CategoriesTastes

Craft Beer Around the World – My Favorites

Aegir IPA craft beer
Travel the world and get your craft beer on!

Drinking a locally brewed beer is high on my list of things to do when I travel. It’s right up there with an epic hike, eating a (sometimes revolting) regional delicacy and running a 10K. I’ve had beers all across the United States, and from 44 degrees latitude south to near the Arctic Circle.

So, where are my favorite spots? Here they are. And be assured, I tried to get away from the same ol’ same ol’ and show you at least a few places that aren’t on your map yet. Let’s go!

Australia
Let’s get this out of the way: Foster’s is not Australian for beer. During my 2009 visit, the Aussie craft beer movement was still in its infant stages. We found succor in Sydney at the Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe. I learned about Redoak from the lone grumpy Australian I met in Katoomba. Sourpuss that he was, Redoak is proof that he knew his beer. I still remember its oatmeal stout with its hint of butterscotch. I wasn’t yet a huge India Pale Ale fan yet, but I’d bet Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe has a good one. And it’s slick, elegant hangout. It would be my first destination next time I arrive in Sydney.

craft beer
Beer lovers bond at the Ant ‘n’ Bee in Tokyo.

Japan
There’s more to Japanese beer than Kirin and Saporro. Head to the Ropongi District. Evade the barkers trying to lure you into their loud, expensive nightclubs. Go down a staircase, and bask in the Ant ‘n’ Bee. During our visit, one of the waitresses radiated ecstasy from her recent visit to the American Craft Beer Festival. But she proved that Japan has its own craft beer pride. She hooked us up with a selection of regional brews, including a cask-conditioned stout, a strong ale and a harvest beer. The selection rotates – but chances are, you’ll still be able to get an order of incredible アントンビー六本木 Ant ‘n’ Bee fries to go with your brew.

New Zealand
The climate in New Zealand can grow anything edible. Including hops. Since my visit, craft beer has boiled over down there. I found Dux de Lux to be the top choice. You can find a Dux De Lux in Queenstown or Christchurch. It’s hard not to love a beer called the Black Shag Stout. But surprise! It was the Ginger Tom that stayed in my memory banks. The ginger-infused ale inspired me to put a ginger twist on my homebrewed India Pale Ale … which is currently the favorite among those I’ve forced to drink my homebrew. How’s that for a lasting impression?

Aegir Bryggeri craft beer
Just add Vikings!

Norway
In Flam, Norway, you’ll find Ægir Bryggeri. It couldn’t possibly be cooler if Vikings had chiseled it by hand from a solid block of kryptonite. There’s the architecture – based on a centuries-old stave church. There’s the dessert,  a gooey brownie with ice cream and fruit compote. But none of this means anything without great beer. The India Pale Ale will please any hop lover. The Sumbel porter is also terrific, and then you can be ready to try the seasonals. How does a Cardinal Double Chocolate Chili Stout sound? Well, it’ll be even better when you get to swill it at the Ægir microbrewery.

South Korea
Craftworks Tap House in Seoul is the total package – top-flight craft beer and awesome food. It’s a respite for those who long for a touch of Anglo-influenced cuisine. Myself? I can’t get enough bi bim bap, banchan and bulgogi. If you’re up for quesadillas and bangers ‘n’ mash, this is your place. I had the Geumgang dark ale and the Moon Bear India Pale Ale. Despite the craft beer status, they don’t have quite the alcohol percentage of North American brews. Still flavorful, still well executed, and still far better than anything else you’re likely to find in Seoul.

craft beer
Page 1 of the beer list at The Happy Gnome.

United States
I live in a big country. And its pint glass overflows with killer craft beer. Since it’s my home country and it covers so much space, I’m going to give you TWO recommendations.

Alright, let’s start with the west. North of the hurlyburly that is San Diego, you’ll find Carlsbad. It’s no sleepy little town, but it’s far more relaxed than its neighbor to the south. It’s also the home of Pizza Port (there are other locations, too). I found this by accident – a nearby seafood restaurant had a long wait for a table, and I wandered in. And discovered a wonderland of craft beer, all from Port Brewing. Port has the distinction of being the only brewery that’s whipped up a pilsener that could get me excited. And it’s SoCal, so expect hard-hitting India Pale Ales, some Belgian fun and some stouts in the cooler months. The pizza ain’t bad, either. The place is also chaotic, fun, unpretentious and friendly.

