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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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No, I Did not Take a Cruise: Alaska Ales

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True beer explorers know better than to book a package tour. After all, if a brewery has been around long enough or is large enough to warrant a stop on a tour, chances of finding something new are unlikely. And the same goes for a cruise.

I don’t know what it is about Alaska, but more than anywhere I have visited around the world, the universal response to revealing plans to travel there was the same: “Oh are you going on a cruise?”

No. No we are not. It’s hard not to be a bit condescending about it- but- really? How am I supposed to explore anything from a boat unless I’m steering it? Especially beery destinations. Come on now.

Anchorage

My parents always wanted to visit Alaska, but we never made it while my Dad was alive. So after he died I pushed it up a bit in the urgency of places to go with my Mom.  As traveling companions, we have an understanding. She lets me know her top priorities (in Alaska for example, seeing whales in the wild and Denali National Park by plane) and I plan the rest (usually beer focused). It works for us.

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It works so well, in fact, that is was HER idea after a long day of travel from Boston to Anchorage to go to Midnight Sun before even checking in to the hotel.

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It’s a stand-alone building. The brewery is on the first level, and upstairs is an open space called the Loft- where the kitchen and bar are, plus a deck. She was tired- she looked at the daunting, steep stairs to the second floor and her expression made me think I ought to fein fatigue and whisk her to the hotel. When around the corner came a brewery person who opened the door to the odd closet that turned out to be an elevator for the stair-challenged. Night changer! My Mom looks like a fit mid-seventies former beauty queen. No one would never guess she has MS. She still doesn’t use a cane- but the longer the day the more that the wear on her stamina compounds. The lift was a wonderful surprise that shifted the tenor of the evening. She was newly energized- ordered small tastes of the fruity sour, the pilsner, and a grainy lager. The beer was good, and the food exactly what we wanted- hearty and warm, with lots of arrangements of meat and cheese to choose from.

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Bonus: my Mother was wearing a new Pink Boots Society fleece (it’s under the coat, above) The server recognized the logo. She told us that the owner is a woman and part of Pink Boots as well. Groovy!

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The next day we were up early, as happens when traveling from east to west. I wasn’t sure where else to search for beer in Anchorage itself, and we had plans to drive to Denali after lunch. So I texted a friend in Vermont. You’ve probably heard of his brewery. He said to forget any more beer in Anchorage and go to the Bubbly Mermaid instead where they serve only oysters and champagne. (I would love to add the link but they’re only on FB, which I do not use.)

fullsizeoutput_4e42It did not open until 11. We were up so early that we drove around town to explore. We found a public salmon-watching park, a map store, an Italian cafe. Where we perched, like a couple of seagulls watching a picnic, across the street from the Bubbly Mermaid. We waited for it to open. I confess that we stalked it.

As soon as they put out the sandwich board, we shot across the street. What did we think- that a line would appear from around the corner? I don’t know, but later a colleague from the Anchorage office of my firm told me she moved downtown from the outskirts specifically to be closer to this place. Word.

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The outside is typical Anchorage- strip mall exterior, film-set interior. As in, the inside wears a costume. The bar is made to look like a boat (maybe it was?), plank floor, French cafe details like wall-size mirrors and the music of Edith Piaf and Madeleine Peyroux playing in the background. The champagne is as good as you want it to be- choose from $10 a glass on up to $50- and probably more. But it’s by the glass! There are three oyster options: raw and relatively local (four that day), cold- like smoked oysters and mussels with capers, lemon, and dijon served on the half-shell, or hot- like Rockefeller and some intriguing Asian options.

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As the only customers that early on a weekday morning, we got to talking with Lisa- one of the owners. She is from Sydney, Australia. She may open another location in another country. I will seek it out if she does.

Denali National Park

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We decided that flying over Denali (or “flight-seeing” as they call it) should not be booked ahead. You are stuck with the trip if the weather is cloudy. Our trip was during the shoulder season, so competition for seats was unlikely- we took the risk. We drove two hours from Anchorage right up to Talkeetna Air Taxi’s office in a town of the same name (the town Northern Exposure was based on), booked a trip that would leave an hour later, and headed across the street to Denali Brewing Company to prepare ourselves with the appropriately named Mother’s Ale. (Our trip was planned to end on Mother’s Day.)

