Archive for March, 2008

Lew has raised an issue at his Seen Though a Glass blog, which has been followed up by Alan, who in turn has challenged me to come up with my thoughts. The issue at hand is how we should label ourselves. Lew feels it is time to retire the term beer geek – but what should we replace it with?

Lew throws in some suggestions which he dismisses right away:

 beer snob, beer aficionado, beer connoisseur, beer enthusiast, ale conner, beer lover, beer guy. All of them fail on various points: snob is no better than geek, connoisseur and aficionado are considered “hoity-toity” by many (and can be a bitch to spell for some), enthusiast is too dry, ale conner is too arcane, beer lover is too stupid, and beer guy, well, it doesn’t do much for the women who like beer, does it?

Alan is quite content to call himself a Beer Nerd, and asks me for my opinion.

So, what about me?

First of all, my grasp of some of the finer nuances of English is not all that good, which makes it more tricky to give full approval or dismissal. Geek does not have that much of a meaning outside North America.

On the other hand, I certainly follow both their lines of reasoning. I have been a collector, too – Beatles records, concert tapes, books, stamps, comics…

And I’ve been a science fiction fan, though my present involvement is very modest.

I don’t care much what I’m called. When I talk to my wife, I refer to (in Norwegian) my beer friends or beer mates. I would not use the words connoisseur or aficionado, either, but it is probably the most spot on description.

There is a Norwegian term that is slightly old fashioned – beer dog. I kinda like that.

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More unlikely places

Even in a country like Dubai there is beer to be had, there is even a Belgian Beer Café. No doubt it is stocked by InBev, but in a region which is rather dry in all senses of the word, I suppose you are grateful for small mercies. And there are far worse beers than Kwak!

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More on Riga

Where do you go to find beer in Riga?

I visited two supermarkets, and did not get through the beers on their shelves. The Stockman supermarket is close to the railway station, and Rimi is a few blocks away in the Old Town. I am sure there are cheaper shops if you venture into the suburbs, but there is no need to bother. The beers in shops start at about 30 (Euro) cent, so they won’t ruin any visitors.

Riga has a huge central market in converted zeppelin hangars (!). There is lots of food to be had there – cheese, meat, vegetables, bread, fish.. – but not much in the way of beers. There are supposedly some cheap Latvian and Russian beers in stalls at the rear, but I did not see any. I recommend a visit to the market anyway – you feel a bit closer to everyday life than in the more whitewashed streets of the Old Town.

I had draft beer in a few places:

The Alus Seta and the LIDO recreation centre south of the city are part of the same chain. The concept is loads of food served from cafeteria style counters, with an emphasis on national cuisine. Lots of pork, but also pasta, chicken etc. Everyone should be able to find something here. Both the places we visited were family friendly, at least during the daytime. The cellar bar at the huge LIDO centre, with an amusement park outside, has its own micro brewery. Their beers are also available at the other LIDO restaurants. If you go to the brewpub you can also buy takeaway souvenir bottles of their beers at rather stiff prices. In addition to their own beers, the LIDO places also sells beers from other national breweries.

There is a LIDO restaurant at Riga airport, too, but it was not in the terminal we used.

The Alus Arsenals– the Beer Arsenal – offers beer, food and snacks at very decent prices. They have 6 beers on tap as well as a dozen domestic bottled beers and some imports. Nice service for Riga. Their house beer, another unfiltered pilsener style lager with honey, was very nice, and so were two beers from the Uzavas brewery. A pleasant basement restaurant, but I imagine this is dominated by stag nights when the tourist season takes off. Outdoor seating in the summer.

The vaulted cellars of the Rozengrals Medieval restaurant makes up a more pricey establishment, but it is a nice evening out. Good beers here, too, their house red beer is from the Ingver brewery.

For planning your trip, the Riga in Your Pocket web site is splendid, and you can pick up a printed version at your hotel. For more on the Riga beer scene, Gazza at Scoopergen has a comprehensive report.

There are a number of restaurants in Riga offering food from various corners of the former USSR. I had no time to look them up, but I am sure there are beer finds there, too. And if you are a beer ticker with time on you hands, I imagine Riga would make a splendid base for exploring, who knows what you could find in the Russian speaking parts of the country, not to mention crossing the border into the neighbouring countries!

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So how is Riga? The taxi ride from the airport does not tell much – lots of wooden houses, some being beautifully restored. Lots of traffic, with surprisingly flashy new cars. We cross a river and enter the Old Town. This is pretty. Picture postcard pretty. Some buildings go back to the late Middle Ages, some are beautiful examples of the jugend or Art Nuveau style. There is not much here to tell you that this was the capital of a Soviet republic. All signs in Russian are gone, and the architecture has more references to Swedish and German rulers than the Russian tsars and comrades.

