Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Overland Experience - Part 1a

When several seasoned travellers end up in a bar, on a beach or in a hostel lounge, long conversations often develop about trips from the past, trips that are in the planning and, if you are on one, the current trip. One thing that always comes up in these conversations is the overland trip.

People who have been doing a lot of travelling almost invariably end up at the conclusion that travelling overland easily beats flying from one place to the next. There are several reasons for this. For starters, by travelling overland, you get to see more of the country, or countries, that you are travelling in. You will also meet local people who, like you, are going from one place to the next, rather than the tourists and business people that are found in airports. And finally, a big bonus for backpackers, is that overland travel is cheaper. Why pay $125 for a flight from, say, Detroit to Cleveland, when you can take the bus for $25? That’s a hundred Dollars in beer money right there.

People often ask me why I put myself through this every time. Why sit on a sweaty bus for 10 hours when you can cover that distance in a nice airconditioned plane in an hour and change? Why do you put yourself through the negotiations with bus drivers or station attendants whose language you might not speak when you can just take to the skies?
It is hard to explain this to people who do not have the travel bug, but somehow.. I just have to. I feel a great sense of achievement when I travel overland. It is a feeling of getting to know a place better by interacting with the people, the transport system and the local customs. On my most recent trip to North America, I changed cities 9 times in 17 days and went from Ireland to Canada to the USA and then walked back in to Canada (the 3rd time I crossed an international border on foot) and then, ultimately, back to Ireland. Yes, it was gruelling at times, and I was exhausted when I got back home, but it felt so good. I had seen 6 new cities, visited a new country and 3 US states (2 of them new) and had seen one of the world’s natural wonders at Niagara falls.  It was amazing. It was worth it. (Though I must admit that, when I got back, I had no desire to see the inside of a Greyhound bus for the forseeable future)

So to give you some insight in the machinations of The Overland Travel Experience, I thought I’d show you some of the overland trips I have done over the years and give you some ideas on how to get from A to B to C to D without getting on a plane. There are many ways to do the overland travel thing. I personally mostly use buses because they are cheap, but I love trains and ferries and will always jump at the chance to get on one. Others use specialised touring companies that offer overland trips, from bussing around Europe to specially designed trucks that drive across Africa. There are even tour companies that offer overland trips from  London to Sydney in Australia, taking in 20+ countries in 7 or 8 months. Be prepared to break the bank for trips like that, because they can cost up to 5000 Euros for transport and accomodation alone. Ofcourse, there are people who use their own transport to enhance the overland experience. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of the Lonely Planet guidebook company, started out by going overland from England to Australia in an old car. Plenty of people travel the Pan-American highway from Alaska all the way down to Patagonia in Southern Argentina.

My friend Richard is currently in his fifth year of cycling around the world and has racked up some 100.000 kilometers by now. He cycled from Holland to Indonesia, then around Australia, then from Holland to Japan, and he is currently on his second lap of South America. You can follow his progress on his blog, which you can find HERE (It’s in Dutch, but even if you don’t understand the language, the pictures are worth checking out)

If you enjoy reading about trips like this, I can recommend the books of Peter Moore, an Australian travel writer who made his name with a book called The Wrong Way Home, in which he describes his epic trek from London, where he lived for a while, back home to Sydney in Australia. He wrote 5 other books, which all deal with overland travel, but The Wrong Way Home is his classic. Should you have any questions on how to go about overland travel, or how to organise seemingly complicated trips, get in touch with me and I can help you with that.

Let’s get started.

The Balkans, Summer 2011.
Route: Dublin-Dubrovnik-Mostar-Sarajevo-Zagreb-Ljubljana-Budapest-Dublin
Overland kilometres: 1274

Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s, resulting in a series of very ugly wars, causing the deaths of far too many people. The newly established countries, when the dust eventually settled, needed to re-purpose themselves and start their existence as independent nations, rather than as part of Yugoslavia. As luck would have it, the Balkans are one of the most beautiful parts of Europe, so tourism was an obvious angle. Croatia ran away with it at first, but the other parts of the former Yugoslavia are getting in on it as well. I was intrigued by the history of the area, and encouraged by a friend who served in the UN army in Bosnia. Despite the fact that he was there at a time of war, he kept regaling me with tales of amazing food, beautiful women and dirt cheap beer. I had to see it for myself. (This friend, accidentally, is the brother of my cycling friend Richard, whom I mentioned above)

I studied maps intently and eventually settled on the route Dubrovnik-Mostar-Sarajevo-Zagreb-Ljubljana-Budapest. This route would take in 4 countries: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Hungary.

I flew to Dubrovnik from Dublin on a sunny summer day, and found myself in the heat of the Mediterranean summer. It was 28 degrees in Dubrovnik. I stayed in Dubrovnik for 3 days and loved the place. Yes, it was touristy, but it was also beautiful. And fun. When I presented myself at the hostel check in desk, I was offered a free shot of Palinka, the local moonshine. I took in the historic town and took a long walk around the city walls. It was a beautiful and confusing medieval maze where every corner looked like the previous and where all the streets seemed to go upwards. One afternoon, when I was hopelessly lost again, I walked through a gate in one of the city walls and suddenly found myself in a bar on a rocky ledge looking out over the Adriatic sea. It was stunningly beautiful. I sat down with a cold beer and stared out over the sea. It is at times like this that you remember why you travel. To have experiences like this.

When I informed about the travel options to Mostar at the hostel, the girl at reception told me that I could take the local bus to the main bus station and get a ticket there. Buses to Mostar were frequent but rarely full. When after some 10 minutes on the local bus I asked the driver when we would get to the busstation, he told me in broken English that we had passed the bus station some time before. I asked him to stop and got off the bus with 2 English girls who were also heading for the bus station. As luck would have it, a bus in the opposite direction was just approaching and after explaining our predicament to the driver, he took us back to the bus station for free.

One of the interesting things about the former Yugoslavia is that while the countries are now all on their own, most of the infrastructure dates back to the time when there were no borders between them. If you have a close look at the map of the balkans above (or on Google maps if you want to zoom in closer) you will notice that Dubrovnik is an exclave of Croatia, surrounded by Bosnian territory. This was never a problem in the days of Yugoslavia, but now it looks odd. On top of that, the main roads in the area are all from back when, so when you drive from Dubrovnik, in Croatia, to Mostar, in Bosnia, you cross the border 3 or 4 times. We first arrived at a checkpoint, and Bosnian soldiers entered the bus to do a passport check. 10 minutes later, the bus pulled into a service station and the driver announced a 20 minute break. I walked into the bar, only to find a huge Hajduk Split flag behind the bar and when I ordered a beer, I was given a receipt in Kuna. Apparently, we were back in Croatia again.  Another 20 minutes or so later, we were again halted and checked by Bosnian soldiers. By then I had given up trying to determine in which country we were exactly, but after that, we continued uninterrupted to Mostar.

There is not enough space here (there is not enough space on the internet) to explain the exact issues that led to the ugly break up of Yugoslavia but Bosnia, due to its ethnically diverse population, was hit the hardest in the conflict. The Croatians in Bosnia wanted to join Croatia, the Serbs wanted to be part of Serbia and the Bosniaks just wanted to be left alone. None of this happened and even today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a patchwork of ethnic clusters that looks like a Paint-by-the-Numbers image. 

One of the lasting images of the Yugoslav wars is the destruction of the beautiful Stari Most bridge in Mostar, which was blown up by the Croatian army in 1993. It was rebuilt in 2004 with help from the UN and NATO and nowadays you wouldn’t really know the difference from the original bridge, apart from the fact that that one stood for 427 years and this one has only been around for a decade. 

As I only had one day in Mostar, the first thing I wanted to see was the bridge. When I got off the bus at Mostar station, I was approached by half a dozen locals who all wanted me to rent a room. I informed them that I had already booked accomodation with a lady called Mira, and that name seemed to have some resonance as one of the peddlers instructed me on how to get there and the others went off in search of more interesting customers.

