Dear Americans: You CAN Go To Cuba Now, and You Should

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Below are details about how to travel to Cuba as an American not born in Cuba. If you are not interested, with a nod to Eleanor Early– you may skip to the part about the beer.

I traveled on November 6-9, 2017, and just today noticed that while I was there further restrictions were imposed by the Trump administration. Do not let this put you off- I found it reassuring to just call JetBlue and ask if they have had to turn away passengers before boarding. So far, the answer is still no.

1. Review the 11 allowed activity licenses. I say 11 on this list of 12 because the first one is no longer allowed. When you book your flight, you will be asked to select one of these from a drop down menu before you complete your ticket purchase. These are NOT visas- see #6 below for that. For details, look up Cuban Assets Control Regulations section 515.560.

As I understand it, as of this date (3 December 2017) Americans are permitted to travel for these reasons- although I encourage you to check before you book:

  • 1) NO LONGER AN OPTION: Educational activities, including people-to-people exchanges
  • 2) Professional research and professional meetings
  • 3) Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
  • 4) Religious activities
  • 5) Humanitarian projects
  • 6) Journalistic activities (my license) 
  • 7) Family visits
  • 8) Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes
  • 9) Support for the Cuban people
  • 10) Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
  • 11) Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use
  • 12) Official business of the US government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations

I selected “Journalistic Activities” because I have been writing about beer, both for money and for fun, since 2006. It has never been a full-time job or steady free-lance gig, nor have I been affiliated with a specific institution. The most steady writing has been in this blog- so I crossed my fingers and booked it. If you don’t have a blog or writing outlet, I suggest you read about each license carefully- especially since the criteria seems to change every couple of months. At the same time, it seems like there is a LOT of maneuvering room, especially if you are truly interested in interacting directly with Cuban people.

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2. Book your flight. I used points to fly JetBlue (or “yetblue” as they say in Cuba) leaving from Boston through Ft. Lauderdale, so I can only speak to this airline. I am usually not one to endorse businesses on this site, but I admit that for work and for vacation, I will do whatever schedule gymnastics I have to to fly with them. On time, few lines, good timing options, FF miles that don’t expire (the very reason why I have abandoned other airlines), comfy seats, competitively priced, courteous and funny (non corporate-y, yet professional) staff. For example, at the visa counter in Ft. Lauderdale- the gateway where my trip could be thwarted- the JetBlue representative looked at my passport and belted out “Happy birthday!” She was the only one who noticed all day. That’s not in a training manual- it’s just who they hire. If JetBlue ever flies to Europe I will dump my other FF plans and go steady with them.

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3. Book an Airbnb. They are private- so you satisfy the mix-with-Cubans/avoid-government-hotels requirement. Also, my hosts offered to put me in touch with other Cubans when they understood the purpose of my visit, which definitely helped with my itinerary.

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I stayed in the top floor of this lovely building for $25 a night.

4. Prepare two documents, a Certification and an Itinerary. Keep them with you. I found examples on the Internet to create mine; feel free to copy as you like. Sure it’s weird to certify yourself, but that’s how it works! Think of it as saying, “I promise”.

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5. Devote a Moleskin or other notebook specifically for your trip and document your efforts to secure interviews, meetings, and “experiences” consistent with your license.

6. The Visa is issued by the airline at the airport from which you leave the country for Cuba just before you get on the plane. In my case, Ft. Lauderdale. Jetblue has a special desk to handle visas across from the gate. It’s $50. You are required to be at the sending airport at least three hours before your flight leaves, and if you do not book it this way, JetBlue will automatically change your itinerary. The visa process took less than five minutes, leaving over two and a half hours trapped in the airport to have a few drinks and study Spanish. And to finally enjoy the anticipation of a trip was really going to happen!

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7. You cannot buy Cuban money until you get there; the airport in Havana has bright red and yellow booths for this purpose. You can’t miss them. You MUST bring enough cash for your trip, as your American credit and debit cards will not work there. Decide on a dollar number and then bring at least $200 more. Learn about the two currencies beforehand.

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On the left is CUC, or “tourist money”, tied to the American dollar; top to bottom are roughly $1, $3, and $20. On the right is the local currency, or “CUP”, on a radically different scale. $1 = around 24CUP. Top to bottom in USD equivalents are $.21 (yes, less than a quarter coin), $.42, $.84, and $2. I paid $2 American for a bottle of water in the touristy area, and (a half mile away) $.20 – less than an American quarter- for that same bottle in local currency near my Aribnb.

Bonus: When they finally let you in, your passport will be stamped in hot pink ink. YES!

A Dream of Inspired Beer in Cuba

When I booked my Havana Airbnb, I offered to bring American craft beer to my hosts. “Thanks for offering- could you bring us 10 pounds of plaster instead?”

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Street level view of my Airbnb; below are views out the front and back

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Old cathedral of Havana

I booked my Cuba jaunt with the idea that I would discover a home brewing scene. For months I methodically went about asking beer industry friends for connections to homebrewers in Cuba, reaching out to veteran beer journalists, Miami-based brewers from Cuba, a food blogger living in Cuba, my homebrewing club, brewers from seven different countries- even all of Twittersphere and Instagram-land. Nada. Not even information about the professional brewers there. I started to realize that this might be the story- Cubans do not homebrew. It would be a short story.

