing a surreal green jig across a crystal clear sky. Not believing our good fortune or how we'd not spotted them sooner we headed down to the relative darkness of the dockside to enjoy the view. It lasted about half an hour before subsiding and was the perfect cause for a celebration - another pint of Macks at the Rorbua Pub and by now some live music had started up too. 
 
There's no way my poor phone camera could capture the magnificence of this natural phenomenon but here is the best I could manage with the tools to hand.

Blackfish

One of the main reasons for the trip to Tromsø was the possibility of seeing orcas. We were inspired to do so after watching Blackfish recently. This documentary is as good an argument against the captivity of these marine mammals as I've ever heard (if such an argument was ever needed). This film seems to have had a significant impact on SeaWorld's practices and recently they have announced changes in their policies for the treatment of orcas. A small step in the right direction but the march of progress can only come step by step.

We set out early on the Saturday with our guides from Tromsø Safari
and were told the possibility of seeing humpback whales was high but that seeing orcas was remote. Our luck continued, however, (must be all those damn seagulls!) as we sighted both orcas and humpbacks and the true majesty of these animals was clear to see. The tour guides were very knowledgeable, friendly and showed a great deal of respect for the whales.
 
Norway's stunning coastline made more magical by the sight of a humpback whale.
An orca illuminated by the winter sun.
If something is worth doing it's worth doing properly and I appeal to anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of these animals to reserve this pleasure for seeing them in their natural environment and to boycott places keeping them in captivity. I promise they'll look better in the stunning scenery of the Norwegian coastline than in a concrete tank. Make sure to pick a guide who respects the whales and follows international guidelines on approaching whales in the wild. 
 

From Humpbacks to More Macks

Feeling elated at the days sights we finally made our way to the Mack's Brewery and stopped for a few beers in Ølhallen, the Mack's Beer Hall. With an impressive 24 taps and a fantastic selection of local craft available this place is a must visit for anyone carrying out this most northernmost of beer pilgrimages. The bar is manned by  helpful and friendly staff and, of course, a stuffed polar bear.
 
The beard, the bear and the maiden fair.
The nod for best beer tasted goes to another fine Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø with their Vic Secret IPA. An intense offering at 7.5% and heavy with apricot in the taste and aroma. This beer also wins the award for most expensive beer I've ever bought, and this coming from a man who's lived in Singapore! A 600ml mug set me back 165 Norwegian Krone - about £12.50 or $19 USD. The Norwegians certainly do prescribe to the philosophy of quality over quantity when it comes to their alcohol consumption.
 
Ølhallen's Taps

Cool Runnings

The following morning it was time for Laura and I to leave the arctic and return south to sunnier pastures (back to Oslo where at least the day time temperatures were above freezing). We were blessed with a sunny day and spent our last day together on walking tour of the cities fine architectural sights. After checking back in at the Grand Hotel we walked around the house of parliament, the city hall, the foreign ministry building and the royal palace and it's public gardens (a real treat in Autumn). To finish off we visited the Nobel Peace Prize Museum (pictured below). A humbling tribute to some of the most inspirational and compassionate people who have ever lived. I was truly inspired by the story of Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who stood up to the Taliban to fight for the rights of women and who was awarded the prize in 2014 alongside Kailash Satyarthi. Read more here.
 
 
Peace be the Journey

A (Sunset) Photo Finish

We finished the daylight hours in Akershus Fortress overlooking Oslo Harbour and were blessed with a truly spectacular sunset from amongst the battlements, a great meal at Hanami for a very modern take Japanese and a few beers at Jarmann. This recently re-opened gastro pub now specialises in craft beer and has a cosy outdoor area which seems unusually typical of a country as cold as Norway. I ordered an Amundsen Pale Ale which was light and hoppy and seemed like the perfect end to the day. I also enjoyed the stronger hoppier variant the Amundsen Ocean IPA.
 
I can't think of a better place to watch the sun set than the walls of a medieval castle overlooking the harbour as the last ferry leaves for the day.*
*No photo editing or filters on this shot, just the standard phone camera!

Wrap Up

Well that about wraps things up for my first beery adventure blog post. Whether you've made it this far or skipped to the end I hope you found some of this interesting. Please remember to like, comment, post and share this blog with others you think might enjoy it. Don't forget to also get in touch and tell us what I'm doing right, what we're doing wrong, what you liked or didn't like along with any recommendations for future global adventures with beer!

One final request - please remember to take the time to explore and think about the ethical issues raised in this post and also share them with others.
 

Summary: Norway (Oslo and Tromsø)

Best Advice: Wrap up warm!
Best local brews by: Nøgne Ø, 7 Fjell Bryggeri,
Other notable brews by: Mack Brewery, Amundsen 

Things to do whilst there: Oslo - Akershus Fortress Sunset & Nobel Peace Prize Museum. Tromsø - Whale Watching & Northern Lights
Things to do before you go: Buy warm clothes, Get a bank loan!



Thanks for Your Support!