My Rarest Scoops!
Last Updated :01/06/11
his section will relate the mildly engaging tales of how I came to scoop some of my rarest ticks. Please feel free to send me your stories, they can't be much worse than these. Just choose a yarn and read on .....
Harmath Sörfözde Jagerbier, Budapest, Hungary - by Gazza.
Graf Zeppelin brewpub, El Palomar, Buenos Aires, Argentina - by Gazza.
Sucholdský Jeník, Prague, Czech Republic - by Gazza.
Hartley's Fellrunners - by Gazza
Brains MA - by Gazza
Valhalla White Wife - by Gazza
Aldchlappie 1707 - by Gazza
Beer Engine 11:11 - by Gazza
Valhalla White Wife -
Blackfriars, Glasgow 14th October 1999.
t was a dark and stormy night ... well, maybe not. Wrong story - it was quite a nice day actually. I was working up in Glasgow and drinking various beers in Clockwork and the Three Judges, but one of most satisfying scoops happened in the city centre and was not just a huge brewery but was totally unexpected - as all the best winners are.
I had visited various pubs around town and scored 2 beers, both in the Three Judges - Beowulf Eomer and Rebellion Old Trout. After finishing the "scooping" pubs, I went for a few beers in the other bars that sold good beer, mostly in the "merchant city" around the Firkin. I had some decent beers and ended, as I usually did, in the Blackfriars where good Scottish beers were guaranteed, although winners were almost unknown - although at this point in the evening I was purely after good beer and the thought of any more winners had drifted off and mingled with the fag smog in the Mitre.
I trolled into the Blackfriars giving the beer board a casual glance, and suddenly felt as though someone had applied a large wet herring across my face. It's always amazed me how people can go from laid back chilled out geezers into raving twitching desperados and up to then this had not really happened to me. With my now staring eyes I re-read the board, but concluded I'd been right first time. Valhalla Auld Rock.
I suppose I'd better mention that at the time Valhalla was the holy grail - the brewery so far North it must be staffed by polar bears and whose whole production was swilled by RAF men at RAF Baltasound - I had briefly thought about joining up to score the beer, but concluded that I'd have the stuff eventually without having to join up to perpetuate the British fascist war machine.
Anyway, it was allegedly available and I hardly dared look at the pumps lest it was a cruel joke, but there it was. I had become a sort of regular in the Blackfriars as I'd been working in Glasgow for the last month, and this stood me in good stead now. The barman recognised me (probably as that mad Englishman who drinks the micro beers) and wasn't surprised when I ordered the Valhalla. I watched mesmerised as the amber fluid cascaded into the glass. He handed it over, and I had one of the most massive winners around in my hand. I retired to a table to enjoy my good fortune.
Getting something you've wanted for a long time is usually an anticlimax. My first sexual encounter certainly was, likewise my first joint at Poly reduced me to a corpse like object fast asleep in the room whilst my mates enjoyed themselves and laughed into the small hours, eventually waking me up with their cavorting. So it was with Valhalla Auld Rock, which had a slight cardboardy taste and little flavour. Nevertheless, I drank it with pleasure wondering what other scoopers would do to be in my position. It was then, half way down the glass, that I had one of my rare inspirational ideas; I would ask my mate the barman if they had anything else in the cellar. I briefly thought about the alleged new beer from Valhalla, called White Wife, but the thought of this was just ridiculous.
I can't remember much about the conversation - it seems like it was someone else asking the questions and I was sort of listening in, but it went like this -
me : "Do you have any other Valhalla beers coming on then?"
barman : "Oh aye, we've the White Wife in the cellar"
me : "eeerm ..... when will that be on?"
barman : "Ye can have some noo if ye want"
me : "What, from the cellar?"
barman : "Aye. a pint is it?"
I watched speechless as the barman sauntered off down the steps with a pint glass in his hand and returned with a full pint of pale beer. I bought him a drink for his efforts, and returned to my table in a daze where I stared hard at the glass, but it was stubbornly still there. I took a swig, and again the cardboard assailed my tastebuds, but I didn't care - I was sat there with a big stupid grin on my face - I was the first scooper to have Valhalla White Wife.
I'm sure it was indeed White Wife as the next week, back in Glasgow, it appeared on the pumps with correct clip. I had another pint to be sure, but it had lost it's magic - it just tasted of cardboard. I doubt I'll ever recreate the feeling of that night 400 miles from home scoring the biggest beer in Britain, but I was there - or was I? I've never really been sure on that one - can you count beers in a dream?
White Wife remained a huge beer for several years, and one of my abiding memories is it being on Nottingham's list. When we arrived on Friday, it had already gone - and most scoopers missed it, and how I laughed! Of course it's relatively common nowadays, but whenever I see it on a list it must be a strange sight - I go all misty eyed and a massive grin appears on my face; I'm back in the Blackfriars blagging the largest beer in Britain from the cellar. I'm sure the barman never knew how much that meant to me, but if you're reading this, then you really should be the next pope. Cheers mate.
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Aldchlappie 1707 - Aldchlappie Hotel, 23rd February 1997
gain, this one was one of the Holy grails of the beer world. It never went anywhere, the entire production was sold in the hotel to the guests. How we scored it was a spur of the moment decision brought on by some Traquair beers....
We were at the Traquair beer fest. It was my first time there, and although I had scored a few beers, I was gutted that the festival ale wasn't on - infection or something, although in my opinion that could apply to all their beers! The trip was running a bit "off the cuff", and we had nowhere booked for doss that night when somehow the subject of Aldchlappie came up, and an idea manifested itself; what about staying at the rarest brewpub in the UK?
Steve rang the pub, but bad news was heading our way; they only had one room left and we decided that it would be a bit rude to blag 3 in it. I even toyed with the idea of sleeping in my car outside, but I decided this was too much beyond the call of duty - looking back now, maybe it would have been worth it! Despite the bad news on the doss, there was better news on the beer front - there was a beer on! The lure of this huge winner was now irresistible, so off we went on the long trek to the Highlands.
When I think of the daft moves I used to do driving over 100 miles for 1 winner must come pretty high on the list, but these were the days when I was desperate and to be honest I'm glad we did - not many people had any beers at all from Aldchlappie. We decided to break the journey at Moulin, about 10 miles short of target, just in case they had done anything new. To my amazement Moulin Light was on the bar, only a few weeks old! Scoring a beer here was the icing on the cake.
The road from Moulin to Kirkmichael is very windy and very hilly as the few who have travelled it will know; It breaks free of civilisation just past the Moulin brewpub and heads up into the surrounding mountains. This is golfing and shooting area, which was why the Aldchlappie was full up as we found later. My resentment of the "shooting set" grew even more when I found out I'd been deprived of doss by a bunch of toffee nosed wildlife murderers; cheers then!
Just when I was thinking we must have missed it, there it was; a pale grey building with a hint of fairytale
Gothicism about it, and nothing else in sight. It was nothing like I'd imagined it but it looked
superb; it really felt like this was the remotest brewpub in Britain, and after this even Moulin seemed distinctly bustling.
Outside the car, the silence of the Highlands lay thick all around.
We hardly dared to enter the pub in case the journey had been in vain. The bar was surrounded by pumpclips, and the familiar throng of single malts crowded the shelves but all this was just a distraction as there, on the pumps, was Aldchlappie 1707, 5%. Caley Deuchars was also on, but at this point this was about as irrelevant as you could get; there was only one thing we were here for, and I honestly couldn't believe it was still on. We ordered 3 pints and I fully expected the pump to splutter and cough out a few drops and the clip to be turned round with the familiar "sorry, it's gone. Would you like anything else?".
The gods were smiling on us that day. A winner at Moulin, then Aldchlappie 1707 drunk at source. To be honest, it tasted like malt extract homebrew, and poor stuff at that, but to grade the beer by this simple method would be missing the point; we had driven over 100 miles to the Scottish Highlands to sample one of the UK's hugest beers that just happened to taste like bad homebrew and I think our dedication to the cause should have deserved a better beer, but just being there drinking it in the bar knowing that we were some of the first - if not the only - scoopers to drink it was something special.
Aldchlappie beers never got about very much, and although the landlord planned to expand the brewery, I seem to remember he grew Ill and sold up and brewing ceased. I know a few people who have trekked up that lonely lane from Moulin to be confronted by a blank handpump, and know few scoopers who actually had any beer from here. It's a safe bet that in any scooper's list of huge beers or elusive breweries Aldchlappie will rear it's head, which is why I'm just happy that we were there and, more importantly, so was the beer!