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My one solid lead to a human being in Havana came from someone I’d never met. Jen Lin-Liu, author of a couple of food history books and founder of the Black Sesame cooking school in China, was recently based in Cuba and wrote about trying to feed her family in a place where buying eggs means knowing the secret knock to a garage on the third Tuesday of the month. I’d been following her ever since taking a class at her school in Beijing, which led to a homebrew club meeting at Great Leap Brewery in the same hutong (old fashioned enclosed neighborhood), and then joining the Beijing Homebrew Society right then and there. I told her about all of that in an email, and then inquired about the Cuban beer scene- not really expecting a reply. She forwarded my question to Cuban food blogger Ariel Causa. (Are you keeping up here? Because this is exactly how things get done in Cuba.)

Homebrewing is “alegal”

Ariel turns out to be the person who would be leading the Airbnb restaurant experience. He replied to my email-  to say he did not know anyone who homebrewed. He only knew that it is “alegal.” He wrote, “[Home] brewing is not illegal, nor legal. It is rather alegal. Get used to that term if you’re gonna travel to Cuba. It means nobody bothered to regulate it so it lays in a gray area. To explain to you the relation between local culture and alegality would take both time and beer but by the end you manage to “feel” it… and then you’re practically Cuban.”

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Oh the irony of this welcome of a craft beer hunter at the Havana airport.

Americans on the Guantanamo base are homebrewing– but they have ingredients flown in just for them. I wanted to know what actual Cubans were doing. I started to worry about lining up enough investigative activity to satisfy my three day visit, and remembered that in many places homebrewers hang out with pros to get advice and ingredients. So that was my plan: visit both of the government run brewpubs in Havana and hope that the brewers would be there and that they spoke English. Stop laughing. I tacked on a visit to the rum museum, a bar mentioned by craft beer geeks (although do not expect any craft beer) called Cafe Madrigal, and booked an Airbnb “experience” at a newly-allowed privately run restaurant. Voila- an itinerary. (As required for all license categories.)

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I did not realize what was in my ride’s right hand until I returned to the states.

I was pulled over by police as soon as I left the airport. But it was with a shrug, not  drama. Two uniformed women standing in the grass (handbags hanging in the tree behind them) hailed my pre-arranged vintage car as we drove from the parking lot (I thought they were waving at me and I waved back); it was explained in a bored tone that my driver was not actually allowed to pick people up from the airport. I was efficiently re-deposited into a properly licensed- but ugly- taxi. It was all quite smooth, actually.

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I dropped off the plaster, grabbed one of my beer gifts, and made my way on foot to the brewpub known as Antiguo Almacén (no direct website). It sits on a pier in a touristy area overlooking the harbor. Several square tables spill out to the water’s edge on both sides. In the center is a raised platform with musical instruments set up as if their players just went on a break. At the far end is a bar running the width of the room with a glass walled brewery visible behind it. There are no stools at the bar. I walked across the long empty room towards the bar with my can of Wormtown’s Be Hoppy in hand and asked if the brewer was in. “Oh yes- just a minute.” And suddenly before me was a beautiful black woman with a white lab-coat style jacket. “This is the brewmaster.”

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A woman! Just like me, in case you didn’t know, dear reader. The thrill, the pride! I beamed as I handed the beer gift over to Miladys Padrón Sagrera, and she offered me tastes of all three of the beers she makes.

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You guessed it: a light, a medium, and a dark. Sigh. After a few questions it was clear that the language barrier was too great, so I asked if I could return the next day with a translator for an interview, and she agreed.

I did not actually have a translator, but I had an idea. Ariel, of the Airbnb paladar experience reservation, who had already agreed to let me interview him. When I booked it, I had again offered to bring beer. Ariel said he’d prefer a “real American football.”

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On the way to the paladar class the next morning, my scooter-taxi ran out of gas. “No problem” the driver explained- he always carries a jug of extra fuel and a funnel under the seat. “Could you wait for me up ahead? I have to get a running start, and you hop on as I go by, okay?”

It worked. That’s when I fell hard for Cuba.

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Being the first student to show up at La Catedral for my “Concinar con Ariel” experience, I told him about the amazing female brewer I’d met the day before and how I needed a translator- did he know any?- just as I handed him the real American football. With a logo of his favorite team, the Patriots. Eyes wide and laughing, “Oh you know I’m gonna be your translator.”

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Private Ownership in Utopia

It turned out that I was the only one in the class that day. In the US, it would have been canceled. Instead I got a private tour, with a focus on the legal side of running a restaurant in Cuba. In 2010, the law changed to allow Cubans to privately own restaurants- they’re known as paladars. (The rule did not extend to breweries or distilleries.) Given the unreliability of ingredient supplies in Cuba, there is a careful dance to make sure the place can have a steady menu. The leader of this ingredient salsa is called the Inventory Man. He spends his days driving around in a 1950s Chevy with the back seat removed searching for ingredients to buy at retail cost.

The menu is intentionally simple, and inventory is so closely monitored that when a server enters an order, the computer recalculates the remaining ingredients. Other than at the airport, this is the most advanced technology I saw in Cuba. Servers are trained to keep an eye on what is available and to discourage customers from items that are running low while also not saying no to a request. The illusion of plenty is guarded. As with the beer, consistency is king- although at least in these private enterprises there is room for innovation. Such is life in utopia.

A Tale of Two Brewers

If there is hope for delicious beer in Cuba, it is with Miladys. When we arrived at the brewery to meet her it was full of people drinking from towers of beer. Boys were fishing on the edge of the dock, and a huge tanker was floating just off the pier. Ariel- there as my translator- and I ordered the medium beer while we waited. I brought more gifts: a Sixpoint Resin, a Castle Island Coconut Porter, and a Pink Boots Society pin. Miladys joined us, and we shared the porter as we talked.

