Friday, September 28, 2018

On the road again. Part I - Scotland

Aberdeen may not seem the most obvious of holiday destinations, and it isn’t, but I went there anyway. Aberdeen is a mid-sized city in North Eastern Scotland, on the edge of the highlands. It has a nice enough city centre, filled with granite buildings that have stood for centuries, it has a beach (though not normally beach weather), the Gordon Highlanders museum and a hand full of other diversions that can keep you busy for a day or so but, to be honest, unless you are really into your beer, there isn’t an awful lot to do in Aberdeen. I went there again because, as you know, I really like my craft beer, so I put the city at the start of my holiday. I have a small shareholding in a local brewery, a company called BrewDog, so I wanted to see how my money was being put to use and pay the brewery a visit.

Also of influence on my decision was a new game that the good people at BrewDog HQ had recently come up with. Earlier in the year they had introduced The Intergalactic Beer Visa. When you registered for the Beer Visa, you were sent a small, sky blue, passport-like booklet. Inside the booklet, there is a space for every bar and every brewery that is part of the company. There are currently 58 bars world wide, and 3 breweries, in places as far flung as Tokyo and Sao Paolo, but most of them are still in Great Britain. Every time you visit a bar, you get a stamp in your beer visa, and when you complete certain combinations (all bars in Aberdeen, all bars in Scotland etc.) you receive free beer and a Brewdog merchandise pack. It’s a fun game and good for business.
I decided that I wanted to complete all the bars in Scotland, so that’s where I started. I would make my way to the brewery in Ellon, outside Aberdeen and then travel to Glasgow by way of Dundee and Stirling. From Glasgow I would fly to Berlin, the centre piece of my holiday, for a 5 day stay and dig into the history of the place. Then I would make my way down to Prague, a city I had been to many years earlier, to see how it had changed, and then push on for Wroclaw in Poland for the sole reason that I had not been to Poland before and I wanted to see it.
My initial plan for this trip had been to go back to New York as it was 10 years ago since my first visit to New York and the USA, but I decided to move that to next spring as I had some things I wanted to do in Europe first.
And I really, really wanted to see Berlin.

Because of my New York plan, I had taken holidays from 5 September onwards. My idea was to get back to New York on 5 September, exactly 10 years to the day since my first visit.
Because of the Beer Visa game, I needed to visit both our breweries in Ellon, but the problem was that one of them, our new state of the art sour beer facility, is only open to the public on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I decided to fly to Aberdeen on a Thursday instead of Wednesday because, honestly, I really wouldn’t know what to do with myself in Aberdeen for 3 whole days. This left me with an extra free day in Dublin, a rare luxury because I generally only take days off when I have to go somewhere. I spent the day having lunch at my local craft beer bar, made a short tour of all my other regular haunts and went to bed early.

I arrived in Aberdeen on a sunny Thursday afternoon and went about my Aberdeen routine (yes, I have an Aberdeen routine, and am probably one of the few people who don’t live there that do)
I checked into the Sopranos hostel in the city centre, a nice and relatively cheap place that offers dormbeds for about 12 Pounds per night and went to the Brewdog bar on Castlegate. It’s a nice bar. It’s bigger than the other bar, on Gallowgate, and has a more extensive food menu. I walked in and the manager recognized me instantly. This surprised me, because the only times I had been there before were during the annual shareholders meeting weekend in April, which is by far their busiest weekend of the year. The Brewdog shareholders meeting, you see, is not your average shareholders meeting, where men in gray suits drone on over endless Powerpoint presentations with stats and graphs and other boring stuff. No, the Brewdog shareholders meeting takes place in the Aberdeen convention centre and has 150 beer taps, food trucks, live rock bands and a number of other beer-related activities. It is a great party and thousands of Brewdog shareholders from all over the world descend on the city from Thursday night on and go on a drinking binge that stretches into Monday. As the Castlegate bar opens at 11AM, that is where everybody usually starts out, so when I got there at 10.55AM, back in April, there were already about a dozen people at the door and it stayed busy all weekend. The manager climbed on the bar just after opening to welcome everybody to Aberdeen, but I must have stood out from the crowd, because he recognized me anyway, and we had a short chat about beer choices, Brewdog and the craft beer industry at large.

I settled in at a table in front of the bar and thought about the trip ahead. It wouldn’t be a pure overland trip, as I normally would do it. I had thought about going down the length of Britain from Glasgow and maybe stop off in London for a day or two and then make my way to Berlin by train, but it took too much time. And anyway, I had found a flight from Glasgow to Berlin for 31 Euro so this was just easier.
I sipped my beer and looked up photos of Berlin on my phone. I was loaded with anticipation. The wall, the radio tower, and a hundred other places I wanted to see. Rarely had I been so excited about going to a city. I looked up Prague too. I had been to Prague with school, many years ago, and was excited about returning there. I’ll fill you in on that first trip to Prague on the bus from Berlin. There is a lot to tell about that trip. And then there was Wroclaw. I knew next to nothing about the city, but I would read up on it on my way there.

I drowned my pint, got up and walked to our other bar, some 5 minutes up the road. It is much the smaller of the two, but it is always referred to as Flagship, because it was the first bar the company ever opened, back in 2010. I ordered a beer and got talking to the girl behind the bar. We talked about Brewdog, the recently released beers and working for Brewdog. I ordered another beer and told her that the pizza that had been sitting on the bar since I came in was getting cold. She said it was a mis-order and if I wanted, I could eat it. I happily accepted her offer and dug in. It was still warm so I praised myself lucky with a free dinner. It was coming up to dinner time anyway. The pizza was delicious.
After a few more beers - it is always good etiquette to order some more drinks after you receive something for free- I went on my way. I had more things to do. Another local brewer, Fierce Beer, had recently opened their first pub too, so I had to check it out. It was a nice place, around the corner from the Castlegate Brewdog bar. It was light, bright and served some very tasty beers.

After I had a few, I made my way to a bar called Krakatoa.
According to the bar’s promotional material, it was named Krakatoa after the volcano in Indonesia. When it erupted in 1883, the entire mountain collapsed leaving at least 36.000 people dead. It spat out so much dust, rock and ash that it caused an effect similar to a nuclear winter, lowering temperatures worldwide for years afterwards. The final eruption was heard 3000 miles away and it is said that it is the loudest noise in the history of mankind.
This, according to the bar, was their ambition: to be the loudest bar in Scotland.
This sounded like my kind of place so I made my way to the harbour, where the sun was just starting to set. And what a place it is.
It is, hang in there, a pirate themed, tiki cocktail karaoke dive bar and live music venue. I liked it instantly. The music was deafening, the drinkers all looked like characters, and the whole place was packed with neon signs. It was awesome. The only downside to the deafening volume of the jukebox was that it is difficult to strike up a conversation, especially when you travel alone, but I didn’t mind. I spent a happy couple of hours there before returning to the streets. I made a last stop at the Brewdog bar on Castlegate, where I stayed much longer than intended, and went to bed around midnight.

I awoke the next morning, surprisingly chirpy when you consider how much beer I had drank the previous night, but quite hungry. The hostel didn’t have a free breakfast because of the way it was set up. Normally, hostels offer you a simple breakfast in the morning, served in the common room or kitchen, which is included in the rate. Sopranos is not a typical hostel. It is also a hotel, a lunchroom and a bar. Because the hostel is just an add-on to the hotel, it doesn’t have a common room or kitchen where they can serve a breakfast. You can buy breakfast in the bar, but I decided to take up one of my favorite breakfast options: Wetherspoons.