We went to Aldchlappie again, in August 98, and had the same beer but at a lower gravity and new recipe. It was still a special place, but I don't think anything could beat the feeling of scoring the beer that first time at the brewpub in the middle of the Highlands and I feel sorry for anyone who never went; it was an experience that is lacking in scooping today.
There is a brewpub even more remote than Aldchlappie now, near Thurso at the far North of Scotland, but the magic of going there and scoring the beer has been ruined by it appearing at the Smithfield's festivals several times. I know that now I'd probably never get round to going there, but that's not the point; there should be some holy grails to aspire to, and this one is tarnished. At least Aldchlappie never went to a festival; you had to be hardcore and actually go there!
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Beer Engine 11:11 -
The Beer Engine, Newton St Cyres, 11th August 1999.
he coming of the solar eclipse in 1999 was a day to remember for many people. I had decided that I had to witness this event, but the best move was causing concern. The path of the eclipse covered Cornwall and South Devon, and just clipped Dorset, leaving the best choice for a day trip to be Devon. I reckoned that I knew the perfect site too - a stone circle high up on Dartmoor with wide views of east and west horizons to see the thing coming and going.
An old mate of mine, Big Feller, decided to accompany me so we set off overnight on the trip down to Dartmoor. Traffic was lighter than I had thought it would be, and we made good time on the M4. Driving across Dartmoor was a little more fun as the sheep seemed determined to inspect the underside of the car and some ethereal mist curled across the road from the numerous adits that cut across the moor, sometimes forming patches so thick you could slice them onto toast. Not the best driving conditions with the kamikaze sheep milling around and big ditches on each side of the road!
We eventually made it to the chosen site at about 6am and found a few crusties in a camp about a mile away, but hardly any normals around. We had a wander around the moor and eyed the clouds that were building up overhead, and I was sure that we wouldn't see anything of the eclipse itself although the darkness was what we wanted to see. By about 10:00 the little road was filling up with cars and people, and the surrounding tors had small knots of sightseers perched on top. The sun was occasionally visible, and by 11:00 there wasn't much of it left to see - a strange and slightly spooky sight.
We made our way to the stone circle and waited for totality. I had no idea what to expect, but what happened I will never forget. It was getting colder and colder, and very dull like under a thunderstorm except without the rain. Suddenly, on the western horizon, what looked like a cloud of ink was rushing towards us and just before it was a ripple of camera flashes.
I just stood there totally gobsmacked as this thing rushed towards us. Then, it was pitch black. And I mean pitch black - like being out on the moor at midnight, but it was ten past 11. The northern horizon was lighter, being the edge of totality, but I just remember standing there in the blackness in a state of mild terror wondering if it would ever get light again. Of course now this seems a stupid thing to think, but if you had been stood there you'd have felt the same thing. I can see why the ancient peoples of the world were so in terror of eclipses, it certainly scared me.
All too soon, the same process happened in reverse - the western horizon became light, and the daylight rushed towards us at over 1000mph, followed by the ripple of camera flashes and was gone eastwards. I watched it go, again open mouthed. Then, totally unprompted and spontaneously, everyone started to clap and cheer. Great cheers went up from the tors and everyone's face wore a massive grin. It seemed like the event had stripped the 20th century veneer from everyone and transported them back thousands of years, stood on a moor just as our ancestors must have done millennia ago, and with the same terror that the sun may never come back again. I don't think anyone who was there will ever forget that feeling of pure elation of having seen something very, very special and, dare I say it, spiritual? Even Big Feller was enthusing about the experience which was praise indeed.
I felt like I was walking on air and we decided that food and a celebratory pint were in order. This may sound strange, but I'd never considered getting any eclipse beers in the book but now it seemed like a very good idea indeed. Such was my euphoria that I totally forgot about Princetown (although I don't think they did one) and as I studied the map an idea came to me. What about Beer Engine - they used to do specials for various things, why not this? With Big Feller navigating, we stormed off northwards to Crediton.
On arrival at the Beer Engine, we found it packed with eclipse spotters all tucking into the top fodder served there. I approached the bar with trepidation, and eyeballed the handpumps and I think it's fair to say I almost passed out with disbelief. Beer Engine 11:11 was on, and the day was complete. I ordered 2 pints of it, along with 2 massive sausage and mash platters and we settled down to discuss the morning's events. The beer was malty, sweetish and just what I needed after being awake for 10 hours and I could have happily settled down there for the day and scored a gallon of it. Unfortunately, I was driving so a pint it was, but I enjoyed every drop.
I don't think I've enjoyed many beers as much as I did this one. As far as the eclipse beers went, this was probably one of the rarest ones about and, unusually for a beer so huge, it was supremely drinkable. Roll on the next eclipse, I need more 11:11!
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Brains MA - Crown Inn, Skewen, 14th December 1991, £1.06 a pint.
hen I was getting into beer scooping at University this was one of the first house beers available in the UK and, so, a very desirable scoop for anyone's book. Maybe it showed the way for brewers to mix whatever beer they felt fit to create the multitude of house beers which now infest pubs up and down the land but, whatever it's widespread repercussions might be, in 1992 it was a massive winner that was only served in one Brains pub - the Crown at Skewen, near Swansea - and if you wanted to scoop it you had to go there; that was the only way. The pub had this beer as the locals, being more used to Buckley’s bitter, complained the Brains Light on sale was too pale and somehow the landlord persuaded the brewery to mix it for him… or did he just do it himself? Perhaps we’ll never know.
It might seem strange to those of, shall we say, the "modern era" who expect to see every beer at a beer festival near them some time soon that to scoop a beer you needed to go to the place it was served. Well, in those days, there were some beers that wouldn't come to you; you just had to go to them! Examples were Brains MA, Min Pin Inn and many more which have mostly long since closed the doors of their brewhouses for the last time leaving the beers only a memory for a few old-guard scoopers and as entries in faded, dusty old GBG's. A few survive from those days but not many.
I was getting more into drinking new beers whilst at the Polytechnic of Wales, ten miles to the North of Cardiff, but the problem I had will certainly raise a chorus of "yeahs" and "I know what you mean" from a lot of readers - it was difficult finding pubs which sold guest beers in the Valleys. Even when you did find one, the beer was more than often Brains Bitter than not! I was struggling to find winners even though my scoops total was under 500; this was what it was like in the dark old days my friends! (Although I suppose that being in a bit of a real-ale desert didn't help either) but frequent trips away enabled me to edge my total slowly towards the magical 1,000... (this would come in 1993 in the King's Arms, Salford, and would be Dobbin's Old Soporific but that's another story).
Anyway, back to the tale. It was a miserable Saturday night as only miserable Saturday nights in the Welsh valleys can be and I was killing time in my house, doing nothing in particular, when Fletch appeared at the front door looking very agitated. Could it be a daisy working the "all-line" diagram, I thought to myself, as I trudged down the stairs and opened the door. Fletch was indeed agitated but it turned out with very good reason - a friend from our days in the halls of residence had called round and he was now working locally and had that magical thing which, at the time, none of us had - a car! Well, when I say a car, I use the word in it's loosest possible sense; it was really a shitty old works van with a most amusing attachment, a flashing orange light on the roof! Fletch and I grinned - with this vehicle we could do some serious scooping... all we needed was a self-sacrificing driver…and it looked like we had one in the form of Glenn!
"Well then lads!" said Glenn, "What do you feel like doing then? Is there anywhere you want to go, like?" (He was a Geordie!). Fletch and I, funnily enough, had been talking about the massive beer Brains MA the previous day and how much we’d love to get it in the book as we’d had all their other beers (this was the time before breweries did special beers, remember!) and this seemed like too good an invitation to turn down – maybe Bacchus, the god of beer, had heard us bemoaning our empty scoops books and, in a spirit of munificence, was smiling on us and had sent Glenn with his crusty white van (complete with flashing orange scoops-alert light) by way of answering our prayers?
Whatever the explanation, we couldn’t turn this gift down - this was one move that just had to be done.
“How about a little trip over to the the Swansea Valleys?” Fletch suggested with trepidation, but we needn’t have worried as Glenn was up for the move wholeheartedly.
“Sounds like a top move, lads!” he enthused. “I canna drink much as I’m driving, but I’ve never been there! Let’s Guuur!”