As I walked to my accommodation, I noticed that Mostar still had not entirely rebounded from the war. It was a nice enough town, and had some really nice Balkan style Islamic architecture, but there were still a lot of buildings with bullet holes in them, collapsed structures and empty lots where houses had once stood. Mostar is set to a backdrop of rugged mountains and it was strange to see such a beautiful place, in such beautiful weather (it was 30 degrees here) still scarred from an ugly war that had ended 15 years earlier. 

I was welcomed by a cheerful and friendly lady of late middle years, who showed me to the apartments at the back of her house. I was given a private room for what turned out to be something like 12 Euros and after having a chat with her and her daughter, I set out for the centre of town. I found it after a lovely 10 minute walk and took some time to take in the view of the bridge. It really is a beautiful piece of architecture. I had someone take a photo of me with the bridge in the background, and that it still one of my favorite photos, not just from that trip, but from all my trips. The bridge is also the location of the famous bridge jumping kids. At its apex, it must be a 60 foot straight drop into the shallow river below. Local boys ask tourists and other grown ups for a small donation (I gave one boy 4 Bosnian Marks, or about 2 Euros, a small fortune for a 6 year old in a country like Bosnia) and when they have a satisfactory amount of money, they walk up to the highest point of the bridge and jump in. I wouldn’t take that jump for 40.000 Bosnian Marks, never mind 4, but these kids do it all day long. I crossed the bridge to the other side of the water, had a look around the shops and market stalls, and then crossed back to where I had come from. 

I sat down at a table outside a restaurant, where several older men were drinking a clear liquid from small glasses. I was still reeling a bit from the night before when, in Dubrovnik, I had consumed a serious amount of beer and an equally serious number of shots of palinka, so I was taking it easy today. Tomorrow would be another day of traveling and the only train to Sarajevo was at 9.30 in the morning, so I could not afford to miss it. I had a few beers and a plate of sausages and other assorted meats, walked across the bridge again, had another drink and then decided to call it a night. I had my own room for the night, a rare luxury on a trip like this, so I wanted to make the most of it and get a good night sleep. And so I did. 

The next morning I woke up early, took a shower in my private bathroom and presented myself downstairs to check out. The lady in charge of the establishment led me in to her own kitchen and offered me breakfast. After some 20 minutes or so, I thanked her for her hospitality and said I had to leave for the train station. She told me that she would drive me to the train station, a service included in the room rate. She did literally drive me into the trainstation, as she drove her car through the back entrance and up to the stairs to the platform. How’s that for service?
I got a ticket with the minimum of hassle and still had 15 minutes to spare. I was on my way to Sarajevo, the city I had been looking forward to the most at the start of the trip.

The reason for this was embedded in my childhood. When I was only 9 years old, I witnessed my first ever Olympic Games. It was the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. We were at a friend’s birthday party when the opening ceremony was on tv, and while we were stuffing our faces with crisps, deepfried snacks and full flavor Coke in quantities that would make dieticians these days recoil in horror, I witnessed the seemingly endless parade of athletes entering the Sarajevo Olympic Stadium, waving at the crowd and proudly carrying the flags of their countries. Little did people know that this was one of the final appearances at a major sporting event of Yugoslavia as a unified nation and that, only a few years later, ethnical unrest in Kosovo would set the wheels in motion for the eventual end of the country. Mesmerized by this amazing spectacle, I saw the Olympic flame being lit and vowed that one day, when I grew up, I would go there myself.
And now, 27 years later, I was on my way there.

Most trains in Western Europe these days have an open plan set up: there are sets of 4 seats, facing each other 2 by 2, and the left over spaces near doors and stairs (most trains in Holland for example are double deckers) are filled with single and double seats. In Central Europe, most trains still have the more old fashioned cabin style trains, where you have, typically, 6 seats in a closed off partition and a narrow corridor going past the cabins. 

This train was like that. I selected a cabin near the exit, where I found an English couple and 2 silent local individuals. I spent the first half hour of the train trip having the standard conversation with the English couple (where are you from, where have you been, where are you going) but for the rest of the 2 ½ hour trip mostly stuck to my book and taking in the sights outside. 
They were pretty amazing. While Croatia gets most of the spotlight when it comes to tourism in the Balkans, Bosnia is right up there when it comes to natural beauty, picturesque towns and interesting people. The only difference from a tourism point of view is that Bosnia does not have a coastline to speak of. Apart from a 20 kilometer stretch around the town of Neum, Bosnia is landlocked and as there are no sizeable lakes in the country either, it pretty much escapes the attention of 80% of the holiday crowd. This is perhaps a bad thing from an economic point of view, but for intrepid travellers like me it is a godsend. Dubrovnik is a beautiful place and I would recommend anyone to pay it a visit, which everyone does. Locals in Dubrovnik appreciate the extra income that tourism brings but are less enamoured about being overrun in their own town by hordes of tourists. Like in Venice and Las Vegas, the locals are squeezed out to the suburbs to make way for hotels and other tourist amenities in the city centre. In the high season, the whole of Dubrovnik’s old town is one huge throng of tourists who want to have a picture taken at the ancient city walls, have an ice cream on the main square, and then go back to their rental car or cruise ship where Dubrovnik is reduced to a 2 piece part of the holiday slideshow they show their friends and neighbours when they get home. Look, I don’t plan on settling in Dubrovnik myself, but most tourists show little or no interest in the local people or history of places like that, and I can imagine that the population of Dubrovnik and Venice are sick of it. 

To get back to my main storyline here- you won’t see any of that in Bosnia and I think that this is because of the lack of beaches.
When we reached the outskirts of Sarajevo, I put away my book and stared out the window. 

There it was, the city that I had looked at with awe as a 9 year old boy, with a can of coke and a pack of crisps in my hand. I was finally there. 

I recognized the minarets of the grand mosque, the mountains in the background towards where the Olympic Stadium should be. I got off the train and walked into the main arrivals hall of the station. It was amazing. I decided to take a picture of it and got in trouble within 2 minutes of getting off the train. The problem is that in the Yugoslav wars, or any war for that matter, most key moments were related to the destruction or control of important pieces of infrastructure. Holding the main highway, a port or the capital’s main railway station are important strategic victories in warfare and the defending army wants to keep any details about these locations under high scrutiny. So when an annoying long-haired backpacker starts taking pictures of one of your vital pieces of infrastructure, this results in swift action. Before I could take a second picture of the main concourse, 2 uniformed men came running towards me, shouting in a language I did not understand (I’m guessing Bosnian), and, when they realised I did not understand them, explained in rudimentary English that it was not allowed under any circumstances to take photos of the station. I apologised profusely and played the “I’m a dumb tourist” card, which seemed to satisfy them. I walked outside in search of a tram. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The 5 best new beers of 2017.

Happy new year everyone!

Apologies for my tardiness in publishing new stuff lately, but I have been working on several other projects and the blog posts just sort of fell by the wayside. But I promise improvement in that, and if you enjoy reading my stories, there are some cool developments in the pipeline.

A new year is here. The end of the year is always a time for reflection and many people will come out with overviews of their favorite music, moments, earthquakes, or whatever else makes them tick. What makes me tick more than anything is, ofcourse, beer. I have drank quite a lot of it in 2017 and have kept track of this in an app called Untappd. 

This app is a sort of social media platform for beer drinkers, where you can find ratings, descriptions and photos of countless different beers. You can also make friends, talk and send messages and ‘toast’ each others post, similar to liking someone’s photo or remark on Facebook. I personally don’t really use the social media aspect of Untappd, because I waste enough time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram doing that, but the beauty of Untappd is the statistics section, where you can see exactly which beers you drank, from which country they came, what rating you gave them etc. 

Unfortunately, the statistics section in Untappd is not so sophisticated that it can give you superdetailed overviews, but it works for most queries. One thing that I can’t get out of it, for example, is how many different beers I drank in a specific time frame. I wanted to see exactly how many different beers (or ‘Unique Check Ins’ in Untappd terminology) I had added to my list in 2017, but this is not possible, unless you want to basically scroll through your feed for 2 hours or so and mark them off on a note pad or something like that. However, I can give you a ball park figure and tell you that I drank about 330 new beers this years. To close out my beery year in style, I thought I’d give you an overview of the best new beers I drank in 2017.

