2015, my year in beer. Part two.

As it happens, the European Beer Bloggers Conference was in Brussels at the end of August, and I just had to go. But prior to that my wife had organised a surprise visit for us to Belgium earlier in August. This presented me with a bit of a dilemma. Should I really go to Belgium twice in a matter of weeks? Yes I said, and off we went.

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Learning from the visit to Budapest, I took notes at every opportunity; whatever was in my head, at any given time, I wrote down and took a photo wherever I could. And this left me with a diary of thoughts over the days of our holiday. These thoughts were expanded upon and formed the series of posts that became Saisons in the Sun.

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I loved writing these three posts, as I felt they really captured exactly what we experienced during our holiday and were a complete departure from anything I had written previously.

Whenever I read anything that Adrian Tierney-Jones has written, I get the impression that he has also written down exactly what is in his mind at that precise moment in time, and he has effortlessly transcribed those thoughts into blog posts and articles that just keep you wanting more.  It’s a fantastic way of writing and I have to say I love it.  Some of what Adrian writes is like poetry and it’s fascinating to read!

A week or so before the conference, I glanced over the list of attendees and recognised a few names of people who I followed on Twitter and whose blogs I had read. I was really looking forward to it, but I was daunted by the thought of having to write about it afterwards; as apart from the Russian Doll post, everything I’d compiled so far had been off my own back and for me.

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This fear soon went as the conference began, as during the registration period I was greeted by a fellow blogger who mentioned they had read my ramblings and said they really enjoyed reading it! This was totally unexpected, but I really appreciated it and it made me feel at home.

Looking round the room I saw two familiar faces, well the faces of two familiar names to be precise. Matthew Curtis and Chris Hall. Chris, a prolific beer writer, who, works for Brew By Numbers, had assisted me with me some information for Citra Session, so it was great to meet him and be able to thank him in person. And Matthew, well, he is a beer writing machine, who has the enviable ability to produce consistently good work, time and time again.  It was a pleasure to meet him here too.

There were so many really great people in attendance at the conference, so many in fact, that I didn’t get the chance to speak to half of them! But those who I did mange to collar were all decent people and all there for the same reason; to share their love of beer and writing about it.

Two people who really stood out over the weekend were the Irish Beer Snobs, that’s Mr & Mrs Irish Beer Snob, Wayne and Janice to be correct. The pair of them, like beer encyclopaedias, but great fun at the same time. Not that I’m saying everyone else was boring, because they weren’t, but I felt we were on the same level. And I’m sure Wayne downed a pint of the black stuff whilst nobody was looking!

Another thing that really struck me was the distances that some people had travelled to be there. I thought I’d had it bad having to get up at 4am to get into London to catch the Eurostar to Brussels, after having only five hours sleep the night before! But no, there was a certain Brazilian journalist who trumped my journey.  Another absolutely top man who was always outside smoking, so who knows what he ended up writing!!

During the conference sessions I made an incredible amount of notes in a bid to try and capture everything that had been discussed. But looking back over these, I realised that what I should have done was just pick two or three subjects and concentrated on getting as much information as possible about the chosen matter. As when I was at home, I really struggled to make any sense of what had happened over the weekend.

I knew I had to write something, but just didn’t know what to write about! Then it struck me, during Jean Hummlers outburst, he insisted that, us, as bloggers, should be more truthful about what we write and be critical about things we didn’t like or don’t agree with, just making sure that we did it in a constructive manner.

The whole weekend had been dominated by sour beers and the brewing industry in Belgium. I had some strong feelings about the sour beers I’d tried, so along came Hop Head, Sour Saint. I’m still unsure about whether publishing this was the right thing to do, but I felt I had to get it off my chest. Who knows, maybe the right sour beer could end up being my next Saison.

My second conference related post discussed contract brewing, which is a subject that a lot of writers know a fair bit about. After reading a few of the posts that other attendees had written, I decided that I would try and do something a little different and add in some non-conference material. I didn’t want my post to be a carbon copy of the conference session, so by talking to a local nano-brewery I was able to give my post a little twist. Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful is what I ended up with.

