Thursday, 27 January 2011

Milan Beer Tour - Birrificio Lambrate

Torre Velasca - Milan

A tip off pointed us in the direction of a bar called Birrificio Lambrate in , surprise-surprise, the Lambrate area of the city. On the way, the metro stopped briefly at Piazzale Loreto, infamous as the place where Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci's bodies were hung upside-down from a petrol station gantry in 1945 after being shot trying to flee towards Italy's northern border. The previous year, 15 imprisoned partisans had been shot on that spot in reprisal for Allied bombing and raids by the Resistance. Their bodies had been left as a warning to others by the German command, so I guess this was payback of sorts. We resisted the ghoulish urge to go up and have a look around and instead continued on our journey to the northeast of Milan. Pliny the Elder first mentioned the Lambrate area of Milan in the 1st century BC with reference to a river, which flowed here with clear and limpid waters. The name of the area was taken from the river and we certainly hoped that liquid would flow here tonight, but not necessarily clear and limpid!
A short walk from the station, past Piazza Gobetii and on an ugly, forgettable side street sat our destination. From the outside it looked closed with low lighting and simple signage. The only clue as to its state of being was the collection of somewhat rough looking individuals smoking outside the door. We crossed the road and made our way to the front door, squeezing past the smokers who seemed less rough and quite friendly this close up.
The place was packed. Every shape and make of person was in there from young professionals to families and crusty looking hippies. The reason for the crowd, or at least one of the reasons, was the bowls and on the plates at the bar. During Happy Hour in certain bars in the city they place free food on the bar for the clientele to gorge themselves on, as well as reducing the beer prices. There was an amazing spread of food. Pesto pasta, risotto, garlic focaccias (focacce?), crostini, salads, olives and other items too numerous to mention. Perhaps forty dishes in total, were being picked at and devoured by all. Everyone seemed to be a local and they all appeared to know each other as they shouted and gestured to each other across the room. We forced our way politely to the bar and looked at the list of what was on offer, scratched on a chalkboard overhead.
Birrificio Lambrate was opened in 1996 and was the first craft brewer in Milan. The idea was to open a bar, with beer brewed on site, for people who were a bit sick and tired of the ‘normal’ beers and bars of the city. They began with three different styles and added more every few years. Today they usually have around eight available at any one time, some being seasonal and only available during winter or at other times of the years.
The friendly affable barman, resplendent with tidy goatee and a selection of tasteful tattoos, gave us the nod and we placed our order for three Ligera. He politely, and rightly, corrected our pronunciation and pulled our pints as the locals at the bar had a laugh at our poor attempts at Italian. We got the feeling that it was only die-hard beer tourists who took the trek out to here.
As we waited for our beer we took in our surroundings. There was something familiar and comfortable about the place. All the walls were clad in dark timber, which matched the tables, chairs, barstools and the bar itself. The place had a lived in feel with graffiti covered table tops and low level lighting.
We found a half free table and sat down briefly before returning, one by one, to the bar to pick up some of the tasty morsels on offer. The food was incredibly good, perhaps enhanced by the fact it was free, and we made frequent return journeys until we were full or getting funny looks from the barman. We sat back and relaxed, comfortable in our surrounds and taking in the atmosphere. The beer, Ligera, was a beautiful, bitter hoppy number, which had us smacking our lips and grinning from ear to ear.
The music playing on the excellent sound system was our kind of music. Led Zeppelin was blasting out but even though it was loud it didn't get in the way of our conversation. The bass wasn't overpowering and they seemed to have installed ample speakers. This meant that it wasn't too loud, just loud enough. It was musical engineering perfection.