Wetherspoons is the UK’s biggest pub chain and gets a lot of crap from people, who say that it’s a faceless corporate chain with no atmosphere. Most of this is true. It has over 900 pubs across the UK, there is never any music and the sound on the TVs is always off. People rarely spend an entire evening with their friends at a Wetherspoons because there is little or no atmosphere. The only time I ever spend an entire evening in one of their pubs was in 2011, when we were having Christmas at my sister’s place in Edinburgh. We had a number of people coming over, all at different times and from different places, so we needed somewhere central that was easy to find for people so we decided on a big Wetherspoons in the centre of Edinburgh. As soon as everyone got there, we got up and left. So no, they are not places that you would spend much time in, but that is not what they are for. They have many pubs in strategic locations close to, or in, public transport hubs, so if you’re waiting for a train you just pop in, get a pint and then leave again. I always go to Wetherspoons for breakfast when I’m in Scotland. They have cheap meals and a great selection of cask beers. I like cask beers, but they’re not really a thing here in Ireland. I always order a big greasy breakfast and a pint of cask ale with a curious name like Big Humdinger or Marley’s Great Northern Railway Bitter or something like that and for less than 6 Pounds I’m set for the morning. I did this now and forty minutes later I walked out a happy man.

As it was still early, I decided to go on a tour of the city centre. I walked around a couple of sights, had a look at the harbour in daylight and took some photos of the Castlegate monument. I walked into a shopping mall in search for an ATM, succeeded and went back out into the street. I walked past a bar called The Snuggery which appeared to be open for business so I had a look. They were open, but the lady in charge was clearly still getting the place ready for the day. She had the look on her face of someone who has been dealing with Scottish drunks their entire life. She looked weary, tired and old beyond her age. A lone drinker was at the bar drinking cider. The choice of beers was meagre, so I had a pint of Guinness. The other drinker had clearly been looking for someone to talk to because the bar lady was busy ferrying boxes and crates around and he addressed me immediately. After talking to him for 5 minutes about the usual topics as the weather, local politics and sports, he asked me what I did for a living. I explained to him what I do (I work in digital marketing for a large tech company) and gave him a long and detailed explanation of how everything works in that field. He clearly did not understand a single thing I told him, and after that he kept to himself. 

I was going to go to the brewery today, something I looked forward to, but it took some planning. The brewery, you see, is not in Aberdeen itself, but in the town of Ellon, some 15 miles to the North, and even then it is not in Ellon itself, but on an industrial estate outside of the town. Ellon itself has a population of about 9000 and mainly functions as on overflow town for the oil industry in Aberdeen. There are several bus lines that go to Ellon itself, and some of those go near the brewery, but none of them will drop you off right on the doorstep. I worked out all the options while sitting in the sunshine outside the bus station and decided to take bus 67 as that one seemed to be getting closest.
I whiled away a couple of hours by looking in shop windows, having a drink here and a snack there, and then went back to the bus station.

It took about 20 minutes to get to the Park&Ride area that was advised on the Brewdog website so I got off there. I had a look around. I could see the brewery. I could smell the malt that is always in the air around breweries. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get there. I had a look at Google maps, which showed a route, but there were no sidewalks and the road was a highway, so I spent 15 minutes traipsing through the grass on the side of the highway, but ultimately I got there. It really is quite a sizable brewery.

Brewdog has grown explosively over the past decade, from their start up days in a garage box in Fraserburgh to this big brewery in Ellon. Moreover, just a few months earlier, a new brewery was opened across the street which will specialise in sour beers and beers with spontaneous fermentation. Sour beer may not sound appealing to a lot of people, but they really are tasty once you get over the fact that they are not bitter, as beer is supposed to be, and there’s a wild variety in substyles within this section of the beer spectrum. As a shareholder, I am entitled to 2-for-1 tours around the brewery, but as I was on my own on this trip, I had decided not to do the tour and wait until the next time when I could put my perks to use.
With no tour on the agenda, all I had to do was check out the 2 bars. I walked past the famous wooden statue depicting the Brewdog logo and went inside. It really is quite a sizeable bar. Ofcourse, this being HQ, you would expect that. Booths are spread around the place, like in most Brewdog bars and there is a bar with 12 taps. This may not seem like a lot, but the stance is that HQ only serves Brewdog, and no guest beers, so that only our core range beers and whatever has come out of the brewery most recently is served on tap. The cool thing about the bar is that you can peek into the brewery to see how your beer is made. The beer is so fresh, it is unreal. After a few drinks, I walked across the street to the new sour beer brewery, called Overworks, which was now also open. I had a few more drinks there and then realised that I was pretty much done there. I had seen HQ, gotten my stamps, thereby completing the first assignment of the game, and I wasn’t hungry yet, so having dinner there was not necessary. I said goodbye to everyone there and made my way back to the bus stop. The rest of the evening in Aberdeen was largely uneventful, so I went home at a responsible time so that I could get up in the morning. My trip was off to a good start. Now it was time to do some light traveling.

This thing normally stands at HQ.

My next destination was Glasgow, but I would go there by way of Dundee and Stirling, so that I could get my stamps and finish my second assignment in the game. I looked at traintickets to Dundee, but thought they were insanely expensive, so I booked a Flixbus for half the price. With time to kill I had breakfast at Wetherspoons again and, before heading to the bus station, remembered that there was one more place I wanted to visit. 6 Degrees North, is another craft beer bar in Aberdeen city centre. I had been there in April, but that was late at night. The good thing about Scotland is that they have pretty cool licensing laws, especially when it comes to early openings. 6 Degrees North opened at 11AM so that gave me just enough time to have a beer or two before setting off South. When I approached the bar just after 11 and walked through the door, a large white dog started growling and walking towards me. I’m not a fan of dogs at the best of times, but I’m especially not fond of big dogs that growl at me at 11 in the morning. I stopped in my tracks but, fortunately, the girl who worked there emerged a second later and commanded the dog to go out the back which he did. What is it with dogs? Do they sense that you don’t like them and does that offend them? Are they just not nice, the first time they see you? I’ll never be a dog person.
The girl behind the bar was a lot friendlier than the dog and while we talked about her bar, the beer scene in Aberdeen and brewing in general, she let me taste a bunch of beers. I would have liked to have stayed beyond my 2 beers and chat, because she was friendly and liked talking about beer, but I had a bus to catch, she had a bar to run and, frankly, 2 days in Aberdeen is enough, really.
In Dundee, my only choir was visiting the Brewdog bar, which I did. The bar had just had a refurbishment at the start of the week and had only reopened the day before. It looked the part, but as I had never been there before the refurb, I had no idea how much of an improvement it was. After that, I took a train to Stirling and the ticket cost as much as the bus ticket from Aberdeen, which is a trip twice as long.

The British railway system is a bizarre and convoluted network, run by 20 different companies who all have their own rules, timetables and conditions. The ticketing system is so byzantine that even after long hours of research I have no idea how it works. Your ticket price is based on so many different factors that it is impossible to predict. Depending on the time of day, the operator, the stations the train stops, how many train changes you make and the number of operators involved, whether you want to get off between your starting point and final destination and a dozen other factors all chip in to your final ticket price. It is no wonder that everybody these days flies from Edinburgh or Newcastle when they have to go to London or Birmingham. I boarded the train to Stirling, performed my routine of going to the Brewdog bar, having a few beers and getting out of there, and boarded the train to Glasgow without buying a ticket because I was sick of this ticketing bullshit. 

Glasgow is an interesting city. Despite all the bad press it gets, it’s actually quite a nice place. Yes, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s a port city and they are always like that. The buildings in the city centre have a nice old feel to them and one of the main selling points, for me at least, is that the streets in the city centre are laid out on a grid system, which makes it much easier to get around. You typically see this in American cities like New York and Philadelphia, and not so much in Europe, but in Glasgow they had the foresight to organize the city centre like this. I like that. You always know where you are. Maybe the city planners were aware that their population is fond of a drink and wanted to make it easier for them to get home.
Well, fond of a drink is a bit of an understatement. There are few places I have been where people throw themselves at intoxication with such vigour. People in Glasgow really love getting wasted. This doesn’t always end well (just Google Glasgow and Buckfast and you’ll get an idea) but I like the city.

