Friday, February 11, 2005

Several Thousand Delta Frequent Flier Miles Later ...

From late 1995 comes this account of a European year in beer. Sadly, George's dad Vladimir died in 2004, and "Moss" has been out of business since 1998, having taken his family and moved to Ireland to become an organic farmer.


Now for the truth ...

Thursday evening, March 30, 1995. Seven residents of the Louisville metropolitan area are seated at a table deep within a huge building somewhere overseas.

They are drinking. Drinking beer. It is the seventh day of the 1995 Doppelbock Viscosity Tour, and things are about to get ugly.

Then, without warning, it happens.

"Meinen Damen und Herren -- Ladies and Gentlemen -- we have a very special request for Biggus Dickus of Kentucky."

Oom-pah players in authentic Bavarian attire pick up their instruments and follow the practiced hand of the bandleader, and soon the oversized main hall of the Matheser Bierstadt (a.k.a. Beer City) in Munich is filled with an uncharacteristic, yet oddly pleasing sound.

A neo-Tijuana brass riff rockets through the cigarette smoke.

"Love is a burning thing ..."

I choke on my Triumphator Doppelbock and look across the massive wooden table at Barrie Ottersbach, who looks back at me and gleefully croons "fur is a burning thing."

The music continues.

"I fell into a burning ring of fire ..."

" ... burning ring of dung," echoes a delirious Ottersbach.

Biggus looks pleased, and he should be. Three empty liter masses are in front of him, and his tape player is rolling.

It is Big Dick’s (a.k.a. Rick Lang) first trip to Europe, and I had drawn the lucky raffle ticket entitling me to be his chaperone. Never did I imagine that it would entitle me to a rendition of Johnny Cash performed by the Tuba-Teutonic Waltz Kings.

Sometimes, things just don’t work out like you’d planned.

Hardy Bands of Travelers.

The doppelbock search was the first of three European journeys that I had the good fortune to undertake in 1995. I was accompanied by Lang, Ottersbach, Rick Buckman, Dave Pierce, Bob Reed and George Schroeder, and this merry band visited Prague, Bamberg and Munich for a total of ten days. Kim Wiesener (see below) joined us for the Prague portion.

In August, I flew to Prague, via Zurich, to meet George Hrabcak and Frank Thackeray, and to visit with George’s family in Ostrava and Prague before setting off with Frank to Slovakia and Hungary, again for a total of ten days.

Finally, in October I tagged along with Pierce, John Dennis and Ron Downer (a Tennessee microbrewer and friend of Dave’s) for a whirlwind, ten-day beer tour of Dusseldorf (one day), Cologne (four hours) and Belgium, during which I took a brief two-day side trip to Copenhagen to visit Danish FOSSILS Wiesener and Kim Andersen.

This adds up to the staggering (believe it) total of 30+ days, 12 FOSSILS members, between 150 and 200 different beers sampled (not counting multiple samplings) and pubs and drinking establishments far too numerous to mention, not to mention the sheer weight of humor and happenings springing from the places and the camaraderie -- all of which defies my ability to recount.
In the following, I’m attempting to do no more than sketch the high points of these three wonderful learning and imbibing experiences.

Prague, Woodrow Wilson Station, March 24.

The train from Germany had come and gone, and contrary to plan, it had not disgorged six eager tourists from America looking to drink the fascinating city of Prague dry of Pilsner Urquell.

It could mean only one thing. My friends had missed their rail connection, and now they were doomed to flounder around Frankfurt and drink that city’s odious Binding Pils while dodging the Polizei cars speeding past them on the way to apprehend the drug dealers who congregate in the parks barely a beer-cap finger-flip away from the towering, atypical skyscrapers of Germany's banking capital and prime transport hub.

Hardly. Indeed, the first train had left Frankfurt without them owing to the unexplained lateness of the US Air flight from Pittsburgh (at least it didn't crash), but the group made the next train, and Danish FOSSIL Kim Wiesener and I were again at the platform to meet it.

It was a momentous occasion as Biggus Dickus, Barrie Ottersbach, George Schroeder, David Pierce, Rick Buckman and Bob Reed emerged from the rail car, heavily laden with baggage and the vast debris of the nonstop, seven-hour party that had broken out on the train.

