Updated! CHFF's all-time beer tour
Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 16, 2008
Things got a little heavy around here last week, with the whole Spygate debacle dominating the headlines. It's like a car wreck: everyone says they're sick of the carnage, but nobody can turn away.
So, like a big-band maestro, a gridiron Glenn Miller of moodswing, we wanted to change the pace of life on Planet Pigskin. And, with really no compelling football news on the horizon until August – except for those who dabble in the speculation game – we offer a rare glimpse into the personal side of the Cold, Hard Football Facts and our other great love (surprise!), beer.
It's an area where our Chief Troll has plenty of expertise, so we asked him to put together a list of the 10 greatest beers he's ever had. No small feat, considering he's averaged about 10 beers by lunchtime since he was 16 years old. And it turns out he couldn't keep it to just 10.
What follows is a rare-for-the-CHFF first-person account of a life of conspicious consumption. And, it turns out, the Chief Troll used to leave the cardboard box quite a lot more than he does today. Drink up, folks! You got plenty of time to recover before kickoff.
The Chief Troll's 11 Greatest
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Sud Stud
When you tell someone your job entails (or used to entail) traveling the world drinking beer, they always have two questions: "Do you need an assistant?" and "What's your favorite beer?"
I don't need an assistant, thank you. However, pinning down your favorite pint is like naming your favorite child: I've loved them all equally. Yet some beers, some moments, stand out from the others, usually a combination of cool circumstances coupled with great brew. So, with that said, here are 11 beer and 11 beer-drinking moments that stand out from a hazy past of globe-trotting brewery excursions. They're numbered, but really appear in no particular order.
1. Beer & guns at a "schiesskeller" in Zurich
Americans have this image of the Swiss as these meek little yodeling cheesemakers afraid to take a side. The truth is that Switzerland is the most heavily armed nation in the world. They practice what they call "armed neutrality" and their take on their neutrality is that even Hitler was smart enough not to f*ck with them: every able-bodied man is in the active or reserve military, all the buildings have bomb shelters and rations, and mountains are filled with fortresses and cannons. Switzerland is ready for the Big One, folks, and when the dust settles only the cockroaches and the Swiss will survive. Certainly, they love their guns and love to shoot – a tradition handed down by national hero William Tell.
Since most Swiss are German speakers, they also love their beer.
One of the most unusual experiences of my beer-soaked life pre-CHFF was visiting a "schiesskeller" – a shooting cellar – with my buddy Mike, who was working in Zurich at the time. A schiesskeller is a barroom with a shooting range. I shit you not, friends of the Facts. They even had a play area for children. We walked in off the street and, with rudimentary German, rented a Glock 9MM and a couple clips. Mike and I went to the shooting range, through a door right behind the bar, where people were firing off everything from small pistols to military-grade automatic weapons. After we emptied the clips, we came back out, ordered a few beers and chatted up the bartender. He was Tibetan by birth but was adopted by a Swiss family as a child. After a few more beers we were great old buddies, so he handed us his own SIG Swiss Army rifle and a couple clips, on the house! We emptied those clips, came back out and had a few more beers.
(That's me, left, and Mike, with the Tibetan-Swiss bartender and real-live rifles in one hand and mugs of beer in the other. What a country! Later that day, Mike asked the bartender's family to adopt him, too.)
Honestly, I have no idea what kind of beer we drank that day (probably Huerlimann) – but we drank enough to catch a solid buzz. Whatever it was, I'll always remember hanging out in a true modern-day Mantown that makes your buddy's basement pool room a pink-lacy bitch-bin by comparison. God, I love those pesky little yodeling cheesemakers.
2. Pete's Wicked Ale at the Playboy Mansion, Beverly Hills
Back in my beer-writing days, I used to get invited to all kinds of fancy beer shin-digs. Usually, they're not worth attending.
But one invite stood out like a GQ cover model at a meeting of CHFF Trolls: Back in 2001, Pete's Wicked Ale was re-launching its product line, and they were hosting the bash at the Playboy Mansion. Sign me up!