I checked into my hostel, which was large and had a noisy bar on the ground floor, and went into the city. It was Saturday night so it was busy everywhere. I first went to the Brewdog bar in Merchant City, a large bar with an extensive food menu. Again, somebody there recognised me, which was odd as this was the first time I was there but, apparently, I had spent some 10 minutes talking to him at the Brewdog shareholders meeting in Aberdeen earlier in the year. I had wanted to go bar hopping in Glasgow that night but, as I got talking to the staff and other beer enthousiasts present, I spent most of the night there. In the end, when I eventually walked out, it was past midnight and I decided to go to bed. In the morning I had something to do: I was going to visit another brewery.

In the morning, I had a hot shower and walked into the Sunday morning streets. Apart from a few early birds and a handfull of people swaying across the sidewalks, clearly still going from the night before, the streets were quite peaceful. One thing I noticed is that E-cigarettes are one of Glasgow’s leading industries these days. I walked 3 blocks and counted a dozen shops that sold nothing but e-liquids, vape pens and other assorted e-smoking parafernalia. I located my favorite breakfast pub, had breakfast and set out for the Drygate Brewery.

Drygate is a small brewery that stands in the shadow of the huge Wellpark brewery where Tennent’s, Scotlands best selling beer, is made. I checked my map and found that it was about a 20 minute walk, that I still had an hour before my tour started, and that the Brewdog bar I had spent most of the previous night in was on the way, so I decided to check in for a beer. As I had completed my first assignment on Friday, I was now also eligible to claim a free pint at any Brewdog bar of my choice so I decided this one was as good as any. I decided to try a new beer first, and while I was drinking this, a guy in surfing shorts and dreadlocks walked in. He looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t tell why. He was in discussion with the bar man about some free beer he was supposed to pick up there. The bar man couldn’t find it, and the guy with the dreadlocks then said that it might be in his stagename. When he said what that was, I knew it instantly- he was one of the people I know from the Brewdog message board. We had a chat and a beer, I proudly collected my free pint and after that, he had somewhere to be, and I had a brewery tour to do. 

I walked in to the Drygate brewery at 5 minutes to 1, asked about the tour in the shop and was told to go to the bar where we would be picked up for the tour. As I was planning to go to the bar anyway, this was a happy coincidence so I ordered a beer, read the menu and waited for the tour. As it is a small brewery, the tour didn’t involve much walking, there were only 2 or 3 rooms to get through, but it was entertaining nonetheless. The thing is, I have done dozens of brewery tours all over the world, so I know how a brewery works. They always ask more or less the same questions during the tour, and I always know all the answers so I usually let the rest of the group answer and only if no one else knows the answer, I’ll step in. The tour lasted about half an hour, and was quite entertaining, given the small size of the place. Well done. After the tour came, ofcourse, the most interesting part- tasting. We were all given a wooden board with 4 taster glasses of Drygate beer on it- a lager, an IPA, a Mango Pale Ale and a stout. They were all very nice, but I decided that the Mango Pale Ale, a beer called Disco Forklift Truck, was the winner. While the rest of my tour group, a couple of Spanish people, some Germans and a sole American, all dispersed, I stayed a bit longer to try some more beer. I liked this place. The staff were friendly, the beer was nice, the place looked cool. Yeah, this was definitely a place to remember for future visits to Glasgow. Glasgow is just across the sea from Dublin, so flights aren’t expensive and it’s a fun city to go to.

After a while, I decided that it was time to go, because there was one more thing I had to do in Scotland. There was one final Brewdog bar that I had to tick off to complete my second assignment in the game and I went there now. It was quite a hike, close to 3 miles, but I like walking and the weather was nice so I set off. When I was about halfway there, the weather changed like it only can in Scotland. In the space of 3 minutes, the sky changed from bright, sunny and late-summery to dark, menacing and full of black clouds. And then, ofcourse, it started raining. Thick, heavy rain, that soaks you to your skin within minutes. I tried walking close to the buildings, but as the rain came at an angle, they offered little protection. When I finally got there, I felt like a towel that had been thrown in the pool by an angry hotel guest. After 5 minutes under the hand dryer in the toilet, I felt somewhat dried up and presented myself at the bar. I received my beer and presented my stamp book. Proud, I told the barman that I was now a Flying Scotsman, having visited all the bars in Scotland. He high fived me and said that if I wanted my free pint, I should let him know. I would. It was quite busy, and I sat down at a table in the middle of the bar. I looked out the window and noticed that the rain had stopped and the sun came out from behind the clouds again, dropping that beautiful after-rain sunshine on the lawn and buildings in front of me. Only then did I realise what a beautiful view we had from this bar. Right across the street was the Kelvingrove Museum, a large, beautiful red sandstone building. I hadn’t noticed it when I came in because of the foul weather but now, with the sun shining out on the wet grass before it, it looked magnificent. What must it be to work here and have that view all day long? I had dinner there, and a few more beers, including my free pint for completing the second challenge and then decided to start the long trek back. I picked up a beer in a convenience store for the way back, because you haven’t really been to Glasgow unless you’ve been drinking in the street, stopped off for one more drink (okay..) at the Brewdog bar near my hostel and then went to bed with a light head, but full of anticipation. I would see Berlin tomorrow.

The Kelvingrove museum

Monday morning is a part of my week that I normally prefer to forget about. It’s a miserable place to be, normally. This Monday, however, I was up early, showered quickly, packed up my stuff and checked out. I still had 4 hours to go until my flight, but I just couldn’t sleep anymore. I walked around Glasgow for a long while, went for a final drink at the Brewdog bar in Merchant city, and had some macaroni and cheese by way of brunch and then headed to the airport.

Now before we go to Berlin, let me say that this, so far, was not the most exciting part of the story. I know it was mainly just Lennard going into a bar, and then another, and then a brewery, and then another bar. I am fully aware of that. I had a hard time writing something that was interesting to read and I even considered not publishing this at all, but I decided it was part of the trip so it should be part of the story.

To be honest, without the stamp game in place, I probably would not have gone to Scotland at all on this trip. Don’t get me wrong- I love Scotland, I love the people and their accents, I love Scottish beer and Scottish whisky, and I love the scenery.  The only problem is, I have been to Scotland so often, that it doesn’t feel like being on holiday anymore. When I walk down the streets of Edinburgh, I might as well be in Dublin or Rotterdam. It just looks so familiar, I know where everything is, and I can understand everything everybody says.
So once again, my apologies if this wasn’t the most interesting thing I ever wrote, but hang in there, things are about to get much, much more exciting.
I was going to Berlin.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

About the Beavertown Situation.

There is one story that has been keeping everybody in the craft beer world occupied over the last 3 weeks or so: Beavertown.
For those of you who are not really that in to craft beer, let me give you a bit of back ground- Beavertown started out in the kitchen of a barbecue restaurant in London called Duke’s in 2011. After first making beer to be served with the barbecue food in the restaurant, they later expanded to a full range of styles. In 2012, the brewery was beginning to sell so much beer that it was no longer practical to make it in the back of the restaurant so they moved production to a new, purpose built brewery in Hackney, East London. As the brewery grew further, it then moved to a bigger brewery in Tottenham, also in London, in 2014, where they would be comfortable for the next few years.
But Logan Plant, the founder and owner of Beavertown, is an ambitious man. He wanted an even bigger brewery, at the centre of a beer theme park that he wants to call Beaverworld. He also wanted to stay in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world for real estate, so he needed money. A LOT of money.

This brings us to the present day, and the story that has been keeping the craft beer world busy for the last few weeks. Rumours about Beavertown’s expansion plans had been doing the rounds on message boards and Facebook groups for a while, but Logan kept schtum. Every time he or Beavertown were asked directly if the rumours were true, he evaded the question with some throwaway remark or by saying he had no idea what everyone was talking about.
Then, on 22 June, the news finally got out: Beavertown had sold 49% of their company to Heineken.
This was bad news.
Heineken, you see, is one of the most hated companies in the craft beer world. The other one is AB-Inbev, the biggest brewery conglomerate in the world, a Brazilian/American/Belgian behemoth that sells beer in every corner of the world, most of it bland, flavorless lager.

