In Nick Park’s magical Wallace and Gromit short feature Claymation film, A Grand Day Out, his two characters are in a quandary about where to go for a holiday.
“I know,” Wallace, says at last, staring at the moon, “We’ll go where there’s cheese!”
As fanciful as that sounds, with Slow Food festivals like “Cheese” in Bra, Italy, attracting thousands of gourmands from around the world, “cheese vacations” are now a reality.
So why not beer vacations?
Beer vacations have become a real industry in recent years, whether such trips involve a journey to Munich’s famous Oktoberfest, a pilgrimage to beer shrines in Britain and Belgium, or travels to visit “pints of interest” in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
And just like tourism of any sort, such travels are subject to both difficulties and delights. Having a glass of Trappist ale in a Belgian inn outside the monastery where it is made can be wonderful. Being herded into a bus and carted about like cattle to get there can be something quite different.
Before we begin to drool about places to go, here are some suggestions about how to be a beer tourist, based on my own travel experience.
Tips for the Beer Tourist: How to Get the Most out of Your Trip
Meet the people who make the beer. You might not have a chance to meet beer celebrities like Pierre Celis, Frank Boon or Fritz Maytag, but try to rub shoulders with brewers whenever you visit breweries. Talk to them about their work and ask some technical questions, too, especially if you brew yourself.
It helps to be well informed about the brewery and its beers in advance. Many famous breweries open their doors to the general public, which knows little about beer. Having to explain the entire brewing process can be tedious. Try to avoid this by making contact with the brewers themselves, which might require knowing a local who can act as a guide. Brewers are often pleased to encounter foreigners who are both excited and knowledgeable about beer. Even if you don’t speak their language, passion for beer is a truly universal tongue.
Drink the beer where it is made. Most breweries have a taproom or pub on premises or nearby where you can sample their products. There’s nothing like the freshness of a beer tasted on location, especially if you’re used to drinking it months (or even a year) after it was bottled, such as Pilsner Urquell. “Think globally, drink locally” is not just a marketing phrase—in most cases, the beer will definitely taste better.
Drink the beer where locals drink it. Since tourism is a global phenomenon, brewpubs have followed travelers as much as travelers have tracked them. The Paulaner Brewhouses in China, for example, brought European brewing to Asia—sort of. Although they are located in China’s capitalist zones and do cater to Chinese businesspeople, foreign tourists are a big part of their business. A brewing friend of mine who visited one in Shanghai was so disappointed in the beers that he refused to discuss the place afterward.
It’s far better to avoid the tourist attractions and find the real pubs, bars and cafes that supply local beer enthusiasts, like the famous Kulminator in Antwerp (which gets its fair share of tourists, too). Of course, it helps to know the local culture when you visit local haunts. I’ll never forget the faux pas I made once in Antwerp by ordering beer in French at one bar. Hearing my wife and me speaking English at our table, a man came up to me and said (in English), “Please speak English; we hate the French!”
Look for places and events off the beaten path. We all want to experience beer shrines like Munich’s Oktoberfest, but it might not be worth repeating—a little like visiting the Statue of Liberty. My wife, a New Yorker by birth, had never climbed the famous monument until just a few years ago. I finally convinced her that we had to do it. After standing in line with hundreds of others moving up a narrow spiral staircase for almost two hours to reach the top, we were both happy to have finally done it—once.
Germany offers many more beer festivals every year—such as the Starkbierfest, held in Munich in the spring—that are less crowded than Oktoberfest and offer a wider variety of beer.
Speak the language as much as you can—both of beer, and of the culture surrounding it. It goes without saying that North Americans should never assume that the entire world speaks English, or wants too. Learn a few basic phrases of the language of the country you’re visiting (maybe even “Boontling” if you’re touring the Anderson Valley in California) and it will pay great dividends in dealing with the people you meet. Some beer vocabulary is a good idea, too, but the ability to ad lib is a useful skill. Having little command of Spanish at the time, I once found myself touring cooperages in Spain. I worked for a winery, and discovered, thanks to the French connection in the barrel business, that I was able to communicate far better than expected.
Bring something to share from home about your own beer world. People in other countries are naturally curious about where you’re coming from (some much more than others), and it never hurts to “show and tell” a bit when they show an interest. Sometimes this can be quite beneficial. When the bartender at a pub outside the Trappist monastery of Westmalle in Belgium learned I was a member of a homebrewing club, he gave me both free beer and souvenirs to take back to my friends at home.
