Portugal – a mini adventure

Beer, EU, Portugal

Name of beer: Sagres mini

Beer description: 5% lager

Portuguese word for beer: cerveja

Date joined the EU: 1986

Have I visited? Yes

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The country

So we have reached our final accession country from the 1980s. Hereon in, all the countries to come are younger Europeans than me. Portugal joined the EU in 1986 and has made its mark on the union ever since, counting one of its own countrymen as Commission President from 2004-14 and hosting the signature ceremony of the most recent iteration of the EU Treaties (I’m thrilled to discover you can watch the whole shebang on YouTube. What a time to be alive. It’s even better than watching UEFA cup draws or the results part of Eurovision).

I’ve visited Portugal only once – a long weekend to Porto about five years ago, which obviously featured port wine for the most part. I did have one beer whilst there – a customary Super Bock. I really loved the city, particularly the public transport, architecture and gastronomy.

Portugal is definitely a country that you don’t associate with beer. The market is dominated by Super Bock and Sagres. Together, these two take up 90% of the beer market so it’s fair to say that there is not so much variety and the craft beer scene is pretty slim pickings. I guess like their Iberian neighbours, beer is more functional fodder for the Portuguese. A refreshing means of quenching one’s thirst in the hot sun, but not much beyond that.

The Parliament

The Assembleia da República (Assembly of the Republic) is a unicameral Parliament comprising 230 members, all directly elected for a four-year term. Interestingly, although the members are elected from 22 constituencies, once they arrive in Parliament, they are expected to represent the entire country rather than just the constituency that voted for them.

The Assembleia possesses the usual parliamentary competences relating to legislation, supervision/scrutiny and the budget, but also a few fun bonus extras. For example, the Portuguese President is not permitted to absence himself from Portuguese territory without the consent of the Parliament, except for private holidays of strictly no more than five days. I would definitely take this prerogative very seriously if I were a Portuguese parliamentarian. “A six-day skiing holiday in the Alps, eh? DENIED. GOOD DAY SIR.” This is perhaps why I’m not a parliamentarian.

The Assembleia meets in the grandiose São Bento Palace in the heart of Lisbon. The building still possesses two chambers, dating back to when the country had a bicameral parliament prior to 1976. After the establishment of the single chamber system, the Senate Chamber became a general purpose meeting room for conferences and the like.

The beer

The Portuguese treat for our delectation was a mini bottle of Sagres. And it really was mini at just 20cl. Gareth got a mere thimbleful.

Sagres is produced by Sociedade Central de Cervejas – a brewery founded in Vialonga in 1934, but now controlled by Heineken (a recurring theme). The beer is named after the village of Sagres, the most south-westerly point of the European continent and closely associated with the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sagres is one of Portugal’s major export products, now found across the world.

We paired the Sagres with a spicy prawn stew and couscous, and it went really well with this flavoursome feast. The beer was quite transparent with some bubbles and a thin head. It was a pale golden colour and had a sweet, quite malty smell to it. I felt that it was light and full-flavoured, but without being overwhelming.

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Sagres and spicy stew

I could imagine that it would be very refreshing in the hot weather, something that Gareth said he could definitively confirm from first-hand experience. I think he just wanted an opportunity to be smug about the fact that he has been to Lisbon and I haven’t.

Overall, we found our mini bottle of Sagres to be pretty decent. I said that although it was not particularly special, it was more enjoyable than most mass-produced beers. Gareth agreed adding that it was not “sour and horrid” like some Euro-lagers.

So, after this brief sojourn on the Iberian Peninsula, it’s onto the 90s. Let the shell-suited raving commence.

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Spain – Sorry for the siesta

Beer, EU, Spain

Apologies for my recent silence on the blog front. Due to a very busy period work-wise, my blogging had to take a slight siesta. I’m back now and we will pick up where I left off – the sunny Mediterranean.

Name of beer: Alhambra Reserva 1925

Beer description: 6.4% imperial pils

Spanish word for beer: cerveza

Date joined the EU: 1986

Have I visited? Yes (ish)

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The country

Spain is probably the European country I have visited the most but seen the least of. When I was younger, we regularly passed through the ferry ports of Bilbao and San Sebastian en route to the south of France. I vaguely remember service stations with bad food. Rather stereotypically, I also visited Marbella where one of my school friends had a second home. I distinctly remember the excitement at being granted permission to walk to Blockbuster by ourselves (to hire Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion on VHS – not exactly classic Spanish cinema).