In this land of regular improbable coincidences, it turned out that Ariel and Miladys went to the same school for engineering, although not at the same time. As we talked the conversation was quite animated, and I could see that my translator was as impressed as I was: she had been working full time at Hatuey, a “beer factory” (their phrase) east of Havana, and made it through a competitive process as a CPT (Curso Para Trabajadores, or workers course student) meaning she worked on week days and went to school on weekends-  for six years. She explained that the competition was tough- her entering class had 50 students, but only 25 graduated. The tutor of her thesis was another female brewer, Belkis González, who then worked at Antiguo Almacén. When Miladys graduated as an engineer, she became the head of Hatuey’s water treatment plant, and when González retired she recommended Miladys to replace her as the brewmaster. A man was recommended as well, but Miladys prevailed.

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I finally asked what had been on my mind since I booked my trip. With all the rum barrels on the island, had she ever thought of brewing a beer and aging in in the rum-soaked oak barrels to make a premium signature beer for Cuba? I watched her face as Ariel asked her this question- his already had that look entrepreneurs get when a new idea occurs to them. Hers matched it- mouth open and eyes wide, they laughed together and then said a lot to each other in fast Spanish. I’m hoping that means – someday. Stay tuned.

The next day I went to visit the other brewpub, Taberna de La Muralla. Just as before, I showed up with beer gifts, which got me in to meet Ruben D. Maceo Rabi “Maestro Cervecero” (right, above) two hours before they opened. One of the waiters spoke fairly good English (left, above) and he translated for us. I asked the same questions as Miladys about his training, his background, how he got started, what he dreams of brewing.

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He answered them without enthusiasm- which may be because I interrupted his morning without warning, and not necessarily a lack of interest in his job. Austrian brewing equipment maker SALM trained him; he does not care to make anything other than the same three beers he has brewed for the last 29 years- which he was kind enough to give me samples of. He knows who Miladys is, but does not really interact with her nor has he any interest in collaborating. He notes that his beer is made with sugar cane juice- I wanted to ask him more about this but he had to go back to work.

Rum is King

The first thing the guide will tell you on a tour of the Rum Museum in Havana is that the distiller is the magic ingredient. He explains this while you are facing a larger-than-life photo of four well-dressed men sipping from fancy glasses around a rum barrel, presumably the distillers. They are revered as the creative genius behind the state-owned and controlled national product, and permitted to make a range of variations: single-cask, special blends, and long-aged versions.

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Beer brewers, on the other hand, are considered mere button pressers. Like distilleries, all breweries are state-controlled, but in every case the technology is from a single company in Austria called SALM which has an exclusive “lifetime” contract with the Cuban government. SALM rigidly provides only lager brewing equipment. It trains the brewers and supplies the recipes. Hey stay awake! The resulting beer is drinkable, technically, but nowhere close to the inspired, innovative higher standard of beer that drinkers all over the world have come to expect. Nor does it express the richness of Cuban culture that even Miami brewers have only recently started to play with- to delicious results.

Unless this equipment-driven brewing changes, and brewers regarded as artists as well as engineers, beer is not going to get any better in Cuba.

The Rest of Cuban Beer

Ariel described the beer scene in Cuba to me. There are a few brands produced at industrial scales. The big ones are Cristal and Bucanero, sold in tourist currency. (Cuba has two currencies.) A recent addition is Presidente (the Dominican brand owned by Brazilian Brama) which started to be bottled in Cuba by Cristal-Bucanero. Cristal is a light beer, Bucanero, a dark one. They’re brewed in the Eastern province of Holguin. Then there are several minor brands sold in local currency: Mayabe, Cacique, Bruja, Tínima. Most of them brewed either in Holguin or in Camagüey (a province in the center of the country). There are 3 small brewpubs, also state run, two in Havana (above) and the third in Santiago de Cuba.

The exclusive contract with the equipment maker explains the lack of innovation. I thought the beer tasted familiar, and read on the SALM website that they also supply Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Ah ha! Remote locations with few options- what a business plan.

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Which is to say- the beer is fine. Not exciting, but certainly consistent and without infection or defect. That may sound dull (and it is) but in a country that gets hit with the occasional hurricane and seems to be held together with duct tape, plaster patches, and the sheer will of people determined not to let anything interfere with the enjoyment of life- it’s quite an achievement. And oh yes, I will be going back.

GO!

This is a drinking blog and already quite long- but I left out so much- the vibrancy, the music, the love. Below are more pictures, yet they do not come close to the experience. Americans- go while you still can!

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One Night in Istanbul (Turkey)

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Istanbul may not be the first place you think of to search for beer, but when Turkish Airlines offered a 30 hour layover on my way to Hamburg for a much lower fare than any other airline, I jumped at it and started my beer hunting plan. I also watched Kedi, read Fare cover to cover, and ignored the news. NB: An overnight requires a visa, easily obtained online for $20.

img_3353And in fact the first thing I saw when I emerged from my hotel was the first of many well-cared for cats (kedi) outside of a salon.

My cab driver from the airport was both Turkish and Australian- we talked about Melbourne where he grew up and I had had a lot of beer (see earlier post). When I told him my plan for the evening (to essentially walk around by myself with my loosely mapped out beer pursuits) he recommended doing pretty much anything but that. Of course I did it anyway. But I also arranged for him to pick me up the next morning at 7:00am. It felt good knowing someone would realize it if I weren’t there!

