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10 practical tips for beer travelers

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The cold descends, and the scheming begins.

Maybe it’s that cyclical desire to escape the weather, like birds heading south. Maybe it’s the making of plans to revisit family and friends for the calendar’s mightiest eating-and-drinking holidays. Maybe it’s the temporarily limitless potential of the coming year. This desk calendar has one sheet left, and the next calendar is pristine, unmarked. Reality has yet to set parameters on vacation fantasies.

And it’s always possible, theoretically, that the money needed will appear in the bank account. If not, there is always the shoestring approach — the last-minute, budget booking somewhere unexpected, the trip that makes friends and colleagues jealous, the one that reminds you what it’s all about and makes you wonder why you don’t do it more often.

Or it could be simpler: that desire to escape the most stressful season.

Maybe it’s all of the above. I just know I get obsessed with hatching evil plans this time of year. Invariably, those plans incorporate, involve or flat-out revolve around beer.

Given that you are reading this, here, I reckon that you are—even if just once in a while—a fellow thirsty pilgrim. A Traveler Preoccupied by Beer. Welcome. Let’s share best practices.

Based on my own experiences and consultations with other beeronauts, here are 10 tips for planning the next mission:

1. Do your homework.

Anticipation. For some, this is nearly as much fun as the trip itself. Good planning takes time. Incentivize the online slog with a tall glass of something tasty. Then learn the lay of the land.

Hunting for airfare or hotel deals is no different than any other sort of trip. But proximity matters to a drinker; our monuments and museums are breweries and bars. Oh look honey, our hotel is right next to that world-class pub. With online mapping, you can plot out your own priorities and access them via smartphone. Any website with beer reviews—Ratebeer, TripAdvisor, whatever—can help identify and narrow down options.

Savvy beer-focused guidebooks are best of all. (Full disclosure: I wrote one.) As a bonus, a handy book can help free you from constantly checking electronic doodads—one of those things from which we may be trying to escape.

2. Plan non-beer stuff.

Really. Like, one thing, at least. It’s good for health of mind, body and relationships.

“Split your time,” says Richard Dinwoodie, co-owner of the Rake, a trailblazing beer bar near London’s Borough Market. “You know what your partner or other half is interested in. So find something you both can do.”

Recent example: In Brussels I booked a chocolate-making workshop for the family. Big hit. The kids loved it, and we took home a ton of chocolates we made ourselves. (And did the shop’s café happen to stock some great local beers? Yes. Yes it did.)

3. Make an itinerary.

This sounds anal. It doesn’t have to be. I was both frightened and impressed the first time a co-traveler emailed me his day-by-day, hour-by-hour schedule before our trip. Where’s the fun in that?

Then I saw how well it worked. Nearly every item is flexible or negotiable; the point is to do some mental labor ahead of time. Then you don’t have to think as much later.

And let’s be frank: We share interest in a beverage that hinders mental labor. Indeed, that is part of the attraction. Having a plan, however loose, can remove the need to make decisions at those times when we are least interested in such things.

And it helps to know the transit routes and schedules. Unless you’re driving.

4. Don’t drive.

Not if you can help it.

5. Pack smartly.

Some people pack for the weather. We pack for the bottles.

Advice varies but revolves around protecting those precious glass darlings for the trip home. Bring an extra bag; a hard-sided suitcase is best. Pack it with bubble wrap (it’s no fun shopping for bubble wrap when visiting foreign countries).

As Kansas City graphic designer and beer blogger Jim Wagner notes, “bottles fit in socks.” Coincidence? I add: Thicker ones are better.

“It keeps them from clanging around,” Wagner says. “Pack some small towels and plastic bags, for added insurance.”

Can all this be a pain in the ass? Yes. Especially if you hate checking luggage. But there is another way: Collect memories instead of bottles. Spend less time shopping and more time soaking in the atmosphere of interesting places. (Confession: I hate lugging bottles. Those beers rarely taste as good out of context, anyway. But they are fun to share later, and they do make nice gifts.)

6. Have a friend on the ground.

Weird how that Anthony Bourdain guy always has folks willing to show him around town. Seems to work for him.

“Phone ahead,” says Pete Brown, author of several books that, among other things, often incorporate international journeys and local brews. “Get in touch with someone, someone in that town. And you’ll see a completely different side of that town.”

Of course this is not always possible. But it’s nice if you can manage it. Beer is such a friendly medium. Odds are you’ll get to return the favor someday to your guide, or a friend of his. Or a friend of a friend.

Another alternative is to chat with locals who know.

“If you’re going to a beer festival and you are very interested in the local beer scene, go to the local bottle shops as soon as you get there,” says Dina Slavensky, a personal trainer and avid beer hunter originally from Chicago but now based in Edinburgh. “Others are going to have similar ideas, and if you wait until even a day into the festival, you might miss out on some fantastic buys.”

And any travel writer can tell you that tourist offices are great, underutilized resources—especially once they know your area of interest.

7. Drink lots of water.

Needs no explanation.

8. Eat food.

Really, you should not have to be told. But a proper meal in a restaurant with decent beers beats the desperate, late-night, street-fried… well, come to think of it, make time for both.

“Very often, it’s better to go to a bar or restaurant with a great selection of beer rather than a brew pub or brewery,” Wagner says. “Carmelo, the man who ran the bed-and-breakfast where we stayed in Brussels, implored my wife and me to ‘carpet our stomachs’ before embarking on a night of drinking. It’s good advice, traveling or not.”

Carpet your stomachs?

“I’m sure the phrase sounded better in French.”

9. Practice moderation, in moderation.

There is nothing quite like wondering, while gazing without much enthusiasm at a long-sought beer, whether it’s possible to develop gout from a single blowout weekend. Maybe hangovers are good for thoughtful reflection on the direction of your life. But they are piss-poor for fun holidays.

This also fits neatly with Nos. 2, 7 and 8, above. We seek balance in our beverages, why not seek it in our lives? It’s a nice idea.

10. Record.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. I would add: Notes are worth a thousand pictures.

If you’re the sharing type, do it for others and contribute to social media. Or write a book. Add to the greater sum of human knowledge.

Even better, just do it for yourself.

 


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