Brewing in Singapore

One man's adventure of brewing beer in Asia.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Varpalota and Budapest

Next Stop Hungary. Twenty some odd hours later (including a pretty dull lay over in Heathrow) there I was, standing in the Budapest airport hoping that Lewis (the owner of the company making our brewing equipment) would be there to meet me. I must admit I was a bit nervous as I could not speak a word of Hungarian or even hope to read the signs (Hungarian is not an easy language to pick up, the letters are Romanized but it is of a completely different family than the Indo-European languages – there’s not cognate between them and almost nothing looks familiar). But Lewis was there. We loaded in my bag and off we went, headed to Varpalot about 100 km WSW of Budapest. Lewis's manufacturing plant is there, just outside of the small farming community of Varpalota (Pop. 22,000). As we drove Lewis told me of the old days when Hungary was still part of the Eastern block. In the late 1970's Lewis was a young professor of mathematic. He worked that and another job and considered himself well to do, but there issues with which he was not completely comfortable. His travel was restricted and he could not easily visit other countries or take his family with him. His superiors had been pressuring to become a party member but the idea did not appeal to him. The pressure had started small but was steadily increasing and he was beginning to feel ill at ease. So one day he and his wife packed up a few things and slipped across the border and then on to America. A country that he says he is forever grateful to for giving him and his family freedom. He still live in Southern California today. He returned to Hungary about fifteen years later to start up the brewery equipment manufacturing company. Vapalota seemed the place to do it. The factory is in an old warehouse off the main railroad tracks. You can still see the influence of the Soviet years; stack dull boxy building standing among the old houses with their sway backed center beams wieghed down from years of supprting the tiled roofs. They were there before them and will probably be there after the cement boxes have long been replaced. We arrived about 10:30 at night and Lewis's plant manager (Czelard) and shop foreman (Frank) were there to meet us. We went through the plant and took a quick review of the tanks and the plants capacities. After which we adjurned for a late dinner, a few beers, and discussion about the remaining work to be done (the brewhouse was not complete and there were still a few minor design issues with some of the unfinished tanks). We talked till about 2:30 in the morning and then being Easter the next day Czelard and Frank had family obligations that had to met early. The next morning about 8:00 Lewis and I are back at the plant for a more complete inspection of the tanks. As you might imagine Varpalota not being a really wealthy town, and welding equipment being worth what it is, the plant had a fair amount of security to get through. Lewis, who not often visited the plant alone, had written down the security code and obtained the many keys needed for us to gain entry. The gate key, no problem, the pad lock, no problem, the door key, no problem, the alarm code …. "error" light. The alarm goes off (and it is loud, really, really loud). We call Czelard (cell phone off – family day), we call Frank (out picking up food, be back soon), the people from the farmhouse down the street come over (but they know Lewis) - all the time the alarm – try as we might we can not turn it off. The police are alerted, the police arrive, the police don’t know Lewis. I don’t understand a word of what is being said but I feel fairly certain - it ain’t good. After a few more phone calls and many reassurances, the police leave and we get the alarm reset. We are left alone to continue our attempt to inspect the tanks, but the lock on the final door will not budge. We try every on the twenty some odd keys (twice, thrice - no luck). More phone calls ensue. Finally Frank's son (who looks right off the tour bus from a Seattle Grunge Rock show) arrived to body check the door open (wasn’t locked – you just have to body slam it to get it open). Alamak ! He sticks around and helps with the tank inspections. It turns out he is responsible for all the finishing of the tanks and the welds. In the afternoon Lewis drops me off at Europe’s largest lake for a couple of hours while he visits an uncle. It was early spring time in Hungary; people were out walking, the air was crisp and cool, the sky a clear pale blue, and the fruit trees were all in bloom. It was a perfect day to walk along the lake shore watching the few sail boats out on the water (most still in dry dock being worked on). Later Lewis picked me up and deposited me back at the hotel, he had to go off for his own families dinner. (my Easter dinner was ordered in rusty German at the hotel – and I was glad I could manage that) The next day was another meeting with Czelard to discuss the follow up details. At the end of which he dropped me back in Budapest for a few days on my own.