While not beer related, I confess to playing this video over and over. If all of the planning had been left to me, I would never have taken time to see this. Which just goes to show you: listen to your Mother.

Juneau

There is no road to Juneau. Your choices are to arrive by plane or boat, and luckily “cruise season” was still three days in the future. It was as if we had this captivating, magic town all to ourselves. We sensed an anticipatory dread and energetic excitement that all tourist destinations have at the start of the season.

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We arrived in the morning, and my Mom needed to rest. So I set out to explore on foot. I walked by a closed corner distillery that said they were having their grand opening in a week. Damn- just missed it! I continued to find Stump Town coffee and incredible Vietnamese breakfast at the Rookery Cafe. Then headed back to our cool hotel, Silver Bow (they make fun of cruising people with subtle signs; it’s cute). As I walked by the close distillery I saw- what? Wait- are there people drinking cocktails in the distillery? Yes!

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Always armed with beer gifts, I walked in apologetically and asked about the distillery. The owner, Brendon Howard, immediately offered me one of his house-made gin and tonics. It was already 10:00am, so why not? It was after he delivered the lovely drink that I brought out the can of Heady Topper. I take this beer everywhere. In Texas they had no idea what it was. In DC they knew but are also so well connected it was no big deal. But here- in Juneau Alaska- this Heady Topper got the most blown away, surprised, lottery-winning look I ever saw. He jumped. He smacked his head. The two other customers (a woman who runs kayaking tours all over the world and her mother- go figure) took note and we all started talking. Meanwhile Brandon quietly went about writing something- here it is. The label for a pint of experimental gin- as a gift.

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See why I would never go on a tour?

Well, except that Juneau is home to an exceptional brewery that I would guess is on lots of tours. It’s also the place where I found my favorite beer of the entire trip. Alaskan Brewery. 

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I had arranged for a pre-season whale watching boat trip with Captain Harry of Weatherpermitting. Initially it was four people; on the day of another two arrived. That’s six people on a boat. Following whales. Do this.

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On our way to the harbor Mom and I were running quite ahead of schedule, so we asked our cab driver (no need to rent a car in Juneau, by the way) who was called Chris and had two different colored eyes (I mention this because I have only seen this in Huskies- perhaps it’s an Alaskan thing?) to take us to Alaskan Brewery which was on the way.

The tasting room at Alaskan is pretty robust- we could have just had a few samples. But instead we got the $20, seven-tastes plus a special history talk session in a special room. And we were the only ones. We got to know Kelsey (above, right), who had found out moments before that her sister was going to have a boy. She told us about the early beginnings of the brewery, and about the inventions that come from necessity when being inaccessible by road- like the spent-grain burning contraption that provides both heat and power to the brewery (patent pending). Wow.

And I met Icy Bay. Oh my. It was love at first sip. And bless my Mother, when I took every opportunity to have one of these wherever I found it afterwards (Seattle airport, Juneau airport, on all Alaskan Airlines legs) she did not judge. Maybe because she also found her favorite beer of the trip there. We tried everything Alaskan had to offer, and a lot of other beers over the two weeks. And in the end, her favorite beverage was also from Alaskan. The Smoked Porter aged in bourbon barrels. Yes really! She was pissed when she found out she won’t be able to get it again. And it takes a lot to get my Mother mad.

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So indeed- we had that tasting before getting on a rather small boat and watching whales. Good thing we’re not prone to sea sickness.

Little known Juneau fact: There are so many bald eagles in Juneau that the locals refer to them as grand pigeons. They truly are everywhere. They hang out. You will take pictures of the first few- and then abandon the camera.

Above right is my Mom tasting a sour at Midnight Sun. As you might guess from her face. Oh but she liked it!

Up next: Second half of The Trip up next- California. Teaser: I took my Mom to Russian River. And In-N-Out Burger.

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Beer Crush (Philadelphia)

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It started innocently enough. There I was, walking around Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market– overwhelmed by rich food scents and visions of neon and oysters and meats of all kinds thinking that the one thing that would make all of it perfect would be a beer. But counter after food stall- soda. juice. water. No beer. Everyone seemed so happy. How could they be without beer to go with their hearty meaty lunch sandwiches? Something was missing.

And then I saw it. A few people standing in front of a row of tap handles with a bar behind them. Molly Malloy’s. I checked out the bar- no seats available. That’s when I noticed that the guy next to me was getting his beer to go.