Before we get started, let me explain some ground rules for how I went about this.
“New” in the context of this list means that it is a beer that I drank for the first time between January 1st 2017 and December 31st 2017. This does not mean that it is a beer that was on the market for the first time, or even necessarily that I drank it for the first time, but merely that this is a beer that I had not previously checked in on Untappd since I started using it in May 2013. So theoretically, this can be a beer that has been available for 30 years and I drank 250 times before May 2013, but not since. There are some of these occurences in my total record for 2017, but none of these have made this list.

“New” can also refer to a new or different version of an already existing (or checked in) beer, provided that it is really new or different. On the Untappd app, there are people who check in Coors Light (2017 batch), Coors Light (2016 batch) and so on. This is clearly ridiculous as Coors Light has been the same for decades so there is no notable difference between one from 2016 and one from 2017. 

If, however, you have a beer that was originally barrel aged on bourbon casks, but is now aged on cognac casks, that does qualify as a new beer. (The Dutch De Molen brewery is very good at this. They regularly release beers in 5 or 6 different barrel aged varieties). Similarly, if you change the recipe of a beer to such a degree that the difference in taste is clearly noticeable, that also qualifies as a new beer. 

Finally, let me state here that this list is in no way conclusive, definitive or complete. For reasons of brevity, I have stuck to 5 beers. If I wanted to make this story a comprehensive overview of the beers I drank this year, it would run into the dozen of pages. (Even now, I have already written an entire page and we haven’t even started yet).
My records aren’t 100% accurate either. When you drink a lot, you inevitably forget to make notes of certain things, especially late at night, so there are beers out there that are not in my record but I definitely drank. This doesn’t matter. Few extensive records of anything in this world are 100% accurate so I certainly wouldn’t expect one based around alcohol to be. The list is in random order, as the type of beer you drink and how you enjoy it depend on a number of environmental factors, such as the weather, what you drank before, what you ate with it etc. I love big imperial stouts, but when I’m on a beach in Southern Spain and it’s 35 degrees, I’m just as happy with a can of lager. 

A final rule I made myself adhere to, was that I could only nominate 1 beer per brewery, otherwise this story would most likely have been called ‘The 5 Best Founders beers of 2017’

Prairie Ales/Evil Twin- Barrel Aged Bible Belt.

Oklahoma City may not stand out as a brewing hot spot to most people, and it isn’t, but Prairie Artisan Ales is sure making its mark. They teamed up with the legendary Evil Twin again for a second version of this beer, and this time they barrel aged it. The beer is a big, heavy, imperial stout, brewed with cacao, chillis, vanilla and coffee beans. The beer is then barrel aged on Heaven Hill whiskey barrels for 9 months. The result is breathtaking. I drank this beer only once, in the BierCab bar in Barcelona, but it sure made an impression. The flavors are intense, every sip lasts for minutes and at the end you sit there, staring in the middle distance, wondering to yourself “What the hell just happened there?” It is an absolute beauty. Treat it with caution though, because it packs a punch at 13% alcohol.

8 Degrees- The Holly King Barrel Aged Imperial Stout.

This may sound like the run up to a lame pub joke, but in 2010, a Kiwi and an Aussie set up a brewery in Ireland. Over the past 7 years, their beers have become a favorite among the craft beer crowd in Ireland and, quite recently, they introduced their own barrel ageing programme. This initially resulted in a trilogy of beers called The Good, The Bald and The Fearless (Barley wine, Imperial Stout and Farmhouse Ale, respectively) and this year they added to this with 2 beers for the festive season: The Oak King and The Holly King. While The Oak King, a Belgian style pale ale, is a very tasty beer in itself, it does not quite measure up to its big brother, The Holly King. An Imperial Stout, aged in French oak barrels, it is big and full of flavour, yet smooth and subtle. With tastes of red fruit, chocolate and ofcourse the oak from the barrels, this is a great beer to enjoy by the fire place on dark winter days. Or in the pub, that will do just fine too.

Galway Bay Brewery/Boundary – Harmonic Convergence Barrel Aged Barley Wine.

You didn’t think this article was going to end without a Galway Bay Beer in it, did you?
Since its inception in 2009, the Galway Bay Brewery has kept Irish beer lovers happy with a steady stream of great beers. This year was no different, with new IPAs (Regular Legs was a personal favorite), a Saison and several other tasty beers coming from the West Coast. It looked for most of the year that Rando Calrissian, a Black IPA that proved surprisingly popular across the country, was going to take the crown but then, a few weeks before the end of the year, Harmonic Convergence hit the shelves. I have tried it on draft about 10 times and, damn, this is a fine brew. It’s big, heavy and malty. It's smooth and strong and, at 12% alcohol and with a year of maturation on whiskey barrels, it makes you glow. Which is just what you need on a chilly winter night. I recommend you act quickly if you want to get your hands on it, because supply is limited. The draft version is, alas, gone already, but you might be able to pick up a bottle here or there.

Hertog Jan Grand Prestige Barley Wine, Barrel Aged on Goose Island BCBS Barrels.

If you go back to the introduction of this story, you will see that I mentioned something about the theoretic possibility of beers that have been available for 20 years or more showing up on this list. This is sort of the case here. I have drank Hertog Jan Grand Prestige many, many times in  my life. Hertog Jan is still my favorite Dutch brewery, despite the fact that they have been bought out by one of the big boys. I still love the beer as much as I did 20 years ago. Hell, I even have the brewery logo tattooed on my arm. Grand Prestige is an amazing beer that could have easily made this list, if it weren’t for the fact that I had had it before. A couple of hundred times. Grand Prestige is a Big Beer with deep flavours that, like other well-made barley wines, will make you glow.

As I said, the brewery was bought some years ago by Inbev, the biggest brewing conglomerate in the world. This may seem like a negative development, but keep in mind that being part of  a bigger company is not always a bad thing. You see, Goose Island from Chicago is also part of Inbev these days. While Goose Island makes a whole range of excellent beers, including IPAs and wheat ales, most people will only think of 1 thing when you drop the name Goose Island, and that is Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS). Originally developped as a one off special edition to celebrate the brewery’s 1000th brew, it turned out to be so good that it immediately achieved cult status and became one of the most sought after beers in the world. These days it’s a bit silly, and as the popularity of craft beer is spreading, so is the name of BCBS. Every year around the release date, a tidal wave of hype crashes across the world of beer and people fall over themselves to get their hands on a bottle. One beer store in Holland, that had managed to get their hands on 100 bottles, found people lining up around the block more than a day before the bottles went on sale. Mind you, there was a maximum of 1 (one) bottle per person and that one bottle cost 20 Euros. I personally don’t buy into hypes like that. I am convinced that when I do eventually taste it, it will be one of the best beers I ever drank, and I’ll be more than happy to fork over 20 Euro for a bottle, but I’m not lining up overnight for anything. Not even beer.

But I digress. To get back to Grand Prestige- As both Hertog Jan and Goose Island were now part of Inbev, this opened up the way for collaboration. Hertog Jan could use Goose Island’s extensive knowledge of barrel aging and Goose Island could take the opportunity to release one of Europe’s famous beers in the USA. 
Hertog Jan eventually released 4 different barrel aged versions of Grand Prestige: Port, Cognac, Bourbon and Goose Island BCBS. (Okay, they made a 5th version, aged on Macallan Scotch barrels, but that was never released and was only made available to brewery employees and guests at the invite-only launch party at the brewery. In any case, only 200 bottles were ever made so you’ll never taste it.)
Despite the fact that Inbev has a world wide distribution network, Hertog Jan was never exported to Ireland, so I cherish my trips to Holland, when I can get it at pretty much every shop.

When I heard about the Grand Prestige Barrel Aged project and a release date that was far removed from my presence in Holland, I cursed twice but then had peace with it. I thought about asking people to get me a bottle, but beer is heavy, shipping it is costly and I don’t normally succumb to requests of sending rare Irish or American beers over to Holland if they can’t get it there. It’s too much hassle, you can’t drink every beer that is ever released and sometimes you just have to take no for an answer.

