Friday, October 30, 2009

Two Countries Divided By a Common Beer Style

For those of you who are not aware of my employment, or lack thereof, situation at the moment, at weekends I work in the tasting room of the Starr Hill Brewery. On Saturdays and Sundays you are very likely to find me at the bar in the tasting room, serving samples of the brewery's range of beers to visitors, it is a job that I enjoy immensely. One of the most common questions I get asked by visitors is which of our beers is my favourite, and I am very lucky to work for a brewery whose range I genuinely enjoy. At the moment, because these things change, I have to admit that I have two favourites, we currently have a bourbon barrel aged, dry hopped barleywine available to which I am particularly partial, but from our core range, my clear favourite is Northern Lights IPA. For some time then I have been planning to get my hands on a bottle of a British IPA and do a comparison tasting of British and American IPA, that bottle arrived on Wednesday and was St Peter's India Pale Ale from Suffolk in England. As ever, I am using my variation on the Cyclops system for my tasting notes (the sooner American brewers adopt this system as well the better as far as I am concerned).



First up the English IPA, naturally as England is the home of IPA.
  • Sight - amber with a definite orange, small white head
  • Smell - bitter orange peel, faint caramel
  • Taste - sweet maltiness, spicy hops, mellow citrus
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
What a nice beer this is! Seriously, it is delicious, an excellent balance between the hops and malt, both kind of up and in your face, but neither dominating so much as to make it either sickly or like sucking lemons, there is a noticeably bitter aftertaste which I really enjoyed. A beautiful beer.



And now the American contender:
  • Sight - sparkling amber, loose white head
  • Smell - heavy grapefruit hoppiness (it's the Cascade!)
  • Taste - In your face grapefruit, smooth marmelade background
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 4/5
Damn it I love this beer, I really pity people who can't get this beer in their neck of the woods, seriously it is such a nice IPA. The thing it has for me over most IPAs in the US is that there is far more going on than just a hop bomb. Yes there is that classically American C hop, in your face, grapefruit citrus that you expect, but the malty sweetness of the body, and a subtle boozy glow, set that off perfectly. As I say to a lot of people in the tasting room, it is like hoppy marmelade. It is interesting the number of women who tell me that don't like hoppy beer, usually after they have just tried our Pale Ale, and thus don't want to try the IPA, but love it when I eventually persuade them just to try.

There really isn't much to tell these two excellent beers apart, other than the hop varieties in use. Perhaps then Northern Lights is closer to a genuine IPA than many of the hopbominations out there in the American market because it has the extra maltiness needed to balance out the big citrus flavours. My only gripe with the St Peter's is the use of a green bottle, but that is purely because my experience here so far is that green bottles don't travel as well as brown - thinking about Pilsner Urquell here for sure, so much so I have sworn not to drink it until I am again in Prague and can have it unpasteurised, it really makes such a difference.

Now if only I could find somewhere with Northern Lights as a cask conditioned ale, who happen to have a cask of St Peter's India Pale Ale, then I would be in IPA nirvana.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brewing Tunes

Once again I am brewing today, for something like the third time in a month. I bottled the Machair Mor yesterday and this morning, while waiting for UPS to deliver a case of beer from Vintage Cellar, I will be making Biere d'épices - my spiced Christmas ale.

While I am brewing, I will of course be listening to some of my favourite music, so here is my selection of brewing tunes for each stage of the process.

1. Steeping the grains: Hope Street - The Levellers



2. Boil: Amerika - Rammstein



3. Hop Additions: Uprising - Muse



4. Chilling The Wort: Obsessions - Suede



5. Pitching the Yeast, Fermentation: The Sun and the Sky - The Violet Burning

Monday, October 26, 2009

Some Things Mean More

Starr Hill Barleywine, superb;
Primator Weizen, magnificent;
2-0 against Manchester United, priceless

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nitro Nostalgia

As much as I would be classified as a "beer geek", or "beer anorak" if you prefer, I am not adverse to taking trips down beer memory lane, despite the fact there are more than several nights where the beer stole my memories entirely, although I would like to claim that the Scotch on top of the beer was to blame. I have mentioned on Fuggled before that before I moved to Prague from the UK, I drank ale instead of lager as a rule, beers like John Smith's, Murphy's and Caffrey's were my staple tipples.