I rubbed my eyes. Am I still in the US?

YES! More people were gathering around, so when I saw that the first beer on the crafty draft list was an “India Cream Ale” I ordered it. To go. I know I know- the plastic cup and the straw is campy. But you know what? Sometimes you gotta go with the locals.

And that’s how I met Ben.

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It was really terrific walking around the food stalls, openly, with a beer. It’s the thrill of going against the hyper-restrictive and puritanical American alcohol culture. The giant smile on my face probably spooked people more than the beer. And I caught myself nearly holding the beer in the air.

It took a few minutes for me to realize it. But the beer was fantastic.

That’s when the stalking began.

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I went back for more St. Benjamin’s, dragging other people away from the Craft Brewers Conference to try it, (all to raves and ‘thanks for showing me this!’) to the point that the bartender just brought me a pint of it when he saw me. Nothing like becoming a predictable regular within a week, especially considering all the special beery events and truly so much incredible beer everywhere in the city. But I could not stop going back for more Ben.

Simultaneously, I became obsessed with Benjamin Franklin, the man. As in, I developed a crush on man long dead.

Philly happens to have a museum devoted to him! Not surprisingly for the man often quoted as saying, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” – some of the exhibits are beer related. His tankard, his rules about work (water at work, beer later- which was new at the time. Yet his particular exhibit did not tame my ardour.) I read his autobiography.

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Part of a video at the Benjamin Franklin Museum showing colonial workers drinking beer. He liked water at work to keep a clear head. It caught on, dammit.

Can you guess where I was and what I was drinking while reading this book about tavern history in Philadelphia? (below)

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And then it hit me. What am I doing? Why visit a museum and do all this reading when St. Benjamin’s is a Philadelphia brewery- I must go there!

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The bones of the structure of Ben Franklin’s house outside of the museum. And the only sun the week of the 2016 Craft Brewers Conference.

Uber could not find it at first. Because the tasting room had only been open a week.

But suddenly- I had arrived!

I tried to calm down and sampled some of the other St. Ben beers.

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Simple, elegant, and open interior of the St. Benjamin’s tasting room. The food is good, too.

While I waited for Belgian brewer Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de la Senne– who shared my new passion and planned to join me- I met a delightful couple at the bar. They were adorable, and locals to Ben (lucky devils) and we hit it off.

Yvan arrived. We ate, drank, and bought a case of the India Cream Ale (Inca) in cans to take back to Cambridge with us. Very happy. And then one of the brewers, Christina Burris, came out to meet us. A woman! Woohoo!

She insisted we have a tour. And the adorable locals joined us. It was a memorable and unexpectedly splendid evening.

As I write this, I am enjoying an Inca in my St. Benjamin’s hoodie, smiling about the great pleasure of discovering and loving a beer that I didn’t find though a website, an app, or a recommendation. Just my taste buds and Harvey Butler luck.

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Ben and me. We get each other.

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Super Sips of 2015

Instead of picking a single best beer of 2015, I give you my favorites in the contexts of enjoying them. Partly because I was not very good about posting my sipping experiences last year (first resolution to break in 2016: post every other week!) and partly because there is no such thing as a favorite, or a best, beer. Only a favorite experience that raised the level- no matter how good the beer already was- to a higher plane. In no particular order, my list of super sips of 2015.

Best Beer in front of my Fireplace
Bog Iron Devil’s Footprint, a Mezcal barrel aged braggot.

Brian Shurtleff brewed this and gave me a bottle when I visited the brewery in Norton. It’s ridiculous. (Please excuse the adorable glass- I use it exclusively between Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

My new fireplace and a warming beer.

Best Beer Sampler
Russian River in Santa Rosa, California

I had to be in San Francisco for work, so I figured I’d just pop up to the famous Russian River Brewery. But it turns out that Santa Rosa is rather far from San Francisco. I decided to arrive early on a Sunday, and thought about renting a car- but who wants to drive after visiting a brewery? I checked into Uber- but it would have been over $200. So I asked a local- Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Fran, and he knew right away. “Take the Golden Gate 101. It drops you off a block away.” Great! On Sundays it takes over two hours. What.

