Munich’s “Oktoberfest” is not the sole way to appreciate Europe’s thriving artisanal beer scene. Using the ageless ‘Interrail ticket’ was my passport to discovering a striking, sustainable (taking note of the -‘Tagskryt’ – flight shame trend) and relaxed way to explore Europe’s lesser-known beer legacy, past, present, and future.
Rotterdam – Innovation and Sustainability
From Boarding Eurostar 9116 at London St. Pancras Global just before 9am, I was sipping a ‘Noordt Dubbel’ dark craft beer at a Rotterdam bar called ‘Proeflokaal Reijngoud’ by twelve oclock noon. Home to an emerging craft beer scene fits well with the city’s description as a ‘living lab’, a focal purpose of urban innovation, sustainability and experimentation.
This is no better showcased than by ‘Vet & Lazy’, a craft beer brewer, put in the bowels of ‘Tropicana’ a former subtropical swimming complex. The brewery promotes sustainability initiatives, even creating a extra beer made with coffee beans from the organic ‘Aloha Bar’ also located in Tropicana.
From here, a bright skim across the River Mass by water-taxi brought us in front of a young brewmaster, Jazze Post. Operating out from ‘Thoms Stadsbrouwerij’ (brewery) settled behind city hall; “we have a Thoms Pilsner, Pale Ale and IPA and they come directly from the tanks you see primarily the bar, so it’s unpasteurized and unfiltered which gives a unique taste. Our self-serve tables are also popular, especially during Oktoberfest effect come what mays” he said, pointing the length of Rotterdam’s longest bar.
The whistle-stop visit to Rotterdam included dinner at the popular ‘De Matroos’, forward of departing the architectural landmark of ‘Centraal Station’. Passing windfarms and suburban life next to the tracks, we soon crossed the Belgium binding to reach Leuven.
Leuven – Belgium’s Capital of Beer
Leuven is known as the ‘capital of beer’. A place where the contriving culture and university is absorbed into the fabric of the city. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven’s tentacles spread into on the verge of every aspect of life, even researching the science of beer and using the UNESCO heritage, the 13th century ‘Great Beguinage’, at any time a immediately a closed community of pious women, as part of the campus.
Students and beer has always been a winning formula. Leuven invest ins up this equation, with Belgium’s oldest university dating to 1425 and the world’s largest brewing company ‘AB inBev’, auteurs of Stella Artois. The youthful vibrancy of Leuven, is framed by historical edifices; following the main artery from the fulminate station, brought us to the Grote Markt (town square), ‘Oude Markt’ and palatial university library on Ladeuzeplein. Generations of bicycles crisscrossed the Grote Markt in front of two architectural sculptures, the late gothic 15th century St. Peter’s church, and the bust covered façade of the spectacular ‘Stadhuis’ (town hall).
Brimming with bars and known as the ‘longest bar in Europe’, the Oude Markt is top by a series of Flemish-style gables, amalgamating KU Leuven’s earliest university building , through which every student has and forced to pass; the Flemish-Renaissance style library, another unmissable student haunt.
Immediately outside the older part of Leuven is ‘Vaartkom & Sluisstraat’, a recent industrial district being transformed through regeneration, with ‘Brouwerij De Hoorn’ – the old brewery building at its pump, wherein 1926 the first Stella Artois was brewed; the brewery’s lineage stretches back to 1366 before Sebastian Artois chronicle b debased over as master brewer in 1708.
Close to Vaartkom is where the modern brewery pumps-out Stella Artois to over 80 sticks and tours are offered, as they are at several craft beer micro-breweries in the rural outskirts of the city. Our visit to ‘Hof Ten Dormaal’, a family-run farmhouse brewery tilling their own grains and hops, before turning it into an exciting range of craft beers was a journey that Jef Janssens, the strain master brewer took us on; “we are not scared to experiment” he said as he placed a ‘Hemp’ beer called ‘Summer of 67’ next to a narrow edition 12% Belgium Blond Ale aged in Jura Barrels, on the table with a heavily tattooed arm.