Pierce was incoherent, mumbling something like "Lolita, Lolita ..."

Ominously, Ottersbach waved an enormous pepper-coated salami that nearly impaled him when he tripped over a carelessly discarded bottle of beer. A money clip tumbled from Dave's pocket and was effortlessly scooped up by the slick-fielding Lang. Rick Buckman attempted to shake my hand but couldn't without first putting one of the beers into a coat pocket. Within seconds, Kim and I understood that all were helplessly swizzled.

We led them into the subway, rode one stop, bolted from the escalator and guided the weaving group of foreigners to the Hotel Opera, which is conveniently located ten minutes by foot to the east of Wenceslas and Old Town Squares .

After registration and the stowing of packs and suitcases, it was decided to venture off in search of beer, but the pickings were slim in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. We finally spilled into a small pub/restaurant, where draft Gambrinus was available. Contradicting the signs on the wall, the indifferent people on duty let us know that the kitchen was closed. The beer tasted flat and old. We left, but not before learning a lesson as to the way it used to be during Communist times.

The next two days were filled with long walks through the city, rest stops in the many pubs and reflections on the ways that the city has and hasn’t changed since the demise of Communism. Although the graceful Baroque arches of old Prague are gradually yielding to the golden McDonald's variety, and the facades where rote pronouncements of socialist solidarity once were unfurled now bear the neon language of multinational commerce, most of the classic virtues of the Czech capital remain intact.

Herzlich Wilkommen nach Deutschland.

On the 27th, we left Prague for Germany, stopping along the way to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzen.

Urquell, the most famous Czech beer, has been a constant in my travels since 1987, when Barrie Ottersbach and I made our first, unsuccessful visit to the brewery in Plzen. Our 1995 visit enabled Barrie to fulfill his dream of being able to pass through the hallowed Urquell gate, but it also served to illustrate the extent to which things have changed in eight years.

We learned that the renowned wooden fermenters and aging vessels have entirely given way to stainless steel, and that the lagering time has been cut in half, from three months to a month and a half. We saw the way that Pilsner Urquell’s management has adapted to the post-Communist market by emphasizing cleaner, updated labels for the brewery’s line of products, with the result that the archaic "Prazdroj 12O" signs once seen everywhere are being supplanted by contemporary ads and promos.

We were surprised at having the opportunity to sample the brewery’s new German-style wheat beer, and pleased at its faithfulness to the Bavarian prototypes. Finally, the group was able to enjoy several after-tour beers in a facility that would have been unimaginable in 1987: A huge, new, German-style beer hall capable of seating 700 people that occupies the site of at least part of an old malting.

Next stop was Bamberg. It snowed, and we walked through the storm to find the taproom of the Mahr’s brewery, where weizenbock kept us warm. A tour of the Kaiserdom brewery was interesting, but little was learned about smoked lager, which we drank in abundance at the Spezial brewpub and the restaurant of Schlenkerla, Bamberg’s most justifiably famous Rauchbier. The food at the Maisel Braustubl, our small hotel, was as good as I remembered it, and locals taught us something each evening when we shared tables with them at the pubs.

Too few Americans visit Bamberg, and that’s good.

The tour ended in Munich, home of excess and overkill in almost every aspect of the beer drinking experience, and a place where Barrie Ottersbach feels at home like nowhere else. The Munich portion of the trip featured a brewery tour of Spaten, which in itself was rather ordinary, and yet it ended with a grand lunch at the brewery’s banquet room atop its grain silo, with tremendous views of Munich and as much beer as we cared to drink.

It was a fine day, but the next day was better.

Guido’s Tithe.

Guido was the nicest Italian man we never met in Munich. Although he didn’t know us, he took us on a trip to the countryside, bought beers and food, and even paid for taxi rides.

On our last day in Munich, as David, Rick Buckman and I exited the Pension Hungaria to go into the city center for shopping, we passed a phone booth only yards from our door. Dave glanced in and spotted a billfold, which contained cash (both German and Italian), credit cards and an Italian passport.

Diligently, our local brewer turned in the wallet to our landlady, Frau Wolff ... but not before extracting the standard, universally-recognized fee for getting your things back, 200 Deutschmarks.