As we made for the door, my housemate Parry appeared in the entrance looking curious.
“Where you off to, boys?” he asked, “and whose is that shitty old van outside?” he continued, eyeing Glenns’ van with a look of unmitigated distaste. “It’s fucking minging, mun!” (He was Welsh if you hadn’t guessed). Before Glenn could take umbrage with these comments, I introduced my mate and asked if he could come too. “Course he can!” beamed Glenn, “but he’s in the back with you!”
We all piled into the van and off we went. Fletch sat in the front with Glenn, whilst me and Parry did our best to perch in the back which was, as Parry had said, “minging” and full of all sorts of tools and bits of wood which were presumably used for whatever job Glenn did – I can’t remember if I even asked him but if I did I can’t remember now! As we growled onto the M4 westbound I felt as if Bacchus was indeed grinning down on us and we’d soon have the full complement of Brains beers in our books. Glenn wasn’t a scooper and neither was Parry although, being acquainted with Fletch and myself, they had heard all about it ad nausea and knew exactly why we wanted this particular beer so badly.
We were soon roaring along the M4 with, on my request, the orange scoop-alert light flashing away. Soon we passed Briton Ferry with the huge Port Talbot steelworks festooned with lights and the sky above turned orange by the blazing furnaces inside; even inside the van the pungent reek of acrid sulphur crept in through the many dodgy seals and made us all cough. I don’t know if the steelworks is even there nowadays, but this summed up south Wales for me; heavy industry, coal and steel, was the heartbeat of the land and now it’s almost all gone. When I started Polytechnic in 1988 there were still ten “proper” deep pit coal mines in the Welsh Valleys – when I left there was only one, the last mine in Wales. I saw villages turn into ghost towns as all who could get out departed and those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, leave turned to drugs and drink for something to do. A friend of a good mate hung himself out of depression in one of these once proud pit villages. Thatcher has a lot to answer for.
We were soon turning off the M4 into Skewen and as we pulled up outside the pub I was buzzing – all this way without checking if the beer was even on – were we mad? As we entered the pub I craned my neck to see the pumpclips and a huge wave of disappointment crept over me as I saw only Dark, Light and SA clips on the pumps. “Bollocks!” I cursed to Fletch, “Do you see what I see?” Fletch had already seen the bad news, but we were here now and a beer seemed much in order despite there being no winners on although thinking back I’m not sure why I expected there to be a pumpclip; after all, this was just a mix done for one pub so why should there be a special clip made just for this one outlet?
I approached the bar, resigned to no winners. “Do you sell MA?” I asked the barman.
“Sell what?” he replied, looking very confused. Bollocks, I thought, are we in the right place here?
“Brains MA, the mixed beer?” I implored desperately and then, to my elation, I saw a spark of understanding and the barman’s face crack into a smile. “Ah, you mean our special bitter!” he explained, “The one Brains make just for us!” and indicated the Brains Bitter pump. “That’s it!”
“That’s it, the dark bitter!” I almost shouted with exhilaration, “Four pints please!” We were soon each in possession of a pint of this most prized beer and we admired it almost reverently. It was indeed darker than the very pale Brains bitter and we sipped the brew deferentially – and it was pretty good too, with the gentle hop taste of the light but with the chocolatey, nutty character of the Dark. And, best of all, we’d scooped it – and not many other tickers we’d met (admittedly not many at that point) had!
On the way home we visited a few more pubs – the White Horse in Coychurch which was apparently the home of Brains’ top cellarman – well, on the evidence of our visit it was his week off, as the Dark was rather like a well-known brand of fermented malt condiment. The Tynant at Morganstown was better with a decent pint of bitter but there was only one beer of the night – the excellent MA in Skewen.
I vaguely remember both Parry and myself having rather bad flatulence on the way back and the rancid effluence we emitted rendered us incapacitated with fits of laughter on the floor of the van whilst all windows were wound right down in a feeble attempt to expel the appalling smell from the vehicle. I think Parry attempted to help by opening the back doors to create a through draught – but when we looked at the M4 shooting past at 90mph we soon closed it again and the van was consigned to reek the rest of the way back to Treforest. To quote Fletch “I can’t say what the beer was like as my senses were dead due to horrendous farts” just about sums it all up; that and scooping one of the rarest beers in the UK sums up one surreal night in a crappy old van with a flashing orange light.
As a postscript to this story, three years later I visited the Evening Star in Brighton where, as soon as I’d walked through the door, Geoff handed me a half pint of beer with a smug look on his face.
“What’s that, then?” I enquired, taking off my coat. “It must be rare for you not to ask me!”
“You’ll need it” stated Geoff as if it were an incontrovertible fact writ in stone.
“Yeah, but what is it? I need to know what it is first!” I pried, getting a bit tetchy. I’d just travelled an hour and a half to get here and Geoff was playing games with me!
“You’ll need it – just drink it and I’ll tell you after. Everyone who’s been in has needed it” Geoff replied with finality, watching to see what I’d say about it. “That’s 80p, please”.
“I’m not paying nowt until you tell me what the bloody hell it is!” I shouted. “Just tell me!”
Geoff looked hurt. “Well, if you don’t want it I’ll just take it away” he said, removing the glass to the back shelf. When he returned, he wore a smirk. “You need Brains MA, don’t you? Everyone does. It’s only sold in one pub near Swansea, you know…”
© Gazza 3/10/05. V1.0
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Hartley's Fellrunners - Black Horse, Preston, 14/09/1991, £1.10 a pint.
ery early in my scooping career I suddenly realised that breweries were subject to takeover and closure when Robinsons, a brewery which I respected at the time (told you it was a long while ago), announced they were to close the Hartley’s brewery in Ulverston which they’d bought a good few years previously. Hartley’s were famous for their “beers from the wood”; all their production was dispatched to the trade in oak casks and didn’t travel that well so, to catch it in peak condition, a trip to Ulverston was required – consequently in September 1991, just a few months before the big wooden brewery gates were due to close for the last time, I set out for the lake district knowing that this would be my one and only chance to scoop their rare brews.
At the risk of stating the obvious – as I’d only been scooping for a couple of years at this point – my scoops book was somewhat empty and as a result I’d accept anything reasonably worth drinking; at that point I wasn't particularly militant and therefore the category of “worth drinking” encompassed just about every beer available in cask form! My scoops tally in 1991 could be numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands and so I was well whipped up for a few scoops before I reached Ulverston, just to get me in the mood, and the old traditional brewery of Mitchells in Lancaster, where I conveniently had to change trains, sounded just the ticket to get the day’s scooping underway.
Having graduated – like many “old skool” scoopers – to beer from the extreme railway hobby of “diesel bashing” I’d visited Lancaster previously and so knew the rough lie of the land, and this saw me walking into the Slip Inn bang on opening time. Two beers were available, and as a result Mitchells Best Bitter (3.5%) and Fortress (4.2%) were duly imbibed and scribed into the book; the day was off to a good start! Wandering back to the station for my train to Ulverston I risked a quick peek into the Three Mariners where I was presented with a beer which is one of those which, had I the powers of some supreme deity, I’d not hesitate to bring back without a thought of upsetting the future of the earth: Mitchell’s Dark Mild (3.3%). I returned to this pub many times through the years to sup this gorgeously nutty, toasty brew, but sadly Mitchell’s went bankrupt in the late 1990’s and this glorious beer is now no more.
Sorry, I digress; the Mitchell’s mild was delicious and added another notch to the day’s tally, but it was Hartley’s beer I’d come all this way for and so boarded the rattling old class 108 DMU (another thing that’s no longer with us) for the short trundle along the coast to Ulverston past the scenic hotspot of Grange-over-Slime and other less glamorous places. Half an hour later, with no gen to speak of except what was in my Good beer Guide, I was on the streets of Ulverston and heading for my first Hartley scoop. As an aside here, it’s difficult to believe that times existed when you couldn’t just fire up the internet and draw down street maps of anywhere in the world and then google for a list of possibly decent pubs to visit; no, in those days the GBG was the word and the word was the GBG. It seems a different age now and I know some readers won’t remember it – well, it happened, that's how scooping was back then! I honestly can’t remember the last time I carried a GBG around or believed what it said…
My first call was, prosaically, the first Hartley’s pub I encountered on my trudge into town from the station and so in I went. I wasn't sure what to expect, knowing that the brewery produced four beers, but it certainly wasn't a single handpump dispensing XB! Ah well, that was my Hartley’s account off the mark, and I supped the deep amber brew with it's malt and oak tastes noticing the nutty and sweet flavours that the oak cask had imbued the beer with and, even then at the tender age of 21, I realised that I was seeing the passing of an age of brewing history where little local breweries supplied beers in wooden casks for local palates in favour of yet another wave of consolidation and closures, although I couldn’t have predicted the size of the imminent boom in micro-brewers in my wildest dreams!