If those beers weren't available then my back up plan was Boddington's, which I vaguely remember being available on draught in a few places in Birmingham, but when I moved back to the Highlands I could only get in cans. About a week ago I noticed that our local Food Lion was selling four packs of Bod for only $6.79, and so for purely nostalgic reasons I dropped a pack into the shopping trolley - sorry guys, "cart" just sounds wrong - they won't let me bring my horse into the shop to pull it.





Well it certainly still pours with the bubble cascade and thick, creamy white head I remembered so well - I was tempted to try the old Czech quality test and see if I could balance a coin on the head, it is said that being able to do so is a sign of a properly made beer. Whereas I used to enjoy watching the cascade, and though that the head was great, these days it just annoys me. Eventually though the head settled and I drank my Bod, and although it isn't great, it isn't that bad - I have certainly drunk far worse, and that from the "craft" beer world.





Probably one of the main contributing factors for a lad of my age drinking Boddington's back in the 90s was the advertising, with the lovely Melanie Sykes fronting a series of commercials based around the theme of Bod being the "Cream of Manchester", my favourite though stars Sarah Parish:






Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Swimming in the Rip Tide?



So BrewDog have decided to sell a 9% stake in the company to, hopefully, 10,000 lovers of the brand - describing it as the "single most exciting, influential and ground-breaking thing to happen in the British brewing industry for decades". I will say quite openly here and now, as I have on several people's blogs - were I still living in the European Union, I would no doubt be one of those 10,000 people. Would I be doing it because I think it would make me rich? Probably not. Would I be doing it because of the 20% lifetime discount on BrewDog beer? Again, probably not. I would be doing it because I genuinely and sincerely want BrewDog to succeed, grow and show that British brewers can be as iconoclastic as their American cousins. Basically anything that means I can walk to a beer store in Charlottesville and pick up bottles of Hardcore IPA, Paradox and Rip Tide is a good thing in my world.

As things stand, BrewDog appear to be in a very fortunate situation at the moment. Their edgy and aggressive marketing is backed up by seriously good beer. They have a groundswell of goodwill from many in the beer blogging world, and I would be surprised if many of the British bloggers I read don't go out and buy a share in the company, most likely for reasons very similar to why I would if I could. However, this rosy situation could so easily turn sour, and that is the tightrope that James, Martin and the BrewDog guys will now find themselves walking along - and to be honest it is one place I wouldn't want to be.

Having read on BrewDog's main site about their plans for the investment, I must admit that a somewhat parochial question went through my mind, why build the new carbon neutral brewery in Aberdeen? I am assuming here of course that the facilities in Fraserburgh will be closed down in the process. Would the jobs created by building and running the new brewery not be welcome in Fraserburgh? I am aware that the Broch's unemployment rate is below average in Scotland, but while having a nice shiny new brewery is a nice thing, why not keep the company's roots in Fraserburgh?

Another part of BrewDog's plan is to create a new range of beers under the brand name "Abstrakt", you can see the promotional picture here. Now, please, pardon my French and perhaps I am wrong but it seems entirely out of keeping with the concept of BrewDog as the brewing world's "punks" and more like yuppies in denial. Seriously, who wrote the bollocks on that picture? "directional boundary pushing beers"? "will release a small amount edition batches per year" - someone perhaps was in the Foundation class doing Standard grade English? As I have said elsewhere, I am not convinced that Abstrakt is really all that ground-breaking - Fuller's annual Vintage series springs immediately to mind.



