Last Updated : 21/05/07
An African Adventure
A week in Tunisia, May 2004.
n May, Dave Unpronounceable and I visited Tunisia. The visit was mainly for the superb traction to be found there, but there was also the small matter of 2 brewpubs to get in the book. The only information I had managed to glean about the beer came mainly from the rough guide which described two "German style brewpubs" and enthused that "Golfbräu is the best beer in Tunisia". That settled it; they needed to be investigated! With our "half board package tour" tickets costing a meagre £119 (cheaper than any flight-only offers we could find) that was that sorted. We would be staying in the tourist honeypot of Hammamet, conveniently located for visiting any part of the country, but I only had 3 days to research the trip as Dave booked the tickets on Tuesday for the Saturday departure!
Apologies for the next wad of text being off-topic, but I feel I must set the scene for what happened during the flight and transfer. Neither Dave nor I are used to "normal" holidays, the sort where you get a plane ticket and seat number rather than a simple confirmation number and the hugely entertaining free-for-all a la Ryotscare and squeezyJet. Consequently, turning up at the airport and collecting a plane ticket was a strange experience for both of us. To our intense relief, our fellow passengers were not shaven-headed union jack shirt wearing yobs but middle aged couples obviously off for some relaxation rather than with the ambition of being as spectacularly pissed as possible. The plane was an elderly Boeing 737-300 belonging to the exotically-named Karthago airlines and after a couple of hours tedious flying, only broken by getting a piss-poor meal that we hadn't paid for, we were at Monastir airport at about 22:00 on a Saturday night along with hundreds of other tourists although I suspect our motives for the visit were not replicated anywhere else in the terminal that night!
We changed some money getting a surprisingly good rate of exchange (which was compensated for by the spectacularly crap rate we got when leaving) and boarded the transfer bus (another alien experience for us) for the hour trip to Hammamet and our ridiculously named Hotel Bel Air – I expected to see that total tosser Will Smith leering out of the door every time we returned, but fortunately (for him) he didn’t put in an appearance. During the hour-long tedious bus transfer to the hotel, I comprehensively withered the rep as it seemed amusing at the time. She asked the busload of tourists, who had obviously never bothered to research anything about Tunisia at all, if anyone knew the Arabic for hello. I immediately piped up "Assalama" and she was visibly gobsmacked that anyone had actually bothered to learn a single word of the local language (I’d learned about 6 incidentally). "That’s the first time anyone’s known that…" she gibbered. When we finally arrived at midnight into the huge sprawling tourist ghetto of Hammamet we told her that we’d not be attending the "welcome meeting" (a rancid-sounding occurrence where the assembled tourists are told nothing useful about the country and sold crap excursions they could have done themselves for a third of the price if they had the nous to get off their lazy arses and arrange them) as we were travelling all over the country and using the hotel as a base. Exit one confused rep!
We spent the next day exploring around Tunis before presenting ourselves at the hotel for the inclusive evening meal. The food was a large buffet-style affair and adequate for it’s purpose, and we were actually quite surprised by the beer – called Celtia, it’s brewed in Tunis by Societe Frigorique et Brasserie and can be drunk anywhere in the country (or so it seems!). In bars everywhere it’s all we saw, although there is allegedly a beer called Stella too which we failed to find. Celtia is a pretty standard pale lager that is saved from mediocrity by a sweetish malt/cereal body and a suggestion of hoppiness in both taste and finish. Not a good beer, but far better than we expected although we tried Celtia again in the south of Tunisia later in the week and were distinctly unimpressed with it - maybe this was due to having visited Golfbräu earlier on!
After stuffing our faces at the large buffet, we found a taxi and headed off to the local brewpub, Le Berbère. When I say we found a taxi, this is very easy to do in Tunisia – you just walk outside and within a minute one will almost certainly appear, usually at a vastly excessive speed for the road conditions. It seems the default occupation for Tunisians is taxi driver and the yellow taxis outnumber cars in some areas – and that’s not taking the white fixed route taxis or mini-bus louages into account! Taxis are incredibly cheap, the 4km trip from the hotel to the local station cost a whopping 2.5TD (just over £1) and the journey to the brewpub was about the same. We found it easily; it’s a huge place next to the medina walls on Place des Martyrs with large illuminated signs on the roof depicting a beer glass or blazing out the pub’s name for all within miles to see. The brewing kit was obvious even from the street being situated in the front window and it looked like it was more than just show – the control panel was blinking away and the kit looked used.