We thanked Guido profusely, and after arming ourselves with beers and recruiting Bob Reed, we set off for the 40-minute train ride to Kloster Andechs, a Benedictine monastery and religious complex set on a hill in a beautiful rural area, which in summertime would provide sweeping vistas for those drinking from the vantage point of the beer garden that surrounds the buildings on numerous levels.

The brewing is now done in the village below, but the old brewhouse is visible at one end of the indoor drinking area, which comprises several rooms. We barely found space in one of them -- the place was jam-packed with locals on a Saturday afternoon -- and consumed liter masses of Double Bock and Hefe-Weizen. Beer as well as food is self-service; the pig’s knuckle that Guido bought me was the approximate size of a basketball, oozing grease and porcine yummies, and defeating my efforts to finish it.

Grazi, Guido. I’ll never forget you.

Summer in the Czech Pubs with George.

I didn’t intend to take two trips in 1995, but the lure of visiting the Czech Republic in the company of George Hrabcak and Frank Thackeray turned out to be an irresistible temptation. Back in 1989, I’d spent a month with George’s parents in Ostrava and his aunt and uncle in Prague, and it was quite enjoyable to meet them again, especially George’s dad, Vladimir, who is an amazing human being.

The beer highlights of the August trip involved two very different pub crawls, one in the environs of the village outside Ostrava where George’s parents now live, and another in Prague with George’s cousin, Ales. A microbrewery in the small town of Hlucin was also visited, and is described in a sidebar.

The first began at the village pub (in Czech, hospoda) in Dehylov, which was accessible to George, Frank and myself by foot, perhaps ten minutes up the hill from George’s parents’ home. A few local luminaries, all of whom were known to George, had gathered for an Ostravar Brunch, Ostravar being one of the three generally preferred regional beers. The other local favorites are Radegast (my preference) and Zlatovar.

From the hospoda’s terraced entryway, industrial Ostrava’s smokestacks can be seen a few miles away past hay fields and wooded areas. The city, which I’ve discussed previously in WTD, is entirely comparable to the Pittsburgh of several decades past. Frank suffered several violent nostalgia attacks because of this fact -- or maybe he had just had too many Ostravars.

After a solid, food-based lunch prepared by George’s mom, we walked down to the river, and near the river we drank. This area was one of George’s youthful haunts, where kayaking is done. Appropriately, a rustic drinking site, U Lodenice, is maintained for the use of sportsmen and spectators, and fine pints of Radegast are to be had at picnic tables in the shade of big hardwoods. Clouds of cigarette smoke and the reeking presence of Czech beer cheese complete the olfactory feast.

At this point, it was decided that we would go visit George’s uncle in the neighboring village of Dobroslavice, which George guaranteed was only a short distance away by route of a shortcut over the hills. The ensuing death march through the timber along several logging access roads left me soaked with sweat, gasping for breath and in desperate need of a beer ... bringing us to the next stop of the tour, the village pub in Dobroslavice, where we met an interesting young high school student who had spent time in Michigan as an exchange student and who had mastered English vernacular. We had a lengthy discussion about Beavis and Butt-Head as I downed my Radegasts.

Finally, George’s cousin drove us back to Dehylov, where we were alarmed to discover that the pub had shut down for the evening. There was a final hope, Restaurace U Kurtu, at Dehylov’s new sports and tennis club.

It also was preparing to close, but we caught a break, as a man drinking there turned out to be Mirek, who on my previous visit in 1989 had guided me on a walk to a rural church and an examination of the architecture therein. He is a guiding force behind the club, and so everyone was persuaded to stay late. Very much like home.

Prague Mirror Ball.

Recollections of the Prague pub crawl are considerable hazier, as we were guided into more establishments than any drinker could be expected to remember.

Suffice to say that there is no better way to spend an evening in Prague than to be guided by a native through the city’s amazing warren of watering holes, including places where malodorous Czech beer cheese can, in summer, be smelled at least a block away -- small, wood-lined, smoke-stained places with beers like Staropramen, Velkopopovicky Kozel and Krusovicky (unknown and excellent pilsner from the hop-growing area north of Prague) on draft, all tucked into the city’s Byzantine alleyways and archaic streets.