So imagine my surprise when an acquaintance, someone I had never met in person but knew through a craft beer group on Facebook, sent me a message informing me that he would be coming to Dublin in November and would I want him to bring a bottle of Grand Prestige Barrel Aged?
I explained him that I never asked people to carry over heavy stuff like beer because I probably wouldn’t bring beer from Ireland to Holland either. He insisted that it was no problem at all and he could even bring a second bottle, the BCBS version if I wanted one. Well, if it really wasn’t a problem, yeah sure. A few weeks later, I was the proud owner of not one but two bottles of Grand Prestige Barrel Aged. Happy days.

The first bottle, Grand Prestige aged on bourbon barrels, went down a treat. It had all the hallmarks of the ‘regular’ Grand Prestige, but the ageing process had brought a couple of extra layers of flavor to the table. Bourbon, vanilla, wood tones, they all combined beautifully with one of my old favorites from back home.

Very impressed with all this awesomeness, I let the second bottle rest for another 2 weeks and then the moment was there. Hertog Jan Grand Prestige aged in Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout barrels. To give you an idea what is going on here, let me explain the process. Goose Island brews their famous Bourbon County Brand Stout. They then age it in bourbon barrels for a year. And then they take those barrels and age the Grand Prestige in them.
This bottle, unlike the bourbon aged version, had a crown cap rather than a cork, so I flipped it off  and poured my first glass. I let it settle for a couple of seconds and took my first sip. Even now as I write this, 2 months later, I still struggle to find the words to describe it. It was phenomenal. There was so much depth of flavour. It was so beautiful that I wanted to cry. I have been drinking for nearly 30 years now, and must have drank at least 1500 different beers, but on maybe 10 occasions have I been so impressed by a beer as I was now. It made me think of the movie Ten, starring Dudley Moore. In the movie, in which he pursues what he considers to be the most beautiful woman on earth, he is asked by his therapist
“On  scale of 1 to 10, how beautiful is she?”
That is how good this beer is. It was breathtaking.

Founders – Doom Imperial IPA aged on Bourbon Barrels.

Founders is my favorite brewery in the USA, and one of my Top3 breweries in the world. I can’t tell you exactly when I first started drinking Founders, but I quickly realized that they know how to make amazing beer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As luck would have it, the company that imports Founders for Ireland does a lot of business with the pubs that I am a regular at, so there is always a steady supply of Founders beer and all new releases stop off in Ireland first.
Apart from their core range of IPAs, rye ales and stouts, Founders is particularly famous and loved for their Barrel Aged programme. They release 6 barrel aged brews each year, and one of the highlights on the beer calendar is the annual release of KBS, their Imperial coffee and chocolate stout, aged on bourbon barrels. It is one of the most highly praised beers on the planet and on, one of the world’s leading beer appraisal sites, it has a score of 100. (Yes, the scale is 1-100)

This year, we were particularly well supplied with KBS in Ireland, and I have drank it quite a lot. It would easily have made this list if it weren’t for the fact that I had had it numerous times before 2017. Fortunately, Founders does not rely on KBS alone, and I considered several other of their brews. In the end it came down to DKML, Double Kentucky Malt Liquor, a malt liquor aged, you guessed it, in bourbon barrels, and Doom, an Imperial IPA also aged in bourbon barrels. They are both whopper beers, with 14.2 and 12.4% alcohol respectively and it could have gone either way.
I ultimately chose Doom, because I think that the bourbon barrels work just a little bit better with Doom than they do with DKML.
Doom is a big brew. It is dark gold in color, pleasantly hoppy and has a malty taste to the back of that. The bourbon barrels give it a deeply boozy flavour and it is a beer that is sure to make you happy. Should you ever see Doom somewhere, get it. You won’t regret it.

There you have it. My 5 favorite new beers of 2017.

As I said in the intro, this story could have been 30 pages long if I had wanted to highlight every noticeable aspect of my year in beer. I visited several beer festivals, of which Hagstravaganza, the birthday party of the White Hag Brewery in Sligo, was undoubtedly a highlight. 20 brewers, 60 beers, many of which had never been poured in Ireland, and a 1000 beer fanatics sure make for a good party. I already have my ticket for this year’s festival so watch out Sligo, I’ll be back.

Also worth mentioning is the Beats, Beer and Boogaloo festival in Tisno, Croatia. I went there, courtesy of the Galway Bay Brewery, after winning a photo contest on Twitter and it was brilliant. The festival was mainly focused on funk and Northern soul, music wise, but also had a large selection of craft beers available, mainly from breweries in the Balkans and Central Europe. I discovered a great many new brews that I would normally not have come across and, this being Croatia, the weather was spectacular. So a big thank you to Will, Jason and Mick from Galway Bay for making it happen.

Another highlight in my year was my first trip to Canada. For 2 ½ weeks I travelled from Toronto around Lake Eerie, taking in 10 breweries and ending up back in Toronto. The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly my visit to the Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was great to be at the source of all those amazing beers. It took me 10 hours on a Greyhound bus to get there and back from Detroit, but it was totally worth it, and once the staff found out that I had come all the way from Ireland, just to visit Founders, they kept buying me beers until I stumbled out the door around closing time. It was a night I will never forget (except for the end maybe, but hey..)

Also worth mentioning are Batch Brewing in Detroit, Great Lakes in Cleveland, Big Ditch in Buffalo and Left Field Brewing and The Only in Toronto.

One of the great things about the craft beer scene is that you can be 5000 miles from home, but when you show an interest in brewing and the local area, you are treated as a long lost friend and given a warm welcome. It’s great to be part of that.

So with that, let me wish you all a, somewhat belated, Happy New Year. I will keep you up to date on my beery whereabouts throughout 2018.



Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why festivals suck

Image result for phones at concerts

As you all will have noticed over the last few weeks, summer is now well and truly upon us.
With spring and summer, a number of things return to the daily routine. It’s already light outside when you get up, it’s still light when you get back from work, temperatures rise, clothes are being exchanged for lighter versions, ice cream trucks emerge from hibernation and outside drinking becomes part of life again. 

Football seasons end, trophies are lifted and people plan their summer holidays.

For over a decade, from 1995 to 2006, I spent my entire holiday budget, and most of my allocated days off, on one thing: music festivals. Every year, from January on, me and my friends would spend long hours planning our summer getaways. Now mind you, back then, the internet was not as ubiquitous a presence in life as it is now. Things like Google and Wikipedia did not exist in the mid nineties, and even later on many festivals still did most of their advertising through magazines and other printed media, rather than websites.
We would carefully pick the festivals to go to in the summer (though, inevitably, we would always end up on more or less the same ones every year) and be giddy with anticipation from March onwards. Line up changes would be carefully scrutinized and instantly communicated when noticed (it was a badge of honor if you were first to break the news that Slayer would be playing at Dynamo Open Air), festival gear would be accumulated, transport would be booked, often for your entire group of friends, and then the countdown began.
50 Days to Dynamo Open Air! Just one month to go! Guys.. this time next week we’ll be at the festival raising a cold beer! 

Image result for beer at wacken

In short, I spent pretty much my entire twenties booking, planning and going to festivals. While my friends who weren’t into music all that much spent their summers on Spanish Costas and Greek isles, we spent our time on muddy graslands in Germany and Belgium, listening to songs about war and death. It was one of the best periods of my life, and I remember it with great fondness.
I can’t really point out why I stopped doing it exactly. It was a combination of me moving to Ireland, finding other interests and the idea that I maybe wanted to do something else with my free time. Whatever the reason, my festival-going career ended and I decided to pursue other goals.

Because I had so many friends who were still going to festivals, I was kept up to date with what happened to a certain degree, but after staving off the initial empty feelings when I knew they were at a major festival while I was reading the paper in a Dublin pub, the idea slowly disappeared from my mind. What I did notice though, after a few years in Ireland, is that more and more people started to drop out. Some of them gave up altogether, like me, and most others seriously cut back on their summer schedule. This was for a number of reasons- children, mortgages, serious jobs with little or no time for frivolities, etc. etc. but one reason that I heard from most of them was clear: It wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. I wrote this off against progressing age, the absence of friends that always used to be there and the urge to see other things than mud and the same bands for the 25th time, but there was always a feeling that there was something larger at stake here.