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He drove me over this famous stretch of fishermen along Galata Bridge. Even overcast, it provided a beautiful view of Istanbul- both the European and Asian sides of the city. I asked him how to say “thank you” and he tried three times to teach me the five syllable phrase before giving up and saying “you can say sol for short.” “Sol sol sol!” I replied.

I checked into my hotel and began my search of Kantin, a restaurant featured in Fare with a firey red-headed owner (red hair being something, like one-off beers and cartographic book signings, I’ll walk the extra kilometer for. Or three.) I found an excellent Kolsch and lovely view and dance party at Populist (home to Torch Brewing), a crowd of young people all joyously belting out a song I’d never heard at Joker #19, and a mystery beer at Beer Hall. But neither I nor any cab driver or local could tell me how to find Kantin. Apparently it moved last year but forgot to tell Google or any local drivers.

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Enough! I felt like something was missing but popped into a Tekel Shop for a Gara Guzu to drink alone in my hotel room. Sniff.

On the way to my hotel, almost across the street in the opposite direction from where I started out, I saw backlit books. A library? A classroom? I peered over the wall to a courtyard- lordy, it was a bookstore.

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It was a beautiful evening. Did I mention that? Too early to tuck in for a solo beer. And when I looked over the side of the bookstore courtyard, I saw people at little tables. Drinking Turkish tea. And beer.

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Book stores are a weakness of mine the way that Oxycontin is to others. Not making a joke- I become impulsive. I make bad choices. I rationalize spending like this: If I don’t have coffee for three weeks on the way to work- this book is free! My attraction to book stores, especially ones with- I almost can’t write it for believing such wonderful places exist and half believe they’ll disappear if said out loud- craft beer. My obsession has all the marks of addiction, but only hurts my wallet and may make my brain healthier.

Once inside and surrounded by books in English as well as Turkish, and believing I had already stumbled into the most magical place in Istanbul- I spotted a brown cardboard box. It was facing me, calling to me in small print: “Maps of Istanbul”. What? How did you know I was here to bring you home? Inside the cardboard box was another box- glossy and black, and inside that a rare, gorgeous, and affordable (at least in my thinking of that moment) book. Of maps. Of Istanbul.

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The secret bookstore is called Minoa. I bought the book and a beer and sat outside. I lovingly turned its pages and read of Constantinople, of Istanbul, even of the locations where Anton Melbye (the painter whose show I was heading to in Hamburg- next post!) drew and painted from various vantage points as he broke from his precise Danish teachings and brought emotion to his work. To my right was a couple flirting quietly over tea. I ordered a real Turkish tea and asked my waiter how the locals drank it. “With sugar- I will bring it.” I ordered a craft beer back, of course. Once the tea cooled enough for me to pick up the glass, I sipped the intense bitter yet honey-sweet heat. Oh now I get it.

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When the tea was finished, look at the surprise on the saucer!

While fully aware of what an ugly American I was about to sound like, I asked my waiter if I might buy the tea glass and adorable saucer. He said he’d check, and came back apologetically suggesting I try the markets in the morning. Completely self-conscious, I thanked him and said, “Worth a try it’s so cute!” and forgot about it.

I had a final beer and continued to read my new book before asking for the bill. It arrived, along with both waiters and a little bag.

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“You may not buy the tea glass. Because we give it to you.”

 

 

Here are the details:
Minoa (bookstore, bar, and cafe)
I can’t find a website; this Tripadvisor review is the closest I could get: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293974-d10207315-Reviews-Minoa_Bookstore_Cafe-Istanbul.html
Suleyman Seba Cad, Park No. 52A
34357 Besiktas Istanbul Turkey

Populist (Torch Beer)
http://thepopulist.com.tr/tr/ana-sayfa.aspx

Joker No: 19
Again with the TripAdvisor review site, as they don’t seem to have one: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293974-d7706043-Reviews-Joker_No_19-Istanbul.html
Besiktas Cd No: 19
Besiktas, Istanbul, 34435, Turkey
+90 212 227 9395

Beer Hall
I thought I’d found a website but it brought me somewhere odd. So TripAdvisor again: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293974-d10227112-Reviews-Beer_Hall-Istanbul.html
Visnezade Mahalessi, Suleyman Seba Cd. No: 46, 34357
Besiktas, Istanbul Turkey
+90 212 219 6530

Gara Guza
This is more a local brand of beer to look for than a place. It’s fairly easy to find in Istanbul, and good. In the airport, seek the upstairs bars- there is one that carries this in several varieties!

NB: Other airlines that offer one-night layovers include Icelandic Airlines (Rekyavik), Aer Lingus (Dublin- I did this once heading to Prague), and TAP (Azores).

 

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A $1,600 Beer (Or- a beer worth a trip) Brazil

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I have a personal judging scale for beer. It goes like this: I sniff it, I take a sip. I decide whether I will finish the sample. And then I consider- would I drink a whole glass? If it’s a real competition I think- would I pay for it? Seek it out again? (As in, drive across state lines.) And finally- would I get on a plane for it? (Note that nowhere in that beer judging description was there a “check social media or beer forums to validate or second-guess my taste” step.) Which I suppose is a funny thing to point out in a blog about beer. So warning- consider the source! Because I am going to tell you about a buy-the-plane-ticket beer I found in Brazil.

