Best brews with a view
THE right-hand index finger slowly moves down the list of German beers and comes to rest at an untried, unfamiliar name.
"Zwei Radler, danke," we tell the waiter, holding up two fingers in case our accent gets in the way of our order.
Moments later, two steins appear before us in the Munich beer hall.
Hubbie downs a few gulps and for the first time in his adult beer-drinking life, he grimaces.
"Try that," he insists, pointing at my beer.
I can count on one hand the number of full glasses or pots of beer I have ever consumed. This is my first attempt at a stein.
"Not bad," I reply after a sip.
He tries another taste, just to be sure, then announces deflatedly: "It's a shandy."
Not realising "Radler" is German for a type of beer with lemonade (otherwise known as bier mit lemonade) is the only mistake we make as we drink our way across Europe.
While tour buses filled with 20-somethings set out daily on a mission to drink, drink and be merry in a blur of 20 countries in 30 days, we aim to be a little more refined and discerning during our three-and-a-half-month trip.
We want to savour each mouthful of liquid refreshment and photograph each new beer encounter while still able to enjoy the atmosphere of every drinking establishment.
Europe has such a wide range of brew styles and locally produced favourites in each region of every country that you can take a stab at just about any on the beer menu and rarely go wrong for taste.
All you need to do is ask the local knowledge behind the bar to narrow down the choices.
And even "single lingual" hubbie soon learns to ask: "Dunkle Weizenbier?" - when in German-speaking countries for the dark wheat beers he seems to prefer.
But our plan to take things easy nearly comes unstuck early at The Beerwall in Bruges, Belgium.
This place (at Wollestraat 53) is enough to turn any normal man and woman into wide-eyed Homer Simpsons, muttering: "Mmmmmm. Beer."
We take our time looking at the gazillion bottles behind glass that take up one full wall of the long entry passage.
Once in the bar area, we pull down the brew explanations that hang from the ceiling, place our order and then try to find a table in the popular terrace area overlooking the canal - nearly causing an international incident with a cocky American who wants the same best seat in the house.
We finally settle in to a lazy afternoon by the water with the pink elephant label of the Delirium Tremens (a spicy amber ale from Gent's Huyghe brewery).
We find the Gouden Carolus (a full-bodied dark brown ale with a sour/fruity aftertaste from the Flemish town of Mechelen) goes down easily, too, on this hot summer's day.
In the street cafes and restaurants of Bruges's Marktplatz later that night, the Kwak - a Flemish beer from the family-run Bosteels brewery - dominates the tables, more so for the quirky hourglass-style drinking vessel on a timber stand than necessarily the amber ale contents. Leffe Brune - produced in Leuven, east of Brussels - soon becomes a firm favourite among tourists for its dark, aromatic, full-bodied taste.
Bruges is also where we are introduced to Trappist beers.
Trappist-certified beers are brewed in Trappist monasteries, produced by the monks, with profits used to support the monastery and its social welfare programs for the community. Six of the eight Trappist breweries in the world are in Belgium.
One of hubbie's favourites is the dark and sweet Rochefort produced at a Trappist monastery in the Ardennes that is best consumed amid the grandeur of Brussels' Grand Place.
Belgium has about 180 breweries of varying sizes and takes its beer-production seriously, so it's no wonder Belgian beers are consistently among the world's most awarded brews.
And we soon learn that the quality and shape of the glass can also improve the taste - just like crystal wine glasses.
But by the end of the trip, we decide Ireland's Guinness is still the serious beer drinker's mother's milk.
A tour ticket to the Guinness
Storehouse in Dublin comes with a mid-tour tasting and free pint of Guinness at the end in Arthur's Bar, with a panoramic view of the city.
Which brings me to another interesting point: where you drink your beer is almost as important as what beer you drink. While every day is a good day in the Temple Bar district of Dublin, we made sure we found some of the rowdiest pubs, most interesting and historical inns, and extremely convivial places to sip, gulp and refresh in every stop. We found we could indulge responsibly to our heart's content:
At casual street cafes in Montmartre's Place Du Tertre in Paris.
In English pubs such as The Old Mill 15th century inn at Salisbury near Stonehenge.
Under shady trees in cliff top beer gardens, including Kastaniengarten perched on the slope of the Schlossberg and overlooking Freiburg in Germany's Black Forest.
At bars with a view on the highest mountains, like the Bellevue Hotel in Switzerland's Murren above Interlaken.
A great place to have a beer is at almost every turn:
A Feldschlosschen by the lake in Lucerne.
A pint of John Smith's Extra Cold at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
A free Verdett beer on a canal tour in Ghent, followed by a few too many varieties in Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, overlooking the Lys River.
A Calanda in the middle of historic Bern, Switzerland.
Any cheap Czech beer at the Klub Lavka terrace of Prague while watching late afternoon turn to sunset and the lights come on at Charles Bridge and the castle.
Stopping to drink in the sights of the Swiss Alps from a deckchair at the Glacier Bar after stepping from the train at Jungfraujoch.
But possibly the country where we have the most fun drinking beer is Germany.
Even outside the notorious Oktoberfest each year, Munich's beer halls and beer gardens overflow every afternoon and night with locals and tourists enjoying each other's company and a hearty ale or two.
Seating is often on long tables with bench seats, making conversation with strangers inevitable.
And as we discovered at the beer garden at the Chinese Turm (built in 1790) in Munich's Englischer Garten (English Garden), beer is a universal language that unites differences and overcomes communication barriers.
We soon have a mini-United Nations on a Sunday afternoon: we Aussies plus a Chinese student solo traveller, a former diplomat's wife originally from El Salvador who has called the Bavarian capital home for several decades, and a 19-year-old Spanish boy from Madrid, wearing an Italia T-shirt, who is staying with her on holidays.
Over the next two hours, we laugh, drink and chat with our varying grasps of English before heading to another English Garden favourite haunt - Seehaus Biergarden, by a lovely lake with birdlife among the paddleboats.
The next day, under the ornate ceiling of Munich's Hofbrauhaus, hubbie and I share a huge bread pretzel and somehow converse with a former German Second World War soldier with very limited English.
He shows us photos of himself in uniform and the love of his life. We grasp that he still mourns her terribly and we suspect a daily drink while listening to the resident oom pah pah band is the one guilty pleasure of a lonely old man.
Having a beer while people watching makes you stop from your whirlwind of a holiday, take in the sights, relax and smell the malt, wheat and hops.
We certainly drank our fair share of wine, too. But that's another story … one that doesn't come with lemonade.
10 BELGIAN BEERS TO TRY
La Chouffe 8%
Leffe Brune 6.5%; Blond 6.6%
Delirium Tremens 9%
Rochefort (6) 7.5%; (8) 9.2%; (10) 11.3%
Duvel Tripel Hop 9.5%
Westmalle Tripel 9.5%
Gouden Carolus 8.5%
Orval Trappist Ale 6.2%