All right, that’s it. I’ve had enough. I have to break free.
No, you’ll still find me wearing a mask when I’m out; I am merely talking about finding things to write about related to the lockdown. I need to talk about something else—while simultaneously looking forward to the future. What better way to do that than talk about where I would love to travel when everything has settled down?
Of course, beer is going to play an important part in deciding which places I choose—and I am accepting no limit to our imaginations. So grab your travel-size toiletries and your most-easily removable shoes, and come with me.
I’ll begin with the country whose beers changed my perception of what beer could be: Belgium. If you haven’t experienced Belgian beer outside of the parody of it called Stella Artois, I almost envy you in a strange way. For centuries, Trappist monks toiled to craft some of the most-refined ales in existence—and to this day, some of them still do. Saint-Sixtus of Westvleteren is an abbey that is widely considered to brew some of the finest beer on the planet. You can go to their visitor center and sample some beer, but most people pre-order it and pick up their limited supply in person. The Westvleteren 12 is their most-lauded ale. The 12 is Westvleteren’s quadrupel ale known as the “Belgian Burgundy,” and I’ve been lucky enough to sample it a handful of times. It is truly a work of art in a glass, and this would be toward the top of my wish list for visiting while there.
Then there is Brussels, where the beer cafés have shockingly good beer selections (both on tap and especially in bottles), with knowledgeable staff—and cuisine made with the beer itself. There’s also one of my favorite breweries on the planet located there: Brasserie Cantillon. Jean Van Roy is the brewer, and he creates some of the finest lambics (spontaneously fermented and often sour ales); they are incredibly difficult to get a hold of.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Podge’s Belgian Beer Tours, founded by a man (dubbed Podge, of course) from the United Kingdom and run currently by his wife, Siobhan McGinn, who is uniquely qualified to lead tours in Belgium.
“My late husband, Podge, and I wrote the definitive book on Belgian lambic beer Lambicland, and we are seen as experts on spontaneously fermented beer,” says McGinn.
There’s still another layer to this onion: “The other popular tours are Beer and Battlefields tours in Flanders, as I have a master’s degree in British First World War studies and my dissertation was on ‘Alcohol, Morale and Discipline in the British Army in Flanders in the First World War.’” As much as I adore lambics, I would have a very difficult time not going on one of the battlefield tours first. There are other tours as well. (“All our tours are individually designed and no two are exactly the same, but most popular is the LambicLand Revisted/Tour de Geuze tour every two years in May to coincide with the Tour de Geuze,” McGinn adds.)
Now that I’ve spent most of my column singing the praises of Belgium, I have the difficult task of listing some more places. At the risk of rankling ancient ire on many sides, I will combine Ireland and the United Kingdom for my next trip. I have long wanted to do a complete tour of the isles centered on beer, and there’s never been a better time. Both countries have been touched by the craft-beer movement, but my love for beer was kindled in part due to the old styles: the Irish dry stouts and reds, the various malty Scottish ales, and the highly drinkable cask ales and rich, aged barley wines of England. As much as possible, I would love to have a true pub experience that just cannot be had here in the States. It is worth mentioning that the newer craft breweries in both nations are making some brilliant beer as well—Porterhouse Brewing in Dublin and Beavertown Brewery in London are two whose quality for which I can vouch—but if I can get at some Samuel Smith on tap, I will be a happy boy.
Of course, there are many areas in North America where one can devote a whole visit to craft beer. San Diego is obvious and close, and has many areas within its county limits where one could devote a single trip. Portland, Ore., is equally obvious and packed with food and beer experiences to delight even the snobbiest of beer lovers. There are also Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, Tijuana, New York and Boston … and this fails to mention all of the jaunts that can be made to the breweries on the outskirts of major cities that have amazing rewards for those who make the effort.
I can easily go on, but I have reached the point where I am merely torturing myself by thinking of all the possibilities. I’ve described in past columns my two-month stay in Bavaria more than 20 years ago, and I would love another chance to visit and revisit some places not only in Bavaria, but throughout Germany—with a glass of Kölsch in Cologne, some Altbier in Frankfurt, and Rauchbier in Bamberg. One could also explore recent trends in craft beer in Berlin—and more.
Czechia would certainly fit into this picture, and then there are places with burgeoning craft-beer scenes like Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Australia … it’s all too much to type this out without going mad wishing I were there and not in my room.
One day, when I’m reveling in my luck that I reached any of these places, I will look back to this and smile, thinking, “It was all worth the wait.” Until then, I sign off from the safety of my computer desk—and hope to see it all on the other side of this ugly moment in history.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at email@example.com.