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I went to Brazil for a cartography conference. The International Conference on the History of Cartography, which takes place every other year in a different location. It was my first time in Brazil so I tried to learn some Portuguese but as usual figured out just enough to ask questions yet not enough to understand the answers. I read a bit about craft beer starting to take off in Brazil- but the breweries are all in places far away from the Belo Horizonte-based conference. I resigned myself to a week of non-beer imbibing.

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Brazil is known for this- cachaca. Like rum, but distilled differently. Not my thing but gladly accepted as a gift. Context makes it delicious.

A few days before I left for the conference I read somewhere – and I wish I could remember where- about a brewery called Evora. I decided to visit. Which turned out to involve significant obstacles. A 30 minute taxi ride away from my hotel to a residential neighborhood where no cabs would be around to get me back; the guy behind the desk at my hotel told me quite forcefully not to go; no wifi or cell service to call a cab or Uber (even if I could speak the language) once I was there. So as I turned in for the night I made other plans to explore the hip Savassi neighborhood.

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But I woke up the next day determined – after all, would I ever be here again? Since when am I an intimidated traveler? How could I travel all the way to Brazil and not visit a single brewery? No- I would go! After practicing how to insist on my plan to the hotel’s naysayer of the previous evening, he was not even at the desk that morning. I easily convinced his more accommodating replacement to ask one of the cab drivers parked out front to drop me off and pick me up three hours later from one address. (I did not meet a single English-speaking cab driver in Brazil, by the way. But if you’ve been to China, you know what to do.) This took a bit of back and forth- it was arranged. I grabbed a beer present, and off we went!

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Evora is in a house on a hill in a residential neighborhood with a locked gate at street-level. The building numbers are not in order, so even the local savvy cab driver had to ask for directions. He let me out of the car facing a locked gate with no one else around. And drove away.

[Older readers- picture the scene in Madeline Khan’s debut movie “What’s Up Doc” where she is left at an intentionally wrong address- thinking she is at a secret party. And the taxi speeds away…] If you have not seen this movie- do. Your life is not complete.

As I watched my driver turn the corner out of site at the end of the street, I still had not found a way to open the gate. I said “hello?” as loud as one does among a bunch of homes on a quiet street- nothing. As a mild pre-panic warmth went through me and I imagined standing in that same spot for three hours hoping the cab would really come back, my eye caught a small blue bell and I pressed it. A head popped up at the top of the hill, and a buzzer released the painted metal mesh door. I was in!

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Just as I swelled with relief that I was in, I saw a fast furry flash coming towards me from the left- a massive dog! Before I could freak out he was greeting me in that way that dogs do with humans they intuitively trust.

Who needs language? I was at ease from that moment on. All doubt, all fear left me. There is something of home in this place.

I went around back to the tiered informal patio to find people preparing to hang a pop-up art show. They were the only others outside. It was a brilliant blue sunny day. I sat on one of the half kegs that serve as chairs, pulled out my sketch book, and pointed to a beer on the menu – the house lager. I figured in a country known for serving lagers it was a good choice to start with even if I am biased against them- having grown up in the states where they’ve been ruined. Lagers are hard to do well. Nowhere to hide. It was a bit of a test- and I was pleasantly surprised. Crisp and quaffable with no off flavors. Subtle floral aftertaste. Reminded me of the pilsners of southern Germany with a bit of Czech Saaz lingering. Nice!

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It was good enough for me to ask questions – which made the server quite enthusiastic. In between his broken English and my non-existent Portuguese I learned that some test batches of beer are made there, but most of the beer is brewed at a different production facility. That day they had a few on tap- including a Tripel he was keen for me to try (I usually do not care for them- too sweet for me).

These were solid, well made beers. But nothing to get on a plane for. I was enjoying that perfect early buzz- taking in the sunshine and the azul sky, watching the art show as it was mounted along the outdoor walls- maybe I was glowing. My glass was empty and the server pointed to another beer on the menu. I like to follow server recommendations and accepted before I read the description: a Rauch IPA. What? Gross! The very idea was almost a buzz-kill. Plus it was a bottled beer- ?.  He poured it for me.

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Beer drinkers- remember with me. Think back to that first sip of a truly special beer. When your head tries to catch up with your mouth; when your mind is racing and your lips are smiling and all previous experiences are eclipsed. It’s a lot like falling in love. Well except for the mouth part. And you think- did that really just happen? You look around to see if the rest of the world is hip to what’s going on. You want to tell someone, but are conscious of that being silly. You stammer. Your eyes well. And you drink some more. Oh. Yes.

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I did not see it coming. This part is a blur- I’m pretty sure I said something inappropriately gushy because the server went to get the brewer (who I did not realize was there) I launched into further gushiness. We talked for a while. He let me write on the chalk board when he saw my sketch book.

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Between my literal beer buzz and the high of unexpected pleasure I was flying. I talked to all the people hanging the show, met the artist, and bought one of his paintings. I took pictures of everything and drew a few myself. The brewer recommended a local dish called Tropeiro, an absorbing combination of beans, cornmeal, a fried egg, and pork cracklings- and I devoured it, wiping the last drops off my elated face as I was told that the taxi had returned for me.

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The first thing I asked the driver was if we could do the trip again in a few days.

Which we did.

Evora’s posted hours are more like office hours than brewery hours. Which should have been a clue. My first visit was on a Friday afternoon- lots of people around. I didn’t realize it at the time- but the owners were just being nice to me showing up in the middle of the day while they were working. My second visit- to pick up my artwork and more beer- was in the middle of the week and the place was quiet. No regrets! I drank more amazing beer, got more bottles to take home, and picked up my art. And- got a local’s welcome? Local cheese was involved. And a special last beer.