Now let me first start by saying, that I repect everyone’s business decisions. Logan Plant built Beavertown from nothing so if he thinks this is best for the expansion of Beavertown, then it is his decision to make.
But the sale to Heineken is bad news in more ways than one. 

One of the first things that brought the rumours into the media, is Beavertown’s own festival. They organize a huge beer festival in London each year, called Beavertown Extravaganza, which is generally regarded as one of the best craft beer festivals in the world, surpassed only, perhaps, by Mikkeller’s Beer Celebration Copenhagen that takes place in May each year. 

One of the breweries who were invited to Beavertown’s festival, the legendary US brewery The Veil, had heard about the Heineken rumours and had asked Beavertown, first privately, then publicly, if the rumours were true. When Beavertown repeatedly refused to deny any deal involving Heineken, The Veil were the first to take action, and publicly proclaimed that they would no longer be attending the Beavertown Extravaganza. This was even before Beavertown officially announced the Heineken deal.
As soon as news of the Heineken deal went public, others started to follow in droves. Cloudwater from England and Scottish craft beer punks BrewDog were first out of the blocks, but many others soon followed. As it stands at the moment of writing, about half of the 90 breweries originally scheduled will no longer be attending as they do not wish to be associated with Heineken. Beavertown Extravaganza is about to collapse. 

There are more things happening though, as a result of the deal. Many craft breweries no longer wish to work with Beavertown. Many craft beer bars have publicly confirmed they will no longer sell Beavertown. My own local craft bar is owned by a brewery and they had recently made a collaboration brew with Beavertown. They will sell that beer as it had already been canned and kegged but once that’s gone.. No more Beavertown in any of their bars. And they are not alone. Again, BrewDog were quick out the blocks by announcing that their bars will no longer sell Beavertown beer. Many others have followed suit, so while Beavertown may now have a global distribution partner in Heineken, the craft beer heartland has excommunicated them.

There are 2 main questions that keep everybody busy:
1. Why sell to Heineken? Were there no other ways to finance this?
2. Why does everyone hate Heineken so much?

Let me explain this to you.

When you need a large amount of money in breweryland, there are typically 3 ways to get your hands on it: You can sell part of your company to another, bigger brewery with lots of money (say, Heineken), you can you can get money from an investment company, who usually want quick and substantial returns, or you can try to reach your target by crowd funding.
Most people immediately pointed at crowd funding. Yes, that was my idea too, but there are some issues with this. I am a shareholder in BrewDog. They have been doing crowdfunding for 9 years now and they have been extremely succesful with this way of financing. This, however, does not mean that this is the Golden Solution for everyone. BrewDog have, from the start, had a loyal following of shareholders, who have been invested in the company for a long time. Because of this, they have raked in large amounts of money without losing a crucial stake in the company. Another point worth noting in this is that BrewDog have their breweries in out-of-the-way places like Ellon in the North-East of Scotland and on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, in the USA. Had BrewDog want to build facilities in, say, London and New York City, they wouldn’t have been able to do this. The way they spend their money makes it go much further than when you insist on building a huge facility in the middle of London. So acquiring 40 Million Pounds (the amount Beavertown needed for their plans) is in no way guaranteed when you do a crowd funding round, especially because you are looking at a relatively small pool of potential investors, a lot of whom have already invested considerable stakes in companies like BrewDog. So crowdfunding probably wouldn’t have generated money to the level that Beavertown needed.

By far the dumbest remark on this subject I’ve heard, and I’ve heard it quite a number of times, is that Logan Plant should have simply asked his father for the money. His father, you see, is Robert Plant, the front man of legendary 70s rock band Led Zeppelin.
Yes, Robert Plant is immensely wealthy. If you do a quick Google search on the subject, you will find that most sources agree that he is worth around 170 million Dollars, which is an insane amount of money and probably more than anybody who reads this will ever have, even remotely. The thing is, even with this vast wealth, that doesn’t mean that he can simply give his son 40 million Pounds. That is about a third of his total net worth, a big chunk, and then, he doesn’t have all that money laying around in a warehouse, like Scrooge McDuck, so that Logan can just pull up in a Securicor truck and load it in.
Most of that money is tied up in assets like real estate and stocks and other investments. So, no, not even Robert Plant could have financed this out of his personal effects.
So now to the next point- why is everybody getting so worked up over this? There are other craft brewers that are part owned by bigger companies, and that doesn’t excite nearly as furious a reaction. Well, there are several points to this. First of all, it reminded everyone of the Lagunitas deal from a few years ago. Lagunitas announced that they had sold 49% of the company to Heineken, but they remained in control of the business, holding on to 51%. Guess what happened? With a year and a half of the original 49% deal, news got out that Heineken had acquired the remaining 51% and that Lagunitas was now a fully owned subsidiary of Heineken. Several leading experts in the craft beer world have already indicated that something similar will happen to Beavertown, because Heineken don’t do minority deals. It’s all or nothing.
Which brings us to the next problem. Heineken is a large multinational corporation whose main interest isn’t expanding the reach of craft beer, or making the best beer- it’s making as much profit as possible. There is one simple way for making more profits: cutting costs. And how do you cut costs? By using cheaper ingredients, or simplifying the production process.
There are numerous examples from the past where we have seen that Heineken bought a brewery and then started fucking around with the ingredients, the recipe and the production process. One that I quite clearly remember is when they bought Wieckse Witte, a small Dutch brewer of, mainly, traditional Belgian style witbier. It was always quite tasty, but when Heineken took over, within a year, they had changed the fermentation process, added artificial ingredients that made the beer cloudy (this was normally established by a natural process) and eventually the beer was a shadow of its former self. I could write a separate story about all the other shady business practices that Heineken has been involved in over the years, like countless huge fines for breaking competition laws, numerous lawsuits over bribery, and many, many other things, but there are 2 things that stand out mostly to craft beer people. First, they try to simply make it impossible for other brewers to exist. In the last few years, Heineken have bought several huge hop producers, and then promptly refused to sell hops to anyone else, even though they did not need all the hops themselves. If you’re a brewer, you must be able to buy hops, otherwise you simply can’t make your product. And then, on a more local scale, Heineken has an army of sales people who constantly pester pubs around the world, trying to convince them to remove other beers and replace them with Heineken product. One bar I drink in quite regularly all of a sudden got rid of their Budweiser and Carlsberg taps, and replaced them with additional Heineken taps. When I investigated this, I found that this happens all the time and pubs get offered discounts or free kegs of Heineken if they remove competing beers. They also constantly try to get craft beer taps removed and have them replaced by either former craft brands that are now owned by Heineken, or fake craft beers that Heineken invented.
See, buying up a brewery is one thing. Trying to make competitors’ lifes miserable is a whole other order of evil.

So what will the future bring for Beavertown? They will get access to a global distribution network through Heineken, but they’re shunned now by most of the craft beer community. Maybe we will soon see Gamma Ray (or what’s left of it) on taps around the world, from Times Square to Johannesburg to Hong Kong. Only the future can tell. The question is though.. What do you want as a craft brewer? Be present in every airport in the world with one or two beers, or make many interesting beers that may not be available everywhere? The overarching feeling in most of the craft beer world was the same: this one hurt.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The best burger in Ireland.

A few years ago, I set out to find the best fish&chips in Dublin. Though I never finished the project and didn’t publish my findings, I can tell you now that the best ones I’ve eaten were the Cajun fish&chips from Say Fish, a market stand that, luckily, sets up shop outside my office every Wednesday on the local food market, and the fish&chips from The Brew Dock on Amiens Street.
I tried about 10 different versions in different places and most of them were good, some of them very good, and one was somewhat below par as it tasted of frying oil that was past it’s best before date. I ignored several people who predicted that the choice would be between Bishoff’s and Burdock’s, 2 local fish&chips chains who divide the city in rivalling camps, but neither came close to the 2 winners I mentioned above. There was nothing wrong with either, but you can taste that it is made by and for a chain, while Say Fish and The Brew Dock are independents.