It was an ordeal, especially because I did not realize that the particular Sunday I chose was Father’s Day- which meant adding a two hour wait once I arrived at the brewpub. Around the corner, I found a delightful place to wait called Third Street Aleworks. I watched my place in line with the app Russian River gave me, and happily sipped away. Good thing I did not have too much, because the sampler at Russian River has 18 – yes 18- (plus a bonus that day) tastes.

Knowing I was not likely to return, and that a bus would deliver me safely back, I ordered a second sampler. Strive to avoid regrets- that’s what I was thinking.

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Best Beer to Share with a New Friend
Horal’s Oude Geuze Mega Blend 2011 at ‘t Waagstuk in Antwerp, Belgium with Claudia Asch

It was nearing the end of the 2015 ICHC (International Conference on the History of Cartography), and while I enjoyed seeing lots of old friends, I had not met any beer geeks. Until I found Claudia.

My first beer with Claudia Asch was a well-cellared gem.

There were several other wonderful beers shared in Antwerp that week with my map geek friends:


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Best Beer Brewed by a School
Cum Laude at the University in Antwerp that hosted the ICHC. It was exactly what I was craving after nearly two weeks in Europe- not too sweet, a show of hops but not over the top, refreshing. Just right. And yes, the school has a brewery!

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Best Beer Enjoyed at a Brewery
Brusseleir at Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels

I arrived in Brussels by train from London on my way to a conference in Antwerp, so technically I had another train to catch. But Yvan de Baets, brewer/owner of Brasserie de la Senne, offered a ride to Antwerp via a visit to his brewery. Who would say no? I had never heard of this beer, but one sniff sent me somewhere both familiar and nostalgic. I was walking in a blooming flower garden in England, and someone was baking scones in the distance- the finish was faint licorice.

I will not provide details of Yvan’s reaction to my description, but apparently I nailed it.

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Best Beer on a Boat- Europe
A beer Regine brought from Germany enjoyed on the deck of a houseboat in Amsterdam. Truly one of the best beers I have ever had, although I do not know or care what it was. See previous post to understand! But in truth the picture says it all.

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Best Beer on a Boat- United States
A beer shared with old friends while sailing around the San Juan islands off the coast of Bellingham, Washington. Again, I do not remember the name of the beer- but it was memorably delicious.

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Best Graduation Beer Brewed with the Graduate
Berry Stout brewed with and for McKain Webb-Lakey (with sous-brewer brother Will) to celebrate her graduation from Berklee College of Music.

When McKain’s Washington-state based parents asked me to watch out for their daughter while she was in school in Boston, I assumed they meant make sure she got a solid craft beer education. She did.

Brewing berry stout

Graduation label

Best Beer in a Hidden Restaurant
Every beer paired with the food at Luksus in Brooklyn. Get over leaving Manhattan and hop on the G train.

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Best Beer with Mom
There were two this year. A Grizzly Paw overlooking Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta and Traveler IPA at the Alibi Room in Vancouver, BC. Yay Canada! Her favorite beer was the Hibiscus Wit at the Alibi Room.

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Best Beer at a National Park Brewery
Did you know that both Jasper and Banff National Parks have on-site breweries? We liked the Rye Shwartzbier at Jasper the most.

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Best Beer in Front of Someone Else’s Fireplace
Local beer from the bottle shop in Golden, British Columbia while peeling apples for apple crisp at the buffalo ranch where we were staying.

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Even if beer isn’t your thing, you should visit this part of the world. Here is why.

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Emerald Lake

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Best Beer for Breakfast
Bell’s Golden Rye Ale at Little Goat Diner in Chicago.

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Best Birthday Beer(s)
Everything at BFM‘s annual Brassins Public in Switzerland

When your birthday falls on one of your favorite brewery’s annual open house, you should do whatever is necessary to get there, right? And when other friends decide to converge there as well- the beer just tastes better and better.

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Best Beer Surprise at the End of a Journey
BFM La Meule in Fribourg, Switzerland

After failed GPS routes and darkness descending, stumbled on a balcony bar overlooking the lovely town. I do indeed have traveler’s luck.

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Best Beer Gift 
The Cambridge Center for Adult Education has a long history of culinary and other cool culturally enriching classes. I teach several courses, including Beer & Art History- and give my students this tasting glass at the end. CCAE is a non-profit entity, and I donate my time to teach. Because I love it! Check it out.

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What were your favorite sips of 2015? Wishing you all a 2016 full of fabulous imbibing all over the world.