I continued into the town centre and had a look in the next Hartley’s pub I encountered – and the next – and the next; all seemed to sell only XB and I was beginning to wonder where the ordinary mild and bitter were sold: if they still existed, that was. I reached the Hope and Anchor and decided on another half of the pleasant XB and casually asked the landlord where I could locate the brewery’s standard ales.
“You tried t’brewery tap?” he asked.
“No, not yet” I confirmed, “Where’s that, then?”
“Union Inn, just by’t brewery, along the way” came his reply. “If they’re not in there then ah’ve no idea where you’ll find ‘em” he concluded.
Five minutes later and I’d located the Union which, as the landlord had predicted, was opposite the surprisingly small brewery with it’s slender brick chimney. Inside was an oasis of calm and tradition – not that I needed one in Ulverston, but there you go – but what put a big smile on my face were the handpumps serving Hartley’s mild and bitter; result, three down and one to go! The bitter was very delicate and woody whilst the mild may even edge out the Mitchell’s as one of the finest examples of mild I've ever - and probably will ever - drink: wooden casks seem to add that extra dab of magic which mild needs in order to shine, and this didn’t shine, it positively gleamed with a fragile woody nuttiness.
As I supped these two delicious ales I began to reflect on styles of beer; this trip to the lakes really opened my eyes to how diverse beers from different regions could be; previously I’d never really given the subject much thought but, as I stood by the bar of the Union Inn with a half of mild in my hand, my youthful scooper’s brain began to form theories and opinions which I like to think aren’t that much different from those I hold now – although I now have the added bonus of sixteen years experience to back them up with! With three of my four Hartley’s beers supped, I asked the landlord where I could find the final elusive one, Fellrunners.
He laughed; that wasn’t a good start.
“Fellrunners?” he guffawed, “You’ll be bloody lucky, lad! It’s only sold in a couple o’pubs up in’tlakes and nowhere here in town” he informed me with what seemed to me to be a unnecessary amount of pleasure.
My spirits sank; this was my one and only chance to get the beer but now it seemed as if it may as well be a million miles away as twenty miles up in the undulating hills which I’d seen from the train just an hour ago.
“Tell you where else you’ll get it, though” he added, suddenly remembering some nugget of gen he’d neglected to tell me, “Black Horse in Preston has it – it’s a Robbies’ pub near’t centre of town”.
Now this was an unexpected lifeline! I knew that I could easily call in at Preston on my way home and a quick check of the time told me that the day was still young and I had plenty of time to play with so, indulging in the spirit of the moment of being in a new place with beers which would cease to exist in a couple of months time, I had another half of both ales… well, it would be my last chance, and anyway they were both stunning examples of what is now almost an extinct part of British beer culture – standard low-gravity mild and bitter beers brewed for the immediate area around the brewery and sent out in wooden casks. As with a time before the internet, this age now seems a very long time ago…
My scooping in Ulverston at an end, I thanked the landlord for his help and trudged off towards the station for the next train to Lancaster where I could change for a Preston-bound service in order – I hoped – to clear up my last Hartley’s beer and thence off home. All seemed easy; I’d get off at Preston, find a map to locate the pub, amble along to it where the beer would be available and in perfect condition, I’d drink a pint to celebrate clearing my Hartley’s beers and then I’d walk back to the station for a train home. What could possibly go wrong?
As we left Preston I noticed that the train lights suddenly came on; there were no tunnels en-route, so why – at four o’clock in September – had they been turned on? The answer came within seconds as the sky grew dark and huge raindrops began slapping into the window: great, I was off for a walk around a town I didn’t know in the middle of a monsoon! Had I been a religious man I’d no doubt have been fervently praying for the inclement weather to ease off by the time we reached Preston but, with no weather-controlling divinity to help me, I’d just have to take whatever the skies threw at me… after all, this was a massive scoop…
By the time I’d reached Preston the rain had settled into a steady downpour and so, taking my trusty portable umbrella from my bag, I waded out into the raging torrent which passed for a road towards the siren-like call of my final Hartley’s beer. Back in those days Preston didn’t have many scooping pubs – very few places did, come to that – so there was no Bitter Suite or New Brit to help me out with a few choice ticks; there wasn't even that many micro breweries around, 1991 being in the middle of the lean micro-brewery spell from 1988 to 1993, so I’d have to make do with the Black Horse or nowt. Gastons, the town’s free house, was closed as I passed and anyway the Little Avenham brewery there wouldn’t exist for another six months.
Through the steady torrent I sloshed, rainwater gleefully finding it’s way into my shoes and down my neck, towards my target of the Black Horse. Imagine then, given the prevailing climatic conditions, my mood when I finally reached the pub and found the door securely bolted – afternoon closing, I’d not considered that, and it was still only twenty past four! I now faced a stark choice; stay and wait for the pub to open and scoop my final Hartley’s beer, or cut my losses and get the next train home. You may think this is what’s nowadays termed a “no-brainer” but, as I stood outside that locked door with only a flimsy umbrella and porch roof for shelter in the full fury of wind and driving rain, the latter option suddenly seemed very appealing!
Thankfully, I soon came to my senses; there was no point in getting even more sodden traipsing back to the station with nothing accomplished when I could shelter the best I could under the pub’s porch - and my permeable umbrella - for around forty minutes until my winner was available for scooping and, anyway, this was my one and only chance to scoop Fellrunners! I pressed my dripping face against the glass and saw - with a vast surge of delight - the Hartley’s pumpclip adorning one of the handpulls and, delirious with rain madness, it was as if I could almost hear it entreating me not to give up…”If Hilary had come back down Everest at the first sign of snow he’d not have scooped the mountain” whispered the pumpclip, and I agreed with it; if he could put up with some discomfort for his cause then I was confident that a strapping young lad of 21 such as myself could too…
Half an hour later this train of thought rang very hollow as I shivered in the rain under the pub’s tiny porch roof; what the hell was I doing standing here, getting soaked to the skin, when I could easily have come back a week later? Convinced that I was catching hypothermia I pressed myself closer into the doorway in an attempt to avoid the worst of the lashing torrent which still hurled itself in my direction, whilst my watch seemed to have slowed to a crawl or, maybe, gone into reverse… Suddenly, the pub’s lights came on and I heard a key rattling in the lock behind me – this was it, all that water absorption had better have been worth it!
The landlord obviously wasn’t used to opening the door to a queue, never mind a sodden young beer scooper, but he graciously offered me a bartowel to dry myself as he busied himself with pulling the beers through. For one horrifying, stomach-churning second I thought the Fellrunners was off as it spluttered and spat it’s way from the pump, but the flow soon settled down into a gleaming jet of amber as it filled my pint glass with one of the hardest-won scoops I’ve ever had and so I stood at the bar, still dripping surplus rainwater onto the carpet, with my final Hartley’s beer in my hand.
So, was it worth it? If you consider the satisfaction in drinking all the beers from a brewery in one day, then yes; if you consider the soaking I’d endured to have this last beer then yes, but in the flavour stakes I’m not so sure: mellow and malty say my tasting notes, which puts it firmly in fourth place of the four Hartley’s beers I supped that day. Saying that, very few scoopers I know had Fellrunners, the rarest of the rare Hartley’s beers, and so - looking back sixteen years - I’m very glad that I shivered outside the Black Horse in the pouring rain for almost an hour to get it… and so yes, just for the rareness value alone, it was very, very worth it.
And yes I did catch a cold from my soaking – but, again, it was worth it…
© Gazza 19/07/07.
Sucholdský Jeník, “Klub C”, Suchdol Zemědělská Univerzita, Prague, 25th November 2008. 18Kč 0.3l
There are some huge beery winners in the Czech Republic including some remote brewpubs which can only realistically be visited by car and then only if you’ve got a Sat-Nav with Czech minor roads installed and/or a local guide, but they don’t really bother me in that they’re akin to Lois Griffin from Family Guy: unattainable and not really worth thinking about as the odds I’ll get my hands on them are remote in the extreme… the beers, that is, for sadly Lois is a cartoon character and therefore even more unattainable on account of her not being real, although she’s still worth thinking about; If you don’t understand this, I’ll suffice it to say that, apparently, I’m a cartoon pervert!