Which is to say this beer – the Rauch IPA- must be drunk in context. It is extraordinary on its own- a gold medal in any competition. (Heads up, 2018 World Beer Cup!) But to get the full experience you can’t just have it anywhere- you must come here – to Brazil. There is something extra – some mysterious enhancement to the flavor when you drink it with a rescued and grateful dog, an expressive young artist, a sincere and passionate brewer, a sky this blue, a new lover… it’s a sensory overload rush in every sip. And there you have it. A beer worth getting on a plane for.

Below are the details of this and other places to find beer in Belo Horizonte. If you go, they’re all good- but only one is worth the price of the plane ticket from Boston.

Evora (Their website is annoyingly only on F book, which I will not promote)
R. Carlos Frederico Campos, 170 – Ouro Preto
Belo Horizonte – MG, 31310-400, Brazil
Twitter: @cervejariaevora
Instagram: cervejariaevora

They suggested I go to this place, which had okay beer. http://www.cervejariasatira.com.br
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This place was in walking distance of the conference and had perfectly good beer.

And finally, the best bar to gather – where professional map geeks from Amsterdam, England, Colombia, New Zealand, China, Sweden, and more- drank ALL the beer each and every night that week, is a place that is everyone’s fantasy: A book store that is also a bar. Cafe con letras.

(No photos because of course everything that happened there stays in our heads, not on our phones. I hope.)

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Travels with Cindy

San Francisco to Carmel on the Pacific Coast Highway

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Driving a convertible along the Pacific Coast Highway. That’s all I cared about for the second half- the California half (see earlier post for the Alaska portion)- of the trip I took with my Mother who others call Cindy. Regular readers know how much I love to drive, and I was not even discouraged when I found out that leasing a stick shift was not an option. (Unless you go with a vintage car- old Mustangs, Triumphs, Alpha Romeos and such- starting at $5K for 3 days.)

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I found an relatively inexpensive VW Beetle Convertible through Hertz (~$300 for 4 days) and was elated- until a friend in San Francisco sent me news that the Pacific Coast Highway south of Carmel had fallen into the ocean after all the rain they’d had. So. With an abbreviated coast to see and already being a frequent traveler to San Francisco myself for work, I decided to let Mom call all the shots for this part of the trip.

Here was her wish list:

1. Watch the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf.
2. Eat fried oysters.
3. Visit Alcatraz.
4. Drive over the Golden Gate Bridge.

And here is how it went:

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1. As we approached the sea lions, the scent of their natural evacuation process was so strong that we decided to just get a photo in front of the statue and watch from afar.

2. I didn’t really get the oyster wish. Is the west coast known for fried oysters? Fried anything? But it was my Mother’s desire- so of course I did what I could. I asked a friend and lifelong local where were to find the best fried oysters. He told us to go to the Swan Oyster Depot. Turns out they only have raw oysters. But we ended up having such a great time that my Mom didn’t mind at all.

3. The ferry ride to Alcatraz  should be its own destination. They serve alcohol on the boat- not that we had any. No – truly – we did not. But I keep track of these things. Alcatraz is on a steep rock, as you probably know. If you have trouble getting around, as my Mother does, you get to take a painfully slow (walkers were passing us) but adorable golf-cart-train all the way to the top. This is the way to go. Once there, they provide an excellent tour with good stories, including about the inmates in the cells facing the city who could hear party revelry across the bay on weekends from their tiny cages. Ouch!

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4. The Golden Gate Bridge. We drove over- twice! Let’s face it- bridges are thrilling to cross. We did it once on the top of a tourist bus, and then again in our Beetle convertible. On the way to… you guessed it. Russian River Brewery.

You know I had to get in that beery destination in. And the 3.2% Endurance is a driver’s dream.

After that we visited some wineries in Sonoma, which is much more our speed than Napa. More rustic, less attitude, less corporate feeling. On Mom’s list was a winery I went to years ago and had brought back one of her and my Dad’s favorite wines that we drank together on his 70th birthday trip in Camden, Maine. She has been looking for it ever since, but could not get it. Well- it was there! We helped ourselves to some at Ledson Winery, and arranged for some to be sent home.

By then we were hungry, and I was delighted to discover that our hotel was up the road from an In-N-Out Burger.

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I don’t care much for burgers or fast food- but my Mom is from Ohio, where part of the DNA is craving cow in all forms. I told her how lucky we were! People rave about this burger and travel from all corners of the world to get it! Let’s go! I texted a friend to find out what to order: the Double-Double, Animal Style. That’s just fun to say. We were excited and ready to love it! Here is her reaction:

Unlike Peter Luger, a meat place that somehow manages to surpass its hype, it was disappointing. Sorry In-N-Out fans- she hated it. I confess I would not go back either. The burgers were greasy, the fries nearly raw, and the taste nothing special- especially after a Craigie burger. My many friends who are fans of this place are so devoted- in such denial that not everyone loves it- that they believe she is overjoyed in these pictures. What? No. No- this is my Mom’s “ick” face. She’s such a sweet person that maybe you cannot see displeasure in her- but trust me. We went out to dinner elsewhere after this.