Let’s go further north. In St. Paul, Minn., look for The Happy Gnome. It doesn’t brew its own. But it has assembled a collection of regional brews that will astound. The northern Midwest makes a good show, with stuff like Dragon’s Mill from New Holland Brewing; Pahoehoe blonde ale made with coconut water; and the hefty Scotty Karate from Dark Horse Brewing. The food is also excellent (game hen, coconut-beet risotto!), with dessert being a particular standout. The Happy Gnome creme brulee was worth every calorie.

Oh, hell – I changed my mind. I’m adding a third location. If you ever visit the Phoenix area, send an email my way. I’ll arrange to meet you at Papago Brewing. If you don’t like something in one of its 20-some rotating taps or in its huge refrigerated case, go drink some Budweiser or equally swilly Stella Artois. This week, I had an oak-aged Belgian quad from Sierra Nevada that blew me away. It’s in no way unusual to have something so awesome at Papago Brewing.

More on My List
There are places I didn’t visit, for one reason or another. But I will next time I’m in the area!

Boris Brewery (Jeju, South Korea)
I somehow missed Boris Brewery during my stay in the Hawaii of South Korea. Don’t make the same mistake. Word is, Brewmaster Boris knows how to make an India Pale Ale. This is a local favorite near Jeju City Hall. I like that the menu has Korean bar food. Do NOT make the mistake of going to Modern Time. That used to be Boris’ place, but it has taken a nosedive since his departure as brewmaster.

Monkey Wizard (Riwaka, NZ – near Nelson)
I must’ve looked so forlorn; both times my bus passed the Monkey Wizard (know known as Hop Federation), it was closed. How could I not want to drink craft beer at a place a called Monkey Wizard? Barley wines, Belgians, stouts … and a picturesque setting equal a great place to drink a pint. Oh, and there are magnificent hop field nearby. I can imagine that Monkey Wizard Brewery is tapped into the local hop sources. I can only guess how that impact the taste of its craft beer creations.

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CategoriesAdventuresFitness

First Ride on “New” Mountain Bike Trail – with video

McDowell mountain bike
The newly rerouted bit of the Pemberton Trail has some nice new rock scenery.

Nothing gets me as excited quite like a new mountain bike trail. Or even a re-routing of an old favorite trail.

Ever since McDowell Mountain Regional Park announced that crews had re-routed a bit of its 15+-mile Pemberton (aka Trail B) loop, I’ve been eager to see what it’s all about. I purposely avoided reading up on exactly what would change – I also love surprises.

Here’s what you need to know:

    • The McDowell Mountain Regional Park managers made the best change possible: They took the trail away from a sandy service road on the north side of the park and cut some new doubletrack (it ain’t singletrack, but it’s no Jeep road, either) See the end of the post for video.
    • Racers who will participate in the Fat Tire 40 should be stoked. This makes the worst portion of the course quite a bit more fun. I expect racers will be a touch faster without the sandy slog.
    • The new bit of trail is about 15 minutes long at my leisurely but experienced speed. At some point, it reconnects to the original trail. I’m not sure where because it was a sneaky transition.
    • The extra twists and turns should add a bit to the trail’s original mileage.
wandering justin mtb
Hey, it’s me!

The new bit of trail is not some sort of mind-blowing singletrack experience that will inspire epic heavy metal songs. So why am I excited? Because it makes a favorite local trail about 20 percent better. And that’s nothing any rider should take for granted.

It’s also a nice signal of intent from the McDowell Mountain Regional Park staff. They continue to seek ways to make the park’s experience even better for mountain bikers. Consider some other first for the park: the first competitive race loops, the first official night rides and the first pump track on Arizona government lands. In the future, I suspect you’ll see a flow trail open.

