БАЛТИКА 7 – Cafe near Dinamo Station, Moscow

31st May 2011, 22:00~22:30

Alcohol content: 5.4%
Price: 80RUB (about €2) for 500ml
Overall verdict : Location, location, location

First trip to Moscow, first trip to Russia, first night of the trip. It was hot and humid, and I could hardly read a word of the menu. It’s actually quite a nice feeling. It took me back to when I first went to Japan in July 1992. There’s a frisson of fear in Moscow, because we’re told it’s a dangerous city. Through fear of crime, or just fear of being ripped off for not being able to read, “Westerners” stay in their hotels and pay 400 roubles (10 Euro) for their beers and 1000 roubles for their burgers. The doors to our hotel had metal detectors and inside there were security to wave another detector over you or, if needs be, pat you down. This was a pretty expensive hotel, but did all the security make you feel more safe, or less? In the end we seemed to get the worst of both worlds, because the detector was there, but nobody responded if you set it off.

One of the Baltika (БАЛТИКА) family of beers.

 
That pleasurable feeling of being slightly out of ones depth, and the minor hassle of having to arrange a visa in advance makes you feel privileged to be in Moscow, and courageous for venturing out onto the streets to have dinner.
 
But the thrill of adventure was a bonus. I was heading out because I refuse to pay 4 or 5 times the going rate just through cowardice. 
 
After wandering round the hotel a couple of times, I convinced myself that the best chance I’d have would be heading back to the metro station – Dinamo – and banking on there being some kind of restaurant round there. Attracted by a neon Pepsi sign, I gravitated to a cafe set back from the high-way, a bit behind the station and hoped that I wasn’t too late. It was very much point and hope, but the waitress was helpful and in the end I ended up with a steak dinner and two beers for 490RUB, which would have just about got me a beer back at the hotel. 
 
It was like that all over Moscow. Some places charged 10 quid for a beer, others charged 2 quid. It was very much a self-selection market segmentation thing. Some establishments went after the segment who wanted to pay 2 quid for a beer, others went after the segment who didn’t want to sit next to those of us who wanted to pay 2 quid for a beer, and were prepared to pay 4 or 5 times as much to sit next to people who agreed with them. Even with the price barrier, many places apparently went further and exercised “Face Control” bouncers, who would sort the chic from the chav and turn away customers who weren’t “on message” with the brand story they were trying to communicate. 
 
I guess once you let the “wrong sort” in, your brand equity crumbles, your bar “does a Burberry”. It’s understandable, and a bit grotesque at the same time. 
 
One place I loved was the Yolki Palki (Ёлки Палки) chain of beer restaurants (various locations across Moscow).

The Yolki Palki near Teatralnaya Station, just North of Red Square

The place was recommended by Lonely Planet’s Moscow guide, and to be honest, it was a God-send. The menu was in Russian, but had small-print explanations in English, and there were pictures in the menu too. The prices were very reasonable, with beers available for 80 RUB per half litre, and even a full litre for 145RUB (3 quid). The food was supposedly “traditional Russian” but even if that is not the case, there was plenty of things that looked OK in the pictures, and at prices where you could get a few things and still not feel like you had to be careful.

 
Anyway, the beer in the title, Baltika #7 is one of the Baltika beers that are brewed in St. Petersburg, and together account for 40% of the Russian beer market making them the largest brewer in Eastern Europe, and second only to Heineken in the whole of Europe.
 
I saw quite a few Russians in the parks with brown pet bottles of beer – street drinking seemed to be the thing to do to get drunk cheaply – but I didn’t see any really drunk people the whole time I was there.
 
 
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Meerholz

6th May, 2011 11:30 ~ 12:20

Co-ordinates: 50°10′21″N 9°9′0″E
Irony value: 4/5
Overall verdict: Subtle

On January 1, 2007, with the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria in the European Union, the geographic centre of the European Union changed, to a wheat field in Meerholz, outside of the German town Gelnhausen, in Hesse, Germany. It’s a little bit East of Frankfurt.

I’d just finished a series of meetings in the Frankfurt area, and I had about four hours before I needed to check in for my flight back to Heathrow, so this was a ‘perfect opportunity’ to visit the point at which an EU-shaped sheet of uniform thickness and density would balance.

I got the coordinates from Wikipedia, fed them into the SatNav, and within 20 minutes I was parking by a sign pointing me down a path to the Mittelpunkt der EU.

Mittelpunkt, this way!