Finally, I visited Barcelona on a school band tour. This primarily involved theme parks and bad alcopops. On the one day we visited the city centre, I went to El Corte Ingles to buy stationery then had a brownie milkshake in Starbucks. So it’s fair to say I haven’t really experience Spanish culture to its fullest, something I hope to be able to remedy in the coming years.

I also hope to get the chance to try some Spanish craft beers in the not-to-distant future. My research for this blog has led me to discover that Spain has a claim to the world’s oldest beer, after prehistoric brewing artefacts were found on the outskirts of Barcelona dating back an estimated 6400 years. Despite this early start on the beer scene and despite also being one of Europe’s largest beer producers today, Spain is more often associated with its wine. And when one does think of Spanish beer, images are likely to be conjured up of refreshing but relatively simple lagers that serve the purpose of quenching your thirst on a hot day, but not much else.

According to Draft Magazine (one of my new fave reads), the Spanish craft beer scene is on the verge of take-off. The Brewers of Spain estimate that there are now almost 300 microbreweries – microcervecerías – throughout the country, with the Basque region, Catalonia and Andalucia leading the way. With all this in mind, I’m definitely due another visit, perhaps with a bit more culture this time. Or more beer at the very least.

The Parliament

The Cortes Generales is a bicameral parliament made up of the Congress of Deputies and the Senate. The Congress comprises 350 deputies elected by PR, whereas the Senate is partly directly elected. The remaining senators are appointed by the parliaments of Spain’s autonomous communities. Reform of the Senate is a longstanding topic of discussion as part of the wider delicate debate about federalisation in the country.

Although the Prime Minister can call for elections for just one chamber, parliamentary polls to date have always been on a bicameral basis. The most recent election took place on 20 December with all 350 Congress seats and 208 out of 266 Senate seats up for grabs. The result was the most fragmented parliament in Spanish history, with the ruling People’s Party failing to win a majority and two parties gaining seats for the first time – Podemos and Ciudadanos. Despite this historic shift to multiparty politics, the media has primarily focussed on the inaugural appearance of dreadlocks in the chamber of the Congress.

The beer

The cerveza at our disposal was Alhambra’s Reserva 1925. The Alhambra brewery is based in Granada, but has been owned by the Mahou-San Miguel Group since 2007. The Reserva 1925 brew is a 6.4% imperial pils, ostensibly “slow brewed” at a low temperature. It was inspired by early Alhambra beers and is therefore made using traditional brewing methods. We accompanied it with manchego cheese, Serrano ham and a fresh salad in order to maximise the Iberian experience.

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The beer came in a lovely-looking embossed bottle which I really appreciated, despite my usual aversion to green-glassed beers. When poured, it was an appealing golden colour with an off-white head and honey aromas. Gareth and I agreed that the taste was strong and sharp. The sweetness of the honey kicks in early, with a pleasant maltiness lingering on the tongue.

It was surprisingly complex for a pils beer, but paired really nicely with the manchego cheese. Gareth described it as “not an easy drinker”, adding that the taste became more appealing the more you drank. After a short pause, he concluded that the beer was a “grower, not a shower” at which point I confiscated his reviewing pencil and notebook.

So far, southern Europe has pleasantly surprised us with its unexpectedly above-par pils. Let’s see if the rest of the Iberian peninsula can continue to impress.

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Greece – a beginner’s guide to Greek zythology

Beer, EU, Greece

 Happy New Year to one and all. I hope 2016 brings you happiness and good beer. My festive period proved very fruitful on the beer front. It kicked off with an amazing beer advent calendar (courtesy of Gareth) from Malt Attacks, a great beer shop in my neighbourhood. I discovered two new amazing beer bars: Wakefield Beer Exchange in my hometown and Dynamo near me in Brussels. And to top it off, I got an incredible gift (courtesy of Gareth) of a ‘brewing experience’ at Beerstorming – a tiny microbrewery around the corner from my place. That’s right, I’ll soon be trying my hand at brewing my own beer!