 The first time I realised that all was not well in festival land, was when I saw this video:

Honey!! Where's my shotgun?

What the fuck was happening there?

This is not what you would call ‘festival ready’. In fact, as a veteran of the scene, I would put clothing like this at the very bottom of the advice list. Shocked by this revelation, I set out to investigate and, as it turned out, the festival scene has been infected by people who have no business in attending festivals. They don’t give a shit about the music, they have no respect for the generally accepted rules of engagement on festivals, and the only reason they want to be there is because their colleagues or neighbours are there so that they can say that ‘they’ve been there’ too.
This increased attention from people who don’t care about festivals or the music has lead to the deterioration of the atmosphere of old and I have found why that is.
Basically, there are 3 main things that are wrong with festivals these days, and I will explain them to you right here.

0. The entry price.

Ha! Fooled you! The ever increasing entry prices are not a reason for the downward slide of festivals. They’re a consequence of the fact that we are now into a second generation of people who think that paying for music is the most ridiculous thing ever. 25 years ago, performing artists made a large chunk of their money from selling records. With the advent of the internet, this line of income went out the window. Apart from the real superstars, no musician makes any significant money from the actual music itself. The only way to make money as a musician these days is by selling merchandise and playing live shows. This in itself leads to a clogging up of concert venues further and further ahead, as tour bookers are trying to tie down venues as early as possible to ensure a continued string of concerts and income. So the next time you complain about the high prices of concert tickets, consider buying an actual record instead of streaming or downloading it. You only have yourself to blame, and the widespread use of the internet, which brings me, conveniently, to the first real reason that festivals suck these days.

1. The internet and mobile phones.
Perhaps the main attraction of festivals in the mid nineties was the fact that you effectively disappeared from the face of the earth for 4 days. You and your friends would gather on Thursday morning at a local train or bus station, go to the festival and would not be heard of again until mid afternoon on Monday. This was great. For 4 days, the only thing that mattered was the festival and having as much fun as possible. There was no interference from outside news, no politics, no football scores, nothing. For the entire weekend, all that mattered was the festival, the bands and the party. What happened on the outside was irrelevant. Early on, mobile phones weren’t even a thing. Nobody had them, simple as that. Even when I did get my first mobile phone in 1997, I never brought it to a festival. What was the use? Mind you, mobile phones back then didn’t have internet access, games, or apps with public transport info or pizza delivery services. The only thing you could do with them was call people (remember that, calling people on your phone?) and send text messages, so there was no use in bringing a mobile phone. Anyone that mattered was at the festival, and the only thing that could happen was that you could lose your phone.
It was bliss. For 4 days, we were in our own world that consisted of live music, beer and partying. The outside world didn’t matter. Those who were at the festival forgot about the rest of the world, and those who weren’t had no idea what was going on inside. If you weren’t at the festival, you weren’t in on it.

I had a ritual that I always followed upon returning from a festival. Unable to cope with the real world just yet, I would get home, get a huge Chinese take away and spend the rest of the day listening to music, watching cartoons and working my way through an endless pile of plastic containers full of noodles, grilled pork and chicken satay. The day after, I would slowly start resuming contact with the outside world.

How different things are these days. From the second people leave for a festival, you are treated to a neverending stream of photos, videos and updates from the festival ground. Every single band is streamed live right into your living room, and everybody is connected to the outside world at any given time. It sucks. The whole idea of being away from the world is gone. While people are at the festival, watching bands, they constantly get live updates on their phones about what is happening outside the festival, who has been elected or deposed and what the winning lottery numbers are. This takes all the fun out of the whole idea of going to a festival.
Apart from ruining the experience of being entirely closed off from the rest of the world, the advent of mobile internet has another unwanted effect:

2. The crowd has changed.

Back in the days, when I told colleagues or other people who weren’t into music that I was going to a big festival, they would always stare at me with a weary look in their eyes. Their questions would always give me the idea that they had a picture of a festival being a strange cult-like gathering, where people would perform dark rituals and run around half naked, dazed off their head on drugs. While this wasn’t entirely wrong, it was nowhere near accurate either, but the point was that the ‘regular’ people (for want of a better word) had the idea that us festival goers were all weirdos who had sold their soul to Satan and spent their free time jumping around in the mud, which suited us fine. These people wouldn’t dare go near a festival in their lives and they preferred to remain in the safe confines of their own back yard, with all conveniences at hand. The arrival of mobile internet has changed this. As soon as the regular people saw footage of festivals coming at them, first on message boards and then on Facebook and other social media, they started to take note. Yes, we were still a bunch of degenerate weirdos who drank more before lunch than they did in a year, but somehow this looked like... fun. After some hesitant initial enquiries about how dangerous it was, and how the sanitary conveniences were arranged, a shift started to become apparent in the attitude towards festivals. This was noticeable as early as the turn of the millennium. One of the most clear cut changes in crowd happened right before my eyes at the Lowlands festival in Holland. The first couple of years I went there, everybody hung out with everybody. Technoheads drank with skaters, punks smoked joints with dreadlocked hippies and metalheads had a beer with anyone who was interested. It was one great happy family. On the last 2 occasions I went there, the change was shocking. Musical subcultures clustered together in their own segregated corners of the camp sites, and if you were crazy enough to play punk in a techno zone, you were in for a reminder of where you were.
And this was even before the regular people started moving in. With no interest in any of the bands that were playing, these people cornered off large swats of camp site, where they would play regular chart music, observed rather christian bed times and would tell you that ‘some people enjoy their sleep’ if you happened to make noise after midnight. One night, at around midnight, me and a friend were walking across a camping field, singing songs and laughing, and someone shouted from a large family sized tent that we should shut up as it was late.
It was then that I knew the festival was lost. 

Why these people don’t go to a regular camp site, far away from noisy drunks like me and my friends, I never understood, but the urge to be able to say at the watercooler at work that they ‘were there’ must go some way to explaining it.
This situation has not improved over the years. As I said, I haven’t been following this as actively as I used to, but I regularly see photos on social media, posted by festival veterans who are disgusted by the behaviour of people who don’t appreciate the festival atmosphere and therefore try to turn it into an extended version of their local football club’s annual summer barbecue.
That is not how it works. Festivals are different. 

And that takes me to point 3 of my rant:

3. The new crowd expect comfort.

When you’re at a festival, different rules apply. You leave the conveniences of home behind to be part of a special occasion. You accept that you will be eating luke warm hamburgers or fallafel for the duration, and don’t have your own kitchen or the chef of your local pub to feed you. Instead of having a nice pint on your comfy seat in your regular pub, you sit on the grass drinking mediocre lager from a plastic cup. And yes, you’ll have to take a shit on a mobile toilet that has been used by 500 other people before you since the start of the day. That’s all part of the experience. When you get home, you will appreciate the comforts of home all the more and you’ll be a better person for it.
But no, this does not sit well with the 21st century crowd. They are too good for this.
Look, I’m all for choice. I love it that I can choose from 15 different types of hummus at my local supermarket, in 3 different degrees of fattyness. I love that my local beerstore has 300 different types of beer for me to choose from, and ads new brands almost on a daily basis. And I love that the pub at work has 12 different hamburgers that I can choose from for lunch. On a festival, however, this isn’t necessarily and advantage. Festival bars work under high pressure and deal with enormous crowds, often concentrated at certain times (the time frame between the end of one band and the start of another). Having 25 different beers on tap would make it nearly impossible to deal with the crowds, nevermind the pricing system. The same thing goes for food. If your customers can choose between a hamburger, a cheeseburger and a hotdog, you can serve one every 15 seconds. If every customer gets to order a custom-made snack, and decide on whether they want pickles, tomato or mayonaise on their burger, this will take far too long and the queue will soon rise to dangerous length. Live with a relatively limited choice for a few days, it won’t kill you.

The same thing applies for other comforts you are used to at home. Showers are a daily part of most people’s routine and I’m glad that they are. I wouldn’t want to sit next to people who haven’t showered in 4 days
in the office, but on a festival this doesn’t matter. You’re either walking around in a neverending mudslide or in a midsummer dustfest. Your hair is going to be sticky, your clothes caked with dirt and your boots will need 2 days of solid cleaning when you get home. Taking a shower is a waste of both your time and your money. Rinse your face and brush your teeth in the morning and you’ll be fine. You can also do without extensive make up supplies, hairdryers or curlers and razors.

