Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rolf Nelson: 'A Man's Man'

Rolf Nelson at the Göller Brewery stammtisch.
Having limited foreign-language skills sometimes has its unexpected advantages when travelling.

In fall of 2010, I found myself visiting some small breweries around Bamberg, Germany.  This day, I was in the village of Drosendorf at the Göller Brewery, the only one in this forgiving little burg.  I was trying to speak with the bartender about how many beers they offered and which one was which.  And, I was making marginal progress with my limited German-language skills, when an English voice belted out the answers for which I was looking, “They have a Helles and a Pils!”  This unsolicited information came thundering from a white-haired gentleman likely in his 70s, sitting by himself at the stammtisch.  The stammtisch is the table reserved for a select group of regular customers found in most German taprooms.  The man, recognizing my clearly-American accent, introduces himself as Rolf Nelson and invites me to sit at the table and have a beer, which I of course did.  When someone invites you to sit at a stammtisch, you don’t say no.  You make time, even if you don’t have it.  Even if it is some seemingly strange old guy with a weird accent yelling at you.

Rolf Nelson and Stu Stuart at Kundmüller Brewery.
Turns out Rolf was a retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major from the nearby Warner Barracks Army base in Bamberg.  He and his wife had built a house in the village back in the 60s when his neighborhood was just a cow pasture.  Ralph was born in the United States to Norwegian immigrant parents, but spent his formative years in Norway since he was a child.  Rolf’s accent was hard to put a finger on: Part Norwegian, part German and part raw unbridled emotion.  When Rolf told a story it was full of passion, grit and expletives, mostly “Gawd Damn” this, or “Gawd Damn” that.

Göller was Rolf’s home brewery, because he could walk to it in about 15 minutes from his nearby home, which he did most days at noon for his daily beer.  I happened to be there one day when Rolf was enjoying his daily ritual.

Rolf essentially tells me his life story about having dual citizenship,  his career in the U.S. Army, being in Vietnam,  getting married, having two grown daughters and how his wife bought this piece of cow pasture one time while he was deployed.  As it turns out, Rolf say, “It was the Gawd-damn-best-thing she could have done” because the house had appreciated so much in value, more than they could possibly have imagined during this Cold-War era.  His wife, I learn is in a nursing home and he faithfully goes to visit her each day.

So, over a beer and an hour conversation, Rolf and I become friends and each time I would visit Bamberg in the upcoming years, I would always see Rolf and have a beer with him.  I got to see their lovely home and manicured rose gardens surrounding the pristine-looking house.  I basically had a fascinating window into the world of Rolf, who I had met ever-so-randomly.

John Smoller, Ross Sellens, Jeff Evans & Rolf Nelson at
Höhn Brewery beer garden.
In the years to come, I would bring my beer tours to meet him at his house, Göller or we would take him on the road with us visiting breweries.  He loved meeting the people in the group.  He especially liked Dr. Ross Sellens from Australia, who has come and continues to come on  more of my beer tours than anyone.  He also really liked big John Smoller from Denver, who is also a U.S. Army veteran formerly stationed in Germany.  He and Rolf hit if off right away.  John describes Rolf as “A real man’s man.”  

On a visit with Rolf in Fall of 2011, Ross and I learned Rolf had lost his wife since we had last visited.  While we could tell Rolf missed her dearly, we could also tell he felt she was in a better place now and no longer in any pain or discomfort.  It was touching as he shared with us this sad news.

In spring of 2012, Rolf had lunch and beers with us at a Hohn Brewery in nearby Memmelsdorf.  He wore his American flag imagery shirt and a U. S. flag hat.  He had a blast  meeting everyone, telling stories and having beers with them.  And, the beer travelers enjoyed meeting Rolf and hearing his passionate stories about his life.  Some for example, involved fishing with hand grenades, dynamite and claymore mines during the Vietnam War.  People really enjoyed Rolf.  Sometimes, beer tours can be too self-contained and you only meet people in the immediate group.  Meeting a friendly and colorful local, such as Rolf, is always a treat.

In October of 2012, Rolf travelled with my tour group to a Kundmüller Brewery in nearby Weiher, to have lunch and beers.  In all his years of living in the area, he had never been to this brewery.  He truly enjoyed the visit and going some place, practically in his backyard, for which he had never been.  In all fairness, with more than 300 breweries in this region, this is going to happen.
Through the years, I would send Rolf photos of our visits and his visits with the beer tour groups.  He loved getting them.  Then when I would visit, he would get them all out for us to see again.

In spring of 2013, I called Rolf from the United States to give him the heads-up we were coming to visit him again and I must have misdialed the number because I got a message that read, “Invalid number.”  So I dialed again with the same results.  Then again.  Same thing.  “That’s odd,” I thought.

So, when I got to Bamberg, I tried again thinking I was dialing something wrong.  I got the same message, “Invalid number.”  So I asked the hotel front desk receptionist, Viola, to try.  She got the same thing.

I thought, “Well, we can just call the taproom at Göller Brewery and they will know what happened to Rolf.”  My first thought, was he may have died.  Then I quickly got more optimistic and thought maybe he went into a nursing home or went to live with one of his daughters.  Viola called Göller and they were closed that day.  No luck.

A few days went by and I saw Viola as I walked through the hotel lobby.  She asked if I was able to get ahold of my friend, Rolf.  I had been so busy with the current beer tour I had not had a chance.  So, Viola offered to call the brewery again.  This time she got an answer.  She eloquently stated  in perfect German my dilemma to the brewery.  She talked to them for about a minute.  From what I could gather, and from the non-plussed look on her face, it sounded like he may be in a nursing home.  Then she softly hung up the phone and said, “I’m sorry your friend has died.”

My heart sank.  

