Stirling Castle, featuring a lesson in rugby and several aphorisms

St. Andrew’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of Scotland (the one with the jaunty cross), is for many of us at unis across the country a celebration of the end of our first semester’s classes, and the free museum openings and cultural events from the highlands to the lowlands, from Fraserburgh to the Firth of Forth, make this an excellent opportunity to take a break before papers and exams.  With exactly that in mind, I booked a Megabus ticket for Stirling (£4 round trip) to take advantage of free entrance to Stirling Castle, about which I knew nothing, other than that Mel Gibson once captured it from the British.

After a drive of about an hour and 10 minutes (reading the critic Johannes Voelz on Emerson – I couldn’t make a complete escape from Uni) I started off from the Goosecroft bus station below the Thistle Shopping Centre and did my best to find the castle – as always, in Scotland, without a functioning Google Maps.  I managed somehow to avoid the charming, busy, shop- and pedestrian-filled “Old Town” and wandered instead into a grimy fogged slum of massage parlors and solicitors of the Saul Goodman variety, and also caught no sight of the castle – a true feat, as this massive hulk of different stone structures thrown up across seven or so centuries occupies the highest point in the town.  I was expecting something like the dramatic Edinburgh Castle, visible from just about anywhere.  Instead I found a few shuttered pubs and a betting office already open at 11.  But I did stumble on a sight that made me catch my breath – at least I’m fairly sure it was this, and not the endless incline of the cobblestone street: the Wallace Monument appeared nobly on a promontory in the valley below, only a few shades darker than the mist-wreathed hills all around it.

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Two Trips to Glasgow: Adult Jazz, Kelvingrove, and 50,000 Graves

First Contact

Chance found me in Glasgow twice this week.  I had plans to come to the city for a day trip, to walk around and visit the Kelvingrove art and culture museum, but good vibrations led me to buy a ticket to the Adult Jazz show at the Glasgow venue Broadcast last Thursday night – I was meeting the writer Sam Edwards, who’d clued me in to the group – and I prepared to see two very different sides of the city.

Few people walked the wet pedestrian boulevards of central Glasgow Thursday night.  A bit of advice: traffic on the M8 (Edinburgh to Glasgow) is brutal just about every night between 3 and 7.  The Megabus and CityLink drivers know this, too,  but seem to have no way of combating it; nor do their timetables reflect this.  Plan accordingly. Luckily I left Edinburgh at 5 and was in Glasgow by twenty to 8, and, though my Google maps app was fried, I managed to find Sauchiehall.  A few solid-looking locals sparked Drum cigarettes on benches, and young consumers passed me, heading elsewhere; Broadcast offered warm respite, and craft beer.

As a Sam put it, Adult Jazz is the sort of band that makes you reevaluate your expectations of contemporary music – and then immediately to wonder if you’ve been obsession over wanky alt-pop.  The music is new – newness is the first word, the prerequisite to any attempt to talk about the band’s sound.  But push past this and you’ll find a real fluency and a knack for harmony – harmony which comes in some spinning concentrating gyre out of seeming discord.  You’ll find a masterful pop sensibility (in lines and handfuls of bars that tease you with their immediate mass-appeal), diverse rhythms, and something elusive, the quality, perhaps, that fires your doubt while moving you to return to the band, to listen to their album Gist Is, in full, again and again.  (Maybe after one more go-through you’ll have the right words …)

Before Adult Jazz, though, I was pleasantly surprised by two opening acts.

The first (I only heard mumbled versions of the name, unfortunately) proved agile and energetic.  They blazed through pop, reggae, slow-blues, and heavier fare, all tinged with a smart alt sensibility and floating on surprising three-part harmonies.  They fit Adult Jazz well: although the guitarist took most of the lead vocals and the bass players lines would have been called “show stealing” in any other context, there was something immediately refreshing about the act.  Only after the they left the stage, and Sam and I grabbed a Sam Smith India Pale, did we realize that the group had shown no marks of ego whatsoever – much like the music of Adult Jazz, which, before the show at least, was so complete of itself that we couldn’t imagine it coming from “individuals.”

When my mate and I returned from the bar upstairs with our Innis & Gunn lager tall-boys, the trio G-Bop Orchestra (touring with Adult Jazz this season) had assembled in the center of the floor under a disco-ball.  Across the dark room I could see the members of AG and the opening act looking on and grinning.