Image result for beauty case
NOT Necessary.

Sleeping at festivals is best done in cheap tents. The best model is the so called igloo tent. These things are lightweight, can be bought for about 40 bucks and, best of all, are so easy to assemble that you’ll have your fortress of drunkitude standing within 10 minutes, even if you have consumed a dozen beers before you commence the assembly process (I know this from years of experience)
Tents add to the atmosphere of being out and about together and feeling part of the community. Should you go to bed early and not pass out immediately, you will hear the rest of the festival partying on, just inches from your head, which is an excellent incentive to get up out of your sleeping bag and back into the party. Alternatively, you can do as a friend of mine did at Wacken Open Air, some time in the early years of the century, and set up shop at the 24/7 bar tent. We arrived at the festival, he went for one quick beer and then spent the next 4 days there, in an area that we had sort of adopted as our group’s central meeting point. He would occasionally fall asleep under a picknick table for an hour or so and then stir back into life for the next round of partying.

But again, this is not to the liking of the current crop. Apart from ‘Quiet Zones’ where you can camp in the knowledge that it will be quiet after, say, midnight, they have come up with annoying things like phone charging zones, lockers for your valuables, and, I am loath to use this word, something called Glamping. Glamping is tied first for most annoying new word for this decade, together with the Dutch term VrijMiBo. This ugly abbreviation for the words Vrijdag (Friday), Middag (Afternoon) and Borrel (Drinks) is used mainly by middle aged women who don’t get out much and consider it to be a wild night when they have had 3 small glasses of white wine. People who use this word should be avoided at all costs.
Glamping is pretty close though. A lazy contraction of glamour and camping, it is a typical sign of the state of festivals these days. Rather than roughing it for a couple of days like you’re supposed to, the new breed of festival wannabees has demanded (and gotten) pre-erected deluxe tents with electricity, mirrors, fridges and other conveniences that go entirely against the spirit of festivals. Other festivals offer campers or even bungalows with all the trimmings that you can think of. It is ridiculous.
As I indicated at the start of the story, this makes me sad. The spirit of festivals has been erroding for a long time now, and nearly all the things that made festivals such a unique thing, a mountain of happy memories to be cherished for life, have now gone by the wayside. 
I miss going to festivals, but I know I made the right decision when I decided to call it a day and hang up my tent.

Having said all this.. I will be attending a festival once again this weekend. It is different from the ones I used to go to, as this festival takes place at an open air club on the Adriatic coast. There will be no rain or mud, no half cooked hamburgers and, most significantly, no heavy metal. This festival is about funk and soul music and will be more dancing than headbanging, more surfing than crowd surfing and more cold craft beer than luke warm lager.
The reason I’m going there is that I was invited by my good friends at the Galway Bay Brewery to tag along. They are one of the beer suppliers at the festival and I am ofcourse more than happy to keep an eye on proceedings.

Oh yeah, I will be staying in a hotel apartment. Bite me. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

How I met your Friends, Part II

Hi everyone, 
Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed the first part of my tabloid writing experiment.
Here is the second part of the story, in which we will see which show is the best- Friends or How I Met Your Mother.
So let's go quickly to the next category:

Most annoying character (Main cast)
My first thought for this accolade was Phoebe. This may surprise some people, because Phoebe is the free-spirited hippie chick who doesn’t stick to convention and lives in her own world, without being obsessed with money or what people think of her. On top of that, she seems to be the only one in the cast who sticks to her principles.
Image result for phoebe

But does she really? If you look at the details you will find that Phoebe is nowhere near as free spirited as it seems on the surface.
Phoebe always professes that money shouldn’t be the driving force in your life. She says she supports independent businesses over large, faceless, corporate chains, yet she buys an apartment’s worth of furniture at Pottery Barn, the most middle of the road furniture chain in the country. She gets angry with Rachel for even considering using a gift certificate for a massage salon that is part of a large chain, only for it to emerge that Phoebe is working there herself. She constantly states that she makes music for the love of it, but when the coffee house hires a second musician, and pays that one, she kicks up a storm about wanting to get paid too. Never mind that she is a terrible musician who writes horrible, infantile songs that make no sense.
She also constantly reminds the others that they should just be themselves and not pretend to be something they are not. Which is all fine, but when she goes to meet her boyfriend’s parents she dresses like a 60 year old librarian and puts on a fake British accent to impress her posh in-laws.
When dinner is served, she denies being a vegetarian and attempts to eat veal to impress them.
This doesn’t really matter all that much, because she’s not really a vegetarian anyway.

Apart from the Meet-the-parents episode, there are 3 other occasions when Phoebe eats meat: When she is pregnant with the triplets, she convinces Joey to give up eating meat in support and then promptly starts eating meat herself, claiming it is not her who eats it but the babies inside her. Monica once tricked her into eating ‘vegetarian foie gras’ which, she later admits, wasn’t vegetarian at all and, finally, Joey reveals that Phoebe was once “so angry she ate a cheeseburger”
So that is 4 occasions that we know of where she eats meat. Phoebe is a phoney and a pretend hippie with pretend principals she breaks like clockwork.
So for a long time it looked like Phoebe was a shoe-in or this accolade, but let’s just give her a break. She had a tough childhood with a father who ran off when she was 2 or 3, and a mother who comitted suicide, resulting in her being homeless at age 14. So maybe that’s why she is a bit off and doesn’t always think clear.

And anyway, I would have had to change my mind anyway after I had a closer look at Rachel Green’s character.

Image result for rachel green

Rachel is, quite clearly, the most horrible person in the world. You may think that this is based on the first episode, when she runs off from her own wedding and leaves her husband at the altar, but that is actually the only time she acts like an adult and makes a decision for herself.
From the word go, she is hell bent on driving Ross to suicide. Early on in the show, Ross confesses that he had a major crush on her in high school, something Rachel knew about. Ross then gets a girlfriend, and is happy, which does not sit well at all with ms. Green. She then tells Ross she is in love with him too, which leads Ross to break up with his girlfriend and get together with Rachel. This is the start of 10 seasons of them being in an on again, off again relationship. It always follows the same pattern- they break up, then Ross starts dating again, which angers Rachel. She will then seek to get things going with Ross again, but as soon as they get together she starts pushing him away again. She first breaks up with Ross, and then blames him for having drunken sex with someone else later. When Ross gets married again, she goes to the wedding to tell Ross she loves him, 5 minutes before the wedding, which leads to Ross saying the wrong name at the altar and, ultimately, the end of this marriage.
On a trip to Vegas, Ross and Rachel actually get married to each other on a drunken night, but ofcourse this is not to Rachel’s liking either so she demands a divorce the next day. In the final episode of the series, they get back together again in the penultimate scene, but I’m willing to bet that as soon as the cameras shut off, she dumped him again. Rachel is an egotistic, manipulative bitch. She is lazy and shallow and it is no wonder she makes a career in the only field where looks are more important than talent: fashion. She is also to blame for the trend of fashion enthousiast bimbos wearing t-shirts of rockbands despite not knowing even one of the band’s songs. Rachel Green is a horrible person and if she were part of your group of friends you’d hate her guts and be part of the I Hate Rachel Green Club too,  regardless of how good looking she is.

Image result for rachel green mc5 shirt

How I met your mother-
This was, again, a difficult choice, mostly because I actually like all the main characters in the show. As I had to pick one of them, I first considered Lilly because, as I stated before, she is a manipulative and deceiving dealmaker. She also proclaims to be a free spirit who wants to explore the world but in reality is, in her own words, “a hick from Brooklyn who gets home sick when she is more than 10 subway stops from where she was born”. She moves to San Francisco for the summer to pursue her artistic dreams, thereby dumping Marshall in the process, but secretly comes back to New York after 2 weeks and hides out in her apartment in Queens that she never told anyone about.
But again, like with Friends, I’ll give the wannabe hippie a break.

