Friday, September 19, 2014

Brown Ale - The Best Beer Style of Them All

As I sit here sipping this delightful "Old Crafty Hen" Vintage Ale (6.5% ABV) from Greene King/Morland Brewery I am surprised by how much I am enjoying the flavor.  Then, I am surprised that I am surprised.  Over the years I have consumed thousands of different beers searching for the perfect beer.  From face imploding IPA's to fruity Lambics to watery Chinese lagers, I have studiously tried them all.  Everything from Coors Light (many hundred) to Westvleteren 12 (once) are tried with equal gusto, hoping to find 'the one' (the Westy 12 comes really close).

The dawning realization that whenever I visit a new brewery or pub with an unfamiliar selection I invariably order (if available) their brown ale.  But why?  Because it is the test of their competence as brewers.  If you can't make a good brown ale it is likely that you are not going to impress me with your other selections.  There have been many occasions that upon visiting a new brewery that I have walked away leaving a half empty glass of inferior brown ale and not having tried any of their other offerings.

Why the brown?  It's the balance.  The yin perfectly matching the yang.  The earthy malts and slight sweetness magically balanced by the subtle hops.  The alcohol content just strong enough to give you a gently buzz without making you incoherent.  Carbonation that is just enough to bring a bit of texture to your tongue but not so much that you belch like a walrus and served at a temperature that is like the baby bear's porridge.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good stout.  I adore the crispness of a cold lager after a hot, sweaty day, I crave an intense IPA when consuming a fiery curry.  But in the end, the beer of the choice is the brown whether it be a dubbel, a dopple or a nut, just give me the brown.  Cheers - Bon

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Oktoberfest Travels Part 3 - Hotels

Don't you love an opulent, spacious hotel room with a bathroom bigger than your garage?  Thick, overstuffed mattresses with piles of pillows of every shape and filling .... ahhhhh delightful ... well, you're not going to get that here.  At least not a a reasonable rate.  If you are one of those with the financial status that will allow you to stay in the George V in Paris then the odds are quite high that you are not reading this blog.  Now don't get me wrong, you can find American style hotels that are sterile and familiar, but why in the hell would you want to stay in one of those?

Most of the hotels that you find in Europe are older buildings with character that were constructed at a time when fat, pampered Americans were not so common.  En-suite bathrooms were also not common and most hotels found their guests sharing a bathroom with everyone else on their floor.  Indeed, you can still find hotels using that setup.  To accommodate modern travelers that demand a bit more privacy, bathrooms have been added to the hotel rooms which cut into the available space of the guest rooms.  This has led to smaller rooms and some very interesting bathroom layouts.

Now to the average spoiled American traveler, the challenge of having to figure out how to wash in a shower the size of a dishwasher is intolerable.  You will find much pissing and moaning by self-indulgent travelers whose arrogance demands that everything be just as it is at home.  These are the same ninnies who don't bother to learn the language of the country that they are visiting and think that yelling a question at a waiter in English will help them better understand what they are asking.  Instead, think of your journey as an adventure.  So you get water all over the bathroom floor .... so what?  So the shower curtain sticks to your ass when you try to bend over to wash your feet ... so what?  It will make for good stories when you return home.  If, however, you need a large, predictable bathroom in your travels, may I suggest Chicago?  In order to accommodate the addition of a bathroom into each room, space within the room had to be given, thus you will also find many hotel rooms quite small.  You're only going to sleep there right?  So why do you need a huge room?

