Monday, March 23, 2015

The PC: The Doppelbock Viscosity Tour of 1995, revisited.

The PC: The Doppelbock Viscosity Tour of 1995, revisited.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

Yesterday it suddenly dawned on me that a liquid anniversary was at hand. It’s been 20 years, almost to the day, since the Doppelbock Viscosity Tour began.

By then, I’d traveled enough times in Europe to feel comfortable doing the planning for a small group and acting as the tour leader, and of course the beer bug had bitten. The fax machine at work was put into overdrive, and an itinerary took shape. My own departure date was a few days in advance of the others, to allow time to fly into Berlin, hop a train, and visit my friend Suzanne at the boarding school where she taught.

In Prague, I was joined by Rick Lang, Barrie Ottersbach, Rick Buckman, David Pierce, Bob Reed and George Schroeder. This merry band of fine fellows visited Prague, Bamberg and Munich for a total of ten days. Our Danish pal Kim Wiesener joined us for the Prague portion. Later in 1995, I wrote about it as part of an article entitled “Several Thousand Delta Frequent Flier Miles Later,” which also included stories from the two other European holidays I was fortunate to take that year.

With a couple of minor adjustments for clarity, here is the essay. There are equal measures of joy and sadness as I read through the account. While much remains intact after two decades, some establishments and people (Mathäser Bierstadt, Fra Wolff) are long gone.

I raise a glass to them. Brief acquaintances, perhaps, but you helped make me what I am today. Thanks.


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 Mathäser 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’s) 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.

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, 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 of them 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 both 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 "Plzensky Prazdroj” 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 turned out to be an item of little consequence for them.

Rather, we drank smoky treats 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 Doppelbock and Hefe-Weizen. Beer as well as food was 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.

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