The reason for this is that I think that Ted should get the medal here. The reason is not that I dislike his character as such. Ted is a sound guy and if you knew him in real life, he’d probably be one of your best friends. 
The reason I picked Ted here is that he has got his priorities wrong. He is young, single, has a succesful career (and therefore money) and lives in the most exciting city in the world.
Yet instead of living it up and partying like it’s 1999, he spends the entire decade of his twenties looking for The One. This is something he could easily have done in his thirties, and he could have lived life to the fullest in his twenties. As it is, he splits his time between trying to tie down girls who aren’t ready for commitment, and having his heart broken by half a dozen who are but somehow don’t see him as the one. He is left at the altar by that incredibly annoying blonde woman from Scrubs, sees what is then the love of his life move to Germany to take up a course in cake making and tries to get into a serious relationship with a psychopath who wastes her time getting behind causes that are destined to fail. (Including an almost succesful attempt to frustrate the one project that defines Ted’s career as an architect).
Ted is a nice guy with his heart in the right place but, as I said, he’s got his priorities wrong.

The verdict:

Friends: Rachel is a horrible person. -5 points
How I met your Mother: Ted is a nice guy, and his love for architecture saves him from too big an embarrasment here. Still- so many missed opportunities. -2 points.

And now for a fitting end to the story:

The Wrap up
All good things come to an end, and so did both these shows. Writing an end to a long running show can be quite tricky. Some shows got it just right. Cheers, after 11 seasons, ended with an episode in which all the main characters from the show return to the bar, and then go home one by one, leaving only Sam in an otherwise empty bar.  As he is about to go back into his office, someone knocks on the door, most likely looking for a beer, to which he speaks the immortal words “I’m sorry. We’re closed”.

Image result for cheers final scene

BlackAdder had a similarly fitting finish. After 4 seasons, all set in a different period in history, the final scene in the final episode sees the cast of the show, set in the trenches of World War I for the final season, run towards the camera and into a hail of bullets from the Germans. Dramatic, but efficient.
Other shows were not as great at establishing a satisfying finish. Seinfeld, one of the funniest shows ever made, put the cast on a plane to Paris, and then had the plane go down over the Atlantic. Disaster is averted at the last second, only for the plane to land somewhere in rural Massasschussets, where they are charged with breaking some never-enforced law and they all end up in prison. The End.
My name is Earl didn’t so much have a finish as the show was discontinued after 4 of the planned 7 or 8 seasons because of administrative reasons, which also sucked. So let’s see how our shows did.

Friends: At the start of the 10th and final season of Friends, there are several story lines that need to be brought to a conclusion. First, Monica and Chandler decide to adopt a child, as they are incapable of conceiving children themselves. They end up with a girl from Ohio who has gotten pregnant but is not in a position to raise a child. In the final episode, she gives birth but it turns out she was carrying twins. Ross breaks up with yet another girlfriend, Charlie, who gets back together with her Nobel price winning ex-boyfriend, which makes Ross realise that the only woman he really wants is Rachel. He decides to confess to Rachel that he has always loved her, but there is one problem. Rachel has just accepted a job in Paris and is leaving New York to go live in France. 

As Rachel departs for the airport, Ross decides he wants closure on the issue, whether it is positive or negative and goes after Rachel to the airport, but he and Phoebe travel to the wrong one. As New York has 3 airports, he assumed she would travel from JFK as that is where most flights to Europe depart from. They then head for the right airport (Newark) and find that Rachel hasn’t left yet, as there was a delay caused by Phoebe who had called Rachel and insisted there was a technical issue with the plane, which caused panic among the other passengers. Ross urges her to get back together but Rachel goes on the plane anyway and off to France. When Ross gets home he finds a message from Rachel on his answering machine, but it cuts off halfway through with Ross none the wiser on her final decision. Rachel then walks back in the door, showing that she decided to get off the plane and stay in New York to get back together with Ross. During the final season, Phoebe gets married to Mike, the first guy she ever had a serious relationship with, and Monica and Chandler buy a house in the suburbs where they are going to raise their kids. In the final scene of the final episode, all the friends get together in Monica and Chandler’s apartment one last time and they decide to go for a final cup of coffee in Central Perk before Monica and Chandler move to the suburbs.

Image result for friends final scene

How I met your Mother.
Okay, take a seat and get a drink, because this is going to take a while.
When it is revealed that Barney and Robin are getting married (this happens at the start of season 8) everything else is more or less geared towards that. In the final episode of season 8, we get to see the Mother from the title for the first time, the unbelievably cute Cristin Milioti, as she buys a trainticket to Farhampton, Long Island, where the wedding takes place.
(Farhampton, by the way, does not really exist. I had a fun 20 minutes of playing with Google maps in  establishing this. Southampton, Westhampton and East Hampton all do exist on Long Island in real life, as do Bridgehampton and Hampton Bay. It is an incredibly beautiful and absurdly expensive area at the very end of Long Island that is full of summer homes for people like Larry Page, John McEnroe and the Kennedy family)
The rest of season 8 goes back to the regular format, except for the final couple of episodes when everybody is getting ready for the wedding.

The whole of season 9, then, takes place in the weekend of the wedding. Every episode and major scene starts with a time on screen and a mention of how long it is until the wedding, starting at 56 hours and then gradually counting down to the big moment. Several story lines take place with every one of the major characters having some issues to resolve.

Image result for marshall how i met your mother

Marshall has travelled to his childhood home in St. Cloud, Minnesota to inform his mother of their decision to move to Rome for a year. This is where it starts to get weird. When he arrives at the airport to go back to New York, he is informed that the East coast is dealing with the ‘Storm of the Century’ and that all air travel to and from there has been suspended. While air travel cancellations because of severe weather are not unheard of, Marshall’s subsequent decision to rent a car and drive the 1200 or so miles from Minnesota to New York is strange to say the least.
First of all, he could easily have flown to Cleveland or Pittsburgh or even Louisville. All those places are comfortably inland, so will experience no major disruption from an East coast storm, and are at least half the distance closer to New York. Secondly, the show regularly switches between Marshall, en route back to New York, and Farhampton, where the rest of the gang are preparing for the wedding. The weather in Farhampton, apart from the occasional rainy spell, is beautiful. Just for the fun of it, look where Long Island is on the map, and especially the Hamptons. Any major storm coming in over the Atlantic will hit Long Island before anything else with a vigour that will make the walls tremble and cows fly across the land. But hey, Marshall decides to drive halfway around the country anyway and, because of the situation, he is forced to share a gas guzzling hummer with a mean lady who works for  an oil company and with whom he constantly fights. 

Back in Farhampton, the others mainly entertain themselves by drinking and Lily finds a list, made by Ted, entitled ‘Things to do before I leave New York’. When pushed on what this means, Ted is forced to admit that he can not live around his friends knowing that his best friend is married to the love of his life and that he needs a new start and is moving to Chicago the day after the wedding. Ted asks Lily to keep this a secret as he doesn’t want to take the attention away from the wedding.

Ted has also bought a bottle of 30 year old Glenn McKenna single malt whisky to share with Barney to celebrate his wedding and their friendship. This whisky becomes a running gag throughout the final season as they break no less than 3 bottles of it during the season, each time when there is a shocking revelation. Ted’s original bottle, it turns out, was broken by Robin and Lily during a sword fight back home and they replaced it with cheap Scotch mixed with chocolate syrup and hand sanitizer. This replacement bottle is broken when Barney tells Ted, who subsequently drops the bottle, that he saw him and Robin at the Central Park Caroussel when they were looking for a locket that Robin buried there many years ago. Lily steals a bottle of Glen McKenna from a local liquor store, joking that security was weak, but this one breaks when Barney drops it as he sees his mother kiss his half-brother’s father. Ted then goes to the same liquor store and steals another bottle. This one perishes when he drops it because one of the band members (the unbelievably annoying Darren) bumps in to him, which causes Ted to floor him with a punch. This in turn leads to The Mother buying him a drink, as a thank you for getting rid of her annoying band member. It turns out to be a Glenn McKenna 35 year old, which the inn was stocking all along, but the bar man never offered this as the guests only asked for the 30 year old vintage. 

