PHOTOS THIS COLUMN: (from top) Dave and Kiff consider modern art in the Veltins lobby, modern art wisely ignores them; Veltins' traveling "proper pour" unit; Michael Huber, Veltins CEO, and Coleman; Dorothy, Jillian, Robi Bisanti, Veltins area sales manager, Sheryl & Karla; Gasthof Becker, where we had lunch on the second day; a pair of cyclists who hit the jackpot when trapped behind our wagon in the hills; Jillian is nonplussed, Dorothy amused by their mining gear; Robi translates for the Mine Guy; dinner in the mine (note the containers in which the food was served and oh yeah, Dave's obvious pleasure at being 900-plus feet underground).

PHOTO CENTER COLUMN: Brauerie C.& A. Veltins in Grevenstein, Germany.

        IN GERMANY

VELTINS (8 Sept. - 9 Sept. 2003)

It's dark as a dungeon, way down in the mines..."
Given that I make part of my living writing about beer, it's a bit embarrassing to admit that I wasn't at all familiar with C. & A. Veltins before the invitation for this trip arrived and I started doing some research. Given that this 178-year old brewery is the fourth or fifth largest brewer of premium pilsner in that pilsner-drinking nation, that was a serious oversight I'm happy to have corrected. And even happier, comes to that, to have had a chance to see their stunning facility built into the side of a mountain in the village of Grevenstein and to have been duly impressed with their beer, their operation and their clever approach to advertising and promotion.

All that said, our two days at Veltins will probably be best remembered for a most unusual dinner which we were served nearly 1000 feet under the surface of the earth.

We arrived in Dusseldorf on Monday, Sept. 8, and were herded onto a bus for an almost two hour drive to Grevenstein, arriving at noon or thereabouts to check into the wonderful Sunderland-Hotel and have lunch. Upon arrival, we were joined by Benjamin Scheffler, a trainee in the Veltins export division who was assigned to be our liaison, a job he fulfilled extraordinarily well, suffering through long hours of drinking non-alcoholic beer while we partied. That was followed by a two-hour brewery tour (of sorts--much milling around occurred since no one seemed clear what to do with us) and the announcement that dinner plans had changed, presumably upgraded, because CEO Michael Huber was flying in to join us.

The new site was Wenksstube, a small, wonderful old pub with a nice outdoor courtyard and a buffet style dinner. We were the only guests, filling the place. The evening began with a presentation on how to pour a proper pilsner, utilizing a traveling draft unit (see photo in left column) to demonstrate. It was amazingly effective, if presumably a bit unsettling for the pub owners, as glasses drawn from the system were noticeably crisper and cleaner than those being served over the bar (not that the latter were in any way unacceptable, just not quite as dead on perfect).

Michael Huber arrived and startled us thoroughly when he began to speak. The man had a perfect Texas accent! Turns out he went to college there as an exchange student and, he told us, also played for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL (Jeff Coleman later told me that was a bit of a joke; Huber won some sort of contest and the Cowboys put him in uniform and on the field for a single play in an exhibition game). In any case, he was a marvelous spokesman for his company, a salesman in every sense of the world, and set the tone for a night that was destined to go very, very well.

Yep, it was party time! Whatever illusions anyone might have had that we would eat and run were quickly dispelled. Not that we needed a catalyst, but if we had, Robi Bisanti, Veltins area sales manager, was up to the task. His Italian charm and quick wit (which we would see the next evening in very different circumstances) make him a veritable babe magnet for our female cohorts, and he made the most of it (see photo in left column). His plaintive cry of "Kaarrla, Kaarrla" was surely the evening's signal event.

Nor did the fun cease when we all trooped back to the hotel and its neat basement bar. How things went from that point is best summed up in this exchange with Jeff Coleman: "Have a cigar?" "No thanks." "Why not?" "I don't smoke." "Why not?" "Don't like it." "Why not?" "Oh hell, give me the cigar." Thus I found myself with a beer I didn't need in one hand, a cigar I didn't want in the other and, oh yeah, a shot of pear liqueur on the table in front of me. Hey, you do what you gotta do.

A more serious and complete brewery tour (up one level, down four, up seven--it was like a maze, but a damned impressive one) and a full-scale presentation by the Veltins management team took up Tuesday morning. If you recall my comment last installment about the presence of women in positions of power in German brewing, note that Veltins great period of growth began in 1974 with the ascension of the fourth generation, in the person of one Rosemary Veltins, and continues today under her daughter Susanne. I was very impressed by their willingness to ask questions and try to understand the American market, their fiendishly clever use of advertising to advance their products and one hilarious near misstep they'd been on the verge of making to introduce their V-Plus (malternatives) in Britain, but more on all that needs must wait for the next issue of Celebrator Beer News. mustn't it?

We walked up a nearby hill to a grand little pub called Gasthof Becker for lunch, follow by something akin to a hayride in a tractor drawn wagon through the surrounding hills, the high spot of which was either the feeling that we were going to topple over on every twist of the trail we followed or passing out beers to two cyclists trapped behind us (see photo in left column), I can't decide which.

All of which was mere prelude to our final night with the Veltins folks. Dinner would be served in Sauerland Mine, a 480-year old dig which had been shut down in January 1974. As we rode the bus to the small museum which stands atop the mine shaft, I remember thinking to myself that posse member and noted mineral collector Joe Meloney would be in heaven if he were with us. We got a chance to prowl around the displays a bit, seeing everything from some old steam engines to a photo of a long-ago miner relieving himself in an, um, unique manner, then were issued hard hats and long blue coats. We piled in to the small compartments of what was truly an "underground railroad" and began our descent into the depths.

The guy in charge was a burly former miner who clearly enjoyed this new career and addressed us in German in such a bombastic fashion that we could almost understand what he was saying. Almost. Not to worry, though. The aforementioned Robi Bisanti was on the case, employed as a translator for the evening. The two of them put on a helluva show, Mine Guy (never did get his name) blasting out a long volley of explanation as we walked from location to location, Robi boiling it down to a few sentences, often shaking his head as if he couldn't believe what he was having to say.

Dinner was served on white clothed tables in a large, cave-like section of the mine. The food was brought in closed metal K-Ration style buckets or canteens and consisted of, as did every meal in Germany, in pork and more pork, accompanied by stuff that goes with pork.

Question of the trip: with all this pork being consumed, where the hell were the pigs they got it from? Never saw a single one. But I digress, and that's Michael Jackson's gig, innit?

Back at the hotel, I joined the few, the strong, the crazy at the bar for one last beer in Germany. It was Gatz Altbier, a Dusseldorf brew that I'd not had before, nor even heard of (and I didn't feel bad, since neither had Ed Westemeier who, up until that point, I was convinced had tasted everything and been everywhere). It was a very good beer, but I resisted the temptation to sample it further and went off to my room. Tomorrow would be another day....and another country.

Next: Merrie Olde London Town

Return to Liquid Diet Main Page