We quickly drained our glasses and started working through a few more of the house-brewed offerings. Ghisa, a creamy, smoky wonderful stout with a fudgy aftertaste, was worth the trip out here alone, perhaps even the trip to Milan itself. Porpora was a malty ale with a sweet, liquorice taste. San Ambrosiana was a dunkleweizen style wheat beer with a blast of cloves to make your eyes water. All were superb. Fresh and tasty from their short trip from the attached brewery and served with a combination of professionalism and friendliness that would put the staff in many bars back home to shame.
We were in heaven and the joint was rocking, The Doors and Gorillaz followed Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos. Many customers had left when the free food stopped and the place was filling up with a younger Saturday night crowd and a few older customers here for a meal. We had gorged ourselves on food and beer at this stage so we had no room to try the food offered from the kitchen, which was attached to the bar. Anything we saw heading for the dining tables looked wholesome and tasty, with empty plates always heading back in the opposite direction.
By now we were half standing, lounging in a corner of the pub because we had to vacate our seats, which were reserved for proper eaters only and not freeloaders like us. The only table that was free was beside the toilets, which was handy in one way but obviously has its disadvantages. Male and female toilets were side by side with a communal wash hand basin and I had just finished a visit to the facilities when the ladies' door open and a large woman came out, pulling up her trousers as she did. She was intensely ugly, the only women I had seen with sideburns and a unibrow. She grunted at me and exited without washing her hands. The whole experience gave me shivers and I recounted the encounter to BeerMat and BeerGoogles as we drank our beers. BeerMat took to watching her as she wandered through the room, hitting on anyone she could. 'Yikes.' He said, as we watched her squeeze her ample frame between two guys having a conversation at the bar and then trying to hit on every other male in the bar. Except for us strangely enough… She left soon after; no doubt before the full moon rose and her look changed again. She was the only negative thing we had come across all night.
Ozzie was shouting out 'Finished with my woman' to a pounding bass line as BeerMat made his way to the bar for the next round of drinks and came back beaming.
'These are on the house!' he said, 'I think yer man behind the bar appreciates us making the trip out here, and how much we like the place and the beer. He says this is a new brew but I didn't catch its name.'
We looked to the bar and raised our glasses to him. He smiled back before returning his attention to the beer and his other customers.
'Jesus, that's great.' I said, 'Free food and free drink! I think we're on a roll. You should go up and see if he has a couple of sisters for you and BeerGoggles.'
BeerMat just grinned his famous grin and took a big drink of his pint. I quickly followed suit. This was a little like Ligera but more bitter and with a citrus-like taste, like a shot of grapefruit juice had been added. I was another winner certainly.
The place is really rocking now with a wonderful buzz and 'Rock the Casbah' is playing. This surely must be one of the best bars in Milan. No Italy. No Europe, we decide. It shows up the inadequacies of other places really, and the importance of finding the right balance or food, drink and atmosphere. This lively, almost visceral, bar on an nondescript side street in an ordinary part of the city had got everything right tonight. And as The Beastie Boys belted out 'Sabotage', we drank our last beer, Monstella, a pilsner style beer that would have the Americans, Germans and Czechs ringing their hands with worry if it was ever unleashed on the world market. Then we headed towards the door to catch the last metro back into town, stopping at the bar to say our goodbyes and getting a cool, thumb grip handshake from the barman. With the appropriate strains of 'I just can't get enough' resonating from the bar and following us up the street, we cursed the fact that the place was so far from our base and that the Metro didn't run later. Maybe it was a blessing really as we probably would never have left the place, we'd still be there today.
(Apologies for poor photos)