Looking for a new food-related project to sink my teeth in (sorry for the terrible pun), I considered burritos because I love them and there are a lot of different burrito places to choose from, but then I realised that I have already done this- you can read my reviews on Yelp and in any case, it was clear that Boojum would come out on top so there was no use in spending money and research time on doing this again.
When I recently found myself in Galway for St. Patrick’s Day, I was told by many people there that Caribou, a craft beer bar in the city centre, served the best burger in the city, and quite possibly in Ireland. I thought that was a bold statement and wanted to put it to the test. For several reasons, involving opening hours, transport schedules and St.Patrick’s Day, I never got around to eating it, but I’ll be back in Galway soon enough. There are several renowned burger places in Dublin too, and I recently saw videos on the culinary delights of Cork and Belfast, which both included burger places, so I decided that hamburgers would be the way to go. Over the next couple of months, I will be reporting regularly on the finest Ireland has to offer when it comes to burgers. I will rate each place on several criteria, such as offerings on the menu, drink selection, atmosphere and price, and then report back to you. When the contest is over, I will declare a winner and go back to that place to congratulate them.
I hope you enjoy the contest and give me a shout if you have any tips for great burger places in Ireland.



Friday, April 13, 2018

The Overland Experience, Part 1C

We reached the border near the town of Bregana, where an alternative border crossing routine was in place. All passengers had to get off the bus. Then the bus was searched and, when given the clear, the bus drove about 50 yards across the border. The passengers were all marched into the customs area where, one by one, we had our passports checked by a discerning guard and were then waved through. And so it was that, somewhere around noon on a blaring hot summer day, I walked into Slovenia.

Ljubljana, I am happy to tell you know, is a really cool city. It is full of cool bars, nice restaurants and lovely architecture. It is an amazing place yet somehow most people have never heard of it, never mind considered it as a holiday location. I had an amazing time there. My hostel was smack bang in the middle of the main street in the centre of the city, the weather was fantastic, not a cloud in sight and 38 degrees, and, well, everybody just seemed so happy.
I don’t want to drag you back in to the war again, but Slovenia had a relatively easy break from Yugoslavia. When Slovenia declared independence, the Serbian army wasn’t happy with it, but there wasn’t much they could do about it- the only way from Serbia to Slovenia is going through Croatia, which Croatia wouldn’t allow. In comparison to the other republics, Slovenia’s independence passed without any notable fighting, apart from a famous incident with a Serbian helicopter that was shot out of the sky, and only about a dozen fatalities were noted in the whole process. In the end, Serbia effectively just said ‘Meh’ and focused on their minority populations in Croatia and Bosnia. 

Ljubljana in summer

Present day Slovenia, as I said, is a lovely place. I spent a happy couple of days in Ljubljana walking from one bar to the next, sitting in the sun, and keeping myself cooled with cheap pints of beer and some of the best ice cream I have ever eaten. Oh yeah, the ice cream is amazing. I’m not sure if it’s because of its proximity to Italy, but if you are ever in the area, get some ice cream. It’s top. 
I also had a horse meat burger at a stand in the city’s main park, which was funny because around the same time, our neighbors in England were in all states over the presence of small amounts of horse meat in what was supposed to be beef. In Slovenia, they proudly passed it off as a national delicacy.

Before we continue on to our final destination on this trip, there is one more place that deserves a mention: Metelkova.
Metelkova is an old army-barracks-turned-squatter-compound, right in the middle of Ljubljana. Like most squatter sites, it has a music venue, an art gallery, a bar that is only open in the evening and some other low-impact business ventures. There was also a hostel where you could sleep if you were done partying. The thing with traveling squatters is though, they never have any money so they would basically try to sleep on the doorstep of the hostel which resulted in members of staff actively patrolling the site and waking up any sleeping hippies and removing them and their dogs-on-ropes from the premises. The hostel also had a bar, so I sat in the garden for a while, enjoying the sunshine and cheap cold beer. In the evening, the other bar on the site had a ska all nighter, and those are always great. The whole compound was full of people who were dancing, smoking and drinking the night away. It was great and, as the bar sold large cans of beer for a Euro, I had an excellent night and went back to my hostel somewhere beyond midnight.
I had to get some sleep because the next morning it would be time for the most gruelling part of the trip yet: a 10 hour train journey to Budapest.
Seriously- visit Ljubljana, it is one of the most underrated cities in Europe.

Metelkova in the Sun

I arrived at Ljubljana’s main rail station with a heavy back pack in 35 degree weather. This was at 9 in the morning. I bought 3 large bottles of water from the shop in the station’s main concourse and made for the platform. I had secretly hoped for some sort of catering facility in the train, where fresh cut sandwiches and cold beer were on sale. I should have checked my head. The train was an old Warsaw Pact era train that, at a guess, had come into service around the time that Leonid Brezhnev was carried out of the Kremlin in a coffin. The seats were uncomfortable and the train was partioned in 6-seater cabins. There was no air conditioning, only 2 toilets in the entire train and there was no possibility to purchase anything to eat or drink.

We set off at a reasonable pace, which was a good sign, but the further we got from Ljubljana, the more we were subject to unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere. Every time we picked up speed, the train would slow down somewhere in the middle of a field, come to a complete stop, sit there for 5 or 10 minutes and then come to life again. On some occasions, a train from the opposite direction came flying past, which made the stops logical, but most of the time we just sat there, surrounded by miles of corn, only to get going again without any other trains passing by. It took forever. I shared a compartment with an English guy who was kind enough to give me a cold can of beer some 2 hours into the journey and we spent some time talking about football and travelling. As we progressed towards the Hungarian border, it got warmer and warmer. Sitting in this old metal tube without air conditioning, everybody was sweating like they were running a marathon in a desert. All of a sudden, I was very happy to have carried all those heavy water bottles on board.

When we crossed into Hungary, the random stops increased and people on the train got really annoyed with all these delays. I was sick of the train by now too, but I just put my head down and read my book. Normally, on a long train journey, there are numerous stops, so you can keep your sanity by crossing of the number of stations and working towards zero, which will calm you down a bit, as you know there are only 10, 9, 8.. stops to go. With only 3 stops on this entire journey, there was no way of telling how far there was still to go, and how long it would take. It was torture. Some 6 hours into the trip, a couple of Aussies from the next carriage came walking down our corridor. They, too, had expected at least some sort of basic catering facilities but ofcourse there weren’t any so now all 4 of them had run out of water. I checked my own stash and offered them some water from one of my bottles, for which they thanked my profusely. I didn’t want to run out of water myself before we got to Budapest, but I also didn’t want to see my fellow train convicts pass out from dehydration.

When you’re on the road and things don’t go as you wish they would, there are 2 things you can do: you can annoy yourself to a point of implosion and get angry, but that won’t get you anywhere. The train or bus won’t go any faster, air conditioning or catering won’t magically appear out of thin air, and the train staff, if you can find any, will ignore you anyway. No, the better thing to do is to either go and read something and hope that time passes by quicker, or try to have fun with your fellow travellers. They’re in the same boat as you and they’re not going anywhere. As time went on, people started to make jokes about the state of the train and the boring lay out of the Hungarian country side. The train itself was first renamed The Midnight Express, after the 1980s prison movie, but also quite possibly because of our expected arrival time in Budapest, and then someone came up with Dachau Express which was a bit dark, but sometimes you have to make dark jokes to keep the spirits up. 

