Friday, July 27, 2012

Epic Return to North America

Mrs. Hoplog and I decided to travel apart for a couple of weeks during our multi-month world tour. She would meet her mother in Paris and eat lovely food, shop at lovely stores, see lovely people and generally hobnob with the rich and soon-to-be-famous. During which I would make the supreme sacrifice and return to North America for the 2012 National Homebrewers Conference - the greatest beer geek event in the world.

This year's NHC was held in Seattle (Bellevue, actually) - likely the closest it will get to Vancouver in the foreseeable future, so many VanBrewers attended, including myself. The Bellevue Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center was a bit smaller venue than usual (1800 attendees), so the event sold out in less than 2 days.

But how to get from Paris to NHC; without a car, or really anything except an overnight bag?

Start by waking up in Paris, buying a loaf of bread for Vancouverite friends, and hitting the subway to the airport by 7:45am. An aside: Paris really won me over on this trip, and the final factor was finding this inside the gate area while waiting for my flight:

First opportunity to play piano in a long time.  Thanks, Charles De Gaulle airport!

Then on to Heathrow and a very tight connection (made all the tighter by a family who was - quite literally - hiding three complete home theatre systems and a cosmetics counter in their carry-on luggage, which only one family member took steps to unload one tiny piece at a time, and only after much coaching from the security officials), followed by a flight to Vancouver.  Then straight on to the Canada Line to Waterfront, a quick dash next door, and this:

Ahh, a proper North American craft beer at long last - Steamworks' Copper Roof Bitter and a view of the North Shore Mountains.  It's green, cool, and comfortable.  Aaaaand only about 2:30pm...

Less than an hour later I packed into Matt's truck along with Tak (assistant brewer at Steamworks) and dropped by my North Vancouver storage locker to pick up beer judging materials, followed by a 2 hour drive to Agassiz to pick up Dan.  Then a quick U-turn and we drove back down highway 1 to the Sumas border crossing.  The border guards were surprisingly OK with a truck full of kegs of homebrew, CO2 tanks and assorted tools crossing the border.  But Dan's lack of passport and previously-uncancelled US entry permit caused some turmoil and resulted in some tax being charged on our non-taxable goods.  (US Customs, in my experience, is nothing if not inconsistent.)

Having sorted out our immigration issues, we grabbed a room at the Rodeway Inn in Bellingham, followed by a cab to Chuckanut Brewing where it was Kolsch Night!

Ah Chuckanut, a Bellingham gem - great German-style beers and decent food.  Plus, Tuesdays are Kolsch Night and proper 200 mL glasses of the light, soft, sublime ale (with a Pacific Northwest twist) are on special.  All four of us beer geeks went for some Kolsches, shared a pizza, and then shared a taster of all Chuckanut's beers.  The Viennna Lager was great, so we all went for another pizza and - gads - a 1 litre stein of the Vienna Lager.  At this point I had been up for over 24 hours, so it was tough slogging.

At one point Matt mentioned something about my recent trip to Turkey within earshot of our server.  The server said, "Turkey?  Our brewmaster was working with some people in Tukey not long ago, helping them set up a brewery/brewpub."  Really?  Where?  "Oh, in Istanbul.  I think it was the first brewpub in Turkey."  Wow, that's weird, I was just at a Turkish brewpub a few days ago, and I thought it was about the only one in the country.  "Well, have a look at that plaque over there, it says which brewpub it was."

Whoa, my mind is officially blown!  I visited Taps in Turkey only a few days ago, and my first day back in North America I randomly drop in at the brewery that provided them with guidance!  Weird.  I guess I was correct in my assessment of Taps - clearly someone with expertise had set up their operation, though Taps was executing rather poorly (I assume because the experts at Chuckanut are now out of the picture).

Just down the street from Chuckanut is Boundary Bay Brewing Company - a Bellingham institution and a big part of the community, as well as brewing brilliant beer and serving excellent food.  It's possibly my favourite brewpub - especially at happy hour.  (Don't get me started on the fact that BC still outlaws happy hours, like our 19+-year-old citizens are a bunch of 3-year-olds who can't be trusted with the keys to the liquor cabinet...)

Some of our group hadn't visited Boundary Bay Brewing yet, so we walked a few minutes up the hill and arrived in time to share another complete sampler of their beers.  The 1L steins (and lack of sleep) made it a bit of a foggy visit for me, but we closed the place down and I finally got to play a few tunes on the Boundary Bay barroom piano, which I've been wanting to do for a while.

Then it was in the cab back to the Rodeway Inn, and a surprisingly snore-free sleep (for a roomful of four beer-drinking guys) - well-deserved after my 28-hour triumphant return to the Pacific.

However, this was only the beginning of the great 2012 NHC beer odyssey...

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