This is an illusion, of course. When we leave the old town and approach the Riga Central Market on the other side of the railway tracks, we see the other Latvia. Old and grey people who try to sell stuff from their small stalls. Russians stranded here in this country where they are almost half of the population, but where they are a constant reminder of occupation and dictatorship, of kinsmen who were sent to the Gulag and replaced by Russians or others from the far flung empire.

with this background it should really be no surprise that the Lativans are a rather gloomy people, at least when the last remains of Winter refuse to let go, even if the calendar proclaims that April is just around the corner. They are helpful if you ask, but they do not waste their smiles or small talk with strangers. The only local that struck up a conversation with us turned out to be a settler from Belarus…

But I left you with a cliffhanger yesterday. Beer.

The old breweries in the Baltic regiaon are on private hands, to a large extent bought up by the usual global suspects. In Bulgaria this led me to believe that this can give some hope for a better average quality of the domestic beers in the years to come.

In Latvia, it is rather the opposite. There is a fine range of bottled and draft beers available. I did not count carefully, but in the two supermarkets I visited, there were more than fifty bottled beers to be found from more than a dozen brewers. Most of these are domestic, but there are a few Russian and Czech beers, too. In addition, the typical range in the bars and restaurants I visited is five or six draft beers on tap, often unfiltered.

There is a relevance here to the discussion in the beer blogging community about a month ago about extreme beers versus session beers. The Latvian beers are by no means extreme. But they have other qualities.

The emphasis here is on lagers. A few Baltic Porters occupy the stong ends, there are a few bocks and even alcohol free alternatives. But the majority are lagers between four and six % ABV. Light and dark. Dunkles and Helles. They may be related to the German and Bohemian beers – this is a Hansa city founded by German noblemen and traders and run by them for centuries. But there is a healthy disregard for the rules and definitions, there is certainly no Reinheitsgebot here.

Sure, many  of the beers share a common ground. There is a freshness, I believe the unfiltered beers on tap tend to be unpasteurised. There is also a full grain or biscuity flavour which could be due to them using domestic barley for malt which gives this full taste.

But then they add other ingredients. Honey is easy to distinguish in some of their beers. Others have spices – it seems to me that all the beers from the Ingver brewery have some ginger in them, giving a warming, lingering finish that was very pleasant. This is what I fear will not survive when Inbev, Carlsberg and the other want to standardize and make bigger breweries that will serve the whole region.

The conclusion? Go while you can…

(To be continued)

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It’s not as if I am running out of cities to visit. In fact, I’d be happy to return to many places across Europe. When I travel with my family, there are other considerations. In the summer, there is a strong demand for somewhere sunny with accommodation close to the beach. The transport should not be too tedious, either, but they are happy to travel around Greece by ferry.

The Easter break is something else. We have outgrown Legoland, and wanted something different. A more or less random search for tickets made me book a trip to Riga, Latvia.

When I was young and idealistic, freedom for the Baltic states was one of the issues I campaigned for. I have hardly been there since they regained their independence, just a brief business visit to Vilnius in the early nineties.

Well, we packed up and arrived at Oslo airport at a very early hour on Monday of Easter week. We had a rather important errand before checking in, as I had discovered the day before that the passport of our youngest had expired in February. Luckily, it seemed like the policeman manning the border control station had issued emergency passports before.

After a stop over in Stockholm we landed in Riga, and had a taxi waiting for booked through the hotel. We were downtown in twenty minutes, and checked in at a quiet hotel run by exile Latvians in Britain. Our family room was large and airy with a spotless bathroom, and we were in the middle of the medieval Old Town.

This is when I turn on my camera and get the message Change the battery pack. Did I bring the charger? Nope. So these reports will partly be illustrated by photos from my mobile phone, partly by photos from my wife’s camera, even one nicked from another web site…

It was afternoon already, and we went out for a walk to get our bearings and to buy some snacks. I was, naturally, soon wandering along the beer shelves of the local Rimi supermarkets, with a splendid selection for national beers. The room even had a fridge, so I picked some bottles for later consumption.

We asked the receptionist for a restaurant suited for families, and he gave us the directions for Alus seta, a cafeteria style restaurants five minutes away. Alus Seta means something like the beer barrel, so in addition to a broad selection of pickles, salads, grilled fish and meat they also had five beers on tap, including two of their own. The restaurant is a part of the LIDO chain of restaurants, more about them later. Together with my plate heaped high with pork, potatoes and sauerkraut I ordered half a liter of the Medallus, which was labelled as a mead, but was actually a pilsener brewed with added honey. Lovely beer that was not cloyingly sweet.

It looked like this was more of a beer destination than expected…..

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Back tomorrow

Thank you for your patience. I have had an Easter break with my family – I will report on the beer scene in Riga beginning tomorrow!

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A new Italian

When I started blogging, I posted a fair number of beer reviews, but they have sort of slipped away over the years. Maybe it’s something others do better, maybe it’s because I prefer to write other stuff. It’s challenging to come up with new descriptions and expand your vocabulary, too, particularly with English as a second language.