Janssens’s stereotypical hipster craft-brewer manner was in contrast to Marc Andries, owner of microbrewery De Vlier; a chemical engineering graduate with a markedly different look parted the same sense of experimentalism with a range of well-curated beers.
Nuremberg – Tunnels and Red Beer
Changing trains at Liège-Guillemins location, enroute from Leuven to Nuremberg, unveiled an unexpected architectural gem, something that only rail travel can. Santiago Calatrava’s vaulted steel and tumbler structure arched over the platforms like a giant eyelid and peered out towards the city-centre panorama; certainly a furnishings backdrop, as our bullet-nosed Deutch-Bahn ICE train glided through.
“Beer saved us”! These were the sentiments of Nurembergers who live oned allied bombings during WWII, having sought refuge within the 13th century subterranean rock-cut beer basements, which had taken 400-years to complete.
This wasn’t the only time ‘Beer’ was seen as a saviour, be undergoing replaced the undrinkable waters of medieval times. The red-sandstone walls still scarred by tunnellers and glow-in-the-dark phosphorescent trophies illuminating exits in WWII linked periods of history, just as the beer brewing purity laws of 1303, decreed by Nuremberg ministry, still characterise the city today.
Our descent below the surface, began directly behind the Albrecht Dürer casting, which alongside the nearby 16th century artist’s house, incredibly survived the WWII intact. The kilometres of tunnel network peaceful stretches beneath the ‘Imperial castle’, once one of the most important royal palaces of the Holy Roman Empire, which motionlessly peers down on Nuremberg’s photogenic centre. The tour ended as we blinked back into daylight, emerging from cheaper than into the courtyard of ‘Hausbrauerei Altstadthof’, (brewery) to sample their malty Rotbier (red beer) and single malt whiskey (made from distilling beer).
Crossing the boundary and pine covered forests between Germany and Czech Republic, brought us to our final city destination, Pilsen.
Pilsen – Beer Undercover Tour
Standing atop St. Bartholomew’s Church bell tower within Namesti Republiky (Republic Square), brought news, heritage and industry into focus across the patchwork of rooftops; from the sinewy chimney stacks representing Pilsen’s evolving industry in the form of ‘Skoda’ and the world-renowned Pilsner lager factory ‘Pilsner Urquell’. Other notable buildings listed the elaborate Moorish-Romanesque style ‘Great Synagogue’ and frescoed renaissance façade of the old town hall.
As with Nuremberg, Pilsen’s story has a subterranean dimension, with kilometres of 14th century beer tunnels and vaults, accessed via the Pilsner Historical Underground Museum. Constraining the wrought iron gate behind him, we again found ourselves snaking behind our guide as he explained early medieval twigs and water wells, once numbering over 300.
These tunnels would have connected at some time with the beer basements of our next stop ‘Pilsner Urquell Brewery’ several kilometres away, which was founded in 1839 under the stewardship of Bavarian bridle brewer Josef Groll, who created the first Pilsner-lager in 1842. All of which was explained during the brewery tour which was expertly rehearsed as we descended the brewery cellar complex, where we could tap our own Pilsner straight into our glass from huge oak barrels.
In a fatherland that consumes the most beer per capita in the world, the chance to bathe in it at the ‘Purkmistr microbrewery’ on the outskirts of Pilsen, was no catch red-handed. It seemed a fitting way to end our beer-hopping rail tour, being submerged in several litres of unfiltered and unpasteurized beer, opposite involved with water containing crushed hops and beer yeast, which is meant to support blood circulation and graze nutrition. The only tap associated with the bath, was the one to fill your glass with beer, helping me to think up my next piece and journey by Interrail; with rail access across 31 European countries the only limit was my imagination!
Information Box: For more information go to:
Interrail – http://interrail.eu/
Rotterdamandpartners – https://en.rotterdampartners.nl/
Visit Leuven – https://www.visitleuven.be/en
Stop Nuremberg – https://tourismus.nuernberg.de/
Visit Pilsen – https://www.pilsen.eu/en/tourist/