On the very long day of the Prague pub crawl, we were climbing one of the streets below the castle when we saw a ravaged poster that announced a concert: Neil Young and the members of Pearl Jam at the ice hockey stadium, scheduled for the evening of our departure on the overnight train for Kosice. A quick glance at dates and time confirmed that Frank and I could pull it off by stowing our packs at the central station, riding the Metro (subway) a few stops to the Holesovice district, then making it back in time for our train around midnight.

And so it went. Despite assurances by George and his cousin to the effect that hardly anyone would attend such a high-priced concert (approximately $16 per ticket), the ticket lines were long and the place was full. I’ll avoid a concert review, except to provide a point of reference to Neil Young aficionados who may be reading this: "Cortez the Killer," "Rockin’ in the Free World" and "Down By the River." These were the last three songs performed. There were quite a few kids drinking beer, in this case Staropramen, and Neil made one memorable statement when he drank deeply of a bottle of beer, held it aloft and asked the crowd "is this a Budweiser? Is this the real Budweiser from Czechoslovakia?" After the roar subsided, he added "it sure tastes good."

Neil Young is baaad.

Do I Hear Three?

I didn’t intend to take three trips in 1995 ...

Dave Pierce and my travel agent conspired to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and with a little fancy footwork, I found myself back at the airport in mid-October. Packing was simple, since the bag hadn’t been emptied after the August trip.

The October excursion to Germany and Belgium (and for me, briefly to Denmark) was something special -- not that the other two trips weren’t good, but in the sense that almost everything about the fall trip worked out favorably. The flight schedule was the best ever, bringing us in to Amsterdam at 7:00 a.m. local time. The ground transportation posed no problems, with the trains running on time. There was brilliant, sunny autumn weather without the rain that often interferes with fall itineraries -- in fact, it was so warm that the lambic brewers were having to wait a bit longer to begin their batches.

My fellow travelers were great, and I learned more on this trip than the previous two combined. My last visit to Belgium had been in 1987, and that eight-year absence was proven to have been too long to stay away from the most diverse brewing country in the world -- it would be a beautiful, thought-provoking place even if the beer was bad, but it’s not, and so we drank much of it, and were sated, and are currently thinking seriously about doing it again.

A note to Bob Capshew: Okay, you've been right all along. Just don’t rub it in.

First, We Examine Dusseldorf and Cologne.

We didn’t pause in Amsterdam to do any more than flash our passports and hop a train to Dusseldorf , not even to wash down a raw herring with a Dutch pils.

Treats of far greater gravity awaited in Dusseldorf, where by some act of divine intervention our day in the city was found to coincide with the crucial autumn "Sticke" day, where the brewpub Zum Uerige (and maybe some others) rolls out a special version of its ale. It happens only twice each year, and it isn’t something to be missed.

Dusseldorf’s best Alt is brewed by the small brewpubs in the city’s Altstadt. The ale is copper-colored, clean by virtue of cold-aging, complex in the malt flavor and pleasingly hopped in the finish. We dropped in on all four of the brewpubs in the Altstadt, including Goldene Kessel (Schumacher Altbier), Zum Schlussel, Im Fuchschen and Zum Uerige.

As expected, Zum Uerige’s Sticke was the high point. It has a higher gravity, it is dry-hopped, and it is orgasmic. I can say no more.

The following day, we set out for Belgium, pausing first in Cologne for a brief tour of the brewpubs and bars in the Heumarkt area that serve Kolsch, Cologne’s local specialty style. Kolschbiers are mild, golden ales, and are most often described as delicate. They are good and poundable, as Ed Willard has noted elsewhere in this year’s Travel Dog. On my last trip to Cologne, I favored P.J. Fruh’s Kolsch, but this time I leaned more toward the fruity Malzmuhle variety and the hoppier Paffgen.

After four hours of strolling and sampling in the shadow of the immense Cathedral, we hopped a westbound express for Belgium.


A change of trains was necessary at Liege, and we made for the station buffet to have an inaugural beer. There were 35 choices on the menu, which by Belgian standards were rather elemental choices, but ones that spanned the range of the brewer’s art.