Our train was like this, just longer

At long last, and with the sun starting to sink towards the horizon, someone noted some buildings in the distance. A wave of anticipation surged through the train and after a couple of minutes, someone who had managed to get a cell phone signal came walking down the corridor with the news we all had been waiting for: we had reached the first commuter towns on the outskirts of Budapest. You could see the relief on everyone’s face. I discarded my empty water bottles under the seat, and saw that I only had about 6 fingers of water left in my last bottle. I had planned well.
Some 30 minutes later, the train pulled into the station and we all jumped out of the merciless heat of the train and into the soggy summer night of Budapest. I have never been so glad to get off a train. I walked to the nearest shop and bought 2 new bottles of water. My water from earlier that day was so warm that you could easily have made a passable cup of tea from it, so I threw the bottle in a bin and sat down with my new, cold, delicious water. I drank the first bottle in 2 gulps and it tasted like heaven.
After drinking some more from my second bottle, I got up. I still had half an hour on the subway ahead of me and despite my desire not to board a train again, I knew I had to.

I arrived at my hostel around 8.30 in the evening. The sun had sunk behind the buildings of central Budapest, but the heat was still unbelievable. An electronic clock outside a pharmacy informed me that it was 40 degrees. After I checked in, I lay down on my bed. The heat was stiffling. I contemplated just going to sleep, as I was exhausted from the train marathon, but I had just arrived in an exciting new city and didn’t want to go to sleep at 9 on a Saturday night. After some time, I got up, turned on the shower and washed my upper body with cold water. Any seasoned traveller will tell you that cold showers are not the cure for extreme heat, and I knew that from earlier in the trip in Slovenia, but I didn’t care. I just needed to cool down a bit, even if for only a few minutes. After my cold water bath, I went downstairs and had a cold beer in the common room, and damn it tasted good. Revitalised by the cold water and beer, and the fact that the temperature had dipped below 40, even if only marginally, I set out to get something to eat. As there had not been any catering facilities on the train, I had kept myself fed with snack food, and I could really use something solid. 

I walked around the slowly darkening streets of Budapest, where people were just starting their Saturday night out. One thing that stood out immediately, apart from couples holding hands, were the touts trying to persuade you to buy something from them. It didn’t matter what they sold, and they sold literally everything, from rugs to tea pots to leather vests, they were convinced that you needed one in your life and that theirs was the best in the city, if not the world. Normally, these people shout at you from their shop’s doorway or a chair in front of it, but here they actively chased you and tapped you on the shoulder as you passed by. It had the vibe of a Moroccan souk rather than a European capital. It was quite exhausting, especially in this weather and after a long day on a hot train. After a while, I arrived at a square that had restaurants all around it, and after some cautionary inspection, I sat down at an Italian place and ordered the largest beer they had. I took a big gulp, while the waiter scurried off to get the menu and some bread and, when he came back 5 minutes later, my beer was empty and I ordered another one. An hour, 4 pints of beer, a pizza and a basket of bread later, I was sufficiently nourished and all of a sudden very tired. I decided to call it a night and try to get some sleep.

On my way back to the hostel, I was accosted by another tout, but this one wasn’t hawking carpets or replica football jerseys. He was selling sex. He pushed a hastily designed flyer in my hand, on which a badly drawn woman was doing an exotic dance. He started his spiel with “You like pretty girls yeah?”, but I cut him off straight away and told him I was not interested in his titty bar. He kept going while walking alongside me, undeterred by my obvious disinterest in his product. “Beautiful girls! You come to my bar. First beer on house!” When I again told him I was not interested, not even at the prospect of free drink, he threw his Hail Mary play at me and proclaimed “Most beautiful girls in country! Will have sex with you! 20 Euro!” I stopped in my tracks, which made his eyes brighten up.

“So these girls are really pretty?”
- YES!
“And they’ll have sex for 20 Euros, right?”
- YES!
“And they’re really hot yeah, you’re sure about that?”
- YES! Absolutely!
“Why don’t you go fuck them yourself then?”

This shut him up, and while I meandered off into the night, he stood there on the street, not knowing what to do. Sometimes, being polite is not the answer and you just have to be the bigger asshole.
I stopped off at a small bar near the hostel, had a victory beer and then went to bed, exhausted but satisfied.

I love heat, don’t get me wrong. That is why I usually go to places where it is warm, but there are limits to enjoying the heat. Throughout this trip, the temperature had been going up slowly but steadily, from a lovely Mediterranean 28 degrees in Dubrovnik, through a pretty sweltering 35 in Sarajevo to a tropical 38 in Ljubljana. Here in Budapest, I reached the limits of what I can take. On Sunday, the temperature already hit 38 degrees by mid morning. I made a circuit of the sites in the city, walked the monumental bridge across the Danube, and decided to climb the hills on the other side of the river in the part of the city called Pest (Budapest was originally 2 cities, one called Buda and one called Pest, and eventually, as the parts merged together, they simply put the names together, which is how we arrived at Budapest.). I aborted my hill climbing mission after about 5 minutes because it was way too warm to climb anything other than a deck chair, and because climbing narrow paths on steep hills is not exactly an enjoyable activity for someone with vertigo. I made my way back down to the city and had a beer in an airconditioned pub. I’m still undecided on what was better- the ice cold beer or the airconditioning.

One of the things I had planned to do when I was planning the trip, was visit the Budapest subway museum. As most of you know, I am a sucker for trains and I love hearing and reading about the history of transport systems. As I made my way to the museum, it suddenly occurred to me that this excursion had another advantage in this murderous heat: the museum is built into an old disused subway tunnel, which meant it was underground and, therefore, cool. Tickets were sold from the original 19th century booth that had sold the first tickets when the subway opened in 1896 and I spent a happy hour and a half checking out the exhibitions and reading the cards next to old yellowed photos. The Budapest subway is the oldest in Europe, so there was a lot of history to go through. Perhaps the most interesting part was an overview of the items that had come through the Lost&Found department over the past century or so. Apart from obvious things like mobile phones, umbrellas and gloves, there was an array of items you would not think people would leave behind. There were, among many, many other things, a prosthetic leg, a sword and a huge, stadium size football banner that was left behind in a train when riots broke out between 2 rivaling supporters groups after a particularly contentious derby match. It was quite captivating.

As I walked back into the heat, I decided there was one more thing I wanted to do. Like in Sarajevo, Budapest is home to a Celtic supporters pub. I made my way there now and when I walked in, I found a sweaty teenage kid behind the bar. He gave me a beer, remarked on the Celtic jersey I was wearing and then walked into the kitchen. I heard him fumble out the back door and 3 minutes later he emerged with sweat rolling from his head. “Check this out” he said, while he handed me a thermometer he had taken off the garden wall out back. It read 43 degrees Celsius.
To this day, this was the hottest day of my life and it is about as much as I can take.

I chatted with the kid for a while, ordered another beer, and then he went back into the kitchen. Just as I was trying to work out who had let a kid in charge of the pub, the front door opened behind me, and a thick Scottish accent proclaimed “Ah, now there’s a well dressed man!” I turned around to find a man with graying hair in his late 40s, who was carrying some supplies. He put his boxes down, shook my hand and gave me a beer on the house. He explained the story behind the pub: at some point, years earlier, he had met a Hungarian girl, back in Scotland, they had begun dating, got married and when the opportunity arose, they had moved to Budapest and opened a pub. His wife was at a trade fair today, and the kid behind the bar was their son. It all made sense now. We spent some time talking about Scottish football, life in Hungary and drinking in general.

