Beer pilgrimage

Adrian Tierney-Jones gets his sauce from the source


I was in the shadowy innards of a pub called Na Parkánu in bustling Plzeň searching for the perfect Pilsner Urquell. This was a place where lunchtime drinkers gossiped and slurped and attacked plates piled high with knuckles of pork and dollops of red cabbage while sitting at brown tables, on brown chairs, beneath brown wooden panels. The aroma of grilled meat traversed the air, the spirit of fire, fat and flesh, while men and women wearing black aprons, white shirts and blue jeans prowled, their paths criss-crossing but never colliding, superhuman in the way they could spot a parched drinker or a newly seated diner in need of respite. 

Outside the sun was high and beneficent zephyrs from the south stroked the faces of those in the beer garden who clinked their glasses with staccato bursts of Na zdraví while the bells of nearby St Bartholomew’s called the hour of one. However inside Na Parkánu all was darkness, the comfortable hand-holding companion of darkness, in which the egg white foam-topped and orange-yellow gleam of large glasses of Pilsner Urquell was in direct contrast to the penumbral fittings that I embraced with gusto. Yin and yang.

I was in this city on a pilgrimage. 

Have you ever been on a beer pilgrimage? I don’t mean having a couple of early swifties at an airport before flying to Munich/Brussels/wherever and following a route that takes you from dissolution to dissipation. The kind of pilgrimage I am thinking of is when you travel and seek out the great lands of beer, such as Flanders, Bohemia or Bavaria, and be mindful of your destination, talk to people who live there, imbibe the landscape, try and understand how a particular beer culture developed and, yes, drink and consider the beer. That is a pilgrimage.

When I consider the idea of beer pilgrimages I think of journeys that uncover a deeper meaning of the nature of the beer culture that is being explored. Yes, you can be a beer pilgrim and tread your way along the beer equivalent of the Camino de Santiago eager to discover a beer in its own landscape where it is commonplace and pleasing to the local palate. For instance, some might bill and coo when a hype brewery produces a Leipziger Gose (usually with added blueberries or orange blossom), but as I once discovered to really understand this kind of beer I had to make a pilgrimage to Leipzig. Here in late 2010 I drank a glass of Original Ritterguts Gose neat at Gosenschenke ohne Bedenken, a traditional wood panelled Gose pub. The bar was down a side street off the centre, built in 1898, closed in 1948 when it became first of all a library and then a meeting space, before reopening in 1986. 

The beer was tart and grapefruity with a dry, lemony finish and you could have it neat or with a traditional shot of the caraway flavoured spirit kummel added. For my second glass I copied the locals and the spirit added to the beer gave it a crystalline sweetness as well as the spice of aniseed. The English-speaking manager told me it was supposed to settle the stomach, though he added with a wry smile that some said it was the only way that Gose could be stomached. As I looked around, I was aware that Gose here was a commonplace beer, a daily beer, part of your routine. This was a beer pilgrimage. 

So what do we really think of when we think of a pilgrimage? How about the notion of faith that turns settled feet normally happy to sleep in the same bed every night into restless and reckless bipeds that tramp on the dust and the gravel and the sand to god-knows-where: the Ridgeway, the Quantock Hills, the crash of the waves on the beach where no one goes or the rounded, well-greened bleakness and up-and-down of the Wiltshire Downs. Or we can cross the Channel into mainland Europe and discover the Camino de Santiago, which marks out the route that a saint’s remains travelled and these days is a route to redemption and revival. You’ll probably know someone who never went near a Sunday school but is keen on doing this route. Is all this what we understand by a pilgrimage and more importantly if I think of going on a pilgrimage is this where I am going? And how many pairs of socks should I take with me? In its most basic terms, a pilgrimage seems to be defined by the tread of feet and the smell and sound of all around, whether it is the busy city streets or the aromatics of the countryside in heat. It is about following a path of beer.

When I consider the idea of beer pilgrimages I think of journeys that uncover a deeper meaning of the nature of the beer culture

So, if I think about it, what have been my beer pilgrimages? I have been offered a massive tin mug of strong amber-hued lager half way through the morning in a Bohemian brewery 10 kilometres from the border with Bavaria and suddenly decided that the two former principalities have much more to say to each other over a beer than their querulous history would suggest. This revelation came after Pivovar Chodovar’s brewmaster Jiri Plevka waved his arm in the general direction of the border and said that over in Bavaria they called the beer style that we were drinking Märzen, and that here in the Czech Republic the name for this kind of beer was Spezial (it was this comment that reinforced my feelings that even though beer could be tied to its place it could also share characteristics across borders). 

The beer was creamy, fresh and perky, fulsome in the mouth feel; it had a bittersweet buzz followed by a notable bite of bitterness, it felt both smooth and rough in the mouth, a heady combination that made it one of those dreamy beer experiences. The brewhouse was striking as well. It had the solemnity of a chapel, the light of a conservatory and the functionality of a factory. It made me ask myself why many of the Bohemian brewhouses I have seen look like churches or, in the case of Pivovar Regent in Třeboň, a castle with a courtyard that imitated a compact parade ground? These are the kind of questions that you find yourself asking when on a beer pilgrimage.

At Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels I have watched boxes of sharp-tasting cherries being added to a lambic to encourage the beer to breathe and live again (I still remember my first visit to this iconic brewery in 1996 when a friend asked the head of the family that owned the business whether the water came from the canal outside — he testily shook his head and answered ‘no!’ before going on to answer someone else’s probably more intriguing query). I have also tasted Orval at the source, both in the restaurant close to the abbey and in the brewery itself, where the brewhouse inspired even this most secular-minded person to indulge in metaphysical deliberation. Later on in an empty restaurant in the Wallonian town of Tournai I asked for an Orval to accompany my turbot in a shrimp sauce. The dish brought out the creamy texture and citrusy notes of the beer, while the beer cut through the cream of the sauce. Of such unexpected moments are beer greatness made.   

I have wandered through the noise, the lights, the fights, the people and the heat of the Oktoberfest in Theresienwiese, a destination incidentally that I had arrived at by train from a trip to the Bohemian hop lands, a place where the mood was bucolic and calm and considered and the sun to the festival’s night riven by searchlights. Once that is experienced, I would advise taking yourself off to somewhere a little less demonstrative for your pilgrimage, the Wirtshaus Ayingers perhaps or Schneider Bräuhaus München. While I drunk deeply of Schneider’s wilful Weizen at the latter, its interior of antlers, wrought iron fixtures and old black-and-white prints conjured up for me a true belief in the Bavarian link with nature, woodland, huntsmen and ancient ancestors. 

Then there was my trip down the West Coast of the USA, on assignment for a travel magazine, but I still found time to drop in on breweries along the way. I recall sitting in the tap room at Buoy Brewery in Astoria, Oregon, finally understanding the complexities of a West Coast IPA (this was in 2015 before oats and lactose started to be used), while sea-lions barked and growled on a platform just outside the open verandah. In Tacoma, a brewer explained the then fashionable concept of hop-busting while we drank an IPA that pulverised the palate, but in a delicious way. 

However, let us not forget that you sometimes don’t have to cross the ocean to go on a beer pilgrimage. I have sat in the cloister-like quiet of a Saturday afternoon pub in Sheffield, a glass of Thornbridge in front of me, idling the hours away, being visited by a dog called Rocky and exchanging pleasantries with a man who had just clocked out of work, and I felt snug, safe, kept from the storm and possibly a little indulgent. This too was a beer pilgrimage. 

Are you ready to go?

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