With my, ahem, "business partners," the aforementioned Mike of schiesskeller fame and CHFF bon-vivant Frankie C., we made a whirlwind trip to La-La Land for the big bash. All the invitees met at UCLA to be bussed up to Hef's place in Beverly Hills. What a freak show: the dude has monkeys and exotic birds in his backyard, while the bathrooms were filled with condoms and jugs of Vaseline. We got to hang out and get photographs with the Bunnies in the famous Grotto and around the pad. (Frankie C. and I were also each about 50 pounds lighter back then, before the CHFF days, so we could walk around the place without the feelings of shame and loathing that haunt us when surrounded by hot women today.)
Sadly, the beer wasn't very good – do you ever drink Pete's Wicked Ale? – and the Playboy models were merely for show. As Frankie C. put it in his own inimitable way, "It wasn't the coke-fueled f*ck-fest I had hoped for."
But, hey, we could have been drinking Pete's Wicked Lighter Fluid and probably still would have made the trip.
The Lady Troll and I made a humanitarian trip to San Francisco several years ago, handing out soap and shaving kits to the filthy hippies who still infect the city like an old scab that won't heal. After fulfilling our duty to mankind, we visited the famous Anchor Brewery, one of the original American "craft breweries."
The Anchor folks were kind enough to give us a little tour, which included a look into its aromatic hop storehouse and at its cool old copper brewing equipment (most modern breweries use more modern stainless steel). Anchor Steam might be its best known beer, but Anchor Liberty Ale is the brewery's best beer: a highly hopped brew in the Northwest IPA style. And because hops taste best when fresh, the beer when sipped at the brewery taproom is mind-blowing: just a big, flowery aromatic beer with great bitterness. The Liberty Ale at Anchor was so good, in fact, that it kind of ruined me on drinking it anywhere else. Goddamned hippies.
4. Cantillon Gueuze at the Cantillon Brewery, Brussels
This is really a neat brewery, nothing more than a warehouse of sorts amid row-house apartments in a working-class Brussels neighborhood. It's also famous for a bit of old brewing technology: they have holes in the roof which allow natural yeasts and microflora to react with the unfermented beer, causing a process known as spontaneous fermentation. This is how beer was made for millennia before scientists learned about yeasts – which eat sugars to create alcohol. There are old oak casks lined along the wooden beams of the warehouse, most everything covered in dust and cobwebs – certainly not the pristine conditions of most modern breweries. But they don't want to disturb any of the indigenous yeasts that give the beer a distinct flavor that can be produced only at this brewery.
The spontaneously fermented beer is sour and they usually blend it with fruit to give it balance and create something called lambic. However, they also have something called gueuze, which is just the sour beer, old batches blended with young, to create a lot of carbonation, and it's my favorite. (It's the same process used to make champagne, which truly makes this the "champagne of beers" - sorry, Miller High Life fans.) Cantillon is just a little family brewery and when guests arrive the hosts, usually the owners themselves, pour beer for you into small wine glasses from corked, 750-milliter bottles they hold sideways in wicker baskets. There's really no place, and no other beer, like it in the world and drinking at Cantillon is like stepping back in time, into some sort of 17th-century brewhouse heaven.
5. Fuller's London Pride at The Hop Inn, Parliament, London
The folks from Fuller's Brewery were kind enough to invite me and a bunch of writers to London a few years ago. In the U.K., Fuller's beers are usually served from an old-fashioned cask via something called a hand-pump. The hand-pump draws the beer out of the cask without the aid of gas, so it's really got a smooth, pillowy texture. It's real old-fashioned-style beer like that made before CO2 was used to do everything and you really have to go to the U.K. to experience it.