After an hour or so, his wife came in, back early from the convention, carrying a box full of bottles. While she was unpacking her box, she told her side of the story and how it came that we were now all in their pub in Budapest. After she had emptied the box, she held up a bottle to me and asked if I knew the brand. I had a look at it and found it was a *very* expensive 34 year old Scottish single malt whisky. I said it looked great and without any fuss, she opened the bottle, poured 4 fingers and put it on the bar in front of me. “Enjoy!” she said and walked into the kitchen. You know how people sometimes say that strangers can be unexpectedly generous? This was one of those occasions. If I had ordered this drink in Dublin, it would have cost 30 Euros a shot at the very least. Here I was given a more-than-double measure of it as a thank you for showing up. It was amazing, both the gesture and the drink.
I stayed there for a few more beers, enjoying my time with my new friends, but towards the end of the afternoon I decided it was time to leave. I walked around Budapest for a bit more and then decided to head back to the hostel for some relaxation. When I got there and had a few beers, I decided I was going to stay in for the night. There weren’t any sites left I wanted to see, the heat was stifling outside and I reached the conclusion that I would be happy to just while away the night in the hostel, drinking beers with my fellow travellers, so that is just what I did.

And so my trip ended. I had travelled some 1300 overland kilometres in 11 days, visited 4 new countries, crossed a dozen borders, about half of them involving Croatia, ticked an item off my bucket list that had been there since my early childhood, and had had an altogether amazing trip.

The Balkans have a troubled history, with a number of nasty conflicts, but it really is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Apart from the amazing natural beauty, the food is fantastic, the people are friendly, the beer is cheap and the weather, at least in summer, is spectacular.
But don’t take my word for it. Go check it out for yourself.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Overland Experience, part 1B

The weather in Sarajevo was amazing. A large electric clock on a building indicated 35 degrees Celsius, there was a slight breeze and I sat down on a metal bench at the tram stop a happy man. After some 10 minutes a girl walked up, put her backpack against the shelter and asked me if I knew when the tram would come. She was Australian. We talked about our trips for 10 minutes or so, but there was still no tram. An older local man had been sitting in the tram shelter since before I had arrived so I walked over and asked him if he knew when the tram would be coming. He lifted a finger and said ‘No tram!’. “No tram?” I asked, and he knodded. ‘No tram. Riots in city centre.’
This was great. I do not wish war on anybody but a small scale riot would only add to the intrigue that surrounds Sarajevo. I thanked him and went back to my new Aussie friend to tell her the news. She dug up one of those doorstopper Lonely Planet guides for the whole of Europe, put it under her arm, said goodbye and walked off in the opposite direction of where I thought I had to go. I went in the direction where the old man had indicated the riot was, full of excitement. Sarajevo had already delivered within the hour.
As it turned out, the riots at city hall were more a protest that had been dispersed by the police with a minimum of fuzz than an actual full scale riot, and a few people with protest sign were still lingering around, but all the action had gone. I made it to my hostel without any problems, checked in and went for a walk around the city. What an amazing place this was. Because of its ethnic diversity, it really is a city that changes every time you walk around the corner. You can find yourself standing in front of a huge mosque, then find a Catholic church across the street, next to which there is a noisy Irish pub with people drinking beer and whiskey on the sidewalk. I spent the first day getting to know the city. I found that, likely because it is not on the main tourist trail, Sarajevo is cheap. A pint of beer set me back about EUR1,50 in a pub, a 3 course meal was about 8 Euro and when I went to get a slice of pizza as a mid-afternoon snack, I found that the 2 Euros they advertised was not for a slice but for an entire 12” pizza. I spent the next half hour in a park eating my pizza while watching elderly man play chess on the nearby tables. The pizza was delicious, by the way.

Image result for sarajevo

My second day in Sarajevo, I went to the market which, during the war, had been the scene of several horrible mortar attacks, and also managed to find a brewery. There were no tours on the day, this was more a production facility than a tourist attraction, but they did have a beautiful tap room where I spent a couple of hours trying their beers and having an excellent dinner (which, again, only cost me a couple of Euros). When I had checked in at the hostel, the receptionist, upon finding that I came from Ireland, had pointed at a map and said ‘Celtic bar’. I assumed that he meant ‘Irish Bar’ which is not really what I had come all this way to see. As it happened, I walked by the place later in the day and decided to have a look. The receptionist had been right. For some reason, in a largely muslim city, a place about as far removed from Scottish football culture as possible in Europe, there was a dedicated Glasgow Celtic supporters pub. It had a Celtic crest above the archway that lead to the pub further down an alley. When I got to the pub, I found that the place was full of signed jerseys and photos of Celtic teams past and present, and all staff wore kilts and polo shirts with a Celtic logo on it. It was so weird to find that in a place like this. As it happened, I was wearing my Celtic jersey on the account of it being 35 degrees and football jerseys tend to be good for taking in sweat. Upon seeing an actual Celtic supporter, from Ireland nonetheless, I was welcomed like a long lost son and given many free beers. What a strange experience this was.

At some point in late afternoon, I remembered that I had one more choir to take care of for the day and that was booking the next leg of my journey. I went to the local Eurolines office to get it sorted. Eurolines is loosely aligned collective of local buscompanies that somehow manages to have a central planning office that allows travellers looking to cross Europe on the cheap to go from one place to the next and then decide where to go after that. They have offices in the most out of the way places and whenever you travel somewhere, you can normally rely on Eurolines to get you where you want to go. (Service is better in some places than others though, as I found out a few years later when, while trying to cross the border between Lithuania and Belarus, the driver decided that all this passport checking took up too much of his time and he drove off, leaving me and a few others stranded at the border in a blizard, surrounded by mean looking soldiers with machine guns).
My choir for the day over, I sat down outside a cafe with a cold beer and decided to take it easy. I had one more site to visit tomorrow but for the rest of the day, I had nothing on the agenda. I spent the remainder of the daylight hours drinking in the sun and then went back to the hostel to see if anything was happening. There was. It was cheese and wine night. A table in the main room had been filled with bottles of local wine and plates of cheese, crackers and other snack foods. It was paid for by the tip jar in reception so I put about 3 bottles of wine worth of Bosnian money in it and got stuck in. As the night wore on, the wine kept flowing. Every time a bottle was empty, it was dilligently replaced by a member of staff, and a great night was had by all. At around midnight, the wine ran out and most people called it a day. I decided to have a nocturnal walk around Sarajevo one more time. By this time tomorrow, I would be on my way to Croatia once again. I also realised that the easy part of the trip was over. Up till now, it had been easy. 2 hours here, 3 hours there, no problem. From Sarajevo to Zagreb would be a 10 hour overnight bus trip, which would be followed by another 3 hours through to Ljublijana, after a 3 hour layover in Zagreb. I walked around Sarajevo by night one more time, had a drink here and another one there, and went to bed a happy and really drunk man.

Image result for wine and cheese

The next morning I was up early, despite the 3 bottles of wine and 12 or so pints of beer I had consumed the day before. It was my last day in Sarajevo and I still had one very important thing to do: visit the Olympic stadium. The stadium and most of the other Olympic locations were a 20 minute walk North of the city centre. I set off early to make the most of my last day here. Tonight at 10, I would take the bus to Zagreb. On my way North, I passed a curious work of art. It looked like a giant soup can on a stone plint. I looked at it for a while and found, when I walked around it, that it was actually a can of beef. The monument had been erected by the local population as a thank you to the UN and other international organisations for food drops organised during the siege of Sarajevo during the war. I thought this was odd, and after I took a few photos, I went on my way.
When I did some research later, when I got home, I found that it was actually a wry joke as much of the food that had been dropped during the siege was past the Best Before date, with some of it even dating back to the end of the Vietnam war, and that some of it had contained pork, which obviously isn’t very useful in a city where the majority of the population is muslim. I continued uphill to the former Olympic park and arrived there in mid morning under an overcast sky. Though the clouds obscured the sun, it was still in the mid 30s, so I arrived at the stadium with sweat pouring down my back.
One of the big issues with organising an Olympic Games is that, after the games, the host city is left with a whole lot of expensive infrastructure that is essentially useless now. Some things are easy to re-purpose. The Olympic Village, more often than not, is turned into student housing, and swimming pools usually find some sort of use too. But what do you do with a 50.000 seater athletics stadium?