Budapest was often referred to as the Paris of the east. It is made up of two old cities Buda (to the west) and Pest (to the east). The city is divided by the river Danube. The Buda side is where the castle and government and nice houses all are, the Pest side is where all the action is. I stayed on the Pest side- not so much for the action but because that is also where the cheaper hotels are (yes I am what some would call a frugal man) and lets be honest I didn’t really want to go clubbing anyway. I figured there might be a few good “brown bars", maybe a good band or two and the people watching (a favorite past time of mine) is always better in the more hopping or Bohemian areas. When I get to a new town I like to walk around a bit. Walking really is the only way to get to know a place. Things are moving past you slower and you see a lot more. You can talk to people (provided you speak the language) and there are smells and sounds you’d miss if you were moving faster. So after dropping my bags I headed straight into Jozsefaros (district VIII) Budapest most intact, poorest and (I assumed) most authentic area. It is hard to get pictures in an area like that – the buildings are close together, the light is usually not great, there are lots of people looking at you funny - so I contented myself to just walk along and see what there was. The neighborhoods were a little bit rough and a bit run down but you could see what Budapest must have once been like. Budapest is surrounded by two ring roads. I thought if i walked through evey district wiwthin the centeral ring road then - I would have seen most of Budapest. That was my objective. I spent many hours over the next couple of days criss crossing the city. I walked both sides of the river, across there of the bridges, through narrow alleys and through the courtyards of many buildings. I figured I walked about eight to ten lines a day. I stumbled onto (and then out of) several god bars. Two of which rate as really great. They should not be missed if ever you are in Budapest. The Old Man Bar; hidden in the basement of a side street building has good food, and live Jazz/Blues music. And Szimpla Kert; what may be the coolest bar in eastern Europe. It was a movie house, an outdoor bar (of sorts), a coffee house, a place to hide during the day and a place to gather at night. It was so cool I was madly jealous that I did not own it. Check “Singbrewer’s additional pictures” for photos, although the pictures just don't do it justice.

I enjoyed my few days in Budapest, although by the time I left my feet were blistered and a bit sore. Budapest may be a bit out of the way but it is a city that deserves a few more trips for further investigation and discovery.

My trip home,
I was dreading it a bit. It involved a 5 hour stop over in Heathrow, from there onto Seattle and an overnight stay there. Then a 12 hours back to Narita for a 3 hour layover, and then finally 6 more hours back to Singapore. But things are usually not as bad as one imagines they might be. In Heathrow I found a nice little pub with 5 cask beer on the handpump including Flowers IPA and Director's Best Bitter (5 hour layover, 5 cask beers – could there be any doubt). When I reached Seattle I called my friend Dick and he and I went to a nice watering hole in West Seattle owned by our mutual friend Gary. We spent the night in convivial conversation (something that we didn’t get to do much during the hectic Craft Brewer’s Conference) and then of course there was the free beer in Narita airport. All in all not such a bad trip - when there’s pleasant distractions like those along the way.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Seattle & Beer

I love to fly (no I don't, not really - no, really, I love to - no) Two weeks ago I left Singapore for Seattle via the Narita airport in Japan. It was only about 22 hours (counting lay over in Narita - where I found a free beer dispensing machine, so cool!). Why would anyone willingly suffer 22 hours in transit you ask. Well, I got to hang with Toby for three days, I judged beer at the World beer Cup (WBC) for three days, and I was on a panel at the Craft Brewer Conference (also thee days), oh yeah and I got to drink a ton of fantastic beers - all in 8 day. I know the math doesn't quite work out but I swear that's just how it was ... really. The World beer Cup (WBC) had over 2220 beers from 56 countries around the world entered this year, more than ever before. There were 109 judges from 18 countries. The judging takes three days 8 or 9 hours a day. And I know what you are thinking - bummer dude, you had to drink free beer for 8 hours a day - but the judges also have to turn in clear and concise tasting notes on each beer (especially if they want to be asked back in following years). But note taking aside at 9:00 in the morning on the third day of Judging the thought of tasting beer for another 8 hours can give you a little bit of the willies. Especially if you have something really scary like American Malt Liquors or (the dreaded) Honey Lagers. Yeeeh ! But the reason brewers and beer pundits from around the world travel so far to judge at this event is because the experience of tasting, judging and discussing beers next to the brewer from the likes of Duvel , Fullers, Orval, Russian River, Guinness, Elysian, Westmalle, Sierra Nevada, Monteths - hell, think of a world class brewery and their brewer has probably judged at the WBC. The super stars of the brewing world (yes, I know I am a beer geek). The Craft Brewer's Conference starts the day after the WBC judging ends. The conference is just what is sounds like a gathering of brewers and beer people sitting around brewing & beer experts. Every industry has these kinds of conferences and if you think we are geeks check out the computer programmers conferences (of course they are getting paid about 4 times what the average brewer makes, so maybe I should shut up). Now the talks and presentations at the conference are pretty good but the reason folks come the conferences (really I think any conferences) is networking (or hanging out drinking beer and yaking). But one should never underestimate the value of networking, especially in the brewing industry. As Sam Calagione so correctly pointed out it's common practice for one brewer to call another and ask for help or advice - "hey, I'm having a problem with my run off do you have any suggestion on what might be wrong". And there would be a free flow of information between these two colleagues. Can you imagine Bill Gates calling Steve Jobs and asking for his thoughts on a computer problem he was having or if he could borrow a few spare chips. Never happen (never ever happen). Networking in the brewing industry means a lot more than it does in other industries. Plus we have way better beer than they do.

That Friday near the end of the conference I bid farewell to Seattle and my fellow brewers and boarded a British Airway flight bound for Budapest Via London. What Joys would await me during my 5 hour lay-over at
Heathrow airport. One could only guess at what treasures I might discover. Did I mention that they have a free beer machine in international lounge in the Narita airport.

Check the Singbrewer's Additional Pictures Link to the right