The highlight of the trip was a visit to The Hop Inn, one of several pubs inside Parliament. Believe it or not, the seat of British government is filled with several pubs. In fact, when you walk through the back alleys of Parliament, there are empty beer barrels everywhere waiting to be returned. I've spent more than my fair share of time in pubs, and The Hop Inn is probably my favorite pub experience of all time. MP (a British congressman) Nigel Evans was our host, and we drank beer alongside British policy-makers and the working-class guys who maintain the famous building. The highlight of the visit was kicking back, deep inside the inner recesses of Parliament, with a big frothy pint of Fuller's London Pride (alway's one of my favorite beers) and chatting with an old Scottish veteran named Angus who was in the Normandy invasion. That was pretty f'in cool. (Another guy on the trip, a writer named Jack Curtin, said Angus was Australian. In either case, Curtin has a picture of me and Angus chatting. The short, stubby wrinkled dude is me ... the guy on the left is Angus.)
6. Orval at the Orval Abbey, Villers-devant-Orval, Belgium
There are five breweries in Belgium run by Trappist monks. Orval is my favorite, because it offers the most bitter, highly hopped of the Trappist beers. (Belgian beers tend to be lightly hopped). It's also served in this amazing, chunky gold-rimmed goblet. I had the great fortune of touring the brewery a few years ago. No monks around, though. They really don't care about publicity: Trappists around the world generally support themselves with an industrial trade, famously in brewing but often in food making. The monks of Orval already make enough beer to survive and apparently don't care to make anymore.
The brewery is part of this monastery behind a yellow stone wall at a bend in a leafy, rural road in the middle of the Ardennes Forest. We didn't drink at the monastery, as they had no tap room. So we stopped at the local pub, d'Auberge de l'ange Gardien (The House of the Guardian Angel), a few hundred feet up the road and drank Orval from its traditional gold-rimmed goblet, and tried the brewery's "table beer" – a weaker version of Orval – that the monks brew for their own consumption. I believe this little pub near the brewery is the only place in the world where you can get Orval table beer and the uniqueness of the opportunity – drinking world-class, Trappist-brewed beer, in an isolated stretch of the Belgian countryside near the French border – made it an experience to savor.
7. Lager at the Weihenstephan Brewery, Freising, Germany
Weihenstephan, in the city of Freising just north of Munich, has an amazing distinction: it's the world's oldest brewery, founded all the way back in 1040. To put that into perspective, it's older than Arlen Specter.
Along with the Lady Troll and my buddy Mike (of beer-and-gun fame), I visited Weihenstephan a few years ago and they gave us a tour of the brewery and the entire grounds. Like many Bavarian breweries, the world's oldest is located in a monastery, where the beer was once made by monks (it no longer is). The brewer these days stills lives there above the brewery with his family, giving it a real cozy, familial feel. Hop vineyards and colorful gardens surround the place (the Bavarians always have beautiful gardens) and you can drink inside this huge beer cellar or, as we did, outside in the beer garden shaded by chestnut trees while taking in the scenic Bavarian countryside.
Weihenstephan is also home to a major brewing academy and it has a yeast bank that sends yeast strains to breweries all over the world. If you had a German-style wheat beer made anywhere, there's a good chance the yeast used to make it was cultivated here. Weihenstephan is best known for those wheat beers. But my favorite is its Original Lager. It was awesome, sitting there in the spiritual home of the beer world, drinking golden, world-class lager while eating schnitzel and wurst at a place that's been brewing since the end of the Dark Ages.
8. Rauchbier at the Schlenkerla Tavern, Bamberg, Germany
The Bavarian city of Bamberg is the epicenter of the German brewing world. It's the home of about a dozen breweries, most several hundred years old. Bamberg breweries also produce a couple of unique, indigenous beer styles, such as kellerbier (cellar beer) and rauchbier (smoked beer). It's also the home of a famous malting house, Weyermann, that ships malts all over the world. Chances are, you've sampled a taste of Bamberg at some point in your life.
