The Beer Sherpa in Europe
Thirty-one days, six countries, ten cities, and more breweries and pubs than I can count. My grand European tour has come to an end. I’m getting on a plane in 9 hours and I’ll be back home soon. So it seems fitting to do an omnibus Sherpa post with my favorite beers from each stop.
1. London, England
Fuller’s London Pride, obvs! Kidding. While I love me a pint of Pride, I have to go with a beer I wrote about earlier on this adventure: Wylam Galatia. As I wrote then, “A cask bitter, just 3.8%. Ah, but instead of an earthy little wreath of English hops to accent the yeast and malt, it presented a locomotive of juicy.” Now, Wylam is located in Newcastle, so maybe you feel I should cite a London brewery. Fair. Let’s go with an off-speed pitch: Bohem Amos. It’s a spot-on Czech lager made by Czech expats living in London. They do a lot of different beers, but I think this one is nice to give you a sense of how London’s scene has expanded. You can now get a locally-made světlý ležák in London—and just about any kind of beer you crave.
2. Lewes, Sussex
I took an eventful side-trip to the well-appointed Sussex township of Lewes (pn “Lewis”) for one reason: to tour Harvey’s. The whole time I was there (21 hours) I drank nothing but Harvey’s. That means this is a relatively easy pick: Harvey’s Imperial Stout, which you see sitting here in front of Head Brewer Miles Jenner. We did a whole podcast with Miles where we discuss and taste this beer, which has very unusual yeast, so I’ll guide you there for more.
3. Manchester, England
I drank a lot of very good beer in Manchester, and this may be the hardest choice to make. Cloudwater had perhaps the most impressive lineup from top to bottom, and I’ve written about Marble’s great modern cask ales. But honestly, when JW Lees Head Brewer Tom Evans took me to the Gardners Arms for a pint of Lees Best on cask, I was astonished. It was an example of why this style, served fresh and properly on cask, is among the most accomplished in the world. It had enormous complexity, from the soft cookie-like malt to the green apple esters to the dry, satisfying finish. It’s honestly the Manchester beer that keeps recalling my memory, so I’m sticking with the choice.
This is another gimme. The first night I was in town, Eoghan Walsh took me on a pub tour of the town, and we had some really nice beers. I would later have more very nice beers. But the one that blew me away was De La Senne’s Zinnebir on cask at Gist. This is a rare presentation and founder Yvan De Baets has discovered that not all his beers do well this way. But holy moly, Zinnebir does. In Belgian beer, which is yeast-forward, and nearly always refermented in the bottle, the malts and hops are often blunted. And that’s true with standard Zinnebir. But on cask, matters are reversed. It’s the hops that pop, earthy and woody, and the malt even has an opportunity to show its stuff. The yeast is there, too, but you have to look past the hops to see it. Just a marvelous beer.
There’s a famous (?) pub in Antwerp called Kulminator. Well, it’s known among beer geeks, if not many locals I queried. Founded in 1979 by Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn, a married couple who must now be in their 80s, it is part museum, part performance art project, and very clearly a lifelong labor of love. When you arrive, you ring a bell and Mr Van Dyck arrives at the door. He asks about your intentions, the gatekeeper at a magic castle. The correct answer is not to drink beer, but to enjoy it. If you want a Jupiler, he doesn’t want you.
This approach stirred up some controversy on Twitter, but I found it absolutely delightful. Characterful old publicans behaving oddly are exactly the kind of people with whom I want to hang. And then there’s the beer. Inside the pub are racks and racks of aging beer, some that goes back to the pub’s founding. Not all the beers should be aged, actually. I started with a 13-year-old Orval that was all blown-out and flabby. Orval will age, and beautifully, but not, apparently, that long. Ah, but what about my second choice, an eight-year-old Girardin Gueuze? Oh my!—that’s the one! It was sublime in the way only aged gueuze can be, and it was in perfect form. It was still very lively and had the earthy character of age, but was also shot through with gorgeous citrus esters, vibrant (but not biting) acidity, and a bit of that Bruxellensis funk. It wasn’t just the best beer in Antwerp, it was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Man, did I enjoy that. And it was only eight euros!
6. Ghent (and surroundings)
I slept in Ghent, but my days were spent south in Vichte (Verhaeghe), Oudenaarde (Roman), and Anzegem (Verzet). It was that last brewery, founded by three young men, where I found my favorite beer in this leg. Two of the three founders, Alex Lippens and Koen Van Lancker, are educated brewers who toiled away at bigger breweries while plotting Verzet. They established the brewery in the heart of the brown ale region, and planned from the start on helping revive traditional oud bruin.
Their story deserves its own post, but let me highlight one of their wood-aged, blended mixed-fermentation beers; in other words, an oud bruin. It started out as a lark but really worked gastronomically, so now it’s a regular release. It’s their standard oud bruin aged on oak leaves. Just standard, gather-them-off-the-neighborhood-trees oak leaves. They choose mature ones, too, all leathery and full of the tannins of late summer. It creates a remarkable flavor, something like bay leaf, though not so mentholated. They are full of tannins, but not like the kind in oakwood, and not harsh ones either. The remarkable thing is that they balance the beer’s acidity the way hops balance malt. It was like nothing I’ve ever tasted, but it was delightful.