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Edinburgh’s Beans: A Quick Guide to Coffee Shops in the Uni District

Edinburgh boasts an embarrassment of riches for lovers of single malts and coffee beans alike – the city is crowded with pubs and coffee shops, two or three to a block.  If you’re moving to Edinburgh for the long term, ignore this article: it’s better to stumble and discover these places for yourself.  But if you’re here for a few days and you’ve already made your pilgrimage to the Elephant House, I might be able to help.  These are some of my favorite caffeinated haunts, starting within easy walking distance of the University.  (Expect posts on other neighborhoods, like Marchmont, The Royal Mile, and Newington, to come.)

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Beer Encyclopedia: The Grand Tour of Dortmund Pilsners

You may have read my posts on brews and breweries, but this is something grander: a full chapter in the yet-unwritten Beer Enclyclopedia.  Few have the time or resources to attempt the research necessary to write something as bold and as boozy as this, but given a month in Dortmund, I knew that – setting aside friends, family, and career aspirations – I had one responsibility above all others: trying every single Dortmund pilsner in one sitting, and bringing my new knowledge back to the beer-loving world.

This is something that few if any Dortmunders have even attempted, but I knew that I’d need local help.  Aside from Bubi, current proprietor of the Prost-Station in Scharnhorst, I knew that the two best Teutons for the job would be Matthias Spruch and Sebastian Lindecke.

So, on my second-last night in town, Matthias and I assembled an overflowing crate in the Scharnhorst Rewe and headed downtown.  Earlier that day we’d visited the Dortmund brewing museum (worth the free student entrance, I assure you), and were so inspired by the rich history, the colorful vintage beer mats, and the various miracles of German engineering, that we purchased gold-leaf Stößchen glasses, the only appropriate glassware of the pils connoisseur.

We’d picked up two bottles of Hövels along with the pilsners and exports, but, as these were altbiers, and really represented an older, pre-war Dortmund, we decided to do away with them before we got to our real project.  They served as warm-up beers on the train.

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Today’s Brewery: Bergmann, at the Bergmann Kiosk

Kiosks in Dortmund are as common as roadside shrines in India.  Some kiosks are walk-in, but most are windows where late-night wanderers buy emergency 5€ cigarettes and beers at prices one-fourth what you’d find in a pub.  A bottle of Brinkhoff’s might be 90 cents; Hövels, 1.10€.  My favorite kiosk has to be the smaller of the two kiosks on the Borsigplatz (colorful part of town where recent immigrants in rubber sandals will offer you any substance a mainstream drug user could want), where, last week, a group of us bought a crate of Hansa pilsner, with an additional four bottles stacked on top, for 11€ – almost a supermarket price.  But, even among gems like these, the Bergmann Kiosk stands above all others.

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As you might imagine, the Bergmann Kiosk sells only Bermann beer, and nothing else – not newspapers, cigarettes, prophylactics, or lollipops.  This ought to be a downside, but it isn’t.  Because Bergmann doesn’t have its own brewery yet, and currently piggybacks off other breweries outside Dortmund, it isn’t technically a “Dortmunder” beer.  It is a Dortmunder favorite, however, and if the brewery manages to open up shop in the city, it can reclaim its prime spot in the city’s brewing constellation.  Without a brewery to visit, Bergmann-lovers head west to the Kiosk, which, unlike your standard kiosk, sports a wide awning, a cocktail table, two picnic benches, and a pair of lounge chairs looking out at the busy street.  This, my friends, is a Drinkers’ Destination.

As Klaus Grimberg of the Atlantic Times wrote in 2009, Bergmann beer disappeared in 1972, and might have remained a memory had not Thomas Raphael discover the lapsed rights to the brand in the summer of 2005.  Since then the craft brewery has been putting out pilsners alongside traditional Dortmund “export” beers as well as a schwartzbier, a “special” and the top-shelf “Adam” and “1972.”  A first for this blog, I tried them all in one evening.  (As the Germans say: Sauf!)

Now, if you want to repeat my feat, you could find all the Bergmann beers at a supermarket, but I’d advise against it.  Because there isn’t a brauerei open to tours, the epicenter of Bergmann-drinking culture is the Bergmann Kiosk: head there.

After three weeks in Dortmund, I had to start with the pils, and this was a pleasant surprise.  The Bergmann pilsner stands out in Dortmund’s crowded playing field, a sweeter and maltier offering than the Actien brands.  It’s a pleasant break, but perhaps not as satisfying for some as, say, the classic Brinkhoff’s.