After the conference I settled back into my normal routine and wondered where to go next with my blog. It was then I discovered a new bottle shop was due to be opened in Exeter. This was quite special as up until now there really wasn’t anywhere in the City Centre that offered a decent selection of craft beer in the form of a dedicated bottle shop. As I mentioned in my post about Hops & Crafts, Whistle Wines used to be my port of call prior its closure. Even though the selection was limited to a few local breweries, the choice was good, and I paid a visit pretty much every Friday on my way home from work. It was a shame when the shop closed, but the Whistle Wine Club is still extant for the wine lovers amongst you.

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Chris Harper, of Hops & Crafts however, has done a fantastic job of filling the gap that Whistle Wines had left and I can see myself becoming one the regulars, as the shop is still on my route home from work!

On top of consuming and writing about beer, one thing that had caught my eye was beertography.  I was intrigued by this new ‘thing’ as previously, I, like many others had just placed a glass next to the beer, and snap!  But during the year and through the course of creating my blog, I had taken quite a few photos of beer.  Some of these were just a photo of the beer, but some were a bit different.  Lots of people were trying new things with beertography and I wanted a bit of this too.  Chris, @mindlesspizza is a dab hand at this, and you really must check out his efforts. His bokeh like rendering of the background is fantastic which really makes the subject stand proud.

I’d seen the floating can trick, with the can held on to the edge of the glass by the ring pull.  I even did it myself.

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But I’d yet to see somebody do it with a bottle.  So I set up this shot ready for Craft Beer Hour when Moor Beer Company were hosting and, contrary to popular belief, did not use Photoshop.  I might even do this one again but use a bottle of their Illusion instead!

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Following this I took a few more shots that weren’t just of the beer, or they were, but I still tried to add a little twist to each one.

I’d had a bottle of Buxton Brewery Two Ton for a couple of weeks and liked the sound of Wonton, Two Ton.  So took this.

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I also managed to grab a few bottles of Yellow Belly and Yellow Belly Sundae.  For quite rare beers photos of them were everywhere, but seeing the mirror on the Sundae bottle gave me an idea.  I positioned a bottle of Yellow Belly just out of shot but captured its reflection in a carefully placed mirror to make it look as if it was preying on the Sundae.

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On top of this, Craft Beer Hour has been a fantastic thing throughout the last year.  I always enjoy grabbing an early week beer and sitting down to take part.  Craft Beer Hour has really opened my eyes to a lot of previously unknown breweries and beers.  It’s also brought a lot pot people together to talk, and share their common love of beer.  It is fantastic and I commend Tom for all his efforts in setting it up.

Further thanks has to go to Tom, for one week when the Electric Bear Brewery were due to host.  They are a fairly young brewery and their beers are currently confined to the beautiful city of Bath.  However, in the week prior to their hosting I was asked whether I’d like to play a proper part in the next Craft Beer Hour.  How could I refuse?  I loved being part of CBH and was more than happy to help.  That help involved being kindly sent a few sample beers from Electric Bear with the premise of talking about them and playing a part in CBH.

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This was fantastic, as with my electrical connections and background I had some great ideas for some photographs.  I had no idea which beers would be sent out but I knew that my workplace would play a big part in preparing for the evening.

I wanted to give each shot some relevance and a link to something beyond the beer.

Edison, their Czech style lager, is a crisp pilsner hopped with Hallertau, Perle and Saaz which ends up being a nice dry pilsner with a citrus finish.  And with Edison being the electrical link here I used an Edison style lamp as a prop for the shot.

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Following this was Elemental, a session strength IPA jam packed with US hops and balanced with pale malts.

The prop here was a ceramic insulator from a high voltage substation, and before you ask, yes I do have lots of these and the one in the shot lives in our front room.

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The final beer for the evening was the truly fantastic Cherry Blackout.  Morello cherries, vanilla and dark chocolate, there is nothing about this beer that’s not to like.

Out came the candles and some cherries to complete the shot.

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To finish off my year I paid a visit to the Black Tor Brewery.  Based in the Teign Valley just outside of Exeter, they are producing some fine traditional ales in a bid to resurrect the historic name of the Gidley’s brewery.  My work brought me here to repair a water pump, well beer pump, one that transferred the beer from the copper, through the heat exchanger and into the fermenters.  The pump was duly fixed and I was offered some refreshment.