As I said at the outset of this rambling, I wish BrewDog nothing but success at bringing excellent beer to the drinking public, and if in the process they make themselves wealthy men then well done to them. What they have done with their new plans is take a difficult path, and one where I am sure it won't be long before some people feel disenfranchised from the brand, and begin to label them as sell outs - much as embittered Pearl Jam fans did with Nirvana when they achieved commercial success. For me though, as long as the beer remains good then I am a happy BrewDog fan.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Change in Christmas Beer Plan

When I was a kid, we lived in Celle in northern Germany - or West Germany as it was back in those days - and every Christmas my mother would make a gingerbread house. Now, my mother isn't one for buying ready made kits or foods for Christmas, whether that be a gingerbread house, the mincemeat for the pies, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake, pretty much everything was prepared from start to finish the traditional way. Around this time of  year, mum would make the Christmas pudding and Christmas cake, and let them mature and age until the big day itself - every weekend feeding the cake with brandy. For all the work my mother would put into the making of the Christmas feast, it took my little brother and I moments to bash through the gingerbread to get at the sweets inside, and then days to slowly eat the house itself.

It was this gingerbread house tradition that we had as kids which has inspired my Christmas beer this year, and the fact that until I go all-grain in my home brewing, I would have problems with my original intentions of making a dark top-fermented Baltic Porter in the style of Nøgne Ø's fantastic Christmas beer. I also wanted to use a French hop as a nod to the fact that my parents now life in the Limousin area of France, so I am using Strisselspalt in the brew.

The recipe is as follows:

  • 1.3kg Amber DME
  • 250g Caramel 80
  • 1/4 tsp crushed cloves, boiled 10 minutes
  • 1/4 tsp grated ginger, boiled 10 minutes
  • 1 tbsp ground cinnamon, boiled 10 minutes
  • 15g sweet orange peel, boiled 10 minutes
  • 30g Strisselspalt @ 60 minutes
  • 15g Strisselspalt @ 15 minutes
  • 15g Strisselspalt @ 5 minutes
  • Wyeast Belgian Abbey II
I am hoping for an OG of 1.048, and eventually an ABV of 4.5%. Brewing is scheduled tentatively for next Wednesday as I will be bottling my Machair Stout on Tuesday once it has had two weeks in the carboy. Given a couple of weeks in the primary fermenter followed by being in bottles for about 5 weeks before Christmas itself, I am hoping that everything will work out well.

The name for my new beer? Biere d'épices!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Heretic? Me?

As much as I love Guinness, I have always loved Murphy's more.

I have a four pack of cans to enjoy with myself tonight - perhaps I am a heretic, but every prospect pleases!

And a wee song to get you in the mood....

Friday, October 16, 2009

Is Authenticity Important?

This is something I have been thinking about quite a bit lately, is the authenticity of a beer really that important? Does it matter much that a golden lager from Germany bears the label "pils"? Are the methods and ingredients used in producing a particular beer as important as the taste of the end product? Where is the line between making a genuine artisan beer and being innovative just for the hell of it?

The spur for this train of thought over the last couple of weeks was a short clip on TV about how Samuel Adams Boston Lager is made. Part of the process used, according to the clip, was the use of a decoction mash - in particular a double decoction. I was thrilled to be honest to see that at least one of my favourite American lagers (and that is a very, very short list) is made with a decoction mash, as well as 5 weeks of lagering, not to mention being krausened. Of course, strictly speaking, the word lager comes from "lagern" meaning "to store" in that most wonderful of languages, German. Lagering as a process not only takes place in the bottom fermented beers we, in the English speaking world, term "lagers", but also styles such as Altbier and Kölsch - some labels for which carry the phrase "obergärige lagerbier" or "top-fermented lagered beer", yet we label it an ale, when it is just as much a "lager", being the product of a decoction mash and a period of cold conditioning.

This got me to thinking about Shakespeare's maxim that "what's in name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", and while I think that is generally true, it is also true that the elements which compose a rose come together in such a unique way as to make calling a rose a daisy, pointless. If you see what I mean. It is ridiculous to call Altbier an "ale" when the only difference between it and "lager" is the yeast employed to make the alcohol, and the only thing it shares with what the English speaking world calls "ale" is the very same yeast. So, in a long round about way, we come to why I think authenticity is important - simply because we insist on using styles in order to categorise the beers we drink.