Right, back to business. It was February 2008 and I was due to visit Prague for the first time in four years and it seemed, from all then gen I’d read, as if a full-scale pivo revolution was in progress in the city with new brewpubs springing up all around the place and beers which had, for years, only been available in a pasteurised, industrial form all of a sudden on sale in their natural unpasteurised (nepasterované) and/or yeasty (kvasnicové) state; this trip was looking like it was going to be a full-on scoopfest alright!
Amongst all the various brewpubs and rare beers, however, one brewery in particular caught my eye with it’s sheer massiveness and “gotta score that whopper” aura. This brewery was situated to the North of the city centre in a food science and agricultural university (the Česká Zemědělská Univerzita) in the village of Suchdol and run by the university as part of a brewing course with the resulting beer being sold at the university’s various bars on an “as and when available” basis. Now there might have been better beer and there might have been better venues to drink beer in Prague but nowhere and nothing tickled my scooping gene as much as a student-brewed beer from out of the city sold only in potentially verboten bars!
Blending right in.
Dean and I had arrived in Prague on the early flight from Bournemouth and we’d only got as far as the Dejvická metro stop before we both felt in need of a tick and, with the buses to Suchdol leaving from there, it seemed a perfect time to begin our weekend’s scooping with the hugest beer in town, Sucholdský Jeník. We followed signs for the Suchdol buses along a very long and very Czech underpass with all the requisite tiny bars, shops, kiosks, parek stands and portable trestle tables selling assorted hats which that entails, although we certainly weren’t prepared for one of the bars to be selling Rychtář beers from Hlinsko; these would have to wait, however, as despite the bar being open we only had one beer in mind at that moment.
We soon found the bus stops and it was obvious which one we required owing to the enormous chattering, screeching throng of students milling around it, the immediate area and spilling out into the road itself. A 147 bus soon arrived, forcing those loitering around in the road to reluctantly skulk back onto the pavement, and whilst the massed throng queued at the front door Dean and I slipped through the back doors with the cunning of a pair of foxes (or, at least, more than your average food science student) and bagged a pair of seats; result!
I’d acquired some gen from the Internet before our departure, as is my wont, and consequently we knew that the university was some five kilometres north of the city and I was pretty confident that we would work out which stop we required despite the best efforts of the notoriously unreliable displays inside the bus; I mean, how difficult could it be to miss a big fuck-off university and, even if we were to somehow fail to see it, we’d simply have to follow the mass exodus of shuffling students with bad haircuts who would, presumably, lead us to our goal.
The bus ground up a ferocious hill and then turned down a very residential road whereupon it trundled along, stopping every few metres, to allow yet more sullen youths aboard. Just as we were beginning to wonder if this was the correct bus there came a unified movement from the passengers and, as we stopped outside a row of nondescript shops, there began a mass exodus as the students disgorged themselves from the vehicle, although it was only when enough had got off to allow us a clear view of our location that we realised we were there and our hunch about following the crowd had been correct – we were just lucky that there wasn’t a sullen youths with bad clothes sense convention at a different stop or we’d have been well snookered!
Fortuitously there was a large map at the university entrance and so we studied it’s directions to the cryptically named “block G” where, so I had been in gathered from my research, the beer was sometimes available in the bar therein. I’d already printed out a map which, before I’d left, had seemed incredibly straightforward but it was only now, stood outside the university gates, that I realised how difficult this was going to be as none of the roads matched in any way what was on my map and it was proving difficult to sync my printout to the large ground plan at which we were staring… not a particularly auspicious beginning, then!
Suddenly, in one of those revelatory moments, I realised that my map had roads marked as paths and vice versa so, with the help of the big diagram, we quickly worked out that we simply needed to follow a straight path just across from our current location until we reached the bar. This proved easier in theory than practice, however, and as we followed a crowd of chain-smoking students up an arrow-straight tarmac path everything began to look the same; most of the buildings were of typically 1960’s Soviet style, all concrete and square, and none of them seemed to have any identification on them to give us even a slight hint we were going in the right direction until we happened upon a path junction which, with a bit of artistic license, looked vaguely like the one my map told us we should have reached… this was then, in all probability, the right way.
We passed a student bar with a rather lame list of Multinational swill on it’s chalkboard before suddenly reaching a corner where we could see, across the car park, our target building G! At this point I feel it only proper to mention that I had no idea if we, two English beer scoopers, had any right to be in the bar or even on the university grounds, but we’d reasoned that we looked suitably scruffy and, anyway, we could always plead innocent on the grounds of undiminished desperation!
We marched into the building, relieved to see no security or code-locked doors, and after a few minutes of wandering the corridors we eventually found, behind a door we’d walked past several times already, the bar… with only Staropramen on tap! After all the time and effort we’d invested in our endeavour to score the beer this came as a crushing disappointment, but just in case it was available “behind the counter”, so to speak, I enquired whether this was the case. The young barmaid was obviously used to being asked by gutted English beer scoopers if Sucholdský Jeník was available and apologised in the nicest way – which almost made us feel that the trek out here had been worthwhile – that the beer wasn’t on and suggested we should try “earlier in the week – that’s best”… shame it was a Friday, then, and we were going home on Sunday!
The trudge back through the Soviet architecture of the university to the bus stop was done in gutted silence and although we still had a great time, scored loads of beers and pubs plus drank some of the best beer I’d had in a very long time during the following couple of days, I know we both really wished we’d started on a high with Sucholdský Jeník …
Eight months later I was back in Prague, this time with Sue, and my burning desire to scoop Sucholdský Jeník hadn’t diminished and had, if anything, been rekindled into a raging inferno of desperation. I’d received gen from a local beer enthusiast (the Pivni Filosof, cheers Max!) that the beer was now available in several more bars around the campus and so, I reasoned, it must be on somewhere… or, at least, that’s what I was hoping!
As we’d arrived so early in the morning we couldn’t check-in to our hotel and consequently Sue readily agreed to a trip out of town to see if the beer was available although I don’t think she realised just how badly I wanted it to be on, and it wasn’t to wither Dean but simply because it was such a massive winner and it had eluded me once already! After our previous visit I knew the script and so we trudged along the underpass and I was secretly pleased to see the little bar was still selling Rychtář beers as I had plans for that to be our final beer of the trip (well, we’d need somewhere to wait for the bus…). This time there was no seething mass of humanity – sorry, sullen youths – waiting so when the bus pulled up we had a free choice of any seat we wanted! As a footnote here, there seems to be a bus (107 or 147) up to Suchdol every ten minutes or so meaning that although it’s a bit of a trek out of the city it’s astonishingly easy to get to as long as you manage to alight at the right stop!
Destiny craps on the scooper who tries too hard.
Half an hour later and we were trudging up the path between the concrete abominations of the University and I was moved to remark that you don’t get much more of a Stalinist’s wet dream than architecture like that! I felt like an old hand at this University after two visits and so was a little unnerved to find that the bar Dean and I had seen the first time seemed to have vanished; either that or we’d gone the wrong way and, with all the buildings and roads looking identical under a thin layer of dirty snow, I wasn’t too convinced we hadn’t…
One chance down, two to go… we soon arrived at Block G where, just as the previous time, no Sucholdský Jeník was available at the expense of Staropramen Granát! I seethed inwardly as, this time, I’d thought it a racing certainty we’d get the beer with it being Tuesday (“earlier in the week” as the recommendation had been) but I couldn’t argue with the facts that it wasn’t available here yet again. With a growing feeling that I was never destined to score this brew I slithered across the snowy grass to the student building, a bizarre round concrete construction, where our final chance of scoring this most elusive of winners lay.
Inside was obviously an exhibition space and so I wandered around until a guy behind a desk called and asked if I needed any help – didn’t I just! Ascertaining he spoke a smattering of English to go with my smattering of Czech, I asked about the brewery and where I could find the beer to which he pointed downstairs and then towards some low-rise buildings a short distance away where, so he said, the brewery was. Feeling as if we’d been thrown a lifeline, no matter how perilously fragile, I thanked him profusely and went back outside to give Sue the good news that we’d have to meander around the freezing university a little bit longer.