Inside the pub resembled a café-bar with pine furniture and the décor was bright, clean and well laid out with the bar at the rear and brewery at the front with seating in-between. We found ourselves a table and, after waiting for a short while, decided that waiting for table service would result in us dying of thirst so I made for the bar. After a few initial language problems I ascertained that there were 3 beers on offer; a Weiss (wheat), a Helles (pale lager) and a Dunkle (dark lager) all, presumably, bottom fermented in typical German style.
We started with the Helles and immediately wished we hadn’t. It looked the part but that was where the positive aspects stopped – it tasted watery with a weird cereally taste and minimal hoppiness. Not a good start. The Weiss was better but certainly not impressive, yet again being a bit thin with a fairly bland flavour although as I’m not a massive fan of wheat beers anyway I have to say that I wasn’t surprised it didn’t hit many spots for me. The final beer, the Dunkle, was by far the best of the night but that’s not really saying a lot given the piss-poor quality of the 2 previous beers we had sampled; at least it tasted of something! It was a deep brown colour with a strong caramelly aroma, taste and finish that managed to swamp any other flavours that may have been lurking beneath. I’m not convinced this beer is authentically German but it was certainly the best one we had all night, although I’d much rather they brew with a bit of roasted barley than just mounds of caramalt as this seemed to be made with. This gives a sickly sweet beer to my tastebuds and stops any subtle flavours from being detected, but of course that assumes there are any subtle flavours to start with.
I felt a bit let down by our experiences in the Berbère, although it must be said the beer wasn’t of the best quality so maybe we were just unlucky? The Helles was the worst beer of the night that may have been a bad batch, the wheat wasn’t good even for wheat beers and the Dunkles had far too much caramel flavour for me, despite being of decent quality. However, I couldn’t really complain as we’d scooped 3 beers in a country not known for brewing and I’ve had a lot worse than that and I’m sure I’ll have a lot worse again!
The other brewpub in Tunisia that we knew about was the incredibly Teutonic sounding Golfbräu in Port El Kantaoui, a place that takes the concept of a tourist ghetto to the extreme. When you arrive on your air-conditioned transfer bus from the airport, you need never step outside the resort again; everything you could possibly want is there for you. This means that you never need to see the real Tunisia and get involved with all that drinking tiny cups of superb coffee, travelling on trains with a confusing 3 classes, attempting to speak Arabic, French or any of the other tiresome things that come with visiting a foreign country. Sterile, plastic, false, Legoland – all these things are true when describing Port El Kantaoui. I hate places like this where it feels like a home from home; I mean, why bother going on holiday!?!?! If the purpose of travel is to feed the mind, visiting tourist gulags like this are pretty arid pastures in my view. The people that go here should save their money, buy a sunlamp and lie on their couch at home and stop getting in my way and on my nerves! Tossers.
Anyhow, to the beer – I’m sure you don’t want to read me ranting on about how crap this or that place is. The brewpub is a fair distance from the ancient city of Sousse, about 8km, although in typical Tunisian style the taxi will only cost about 3 or 4 TD, a miserly £2 tops (unless you get a driver who likes to rip off gullible, rich tourists and conveniently forgets to switch his meter on and tries to charge you an unreasonable fare) and is situated on a roundabout next to the golf village just south of the resort centre. Being a tourist camp there are predictably other ways of getting there; a ludicrous "land train" (imagine something that looks vaguely like Ivor the engine on acid pulling unsafe looking trailers) that trundles between Sousse and Port El Kantaoui – and beware, there are several companies with different coloured trains…. You have been warned! There is also, inexplicably, an Indian style "tuc-tuc" motorised scooter that runs to the medina in Sousse and passes the pub. We refused his offer of a lift as we suspected the 2 of us in a 5-seater tuc-tuc would be a bad investment although it did look quite fun.
However you get there, get there as the saying goes. The pub is massive and has several floors, having a restaurant upstairs with the brewery in the middle which was installed by Salmbräu the Austrian brewplant manufacturers. We sat in the small downstairs bar where the beers are dispensed via a slightly tacky imitation wooden barrel, although they are such good beers I’d forgive Golfbräu for dispensing them from a tramp’s pustulent sock. Once again there were 3 beers available, Helles Weiss and Dunkle, exactly the same range as Les Berbères in Hammamet and a very Germanic array of beer which, presumably, is the main target clientele. The upstairs restaurant was closed at the time of our visit (noon) but the staff were very amenable and showed us round, even taking our picture next to the vessels. Cheers guys!