Let's look at the overused term "pilsner", one which has led me to be deeply disappointed with many of the beers I have tried which proudly display the term on their label. While I see the value of the appellation "pilsner", I also think that Pilsner Urquell forfeit the right to use that name on their products made in Poland and Russia. But is it just a case of where the beer is made that is important? Are not the accepted process of production and ingredients used by the brewers in that place equally as important? I would argue that is exactly the case; thus a "pilsner" for me is made of 4 ingredients; pale moravian malt, Saaz hops, soft water and bottom fermenting yeast stolen from Bavaria by a dodgy monk. Just as important is a triple decoction mash and a lengthy lagering period. For breweries to make a "pilsner style lager" whilst ignoring the very things that made Pilsner Urquell the wonder beer it was, is gross misrepresentation.

Such a strict view of the term "pilsner" begs then the question, can an India Pale Ale be thus called if it hasn't spent 6 months bobbing around on the ocean? Not to mention the difference between a style and an appellation, and where those two monstrosities overlap. This is perhaps where I depart from the fans of "extreme" beers - I would rather drink a well made, traditional, pilsner, for example, than a pure alcohol, 6 trillion IBU, double, imperial IPA or some such. I guess what I am saying is that authenticity is vital when using a beer which has an appellation, but of course innovation when interpreting a style is acceptable.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not Quite As Planned - Again!



Yesterday was brew day. The plan was to brew the imperial stout I am calling Machair Mor, whilst being open to the possibility of another wort not being what it should according to both Beertools and the Beer Recipator, and even my own slight confusion after taking a sample of the boil's specific gravity.

The recipe ended up as follows:
  • 1.75kg Muntons Light DME
  • 900g dark brown sugar
  • 250g American chocolate malt
  • 100g roasted barley
  • 100g flaked oats
  • 30g Galena @ 60
  • 10g Fuggles @ 45
  • 10g EKG @ 15
  • 5g EKG @ 5
The brown sugar was thrown in to the original recipe as a backup to the lack of OG in previous beers, a fact which has been bothering me somewhat. The extra addition of Fuggles was just to use up the remnants of a packet I had after making the Gael 60/- ale.

When I took a sample of the boil, the gravity was 1.150, I had to use my longer hydrometer as the one I usually use just didn't have the scale to deal with such a big wort. When I added the wort to the rest of the water, the OG came down to 1.050 - it has however been suggested to me that the density of the wort caused the boil to sink to the bottom of the carboy and was insufficiently mixed up before taking the OG reading. Something to bear in mind for my next beer.

Since I have started using pre-purified drinking water from the shop, I am getting the wort down to pitching temperature in about 15 minutes, which is brilliant - I chill the bottles of water not being used in the boil, pour 1 gallon into my carboy, put the carboy in an ice bath, pour in the wort - through a re-useable coffee filter for removing the hops sludge and other sundried gunk, top up to about 8 litres and then pitch my yeast. It is easy, cheap and it works! The last couple of beers I have made started fermenting within 3 hours, using the Wyeast Activator - this time I am using the Irish Ale Yeast, and currently have the biggest krausen I have had so far, as you can see below.



Whether it is just plain Machair, or the Machair Mor, I have another nicely fermenting batch of beer to sit in the storage room for a couple of weeks before bottling, and that is the important thing as far as I am concerned.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Of Bottles and Buckets

Later this morning, I am going to bottle my Gael 60/- Scottish ale, which was originally intended to be an 80/- but for some reason I ended up with a more dilute wort than I had planned. Not to worry though, I am expecting a decent session beer for autumnal quaffing, with a light caramel and chocolate thing going on.