Name of beer: Mythos

Beer description: 4.7% lager

Greek word for beer: ζύθος (zythos) or μπύρα (býra)

Date joined the EU: 1981

Have I visited? Yes, twice

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The country 

So we move into the 1980s. A decade of big hair, small government and Mediterranean enlargements. After the restoration of democracy in the 1970s, Greece was the first of the southern Europeans to join the club in 1981. It brought with it a rich historical legacy, an exciting alphabet and some questionable accounting practices. Welcome aboard.

I have visited Greece twice. The first occasion was on a “girls holiday” to the island of Kos aged 18. The holiday primarily consisted of water parks and Chinese restaurants, so it’s fair to say I didn’t get to experience Greek culture at its finest, but I had a great time nevertheless.

The second time was to Athens in 2014 for a national parliaments event during the Greek Presidency. I found the city – its architecture, food, people and so on – completely fascinating. This time I truly embraced all things Greek: visiting the acropolis, cautiously sampling ouzo, recklessly devouring souvlaki and getting a taste of dimokratía in action in the Voulí.

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View from my hotel room – Parliament to the left, Acropolis in the distance top right

The Parliament

The Greek Parliament’s official name is the Voulí ton Ellínon (Βουλή των Ελλήνων), which translates as Parliament of the Hellenes. It is a unicameral parliament of 300 members – 250 elected by proportional representation to represent constituencies and then 50 additional members attributed to the party that received the largest vote share. A pretty nice bonus prize. It meets in the lovely Old Royal Palace on Syntagma Square. In front of the building stands the Presidential Guard – the Evzones – who perform a wonderfully elaborate and, to be frank, downright silly changing of the guard ceremony at regular intervals.

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The Evzones in front of the Parliament

I am privileged enough to have sat in the chamber of the Greek Parliament, which is a marble and gold-panelled amphitheatre surrounded by several tiers of balconies. I am also privileged enough to have partaken in a wonderful working lunch there – the Greeks know how to do a good buffet.  

The beer

The Greek beer in my collection was Mythos – a light lager beer from the second largest brewery in Greece (also called Mythos), now a subsidiary of Carlsberg. As we expected this to be a rather ‘mainstream’ lager, we decided to make things more interesting and authentic by accompanying our tasting with a range of Greek snacks courtesy of Ergon.

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Beer, snacks – it’s all Greek

So, armed with breadsticks, vine leaves, tzatziki and feta cheese spread, we cracked open the Mythos. Appearance-wise, it was a typically straw-coloured pale lager with a slightly fluffy head. Scent-wise, it smelt fresh, floral and a little grassy. Again, classic lager. On first tasting, Gareth and I were both quite positive. It tasted sweet with a sharp herbal edge, which was refreshing and pleasant. Initially, it made a great accompaniment to our Greek treats. I deemed it “pretty decent”, but definitely overshadowed by the amazing breadsticks.

However, once it had started to warm up just a little – only 5 minutes or so after being removed from the fridge – the taste was a “little off”, in Gareth’s words. It developed an aftertaste which was too sharp and almost syrupy. For me, the carbonation was also a bit much.

So in sum, we found Mythos to be an enjoyable, albeit not so unique, Euro-lager, but only if you drink it super fast whilst nibbling on a mezze. The best thing about the tasting was definitely discovering the word ‘zythology’ – the study of beer and beer-making – from the Greek word zythos for beer. So, although the Mythos zythos did not amaze us, it’s always nice to expand one’s vocabulary – not a habitual consequence of consuming alcohol.

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A zythologist at work

UK – fancy a brew?

Beer, EU, UK

Name of beer: The Kernel IPA Nelson Sauvin Simcoe

Beer description: 6.8% American Pale Ale

British word for beer: beer

Date joined the EU: 1973

Have I visited? Err…yes

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Here we are. The home country. The UK. A state of four nations. Not the same thing as Great Britain, the British Isles or indeed, England. Although it is the same thing as Britain. Not so easy to explain, not so easy to understand. And it’s not just the political geography that’s complicated. We Brits are pretty complex people too.