Summer of Love Anniversary

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Did you know it’s the 50th anniversary of this special year? I also turned 50 this year. My parents claim to have missed the wilder part of the 60s. But I was adopted. Do the math- SOMEONE was having a good time that year! I like to believe I am the product of this uninhibited, rowdy, deliriously affectionate time. And then raised by rational, drug-avoiding people. The best of both worlds!

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We were meeting some friends for dinner, so what did we do on the way? We got a snack, of course. At Zuni Cafe. It is so much more fun to travel with an eater and drinker than – um – other kinds of people.

My Mom still talks about this as her favorite place to eat in San Francisco. Well, this and the impromptu evening where we were too exhausted to leave the hotel and ate in the lobby of the Marriott. Where they knew how to make her favorite cocktail- a chocolate martini- AND they had a lovely local IPA. This is California, after all.

Monterey and Carmel

Things kind of changed at this point. We had spent over a week together and were not just still speaking, but experiencing that gravitational pull that happens when you realize you travel really well with someone. (see Mongolia with Vera post.)

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When the chocolate croissants arrived warm in the basket and the Bloody Mary was made with beer we knew we would be returning the next day to this little Carmel restaurant La Bicyclette. We only wished we had found it sooner.

Pacific Coast Highway

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I thought my Mom would be disappointed that we couldn’t take the PCH all the way to Big Sur. As I read the guidebook entry to her of alternate views, I mentioned the 17 Mile Drive around Pebble Beach golf course. I explained why I thought the toll was worth it. Silence. I looked up to see her eyes welling- crap! But it wasn’t for something so silly as not being able to drive further south. Instead, she was remembering that she and my Dad, avid golfers since they met in college in the early 60s, had always wanted to play this course- or at least see it. They never did. Oh yes indeed – we were going to drive all over it!

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Every stretch of the PHC has gorgeous views. But frankly, unless you have a helicopter following you taking pictures, the purpose of the open top of a convertible is rather lost. The best views (and scents and sounds) of this wild coastline are visible along the plentiful pull-over parks and stretches.

The secret thrill of the convertible was not along the ocean at all- but instead within the Red Wood forests. And thank goodness we drove among these green giants on a weekday during shoulder season, because looking up while driving (as I often did) meant a lot of swerving and breaking along the dizzying switchbacks. We gasped a lot- but at the views straight up, not my driving. Do this!

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Salinas and John Steinbeck Museum

John Steinbeck and my inner old man are good friends. The Wayward Bus. The Grapes of Wrath. East of Eden. When I mentioned the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas (via another redwood forest drive) Mom was game!

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We loved the exhibit- it has a lot of maps and clever word-play, which John would have approved. At the end was a bookstore, of course. This clever place has an area where they sell vintage books- and here is where one can buy his works in hardback. Secretly my Mom selected Travels with Charley (our favorite part of the exhibit- plus we shared a dog called Eliot for 15 years, each of us for half his lifetime- and we were feeling it). She presented it as we left.

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She downloaded it so we could read it at the same time. My Mom prefers to read on her handheld device. Okay? It’s lighter than a paper book, has text size she can control, and is backlit- so she can see it. I get this.

Mother’s Day

Are you surprised that the next day- and the last of our two weeks together- was Mother’s Day? I know what my mother likes to eat, and I had researched where to take her in Monterey.

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She adores Prime Rib. “Mooing” is her doneness request to servers. She never gets it rare enough. My Dad loved steak too- and as we ate our (for once!) perfectly cooked slabs we were remembering our visit to Peter Luger’s in New York for his 60th birthday.

Which led to other memories- and with the wine expanding the joy of our time together and also the impending sadness of separating the next day- we finished the evening, and the trip, with a thought we expressed many times over the years: a shared wonder of the three of us finding each other.

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A Tree and Beer Awakening in an English Town (UK)

Introducing Charlbury

After driving almost two hours to Charlbury from Heathrow Airport in a rented manual transmission Fiat 500, I was still so focused on shifting with my left hand and not careening into cars coming at me on the right that I almost forgot to look around. But as I crested a hill, I saw a dark blue sign with white lettering that announced, “Oxfordshire” and thought it familiar. But why? I’d never been here.

Cue Vicar of Dibley music, because -according to locals- this road is in the opening credits inviting the viewer to the idyllic pretend (but kinda-sorta real) village of Dibley. (A 90s Brit-com starring Dawn French and written by Richard Curtis (Black Adder, Mr. Bean). It pokes endearing fun at rural life, gets away with jokes about Jesus, and makes scatological humor seem high-brow. As only the English can do. You might also thank it for the annual Blessing of the Animals so popular now in Boston churches.) Yeah, that town.

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This map is on the tote bag my hosts, Nick, Alice, and Evvie Millea, gave me. I love it- because it really has everything in Charlbury!

In real life, Charlbury manages to be even more beautiful than a bunch of TV producers could possibly stylize. Imagine pink light reflecting off old ochre stone walls, the scent of lavender and honeysuckle, the twitter of birds and the gurgling of the local river, the warm welcome of an old friend and his family- is that a horse I see peacefully grazing in a nearby meadow? And – just when I thought I’d reached the sensory tipping point-  church bells rang out and my eyes welled. Because… delicious real ale on top of all this was still to come!

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Cricket Grounds converted for one day annually into a Real Ale Festival.