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As Marshall progresses towards New York and then Farhampton, Barney is behaving weird, as he constantly tries to come up with excuses for leaving the Farhampton Inn to go run some errands. Robin constantly tries to stop him from leaving, fearing he might run off. Eventually, Barney manages to sneak away and finds himself at a Laser Tag facility, where he is arrested for breaking security protocol. Robin is livid and goes over to bail him out. It is then revealed that Barney has put in a lot of effort to give Robin a rehearsel dinner she won’t forget. The laser tag facility is in reality an ice skating rink, and Barney has put together a Canada-themed party there because Robin was homesick. The party has ice skating, fire works and Canadian celebrities.

Throughout this phase, we get a number of flash forward scenes in which we see Ted and The Mother, whose name is Tracy, return to the Farhampton Inn a year later, then 2 years later and then somewhere in the distant future, indicating that Ted proposed to her at the lighthouse and that they had their wedding there too.

Marshall, who has by now missed the rehearsal dinner, drops off his rental car somewhere (why not hold on to it for the last part, you’ll be hit with a massive vehicle return fee anyway) and takes a bus to New York. Just before they get to New York, it turns out that the bus does not go to New York City, but to Buffalo, New York, on the Canadian border, some 500 miles away. Marshall pleads with the bus driver to let him off near New York City, but the driver says he can’t make unscheduled stops. Eventually, upon learning of his predicament, some of the elderly people on the bus fake heart attacks, forcing the driver to drive to the nearest hospital, which is in New York City. 

Marshall then takes a bus to Farhampton (why not the train, like everyone else?) but the bus breaks down 5 miles from the Inn. He then decides to walk the rest, and in the episode Marshall vs The Machines we follow his progress. Eventually, exhausted, he sits down by the side of the road and is picked up by Tracy in the band van. (Here’s another thing that doesn’t add up- Marshall is a fit, muscular, young man who works out regularly yet he can’t walk the 5 miles to the Inn.
I can walk 5 miles easily and I’m 30 pounds overweight, haven’t seen the inside of a gym in years and am a decade older than Marshall is on the show)

So Marshall gets to the Farhampton Inn eventually and immediately starts to push for having a big party, in order to avoid having a fight with Lily over him accepting a position as a judge in New York, thereby jeopardising Lily’s dream of moving to Italy.

The group drink deep into the night, which causes Barney to arrive at a state of drunkenness not seen before, a state they dub ‘truth drunk’ which means that Barney will honestly answer every question he is asked, something he has never done before. This leads to his friends finally, after 10 years of trying, finding out what Barney does for a living- he basically signs all legal documents for Goliath National Bank to absolve them from any responsibility. (Throughout the show, whenever someone asks Barney what it is he does, he says ‘Please..’ and laughs and changes the subject. It turns out that PLEASE stands for Provide Legal Exculpation And Sign Everything. It also turns out that Barney is secretly working for the FBI who are building a case against the comically corrupt GNB).
The day of the wedding arrives with Barney being unconscious because of his drinking the day before, which leads to his father in law being none too pleased and his friends trying to get him up and running for the ceremony.
Robin and Barney get married, Ted meets his future wife Tracy and Lily announces that she is pregnant again. (It turns out she wasn’t drinking the entire weekend- every time she ordered a cocktail, it was really just Sprite).
There is then a lot of confusing back-and-forth between the past, the present and the future.
The next day, Marshall walks into McLaren’s, only to find Ted sitting there, having a beer. Ted confesses that he is not moving to Chicago after all because he met this girl at the wedding and he thinks she is the one. Perfect ending, right? Well, we’re not done yet.

We then jump three years into the future and find the gang being together again. After some catching up, Robin and Barney announce they are getting divorced, an action that they claim ‘is not a failed marriage, but rather a very succesful marriage that has concluded after 3 years’.

Further in the future still, we find out that Barney has accidentally gotten a girl pregnant and is now a dad.
We then switch back to Ted and Tracy’s wedding, and Ted tells his children an important lesson about perseverance and the beauty of true love, while on screen he kisses his bride, the love of his life. Perfect ending, right?
Ted then goes on, saying “and you know kids, I carried that lesson with me, on every moment in our lives. Even when she got sick..”

Hold it right there!  She got sick? What the hell?
The camera now switches to Ted at the side of Tracy’s hospital bed, where she is hooked up to a number of tubes, looking, in fact, rather sick. She is pale and has dull eyes and looks very skinny.
It is never disclosed what disease she died of, but if you look around How I Met Your Mother fan sites, most people guess it is cancer.

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Ted recounts the story of how they first met, on the train platform in Farhamptom (and how Tracy forgot her yellow umbrella in a club on St. Patrick’s Day, where Ted took it the next morning while looking for his phone, and then left it at his girlfriend’s, who just happened to be Tracy’s roommate at the time) and then a train obscures the view of the platform. They take the train back to New York together (a good 2 hours from where I estimate Farhampton to be) cementing the foundation for their relationship. The camera then switches to Ted, now with grey hair, sitting in the house he bought years earlier to raise his family.
“And that, kids, is how I met your mother.”

Now. That really is the perfect ending if ever I saw one.
The end.

Wait, why is there still 4 minutes on the clock?
It turns out that, after all, the perfect ending isn’t the end.
His children, apparently somehow not satisfied with the end, or even the fact that the story is finally over, something they have been waiting for for 9 years, (in the very first scene of the very first episode, one of them asks “Is this going to take long?”) start pestering him about the fact that their mother hardly features in the story (which is true) and that he still totally has the hots for Robin.
They then convince him to get back with ‘Aunt’ Robin, which he ofcourse does. Ted heads back to New York City to declare his love for Robin once again outside her apartment, with another blue French horn and, judging from her expression, this time Robin returns the sentiment.
The end.

Hold on. This is just not right.
First, it just doesn’t sit right with the viewers. They have spent 9 years watching a show called How I Met Your Mother, but the Mother from the title only appears for about 3 seconds before the start of  the final season, and even in the final season she has only about 40 minutes of screen time, most of that in flash backs and flash forwards. Then, to add insult to injury, she is killed off in added time without explanation. I think the only cinematographic ending that could have pissed me off more is if I had found at the end of Kill Bill that Bill was still alive.
I appreciate the synchronicity of having Ted return in the pouring rain with his blue French horn, just as he did in the very first episode, but I don’t think anyone was either expecting or hoping for this ending.

Then secondly, it is just not right for his children. After doing some calculating, people have worked out that Penny was born in 2015 and Luke in 2017 (accidentally the year I write this).
It is revealed that Ted tells his story in 2030 and that Tracy has died 6 years previously. They lost their mother at a very early age: 9 and 7 respectively- a traumatic happening in a young life for sure. Yet still their dad, when telling how he met their mother, reduces mom to a sideline character that is invisible for 90% of the running time of the story. Moreover, he spends most of the story regaling about his love for Robin and how his relationship with her and their subsequent break up has defined his life. Sure, his children are enthousiastic about it, be you can’t tell me that they’re happy with their dad babbling on and on about wanting to bang a family friend while reducing their mother to an also-ran, the number two in a one horse race he was only interested in once he realised that he was never going to get Robin. (Remember- they meet on the day Robin gets married to Barney)

Yes, I am a big fan of unexpected turns in stories, but this just doesn’t add up.

The verdict:

Friends: Predictable, everything ends up as expected- Chandler and Monica get their babies and move to the suburbs, Phoebe gets married to Mike, Joey is a succesful tv star once again and Ross and Rachel get back together. Everybody happy, cue the credits. 3 Points.

How I met your mother: If they had cut out the last 4 minutes (everything after Ted says ‘And that, kids, is how I met your mother), I would have been perfectly happy. I would even have forgiven them the nonsensical killing of Tracy. But this just doesn’t sit right. It’s just wrong. -4 points.

And now the moment we have all been waiting for: The Final Scores!
How I  Met Your Mother
The Setting
The Apartment
Funniest character (Main cast)
Funniest character (Supporting cast)
Hottest girl
Most annoying character
The Wrap up
Final score

Well.. would you believe that. Friends has won by a single point.