You will often here American ask "how many stars" does a hotel have in order to determine how nice the rooms are.  Here is a secret .... the star system in the rest of the world means something completely different than it does here in the U.S.  Actually, the star system in the U.S. has no meaning whatsoever.  There are no rules governing how many stars are 'awarded' to a hotel.  They are arbitrarily determined by visitors or private ratings agencies and there is nothing to keep a fleabag hotel from calling itself "4 star".  In Europe, the star system actually has been defined, but not as a measure of opulence, but as a measure of services provided by the hotel.  The German Hotel and and Restaurant Association has defined the German classifications as:
* Tourist
** Standard
*** Comfort
**** First Class
***** Luxury
The mark "Superior" is used to flag extras beyond the minimum defined as beyond the minimum but not enough to take it to the next level.  The services required to attain these standards are as follows:
HotelstarExcerpt of the catalogue of criteria
  • 100% of the rooms with shower/WC or bath tub/WC
  • Daily room cleaning
  • 100% of the rooms with colour-TV together with remote control
  • Table and chair
  • Soap or body wash
  • Reception service
  • Facsimile at the reception
  • Publicly available telephone for guests
  • Extended breakfast
  • Beverage offer in the hotel
  • Deposit possibility
\bigstar \mathbf SSuperior TouristThe Superior flag is provided when the additional service and accommodation provisions are not sufficient for the next Hotelstar. The bathroom facilities are usually at the same level as for two stars hotels but built from cheaper materials. The cost for regular inspection by independent associations is waived as well.
\bigstar\bigstarStandardIn addition to the single star (*) hotels:
  • Breakfast buffet
  • Reading light next to the bed
  • Bath essence or shower gel
  • Bath towels
  • Linen shelves
  • Offer of sanitary products (e.g. toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving kit)
  • Credit Cards
\bigstar\bigstar \mathbf SSuperior StandardThe Superior flag is provided when the additional service and accommodation provisions are not sufficient for the next Hotelstar. The Standard-Superior does usually offer the same service level as three-star hotels but the interiors of the hotel are smaller and cheaper so that the three stars were not to be awarded by the inspection body. A two-star superior does not require mystery guesting.
\bigstar\bigstar\bigstarComfortIn addition to the standard star (**) hotels:
  • Reception opened 14 hours, accessible by phone 24 hours from inside and outside, bilingual staff (e.g. German/English)
  • Three piece suite at the reception, luggage service
  • Beverage offer in the room
  • Telephone in the room
  • Internet access in the room or in the public area
  • Heating facility in the bathroom, hair-dryer, cleansing tissue
  • Dressing mirror, place to put the luggage/suitcase
  • Sewing kit, shoe polish utensils, laundry and ironing service
  • Additional pillow and additional blanket on demand
  • Systematic complaint management system
\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar \mathbf SSuperior ComfortThe Superior flag is provided when the additional service and accommodation provisions are not sufficient for the next Hotelstar. The accommodation facilities for a superior hotel need to be on a modern level and fully renovated which is checked regularly.
\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar\bigstarFirst ClassIn addition to the comfort star (***) hotels:
  • Reception opened 18 hours, accessible by phone 24 hours from inside and outside
  • Lobby with seats and beverage service
  • Breakfast buffet or breakfast menu card via room service
  • Minibar or 24 hours beverages via room service
  • Upholstered chair/couch with side table
  • Bath robe and slippers on demand
  • Cosmetic products (e.g. shower cap, nail file, cotton swabs), vanity mirror, tray of a large scale in the bathroom
  • Internet access and internet terminal
  • "À la carte"-restaurant
\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar \mathbf SFirst Class SuperiorThe Superior flag is provided when the first class hotel has a proven high quality not only in the rooms. The superior hotels provide for additional facilities in the hotel like a sauna or a workout room. The quality is checked regularly by mystery guesting of an external inspection service.
\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar\bigstarLuxuryIn addition to the first class (****) hotels:
  • Reception opened 24 hours, multilingual staff
  • Doorman-service or valet parking
  • Concierge, page boy
  • Spacious reception hall with several seats and beverage service
  • Personalized greeting for each guest with fresh flowers or a present in the room
  • Minibar and food and beverage offer via room service during 24 hours
  • Personal care products in flacons
  • Internet-PC in the room
  • Safe in the room
  • Ironing service (return within 1 hour), shoe polish service
  • Turndown service in the evening
  • Mystery guesting
\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar \mathbf SSuperior LuxuryThe Luxury star hotels need to attain high expectations of an international guest service. The Superior Luxury star is only awarded with a system of intensive guest care.

*courtesy of Wikipedia

Yeah, not what you thought, right?  But again, that doesn't mean that you will not get a crappy room in a 4-star hotel or that you cannot get a wonderful room in a 1-star hotel. You  really must do some research to find the right room.  
* If you want to go old school and share a bathroom with your fellow travelers (and usually save a bunch of money) look for a hotel with no stars .... and yes, they are quite common.  

Where do I look to find a hotel room?  Good question, Bubbette.  
Here is a list of hotel search websites that have led to much aggravation by screwing up my bookings in the past:
- Travelocity
-  Expedia

Here is the list of hotel search websites that has not screwed up my bookings:

So, who do reserve through?  THE HOTEL
Here are the two sites that I use to find hotels in Europe ... then I go to the hotel website and book my room through them.
Be sure that you confirm your reservation a few weeks before you go.

Remember folks, just as here at home, you get what you pay for.  You want a nice room?  Spend the money to get one.  -Cheers. Bon

Monday, September 8, 2014

Oktoberfest Travels Part 2 - Airline Roulette

There are going to be 2 really annoying aspects of your trip that you cannot avoid, the TSA and the airline that you choose.  Unless you choose to take the trip via cruise ship you cannot avoid either one.  We will take a look at the TSA a bit later, but for now lets choose an airline, shall we?

Which airline is best?  Which airline won't screw you on fares? Which airline won't lose your luggage?  HA!  Trick question, they all suck!

Being fairly frequent international travelers we have found that they are all equal in most aspects, but we did have a relatively good experience flying KLM on our last journey.  We also used to fly a specific airline  (which shall not be nAAmed) because of it's loyalty program, but not it has become so very difficult to use those miles that we now book based on airfares alone.  I would love to be able to lie and tell you that we always fly first class but the reality is that we fly the cattle car section like most of you will.