I had been invited to give a chat at the 20th annual Charlbury Beer Festival in the Culture Club Tent about some of my beery travel adventures. My best stories involve impromptu love and the type of adventure not suitable for a family audience, and I didn’t really think anyone would be interested in my other travel stories, so I brought 17 pounds (according to the airline scale) of American craft beer to give away and made sure to interrupt myself often to give them out. I think, at one point, there may have been 20 people listening to my escapades- tops. But I was excited to be there because I really wanted to see what made this festival so great. I’d been hearing about it from Charlbury friend Nick Millea, Map Curator at Bodleian Library at Oxford, at various cartography gatherings for over a decade.

Tree, Interrupted.

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This is My Home Tree (above)

I visit a tree on my commute to work. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and work in Boston. Weather permitting I walk the four miles (about six and a half kilometers) to my office, and the last bit is truly the reward- a visual wonderland that is Boston’s Public Garden. There are many lovely trees there: some look like they’re dancing, others bowing, some a row of giant green gum drops. But MY tree is a Dawn Redwood I have named Spaghetti. It’s a hybrid- or a mutt, depending on how you look at it. It’s part conifer (needles instead of leaves) part deciduous (the needles drop each autumn). Spaghetti has an exposed bundle of wet-pasta-looking roots that change color from dull brown to brilliant purple and glowing orange after a rain.

An unaddressed thought had been simmering in my head: when I travel, I will fixate on one tree in the back of my mind for the duration of the visit. It’s not conscious; but when I saw the grand wooden candelabra of a tree in the center of St. Mary’s graveyard in Charlbury on my first walk from my hosts’ home to the festival grounds, I knew I had found my tree-o’-the-trip. A voice in me somewhere greeted this Yew before I had time to think- and it said, “Oh- there you are. How lovely to see you.”

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Later during the festival, as part of the Culture Tent Talks organized by Ed Fenton, I listened to Professor Stafford read from her book: The Long, Long, Life of Trees. She chose to read from a chapter about the beloved Horse Chestnut- about the one Anne Frank watched, and greeted, outside her window in Amsterdam. It recently came down in spite of attempts to save it. So they planted a new one. I think I have been marking my memories of places I visit by the trees I greet without realizing it. How wonderful to become aware of this tendency at a beer festival, of all places!

The Festival

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Apparently rogue golfers are a thing here.

You may think you’ve been to a beer festival before. Montreal, Bruge. Osaka, Rome? I’ve done all those. But trust me- you really haven’t been to a beer festival until you’ve acquired… a knitted beard.

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Or knitted beer glass holder. For hands-free exploring!

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The only thing this beer festival has in common with an American version are the lines. They last all day, but at least you get half pints instead of two ounces, so you can do other things besides get right back in line again.

And there are LOTS of other things to do. The international Aunt Sally competition (something about throwing sticks- a book has been written about it), a kids’ tent with live snail races, a tea & cakes tent, a wine & gin area, plus Pimm’s (yes really!) food venders including Venezuelan street food (my fave), the local Women’s Institute tent (see knitted beards above, and my new beer holder!) and  live music on stage- truly a real festival. In fact, literally a Real Ale festival.

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John Bramwell (front man of Mercury Prize nominated band ‘I am Kloot’ – a big name in the UK and Europe), and Dave Fidler.

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Jennie Grierson (volunteer in the foreground who also directs the youth band and singers) and John Hole facing camera (in charge of cider)

This is a long day. It starts at noon and goes until 10:00pm (or 22:00, as the locals say). There are various schedules and events, including a prize for the first beer to kick. It turns out I had had the winning beer the night before at the Rose & Crown (one of four- that’s 4 – pubs in tiny Charlbury) called Gin & Juice by Welsh Tiny Rebel Brewery with Nick’s lovely wife Alice who had a cider.

In my official beery chat I talked about meeting locals when I travel to get the best beery information, and my method did not fail me. Two handsome chaps (I can use that word in the states for at least another month- traveler’s privilege) joined me for pints after the festival at the Rose & Crown and suggested beery places in Bath when I mentioned I was headed there the next day.

Work and Play

The next morning was spent dismantling tents, picking up litter, and generally returning the grounds to pristine condition. There is something quite satisfying about this; my visit would not have been the same without the service portions of helping to set up, serve beer and cider, and clean up. I had my trees in mind, after all.

Around noon, I got back in the stick-shift and zoomed off to Bath

And found another tree. At the top of a hill in Bath in the round center of a roundabout called The Circus is a cluster of trees so large that from afar it looks like one giant tree, with its reach forming a perfect circle within a circle- it is surrounded by round buildings to truly create – a circle. Seen from above it would be a large green dot with a pale grey ring around it and another yellow one around that. No telling where one tree ends and another begins. I used this as a geographic anchor; apparently so did Jane Austin.

In Bath, I found a beer that loves trees too. Big Hug Brewing – a tree hug in a bottle. A portion of the purchase goes to My Green Squares, a project that protects the rainforest one square foot at a time.

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“American Beer Lady” – That’s Me

Shortly after I returned to Boston, this email arrived from Nick:

Kris

[Y]ou may (or may not) be aware of the cultural significance of the Sex Pistols’ Manchester Free Trade Hall gig in 1976. It had a massive impart on the UK music scene, but there were only 44 people in the audience that night at what is a massive venue. Everyone who subsequently became anyone in the music business has always claimed to have been in the audience. That now amounts to hundreds of individuals. Your talk appears to be having a similar impact in Charlbury. The number of people who have approached me over the last couple of days telling me how brilliant the American Beer Lady’s talk was has been phenomenal.

Me: Blushing

Dear Charlbury,

If you’ll have me, I’ll be back.

Love, Kris

 

 

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