German Twinning


For many beer lovers Germany is Bavaria, or more exactlyMunich. In that northwest in the lower Rhine area is the small town of Dinslaken. Not far away is the Ruhr Valley, the heart of coal mining and steel working, which is not usually thought of as a holiday destination and tourists are seldom seen roaming Dinslaken's streets. However if you like beer and enjoy a social chat, you'll do well here.

Not a single nook or cranny of Germany is without it's own traditional beers and breweries, and this includes Dinslaken. Just over the Rhine is the worlds largest Alt beer brewery Diebels, which produces a top fermented brownish brew that is very much admired and downed by the locals, and a few kilometres away is the König Brewery with it's first class Pils. These two giants dominate the regions beer scene. Both brew good beers and with a few of the lesser known gems and a couple house breweries thrown in, you'll find something you like.

The pub in North Rhine Westphalia, known as kneipe, lokal, stubbe, gasthaus, gasthof or gastssatte, is much closer in nature to the traditional British pub than to the beer halls of the south. They are meeting points where people prefer to stand at the bar rather than sit at tables, and inDinslakenthe bar to stand at is Holtbrügge's, or Holti's.

Cosy and rustic, it's the oldest pub in the "Altstadt", around for centuries and still in the same family. In fact, the reigning Holtbrügge is Hannes V, and every male family member who has run the pub was a Hannes. Naturally the next oldest son is Hannes VI.

At Holti's there's a beer on tap to suit most tastes and moods. König Pils for that fresh bitter hop sensation, Diebels Alt for that nutty malt flavour, Hövels Bitter Bier for a change of pace and

Here we have the last place in the entire area where one can luxuriate in the smooth round taste of a Dortmunder Kronen Export. Hefe Weissbier, in Hell, Dunkel and Kristall from Franziskaner are also to be had in bottles; and in summer when the beer garden is open many a contented face is to be seen behind the distinctive shape of the Weissbier glass.

Beer aside, the most remarkable thing about Holti's is the atmosphere Hannes and his wife Brunhilde create; that of an old fashioned village pub where everyone fits.

Standing at the bar chatting, on one side you've got a gardener a carpenter or a painter, on the other a teacher a surgeon or a lawyer. Playing cards in the corner are men in their sixties and seventies, while sipping beer across the room at another sit their grandchildren.

The official looking group at the long table are the Mayor and some of the city administrators relaxing over a round of Alt. A couple of Italian men from the ice cream shop, an off duty Turkish taxi driver, an English business man from the hotel over the street meeting with a Dutch colleague, a stray American-all are welcome.

In keeping with real pub tradition as the centre of local society, Holti's hosts a "knobel" team that plays in the "Altstadt Knobel Liga". Knobel is a dice game that is so popular that the bar top is permanently scarred by years of play.

Other than snacks, no food is served, still Hannes who is an excellent cook and Brunhilde who has a magic touch with salad, often find occasion to whip up some fantastic dinners.

The pub is also our bank in a way. A slotted box hangs on the wall on the way to the loos for the "spar club" or savings club. Every week members must deposit at least five Euro in their numbered slot. At the years end there's a party where all the money and interest is paid out, just in time to help out with Christmas shopping.

A few years ago Dinslaken experienced something new. As a long time member of CAMRA and The Netherlands version PINT, I had more and more people asking aboutGermanyand it's beer. I had a few friends over, who not only enjoyed the local breweries and culinary culture but found Holti's a comfortable and friendly watering hole.

I had a simple idea, and ran some adverts in What's Brewing for beer tours. I was somewhat surprised when people started taking me up on the offer, and I got to know some very nice people through the tours. However all that took on an incredible new aspect whenKevin Machin, the owner of the Engineers Arms in Henlow came for a visit. He had 30 of his locals along and we had a great time. He's since been back many times and I've had the chance to get to know him well. What a cast of loveable crazies his pub regulars are.

Up to that time the Dinslaken locals had had minimal exposure to The British, and many people, including Hannes were worried that I was opening the door to a horde of football hooligans. So whenKevin led his troop in they were eyed with suspicion. However it took a very short time before we noticed that they didn't look so much different then we did, and that they liked beer too. In fact Hannes learned quickly that they liked beer quite a lot, and not in the normal fifth of a litre, they wanted "pints" or half litres. We were also surprised that some of them spoke some German, and perhaps even more surprising was that some of us who hadn't had any reason to speak English since leaving school, could remember a bit as it came out in rusty broken sentences. We Dinslakeners are a typical mix of people with the usual jobs. Rainer is a gardener, his girl friend is a secretary, Henry runs a café, Matts is a coalminer, Klaus is a salesman, Bernd works in a machine shop, a couple of us are retired. Pretty much the same as the Henlowites.

