The Drinkers Journey

I have before compared the craft beer scene to the local music scenes of old. Whilst both have gained worldwide publicity through the growth of the internet, the beer scene still relies on a physicality that the internet cannot provide. This is most obvious in the USA where many craft brewers brew solely for their own state, or in some cases their own pub. The most extreme cases result in much in demand beers such as “Pliny the Younger” being available only in certain pubs once a year, or the yearly bottling of Three Floyds “Dark Lord”. Even e-bay and its ilk cannot provide access to tap only rarities with any assurance of quality.

Whilst not quite so event driven the UK has a huge amount of small breweries that rarely distribute their casks beyond the local area, and bottle but a fraction of their range. Oakham Asylum being my personal favourite seasonal beer that spends a few short months available on tap, or the Rare Hare which is immeasurably better on tap and appears for a matter of weeks every couple of years if we are lucky. Heck, Belgium has the well know Westvleteren beers which are officially only available pre booked from the abbey itself (if unofficially just marginally easier to find), plus oddities such as Walrave Pick-Up Pils which according to 100 Belgium beers to try before you die barely leaves its home town.

Whisky fans equally know of bottling only available at travel retail, distillery tours, certain green grocer stores or the like. Distilleries especially often offer the joy of sampling whisky taken directly from the cask, something that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

All these means but one thing for a fan of these local scenes. The Drinkers Journey. A trip across the length and breadth of at least one country in search of the rare drinkers paradise.

These journeys can be time consuming, tiring, expensive and oft the worst of all, fruitless. So as someone who has been on a few trips of my own, a few thoughts on these epic journeys.

  1. Hold on, That’s Not My Local?

All the other advice is based on one consideration. How much of an epic journey are you going on? A day trip over to London from Reading is one thing, as is a trip from York from Newcastle. If you’re going from the USA to Denmark in the hope that the one place in the world that sells Cantillon Blåbær Lambik has it in stock then that’s another.
Pretty much, the bigger the beer trip, the more of the following you should do. The smaller, well only worry about a few.

  1. The Internet exists, as do phones and even stamps. Use them!

We live in an information saturated world, so we might as well use it. Even if the pub/restaurant/brewery or whatever for some reason doesn’t have a web site, there’s still yell.com or the equivalent, and ratebeer.com has a lot of contact information for most place, so take advantage. If it’s a beer on tap, give them a ring and ask if its on, and likely to still be on when you get there. If it’s a bottle you can ask if they can put one aside. Send the distillery an e-mail asking if there could be any problems with the tour, or if anything special can be set up. Often there are special tours at distilleries, with pre booking required. A good experience could become great with just a calling around.

By the way, the word stamps are there for a reason – some breweries can be right technophobes, never checked e-mails, never updated web sites. In such cases the old fashioned route may be the best.

Some view this takes some of the magic out of the trip, some of the fun and danger is gone if you know the beer is there safe and sound. If you feel that way, fine, but don’t come whining to me if you travel half way around the world and they are out of stock.

  1. Have a plan B, or more importantly drink B.

So you rang up, it’s on tap and plentiful, perfect. You get there four hours later and you find the wandering stag party got there before you and the pubs dry, disaster! This is not an unlikely occurrence, especially with tap beers, my beer hunt for the seasonal Oakham Asylum (such a great beer) hit a snag when I walked into the bar just as they flipped the clip on the just empty tap.

Thankfully most places with a good scene will have more than one item worth hunting out. You can’t take three steps through Speyside without tripping over a distillery or obscure cheese shop that happens to have a massive whisky selection. Look at the alternate pubs, shops and keep an eye for what other limited releases are in the area. That way if things don’t go your way you can still leave with a slightly drunk smile on your face. Again Yell.com or the local equivalent is your friend, look up what exists in the area then do a bit of phoning round, or googling to get more information. Dedicated beer sites like Ratebeer also tend to do a list of places by city, so you can check out what else exists in the scene.
For longer trips make sure you work out how much further you are willing to go. If you have spent over six hours on a plane to get there, an extra hour train journey to the next city is probably worth it. Pick how far you are willing to go before you get there, its easy to end up thinking you are pot committed, and going from stop to stop until you are nowhere near your original destination. In real life, like in poker, pot committed is a lie, know when to cut your losses.

Also for extra long journeys, try to find out when the pubs or shops get new stock of what you’re looking for (if relevant), and make sure you are in the area on that day, giving you extra chances in case they ran out before you first got there.