Schlenkerla is really the most distinct beer in Bamberg, and perhaps in the world. The malts are smoked with beechwood logs, giving it a robust smoky aroma and flavor. Many Bamberg breweries make rauchbier, but the beer at Schlenkerla is definitely the smokiest. Most people liken it to bacon the first time they try it. And who the hell doesn't like the smell or taste of bacon?
Schlenkerala Rauchbier is available in the U.S., and I use it a lot when cooking – most notably in the smoky venison chili that's my single greatest contribution to the tailgate world. But there's no comparing a bottle of Schlenkerla Rauchbier purchased in the U.S. to drinking it at the ancient Schlenkerla tavern in the middle of this, the largest existing Medieval city center in the world. They still pour the beer from wooden barrels propped up on the bar and into sturdy ceramic steins. It is probably the most enticingly aromatic pub or restaurant I've ever visited – the dark, smoky lager served alongside big plates of Bavarian meats, such as lebekase (a savory pork meatloaf), and pickled vegetables.
Mmm, I'm hungry ... which makes me think of ...
9. Beer for breakfast in the Viktualienmarkt, Munich
Given one place to eat and drink for the rest of my life, Bavaria would be the clear winner. When Americans think of stereoypical German icons – big steins of beer, pretzels, lederhosen, Oktoberfest – they're really thinking of "the Free State" of Bavaria, which was an independent country until 1871. Munich is the cultural capital of Bavaria and, other than that whole pesky home-of-the-Nazi-party thing, it's just awesome ... you get off the train at the city's main station (the Hauptbahnhof), for example, and you're greeted by stalls selling amazing fresh and smoked sausage, beer and oversized pretzels, all the iconic fare of Bavaria.
It gets only better from there. The center of the food world in Munich is the Viktualienmarkt – the "victuals market." It's basically a town square in the middle of the city filled with little beer halls, butcher shops, open-air cheese and produce stands, and plenty of places to sit, eat and drink.
I always visit the victuals market for a traditional Bavarian breakfast of weissewurst (white sausage, lightly flavored breakfast sausage spiced with tiny bits of onion and parsley) served with pretzel, mustard and, if you're in the mood – and I'm always in the mood – a big liter of helles (golden) lager from one of the local breweries. If you can think of a breakfast that better captures the heart of a Troll, I will leave my wife and, if necessary, my sexual orientation and marry you.
Weekends are the best: the square will be filled with local folks dressed up in their traditional Bavarian lederhosen and Tyrolian hats with big feather plumes, descending on the center of Munich for a hearty breakfast with beer. And who can blame them? When I die, I may have my ashes spread across the Viktualienmarkt.
10. Lager at the Augustiner Kloster Muelln, Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg is best known to Americans as the site of "The Sound of Music" and it's an absolutely stunning little city on the border of Bavaria. I couldn't recommend enough a long weekend in Mozart's hometown. There's a huge hill in the middle of town and on top is, you guessed it, a monastery, brewery, beer hall and beer garden. The monks, like that dude pictured here in the Augustiner beer garden, still run the place.
I'd really never heard of this place, but we ended up in Salzburg one day after a six-hour drive from Zurich, Switzerland. Stumbling upon this magical beer hall after a long day on the road was like, well, running through golden Alpine fields, singing majestic songs of joy. "The hills are alive ... !"
The beer here was absolutely spectacular: big liter steins of this heavily frothy, cool, bitter, unfiltered lager. The atmosphere was amazing, too: you can drink in the big noisy monastery beer hall, the outdoor beer garden, or cozy little booths where you and your friends can have some relative privacy. The place was mobbed the night we arrived, must have been thousands of people in there. So we grabbed some empty seats at the "Stammtisch" - a table reserved for locals. But the locals really didn't care and soon we were all fast friends. The best part, though, was when the barrel of beer ran out. These barrels are huge, probably 20 times the size of your average party keg. And they're made out of wood. But they just rolled out a new barrel, literally rolled it out into the serving area, and used a big wooden mallet to drive in the new tap. Beer sprayed everywhere and the party was back on. Wow, that was awesome brew.