Originally I was going to brew up Machair Mor (hopefully it will acquire the title Mor, otherwise it will just be Machair) this afternoon, but I'll leave that for tomorrow.

In the mean time I am going to look into the practicality of converting my 6 gallon plastic bucket fermenter into a fruit press. As you probably know, I am not one for going out and buying the latest fancy pants gadgets and gizmos, plus at $280 for a new one I am not prepared to shell out when I can make a perfectly functioning equivalent for about a tenth of the price. Call me tight if you want, but gathering toys and filling up storage space with stuff I only use a few times a year is just plain dumb.

Anyway, time to sterilised the bottles, thank goodness for the dishwasher! And details of Gael to come later this week.

Quick update:

The Gael 60/- has fermented beautifully and is giving me an ABV of 2.7%, which is just about right for the style. The beer itself is dark copper and beautifully clear - I used Irish moss for the first time, green it is lightly bitter (perhaps a wee bit too bitter for the style) and with a touch of caramel sweetness in it. Once it is bottled it will condition for about 3 weeks in the storage room and I have high hopes for this!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mrs Velkyal's Cider

Sometimes it feels as though our flat is slowly turning into a home-made alcoholic beverage production line. Regular readers will know that I have a 60/- Scottish ale currently in my carboy, which will be bottled on Monday, and then in a quick turn around I plan to brew up my imperial stout on Tuesday. Yesterday though, we added another boozy project to the list, when Mrs Velkyal made her first batch of cider. Last week there was an apple festival near Charlottesville, so while I was at work in the brewery, Mrs V went with a colleague and came back with 3 US gallons of pressed apple juice.



In order to make the cider we needed more fermenting space, so up to Fermentation Trap we went and bought another 3 gallon carboy, the necessary bung, airlock and yeast. Originally we were going to use wine yeast, but after speaking to the guy working in the store we opted for the Safale 04 dry yeast, which apparently most cider makers in these parts use. I also picked up some more steriliser because I didn't like working with the C-Brite stuff.

Mrs Velkyal's recipe was simplicity itself:
  • 2.5 gallons pressed apple juice with no preservatives and junk
  • Safale 04 yeast
The process was also simplicity itself, as you can see from these pictures:



1. Mrs V pouring the juice into the carboy



2. Yeast sprinkled on the must



3. Yeast happily doing its thing.

The OG of the must was 1.044, so we are looking for a 4.5%-5%ABV cider when it is done, and after months in bottles conditioning, something nice and refreshing for next summer. Now, where can we hide a small still?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Lads Among Heather

I seem to be an eternal expat. I haven't lived in the country I call home in any meaningful sense since 1995 (sure 3 years of that time was living in Birmingham in England, but it counts in my mind). Part of the expat experience is that occassional hankering for something from home, whether that takes the form of haggis on Burns Night, a nice single malt scotch, preferably Talisker, or one the beers that you always held a soft spot for; being the stout drinker I am, I still miss Gillespies. One of the beers I like to drink when these almost melancholic moods hits me is Fraoch, a beer I tried and loved long before I knew anything of beer beyond the megaswill.

Thankfully I have found a supplier of Fraoch, and the other beers that the Williams Brothers make in Alloa, although I still need to find somewhere to get my hands on one of the anniversary bottles - whisky aged Fraoch sounds like a dream to me! So I was really pleased to see that the recent International Beer Challenge awarded the WIlliams Brothers a slew of medals, and in order to mark the occassion I though what between song from the Corries to post here on a Friday than The Lads Among Heather?!

Enjoy the song, and have a good weekend people.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Wisdom of St James from the Gate



There are few beers on earth as iconic as Guinness, few brands as well defined and even a source of national pride, few families as remarkable. In three phrases you basically have the premise of Stephen Mansfield's new book, The Search for God and Guinness.

Guinness was the first legal beer I ever drank, in the lounge bar of a hotel near my home back in the north of Scotland, and is still a beer I turn to when I am not sure what to drink - being a beer geek has the disadvantage sometimes of leaving one uncertain as to what to drink in a pub. As a result of my early drinking years enjoying Guinness in Oirish pubs in Birmingham, I have become a devotee of stout in general.