Every time new members join, the geographical centre of the EU must shift. In 2007 it moved about 75 miles east as Romania and Bulgaria exerted their geographical pull. Earnest columnists will no doubt have spun a deeper metaphor around this mathematical outcome, but the town of Meerholz was just thrilled to put some signs up.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the EU Mittelpunkt...and so much more.

There also appeared to be subtle undertones of friction, a frisson of Schadenfreude perhaps, between Meerholz and the neighbouring town of Hasselroth-Niedermittlau, as you can see from the English bit of the sign (below).

In your face, Hasselroth-Niedermittlau!

It’s as if the folks of Meerholz have basically erected a big “ha ha” sign to annoy their neighbours in Hasselroth-Niedermittlau.

“How do like that, huh? You thought you were the Mittelpunkt, didn’t you, huh? Well guess what? You’re not! Guess who is… Yeah, check it out coz Meerholz is the middlest in the whole fuckin’ EU, you Hasselroth-Niedermittlauer mother fukkaz! Kiss my Mittelpunkt and suck my IGN approved balls!”

That’s what they wanted to write, but in the end, they went with this.

But if you feel sorry for Hasselroth-Niedermittlau’s near-miss, then perhaps you should also spare a thought for Kleinmaischeid, which was the geographical centre of the EU from 2004, when the Union grew to 25 members, till 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria joined. Adding 10 new members in 2004 was a big deal. Not just the sheer number of new members, but including as they did many former Eastern bloc nations, it was a bold statement of intent for the EU. With that vision in mind, and with Kleinmaischeid as the new geographic centre, one can imagine the enthusiasm with which the councillors of this town approved the monument and small park next to their post office.

It’s still there. Again from Wikipedia, I got the coordinates, entered them in the SatNav, and was away. On arrival, though, I saw nothing of the monument – based on a set of navigational dividers (like a pair of compasses) – and assumed that with Kleinmaischeid no longer the geographical centre of anything, they had torn it down or converted it into a swing or something. I’d given up on finding it, and needing to get back to the airport for my flight back to Heathrow, I went back to my car.

But there it was, on the way out of the village.

The former EU Mittelpunkt. For just 3 short years from 2004 to 2007, this was the geographical centre of the EU. The George Lazenby of EU Mittelpunkts, history will, in the end, find a place for Kleinmaischeid.

With no timetable for further expansion of the EU at the moment, it looks like Meerholz could hold the title of EU-Mittelpunkt for a while yet, but Croatia, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey are all official candidates states while Albania and Serbia have applied for membership, so if any do join, the IGN may have to sharpen their pencils once more and the baton will be passed to another lucky village somewhere, probably in Bavaria.

Picnic table at the centre of the park at the centre of the EU. Lines radiating from the centre point to member-states, which are identified by two-letter ISO country codes on the base.

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Estrella Damm – Tapasbar Urgell

17th April 2011, 19:00~21:00

Alcohol content: 5.5%
Price: €6 per litre
Overall verdict : This would probably cause trouble in Norway

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Stupidly cold - Could cause chaos

Right next to the “aparthotel” where we were staying in the Eixample area of Barcelona, was this place called Tapasbar Urgell. After rushing past it to the Metro station every day on our way to explore Barcelona, we finally ran out of ideas, cash and energy and decided to spend our final evening as close to our beds as possible.

I think the food was OK, but the novel aspect of this place was that several tables had their own beer tap serving stupidly cold Estrella direct to customers. Each table was on a beer-meter, and at the end you were charged a flat rate of 6 Euro per litre poured.

The waiters are freed up to deal with food orders and the distribution costs are reduced. Genius!

Yet more marketing genius was the idea of having a flat screen display at one end of the bar which let everyone know in real-time how much each table had drunk. As the only drinker at ours, I was never in the game, but I can imagine that with the right people, this could get competitive. Even though I was unable to keep up with a table of four who were on 5 litres before we started, I still set myself the target of getting to 2 litres before they could get to 8 – like when you challenge yourself to walk/run to a certain lamppost before a bus overtakes you.

In Spain, I can see this working well, selling more beer, cutting costs, and simplifying the process of charging customers, but if the same system were in the UK or Norway, things would probably get very messy, very quickly.

Japan specialises in developing innovative transaction systems to hone the efficiency of restaurants. The conveyor-belt sushirestaurant is well-known, and the system of charging customers a flat rate per colour-coded plates makes calculating the bill easier. That seems to work fairly well in the UK too, but I also saw 2-hour all-you-can-drink offers that I fear would not translate to these shores. At least if my disgraceful behaviour is anything to go by.