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No coffee here, just an approximate third of their beautiful Raven.  Which, hopped with all English hops, Challenger, Goldings and Fuggles, is a rather fruity and easy drinking session ale.

And that concludes my 2015.  Let’s look forward to 2016 and all the good beer that it will bring.  Cheers!

 

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Hops & Crafts, Exeter’s newest bottle shop, is now open for business.

Situated in McCoys Arcade in Fore Street, alongside a wide array of local independent traders, the shelves are primed, ready to quench the needs of thirsty Exonians with a battery of craft beer and local ales.

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With the unfortunate departure of Whistle Wines from Queen Street earlier in the year, Exeter City Centre was crying out for a good bottle shop, and Hops & Crafts has filled the void with an outstanding variety of offerings from the likes of Beavertown, Siren, The Kernel and many, many more; Some of which are unfamiliar to me, but no doubt, in time, will become less so.

But what I really wanted to know was, just how did Exeter become home to this bijou beer boutique?

Being one of the first customers through the door on opening day, I was able to quiz the proprietor, Chris Harper, to get a little insight on his beery journey from Fort Collins, Colorado, all the way to Exeter.

My taste for craft beer developed whilst living in Fort Collins between 2004 & 2012, this was when a microbrewery was a microbrewery, and not craft. When we arrived in Fort Collins there were five breweries.  This number had increased to eight on our leaving, but now the total amounts to more than a dozen!

On top of the breweries, the local taprooms also played a part in the huge beer culture in the area. Feeding the locals with all the knowledge and the beer that they craved. These became the destination of choice when you had guests from out of town to entertain or where you went any day of the week to try some new project beer the brewers did just for fun.

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My love for Belgian beers started in Fort Collins too, at the hugely popular hometown brewer gone rockstar big – New Belgium Brewing Co.  A brewery who exclusively brewed Belgian style beer, but their range has since expanded to include various other styles too.  

So if you couple all of this, to the classic American liquor stores where you could go in and choose from dozens, if not hundreds of beers, then you’ll see why I felt like Exeter was a let down in the beer department.  The problem I had with the local beer was that it just wasn’t what I was used to, and although I did eventually begin to appreciate the traditional ales, I never found anything that I truly loved.

It is somewhat of an understatement to say we were spoiled for choice in Fort Collins and since moving to Exeter I had been longing for a better selection of good beer.

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During a cycling trip to Belgium in 2013, where I brought back far more beer than I could actually carry, I discovered that the so called ‘special’ beers, that commanded a premium at home, were available in pretty much every convenience store and at normal prices too.  This was fantastic, however, once again, I knew I was ruined on British beer.  

I knew there was room for improvement, and after sampling some Magic Rock and Wild Beer at the Beer Cellar, my eyes were opened to the other side of the British brewing industry.  The Beer Cellar may only have been host to four taps and a few bottles, but, I knew there was hope.

I’ve never considered myself the entrepreneurial type, but after dwelling on the thought of opening a bottle shop, I decided it was time to put my videography background on the back burner and concentrate on this new venture.  The idea was stuck inside my head for a long time and when I eventually pitched it to my wife, she embraced it and said I should do it!  

After completing the course to obtain my Personal License in July of this year, things came along nicely, right up to the opening of the shop last Friday.

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The response prior to opening had been fantastic, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all develops.  I just hope the brewers and distributors will acknowledge that there is a population south of Bristol who likes good beer, and when they do, I’ll be a lot better off and have a lot more to offer folks like you!

So, come on people of Exeter, the next time you’re in town make sure you head down to McCoys arcade, pop in to Hops & Crafts and stock up your beer cupboard with something a little different.

Follow Hops & Crafts on Twitter here.

Or visit their website.  

Do you want the truth or something beautiful?

Gypsy, contract or fake brewers as they are sometimes known, clearly have a place in the current brewing scene but not everyone agrees with their presence or practices.

Jean Hummler of Moeder Lambic is one of those who certainly doesn’t agree.

During the conference he climbed upon his soapbox and provided a passionate and spirited outburst and has certainly stirred up what is already a subject of much debate.