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Düsseldorf Beer Tour 3 - minus the beer

A last piece on Düsseldorf for now - This is another excerpt from a longer article that I will dip back in to some other time.

We woke up the next day to an overcast sky with a chilly breeze blowing in from the east. This was our third day in Düsseldorf and so far we hadn't experienced many of the sights, instead concentrating on the beer, food and atmosphere of the city. I had read about the Rhine Tower, which in fairness is hard to miss on the skyline anyway and also of some buildings by Frank O. Gehry, the Canadian architect, down at the redeveloped harbour so we decided to take a trek in that direction.
After grabbing a light breakfast in the hotel we set off in the direction of the tower. It was mid-morning and city was quiet as we walked through it towards the Rhine. The shops and bars were opening up and the Christmas market was also beginning to show signs of life.
We arrived at the Rhine, which looked cold and foreboding this morning, with the barges, some ploughing through the current south and others literally going with the flow north. It seemed to me that travelling north would be the trickier as you had less control of your vessel. I presume the trick is to travel quicker than the current so that you have more control of your direction, a bit like life, while using its force to expend less fuel.
I was in quiet contemplation of this as we walked south, against the flow. We all seemed lost in our thoughts and a little tired from the last few days. The tower loomed larger every couple of hundred meters but in that misleading way that large building do, it deceived us on its actual distance away. We passed under the Rheinkniebrücke with the rumble of cars and lorries over our heads and eventually we arrived at the base of the tower. Looking up at it now it seemed like an almost impossible structure, like a bowl balanced on a knitting needle, and it was with excitement and a squirt of trepidation we walked up to the entrance.
The tower was completed in 1982 and stands over 230 meters high. Perched in the bowl are a viewing platform and above that a revolving restaurant. The top of the tower contains what I presume are all the TV technology and paraphernalia that the tower was built to hold. It is also the world’s largest decimal clock; the time being read by assessing the layout of the lights than can be seen on the tower's body at night.
We paid our entrance fee and made our way to the lift, our ears popping as it made its rapid ascent to the viewing platform. The doors opened and we were suddenly in the midst of fifty or more sweaty, acne-ridden teenagers on a school trip and a couple of frazzled looking teachers. We worked our way through the throng towards the glass walls. The glazing around this part of the building leans out at an angle a little like an upside down coolie hat and is certainly a little disconcerting. You could, as some of the teenagers were doing, spread eagle yourself with just the glass supporting your weight and look down to see the base of the tower, and a fair proportion of the rest of it. Why you would want to us anybody's guess but teenagers tend to show a lack of fear that is either borderline moronic or, at best, foolhardy in the extreme. I am pretty sure that the glass is strong enough to hold even my weight but when you get a little older you always have this nagging feeling that one day you will appear on a news bulletin with the words 'accident' and 'tragic' combined with your name.
Even on this slightly overcast day the views were tremendous. The immense, sinuous Rhine with its bridges and barges, the old town, the buildings on the harbour and on the west bank were all laid out in front of us, with the countryside of Germany, Holland and Belgium stretching away into the distance.
One building, the regional parliament building, stood out below us. It had clearly been built with the view from above in mind with a tangle of interconnecting geometric shapes forming a stunning pattern from where we stood. We had walked past it on the way to the tower and although it seemed bright and tidy we had no idea that it was such a beautifully designed building. I don't think you could appreciate it from anywhere but up here.
We walked around the platform a few times, avoiding the groups of death wishing teenagers, looking for somewhere for a coffee. Sadly we were too early for the restaurant on the next level and we were probably a little grotty for it anyway. Mind you, this section was not without its grottiness too. It could have done with a little sprucing up and perhaps a little coffee bar and better seating. I guess people come here to look at the view and not at the furnishings.
After a while I noticed that there were actually two school groups here, one English and one German. Both groups looked and acted the same and they seemed to be mingling but not really communicating with each other. It made me think about whether the great-grand fathers of the English group had looked down from a greater height again than this on the city. Had they dropped some of the bombs that fell while the great-grandparents of the German group hid in their shelters? Did these kids ever think about it? Or were they too far removed from that time. Perhaps it was just something you yawned over in your history books or role-played on your Playstation. It would be sad, I think if either side forgot. Being Irish it's not that easy to put yourself in the shoes of the people whose countries fought in the Second World War. I guess that like the history of my own country you need to, perhaps forgive, learn from and move on, but not forget.
I found the others and we decided to move on to the harbour. We could see it from up here but not with any detail. If anything the Gehry buildings looked a little disappointing from here. We got the lift down and made our way towards them. I half expected to hear a sharp crack of glass splintering and a piercing semi-pubescent scream starting from over our heads and ending with a damp thud behind us. It never happened though.