Once again, we started with the Helles. A massive assault of citrussy hop and malt billowed from the glass and the taste was excellent – a strange mix of dry German pils and rich sweetish Czech Plzen with good malt body and a bitter, lemony hop taste and finish. This beer would hold it’s own in any brewpub I’ve been to, it’s a real class act. I said previously that I don’t really like wheat beers, so unsurprisingly I didn’t like the Weiss, although it was so German I expected it to make a dash for the sunbeds outside. Loads of bread-like grain and intense banana and bubblegum merged to give a characterful beer that I appreciate is a good go at German Weiss – I’m just not a massive fan of the style.
The Dunkle, on the other hand, was my style of beer entirely. Almost black in colour, it had the sweet caramalt flavour but also the dryness of roasted barley which gave a superbly balanced and tasty beer. The flavour was strong in roasted bitterness and malt and some bitter hop came through in the rich, roasted and toffeeish finish. It reminded me of Pivovarský Dům Crno (the memorable Prague dark lager) in style although it was slightly too roasty to be as drinkable as that classic beer, even though my litre pot (how very Teutonic) went down rather too easily. All in all the beers brewed here are excellent examples of the styles and I’d defy anyone to say that they’re not, although people may not like individual beers – I don’t like the wheat beer that much.
You can buy beer in a range of sizes from 25cl to 1 litre and in addition a strange 3-foot tall plastic tube with a tap at the bottom. This unlikely contraption sits on a stand and allows the drinkers to help themselves from the beer inside which may be about 5 litres in quantity! I’ve never seen this before and would love to give one a go at Pivovarský Dům… The food served is a little on the pricey side for Tunisia (but then again, it’s a tourist camp stuffed with rich Germans) but is recommended, especially the ostrich steaks in beer gravy – a large portion and very tasty for about £6. In summary, Golfbräu is a cracking brewpub that excels in all departments and would be very welcome in Worcester thank you very much and may complement the Austrian pub already there!
Typically, we found out more information when we got back. There is an alleged "brew hotel" in Hammamet which features on lots of holiday company websites so if anyone is there then please check out the Yasmine beach resort at Boulevard de la Promenade! According to the gen I’ve read on the net it does 5 beers although it’s not clear if you can just roll up and drink there but I’d guess this is OK. Apparently it’s in a new purpose-built resort about 12km Southwest of Hammamet, that’s all I know about it.
All in all, I’d not really recommend Tunisia as a destination for beer tourists, but if you happen to be there then it’s well worth investigating the brewpubs mentioned here as well as the other one we didn’t visit. Golfbräu was a superb and wouldn’t be embarrassed in any of the brewpub Meccas of the world such was the quality of the beer and food. Les Berbère wasn’t anywhere near as good but made a perfectly adequate effort of brewing beer for tourists, and I’ve drunk a lot worse in countries with a lot better brewing traditions. The next time I’m in Golfbräu with my litre of beer and plate of ostrich, I can picture myself once again gazing in disbelief at tourists packed onto silly little road trains that look both ridiculous and unsafe at the same time, hoping for a major collision between 2 of them on the roundabout outside….
We also had some Tunisian wine which, in addition to the beer, surprised me with it’s quality. We drank a bottle of Vin de Carthage 2002 in the old colonial hotel "Maison Doreé" in Tunis and it was very French in style, although another I tasted was pure Italy with it’s rich plumy fruits. If you like red wines, try them and see if you’re as impressed as I was. There are loads available at the airport shop and the one I brought home was pretty good and only around £5.
We booked late with Direct holidays and got a week half board for £119. I’d try and aim to stay in Hammamet as it’s nearer to Tunis (well worth a day’s exploring) and not as expensive as Port El Kantaoui, although it is rather touristy. Contrary to popular belief, despite being a Muslim country we were treated very hospitably and never once felt intimidated or unwelcome and we visited most parts of the country, not just tourist areas.