 

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Sensory Magnification (Amsterdam)

Amsterdam houseboat. Thanks Airbnb.

Home for a few days: Amsterdam houseboat. Thanks Airbnb.

I had initially planned to go to Amsterdam on my own. Just three days- mostly to make sure that I visited at least one new (for me) country in 2015. I wanted the experience to be special, so instead of a predictable hotel I rented a houseboat. (above) You should do this.

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I researched craft beer destinations, read about the “Nine Streets” neighborhood (where the houseboat is anchored), and bought my Van Gogh Museum ticket online. (You should also do this- although be prepared for glares from those in the line that circles the museum as you walk directly to the front- and the guards move the rope for you to enter.)

And then, I had a brilliant idea. I decided to see if my dear friend Regine could join me. She was going to miss the conference in Antwerp (see forthcoming post) for the first time since we met at the International Conference on the History of Cartography (ICHC) in Budapest in 2005. We first met after a tour of the exhibit Margaritae Cartographicae at the National Széchenyi Library. We were both inspired to order beer and watch the sunset against the parliament buildings and Danube. We’ve been friends ever since.

It was short notice, she is working on her dissertation, she has a little boy. But she still said yes!

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Sausage, cheese, and beer at t’ Arendsnest

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Much of our sipping was confined to the boat. I mean- why leave it? We had coffee and local pastries in our pajamas on the top deck in the mornings, waving at the tourist boats that passed by as if we lived there all the time. In the evenings we drank wine from the local shop or the beer she brought from her hometown of Hamburg. After exploring canal streets, shopping for flowers and tasting lavender and honey goat cheese- we accidentally stumbled on the best known craft beer bar in Amsterdam, serving only Dutch craft beer, called t’ Arendsnest (the eagle). It was around the corner from our boat.

There is a bar inside, but if you can- sit at one of the few tables outside by the water. The food menu is essentially sausages and cheeses. We loved the lavender sausage and the two year aged cheese with crystals that crunched against our teeth. Later (it was so good we returned the next day) we had the smoked, almost raw (if that’s possible) beef sausage. The great discovery, after trying many samples to find a beer she liked and finally taking a sip of my rye IPA, was that Regine is a hop head! When the super folks at t’ Arendsnest discovered this, they gave us a couple of bottles of their off-menu “homebrew” which is part of their “Fat Five” series.

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Picnic on the deck of the houseboat with hand-carried craft beer from Hamburg.

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Regine discovers she is a hop head!

 

We both brought guidebooks, and Regine’s German version had something mine did not: a section on Amsterdam’s secret gardens. Apparently these gardens are hidden behind homes and accessible only to the surrounding residents, but some of them open a door to the street on occasion and allow people to wander in. All of the ones in her book were inaccessible though. After the fourth street, just as I began to get grumpy, we found a secret passage. A Hofje! We nearly tip-toed through, not wanting to disturb the magic air.

Hofje

 

 

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Other than a glass of rosé in the Miró gardens, and an espresso in a lovely rose-laden café with real candles burning on the bar and every table in the middle of the day, we had one meal off the boat. And what a meal!

Regine passed it on her walk from the train and said it looked good, and the Airbnb host listed it on his “top 10 local places”- what further recommendation did we need? We called for a reservation for an outside table only two hours before we planned to eat- and got it. Our view was better than a painting- the sun glittering on the water and dappling the trees, a perfect breeze, a lovely aroma in the air. They brought us a couple of house elderflower vermouths as an aperitif, and the perfection was sealed. But was it the eel and crawfish velouté, the fish sampler (above), the foie gras “sandwich”, the two bottles of flinty white wine we shared that made this such a spectacular meal? Of course it all helped- but in truth, the boat, the museums, the food, all the imbibing, and the magic that is Amsterdam- were intensely magnified because I shared it with my dear friend. We could have been anywhere.

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One of our strolls brought us to the Begijnhof, a well-kept garden connected to a church. Since the middle ages, single elder women (not nuns) have lived in these private homes and tended to the church and gardens. As we walked by, arm-in-arm, we paused to look at the quiet, elegant homes. Regine said, “The one with the green door.” We smiled and continued to the street, imagining our golden days in Amsterdam.

 

Evening view from the boat

Sundown from the deck of the boat.

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