Friday, 24 October 2014


Just north of Pegnitz and south of Bayreuth in Franconia, Germany, there's a cluster of villages blessed with three brewery taverns. There used to be four, but sadly even the Franconian thirst for beer doesn't prevent small businesses going to the wall. They're linked by a waymarked hiking route called the Bierquellenwanderweg (beer source trail, translated literally). Those waymarks are pictures of beer mugs. Very pleasing. The 11 mile circular route crosses farms, pretty villages, rolling hills and forests. I did it last week.

I'd visited the first brewery on the trail - Brauerei Herold in Büchenbach - the day before, stopping there near the end of my walk from Pottenstein to Pegnitz, so left it until the end. I was keen to cover a little bit of distance before tucking in lest I abandon the whole exercise at the first pitstop. So it was straight on to Brauerei Grädl in Leups. I'd read descriptions of Grädl's dark beer online and it sounded really special.

The gasthof in Leups sits next to a separate building housing the brewery. That's not always the case in Franconia, where some breweries are so small they're under the same roof as the tavern. Two rooms decorated in an unflattering 1970s style are what you get inside. There's nothing to look at apart from other happy drinkers and the poor old landlord, bent double at the waist with a crippling back complaint. He struggled to pour beer (directly from an old-style barrel on the bar, incidentally). He struggled to bring it to people's tables, sometimes spilling some as he went. I still got my first jar quicker than I would in most pubs over here with four or five kids behind the ramp. Overstaffing is never a problem in Franconian pubs.

The pub was nearly full at 11am on a Saturday. The sun was coming in through the windows and spreading a warm glow across the few tables. There was no music. Conversation was hushed or non-existent. Noone was shouting their head off or enforcing their dull anecdotes on everyone else. The clientele was a mix between hikers and cyclists in their technical gear and middle-aged rural Franconians dressed in the way you would expect them to be. A little girl and her father got up to leave. She went to every table and knocked on the edge, catching everyone's eye and saying tschüss. The undemonstrative landlord smiled for the first time and ran his hand over her head as she skipped gleefully out the room. I later observed that this wasn't the charming habit of one gregarious child, but a convention in the pub: everyone did it as they left.

The beer arrived. Properly dark, just how I wanted it to be. The old boy's exertions at the barrel - his agonised posture meant he was pouring at the strangest angle you could imagine - had not been in vain, and the foam sat proud atop the glass. Now you expect there to be plenty hops in a Franconian dark beer, but some can disappoint. Not so here. Grassy, resinous, lovely. Raisins. Chestnuts. A lot going on, all quite distinct. What I remember most was the hard, flinty edge and the unexpected dry finish. I had four of them before pressing on north to the next brewery. But I already knew I'd had the best beer of my holiday. In truth, I think I'd had one of the best beers of my life.

I forgot to knock on all the tables and say goodbye to my fellow drinkers. Next time I go to Leups I'll get that bit right, and it'll be the perfect trip to the pub.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Let me try again

In my first year of writing about beer I was filled with enthusiasm for a topic that was then largely new not only to me but also to most others. Nobody knew what "craft beer" was. Harvey's Best was exotic. Beer was brown or yellow. CAMRA reigned supreme. If someone had tried to charge you £4.95 for a half you'd have probably been in a Soho clip joint with a scary bouncer and a young lady from a breakaway region of a former Soviet Republic gyrating in front of you with no clothes on. Since then the market in beer - and ideas about beer - changed dramatically and I've been busy running pubs. I haven't lost the passion but it's been hard to keep up.

As I never ceased to remind readers of this blog when I was in my (narcissistic and generally fractious) pomp, running a pub is about so much more than just beer. Real time off has been scarce, a problem that became particularly acute when I opened one new pub (the Finborough Arms) at the beginning of the year, and then went through the agonisingly slow and tortuous experience of selling the other (the Gunmakers) in the summer months.

On Friday 3rd of October when I finally threw the keys to the Gunmakers into the hands of the new owner (when my solicitor called to say the funds had flowed and we'd completed, I literally chucked them at him), the chance to take a proper holiday opened up for the first time in 18 months. That afternoon I toured old haunts in Clerkenwell - pubs I've written about here many year ago numerous times - with a group of pals. We all wrote ourselves off by early evening.

A week later, after tying up the inevitable loose ends involved in selling a business as a going concern to total strangers, I took off to Franconia. To the uninitiated, Franconia is a region of southern Germany with lots of small breweries producing often unusual brews (I doubt anyone who might end up reading this will be uninitiated, but there you have it). I first visited back in July 2007 - accompanied by Ron Pattinson, the world's foremost expert on London's brewing history - and wrote a pint-by-pint account on this blog.

This time I went on my Jack Jones to do some walking in what they call "the Franconian Switzerland" and visit a few of the more obscure breweries. There can be few experiences more relaxing than sitting in a quiet tavern in a tiny village after a long hike, drinking beer, thinking about pretty much nothing, without music or English voices to distract you.

Tomorrow's post: the best beer I had on the trip.

The photo is of me outside the Gunmakers about two hours before the sale went through, taken by noted conspiracy theorist and key crony Mothmun. I had in my hand what was intended to be my last pint of Harvey's at the Gunmakers. It turned into the first of half a dozen I drank while we - myself and the buyers - nervously waited for the solicitors to effect the sale. A load of regulars turned up and we actually emptied the cask, which was a bit awkward as the incomers had already paid me for the stock. Sorry about that, gents.

This is what I've written about. Click on a topic to bring up all the relevant posts.

Running a pub (133) Pub reviews (76) London life (70) Beer reviews (69) Beer travels (59) Beer festivals (49) Beer history (39) Czech beer (35) Beer and food (31) Brewery visits (31) Homebrewing (30) Italian beer (30) American beer (28) German beer (28) Wetherspoons (24) Belgian beer (20) Harvey's (19) Prague (19) Brew Dog (18) The Jerusalem Tavern (18) Beer and politics (17) Fullers (17) Great British Beer Festival (17) Wells and Young's (15) Anti-Social Beer Obsessives (14) Guinness (12) InBev (12) CAMRA (11) Cider (11) Greene King (11) Pub crawls (11) Samuel Smith's (11) St Peter's (11) Timothy Taylor (11) Bad marketing (10) British Guild of Beer Writers (10) Christmas 2008 Photography Contest (10) Irish beer (10) Mild (10) Smoking ban (10) Beer and art (9) Beer and music (9) Scottish and Newcastle (9) Sparklers (9) The Betsey Trotwood (9) Visions of Beer (9) Beer shops (8) Meantime (8) Stella Artois (8) Wine (8) Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa' (7) Morris dancing (7) Sharp's (7) Shepherd Neame (7) Stonch's Surveys (7) Anheuser-Busch (6) Carlsberg (6) Jarrow (6) Pitfield (6) Pub closures (6) St Albans (6) Taddington Moravka (6) The Lewes Arms (6) Beer and television (5) BrewCam (5) Liefmans (5) Oxford (5) Pilsner Urquell (5) St Austell (5) Staropramen (5) The Phantom Tramp (5) The Real Ale Twats (5) Batemans (4) Bier-Mania (4) Budvar (4) Gunmakers menu (4) Michael Jackson (4) Pub games (4) Purity Brewing (4) SIBA (4) South Shields (4) African beer (3) Ascot Ales (3) Bernard (3) Cambridge (3) Carling (3) Pub dogs (3) Sir Hiram Maxim (3) The London Beer Map (3) The Steamboat (3) Mead (2) Strippers in pubs (2) Bruges (1) Pubcos (1)