Why are we Northern Europeans so bad at “enjoying responsibly”? It gets blamed on licensing hours and the taboo created around alcohol by withholding it till people are 18, but I’m sure there’s something deep in the national character or the weather that makes Northern Europeans so eager to slam their feet down on the accelerator when getting drunk.

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El Pas de la Casa

14th April 2011 13:30ish

Altitude: 2408m
Irony value: 1/5
Overall Verdict: Pass

There aren’t many passes higher than El Pas de la Casa on Europe’s road network. There are a few in the Alps that exceed 2700m, but you’d need to make a special detour to get to them. El Pas de la Casa, on the other hand, was – until the opening of the Envalira Tunnel – the only way into Andorra from the North so taking this route feels less contrived, and as the primary route into Andorra from France, the road is wide and well-maintained.

There is also a ski resort of the same name, and even during Europe’s hottest April on record and despite air temperatures over 15 degrees centigrade, there was enough snow for a few detirmined global-warming deniers to slide about on.

Port d'Envalira
2408m above sea level at Port d’Envalira

After landing at Toulouse and picking up the car, Andorra was on the way to Barcelona, but was also part of my inner train-spotter’s need to visit as many countries as possible. We scheduled a one-night stop in the Prinicipality, with time for shopping, sight-seeing and a go on the famous Tobotronc at Naturlandia, but what we got was a medical emergency when son #2 cut a six-stitch, bone-deep gash above his eye in a bed-bouncing accident.

After an ambulance trip from the hotel to Andorra’s only hospital, and, in hindsight, a relatively swift process of local anaesthetic and suture, we were back on holiday and in an upgraded room with no headboards on the beds. 

I have the Spanish (Catalan?) report of what they gave him to calm him down enough to give him treatment, and I need to get me some, because despite having a head-wound that revealed a bit of his skull and a screaming bad mood to match, within 10 minutes of being given this stuff (nasally!) he was giggling and saying ‘racing car’ over and over.

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Frydenlund Bayerøl

12th April 2011, 00:20~00:40

Alcohol content: 4.7%
Price: 69NOK (€8.70) for 330ml bottle
Overall verdict : Norwegian law fetishises alcohol

Norway is a nation of alcoholics which would descend into a Maelström of drunkenness were it not for the strict control of booze.

That seems to be the message from the Norwegian government, and the relationship between Norwegians and alcohol does seem to be a complex one.

The list of obstacles put between a man and his right to get shitfaced starts with the unbelievable prices (see above), and includes restrictions on when it can be sold in shops (until 8pm on a weekday, until 6pm at the weekend), where it can be sold (only in Vinomonopolet government monopoly outlets for wines and spirits), and where it can be consumed (not in public).

I flew in to Oslo airport at 11:30pm, and rushed to get to the car rental before it shut. But it seemed every other passenger on that plane had another more pressing errand to perform before leaving Gardermoen, namely picking up their ration of duty free Aquavit before they went through Norwegian immigration.

I’d witnessed similar scenes of Norwegian panic alcohol purchasing on a previous trip, where I wondered into a train-station off-licence at 7:50pm on a week-night and had to fight through an almighty scrum to get my can of Borg, which I went on to consume (illegally) on the train to the airport.

Crafty can of Borg on the train from Oslo to Gardermoen

But just as smokers feel obliged to have a cigarette whenever there’s an opportunity, perhaps these regulations are driving people more to grab every chance to buy alcohol, rather than discourage it…

The facts don’t really back me up, because Norwegian per capita alcohol consumption isn’t that high on the world league table of drinkers – only half of UK per capita consumption – but that’s averaged over a whole year. Given a chance, Norwegians will snatch at it with both hands.
The German woman at reception at the hotel seemed to think so. Originally from Leipzig, she had lived in Norway for 3 years to be with her Norwegian boyfriend, and said that further North it gets worse – blaming it on the dark and the weather. Her boyfriend’s aunt offered her coffee with a shot at three in the afternoon. Apparently they put a coin in a mug then pour coffee in till the coin disappears, then they dilute with spirits until the coin reappears. But on the other hand, they are so uptight about alcohol that they refuse to serve meat in a red-wine sauce to under-18s.
I guess it’s a moderate version of prohibition (which Norway also gave a go in the 1920s) with moderately similar results. That’s to say, not a uniformly teetotal population.
Or maybe that’s just the effect it has on me.
Anyway, the meeting went on for a lot longer than I expected, so in the end I had to drive straight back to the airport and there was no time fannying around looking for crap tourist spots – I was sizing up a pilgimage to Tønsberg, the birth-place of Magnus Carlsen – the youngest person ever to achieve the number one ranking in chess, but I guess that’ll have to wait.
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Signal de Botrange

31st March, 2011 18:00 ~ 18:20

Altitude: 694m ~ 700m
Irony value: 3/5
Overall verdict: We know so little of the Belgians.

