Not Being There
Breakfast at the pension in Alkmaar, north of Amsterdam, is interrupted when the owner’s father cranes toward my table from his reed-back rocking chair and confides, “When I was young, I traveled in bulbs.”
Minutes later, having figured what he meant, we are swapping memories of the annual Tulip Festival that heralded spring in my home city of Birmingham in the West Midlands and brought him knowledge of Dark Mild Ale at the Gun Barrels, a Victorian pile close to his regular lodgings that was the pub nearest to my school.
I have been traveling since I was on milk. I cannot imagine a life without it. I have drunk beer in 61 countries so far, with more to fall by year’s end. Americans didn’t ask to be born into a country so far away from places different than their own. But as the season for booking bargain foreign travel comes upon us, I need again to water your beer-traveling ambitions with a bucket or two from the old well.
While many of the world’s interesting beers are imported to the US, most are not. And those that do arrive can be in a condition bearing little relation to their true nature. Better understanding comes from visiting them at home.
Even when served in immaculate order, can a beer really be judged by its taste alone? Where wines have terroir, the elusive and scientifically dubious property imbued by the local soil, beers have context. This equally rocky and indefinable quality comes from the people of the region for whom the beer is made. Terroir relies on nitrates; context on an altogether different range of salts.
Until you have heard some gravel-voiced sons of Ch’ti defending their preference for the Bières de Garde of Picardy to the much-respected (but, in their view, less accomplished) ones from Nord-Pas-de-Calais or Wallonia, or why they snub the upstart breweries of Alsace and powder puff ales of Flanders, your appreciation of French craft beers will remain limited to their flavors.
Likewise, being scorned by pink-jowled Cornish locals while straining your way through whichever wild variant of Spingo has come from the pumps at the thatch-topped, granite-lined Blue Anchor at Helston (UK)—original homebrewed ales since Georgian times, though which King George is debatable—will not make them more palatable but should seal them in your memory forever.
Defending blonde lagers is far easier when you have drunk them from a liter-sized Maß in Munich’s Hofbräuhaus or Augustiner Keller, or quenched your thirst under the limes in the Viktualienmarkt. Bemoaning the passing of what they replaced is easier, too, once you have tried the 500-year-old house brew at U Fleků in Prague.
Beer knowledge becomes more complete when travel allows you the opportunity to see things from the other person’s point of view, a skill that, from where I sit watching your presidential election unfold, some Americans might find useful to apply in other areas of life. ■