After a quick check down the concrete steps (well, what else would they be made of in a place as Stalinist as this?) which led under the building I found the student’s bar firmly locked with no sign of life or prospect of it opening and so we had one final chance; the brewery itself! We explored the desolate buildings I’d been directed to and despite seeing various things in windows which looked as if they might be used in brewing or maybe other food-related production we didn’t actually see the plant itself or even anyone to ask as to it’s whereabouts and so, having come to a dead-end both physically and metaphorically, we trailed back towards the bus stop in a dejected manner; that was it, I decided, I wasn’t destined to score this beer and I’d forget it ever existed… after all, how many other great beers were there in Prague? Loads, that’s how many…
The school assembly hall.
On our way back to the “straight path” I saw on my map that there was another bar just off our route and so, determined to exhaust all possible avenues of scooping potential, I trotted off down the snow-covered path towards “Klub C”. As I approached things didn’t look good; okay, on the positive side it was open, but the building was adorned with garish Coke signs and looked to be the last place for many miles I’d be likely to find a scoop but, thinking that I’d got as far as the front door so may as well at least stick my nose inside and have a look, I pushed open the white laminate door (which gave the impression of entering a conservatory!) and went inside.
A contented buzz of conversation came from a surprisingly large room to the left which, bizarrely, resembled the kind of hall I remember sitting in as a young kid whilst brainwashing Christian propaganda was read to me, all herringbone wooden floor, plastic tables and scrapy chairs et al! There was a sizeable amount of students sat at tables in the hall working on laptops and/or industriously leafing through mounds of paper although, in a striking contrast to students back home, many had pints of beer in front of them to, presumably, oil their brainpower whilst they learnt!
This meant that there had to be a bar somewhere and – turning 180 degrees – there it was, in a small dark side-room, so I ambled across for a peek at the beers absolutely convinced that it would be all Staropramen and/or Gambač. Upon investigation, and as expected, all the taps had Multinational crud or nothing on the labels but, just as I was about to turn away in abject dejection yet again, I noticed a laminated A4 sheet propped behind some menus and it had three magic words on it; “Dnes se čepuje” (on tap today), and the logo of the University brewery… “Well, fuck me!” I stuttered to myself in disbelief; I’d only gone and found the beer!
Making my apologies to the confused barman, I scurried back outside and gestured frantically at Sue – who had been loitering at the end of the windy snow-covered path – to come on over; apparently, I looked like a puppy with two cocks as I emerged from the building! Once inside we bagged a table and I returned to the bar where I ordered a glass of Sucholdský Jeník; I was half expecting the barman to shake his head and utter the dreaded word “nemáme” (We don’t have any) but, in the usual manner of taciturn Czech barmen, he simply nodded and commenced pouring from an unmarked tap which, I sincerely hoped, wasn’t dispensing Gambrinus!
I carried my prize back to our table where I gazed at it with reverence; a hazy amber-gold brew (the haze reassured me that I’d got the right beer!) with a lovely mellow malt aroma, it had a rich, full and grainy flavour with the characteristic hint of worty sweetness expected in a proper Czech pivo before some grassy, bitter hops made themselves known in the finish, although the crunchy malt always dominated into the aftertaste where a dry bitterness rounded off this very classy example of brewing, and it was so good I invested in a second one!
If this whole episode shows us anything it’s that scooping beer is a total lottery and winners turn up in the most unexpected places, but above all it proves that I was right in obsessively hunting down this excellent brew that, of the 49 we drank during the next four days, ended up in the top five which, all things considered, is a pretty respectable score for a beer brewed by students on a brewing course… although they drink it all themselves, so maybe that’s why it so good!
© Gazza 17/04/09 v1.0
My updated Google map to Prague is here, and see my Prague beer page for all the gen here, and my campus map done in collaboration with Max Bahnson is here.
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Graf Zeppelin brewpub, El Palomar, Buenos Aires, September 2007.
Buenos Aires is a fascinating city full of contrasts; in ten minutes you can pass by immaculately-lawned mansions complete with tennis courts and polo pitches to abject squalor with people living in shacks on the railway lines. The city centre, by day like many other capitals with it’s hordes of suited minions and bustling shoppers, transforms by night into the realm of the cartoneros (the people living on the railway tracks) who go through the rubbish left out by big business in search of recyclables which they take away on ramshackle home-made trolleys to who knows where…
A city of contrasts, indeed, but one which I truly love and is as engaging, fascinating and downright edgy as any I’ve been to and, despite having visited twice now, one I still yearn to return to and remember gazing back longingly over my shoulder at the twinkling grid of orange streetlights receding into the night as our flight departed after my last visit in 2007, vowing to return… which I will do one day.
The city had a brief craft beer explosion in 2005-6 and, although a lot of the brewpubs which flowered briefly then have now closed (I visited most of them and ran up against quite a few bolted doors) there is still a good beer scene in the city with some excellent beer being made there and many quirky, sociable bars in which to drink them, although the physical scale of the city is an obstacle; I still remember, as we descended towards the airport for the first time during our 2006 visit, passing over mile after mile of grid-like suburbs and realising just what an enormous city Buenos Aires really is.
During my first visit I scooped way more beers than I imagined and found some absolute classics amongst these brews – the lamented Murrays IPA amongst them – and so, when I visited for the second time with long-time mate Big Feller, I had a list of places which were either new since the last trip or ones I’d run out of time to scoop during the previous visit but was determined to score this time. Amongst this list was a brewpub (well, as far as I could tell it was a brewpub) out in the western suburbs in Palomar, the “garden city” (Ciudad Jardín) of Buenos Aires which, fortuitously, was served by a rail line operated by 1950-vintage US Alco diesel locos… but you don’t want to hear about those monsters, do you? No, didn’t think so, and so it’s on with the story…
The sounds of the suburbs.
Big Feller and I ambled across Retiro park, taking in the spring sunshine, to San Martin station where, after flagging a couple of trains as they were hauled by rubbish GM contraptions, we leapt aboard one with a proper engine on the front! The line passes through the leafy suburb of Palermo with it’s expensive shops and suchlike but, just a mile or so further out at Chacarita, the landscape changes suddenly and the sidings and lineside are covered in the shanty town homes of that lower class of Buenos Aires’ society – the cartoneros – who scratch a living from collecting cardboard, paper, plastic, glass or anything which they can sell for a few pesos. Okay, so they’re not as dangerous-looking as the slums I saw in Johannesburg, but it’s still a little unnerving to see the transition from wealthy Palermo with it’s polo pitches and tennis courts to wood and plastic shacks on the railway in such a short space of time and begs the question as to whether a little Marxist redistribution of wealth might be a good thing?
We alighted at El Palomar and milled around trying to find the bus stop; I’d received some info as to which bus we should catch in the general direction of the pub and, no sooner had we found the stop, than one bearing the correct number pulled up. We boarded and I attempted to convey to the driver, in my best Spanish, where we wanted to go but he was having none of it and was adamant the bus went nowhere near our destination so, not wishing to be whisked off in a totally different direction, we alighted at the roundabout just behind the station where road signs seemed to have been deemed unnecessary; what was the plan now, I thought, trying to make sense of the map I’d printed which had appeared fine back home but now, over 6,000 miles away with no signs to help, it’s deficiencies were glaringly obvious. I realised that without a pointer in the right direction we might end up anywhere, although at least it seemed to be a particularly non-dodgy and wealthy area of the city meaning wherever we ended up should at least be safe.
From our current location I scanned our options; across the road was an imposing archway – rather like Admiralty arch – which concealed what looked to be some kind of army base but, however much I scanned the locale for signs or landmarks, there was nothing else useful-looking anywhere to be seen. So, with no better options available, we headed over to the arch to see if we could get some directions to the brewpub which, reading this now, seems a rather optimistic scenario but when you have little else to go on you need to, for want of a less twatty expression, “think outside the box” and we really had no other options at this point than to ask directions!
Ask the Air Force...
On reaching the arch a large ornate sign announced that we’d reached the entrance to Argentina’s Colegio Militar de la Nación (National Military College) and also the HQ of the 1st Air Brigade; hoping the guards would be helpful to two lost British beer tourists (I conveniently blocked any notion of the Malvinas conflict out of my mind), we attracted the attention of the machine gun-toting soldier on gate duty and, hoping he wasn’t trigger-happy, I brandished my piss-poor map at him and enquired – in my best Spanish – whether he knew how to get to the Graf Zeppelin pub.