All your hopes should not ride on just one element, as sods law says that will be the bit to go wrong, and suddenly the whole thing looks a lot less fun. Have flexibility, and be philosophical about your losses, if you can’t change the situation, move on. You’re on a clock and moping just wastes what time you have left (a good motto for life as well as beer hunting I feel).

  1. Finally a Use For All Those Friends Who Have Been Drinking My Beer!

Don’t forget your mates, for a small journey a solo run is possible, though not the perfect option. For a long journey friends or family become near essential. If you have friends or family who live near where you are going- perfect! A chance to catch up, and if all your beer hunting goes to pot, there’s still something to be said with catching up with old friends over a pint to wind down the day. On many of my London trips a wind down in the night with old friends is the great capstone to a successful or even an unsuccessful day. Not to mention if you are trying to save money on the trip, having friends in the area may give you a place to crash for the night, or a bit of local knowledge on cool things to see and do.

Failing that, heading over with friends makes the journey a lot easier, and also gives you a lot more people looking for cool things to do. Listen to everyone’s ideas; a larger trip is great time to try something new and outside of your safe zone. Plus more people travelling means more people carrying stuff back, and more beers, whiskies, etc bought that you can share. When you only have a short time in a place this means your much more likely to find something you like but would not otherwise have tried when your mate grabs it and lets you have a sip.

Don’t miss the opportunity to make new friends either, some of the high points of a Distillery trip around Scotland came from meeting other tourists at the camp sites. In once case a kind fellow generously shared some of his rare whisky club bottlings with us over a drunken nights chat, in another we shared our new finds with visitors from Europe, who in return provided some fine chocolate to go with it.

Go it solo if you must, but a group beer hunt adds so much more variety.

  1. Culture is not a rude word.

It’s not all about the drink. Ok, ok I’ll give you a bit of time to get over your shock. Lets face it, beer hunting is cool, but if you have travelled half the way across the country on a hunt, let alone half way across the world, it would be a shame not to take in the local sights.

Look at the guide books, or search on the web. Leave time to relax. Especially on a longer trip constant boozing can wear you down. The Tate Modern of London, the Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Festival, The big Buddha of Japan, or whatever other hobbies you have. Again, having more to fall back on, means if your beer or whisky hunt is unsuccessful you still feel like you have had a good trip. These are mainly important for longer trips, but can add a bit of spice to a day run.

  1. The Suddenly Full Bag, or Take Homes.

Plan for bringing bottles back. Unless you are going to drink everything out there you may end up running into the innumerable issues that came come from bringing fragile and water filled items through a paranoid security theatre environment such as bloody LAX Airport (where I did once manage to successfully switch a bottle of spirits into my hold luggage during transfer thus preventing the security from taking it off me). This is especially useful in the USA where a lot of bars do “Growlers” of tap beers, which would otherwise be impossible to bring back.

Find out if your flight allows enough room and weight in your hold luggage for some souvenirs for a long trip. Also watch out, cheaper flights can charge a fortune for hold luggage, so make sure you take this into account when you compare prices.

For smaller but cross water journeys, never underestimate a ferry. It may be slower, but a packed car can carry a heck of a lot of bottles for your whole group. If it’s a short train journey, make sure you have a well balanced backpack that will allow you to carry your goodies whilst still enjoying your days roaming.

Also take solid packing with you, some whisky bottles come in lovely sturdy metal or leather cases that are perfect for getting bottles back intact. Add a bit of bubble wrap in and your golden. Make sure you don’t end up in the same situation I once did, where I spent nearly a day trying to Hoover glass shards from my clothing, from t-shirts down to the very very well hovered and rechecked before wearing undergarments, after a bottle slipped loose and shattered on transit.

  1. Seriously. Don’t drink and drive.

Final point. Don’t drink and drive. Plan so you don’t have to. Know your local taxi numbers, or even better, make sure you have public transport to and from wherever you are staying. Better still, pick a campsite, hotel or the like that is close to your destination so you can walk to and from your drinking point. Nothings worse than getting stuck as the designated driver on a drinking trip, so try and minimise the need to do so. For a long multiple site drinkers journey this is quite possibly your most important step.

So I repeat, do not, EVER drink and sodding drive.

So that’s a little advice from my experience, please feel free to add you own comments and link. The more we know, the better our trips will be.