The point that Mr Hummler was trying to get across was that the blogging community really need to tell the truth in what they write and they should almost weed out the fake brewers and shame them for their practises.  He has some strong feelings about his friend Mikkeller, but by Jeans definition, the work that Mikkeller is doing and the way he is acting, he is not a brewer, he is a beer designer.  Who Jean, in his own words doesn’t give a shit about.

Now that’s all well and good, but surely what’s important here is that by whatever means a beer is brewed or conceived, as long as the end result is good, what does it matter, right?

And Mikellers brewing activities have created some spectacular and also some quite intriguing beers.

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I’m not going to delve too deeply into this but the views of others at the conference should be considered before you can really come to any kind of conclusion on the current industry practises.

Chris Sullivan, of Stone Brewing Berlin, spoke to me and provided a great point about the relevance of gypsy/contract brewers. He views it as a ‘way in’, or ‘foot in the door’ to brewing for the home brewer or smaller brewer.  Who on their own may not have the means to set up a full blown brewing operation. It is also a way to rejuvenate old and possibly tired breweries whose production may have wained or are maybe struggling.  Which he cites has been the case for some German breweries.

So by allowing gypsy/contract breweries this can have two huge benefits. One for the brewer trying to make a name for themselves and also for the older breweries who may be looking for some inspiration to continue or improve. Some, and clearly Jean Hummler, see this as a massive problem, as by the dictionary definition of a brewer and brewery they can almost be viewed as being fake.

There are other views too, such as this held by An De Ryck of Brewery De Ryck. She believes that without that fundamental and historic link between brewer and his brewery, there is no brewer.  She believes that you must eat, sleep and breathe the brewery to truly be recognised as a brewer.  And it is this link that is clearly missing from the whole process whilst a contract brew is taking place.

Coming away from the conference, I pondered a lot on this matter and felt as if the content I’d heard at the conference could and should be expanded on.

So on my return home I decided to talk with The Occasional Brewery, a young, local nano-brewery whose brewing capacity is checked to 100 litres.

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Toby, and Fin the head brewer, shared these thoughts, over a beer of course.

We started our operations by expanding on our home brewing, we stepped up from brewing as a hobby and made it into our business.  As a small brewery we see contract brewing as a great way to further expand operations and make beer available to a bigger audience.  It’s a good way to grow a business without so much of the initial financial outlay, which can offer a little more security too.

By remaining relatively small, we have a lot of freedom when it comes to making decisions about what we brew; which is something that you don’t necessarily see in the larger commercial breweries.

But you also have to remember that commercial brewers are all out to make money, it’s their business, and the beer is just a product of that.  All business has to be profitable for it to remain viable, and if that requires the services of another business, well that’s just life.  You’ll encounter contracting and sub-contracting in all types of business, the world would be a very different place without it.

Mikkeller has clearly found a gap in the market and by being a good entrepreneur and businessman he is taking full advantage of it.  He is also feeding his knowledge and experience directly back into the beer market for others to experience first hand.

We as brewers, and also the consumer can learn a lot from what he is doing.  He’s not stuck with any kind of tradition or fallen into a specific category, and he’s been very successful in the process.  He’s just gone about his business, giving the bird to everyone else and just carried on in a way he’s sees fit.

The man should be respected for this.

Hop Head. Sour Saint.

Sour beers; my first taste of a sour beer took place at the European Beer Bloggers Conference, and if I’m honest, I wasn’t overly impressed.

On the lead up to the conference I’d read a little about sour beers and was curious to try them and see what the fuss was all about.  I wondered whether they really had a place or were they just going to be a fad and the next cool beer to be seen drinking.

I went into the conference completely open minded and was certainly not going to refuse to try them.  But from the outset they just didn’t seem to sit right for me.  I have no problem with challenging tastes, nor with something that’s a little bit different, but the sour flavour given up by these beers was really a massive step way beyond everything I’d tasted before.

I am in no way disrespecting the brewers of these beers, as evidently they have gone to a lot of effort and expense to bring these products to the market, I’m just saying they are not to my taste.

During the conference, the issue of whether a beer can be good or bad was discussed.  The answer that was hit upon did sum it up, almost, just in a very diplomatic way stating that, really, there are no bad beers, just beers that need to find the right audience or market.  I do agree with this to a point, but to some people, there will always be bad beers.  If you come across a beer that you don’t like, then you can’t confidently and truly say that it’s a good beer, it’s just impossible.