 The country

The UK is a big country (60 million and counting) with a small island mentality. We love cynicism, sarcasm and self-deprecation, but we also like to feel quite superior (we won the war and our language is king of the world, right?). It’s a stereotype I know, but we really do take both queuing and apologising very seriously. We love the NHS, tea, separate hot and cold taps and passive aggression (just make noise in a train’s quiet carriage to discover the latter).

It’s not so easy to be a Brit in Brussels, especially at the moment. I’ve lived in Belgium for over six years now, but I still feel very British. And this is despite what some anti-Brussels folk in the UK like to think, who believe we all “go native” as soon as we step foot in the EU quarter. Indeed, one Daily Mail columnist suggested that British alumni of my university are cleansed of their “British blood” and filled with “pure EU nationalism” during their studies. Sounds far more dramatic than the nine months in Bruges that I experienced.

Yes, I might support Belgium in the occasional international sporting event. Yes, I might sometimes say “normally” when I really mean “theoretically”. But overall, I’m not Belgian and ‘Europe’ is not my country. I’m still British and I’m usually pretty proud of that.

The Parliament

Disclaimer: I worked for the UK Parliament for three years and therefore I may lack bias and objectivity. Statement of fact: the UK Parliament is really cool. 

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The Houses of Parliament is bicameral, consisting of the House of Commons – the lower house – and the House of Lords – the upper house. The more powerful House of Commons consists of 650 directly elected members representing individual constituencies. The House of Lords, on the other hand, consists of two types of appointed members: Lords Temporal, who are appointed by the government (with the exception of 92 hereditary members) and Lords Spiritual, who are Church of England bishops. As its members are appointed for life, it has a grand total of 822 members, making it the second largest parliamentary chamber in the world after China’s National People’s Congress. It’s also the only example in the world of an upper house of a bicameral parliament outsizing the lower house.

A second disclaimer: I love fun facts about the UK Parliament. Rather than bore you with a long ream of these, here are just three more of my favourites about the mother of parliaments.

Fun fact 1: the House of Commons chamber is far too small. It only has just over 400 seats for its 650 members, which is why you often see politicians sitting practically on each others’ laps or indeed on the floor. The only way to reserve a seat? Go to prayers first thing.

Fun fact 2: although English is the principal language used, there is another ‘official’ spoken language in Parliament: Norman French. The formal procedures for the passage of a Bill are made in Norman French, such as “A ceste Bille les Seigneurs sont assentus” and “La Reyne le veult”. It’s not only the European Parliament that can do multilingualism.

Fun fact 3: the UK Parliament is colour-coded: green for the Commons, red for the Lords. You can usually work out where you are in the Palace of Westminster by the colour of the carpet. As well as the soft furnishings of the two Houses, this colour scheme also extends to parliamentary publications, access badges and the all-important official merchandise.

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Want to know more about the UK Parliament, and its lovely lower house in particular? I can highly recommend the recent documentary series ‘Inside the Commons’, which not only features more fun facts like those above, but also introduces you to some of the wonderful colleagues I had the privilege to work alongside for three years.

The beer

That’s enough of my tawdry patriotism and establishmentarianism. Onto the beer. We are pretty big fans of beer in the UK. Whenever I’m back in the homeland, one of the first things I’ll do is find myself a proper pub with a proper cask ale. The British microbrewery scene has really taken off, with CAMRA recently asserting that the UK now has more breweries per capita than any other country, thanks to the growth in microbreweries and micropubs.

The British beer from my collection was a 6.8% IPA from The Kernel Brewery, based in South-East London.

Gareth and I were both big fans of the bottle, which had a simple and very hipster appearance. It poured a hazy golden orange with a creamy head. It smelt as good as it looked – I said like mango sorbet, Gareth went one further with “a citrus fruit salad containing papaya”. The flavour was similarly punchy and bolshy. It had a gorgeous fruity taste with a bitter kick, but without being too sharp. I felt, however, that the taste was pretty “unbritish” and much more like an American-style beer. Gareth agreed: “I was shocked. I had to stop and cleanse my mouth.” Shocking indeed.