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CategoriesAdventuresTravel

Best Sporting Events – My Top Four

Arsenal F.C. and FC Barcelona line up before the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final. Photo taken from en.wikipedia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a little different about what I consider the best sporting events. Baseball? Blah. Basketball? Meh. Football, the American kind? Doesn’t do much for me. Hockey? I still love it, but the recent constipation in getting the NHL season started tarnishes the world’s most-prestigious league.

But so what? There are plenty of other leagues and sports in the world. A combination of travel and straight-up curiosity led me to ask: What makes my list of best sporting events? Well, here they are. Get ready for some surprises.

UEFA Champions League Knockout Stage
You’ve heard of the FIFA World Cup. It’s supposed to be the pinnacle of soccer (sorry, my UK friends – I feel like a poseur being an American who says football unless I’m in your country). I argue that the UEFA Champions League is a higher standard of play. Think about it – national teams get together every now and then, and meaningful matches are rare.

The UEFA Champions League, though, pits the top teams from member leagues against each other. These guys play together week in, week out – they mesh like no national team can. The quality of play puts it on my list of best sporting events. By the time you reach the knockout stages, there’s all to play for. The teams in best form eliminated the rest in the group stage. And now, you’re left with a few rounds where teams play a home-and-away series. The team with the most goals in each advances to the next round, with away goals being a tiebreaker.

A curling rock waits for a throw. (Photo credit: markjdos)

A Big Ol’ Curling Bonspiel
Curling is cool, and I don’t care what anyone says about it. I can say this with the authority of not only someone who’s seen the movie Men With Brooms, but someone who has actually tried curling.

That last bit is important. Curling taught me that it’s difficult, both in strategy and execution. And I have yet to meet a curling person who isn’t friendly and eager to welcome interested people to the sport. That makes me want to see a bonspiel, or curling tournament. The biggest is the Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel, which is the sport’s biggest and oldest – more than 1,000 teams, and the inaugural happened in 1888. But biggest isn’t always best -- I hope a curling cognescenti weighs in with a suggestion of the best bonspiel for spectators.

Hurling (Photo credit: Steve Burt)

An Irish Hurling Experience
I know, I know -- Irish + hurling = jokes about having too many pints. But no: Hurling is a cool game of Gaelic origin. Played outdoors. With a ball and wooden sticks. And lots of lacrosse-like action -- but the only protective gear players wear is a helmet with a faceguard (a requirement since just 2010).

Here’s the really good stuff: The game has a low-key vibe where player egos take a back seat. The jerseys feature no numbers or player names. Players are unpaid, throwing themselves out there for love of the game. I’ll make the same appeal to hurling fans that I did to the curlers: Feel free to educate me on the best competitions!

Believe it or not, rugby can get physical. (Photo credit: paddynapper)

For the Good of the State
I’d never heard of the State of Origins rugby series. That changed when I went to an Australian’s birthday party in Brisbane. He educated me on the appeal of this best-of-three series of matches; they pit players from Queensland and New South Wales. He told me there are also political overtones, with the teams representing the more conservative versus the liberal (respectively). That added fire makes it one of my best sporting events … even if it’s far too overlooked.

Aside from being arguably the highest standard of rugby, I love the idea of players representing their home state/province. More accurately, they play for the state where they first registered for senior rugby. So there’s occasional controversy, as you might guess. But the central idea remains intact, and makes this a must-see on my next visit to Australia.

 

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CategoriesAccommodationsAdventuresTravel

Plan a Better Vacation – 4 Easy Tips

This hike was one of the high points of my Nordic adventure.
This hike was one of the high points of my Nordic adventure.

An awesome trip is rarely an accident. It’s a combination of preparation, planning and flexibility. You start with a game plan and leave holes for spontaneity. Let me show you how it’s done, using my recent trip to the Nordic countries as an example.

Pick Your Destination(s)
I’ve wanted to visit the Nordic countries for quite awhile. The music (the heavier side of it), the food, the culture and the scenery all appealed to me. I also haven’t been to any part of Europe since I was a wee tyke. But I wanted to avoid the well-trod destinations most American travelers choose. Based on our activities (see below), we decided to arrive and leave via Stockholm, Sweden.