Think of it this way, if there was no such thing as a bad beer, would we all be drinking the same, single type of beer, as there would be no need to brew anything else?

Not everybody can, should or will like sour beer.  And this choice should be respected as much as it is for the people who do like them. They’re not wrong for not liking them, it’s their choice and mine too, and here’s why;

Sour beers just do not give me what I want from a beer.  I want a beer to be enjoyable and a pleasure to drink in whatever form it may take, and unfortunately I just don’t feel that a sour beer can satisfy me in this way.  I’m not necessarily asking for something dead safe or boring, but for something that isn’t quite as outlandish or as challenging to my taste buds as a sour beer is.

I don’t want my beer to replicate a seaside supper condiment.  For me it should be inviting, satisfying, and not something that rips your mouth apart and leaves you looking like Esther Rantzen after that initial sharp draw of breath through your teeth.

Don’t get me wrong, I know sour beers do have their place, but unfortunately that place is not in my drinks cupboard.

Saisons in the sun, part three. Bruges

The four phoned man is back with us this morning, which makes for an interesting air at my birthday breakfast. More guests have spied his cellular antics and appear curious.

Following breakfast we make our way to the station, via taxi of course. The train to Bruges arrives, we board and depart on the perfect geometry of the track beneath the birdsnest of the catenary. Precisely 1 hour and 6 minutes later we arrive and all around is the smell of chocolate.

Wandering away from the station and down the quaint cobbled streets some kid rattles past on his monkey bike. Nearing the centre, the clatter of suitcases on the cobbles fade and is replaced by the ringing of bicycle bells and horseshoes.

An awning shouts ‘beers’, I respond, ‘ok in a minute!’ We enter the beer shops and I feel like a kid in a sweet shop, my wife is one as she enters a chocolatier. I’m slightly overwhelmed by the choice so we continue our stroll.

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Further towards the centre of Bruges, a West Highland Terrier reminds us of home and we sit for a drink. A light, malty Bruges Blonde from the barrel it is, along with her kir royal.

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A sign in a shop window proclaiming ‘There are so many beautiful reasons to be happy’ catches my eye. In Belgium, beer is all of them, and as I pick up two bottles of Westmalle Tripel for €1.50 each, this is confirmed.

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Taking on water as we walk away from the square we happen across a bar of 400 beers going by the name of Cambrinus. Quickly I establish my choice of Forestinne Ambrosia. A spicy, piney, speciality amber beer. At 7.5% it’s pure nectar.

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Our seat at the bar is booked all day……

Hopus, as chosen by my wife, is next. 5 hops, 8.3%, flip top bottle and sexy glass, I’m all over it….

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Next, I ask the bar man for his recommendation and end up with a truly breathtaking hoppy blonde. Triporteur from Heaven. With a bucket load of familiar hops in a Belgian blonde, I have a new favourite colour…….I later discover that the hops are East Kent Golding, Styrian Golding and Cascade.

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We thank our host and continue to stroll around the back streets of Bruges. I vape and she enters a vintage shop, bicycles whizz past. Tourists litter the place as we admire the passing swans.

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Further along, I hear the cry, ‘do you want more beer?’ as we come across the beer wall. Hmmmm, thinking time required.

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At least I’ve found my beer scooter.

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I take a Westmalle Dubel, place myself adjacent to the canal and end up discussing the history of the Kwak glass with some Americans who happen to land next to me. They were in search of some English beer of all things, so I imagine they were pretty disappointed with the Belgian treats they brought to their table.

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Leaving the Americans behind to ponder their next move, we enter the Bottle Shop, stock up and continue on.

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Further stocking up takes place at Brown Sugar as we head back to the station via a quick caffeine boost and a top up of the draw.

On board the air conditioned comfort of the double deck 18.08 from Bruges, we head back to Brussels.

To be continued when I return to Brussels at the end of August for the European Beer Bloggers Conference. #EBBC15

Part one here, part two here!

Saisons in the sun, part two. Brussels

At breakfast there’s a guy on the table next to us with four dissimilar mobile phones! Do you really need that many phones? I’ve heard what having two phones makes you, but four?  Could it be one to call his mum, one for his wife, another for his girlfriend, and the other?  Who knows……

After breakfast we make our way to the flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle and have a good wander round. There’s lots of eclectic stuff and a good mix of everything.  We could have stayed here for hours discovering all the little trinkets and oddities that are on offer.