Although definitely not a quintessentially British beer, I would say that The Kernel IPA represents the current trend in British craft beer, drawing heavily from the US scene in particular. I’m really pleased to see craft beer and real ale taking off in the UK, especially as it seems to be combining nicely – rather than threatening – our traditional pub scene. Because let’s face it, I might only be saying this because I’m a little homesick in the run-up to the Christmas break, but nothing beats a proper pub. Not sure where to find me in a week’s time? Try The Black Rock.

Ireland – make mine a double

Beer, EU, Ireland

 Name of beers: Guinness Draught can; Guinness Special Export

Beer descriptions: Irish stout, 4.1% and 8% respectively              

Irish word for beer: beoir/beer

Date joined the EU: 1973

Have I visited? Yes
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Ireland. Member of the European Union since 1973. Home of Guinness since 1759. Enthusiast for destroying Eurocrats’ dreams by the means of direct democracy since Nice.

 The country

Despite its proximity, and not just in geographical terms, I’ve only been to Ireland once. This was a Christmas shopping trip to Dublin with my sister when we were both rather poor students, so it was a bit of a shoe-string visit. Nevertheless, we were both big fans of the city. In fact, I was so keen on it, I applied to study a Master’s there but fate (and a rather generous scholarship) led me to Belgium instead.

It’s fair to say that Ireland is a beer-loving nation. It is of course famous for its stout, but also for its red ale. Today, it is virtually impossible to find a major city worldwide without an Irish pub in it. Although Irish in name does not necessarily mean Irish in nature 

The Parliament

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The Irish Parliament is known as the Oireachtas and is bicameral. The lower house is called the Dáil and is directly elected at least every five years by proportional representation. It has 166 seats and a member of the Dáil is known as a Teachta Dála, or TD for short.

The upper house, the Seanad, is much weaker and is not directly elected. In fact, its members are a real mixed bag. 11 of them are appointed by the Prime Minister (the Taoiseach), 43 are elected to represent particular interests (agriculture, labour, culture and so on) and six of them are elected by graduates of two of Ireland’s main universities. That is placing a lot of faith in undergraduates if you ask me. When I was at university, we elected a fictitious leader of the free world as our Student Union President.

In 2013, Ireland dabbled with direct democracy yet again, with a referendum proposing to abolish the Seanad. To everyone’s surprise, it was narrowly defeated and so the Seanad survived. Long live bicameralism I say.

I’ve visited the outside of the Irish Parliament’s building, which is Leinster House, an 18th Century palace in Dublin where the Oireachtas has met since the Irish Free State was established in 1922. Earlier in time, when things were a bit more…err…controversial, the Irish Parliament met in the building which is today the Bank of Ireland. Parliamentary fun fact: at the time it was built, this building was the world’s first purpose-built two-chamber parliament house.  

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The beer

I was given two Irish beers as part of my leaving present. Namely, two Guinness. I had planned to taste just one, assuming that they would be practically identical and thus indiscernible in taste. How wrong I was.

Alongside a widget can of Guinness Draught – a 4.1% classic stout – I was also given a bottle of Guinness Special Export – an 8% stout/black ale. I genuinely expected to be unable to tell the different but in fact, these are two completely different beers.

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Little did I know that Guinness Special Export is exclusively available in Belgium, having been specifically requested by Antwerp-based brewer and Guinness enthusiast, John Martin, in 1912. I’m hugely envious of this man’s evidently immense power. The ability to commission your own exclusive variety of a major beer? I want me some of that.

The differences between the two beers was clear as soon as they hit the glasses. Whereas the Draught had the classic, smooth pitch-black appearance of Guinness, the Special Export was a warmer brown colour with a sticky head and big bubbles. Gareth proclaimed that the Draught smelt “just like a pub”, whereas the Special Export was maltier and sweeter.

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Draught to the left, Special Export on the right

As for the taste, I personally preferred the Draught, which was gorgeously smooth and light on the tongue, with a delicate bitter flavour. Gareth, however, was keener on the Special Export, which had a much deeper and more complex taste, as well as being noticeably sweeter. We both agreed that the Special Export tasted like a fusion between a classic Guinness and a Belgian dark ale. It is very much a dessert beer, thanks to the sweetness, with a lingering chocolatey after taste.