In 1989 work started on the old industrial harbour to transform it into a trendy office-residential-social centre. The Media Harbour, as it was christened, is now home to almost 600 companies with 8,000 employees and is still growing. One of the architectural highlights of this area is surely 'Der Neue Zollhof' buildings designed by Frank O. Gehry and completed in 1999.
We approached the buildings from the marina after first viewing the buildings from a tongue of manicured parkland that projects south from the Rhine Tower. The colours, shape and grace of the buildings had me mesmerised and banished any of the negative thoughts I had formed of them from the tower. Not even the overcast weather or BeerGoggles urging of BeerMat to, and I quote, 'Take me roughly up against this tree!' could break me from my rapture. (I might not have heard the word 'roughly' and he might have been talking about a photo but as I say, I wasn't paying a lot of attention.)
Building three, which was the first approached from our direction, is finished in white plaster and is the largest of the three, building two in polished stainless steel is the smallest, and building one is finished in brick. They twist, turn and lean in almost every angle and make your eyes water if viewed from the wrong direction. The silver building transfixed me. It reflected the clear, grey, mid-morning light in a way that seemed to make it move as we approached it. It drew me towards it with a bizarre sensual pleasure that is not entirely appropriate for a building to exude. I had to touch it. It was cool and almost soft and yielding, at least in my mind. The other two were busily sniggering at me for my feeling of misplaced affection, or affliction, and although they appreciated the architecture they were not affected in the same way. It was bizarre; I almost felt I needed a cold shower. Almost.
The others eventually tore me away from my new found love and we wandered between the other buildings in the harbour. Almost all were exceptional but some stood out more than others. The copper plated Kai 13 and the Roggendorf-Haus were two that particularly caught our eyes. The latter not because of the building itself, which was pretty mundane, but because of the Flossis. Large, multicoloured humanoid figures that scampered, crawled and climbed all over the building itself, giving it a surreal quality.
We wandered around a little more and having taken a few snaps decided to make our way back towards the Altstadt. As we passed the Gehry buildings I felt a pang of regret and a heart-wrenching tug, as I might never see this building again. I sighed and kept walking, refusing to look back. It was too difficult.
Mind you the thought of a beer and the continuing sniggers from the others soon brought me around, and by the time we were back in the Altstadt it was all just a happy, if somewhat disturbing, memory.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Düsseldorf Beer Tour 2

Another piece on Düsseldorf ........ Better late than never?

We met again in Balthasars on the corner of Bolkerstrasse and not far from the hotel. The place was pretty packed, it being a Saturday evening, but we found a spot and settled down. We decided to grab a bite to eat here as the plates that were passing under our noses looked good and we didn't like the idea of drinking on an empty stomach. Not that we were planning to drink a lot in any case, as we were not really in Düsseldorf for a session. At our age it's quality not quantity that counts. When you hit the big 40, the same adage applies to many things.
We ordered our food, and a beer of course. I choose a Schöfferhoffer Dunkleweizen, which is a darker version of a wheat beer I had tried before. (It’s a great name, reminding me of a character from a fairy tale. 'Schöfferhoffer Dunkleweizen the troll lived under the old willow tree on the banks of the river Dunkle, from which he got his name........' would make a great start for a book.) I had picked it up in a certain German supermarket at home a few months before and enjoyed its typical - for a wheat beer - banana and clove flavour. This was a little heavier and sweeter than the pale version and although I enjoyed it, I had trouble finishing it. Perhaps it was just that it was a little early in the night for a strong, dark beer. Mind you, the steak I ordered was superb if a little over done for my tastes. After another lighter beer we headed out and down Bolkerstrasse, our hunger sated for now and eager to check out the Altstadt at night.
Halfway down the street we came across the arresting site of a guy taking a dump. Now I'm aware this needs further explanation but first let me say that he was excreting gold coins into a sack and had a smile on his face, as you would have I guess. This was the image that grinned at us from a carving on the sidewall of one of the buildings. Only later did I find out that it was Dukatenscheisser who appears in Germany and Holland in various forms and is synonymous, I think, with either being miserly or frugal depending on how you look at it.