How do we choose when to take our trip?  With very few exceptions spring and autumn are the best times to fly to Europe.  The hordes of tourists have dissipated and things have calmed significantly. Ahhh, Spring .... the flowers are blooming, the bees are buzzing, the weather is ... erratic.  Autumn however, autumn is a joy.  The exuberant colors of turning leaves, the smells of baked goods and roasted chestnuts, the (mostly) predictable, dryer weather make for an unforgettable stay.  Avoid August (when most Europeans take their holiday) if at all possible unless you love huge crowds of sweaty, smelly people.

When do we purchase our tickets?  Remember this phrase "90 days pays".  We have tried many times to beat the "90 days pays" system (by buying tickets very early or very late) and have failed in every instance.  For some unknown reason the most reasonably priced air fares are posted at around 90 days in advance of your flying date.  This time the best fares were found 92 days in advance and would have saved us around 15% off of the fare that we actually paid (due to me ignoring my own rule and trusting an all knowing airfare website that promised me the fares would decrease, which they did not do .... *face palm*).   But which day of the week is best?  Tuesday.  All airlines announce their sales on Tuesdays, thus look for your best price in the evening on the Tuesday just  before your 90 days, Or whichever day your Ouija board tells you.

Where do we find the best fares?  If you buy airline tickets through a travel agent you are either very old or very naive.  Why pay someone to do what you can do better and cheaper?  The best way and by far the most common way to buy your tickets are via the internet, but you must be careful.  To find the most reasonable air fares you must go to one of the search engines that specialize in pricing a multitude of websites.   Be wary of the 3rd party search engines (let's come up with a non-existent company name that won't ruffle anyone's feathers ... let's say PriceOrb) that purchase the airfares for you as that they can cause you huge headaches.  Now if PriceOrb makes a mistake in the bookings the airline will not allow you to make any changes or fix the problem, you must call PriceOrb to fix the problem and we both know that the odds of reaching a human at this company is slim at best, and if you do reach a human they will probably have only the most basic grasp of your language.  The second problem, to which I can personally attest, is that you quite often will not be awarded the flyer miles for the trip because you did not make the reservation.  Lastly you will find that PriceOrb fares are not really up to date and find that your airfare is more expensive than the fare posted.  "We're very sorry, but the fare chosen is no longer available and now we must break you".
For the most part I use Kayak ( to find my airfares and have found it to reasonably accurate, but that doesn't mean that I trust Kayak implicitly.  The best method for finding your reasonably priced airfare is by using a site like Kayak to locate an airfare and then going to that airline's website and purchasing it directly from them.

 You can assume that you will pay at least $1,000.00 for each fare and if you should be so lucky as to find it for less, BUY IT.

Next time - Hotels

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Oktoberfest Travels Part 1

I am a tumbleweed, a feather in the wind, a wanderer a ..... a beer pilgrim.  I must admit that I have a severe travelling bone and because of this itinerant bone I have dragged Mrs.Vivant around the world, attending beer festivals and touring breweries because, well because we bloody well enjoy doing so. 

Quite likely the most celebrated beer holiday in the world is Oktoberfest, which is celebrated by beer aficionados around the world and I have celebrated the fabulous fall fest from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Suzhou, China.  Oddly enough, I have never been to the big one ... THE Oktoberfest, in Munich.  Why not?  Damned if I know, but this year we will attend and do our best to drown in Marzen.  Wanna join us?  No?  Why not?  Because you don't know how?  Gwaaaannnnn, really?

We are constantly amazed at how many people would like to travel to Europe or farther afield but do not know how or are intimidated by the process of planning the trip.  So the Snobs are going to walk you through the process (in a multipart series) and show you how to make the journey.  For those of you on a tighter budget who believe that you cannot afford the trip, we will also show you how to do it on the cheap.

Part 1 - Travel Documents

"Gracious me", you say in your best southern drawl, "wherever do I begin"?
"Well, Bubbett", I reply in my best Rhett Butler, "right here":

In order to leave the country or enter another country you MUST possess a Passport, yes, even Mexico and Canada.  It is unfathomable why in this day and age that you do not have one, but you would be amazed to find out how many people don't possess one (OR you are one of the people who do not have one and are not amazed in the least).  In several countries you must also attain a Visa (not, not the credit card, you knob, a travel visa, i.e. a travel permit) which is applied for through the destination countries that require them (Brazil and China and others) and not through our government.  Few, if any, European countries require Visas and your Passport will do just fine.  The process can take as much as several months so apply for your Passport well ahead of your scheduled travel time.  For an event as big as this one, you must make all of your plans way, way ahead of time, unless you are fat with disposable income (in which case, will you please adopt me?  No?  FINE!)  We booked this trip 6 months ago.  You will not be able to book your air travel until you have one of these lovely little blue books, so start applying. - Cheers, Bon

Next Up - Booking Air Travel