Next up was the export.  This brew began as part of Dortmund’s response to the Czech pils, under brewmaster Fritz Brinkhoff.  The export had a higher alcohol content and a more robust flavor; it proved more popuar than its fraternal twin, the Dortmund lagerbier.  Bergmann’s export is a close sibling to the pils, but pours a more honeyed hue – and the added booze, though modest, does help round out the beer and make it a more satisfying quaff.

Feeling dangerous, we ordered the spezial.  This one tastes just a bit darker than the pils  – it has what most would call a classic Bergmann taste, recognizable in the mellow mingling of Gerstenmalz and hops.

Last was the schwarzbier – surprisingly sweet, with a hint of peppermint and something rooty.  As I’ve said elsewhere, European schwarzbiers and IPAs usually surprise me when they fail to land the bitter hop hit of American brews.  I didn’t mind this in the DBB schwarz – the absence of dominant hops allowed the malt flavors to flower, making this one a perfect dessert beer.

After four rounds at the kiosk, Steve, Matthias, and I decided to drop 20€ and buy two specialty bottles, the Adam and the 1972, to drink later that night (after we visited the Hövels Brauerei – Sauf!)  The man in the kiosk window advised us to serve these cool but not chilled, at about the temperature you’d serve most white wines.

The 1972 disappointed all of us, I think, perhaps because of the advertising.  A supposedly “hoppy” Bock, the brewers intended this to recall the autumnal days of the Dortmund coal and steel industry, when a beer like this was “the honest wage after hard work.”

The beer was certainly not bitter, at least not by my standards.  A lighter beer with almost no aroma, it opened with citrus notes that lingered and blossomed into apple and yeast.  This made for a complex taste, but still, nothing stunned us.

Steve thought it tasted more like 2003 than 1972, and I had to agree.

With the Adam, brewmasters hoped to reach back even further, to recall the brewers of Middle Ages, who wrestled with wild malts and brewed darker, more bitter beers with higher ABVs.  This one weighed in at 7.5%, about your average IPA’s ABV today.  Sweet, dark, and lightly bitter, all flavors bowed to the malts in this one.  Sebastian was the first to notice the Adam’s biggest surprise: very obvious notes of soy sauce.

This tastes like 1972 to me,” Steve said.  “Dirty, hoppy, very malty – I wouldn’t drink and drive.”  (Luckily everyone drives stick in Germany – if Steve tried to drive, he only would have rolled downhill into some bushes.)  He went on to list coffee and cigarette butts as subtle influences on the brew.

Matthias, who’d sought out the beer after an avalanche of friends’ recommendations, loved the beer at once.  Ten beers deep at this point (we’d also paused to crack a bottle of Gose that we’d brought back from Leipzig, and have a few vodka shots to wash our tastebuds) I found my usually discrimination palate slightly compromised.

Drinking Bergmann beer is a riposte to the American craft beer drinkers who complain about the stagnation of European brewing.  I’ve spoken to many friends and beer lovers who actually complain about traveling to Europe and being “stuck” with European beer.  I still see their point – while we all love Czech and Dortmund pils, and can raise a Guinness, and down litres of Bavarian weissbier the whole day long, the European brewers, for the most part, are very good at doing one or two things, and doing those things brilliantly.  Innovative?  Daring?  Not so much.  Good luck finding a decent IPA in Central Europe, a nut brown ale outside of England, a Belgian gold anywhere outside of Belgium.

But, as I found in Sligo, at Europe far-western frontier, Irish craft brewers are feeling a new trade wind from America.  Among a field of decent attempts, I found the W.B. (Yeats) IPA at the Swagmann, brewed by Brü, a beer that could compete with America’s best.  And now, in Germany, in what was once the greatest brewing city in all of Europe, I’ve found exciting offerings from a newcomer craft brewer, poised, it seems, to change the face of Dortmund brewing.  Sure, they look to the past for inspiration, but when it comes to beer the past is the best place to start.

To wrap things up, I quite like the DBB pils, as a sweeter and maltier break from the standard offerings – though I probably wouldn’t make it my standby.  I liked the Adam very much – enough to drop another 10€ at the start of an evening, to see what I really think of it.  My favorite overall is the export – sweet, boozy, golden, paired well with meals, and very, very refreshing.  Of course, I wouldn’t mind a schwarzbier for dessert.

I’ll be revisiting these beers soon.  When that day comes, you’ll find me back at the Bergmann Kiosk.

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[Above, Steve rides the Sauf Train – in this case, one of the flying rhinos scattered throughout Dortmund.]