Although as a general rule I prefer to stay on the course that has been set for me and try to find what’s on offer along the way, Signal de Botrange did involve a detour. I had a meeting in Liege, Belgium that finished at 5pm, and my hotel was booked for Arnhem in The Netherlands about 120 miles north.
It would have been nice to get there in time for dinner and to write up my reports for the Liege meeting, and the one I’d had in the morning in Heerlen, Netherlands.
However, after Vaalserberg the previous day, I was on some kind of altitude binge and allowed myself to drive the 30 miles south east to visit Belgium’s highest point.

At 694m, Signal de Botrange is the highest of the notional “3 peaks of Benelux”, and would even be considered “pretty high” in England, with only Cumbria, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire and Herefordshire(!) having anything higher.

It is part of the High Fens (Fr: Hautes Fagnes, Du: Hoge Venen) and gets quite a bit of snow in the winter – enough for there to be pistes for cross-country skiing.

20110407-081329.jpg

It’s a plateau with a cafe and a car park, and until recently was the site for a meteorological station. The highest point is marked by the Baltia Tower, a six metre high staircase to nowhere added by enterprising Belgians between hosting world wars (in 1923) purely to round it up to 700m.

The tower is named after Baron Herman Baltia, a Belgian military officer and politician, who is known for (among other things) organising art exhibitions on the Yser front in 1916.

Baron Herman Baltia in 1922

How many times have we played the “name five famous Belgians” game at dinner parties? Dozens, I bet. But if displaying his watercolours to mangled World War One troops in the trenches and building six-metre staircase monuments to round-numbered metric altitudes was a measure of this man’s priorities, then I think I will install Baron Baltia as my favourite Belgian, and wait patiently until this popular parlour game comes up again, so I can rattle off his resume with aplomb.

20110407-082414.jpg

Baltia Tower

At the top of this staircase, there is a modest plinth honouring Albert, then King of Belgium, and the platform you stand on is engraved with the “ALTITUDE 700.00”

The majesty of the six metre Baltia Tower is somewhat overshadowed by a second tower built in the thirties, which rises to 718m above sea level.

The car park was deserted when I got there at around 6pm, but during my brief stay, an older couple arrived with their dog, and gave me, a middle-aged man in a suit, standing in the drizzle, taking photos of staircases, an amused frown.

Belgians, eh?

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The other tower

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Jupiler – Le Marine

30th March 2011, 19:00~20:00

Alcohol content: 5.2%
Price: €2.30
Embarrassing situations avoided: 1

Le Marine in Liege is just over the road from Etap Liege, and is the only place on the street to get a meal. The place has a nautical theme, reflected in the website, menu and the name of the restaurant itself. This is enthusiastically pursued in the decor too – there is a manikin of a pirate, model boats and the walls are covered in sea-charts.

http://www.lemarine.be/index.htm

20110406-175709.jpg

The world’s Francophones, of course, have no way of knowing that I studied French for five years. Not by looking at me, and certainly not by listening to my attempts at their language. But deep down, I know that I’ve studied French and I’ve had it drummed into me that I should really have a go.
No such guilt in Germany or Spain.
And despite French-speakers being our closest neighbours and French being the one language we all have to tackle at some point in our academic careers, I still think there is something absurdly foreign about the pronunciation that you don’t get in Italian or German. Maybe Chinese is more foreign, but only just.

It’s like you have to completely throw yourself into the French character or the whole enterprise falls flat. You can’t just test the water with some soft-spoken anglicised approximations. It’ll get you nowhere. No. You have to either do the accent or not even bother.

So it was that I found myself dithering towards the end of the meal, unable to remember how to ask for the bill. The waiter knew I was ready to leave. He would probably have understood if I had asked in English. The empty plate and the drained glass provided all the context anyone in the waiter trade could possibly need to fathom what my next requirement might be.

I toyed with getting another beer to delay the moment.

In the end, I waited until the waiter had moved to the other side of the room. Once there, I could do the air-scribble mime, internationally understood to mean “the bill, please”, and perfectly acceptable when the waiter is more than 20 feet away.

Post-script: L’addition s’il-vous plait…

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