As anyone who read about my visit to Munich in the previous Beer Insider might guess, I have been thinking a lot about beer pilgrimages; are they routes that take you from dissolution to dissipation, spiritual pub crawls, or is there a deeper meaning in the journey, a more metaphysical understanding of the nature of beer, a dagger-like thrust into the heart of beer that will unveil the real meaning of beer around the world?
Can a beer pilgrimage uncover, rediscover, move the soul and join in the joy of the great beverage that has forever (it seems) refreshed humankind? Can there be beer pilgrims, can there be a beer equivalent of the Camino Di Santiago, where weary feet tread, eager to discover a beer in its place, for let’s not forget the difference in drinking what is a rare beer at home as against imbibing it in its native location where it is commonplace and pleasing to the local palate.
We bill and coo when a local brewery produces a singular beer style such as a Leipziger Gose (usually with added blueberries or orange blossom, which the last time I checked was not a usual addition), but as I once discovered to really understand this kind of beer I had to make a pilgrimage to Leipzig and drink it neat or with a drop of kummel at the Bayerischer Bahnhof brewpub in a former station, where it is brewed. Here it is a commonplace beer, a daily beer, part of routine, a glass of, please.
So, if I think about it, what have been my pilgrimages?
I have been offered a massive tin mug of strong amber-hued lager half-way through the morning in a buttercup-coloured castle-like brewery six kilometres from the border with Bavaria and suddenly decided that the two former principalities have much more to say to each other over a beer than their querulous history would suggest.
This revelation came after the brewer waved his arm in the general direction of the border and said that over in Bavaria they called the beer we were drinking Märzen, and that here in the Czech Republic its name was Speciál. The beer was creamy, fresh and perky, fulsome in the mouth feel; it had a bittersweet buzz followed by a notable bite of bitterness, it felt both smooth and rough in the mouth, a heady combination that made it one of those dreamy beer experiences. A pilgrimage performed?
At Cantillon, I have watched as then proprietor Jean-Pierre van Roy emptied boxes of sharp-tasting cherries to a lambic that had already spent a year in maturation in order to encourage the beer to breathe and live again. I still remember my first visit in 1996 when my friend asked Jean-Pierre van Roy whether the water came from the canal outside — he testily shook his head and answered ‘no’ before going onto to answer someone else’s probably more intriguing query.
I have wandered through the noise, the lights, the fights, the people and the heat of the Oktoberfest in Theresienwiese, a destination incidentally that I had arrived by train from a trip to the Bohemian hop lands. The latter was a place where the mood was bucolic and calm and considered and the sun to the festival’s night.
I have sat in the cloister-like quiet of a Saturday afternoon pub in Sheffield, a glass of beer in front of me, idling the hours away, being visited by a dog called Rocky, exchanging pleasantries with a man who had just clocked-out from his night’s work and feeling snug, safe, kept from the storm and possibly a little indulgent.
This is not a pilgrimage for those soldiers or agents of the state who are in search of those who have done wrong (apparently), but it is about those who follow a path, sometimes obediently, and at other times hot with the lust of glory and discovery. Jesus said that he was the light and that led us to read stories about being led astray as we followed the light, usually into a mire or a bog of our own making, but the pilgrimage when beer speaks is a different journey, a restless quest, a celebration of ritual, a holiday of simplicity, a voyage into the unknown (who visited the Senne Valley before gueuze and lambic became a ritual and a reason to come?) and an illumination of questions that have been held too close to the chest for too long.
I’m off. Who’s coming?