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AUG/SEP 2005 | COLUMNS | ECKHARDT

Beer Tourists : Ask The Right Question, And You Might Get the Right Answer
By Fred Eckhardt

Over the last 35 years, I've traveled a fair distance in search of fine beer, even as I watched air travel deteriorate from a fun escapade to a dismal duty.

Everywhere I go, I search for good beer and interesting breweries. The first brewery I ever visited was a grand adventure. I was just going along with the crowd. The "crowd" in this case was a trainload of Marines; the time, February 1944. I was 17 with a very short haircut. There was no such thing as "light" beer, and most beer was so-called 3.2 (4% abv), at least for "the duration" of that war. I was bored; it had been a long trip. Suddenly, the train stopped. Our sergeants herded us off into this great building, where we were divided into groups and led away to visit what turned out to be a brewery. A very large brewery.

It was a great tour. For me, at that brewery, it was instant love. But that was only the beginning, because after we toured that brewery, we dined in great luxury, accompanied by all the beer we could drink. Then they poured us back on that troop train, and we continued on to San Diego. Not a hint of "Let's see your ID" — none of that. Just skip the BS and pour the beer. In that war, if you were in uniform, you were old enough. I was proud because, in that group of drunk Marines, I, an inexperienced drinker, had stayed quite sober: a man among men, I thought.

It was a definite high point in my time in the "Corps." I told the story many times about how we visited the Hamm’s brewery in St. Louis, and how that was why I always drank Hamm’s, and why Hamm’s would always be my favorite brew. That is, until several years later, when I was recounting that story for the zillionth time. Someone said, "You silly twit. There's no Hamm’s brewery in St. Louis. You went through the Budweiser brewery, and you say you didn't get drunk there. What nonsense!" Ah, well, another true story ruined by an eyewitness.

Any foreign trip is better if you can visit a few breweries. Those brewers often speak English and are eager to discuss their brews.

Today, our new beer styles are very good and well worth a trip to the brewery, but sometimes it's a long, tedious journey. Any foreign trip is better if you can visit a few breweries. Those brewers often speak English and are eager to discuss their brews with visiting Americans. However, even with the best of intentions, it is often quite difficult to get the kind of information we beer enthusiasts are so fond of. Although brewers are often quite willing to discuss their brewing efforts with appreciative visitors, we don't typically know how to ask the right questions.

A few years ago, I went on a beer writer's "junket." The trip to Guadalajara was free (first class!) It was a fine chance to visit a great Mexican brewery, and at their expense. Before I left I took the opportunity to research the questions I wanted to ask about that brewery's beer (OG, IBUs, alcohol content, grain bill, hop lineup, etc.) in Spanish, since I don't speak that language. The problem is you don't find those questions in tourist guides. But when I presented those questions to the brewer in Spanish, I was able to get the answers in English.

There is a book you can use (find it on interlibrary loan): Elsevier's Dictionary of Barley, Malting and Brewing, 1961: Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 669 pages. The book is compiled and arranged on a German alphabetical base and is in six languages: German, English, American, French, Italian and Spanish, with an index for each of those languages. Although published in Amsterdam, the book has no Dutch, or Belgian-French, or Belgian-Dutch words — a major drawback, in my view, but in 1961 those brewing industries were not important. On the other hand, Italy is now well on the way to becoming a center of brewing interest, and Denmark should be up there in the near future as well.

Some Phrases and Words You Might Need Abroad

When I inquire about a beer, I always want to taste it, but I also want to know the original gravity or extract percent, the alcohol content, the bitterness in IBUs and the color. Please note that the Belgians may not want to hear French, and the Belgian version of French in the Walloon areas may not be the same as the French version of French, and one Dutch brewer told me that Belgian Nederlandsche (Dutch) was not necessarily the same as Dutch Nederlandsche.

1. Original Extract: German — stamwürzegehalt, but also ballinganzeige; French — extrait primitif or balling du moût; Nederlandsche — extragehalte stamwort and maybe balling stamwort. Balling and Plato are treated much the same in Europe, but Plato is more accurate. Both are presented as a percentage rather than as a degree.

2. Alcohol content, or abv (vv — volume in volume): German — alkohol v/v, but also volumenprozent; French — alcool v/v or pour-cent en volume; Nederlandsche — alcoholpercentage vol %.

3. Bitterness in European Bitterness Units (EBU), which are nearly the same as U.S. IBUs: German — bittere BE, but also Bitterwert; French — pouvoir d'amertume; Nederlandsche — Bitterheide EBU. In any case, always include EBU in your written question, and you'll probably get the answer you need (but of course, the brewer may not know his EBU, just as many American craft brewers don't know their IBUs).

4. Color in EBC units. This is a sticky one, because the conversion to SRM is variable. With pale beers, multiply EBC by 0.375, and add 0.46; for darker beers, you are on your own. German — farbe EBC; French — couleur EBC; Nederlandsche — kleur EBC.

You are probably a beer tourist too, so let me give you a few pointers in the fine art of beer touristing. The key point is to locate the nearest rest facility, make use of it and then search for the next facility. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey was once asked if he had any advice for aspiring young politicians. His answer: "Never skip a rest stop!" That's good advice for beer tourists and politicians. In Europe, always carry some Euro coins (70 cents). The madam at the gate will not be sympathetic, and she may not have change, but at least the premises will be clean. Indeed, these days entry is often gained by inserting a coin in the slot.

Last year in Germany, a gentleman held the gate open so I (an old fart) could enter for free! The Brits don't often charge, but the cleanliness and aromatic qualities suffer a bit for that reason. Mexico and the Far East also operate under an aromatic overload, but it is in France that the fine art of Euro coin dispensing is practiced with a flair. At the Cathedral Notre Dame in Paris, when I failed to figure out which way the maze was arranged, the kindly old madam led me directly to the men's urinal. And, of course, ingress to le pissoir is free in most (but not all) restaurants and bars.

Obviously, there's more to beer touristing than searching out the next rest facility. There's beer, and for that you need a good guidebook and a plan of action. For a guidebook, you might use Jackson's Pocket Guide, but in some areas you'd be better off with one of the CAMRA publications. Of course, the Internet also has many travel tips for beer tourists.

If you wish to be welcome at small breweries, you must write them well in advance with information on your itinerary and give them a choice of times that you expect to be available to visit them. They might even rustle up an English-speaking guide for your tour (and then again, they might not). In any case, by calling in advance, you can be assured of the best possible reception. Please remember, in spite of your best efforts, they may still not wish (or have the ability) to accommodate you.

Fred Eckhardt lives and works in Portland, Ore., but he often wanders the globe searching for a free loo, very important to cheapskate old farts.

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