In America, if you can find a train station, you also have a choice: Bud or Bud Light.

Also in Liege are two beer bars, each owned by the same person, each open 24 hours a day, and each with 1022 beers on its list. We chose not to go there because we wanted to see the rest of the country.

Namur is located in the Meuse river valley in southeastern Belgium, which is referred to as Wallonia and is French-speaking. The northern part of the country is filled with speakers of Flemish, which is similar to Dutch.
The linguistic divisions reflect the respective cultural heritages of the two halves, and in Brussels, the national capital as well as the most important administrative point in the European Union, a local dialect is spoken that it is alleged not even the natives truly understand.

As a tourist, the best strategy is to speak English, so as not to trample the sensitive issue of language. The next best strategy is to drink Belgian beer and to know something about it, because the natives are delighted that foreigners appreciate their brewing heritage.

In Namur, which is a clean and scenic city with an old citadel on a hill that provides sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, our first move after settling in was to take Tim Webb’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland and seek out Eblouissant (The Dazzling), a bar featured in the Namur section therein and one highly praised by the author.

Unfortunately, we had an old edition of the book. We found the address, but it was a different establishment. Because the bartender was kind enough to give us directions to the new location (27 Rue Armee Grouchy) of the bar we were seeking, we drank a round anyway before walking across town. Even then, we almost missed it, as there’s really no sign other than an authentic Irish pub front boasting draft Murphy’s Stout.

Inside were two dozen locals who were gathered to celebrate their return from a tour to Sri Lanka. Owner Alain Mossiat welcomed us -- a bit warily at first, then more enthusiastically as we were able to demonstrate our earnest instincts as beer pilgrims. The bar specializes in ales from the Wallonia region, which Alain feels are poorly represented on beer lists elsewhere in the country. After our first selection, we let him choose for us the remainder of the evening. The pinnacle was an aged, homebrewed mead from his personal cellar, which quite simply was the best that I’ve ever had.

It was an eclectic place that set the tone for most of the specialty beer bars we would visit in the following days. We were seated in an interior room that was piled full of junk, bottles and beer advertisements, this being done to get us out of the way of the party. Having embarked upon our sampling and finished eating our spaghetti, a spirited argument ensued as to the true nature of craft-brewed beer in America, with Alain interrupting occasionally to explain the next selection. Expatriates abroad. Drinking, talking. Very cool.

A Quick One to Denmark.

At this juncture, I went on a road trip from Brussels to Copenhagen to participate in a birthday bash for Kim Wiesener. This afforded me the opportunity to take overnight train trips in both directions, drink bland Belgian Jupiler lager from cans with two Norwegians (on the way up) and watch a Chinese girl get arrested at the Danish-German border (on the way back), enjoy the herring buffet at Nyhavn the first day and a traditional Danish "lunch," complete with various herrings and tidbits washed down by Carlsberg and aquavit, on the second, and then actually attend the party itself, where beer ranked second to an incredibly strange, multi-alcoholic jungle juice.

Which is to say, it was an entirely debauched affair and one fully worthy of Kim’s considerable talents in this regard.


I met my compatriots in Bruges on Sunday morning. We stayed there for the remainder of the trip (except for the last night in Antwerp), taking side trips by rail and sampling the wares at the city’s many good beer bars, particularly the Brugs Beertje (the Little Bruge Bear) at 5 Kemelstraat.

Bruges might be the best preserved old city in Europe. At one time, a canal that girds the town and other waterways provided access to the ocean, the Bruges was an important port. Several hundred years ago, everything silted up, and the city remained mummified in pristine isolation until it was realized that the potential for tourism justified maintaining the old buildings and streets. Now the old town is a showplace, and it is relentlessly touristed, particularly by Brits.

However, October proved not to be too bad, and despite the obviously commercial aspects of the experience, it is a city not to be missed.

Jan and Daisy, owners of the Brugs Beertje, are central figures in the revival of artisanal brewing in Belgium, and their establishment is considered by Webb to be one of the best beer bars in the world. They are fierce purists, refusing to stock pilsner because it is not a native Belgian style.