The streets and bars were filling up now with good-natured young people. There was lots of laughter everywhere and any cares or problems these drinkers had seemed to be dissolved by the beer they were drinking. Nowhere did we hear anything but good-natured ribbing and noisy discussion. The stag and hen parties that I thought were ubiquitous to every cheap flight destination on the continent on a Saturday night seemed to have chosen elsewhere to go. We saw only one small group of hens cackling quietly in a bar half way along the street.
We decided to give the bars on this street a miss tonight, as it was not really what we wanted. Preferring a quiet beer and a chat rather than shouting over the music and noise coming from the bars here.
We soon reached Marktplatz. It looked very Christmas-like and continental with it's illuminated Rathaus, Christmas trees draped with lights and the little huts of the market. All were still open and doing a fair trade, even thought it was past nine o'clock, with many people grabbing a quick bite to eat from the food stalls before heading out into the night to their homes, or a familiar drinking place. We turned left and went past a very busy Uerige, resisting the temptation to call in again, and continued on up Berger Strasse looking for a quieter spot for a couple of drinks with the intention of having an early night. We were all a little tired and weary from travelling and lack of sleep.
We spied a quiet bar, Köpi, on the right near the top of the street and wandered in. It was nice inside with subdued lighting and music. We guessed that this was probably a refuge for the locals from the excesses happening on Bolkerstrasse. It certainly seemed like our kind of place. We all ordered different beers. I plumped for a Köstritzer Schwarzbier on draught, another beer I had tried from our local German supermarket back home. It arrived with a head that would put a certain Irish stout to shame, resembling the top of a very large, fluffy cappuccino. I savoured the appearance for a little while before taking a big gulp. The taste was superb, reminding me of rich dark chocolate with a shot of espresso bitterness. We chatted a little and had a couple more here before heading out in to the cold night. This end of the street was very quiet and as we passed Marktplatz again we decided to keep walking to see how the rest of the city looked at night, away from the Bolkerstrasse.
We arrived at Burgplatz and while looking around came across a trendy looking restaurant/bar called simply Schwan and decided to call in for a nightcap and to escape the cold. This was a place for the beautiful people and I must admit that I felt a little awkward and out of place. My scrappy beard and beer belly seemed to be making a mockery of what the proprietors were trying to achieve here. I expected at any moment to be ushered out the door by a burly bouncer saying 'Nien, nien, nien. Out, out, out.'
I was wrong; we were greeted with open arms and shown a nice table. I presume this was because it was pretty quiet here so they had to drop their standards to try and increase revenue. On the other hand, maybe I had been sprinkled with dust from the paranoia fairy that seems to sometimes follow me around.
The beer list didn't excite us so someone, me to be honest, decided that we should have a cocktail to end the night. So Mojitos all round it was.
Well maybe a couple more then.
Now I'm not sure whether it was the sugar or the mint, maybe it was the rum. Whatever it was we seemed to get a sudden lease of life that I would not have believed possible half an hour before. Suddenly we were all buzzing and eager to continue the night.
We decided to work our way back towards Bolkerstrasse with intentions of entering one of those noisy bars that seemed such a poor choice earlier in the night. We found a nightclub called Pretty Vacant and entered, resorting to drinking trendy Pilsner Urquell and Rothaus Tannenzäpfle beers from the bottle and slowly getting worse for wear.

The next few hours were passed in a haze of clubs, bars and beer. I have memories of being frisked roughly by an enormous bouncer, of being snowed on by a soapy snow machine as I passed under it, of squeezing past amorous couples intent on removing the tonsils from each other with suction alone, and of eating something piggish and tasty in a bun on a street corner. I recall noisy streets, friendly police and no trouble whatsoever. I remember how nice everyone was and how we ended up exactly where I didn't want to be, in one of the Irish bars beside our hotel, listening to U2 and singing along too loudly.
At some stage during the night I had turned into the epitome of an Irish man abroad. The drunk at the bar singing out of tune, thinking he's everyone's friend and that everyone loves you if you're Irish. The embarrassment!
It was time for bed and a mental reminder to never do that again.