As for food, this isn't another planet so get stuck in - if you like spicy comestibles then you're in for a treat. Merguez is a spicy thin mutton sausage that is well worth trying but beware, they possess a kick like a camel. The red sauce that Tunisians seem to apply to anything that moves is called Harissa and is made from chilli, garlic, olive oil and cumin; it comes in a variety of strengths ranging from hot to lava and can contain such things as rose petals which produces a beautiful flavour. It can be very hot but is addictive! The Tunisians are also great lovers of cakes, probably a legacy of the French occupation, and they are usually pretty good. Almonds feature in all manner of foods, mainly sticky cakes and biscuits, especially in the south around Sfax where marzipan and almond cakes are omnipotent. French bread with various fillings (usually salad, a meat and the obligatory harissa) is widespread.
The currency is the Tunisian Dinar which cannot be bought outside the country or legally taken out although we had no problem getting our souvenirs home. The rate of exchange is roughly 2.55TD to 1GBP. Power is 220v with standard European 2-pin plugs. Our mobiles (Orange) worked fine all over the country, including the desert areas of the south. Bottled water is readily available at around 1TD for a 1.5 litre bottle. Alcohol cannot be bought in many places (it is a Muslim country, albeit a very liberal one) although some shops do stock bottles of Celtia (yummy!).
Beers and Breweries.
As is to be expected in a Muslim country beer isn't everywhere, but with the very liberal attitudes in Tunisia (people can drink if they want although most seem to choose not to do so) there are quite a few bars serving Celtia where locals congregate. The "proper" beer seems to be available in the holiday destinations and made (and priced accordingly) for consumption by Germans or Brits. The beer found everywhere is Celtia (4.5%) brewed by Société Frigorique et Brasserie (at 5 Route de l’Hôpital Militaire de Bab Saadoun) in Tunis who also make Lowenbräu under contract, plus we've heard they brew something unappetisingly called Stella although we never saw it anywhere - luckily.
Golfbräu, Golf residence, Port El Kantaoui, nr. Sousse (opposite the Acqua palace) - this superb place brews 3 beers in a German style, and is the must-visit in Tunisia; good food too. Easiest way to get there is a taxi from Sousse, which takes around 10 minutes and should only cost around 4TD (£1.50) depending on your haggling prowess.
Brasserie Le Berbère, Place des Martyrs, Hammamet (by the medina) - about 2km from the station, this bar brews adequate beers for tourists. Not bad, but not great.
Yasmine Beach Hotel, Boulevard de la Promenade, Hammamet (apparently 12km Southeast of town) - this place was discovered on the interweb after we got back and seems to brew 5 beers for it's guests and visitors. From 2006 net research it seems as though they have a "Bräuhaus" bar which goes on into the late hours serving their own beers... anyone?
I hear rumours of another brewery - Brasserie des Jardins in Port El Kantaoui - although at present I have no address or other details and it sounds suspiciously like Golfbräu beers to me. - it sounds like this is simply a bar selling Celtia, but I'm not 100% sure so if anyone visits, let me know the results!
I've also found this - "Beer Garden, Boulevard 7 Novembre, Sousse (tel 3 270 399). Part of the restaurant 3 Dauphins where they serve a variety of very well made beers, lagers, wine and even Tunisian style sangria in a pretty garden. You can order pizzas and other snacks." - no gen yet if this and Brasserie des Jardins are related.
Apparently, a joint venture between Heineken and a local businessman (sounds great, doesn't it?) will be in production by 2008 in Grombalia to supply the booming hotel market with - presumably - Heineken and other Heineken-related dross. I can't wait.
Maison Doreé, 3 Rue el Koufa, Tunis. Cracking little Colonial hotel, fairly cheap and handy for the station. I think a twin room was about £20 with en-suite. To find it, leave the station, cross the tramlines via the underpass, and carry on across the main square. You'll see a hotel in front of you with a narrow road to it's left. Go down here and the hotel is on the left after about 100 metres. Serves good food too and Tunisian wine!
A bit of Arabic
It’s not as scary as it sounds. Even with my pathetic 5 words, we got by as almost everyone speaks some English (especially the young) and almost all speak French. Just by greeting taxi drivers with "assalama" gives them the impression that you’ve made an effort – and so, usually, will they. After all, Tunisia was a French colony from 1881-1956 and any attempt to speak their "own" language will be met, on our experiences, with a genuine warmth and gratitude.
|Brauhaus le Berbère Hammamet||Brauhaus le Berberes Hammamet plant||Golfbräu Port el Kantaoui||Golfbräu plant seminar||Gazza in Golfbräu with litre of Dunkel||Herbal in Golfbräu with litre of Dunkel|
Version 1.34 - by Gazza © 21/05/2007