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Chandelier spare parts, tools and beer glasses dotted about the place. Guys selling rugs laid on the floor for all to walk over, which was unfortunate and hardly fair when they’re being sold!

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After meandering through the stalls we take a refreshment break. A glass of Grimbergen Blonde, with its sweet, soft, yeasty, bananary tinged character offers up a good time to reflect on the previous few hours perusing.

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With the Grimbergen departed and after a further few hundred yards of energy expulsion, we plant ourselves outside La Brocante. Funky jazz band jamming we order up lunch and drinks.

My fruity wife decided she’d take a cherry beer and ended up with Kriek Boon which she was impressed with, but left her thirsty, not necessarily for more, but for water! I on the other hand had Delta from Belgian Beer Project. A Belgian IPA, the aroma of which is difficult to separate from the mix of food, coffee and surrounding cigars. Similar to a classic IPA but which has much more of a tang and yeasty character. It’s bitter but feels quite sour at the same time.

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Following this and preceeded by the words ‘excellent choice’ was a Westmalle Trappist Tripel, and I can’t see us moving for at least half an hour. My wife’s eyes shot out and brows hit the clouds when she saw it’s 9.5%. It is after all a fairly substantial beer for only 2pm. But then this has to be the most drinkable beer of this strength I’ve had the pleasure of drinking. I was so in awe of this beer that I completely forgot to fathom its taste; instead I just admired the creation that sat before me and settled right into it.

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Walking through the streets towards Place de la Chapelle Kapellemarkt, we come across two guys walking with a music box blasting out reggae tunes, who in England would probably be accused of being a nuisance, brighten up the light drizzle now descending upon us.

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After our Bob Marley moment we head back to the hotel stumble across the Leffe Cafe, but I receive the look that says no more beer, for now. I don’t mind though, a 2cv is spotted opposite so I take that instead.

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We head out for the evening, and no messing we head straight to Le Cirio; one of the oldest bars in Brussels. The Belgians are reknown for having a glass for each beer and here of all places is where they appear most proud. On display are glasses for almost every conceivable Belgian beer. It must be pretty hard work for a new employee to find their feet, or glasses as it were.

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Here I find myself getting acquainted with a nice blonde, a Ciney blonde in fact. Another Lambic is in order for my wife; much like a cherry tart this one.

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Sat people watching we see something drastically unsettle the couple opposite; both drinks are necked, one being a Westmalle Tripel too! Something has obviously bothered them and they’re off……

We are too, for dinner, but at a more leisurely pace.

To be continued in part three.

Part one here!

Saisons in the sun, part one. Eurostar. 


First experience of Eurostar? Having never traveled on it I was excited, but on arrival at check in at St Pancras I immediately lost all enthusiasm. Chaos doesn’t even come close to explain the organisation in place to check everybody through. The amount of baggage scanners is plentiful but then you’re guided, well you shuffle aimlessly towards two hardly noticeable entrances marking the passport check. Nobody has a clue what to do and a massive bottle neck is apparent. Surely the designers of the station could have come up with something slightly better. Is this really an improvement over Waterloo International?

All I can say is I was so glad to finally make it on to the platform, but to then only discover how ignorant some travelers can be. Stood blocking the platform with a combination of bags, trolleys, children and other shite. Honestly! I just want to get on the train!!!!

Facing backwards the English countryside makes my head spin. Would a beer counter this, or should I just look above into the overhead glass luggage rack and catch a sneaky reflected glimpse of what the person in front is reading? 

In the tunnel walking through the join between carriages is like walking through an airlock with only the noise of the articulated bogie below for comfort. 

We emerge in France, or at least I think we do, it doesn’t actually feel like we’ve left the UK. 

That is of course until Delphine announces our next stop which is Lille. 

The fields are the same, pylons and hay bails too. And I’m still going backwards, at what could only be described as ludicrous speed. I keep mistakenly wriggling my toes so as to prevent DVT; but I remind myself I’m not on a plane. 

Arriving in Brussels, now I know we’ve left the UK a long way behind.

To be continued….