Being a beer geek means I had to remember that I am not Mansfield's target audience, so I had to put myself in the shoes of some of my more religious friends convinced of the evils of alcohol. Mansfield does a good job of showing how beer has been part and parcel of human culture for millennia, and even part of church life from the very beginning of the faith, through to the Reformation, the Puritans and how many of the great men of faith that we revere such as Luther, Calvin, St Patrick and Jonathan Edwards held a positive view of beer, thus showing that Christian prohibitionism stands outside the historic and biblical approach to alcohol.

Much of the Guinness story though I didn't know. Mansfield's treatment of the leading characters in the development of the beer and the business are sympathetic and give the reader a good insight not in to just what each of them did, but also their motives for doing so. One thing that in particular gripped me was the story of how the company backed Dr Lumsden in his efforts to improve the every day lives of the Guinness workers and their families, by improving access to health care, raising the standards of housing, providing education and even starting the first branch of the St John's Ambulance in Ireland.

A couple of minor gripes aside, a slightly patronising tone when dealing with ancient source material which isn't the Bible, and claiming radar to have been invented prior to World War I (yes, I know of the work of Hulsmeyer and Tesla in the early part of the 20th century, but radar as a method of working out the distance away of objects as well as their presence didn't come until later). But these really are very minor gripes.

Regardless of your religious point of view, Mansfield's book is an interesting read and one which proves the old adage that with great wealth comes great responsibility, or as St James would put it "faith without works is dead".

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Try Before You Buy

Below are previews of the Fuggled calendars for 2010, with photography from Mark Stewart of Black Gecko Photography.

Check out the previews and if you like them then follow the links and buy a copy or several.

Fuggled Prague Pubs 2010 Calendar



Fuggled 2010 Beer Calendar

Monday, October 5, 2009

Revolutionary Ale

I don't do nationalism generally speaking, the idea that a culture is in some way superior to another is ludicrous in the extreme. The only thing I hate more than nationalism is blind, jingoistic nationalism where everything from one particular culture is heralded as being the best, the biggest and the most popular on the planet. It was possibly this jingoistic tone that prevented me from reading all of Maureen Ogle's attempted history of American brewing, which apparently only goes back to the likes of Busch, Pabst and other German immigrants building their massive lager breweries - and look where that got American brewing in the years before the craft brewing revolution.

Of course though, beer has been part and parcel of the American experience since the Mayflower landed desperately short on that most essential of victual. In Pete Brown's latest book there is a comment from a Frenchman about how when the English go off on colonial adventures they look for the best local beef, but bring their beer with them. A fuller history then of American brewing has to go back to colonial times and the taverns that provided a focal point for fledgling communities. Thus, when Jay came to visit, bearing gratefully received gifts of ale, I was intrigued by the three bottles of "Ales of the Revolution" from the Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia, each linked to one of the leaders of the American Revolution, including one of the three Charlottesville presidents, Thomas Jefferson.

Now, before I go on to tell you what the beers were like, I would like to reiterate my gripe with American brewers. Come on lads, tell us what is in your beer! I really like to see ingredient lists on labels, just so I can assure myself that there is none of the corn syrup/rice/insert abomination nonsense going on. Anyway, the beer.



Thomas Jefferson is someone I am learning more about, especially as his plantation, Monticello, is just outside Charlottesville. I knew before Mrs Velkyal and I moved out here that he as something of a homebrew buff, what I wasn't aware of was just how well regarded his ale was. Simply put, if this 8%ABV golden ale is even close to Jefferson's tipple then dinners up at Monticello must have been fantastic. Richly fruity and with smooth caramel flavours, this is a wonderfully drinkable ale, almost like some of the best bitters I enjoy when I go home to the UK, just with an added alcoholic glow. Why on earth one of the Cville breweries isn't making this, is quite simply beyond me. As ever, this is a beer that I would happily sit by a fire place and enjoy copious amounts of, before being poured into a taxi home.



