A busman's holiday

Pete Brown writes about the importance of putting the beer notepad down once in a while, and enjoying a more authentic travel experience


“This is a holiday, OK?” 

My wife, Liz, gave me her hardest Paddington stare. 

“That means it’s a holiday away from beer as well. We’re not visiting any breweries or meeting any local beer bloggers. Got it?”

To be fair to her, she had a point. I once took her to Copenhagen for her birthday, and when we got there, I happened to tweet that we were in town. We spent the following evening not at a romantic restaurant having a meal for two, but at a brewery tap enjoying a beer-matched tasting menu with Anders Kissmeyer, one of the pioneers of craft brewing in Denmark. Anders gave us some recommended bars to visit and, while Liz still admits she had a good time, the trip wasn’t quite the orgy of winter markets and sipping glühwein under blankets on snowy canalsides that she’d been promised. 

It’s brilliant being a professional beer writer. Over the years, press trips, research trips for books, and invitations to judge international beer competitions mean I’ve travelled far more than I would have otherwise, visiting places I never would have dreamed of. It’s number two on the list of things I’ve missed most during the pandemic.

But number one on that list is travelling to places when I’m off-duty. 

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but the truth is that, while it’s the best work I can think of, beer-related travel is still work. There’s always an itinerary. No matter how late you stay up drinking with your beer buddies, there’s always a minibus waiting outside at 9am. Whenever you have a beer in your hand, if you’re going to be any good at this job, there’s either a notebook, camera or voice recorder in the other. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that, every now and then, it’s nice to be in a city you’ve never visited before with absolutely no expectations and no agenda. As long as I don’t take the piss, Liz accepts that visits to bars and pubs (breweries would be pushing it) are part of the non-existent itinerary. And if those bars and pubs would fail to make it onto any list of the best beer destinations in Europe, they’re often all the better for that. It’s freeing not to have to look for new stories – and thrilling when you sometimes find them anyway.  

Everyone knows the best beers you ever have are on holiday, even if they taste like dishwater when you bring them back home. The emerging neuroscientific discipline of cross-modal perception has scientifically proven that we’re not being daft when we taste a dull beer (or wine) in the right context and declare it to be magnificent. Every regular Ferment reader knows we ‘taste’ with our other physical senses as well as our taste buds. But context, occasion, glassware, ambient heat and light, and many other factors all contribute to our perception of flavour. I find these perfect beer moments are likelier to happen when my guard is down, when I’m perfectly relaxed, somewhere I probably wouldn’t think of going if my sole aim was seeking out new and exciting beers. 

A few years ago, Liz and I decided to go interrailing across Europe. Neither of us got around to it when we were younger, and my lottery-win fantasy has been to pack a bag, go to the airport, look at the departures board, and pick a destination you liked the sound of. Stay there as long as you like, then go back to the airport and repeat. For as long as you felt like doing so.

We worked out that a real-life version of this fantasy was a three-week train ticket that took us anywhere in Europe. Cross-channel wasn’t included, so we drove to Ghent, filled the car with bargain beers from the beer supermarket on the ring-road, and did a deal with our hotel to leave the car in their garage while we walked to the train station, destination unknown. 

Brussels is probably the place I’ve visited on beer trips more than any other, but I don’t think I’d ever been to the city without an agenda. There’s a tendency to head for the bars with the biggest beer lists, or the rarest geuzes. But the thing is, even a bog-standard bar in Brussels is likely to stock Duvel, Orval and Westmalle Dubbel, and they’re three of the greatest beers in the world. So instead of choosing the best beer bars, we sought out architecturally interesting bars, palaces of fin de siècle architecture populated by old men playing chess and grumpy looking women who could have been their wives sitting at tables alone, drinking Hoegaarden.

We were only passing through, because Brussels was still a bit beery, so we got on a train and headed south. Two days later we arrived in Dijon, a town I would never have visited if we hadn’t had to pass through it to get from Luxembourg to somewhere (anywhere) else. We ended up staying for three days, in no small part due to being nudged towards Vieux Leon, one of those bars where every flat surface feels worn by the touch of a hundred thousand punters, and every vertical tells the history of the establishment in posters, pictures, notices, graffiti and random detritus. At first glance it seemed to be a shrine to the late Bobby Ball, but further investigation revealed the portraits were of Georges Brassens, an anarchist songwriter and poet who wrote the song the bar was named after. People mainly go to Vieux Leon for the cheap wine. Again, the cursory selection of Belgian beers didn’t have a bad one among them, but it was the Breton cider that kept us coming back. They seemed surprised to be selling it, but by the end of the second night, we felt like locals. 

PHOTO: Le Vieux Léon (Facebook)

In cities not known for beer, the best place to find it is often around or even inside the food markets. One of the joys of travelling through Europe is they’re simply not as hung up on the regulation of beer as we are in the UK. In Spain especially, you don’t have to look far in a town like Malaga to find a covered market, inside which, among the verdant veg, aromatic charcuterie and pungent cheese, you’ll find a smattering of tiny bars selling beer and tapas. There’ll just be the local lager on draft, but the bog-standard beers in Spain are far better than British mainstream macro lagers. In thirty-degree heat, served ice-cool, they’re better than a Trappist ale. The locals rock up at the bar, order some pescaíto frito and a small beer, down it in ten minutes and get on with their shopping. Greedy for fresh seafood and dusty from travel, we lingered and people-watched, eventually getting our hands (and bums) on the two stools available at the bar. 

The biggest surprises, by definition, come in the places you’d least expect them. Every sandwich shop in Venice carries a few beers that may not be the best you’ve ever had, but are way better than anything you’d find in, say, a British train station buffet. Papposileno, one of the best restaurants in Tuscany, has a much better beer list, but not because the owners are ‘into’ beer: they source the best they can in every ingredient, and in their wine and coffee. Why would they make beer an exception? 

But my fondest memory of Italy showed yet another different attitude to beer that worked to my benefit. We spent our final weekend of the trip in Santa Margherita Ligure on the north Italian coast. On the Saturday afternoon, we took a boat trip round to Portofino, once a beautiful fishing port, now somewhere oligarchs park their obscene superyachts for lunch. Meals started at ten euros for an appetiser, and the cheapest glass of wine was 13 euros for a 125ml taster of house white. We found a restaurant where, nestled at the bottom of the menu, the beer range consisted of 750ml bottles of Italian craft brewery Baladin’s saisons, blonde ales, wheat beers and barley wines for seven euros each, because it was ‘just beer’. We drank as many as we reasonably could over a shared plate of pasta with tomato sauce.

For a beer geek, off-duty beer travel is a joy because it allows you to enjoy the moment around the beer more than the beer itself. Some of us are driven to tick beers on Untapped, others to find the best beer we can, a rare beer we’ve read about, or even to be the first to discover something no one else has. When you let that go, and let beer come to you the way it does the locals, not only do you enjoy beer in a different way, you see the city in a different light too. I regularly find myself around the corner from the tourist traps, down a side street, drinking with people who have just got off their shift and the kind of regulars who prop up bars all around the world. It shows the universality of beer, at the same time as it reveals the delicious local quirks and differences within it. And that’s what makes this kind of travel a thirst that will never be satisfied. 

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