From La Rochelle to San Sebastian and the beer found along the way.
It's a fairly long drive from Dublin to San Sebastian with a 14 hour ferry ride in between but that's exactly what I did with Pauline recently. We drove down to Rosslare, itself a 2 hour drive. We dropped in to YellowBelly for lunch and to drop off Beoir magazines, beer mats and their lovely trophy I had commissioned for winning the Beoir Design of the Year for 2016. After lunch and a few beers, we drove the last 30 minutes to Rosslare and boarded the ferry which departed at 4pm and arrived at 10:30am the next morning in Roscoff. There's nothing in Roscoff from experience so we drove striaght down to our first stop, La Rochelle which is about half way down on the way to San Sebastian.
Our hotel was the Novotel in La Rochelle. It's conveniently located about 10 minutes walk from the historical city centre and is pretty much in a park. There was plenty of free parking but I spotted one asshole in a Range Rover taking up 2 spaces, despite there being loads to space. So I made a meme for the craic.
La Rochelle is a beautiful little city with winding, narrow streets and a stunning harbour. After walking around for a bit in the sun to get our bearings, having a few drinks and visiting the market for some cheese and meats, we dropped our haul back to the hotel and headed out for the evening. After dinner, we headed off in search of beer. La Rochelle has very little listed on Ratebeer. The number one bar is Fitzpatrick’s Irish Pub which when I tried to find it, proved impossible as it had closed down. A little investigating showed that we had been there earlier in the day. It's now called The Famous Pub, perhaps in homage to the now deceased Irish pub. Pauline had a Mojito and I had a Grimbergen. They had a few Belgian offerings on tap and bottle but nothing to get excited about.
The second place to visit was Le Barbarella. The lone Ratebeer comment suggested it was by the aquarium so we headed over there. It was a fairly long walk across the harbour, then a bridge, in fact two bridges I think. There was no sign of it. After failing to find Wi-fi, we tried 3G and discovered that it's actually on the main strip overlooking the harbour. We had almost walked right past it.
There isn't much choice on tap but there's a fair decent bottle selection. Most are Belgian beers I have had many times but there were a couple of American offerings such as Tank 7 from Boulevard in Kansas. In fact, there were only a few of those bottles left so it was clearly popular and well it should be. It's an 8.5% saison. Quite hop forward as you might imagine from an American brewery. Similar to Schneider Hopfenweisse actually. A very tasty beer packed with yeastiness, lemon citrus and bitter orange pith. Apparently, Boulevard's fermenting tank 7 is notorious for being a bit of a bitch but when they decided to put a saison in it, the beer came out way better than expected so they named the beer after the tank. I would have happily just drank that all night but there was at least one other beer I wanted to try and 8.5 % is a little on the high side.
So I moved on to their Single Wide, a 5.7% IPA. There wasn't much on the aroma so I checked the best before date. It said August 2016 so it was out of date and as far from brewery fresh as you could get. It was still a pretty nice beer with some slight sherbet, zesty lemon pith along with pine and bitter citrus notes. I decided to go with a lager on tap to finish the evening. I didn't want to drink too much as there was a long drive to San Sebastian ahead of us in the morning.
We noticed on the way back to the hotel that the tide had gone out and the water level had dropped to nothing. All of the boats were stuck in the mud, something I had never really seen before, not to that extent anyway. There was a good 20+ feet of water missing from what I could tell.
If you want to read a little more about the San Sebastian trip, you can head over to my personal, non-beer related blog: reubengray.com and check out this post about the food there. The beer portion of San Sebastian is next.
Having done the wine and pintxo thing and having taken a walk, I decided to find some beer. I knew there were two places listed on ratebeer but I hadn't taken note of them so my plan was to find some WiFi and take a look. For some reason, I was drawn up the hill by the harbour. I wanted to get a good view. When I was done taking it in I turned around and passed a bar called Akerbeltz. It sounded familiar but more importantly, I recognised the stickers in the window as craft beer stickers. We went in and found a little piece of heaven.
No WiFi inside but we later found out that yes, this is one of the craft beer bars listed on ratebeer. They had a small tap selection, none of which was local but they keep an impressive list of bottles on the chalk board. Impressive in variety rather than quantity with a number of local Basque beers. You can drink your beer outside if you prefer as it's tiny and hot inside. At night, they have a security guy that will pour your beer into a plastic cup if you want to walk the streets with it. There are only a handful of stools to sit on, this is an elbow room, standing bar. While trying and failing to find a website to link to, I discovered that Akerbeltz is apparently a gay friendly place so if that's important to you then go for it as long as you like beer. They do have some spirits hidden from view above the bar.