Another country, another 10k finishers medal.
Another country, another 10k finishers medal.

Read Up
You probably have reasons for your choice of destination. Fair enough – but pick up guide books and read some quality travel blogs to get a handle on other activities and ideas you haven’t considered. I like a guidebook for multiple ideas on accommodations and food.

Recently, though, I’ve downgraded the credence I previously placed in guidebooks for activities. Especially with hiking. I question whether guidebook writers do even a quarter of what they write about. Hit the blogs for the first-hand perspectives and photographic evidence of any activities you find in the blog. You’ll be far better prepared.

Figure out 2-3 Key Activities
I’d always wanted to go to a European music festival. I figured out what was scheduled around Finland and Sweden since they’re the bases of some of my favorite bands. Another part of the mix: Sarah and I have a fairly new tradition of running a race (10K or half marathon) when we travel. We scoured the Web for dates of running races and music festivals.

Getting there is your biggest expense - shop well!
Getting there is your biggest expense – shop well!

We scored huge by finding the Midnight Sun Run in Tromso, Norway. And I came up with the Ruisrock festival in Turku, Finland, and the Bessegen hike at Jotunheimen National Park, Norway. Everything else on the trip revolved around those three high points. We had several days between each to go for side trips.

Watch for Airfare Deals
Chances are, airfare will be your biggest single expense. So do everything that’s reasonable to shrink it. One of my favorite techniques is to sign up for the newsletters of airlines that serve the region you want to visit. For instance, if you want to hit Finland, sign up for any newsletters from Finnair, SAS or Norwegian Air Shuttle. That’s how you’ll get tipped off first to fare sales.

And give a thorough check of the websites. That’s how you’ll find out about great packages that let you assemble a package deal of flights. The Qantas Aussie Pass is a perfect example – it lets you arrange several flights around the continent for a far better price than booking individually.

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CategoriesBlogging/WritingFitness

Travel Blogs or Guidebooks: Who Do You Trust?

The guidebook promised a fairly flat, easy, short hike.
The guidebook promised a fairly flat, easy, short hike.

It’s one of those days when I feel like torturing a travel guide editor. I imagine stuff involving ants, honey, jumper cables and possibly a Weed Whacker.

“A short, mostly, flat hike,” the guide book entry promised.

Hours ago, I planned for that short, mostly flat hike near Busan, South Korea. I skipped my typical day pack, its 120-ounce water bladder and its snacks tucked into multiple pockets.

I want to find this writer. And bury him up to the neck in sand. Smack him in the head over and again with one of my 24-ounce water bottles … but frozen. Between each hit – “Did you even go there, jackass?!”.

The Hangul characters on these signs are about as helpful as some travel guidebooks.
The Hangul characters on these signs are about as helpful as some travel guidebooks.

I hate being underprepared. I would’ve had my pack, my GPS receiver, probably a windbreaker. It turns into a wonderful hike, from Beomeosa Temple to the forlorn out-of-season Geumgang Park. We have to watch our water, and there’s that nagging “what if we really screwed up?” worry in our heads. We meet friendly Korean hikers – which is redundant, I guess – who show us the way to the highest peak. They also seize our camera and make us pose for a few hundred shots.

As nice as our hike is, this episode marks an important shift in travel preparation. It makes me trust guidebooks less, and bloggers more.

A rare shot of Sarah and me in the same photo.
A rare shot of Sarah and me in the same photo.

If you read Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, you’ll be convinced that guidebook writers can’t make a living without being on the take. And that they can’t possibly do everything they write about. But they have to write about it whether they’ve done it o not.

Which is why guidebooks are only helpful for getting a few ideas. When it comes to activity and seeing the truth first-hand, I say “rely on the bloggers.” Sure, not all bloggers are great. But find one that speaks to your destination, and you have yourself a major leg up in planning your trip.

And that is the point of everything I do here. I want someone going to one of my destinations to search for information, find me, grab some ideas and have the best time possible. At least they can use my writing with the confidence that I’ve been there, for real, and not concocted something to satisfy the publishers paying my bills.