My initial inclination, unfortunately, turned out to be correct. “Gawd Damn it!”, I thought as my mind clicked into Rolf’s way of speaking.  “You son-of-a-bitch, just checked out on us when we weren’t here!”  Viola could tell by the look on my face and my eyes slowly tearing, that I had lost a dear friend.  “I’m sorry for your loss,” she  said quietly.  They told her he had died in January of 2013.  He was 75.  I thanked Viola for her persistence and help finding out what happened to Rolf and shuffled off to my room.

Little did we know in that fall of 2012 when we left Rolf off at his home and he waved goodbye to us from the front porch, surrounded by his rose gardens, that would be the last time any of us would see him.  All my beer travelers, who met Rolf, and myself will miss him on this and future visits to Bamberg.  He was part of our history here and one of the most interesting and colorful people of a handful of memorable characters I have met in my beer travels.

I think about how if my German had been better that day I was at Göller brewery in the fall of 2010, I would never had met Rolf and we would have never had him as a friend.

Coming to Bamberg won’t be the same without Rolf.  Godspeed, my friend; Godspeed, our friend.

To view more images of Rolf, visit the Essential Rolf Nelson Album on the Bamberg Beer Me! Facebook page.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Beer Travel with Rick Steves

Rick Steves enjoying a beer at an undisclosed location. 
A couple days ago I found myself sitting in a lone chair at a table in a large empty room, in a snow-covered building deep in the woods of Northern Michigan.  It looked like a scene for a possible KGB interrogation.  But no,  instead I was recording two episodes of Travel With Rick Steves*, hosted by, that’s right, Rick Steves, who was more than 2,000 miles away at his studio in Edmonds, Washington.  I was at the public radio station in Interlochen, Michigan, which was procured by Rick’s producers for the interview.

I, as with many of you, have been a fan of Rick’s public tv show Rick Steves’ Europe, his public radio show Travel with Rick Steves and his countless travel guides and videos.  So, to have the opportunity to be interviewed by him for an hour on two of my favorite topics, beer and beer travel, was a dream come true.

The first show was about Finding the Best Beer in the World and the second one was Belgian Beer Touring.  Rick interviewed me with his great sense of curiosity, some listeners called in and others posted questions by email.  I answered all the questions, made some recommendations on beers, food and books, and told some short stories to the best of my ability, but in the end, I felt like we had just touched the tip of the iceberg on all the topics.  Rick told me afterward, “That’s the general nature of all this, but it inspires people to learn more about it.  I think that’s a good thing.” 

Looking back, I thought of so many other things I could have said, questions that were not completely answered, erroneous statements that were made by callers that I did not have a chance to refute or add to with more information.  In the end, it’s like travel itself.  It’s not perfect, it is what it is and it is a journey from which you learn, and armed with this new knowledge build upon and hopefully do better the next time.

One thing is clear, Rick Steves in a busy man with lots of people vying for his time, so to be able to have an hour window into his world was a privilege, exciting and perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  My gratitude knows no bounds.  I can’t wait to hear the final production of the two episodes in their broadcast format.  I’ll post the air dates when they become available.  I hope you will tune in or download the podcasts.

So, did we find the best beers in the world during the interview?  No.  We didn’t have enough time, but we did get a little closer.  Maybe next time.

* Travel with Rick Steves is a fun, hour-long, practical talk show with guest experts and questions from travelers. This weekly program is a lively conversation between travelers and the experts as we learn to explore our world smartly, smoothly, and thoughtfully. The show is currently broadcast on more than 200 station in North America.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Beer Festivals: One More Excuse to Visit Belgium

Thirsty festival goers enjoying the Bruges Beer Festival.
If you really needed one more excuse to visit Belgium, I suggest for the incredible beer festivals, built around the needs, wants and desires of beer enthusiasts.  Each year, Belgium hosts dozens of beer festivals, some more well known than others and each with its own character and personality ranging from the granddaddy of them all, the Zythos Beer Festival (ZBF) all the way down to the Heikant Beer Festival, which is fundraiser for a scout troop.  Yes, a fundraiser for a scout troop.  Where were these guys when I was a tenderfoot?

My favorite four Belgian Beer Festivals are the Zythos Beer Festival near Leuven, the Christmas  Beer (Kerstbier) Festival in Essen, the Modeste Beer Festival in Antwerp and the Bruges Beer Festival, which is why I include them in four different annual tours I offer.  The beauty of attending a festival as part of a beer tour is hundreds of beers and brewers come to you in one convenient and efficient place.  This saves a lot of time, especially if you are only in Belgium for six or ten days.  It would otherwise take months, maybe even years, to get the same beer experience.

The Belgians really have the beer festival model down, which makes for typically a really great, user-friendly experience for the consumer.  Most are pay-as-you go, using tokens, which allows you to just have as many beers as you would like at a leisurely pace, as opposed to the American system, where you pay an often-times huge set fee, generally around $50-$75, then people go crazy for four hours trying to get their money’s worth, then people start breaking glasses on the floor and things can get ugly.  You generally don’t have this at the Belgian festivals and it is part of what makes them such a joy.

The sheer variety of incredible-tasting beers at Belgian Festivals is daunting, exciting and fun all at the same time.  As many times as I have been to Belgium, I am always tasting new beers I’ve never had and seeing beers I’ve never heard of.  Most of these festivals are rather intimate, too, compared to say Oktoberfest.  Also, many of the beers are only available at these festivals as seasonal beers, one-of-kinds, or because they don’t bottle or export it.  So, you have to go there to get them.  There is simply no other way.

For more information on beer tours, which include these beer festivals, visit  The next one is the Great Zythos Beer Festival Tour in April and there are still some seats open.  Join us, won’t you?