Take an active role in exploring the territory as much as you can. Walk, bicycle, use your muscles to get exercise while you tour. Unfortunately, we’re too used to sedentary ways in much of our recreation. Riding around in a subway, bus or train might be the fastest way to get places, but you’ll feel better if you can walk to them. Many European cities are best explored on foot, and if you’re drinking beer, walking is always better than riding or driving.
Eat when you drink. Although beer took you there, don’t fall into the trap of having a liquid diet while touring. Good beer is meant to be enjoyed with good food. In fact, many dishes in beer-producing countries are created with beer in mind.
Remember to enjoy yourself, whatever happens. Travel is always tiring, and anything that can go wrong probably will. Don’t let the travel ruin your trip. As long as good beer is handy, your beer vacation will be worth it.
Visiting the Beer Shrines
Probably the most popular European beer vacations these days are a trip to the Oktoberfest in Munich, beer touring in Belgium, or a visit to Prague in the Czech Republic. In America, visiting the Pacific Northwest and its many fine breweries is also on many a beer tourist’s wish list. There are also great beer museums worth visiting in all these places. (See sidebar for more details.)
Charter tours are available to most of these locales. (See sidebar for a list of some beer tour companies.) A pre-arranged itinerary has the obvious advantage that all the necessary contacts, transportation and lodging are made for you, usually with the exception of airfare. The disadvantage is the lack of freedom to plan your own tour, which is not often not as difficult as it might seem.
Armed with a good guidebook or two (see sidebar for a list of the best), some knowledge of the language and customs of the county you’re visiting, and a desire to take an active role in designing your own trip, the beer tourist can easily plan a great beer vacation in Europe or North America.
In Europe, the conversion of a plethora of national currencies to the Euro makes monetary matters far easier than ever before. The presence of cash machines in virtually every community has made the burden of carrying traveler’s checks almost completely unnecessary. And the recent expansion of the European Union to include the Baltic republics, the Czech Republic, and other eastern European countries will ease border crossings for all travelers, even with the increase in security checks brought about international terrorism concerns.
How to Get Beer from There
Sometimes the way we travel is an important as our destination. Peak to Pub Bicycling Tours, based in Colorado, combines bicycle touring with pub visits in Ireland (wonder if there’s a law against BUI—bicycling under the influence)?
How about beer by barge? It could be the way to go in Belgium, where a series of canals links beer sites across the entire country. InfoHub, a tour company out of Fremont, CA, lists a “beer barge tour of Belgium and Holland” on its website, www.travelBiz.com. A typical eight-day tour from Diamant to Antwerp (which also includes the use of a bicycle when on dry land) takes you to some of the world’s best breweries and pubs, including Frank Boon, Cantillon, Moortgat, and the Kulminator in Antwerp
If you want to test the waters but ride farther above the foam in ultimate luxury on your beer vacation, that’s also possible. Sponsored by this magazine, All About Beer’s Alaskan Brew Cruise 2004 takes beer hunters aboard the Celebrity luxury liner Mercury on a seven-night cruise from Vancouver, BC, up Alaska’s famous Inside Passage, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. Beer cruisers will enjoy special tastings of local craft brews in Vancouver and Skagway, a visit to the Alaskan Brewery in Juneau, and beer classes on board. This is AAB’s third Brew Cruise in the Northwest.
Another seven-night Fall Foliage Brew Cruise is planned for September 11-18, traveling on the Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas from Boston to the Canadian Northeast, making beer stops in Portland, ME, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. (See sidebar for more details.)
Beer touring by bus—with no driving hassles or potential DUIs—is de rigueur in the American beer capitals of Portland, OR, and Seattle. Portland’s Brew Bus schedules regular weekend beer trips. In Seattle, Ron DesMarais of Local Brews takes bus tours to breweries around town. Both cities also have antique streetcars running past breweries.
How about beer by train? While there is no regular “beer train” for tourists like the wine trains of the Napa Valley in California or the Woodinville area in Washington state, a seasonal Octoberfest train makes the rounds of Anchorage, AK. Kevin Burton of Glacier Brewhouse treats passengers to beer and dinner on the four- to five-hour run to the town of Portage and back.
So whether you visit breweries, pubs, museums, or beer events this year in the United States or abroad, on foot or by bicycle, car, bus, boat, barge, or train, there’s a beer tour made for you. Bon voyage!