Oh, they are well aware of the history of these styles and the standard boil length is a hefty 3 hours. That’s not quite like the old beers made in the region, which never would have had boils or less than double digit hours. So they also do special batches of “long boil” oud bruin which they let go for sixteen hours (!). My heroes. I’ll do a full post on them later.
Vienna is a funny town. There are quite a few craft breweries, and some good ones, but they’re having trouble catching on because the standard lagers are so good. It’s Vienna, but only recently have breweries started making Vienna lager again. I could cite some nice examples of the latter, but easily the best beer I tried was a North German-style pilsner at Xaver, a nano that is sadly for sale. It had all the rough bitterness you want, which lands like a right cross, but also had tremendous malt character that pillows and softens those hops. A superb example of the style, and unexpected.
Polish beer is coming along, and it’s being led by craft breweries. After having visited three countries with ancient, established beer culture, it was fun to parachute into a place a bit like the US in its early days. There is large beer industry for lager beer, but it’s mediocre. After Vienna, I clambered into a dark, atmospheric boozer that only had national brands thinking I might be delighted as I was with Austria’’s mass market lagers. No such luck: they were as mediocre as national brands anywhere.
The craft breweries were putting out fine beer. Most of it was session strength and quite balanced. But, to date, breweries are mainly following the US’s lead. So the beer that really blew me away was the Grodziskie from Brower Grodzisk I described here. I hadn’t ever had a fresh Polish grodziskie, and man is it good. From the historical descriptions and tired versions I’d sampled (few), it seemed like one of those weird old beers that died for a reason. They might be interesting, but not something you want to drink much.
Fresh grodziskie is a revelation, and I would like to drink it often and possibly in large quantities. It is a weird old beer, but in all the right ways.
9. Vilnius, Lithuania
I just wrote an exhaustive post on Lithuania, so I’ll cut to the chase. Most of the beers I tried beguiled me and dance in my memory. But the one I flat-out enjoyed the most was Davra Varniuk, a dark lager I had with a hearty Lithuanian pork stew. As often, the bartender labored to pour me a low, carbonation pint. This bought out the malts, which were unusual. They had a quality of wood, berry, and toffee—but no roast. The beer becomes chocolatey (more like sweet milk chocolate) with food—with which it was a great complement. In my notes I wrote the words every brewer wants to hear: “Could drink gallons, and quickly.” But for most of us, that’s not easy.
Ah, Berlin, this amazing, sprawling city with its rich and often dark history. In the recent past it was home to Bohemians and expats living on the cheap, but it’s become a victim of its own success and now rents have, if the Italian part-time animator and Uber driver I spoke to is correct, tripled in the last few years.
Those cheap rents made it the heart of the nascent and still small craft beer movement in Germany. They now also probably mean new entrants will choose other cities like Hamburg, instead. (A young couple told me Hamburg is starting to rock. Well, they were from Hamburg, and bar chat isn’t always perfectly reliable, but I buy it.) I’m going to do a bit of a cheat here and offer two beers. I have mightily resisted this temptation for most of this post, but here it can’t be helped.
I came to Berlin for two reasons: 1) to see what the revivalists were doing with Berliner weisse, and 2) to see what Berlin craft beer was like and see if I could find a passable IPA. My sample size is small, but to date I have not encountered a single one. In Berlin I found both, and there’s no way I’m choosing from between them.
First, Schneeeule, which is not a comedy name but an actual word—it means snowy owl. Schneeeule is the project of Ulrike Genz, or “Ule,” which is also spelled out at the end of the name. She makes only soured beer, and most of it Berliner weisse. (I also tried a fun dark beer that was a nice change of pace.) She makes these beers properly, with Brettanomyces originally harvested from an old bottle of Berliner weisse (and not, apparently, Schultheiss, the last extant maker). She makes variations on the base beer, with additions of blossoms or other flavors. I didn’t get to meet her—she was in the US—but her husband Peter Schnitz walked me through a tasting of five of her beers. Among these, I’ll go with Schneeeule Marlene, then, named after Dietrich, and their standard Berliner weisse. These beers are famously made to age in the bottle, and the one we tried was ten months old. The Brett was immediately evident on the nose, but subtle in the beer. Instead, a strong peach ester predominated, one that evolved toward white wine. The peach note is a characteristic of their Brett, it seems—I found it in all the beers. The wheat was largely gone, but there was still a general sense of malt. Complex, dry, and not not super sour. I also tried Lemke’s, another proper Berliner weisse, but Schneeeule’s was more complex.
Ulrike and Peter are old punk rockers, and they bring that ethos to this brewery—uncompromising, willing to be small while making a niche product. Peter told me, “It’s an important part of our [mission]—to give Berlin some of its history and culture back.” Very cool brewery.
Last, I found not just an IPA, but a hazy IPA called Juice at Schoppe Bräu. It was a damn good one, too. By chance, it was poured by the owner Thorsten Schoppe, a very accomplished brewer who’s been doing this for nearly twenty years. He has hop contracts and keeps his hops cold and fresh—and it’s reflected in beers like this. I was also pleased to see that his helles was great as well. He also had a lovely cognac-aged bière de garde. The range is impressive, and he brewed them well.
I couldn’t visit all the breweries in Berlin, but Schoppe has to be in the top tier. I believe Thorsten regularly pours on Mondays, so plan to visit the taproom that night if you go.