One of the things I am enjoying most about this beer tasting extravaganza is learning new facts about countries and beers. And who would’ve thought that mainstream Guinness would provide me with such a revelation as an exclusive Belgian variety? Great craic all round.

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Denmark – all about the øl

Beer, Denmark, EU

Name of beers: Sur Amarillo; Dangerously Close to Stupid; Black Maria; Insane in the Grain

Beer descriptions: 7.5% Imperial Pale Ale; 9.3% Double IPA; 8.1% Black Ale; 7.5% IPA

Danish word for beer: øl

Date joined the EU: 1973

Have I visited? Yes

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The country

So the first wave of EU enlargement is upon us. The six became nine on 1 January 1973. One of the three newbies was Denmark, the first Scandinavian nation to join the EU.

Denmark is very close to my heart. It is the home country of one of my closest friends and hence I am a regular visitor to Copenhagen, a city that really nails the concept of quality of life. I feel it is the capital city I know best after the two I’ve lived in, London and Brussels.

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Apart from Copenhagen, I’ve not visited a great deal of Denmark. I did see a lot of the country during a wonderful train journey on the night train from Cologne to Copenhagen, a route that sadly no longer exists. The train crossed the border into Denmark at Padborg, weaving up the peninsula of Jutland before crossing the Little Belt Bridge onto the island of Funen and finally travelling across the Great Belt Bridge to Zealand. This is Denmark’s largest island where Copenhagen can be found. A really memorable journey and a great introduction to the country.

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The wonderful route of the night train to Copenhagen. Sadly no more!

The Parliament

Put simply, I love the Danish Parliament. I am a Borgen super-fan, but this aside, I was always going to be an enthusiast of any Parliament whose name literally means “the people’s thing”. The Folketinget is a unicameral Parliament with 179 Members – 175 from Denmark, 2 from Greenland and 2 from the Faroe Islands.

To my great excitement, I got to visit the Folketinget earlier this year on a work trip. I was practically beside myself when my lovely Danish Parliament colleague offered to give me an impromptu tour of the chamber. The tour ended with me sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair for a snap (see below). I couldn’t decide whether I was pretending to be Birgitte Nyborg or Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the then-Prime Minister. Let’s be honest, it was almost certainly the former.

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The beer

Confession: this was the first beer tasting where we got really quite drunk. Gareth and I had the bright idea of trying all four of my Danish beer gifts at once, perhaps not fully taking into account the strengths of said beers. I blame the Danish Parliament.

All the beers came from To Øl, a craft brewery founded in 2010 by two students of the successful Mikkeller brewery. Their philosophy is “to make potent beers, packed with flavour and character”. Based on the four we tasted, they’ve definitely succeeded on this front. Particularly on the old potency.

The first we tried was the Sur Amarillo 7.5% pale ale. Cloudy orange in colour with a pale head, this beer smelt ridiculously floral. The taste was quite a surprise to both of us – mega sour, almost like a gueze. I wasn’t the hugest fan as sour beers aren’t my favourite, so I left this one for Gareth to drink and moved onto the stronger stuff.

We perhaps should have realised the force of the second beer from the name, if not the ABV. Dangerously Close to Stupid is a 9.3% Double IPA. And it turns out I am dangerously keen on it. This beer is literally packed with hops. Both the smell and the taste are pure hoppy delight. It was sweet and slightly fruity on the tongue, but also with a bitter edge due to the high alcohol content. The alcohol did cut through the flavour a little, but it didn’t have that unpleasant burn sensation that some very strong beers have.

A change of scene with the third beer. Black Maria is a black ale with a mere 8.1% ABV. True to its name, it is pitch black in colour, with a creamy, sticky head. Gareth described the appearance as “gorgeous and velvety” (he gets effusive after a few, it seems). A very pleasant toasty smell was followed by an exquisitely smooth taste of malty grains with a sweet and citrusy background. We both enjoyed this one immensely.

Last but by no means least, our final Danish delight was Insane in the Grain, a 7.5% IPA. This was a pretty classic IPA, with a dark orange colour, a dry hoppy smell and a crisp rye flavour. Gareth declared that it was a ‘Ronseal beer’ – it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Four beers on, we were very content and suitably quenched. And pretty sloshed, quite frankly. Well done, Denmark. You took us to a whole new level of beer tasting that none of the founding members managed to. If that’s not an argument in favour of EU enlargement, I don’t know what is. Skål!