It's a very different travel experience when you visit another country not just to see museums and famous sights as if on a conveyer belt, but actually meet the locals and get to know them.

It's so easy to fall into that stereotype trap of, all Germans or all British are…..but when you sit down with them over a few beers, you learn how much you have in common, and it's a nice thing. So nice in fact that The Engineers Arms group have been over eight times and the Haus Holtbrügge band have crossed the channel four times. This loose relationship, almost a decade old, has led to an "official twinning" of the two pubs. The concept is not just for a good weekend out, but also as a true cultural bridge between us. May it long last!

Living in Germany, the GBBF is my yearly excuse for a visit to England. I usually arrive with a notebook full of beer names that I'd read about in the last 12 issues of "What's Brewing". The names are an abstraction for one on the continent, not being available there, and my plan over the fest is to give them substance and reality by tasting them.

This time I had another mission as well, I wanted to visit a special pub. So on Friday night I took a leave of absence from my colleagues and post at the festival's European Beer Consumers Union stand and went to Henlow.

Kevin had invited me many times to come over for a visit, and finally I had found the time to do so.

The Engineers Arms is really a fantastic place. Less than an hour's ride from King's Cross to the village of Henlow, population about 2500, it's a real centre of life for the people. The pub has been in the good beer guide for the past 12 years and has won numerous CAMRA awards. You could say that if there were enough pubs like this we wouldn't need CAMRA, however without CAMRA there would be very few such places.

Good beer is only a part of the pub's success. The real reason is Kevin, who is the heart and soul of the place. If you were advertising for a position as "Best Friend" Kevin would fit the bill fine, add to that all the traits a good barman needs, and you get a can't miss ambiance that holds it all together.

Born in the historic beer town Burton-on-Trent, Kevin started life as a coal miner in Derbyshire, went on to study politics at Ruskin College, Oxfordand worked on The Morning Star newspaper in London before finding his way to Henlow to become a Publican. 

Kevin started out as a tenant at the Engineers Arms for the Charles Wells Brewery, after the pub had stood empty for some six months. When the brewery decided to sell the pub in 1992, Kevin bought it, made it a free house and things steadily progressed, making it the pub it is today.

Over the years the Engineer's Arms has sponsored football and hockey teams, a netball team, Darts teams and a ten pin bowling team.

The pub prides itself on welcoming well-behaved people both young and old, even the village characters who are always ready to give one an earful, weaving tales completely unencumbered by the restrains of either fact or truth, God bless them. I had one of them over in Germany too, he certainly livened things up.

First he lost his passport, then his wallet and while watching a carnival parade he disappeared himself. I hired a troop of boy scouts to find him and they did, and after I paid them in ice cream, both wallet and passport turned up again.

There are different parts of the pub with different functions to suit your mood. A music free room with a bookshelf full of beer guides to peruse as you sit before a warm fireplace on winter days, a beer garden or summer terrace for some fresh air and to catch a bit of sun, maybe.

Like music? A couple times a month there's live music, be it blues or something a bit off the wall! Things happen at 'the engine'.

A special feature is the regular trips of the "Engineer's Arms on Tour" organized by Kevin. They range from weekends in Germany to afternoon visits to breweries or beer fests. Kevin also arranged theatre trips to the west end to have dinner and see some of the best shows in town.

One of the engines 'senior' friends is Bob, who I also first met in Germany. A very lively gentleman, retired for sometime, he lives across the road from the pub, and he told me how after the death of his wife, Kevin used to come over and get him to join in the activities and come along on the tours. It's very rare indeed to find a pub where all the people are in such harmony, where each time the door opens you're waiting expectantly for the magic of the next valued presence to arrive.

Mini beer festivals are also held in the pub every few months, I'm not sure why, with 15 to 20 different real ales every week, that to me is a permanent beer festival. There's only one aspect to this sales strategy that makes me nervous. What if I lived in Henlow and was a regular there, and they got a really wonderful beer in, and I fell in love. After the short romance of just 72 pints I'd have to bid a tearful farewell as they carry the lifeless body out of the cellar, throw her on a lorry and drive off. I know that's it's better to have loved and lost then never loved at all, but still.....I don't know if my heart could take it. There comes a time when one wants to settle down, give up that wild roving lifestyle, When I move to Henlow to live happily ever after, I'll have to make a deal with Kevin.

Does Kevin have any hobbies? Sure, he watches his beloved Derby County, taking Kevin back to his roots and back to one of the countries finest drinking towns……other than Henlow that is!!!!