Sometimes, late at night, the smell of the Augustiner beer, all sweet, bitter and sexy, wafts into my sleep ... and then I wake up and cry in my lonely, beer-less cardboard box, thousands of miles from Salzburg.
11. House lager at the Brasserie de L'Isle Saint-Louis, Paris
Paris is so beautiful it's hard to believe the French built it. It really is everything it's cracked up to be: an epic city of beautiful architecture and grand monuments, with great food and drink, awesome cafes and restaurants everywhere, and more tourist photo-opportunities per capita than any city in the world. Plus, I've had absolutely no problem with my friends, the Froggies.
I went to Normandy and Paris in 2004 for the 60th anniversary of D-Day and, whenever I travel in Europe, I wear college football T-shirts everywhere I go. You meet a lot of people that way, but I also scream "here comes a loud-mouthed American" from a mile away. Still, no problems. One day, wearing an Alabama T-shirt in Paris, I met five people from Alabama. That same day I also heard some guy barking at me – roof! roof-roof! – as I walked through the famous Tuilierie Garden across from the Louvre. I had heard this act before, once wearing an LSU T-shirt on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. So I turned around and said to the dude, "You must be a Georgia Bulldogs fans." Sure enough, he was. Then he lifted his left leg and pissed on my shirt.
Contrary to popular opinion, the French drink a lot of beer. All those French brasseries that snooty food people rave about? Well, brasserie is merely the French world for brewery. A brasserie was a place that made its own beer and served casual food – a brewpub, in American terminology. The Brasserie de l'Isle Saint-Louis is an awesome café in an absolutely stunning location in the center of the City of Light, on an island in the middle of the Seine River (the Isle Saint-Louis) just across a bridge that leads to the famous Notre Dame cathedral. They also served this amazing house lager (not sure where it was brewed, though). It was frothy, cold and bitter, and was served in these little German-style steins. The beer itself was awesome. But the whole experience made it one of the best beers I've ever had: sitting outdoors, snacking on French food, drinking Germanic beer and staring at the gothic spires of Notre Dame. The only thing missing was a view of Touchdown Jesus.
Also receiving votes:
Hofbrauhaus Lager atop Hitler's Eagles Nest, Berchtesgaden, Bavaria – Believe it or not, Hitler's Eagles Nest, his Bavarian Alpine mountain retreat built by the Nazi Party, has been turned into a Hofbrauhaus beer hall. You can sit where Hitler once stood in many famous photos, and drink lager from the world-famous Hofbrauhaus of Munich while sitting on the side of a dizzying mountain precipice. Tasty, intoxicating, and eerie all at once.
A pint in the Guinness tap room, Dublin – I've visited the Guinness brewery in Dublin many times, but had the honor one time of taking an individual tour with head brewer Fergal Murray. The best part? Murray poured a pint of Guinness for me from the tap the brewers use for their final quality-control check, right inside the kegging room. Doesn't get any fresher than that. And, no, it doesn't taste much different than it does in the States.
Duvel Ale at La Chaloupe D'Or cafe, Grand Place, Brussels - The Grande Place, the main central square of Brussels, is a stunning example of old Flemish architecture. La Chaloupe D'Or (the Golden Boot) is one of many cafes that line the square. It's a gorgeous room of rich golds and reds, where the beer is served in true Belgian style: with regal pomp and circumstance. Duvel is one of my favorite Belgian ales. And the first time I was in Brussels, I ordered one at the cafe patio late at night, while they played classical music and displayed a light show on the Old Town Hall, a weekly tradition in Brussels.
Oktoberfest, Munich - Really, something every beer-drinker should do once in their life. The beer ain't what it used to be: it's all pale golden lager with little character. There's much better beer around town. But it's like a big huge state fair, where beer and song (Anglo-American rock 'n roll, mostly) are the starring attraction. Too much sensory overload to describe in a couple sentences. Just go. You'll be glad you did. Unless you don't drink. In which case I suggest a glass of soda water in Salt Lake City.
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