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The Netherlands – Een land, twee kamers, drie pils

Beer, EU, Netherlands

Name of beers: Grolsch Premium Pilsner; Brand Pilsner; Kompaan Kameraad

Beer descriptions:  All of them are 5% pilsners

Dutch word for beer: bier

Date joined the EU: Founding member

Have I visited? Yes

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The country

So we have arrived at the final founding member – the Netherlands. Out of all of Belgium’s neighbours, it is the country that I don’t yet feel I have seen enough of. Asides from Amsterdam, I have only visited Maastricht, where I partied like it was 1992, and Breda, which was celebrating its annual redhead day at the time. I felt slightly out of place. I am keen to see a lot more of the Netherlands, with Rotterdam and The Hague both featuring highly on my admittedly long railtrip to-do list.

As a Yorkshirewoman, I appreciate Dutch directness. You certainly know where you stand with a Dutch person. Sometimes literally. On a crowded street in Breda, an elderly resident whose personal space I was apparently invading, calmly said to me: “I don’t like you standing there.” Fair enough.

The Parliament

The Dutch Parliament is bicameral and is called the Staten-Generaal der Nederlander – the States General of the Netherlands. I love the feudalistic nomenclature. And the word nomenclature. Fun parliamentary nomenclature fact: Staten Island is named after the Dutch Parliament. I learnt this from last week’s University Challenge.

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Binnenhof, The Hague

The Staten-Generaal meets in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch Government. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the only EU Parliament not based in the country’s national capital. And I want no arguments about the European Parliament and Strasbourg, thank you very much.

The upper house is called the Eerste Kamer, or the Senate in English. It has 75 Members chosen by the Dutch provincial parliaments every four years. The more powerful and politically significant Tweede Kamer, or the House of Representatives, consists of 150 directly elected Members. Both chambers meet separately (apart from once a year for the monarch’s annual address), but within the same building complex: the Binnenhof. The Dutch Parliament has met at the Binnenhof for an impressive 431 years.

The beer

For this tasting, Gareth and I were joined by my friend and former parliamentary colleague, Thomas. We had three Dutch beers to get through, none of them Heineken, but all of them 5% pilsners. Despite this lack of diversity on the face of it, each beer definitely had a distinct character.

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First up was one of the big guns: Grolsch Premium Pilsner. It has a bubbly golden appearance and a pleasant malty aroma. I found the carbonation a little too high, with the sharpness masking the beer’s flavour. Overall, we liked it, describing it as “nicer than Heineken”, which is praise enough if you ask me.

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Next on the menu was Brand Pilsner. Brand is the oldest brewery in the Netherlands, brewing beer in the south-western province of Limburg since 1340. The Brand brand was taken over by – surprise surprise – Heineken in the 1980s, but it is still brewed solely in Limburg and its bottles bear no reference to its conglomerate owner.

When poured, we all agreed that the beer was the colour of apple juice and smelt like a classic pilsner, albeit slightly sweeter. However, the taste divided us. I felt it was too flavoursome to accompany food, but not interesting enough as a standalone drink. Thomas was more of a fan, describing it as drinkable with a delicate, fresh flavour. Gareth was perturbed: “I can’t work it out. The more I taste it, the stranger it becomes.”

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Moving swiftly on, the final beer was Kameraad from Kompaan – a craft brewery based in The Hague. As soon as it hit our glasses, we immediately and unanimously made the same observation: this beer smelt of weed. Genuinely. Not smelt “a bit like” weed or with weedy notes, but full-on cannabis.

After we got over that surprise, the taste was much more conventional for a pilsner. There is a strong initial burst of flavour, but this quickly disappears and is replaced by a bitter, almost smoky aftertaste. So much so that Thomas observed that it felt like he had smoked a cigarette. Gareth remarked that he felt slightly high, but then again, I’ve heard him say something similar about his hemp hand lotion.

Overall, a pleasant trio of pilsners, each with their own unique, and sometimes delightfully Dutch, twist.