Anyway, this bottle is one of two I picked up in a salumeria or delicatessen shop in Parma, Italy. The brewery, Birrificio del Ducato, is, as far as I know, recently started, and they are located not far from Parma. They don’t have a web site as yet, lets assume they focus on the brewing.

This beer, A.F.O. or Ale for Obsessed, is an American Pale Ale. A cloudy brown beer with a rapidly diminishing head.It has a fruity and complex aroma where you can distinguish prunes, tobacco and old leather.

Nice? I honestly don’t know. Intriguing? Yes. Very dry and dusty hops dominate the palate, and I suppose the hops is where the tobacco and shoe leather originates as well.

There is a fine sweet flavour under the hoppiness, but it does not have enough strength or body to be truly brilliant. It is 5.2% ABV, if they had aimed at 7% there could possibly be more of a match for the hops.

But it is certainly not a bad beer. It is not a great one, but a fine addition to the range of Italian micros that are popping up in the Northern regions. I look forward to trying their brown ale currently residing in my cellar – I doubt it will survive the Easter break.

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There is a discussion over at ratebeer right now concerning the views in the beer community of the beers from Fuller’s of London. Opinions differ, but there is one argument that I tend to support – they might not be the most adventurous of brewers, but they have a consistent quality, both for their bottled beers and the cask ales sold in pubs.

As I have stated earlier, I am all for exciting and extreme beers – I will try most beers once. But, on the other hand, there is a lot of bad stuff out there as well. 

To make some sweeping generalisations, the very top beers often come from small brewers – Jämtland in Sweden, Mikkeller in Denmark, Nøgne ø in Norway, BrewDog in Scotland. They make inventive and exciting stuff. Not too everyone’s liking, but they put a lot of care and knowledge into their products.

On the other hand, there are micros who have won fame among family and friends with their home brew, buy some equipment and think they can scale up everything and then be in business. They often make spectacular failures. We had one micro here in Norway that had 4 (!) different Christmas beers listed at Vinmonopolet, the state monopoly stores, last year. Not a bottle turned up. Even their two standard beers taste miserably of failure in organic chemistry.

It is tragic for those who have tried to establish a micro to make a living. But it of broader concern, too, as Vinmonopolet will be even more vary of dealing with upstarts. And the casual consumer will reach for the labels he knows to make sure the contents are drinkable on Friday night.

So I will continue to take the risk of getting bad beers on occasion. But if I want to offer a guest a beer at my home, I will make sure it comes from a brewery that has consistent quality. And the bottled Fuller’s ESB is a good example that it certainly does not need to be Carlsberg or Heineken.

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From the Los Angeles Times:

Seventy-five years after Prohibition, beer aficionados in Alabama are fighting for the right to brew and chug as they please. That’s raised the ire of Southern Baptists, who frown on alcohol in any form. As they jockey for advantage in the Legislature, one side quotes Scripture. The other cites BeerAdvocate.com. One talks morality. The other, malt.

Though this may seem like an only-in-the-Bible-Belt brawl, booze-related debates have flared recently in a number of states.

In Virginia, for instance, sangria was the talk of the statehouse after a Spanish restaurant was cited for illegally mixing brandy with wine, in violation of a 1930s-era statute. Idaho lawmakers may soon amend the criminal code to permit vodka sales on election days. And in Colorado, lawmakers have considered rescinding a law that bans supermarkets (but not liquor stores) from selling wine with more than 3.2% alcohol content.


California does not impose special restrictions on beer sales. But across the South, many states have long tried to keep out high-alcohol beer. Those laws were overturned in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia in recent years. This year, campaigns are underway here and in West Virginia and Mississippi.

Free the Hops, which claims 750 dues-paying members, has introduced two bills in Alabama: one to legalize home-brewing and the other to permit sales of beer with alcohol content of up to 13.9% by volume. Last week the state House approved the measure raising the alcohol limit in beer; the Senate is expected to take it up soon. The home-brew bill has not been scheduled for debate.Arguing that alcohol can corrupt body, mind and soul, Alabama’s Southern Baptists, a politically powerful group, are fighting to derail the 13.9% bill in the Senate.

From the Free the Hops web site:

You may have never heard of Trappist ales because currently none of them are sold in Alabama. Yet our neighbor to the east, Georgia, sees all of these specialty beers plus many, many more. In fact, only 1 or 2 of the top 100 beers in the world (as rated by BeerAdvocate.com) can be found in Alabama.

And it might surprise you to find out that these fine ales made by Belgian monks are prohibited from being sold in Alabama. By law, they simply cannot be sold here. That is what FTH is trying to change. We want to give Alabamians the option to choose the Mercedes of beers.

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Don’t try this at home

Beer can houseThe New York Times writes about the Beer Can House in Houston, a landmark created by John Milkovisch, an upholsterer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. From 1968 to 1988 he drank 50 000 cans of beer – and used the empties to decorate his house. It has now been restored at a cost of $400,000, and it is open to the public.

The article does not say if refreshments are available or how the restoration costs got that high.

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