Benjamin Franklin seems to have been one of those guys that I would love to have enjoying evenings in the tavern with, anyone with that range of talent and experience must have been one hell of a social companion. The beer that bears his name is something of strange beast, being crimson in colour and having a heady mix of pine and caramel on the nose, which carries over to the drinking. With the prevalence of pine fresh toilet cleaner though these days though, it is difficult not to think of industrial cleaner instead of the tasty, delightful beer that this undoubtedly is.




Last up, whilst watching a small segment on TV about how Samuel Adams Boston Lager is made (they do a decoction mash and lager for 5 weeks!), was the Tavern Porter, which is attributed to a recipe developed by George Washington. This porter is pretty much black as the ace of spades, but with dark ruby edges, topped off with a dark ivory head. The nose is heavy with molasses and chocolate, how I love those smells. In the mouth it is like drinking rich dark chocolate melted and lightly hopped. Yes it is that good! Another superbly well made and simple beer.

And to think this country went from drinking ales of this quality, flavour and depth to drinking Budweiser. Can anyone explain how that happened?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Culture Shock!



Getting used to living in the USA is kind of similar to my experience of living in Minsk for a few months back in 2001. When I decided to take a job in Belarus after a couple of years in Prague, I thought that my somewhat feeble Czech skills at the time would be pretty useless. However, given that Russian and Czech are in the same language family, certain important things were the same; "pivo" will get you beer from the Baltic to the Balkans (other than Hungary and Romania though) and "chleb" will get you some bread. There were times in Minsk when I could understand great chunks of what was being spoken about, and then in a flash I was baffled.

Admittedly I haven't experienced much culture shock since moving over here, but last night it hit with abundance when Mrs Velkyal and I went to see U2 live in Charlottesville. Imagine then, if you will, a fairly normal routine for going to a concert in Prague, such as when I went to see REM at the O2 Arena. Basically it is this; get home from work, quick change, grab a bite to eat and then head for the pub. Several pints later, jump on the tram to the venue, maybe another couple of pints before heading into the venue itself. Once inside, grab a pint from the bar, find seat, enjoy concert with occassional wanderings to the bar for more beer. Now consider last night's gig; meet wife at work to beat traffic and get parked up early; have a packed dinner in the back of the car whilst marvelling at people who bring barbecues and stuff despite the big bold notice on the parking pass that tailgating is prohibited, walk to the venue, buy a bottle of water and some popcorn all the while wondering: why so many kids, everyone is kind of overdressed, where is the bar?

Scott Stadium has no bar, sure it has snack stands selling crap of all kinds - sorry guys but I will never in a million years get into popcorn and funnel cakes. This being a U2 gig, we are positively encouraged to sign up for all manner of activist programs - which is fine, at least they are out there trying to make a difference. In the mean time I am thinking, surely there has to be a bar somewhere round here - it's a concert for crying out loud, an adult event, and still thinking, shouldn't all these kids be in bed? It is a school night after all. Having been forewarned that there would be checks, I didn't bother to bring a hip flask or similar, had I known had flimsy the checks were I would have stuffed a keg up my jumper and blended in with the crowd.

I don't think I have ever gone to a concert where I have consumed precisely zero alcohol. I am grown adult, I am responsible and I would like the opportunity to have a couple of pints whilst watching one of the world's great evangelists, sorry, bands. Now, I am no right winger by any stretch of even the most deraged imagination, but I am starting to have a grudging respect for people who bang on about their 2nd amendment right to bear and keep arms (quite though why anyone would bare arms with the cold as it was last night is beyond me); at least those people actively campaign for something they believe in. In prohibiting alcohol within the stadium, people's 21st amendment right to have a drink was walked all over - though of course I am sure it is in the interests of public safety, usually a euphemism for "we don't want to deal with the few who abuse that right".

U2 though were brilliant.