The place is small and cramped, with battered wooden tables that during the course of an evening are moved to and fro according to need. A few munchies are offered, including cubes of cheese with celery salt (try it some time). The walls are plastered with Belgian beer signs, classical music is played all the time and the beer list numbers 200. Like the other bars mentioned in this article, the shelves sag with glassware, as each beer has an accompanying glass meant to be used with it.

One evening I went to the bar to order a Rochefort 10-degree Trappist ale (11.3% abv). It turned out to be my favorite Belgian ale, but not right at that moment, as Jan wouldn’t serve it to me if it wasn’t to be my final beer of the evening. So, I waited, and it was worth the wait: A velvety, big body with complex flavors, deeply warming and about as smooth and satisfying as you can imagine a beer of that strength being.

Our side trips were many, including one to Brussels for a look inside the Cantillon lambic brewery Gheudestraat 56, in the Anderlecht district), where they have that big "tub" in the attic and the slats in the roof just like we’ve always read. There is nothing funkier in the study of beer than the story of lambics, Belgium’s traditional, spontaneously-fermented ales, which are made nowhere else in the world. Visitors to Cantillon are permitted to give themselves a tour of the facility, and are entitled to a brief lambic sampling at the end.

Another day, I set out for Ieper (Ypres). The objective wasn’t beer. Ieper was the site of some of the First World War’s bloodiest and most senselessly protracted fighting, and the medieval city was reduced to kindling by incessant shelling from 1914 to 1918. It has been rebuilt, and was a very pleasant place to spend the day and to reflect on the lessons of the Great War.

Mussels and Ale Won’t Make You Ail in Antwerp.

My travel year ended in Antwerp. Once more, with Webb’s guide in hand, we sat out from our hotel to find a few good bars. These are in abundance in Antwerp, a bustling and energetic port city on the River Schelde. Enjoying yet another beautiful day, we walked from the Centraal Station into the center of the city and found a number of fine bars surrounding the massive Gothic cathedral, including ...

First, Paters’ Vaetje (Priests’ Little Barrel; 1 Blauwmoezelstraat). A list of 75 to 100 Belgian beers in the shadow of the cathedral wall, including draft De Koninck, Antwerp’s brassy pale ale.

Then, Elfde Gebod (The Eleventh Commandment; 10 Torfbrug). Not a huge beer list, but the most singular atmosphere that I’ve ever experienced in a decade of traveling in Europe. It is filled from top to bottom with religious artifacts and statues like the ones out on the lawn at Catholic institutions.

Behind the bar, there is a huge pulpit. Upstairs, bizarre paintings seem to attest to some twisted religious vision, although it’s difficult to tell exactly which one.

Very, very weird.

For a late lunch, we dined on mussels in one of the many restaurants near the cathedral that specialize in them when they’re in season. The classic Belgian way of serving mussels involves placing a pot that is somewhat the size of an Ottersbach brew pot, filled with dozens of mussels in their shells swimming in broth, on the table before each diner, then lining up beers until the last shell is spent.

After the mussels were gone, a ten-minute stroll led us to the final stop,

Kulminator (32 Vleminckveld), described by Webb as an "elegant cafe" with "a superb collection of beers." Indeed. There are over 500 Belgians available here, including up to 200 vintage selections, some dating to the early 1980’s. Some are bottle-conditioned, including many lambics, while others are just plain old. One of these, a now-extinct brand of strong ale called Breughelbier from 1985, was on special the night of our visit. Aging had given it a dark, smooth nuttiness not unlike that of a barley wine, and it was enhanced by a Romeo y Julieta Churchill, the two combining with a stomach full of mussels and ale to provide a storybook ending to the trip.


Much has been omitted from the preceding owing to the author’s perpetual state of disorganization. Many FOSSILS have asked when the next trip to Europe is going to be, and at this stage it’s impossible for me to say, but it’s worth noting that there’s no need to depend on one of the "veterans" to organize such excursions. Check with your travel agent, or if you have none, call Mary Pat Bliss at Bliss Travel in New Albany (the semiofficial travel agency of FOSSILS; no endorsement fee paid) and check the fares. Do some research, plan an itinerary, buy a guide book or two, ask us for our advice, pack your bags ... and get the hell out here.

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