The main stadium in Sarajevo, I am happy to announce, is still in use. Local football team FK Sarajevo, when in need of a new home ground, took up the offer of playing in the Olympic stadium so I’m glad to see it put to good use.
This was clear on the outside of the stadium when I approached. It is covered in graffiti depicting club heroes, historic moments and, inevitably in a place like Sarajevo, political leanings. After making a circuit of the stadium, I was now faced with my next challenge: how to get in.

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I had not expected there to be organised tours or anything like it, and there weren’t, but there was surprisingly little activity around the stadium. I have been to many stadiums, and I live next to one, but no matter what time of day, there is always something going on; deliveries, maintenance, tour groups, you name it. Here in Sarajevo, it was deserted. I had not come all this way just to look at the graffit on the outer walls. Just as I was about to finish my first lap around, passing behind the main stand, where the Olympic flame had been situated (the cauldron is still there) I noticed that some sort of service entrance was half open. I decided to give it a go. I pushed the door open and found myself at the start of a dark passage way. In the distance, I saw a faint light, so I moved towards it. After some 30 yards, the light became brighter and when I turned a corner, I found a local handy man who was trying to fix a door, illuminated only by the beam of a flashlight. When he noticed me, he wasn’t startled or anything, just looked at me quizically. I asked him if there were any tours, which I knew there weren’t but I hoped he would understand that I was a tourist because of that. He lifted his index finger and indicated with his arm that I should follow him. We went into another passage way and a little while later, some light began to appear in the distance. We turned around a corner, he pointed ahead and said ‘There’ and then went back to his chore. I went in the direction of the light and 15 seconds later, I walked up a couple of steps, into the light and found myself on the pitch side athletics track. After looking around dumbfounded for about half a minute, I realised I had the entire stadium to myself. There wasn’t a soul around. This was unbelievable! I had secretly hoped that I would be let in to have a quick peek inside, but this was beyond my wildest dreams. I had wanted to see this place since I was 9 and now I had it all to myself. I walked a couple of steps towards the main stand, and then I realised that this was the first time that I was on an Olympic running track. Nevermind that the Sarajevo games were winter Olympics, this was still the same track the athletes had walked on during the opening ceremony I had watched as a little boy. A tear formed in the corner of my eye while a smile appeared on my face. I was the happiest man in the world at that moment.

I spent the next 45 minutes or so touring the stadium. I climbed up the main stand, all the way to the top. The Olympic flame has ofcourse been extinguished long ago, but the cauldron is still there. It is behind the main stand and I stood next to it for a few minutes, thinking back to the games in 1984. I walked back down and around the far side. I sat down opposite the main stand and just sat there in silence. Just at the moment I got up, a guy in running gear came out of the same tunnel I had come out half an hour before, and started running around the track. When he passed me at the other side of the track I waved at him as a way of greeting. He waved back and smiled, not at all perturbed by the presence of a rough looking tourist in an otherwise abandoned stadium. When he came by for the second time, I decided to make my way back to the exit. When I reached the main stand again, and my running friend passed by for his third lap, a man in his sixties came from another tunnel in the main stand and he greeted me too. I asked him to take a couple of pictures of me with the stadium in the background and when he went off to his next chore, I made my way to the exit again. I passed by where the maintenance guy had been, but he was no longer there. I left the stadium with a warm feeling. This was the highlight of my trip, without any doubt.

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On my way back into town, I took a different route as there was another thing I wanted to see. Sarajevo’s main cemetary was just a little bit out of the way, so I decided to check it out. It was a place that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Because of Sarajevo’s place in the landscape, essentially situated in a valley, with mountains on all sides, when the war intensified, the invading armies closed in on Sarajevo and cut the city off from the outside world for an unbelievable 3 years and 10 months. During this time, the people of Sarajevo had to rely on  a system of tunnels underneath and out of the city for supplies. The most well known of these tunnels led all the way to the airport, which was part of the Sarajevo safe zone and received drop offs of supplies, food and water. Inevitably, within weeks, people trapped within the city started using this tunnel to get weapons into the city so that they could fight back against the Serb forces that surrounded the city. There is a Sarajevo Tunnel museum, and I actually walked past it, but I did not visit it, something I now regret. As the situation grew worse and fighting intensified, more and more people died, and you can clearly see this here. There is such a disproportionate number of headstones with 1994 on it that it is chilling. The ugliness of war really grabs you in places like this, especially when I realised that nearly all of the deceased were around my age with the big difference being that I was walking around there and they had been dead for well over a decade. 

As I reached the city centre again, I made a final tour of central Sarajevo and vowed to come back. It is a beautiful city with a fascinating history and the weather in summer is amazing. A clock on the side of a shop read 37 degrees Celsius.

Back at the hostel, it was wine and cheese night again so I had to make a decision. I could take it easy and face the 10 hour overnight bus trip like that, or I could drink to such an extent that I would pass out as soon as the bus left the station. I decided on the latter. I spent my last 2 hours in Sarajevo drinking a mix of wine, beer and palinka, and then headed off to the busstation. The bus, as it turned out, was not a proper full sized coach, but a 25 seater mid sized vehicle. Fortunately, my strategy worked and my eyes got heavy as we drove out of the darkening city. I woke up a few times during the night, but as there wasn’t much to see outside (all was dark) I closed my eyes and faded away again soon on each occasion. It wasn’t until early in the morning when we got to the border with Croatia that we had to spring into action. Passports were collected, taken to a customs shack next to the road, stamped and then returned. And so, for the fifth time on this trip, I entered Croatia, this time at the town of Brod, or Brodski Varos as it is called on the Croatian side of the border.
The rest of the way to Zagreb passed slowly, and I failed to fall asleep entirely again. By the time we reached the outskirts of the city, the sun was climbing into the sky and the temperatures were already pushing 30 degrees again.

Here’s a really valuable tip, and I’ll throw it in for free here: When you’re travelling in a part of the world where life is cheap and a bottle of water costs about 20 cents in a shop, buy bottled water in a shop and don’t fill up your old bottle from a tap in a bus station toilet. With a 10 hour trip ahead, and not entirely sober at the time, I had checked my water stash and found that I only had about 1.5 litres with me. As I was unsure about any stopping arrangements and the possibility to restock en route, I had decided to refill an empty bottle I had in my backpack from the tap in the toilets at Sarajevo bus station. By the time we reached Zagreb, I had finished my final bottle of shop-fresh water so, without giving it a second thought, I dug into the refilled one. I sat down outside Zagreb bus station, trying to decide what to do with the 3.5 hours of spare time I had on my hands now. Should I go into the city and maybe get some breakfast, or should I just wait it out in the sun and maybe get some light sleep. Thanks to my moron decision to fill a water bottle from a public tap, I didn’t have to make the choice. Less than 10 minutes after I had gotten off the bus, the automatic alarm sign in the back of my brain went off and I walked into a toilet stall where I spent the next 20 minutes puking my guts out into a pristine Croatian toilet bowl. After I assumed the worst was over, I had a look at my water bottle and then realised what had been the cause of my misery. I stumbled back outside under weird looks from the toilet lady and went to buy a bottle of water that wouldn’t make me sick and a ticket for the bus to Ljubljana. I sat back down outside the station and took a cautious sip of water. As it turned out, the demon water wasn’t quite done with me just yet and to save you some time and me some space on the page, let’s just say that for the next 2 hours or so, I commuted between the bench outside and the toilet section of the station to get rid of whatever was left in my stomach. It was exhausting.
So, I know I’m a few years late on this, but I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the people of Zagreb, and especially the toilet lady at the bus station, for not paying any attention to their beautiful city and instead spending my time there doing a close up inspection of the sanitary facilities. I promise I’ll come back and pay the city a proper visit.

The dirty water debacle over, I boarded the bus to Ljubljana knowing 3 things: This bus trip would only take about 2 ½ hours; I would not have to be on a bus for 2 days once I got there; and in Slovenia I could pay in Euros.