The solider seemed an amiable chap and studied the map carefully but, deciding he needed backup, called to what I presume were some officers who marched over to see what was going on at the gate. I had no idea what the guard had said to the officers but, trusting in humanity where beer is involved, I explained that we were English tourists looking for the Graf Zeppelin brewpub on San Martín. Thinking back, we must have been the first British tourists to have asked for directions to the brewpub at the gate of the army college and, much to our relief, all three important-looking officers must have thought so too and suddenly wore huge smiles as they pointed at the map and laughed heartily amongst themselves. One of the newcomers, who looked to be the most important of the three judging by the sheer size of his cap and very prominent gleaming pistol, stepped forwards and, with a serious expression on his face, prepared to speak.
“Hola” he began, in an unnervingly military tone, whereupon I began to suspect that asking the Argentine air force for directions to a pub may not have been the best idea I’ve ever had.
“You look for a pub called Zeppelin, yes?” he continued, and I was pleased to see a smile begin to break his stern officer’s façade,
I replied that we were indeed looking for the Graf Zeppelin pub to try some of their beer and if he could help us find it that would be fantastic.
He nodded in understanding and continued, in halting English, that if we carried on along the road by the side of his base we’d soon see where we were on the map and reassured us that it wasn’t actually that far away, maybe 15 minutes on foot at most.
Vastly relieved that the officer had been sociable and had even spoken English to us (he looked of an age where he may have been involved in the Guerra del Atlántico Sur which, after all, was only 25 years ago) and so, with handshakes and a chorus of “Gracias!” all round, we bid our new friends goodbye with a wave and set off along Matienzo (for it was so, even if no sign would admit to it) towards the brewpub under an increasingly ferocious sun.
A little piece of the Wild West in the Garden City.
After five minutes following the road, passing squads of cadets dressed in white running around the leafy expanse of the Colegio Militar, we’d ascertained where we were and so pressed on into the quiet, cool and leafy heart of El Palomar. The almost deserted streets make up a kind of fan-shaped explosion from an epicentre-esque square near the station, just the way you’d expect streamers from a party popper to look, and so it was with relative ease we found our brewpub although I was quietly concerned that, the time being only 13:00, it may not be open – after all, very few bars in Argentina seemed to open before 18:00 – meaning that it would have been a long hot slog for very little if the bar were indeed closed… I tried to think positive and reassured myself that of course it would be open for refreshments on such a glorious day; how could it not be, especially after our good experience at the military college gate? Surely we were riding a winning wave…
We easily found the bar, looking something like a ranch from a wild west film, and – to my massive relief – the door was open and the reassuring sound of clinking glasses came from within and so, happy for respite from the ferocious sun, in we went and bagged a table. The waiter seemed surprised to see us but over he came with the menus on which I saw, with great joy, several scoops were available on draught along with more in bottle and I clocked a couple of other huge winners as backup behind the bar, too. I must admit to being not entirely sure of this place’s provenance as a brewpub as I’d heard convincing gen that the bottled stuff was made at the San Isidro micro Secreterios del Monje, yet I was still hopeful that their draught beer could be from their own brewery and so, hoping to find out somehow from the slightly strange waiter who spoke only Spanish, we ordered all three draught beers, roja, rubia and negra.
The first sip of the rubia told me that I’d done the unmentionable and not asked where the beers were from so we’d been sold a half of the multinational crappy “lager” Isenbeck! Thankfully we’d worked up a substantial thirst walking from the station so it didn’t last long and was actually welcome as a thirst-quencher. Roja came next and this was obviously a micro-brewed beer as it had a hefty dose of phenols to go with the fruitiness and malt character; not particularly good quality-wise, but at least it tasted micro-brewed and nothing like any Secreterios del Monje beers I’d had previously! The Negra followed in the same vein with some cardboardy hints over the phenols but, with thirsts still raging, this wasn’t seen by either of us as a major issue as we relaxed in the comfy chairs savouring the breeze which wafted through the open windows as the sun baked the patio outside and I half expected a posse of cowboys to come clinking into the square outside such was the uncanny resemblance to a frontier town!
With all draught beers in the book it was time for some bottles; we got stuck into Graf Zeppelin Dorada and this was the best brew thus far with a lack of the TCP tastes which had plagued the draught beers which consequently revealed the fruity, malty and reasonably bitter flavours of the beer – not bad at all – although almost certainly from a different brewer as the draught and bottled beers tasted totally different! Marrón (6.5%, brown ale) was next and this was an unusual beast with a strong winey, sherried flavour which I’m not convinced was intentional but wasn’t totally unpleasant, just unusual. With capacity for scoops remaining I convinced the barman to fetch us a bottle of Salvattore Negra (6%) from the display behind the bar despite his energetic protestations that it was “caliente” (hot) as it hadn’t been in the fridge!
“Bollocks to that, it’s a winner, get it over here!” were my sentiments although I phrased our request slightly more diplomatically…
The beer itself was an anti-climax being of the the usual Argentine negra style with a dryish, liquoricey and toasty malt taste but all rather restrained; not bad yet not particularly exciting either, but it was yet another brewery in the big orange book! We indulged in one last bottle, Graf Zeppelin Abadia (6.5%), which turned out to be the best beer of the visit with a lovely sweetish, fruity and grassy character over a solid malty body and both of us agreed that this was a delicious brew and were almost tempted to order another bottle each… our train back to Buenos Aires (and more scoops back there!) was calling, however, so I paid up and off we went back into the blazing mid-day sun, Mad Dogs and Englishmen style.
Leaving the Garden City.
Thankfully, the garden city’s tall trees sheltered us almost all of the way back to the station where we arrived hot but not toasted, and we even received a barrage of smiles and a friendly wave from the soldiers on guard duty as we passed the military college gate which we reciprocated enthusiastically with much beer drinking hand-signals and a thumbs up; who says I do nothing for foreign relations, eh?
So, with our UK-Argentine bridge-building mission finished, we caught the next train back to the city centre and on the way reflected what an enjoyable and rewarding clutch of scoops these beers had been; we’d scored seven beers, none of which had been fantastic and we still didn’t know who brewed them, but the whole package of being probably the first English scoopers to find the pub, the sociable encounter with the Argentine air force officers and the all-round satisfaction of the expedition as a whole left a satisfied buzz about my person aided, no doubt, by the scoops and realisation that this had been a brewpub encounter I’d remember for a very long time.
Graf Zeppelin, Boulevard San Martín 2215, El Palomar (Ciudad Jardín), Buenos Aires. It may brew, it may not, but if you have half as much fun as we did then you’ll love it! They have micro-brewed beers whatever happens so it’s worth the walk, and El Palomar is a very attractive area of the city to wander around anyway.
Harmath Sörfözde Jagerbier, Kapufa Sörözö, Budapest, 10th October 2005.
First off, let’s get a few things said; Budapest is a beautiful city and should be on everyone’s list of places to visit but, beer-wise, it’s firmly Beazer homes league second division material with a couple of brewpubs (plus some more alleged ones which don’t brew) and very few bars stocking craft beer. Even though there are some local micro brewers in the city their beers are almost impossible to find (despite a couple of new bars and shops opening recently) so, naturally, we went to great lengths in order to find any of the micros we could… resulting in this tale of drunken wine-swilling locals, trudging the same street numerous times, a brewery in a garage and ultimate (limited) success!
A slow start.
Our time in Budapest wasn’t going well; we’d found a brewpub in a shopping centre which didn’t brew any more, one in the tourist area which pretended to but didn’t and one miles out in the northern suburbs brewing a single (very good) beer meaning that, on only our second day in town, we’d almost run out of beery options. We had managed to find a 1.5 litre PET bottle from local micro ER-PÉ Serfözö in the main market hall (apparently micro-brewed beer is usually available on tap in the bars upstairs but we didn’t know this at the time!) but that was looking like it for the local brews apart from one final “maybe” on my list, the southern suburb of Csepel, which apparently had two breweries… and thus began our final throw of the dice in search of decent local beer!