Here's the thing though, I ordered the last bottle of Basqueland Brewing Project IPA. He immediately crossed it off the board. A few minutes later he went into the back and came out with a can of another local beer and transcribed it on the board. Clearly they keep a number of beers in stock but only have the space to write 17 of them on the chalk board. I reckon if you ask for anything that hasn't gone on the board yet, you might get lucky.
Gross Amber Ale had some nice toasted malts and a good bitterness. There was a nice malt backbone with some caramel notes to balance it. No hop flavours but plenty of bitterness. Not bad, Pauline enjoyed that one while I had the BBP Imparable IPA. The word imparable translates to unstoppable by the way. The bottle said it was 6.8% and 62 IBU. I found it big and chewy with some bitter orange and I love it. It was very balanced and reminded me of some of the better American IPAs like Bell's Two Hearted.
I decided that BBL must be my kind of brewery so I moved on to the next one called Coastal Eddie, a Black IPA and I wasn't disappointed. This bottle said it was 7.8% and 80 IBU, jaysus. An aroma of vinous dark fruits and caramel. It tasted like slight coffee, burnt caramel, dark fruits and intensely bitter. It certainly wasn't as balanced as the IPA, no this was a big fuck you beer.
Next we tried their own house brew called Akerbeltz Terrace, a session IPA brewed for them at Gross. It's only 3.5% which is the perfect session IPA strength for me. The aroma was a slightly soapy lemon but not in a sorachi ace kind of way. It's not bad at all actually, a little toast. Not much going on but tasty and sessionable.
I wanted something on draught so I had a quick half of Warpigs Lazurite IPA from Denmark. It's a murky, yeasty orange colour and tastes pretty much as you might expect with a hint of lemon citrus. It's quite bready and overall, a very balanced beer. Quite sweet but a balanced bitterness. Dangerously drinkable for a 7.4% beer though.
Here's where the evening took an interesting turn. I was chatting to the barman at Akerbeltz as best I could with the language barrier. He had mentioned that Basqueland Brewing were actually having their one year anniversary party that evening. It's run by a few Americans which is probably why the beer is so good. He couldn't get a hold of them on the phone to be sure the party was still going but we took a risk and hopped in a cab as it's only about 7km away in nearby Hernani so worst case scenario was we have a few drinks around town and head back and absolute worst case scenario if there were no cabs there, it would take less than 2 hours to walk.
When we arrived, the party was in full swing. There were two bars, one with their regular beers and the other with the specials. There were also some food stands selling Mexican style stuff and pulled pork.
I'll be honest, we arrived to a pissup in a brewery after we had spent the day drinking and eating but we gave it our best and were there until closing time.
We eventually settled on the stand with the specials for a couple of reasons. One, it had some interesting beers and secondly, the American guy behind the bar and his girlfriend were a lot of fun and knowledgeable so we spent a few hours chatting to them and drinking beer, most of which were topped up for free when they got low. Our new friends were amazed I was still standing since I kept getting the Alvin imperial stout which was 10% and eventually, so was I.
We had a great time and even got a list of pintxo bars and what to order of a Welsh guy we met. It did take us a while to flag a taxi in the town centre. In the end, we got to one as he was picking someone else up but we were all heading to San Sebastian so we shared the fare. We even found a pintxo bar that was still open when we got back to have something to eat before heading to bed. I somewhat felt all that beer the next day but for the most part, we were both grand and even managed to get a swim and some sunbathing on the beach before it started raining again.
The second bar on ratebeer is called Drop. It was conveniently located on a block adjacent to our hotel and I only ventured in on the second day.
Inside is bright and spacious with plenty of seating, a complete contrast to Akerbeltz. Many of the seats are pallets with cushions on them.
While they do have an impressive bottle supply, they also have nearly 20 taps of mostly craft beer. They even had a tap of non alcoholic beer, Veltins I think. A waste of a tap to me but perhaps some people will appreciate it. If I had more time, I would have spent a lot more of it in Drop. It was my kind of place, a little more so than Akerbeltz perhaps. It never got busy when I was there as it's outside of the old town but it's only about a 10 minute walk from the bustling madness of the old town and well worth a trip. In fact, I reckon you should stay in this area as it's quieter when it comes to sleeping and has this excellent bar and then just walk down to the old town if you want a little more nightlife.
The old town itself reminds me a lot of Temple Bar in Dublin actually. It has a similar vibe except it seems a little safer and more foodie than boozy orientated.
I would hope to someday go back to San Sebastian. It seemed the beer scene is growing there but it's still in its infancy. I wonder what it will be like in a year or two? In terms of getting there, I drove but I believe you can just fly to Bilbao and jump on a train for an hour to get there or else to Biarritz (France) and then a bus.