Budapest’s efficient Soviet-built metro took us to Ferenc Körút for tram 4 to Boráros tér where we connected with the dinky HÉV electric train to Csepel (predictably we just missed one and had to hang around ten minutes for the next) which clattered through drab suburbs until we reached it’s doubly-drab terminus. Csepel (an island in the Danube, albeit a big one) turned out to be composed almost entirely of grey communist-era flats – actually, everything seemed grey including the sky and grass – and not that interesting a place, but we were there for another reason than to admire the Stalinist architecture; scoops! There were apparently two micro-breweries in town, Harmath and Rizmajer, and we had what I hoped was solid gen on them with addresses for both (which were reasonably close to the station) and, for Harmath, a potential beer outlet too.
After five minutes walking along drab grey rows of identical flats we passed Kapufa Sörözö, the bar on my list which allegedly sold a beer from Harmath Sörfözde – one of the local micros – although it looked a bit basic to say the least! A hundred metres down Szebeny utca was supposed to be the other brewery, Rizmajer és Társa, although I was now feeling distinctly dubious about this gen; this was a residential road with affluent-looking large houses rather than concrete flats and certainly not a place for a brewery, at least it wouldn’t be in the UK! I then remembered Hartington Avenue in Nottingham where Mallard brewery is located and realised that it wasn’t a million miles in looks from Szebeny utca, so I said nothing and hoped against hope as we carried on along the dimly-lit road towards the supposed brewery.
We eventually found the brewery… in a garage under someone’s house! I hadn’t known what to expect apart from the usual industrial estate brewery or maybe a brewpub, but a brewery in a garage definitely wasn’t what I had expected! The sign declaring we’d found the right place was clearly visible but the gates were firmly locked with no sign of anyone home and, not being able to read Hungarian, we couldn’t figure out what the information on the gatepost said apart from it being open all day until around 16:00 meaning we were a couple of hours too late. We tried the bell with no response and so, feeling a little dejected at having come so far only to be denied by a garage door, we retraced our steps back to the Kapufa Sörözö bar in the vain hope there would be a scoop in there for us although, going on the success of the trip thus far, I severely doubted there would be anything for us to drink…
Back at the pub we gingerly peeked around the door to gauge the possibility of a winner and the friendliness of the clientele as it didn’t look the most salubrious of pubs from the outside! There was no obvious danger to our health visible from our vantage point, however, so in we went; inside was basic but sociable with a lot of vertical drinking being done. I say vertical, but many of the men hunched around the bar seemed to be rather worse for wear and were indulging in stooped rather than vertical drinking! Others sat around in animated discussions and, despite there being a good complement of locals present, no-one seemed to have any interest in us whatsoever as we made for the bar to see what was on.
I couldn’t read the taps from where I was stood so asked the barmaid – in English as basic as possible – what beers they had on draught. Predictably, miles out in the suburbs, she spoke no English and so asked for help from the array of locals propping up the bar and got one positive reply (well, more a grunt) from a middle-aged portly bloke who spoke very basic English which, admittedly, was much better than my 6 words of Hungarian! I showed him my printout of the two breweries’ details and asked if he knew where I could get the beers whereupon, after a few seconds of careful consideration, he beckoned us to follow him and stormed out of the door at a frantic pace which belied his previously semi-comatose state!
We had no choice but to follow him – I guessed he might know the owner of Rizmajer and blag some beers for us or show us the Harmath brewery – so we struggled along behind him as he kept up his furious pace along Szebeni utca. We soon reached, for the second time that night, the bolted gates of the brewer’s house whereupon our guide stopped dead and indicated the garage with both hands;
“There he is!” our friend proclaimed and stood there, presumably waiting for us to do something.
I felt a bit embarrassed at getting him to bring us here for no reason and so apologised for the waste of his time but we actually wanted to drink the beers rather than see the brewery and tease ourselves yet again! He seemed to accept this fact philosophically and immediately set off back towards the pub at an even more furious pace than he had left it with Sue and I trailing along behind doing our best to keep up.
"I don't drink"
We were soon back in the pub where our friend returned to his seat at the bar and settled himself down with the contentment of someone who has done a good deed. He picked up his pint of red liquid which looked – and smelt from the fumes coming off it and the customers drinking similarly blood red pints – just like some kind of red wine; surely half the pub weren’t drinking pints of red wine, were they…? No, they couldn’t be… but I had to admit that all the evidence pointed to that!
Just as we were about to give up and head off back to the station our friend casually indicated the bartaps and I was elated to see Harmath Sörfözde Jagerbier on one of them; if only he’d told us that ten minutes ago, I thought, it might have saved an enforced yomp! Ah well, at least there was a huge scoop on tap, so I tried to order a couple of beers but he was having none of it and ordered two glasses of the Harmath for us and a top-up for himself. I felt that I should pay for these drinks, seeing as he’d tried to help us by taking us to Rizmajer, and so offered the barmaid a 200 Forint note in payment for our drinks but he waved it away;
“I will pay” he declared in a generous yet firm manner.
I felt as if I should make another effort and asked him if he’d like a drink but once again he refused;
“I don’t drink” he stated, but must have noticed my glance shift to the three-quarters full half-litre glass sat before him on the bar, for he clarified his statement with “I don’t drink beer, I drink Egri Bikavér” (“Bull’s blood” wine from the town of Egri) and, with that, he chuckled to himself and those sat around him at the bar chuckled too, exchanging knowing smiles with each other as they supped on their wine!
The 25cl glasses of beer cost 66 Forints each (about 15p) and it shows just how much of a rip-off the prices in the centre of Budapest are as, for example, the faux-brewpub Gerbeaud had tried to charge me 350HUF for a glass of their “own” brew the previous day! I sipped the hazy pale beer and found it had an agreeably grassy, hoppy aroma and flavour with some maltiness before a fairly neutral finish with simple hop flavour and more grassiness; it was nothing amazing but it wasn’t trying to be, it was simply a competent drinking beer… I’ve had a lot worse in my time and suspect I’ll have a lot worse again!
Our friend, lubricated by alarmingly large gulps from his pint of wine, asked about the UK as, so he said,
“We don’t get many English in here!”
Surely that’s an understatement I thought to myself, looking around this basic bar, wondering if they had ever had any English in there before us, although I knew fellow scooper Per from Stockholm had visited a few months previously so they do have the occasional beer tourist acting confused at the bar…
“I think about going to London” he queried, “It is good?”
I tried to persuade him that London is rubbish and that he should visit Manchester or Sheffield instead although I’m not sure if he totally believed us; after all, he said he hated Budapest yet we loved the place! I suppose it’s all about familiarity and such things; maybe I liked London the first time I went there but have subsequently grown to dislike it during my visits, so maybe it’s the same thing with him and Budapest; crime-ridden, expensive, unfriendly… all the things he said about Budapest mirrored what we said about London; familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt.
We soon drained our glasses and, after thanking our Hungarian friend who had just replenished his half-litre of red wine for the second time in ten minutes, set off on the short walk back to the station. On the way we passed a supermarket so we investigated it’s beery contents which, unfortunately, only turned up Borostyán and the usual standard brews; we could have scooped twenty bog-standard Multinational-brewed Hungarian lagers if we’d so wanted, it was just that we didn’t want to! We did, however, make up for the disappointment in the beer department by purchasing some decent wine including our friend’s preferred beverage, Egri Bikavér, and a bottle of 1993 Tokaji from the previously nationalised Hungarian Tokaji company for around £2.50, before boarding the next train back into the centre and a very different world than the Soviet greyness of Csepel.
So, although the trip as a whole was a disaster beer-wise, this little gem of interest made it all worthwhile and proves, yet again, that micro-brewed beer can be found just about everywhere – even bare-wall dive bars in a Soviet housing estate miles from the city centre – but I could have told you that anyway! As far as I know the Rizmajer brewery is still going and, indeed, the late Chris Fudge managed to get inside and drink the beer whilst sending me gloating photos of him doing just that via text (!), but apparently Kapufa Sörözö no longer sells Jagerbier. I’m not surprised at this news although I strongly suspect they still sell Egri Bikavér wine in half-litre measures; if you ever pass by take a peek inside and let me know!
Budapest’s central market hall (Kösponti Vásárcsamok) is close to Fővám tér tramstop and, if things are the same now, you may find ER-PÉ Serfözö 1.5 litre PET bottles at the “Kmety & Kmety” stall halfway down the centre aisle... just try to ignore the very off-putting photos of Thatcher visiting!
Hungarian beer gen site.
The two micros…
Harmath Sörfözde, Zsolnai Utca 30, Csepel, Budapest
Rizmajer és Társa, Szebeni Utca 16, Csepel, Budapest