So my wife and I areback after weeks of technically enjoying ourselves - tired, aching, much poorer than when we set out, and with the car splattered with dead insects as if hit by small arms fire, about the only souvenirs we have of a long, long journey from the Netherlands to the South of France and back again, making extensive use of the now-threatened Schengen Agreement. No, I didn't bring back any wine, even though I could have drowned in it, both French and German (but not Swiss, although they clearly make the stuff). In fact, I didn't even drink that much wine of any sort. Wine, heat and exhaustion (worst heatwave in Germany for a generation, as it happened) are a terrible combination. No. I drank beer: so much beer that I blew up like a balloon and my grimy suntan started to take on a greenish hoppy tinge.
And what I hadn't pieced together, up to now, was that there are of course three kinds of beer to chose from in northern Europe, not just two: blonde, blanche and brune, to use the French terms. This became clear to me while we were visiting some long-suffering German friends near Münster, where our host forced me to contemplate the first two-thirds of this set of options by proposing a choice of Weißbier or Pilsener Bier on an absolutely smeltingly hot day. So I said yes to both - intrigued and slightly troubled by the funky cloudiness of the Weißbier, as if someone had used it for washing-up, and subsequently intrigued and troubled by its aroma of rotten apples and carbolic soap.
It was, yes, a moment of stress: not least because I'd forgotten that I'd ever drunk such a drink, even though I now know I have, back here in London, in the form of Hoegaarden - a beer which, at the time, I must have categorised as a novelty import which only dumb, jaundiced, Londoners would bother with. Was this moody Weißbier peculiar to Münster, I fretted, consoling myself with the easy-going Pilsener to take away the taste? Evidently not. The moment we headed south, it appeared all over the place, Weiß and blanche and wit, like a cloud on the horizon, so that I started to grow apprehensive about ordering anything much, using my recycle-bin French or my Letraset German, in case a blanche turned up on the table, flocculent and vaguely menacing. Even now I can't really be sure whether I like it or hate it.
Brune or dunkles Bier, the third part of the triumvirate, was a lot easier to cope with - usually nutty, firm, a consommé with a head on it - but not always appropriate for the middle part of the day on account of its tendency to send me to sleep with a hundred and twenty kilometres still to drive. It's an evening beer really, a beer that puts it arm across your shoulders and explains how Ginger Baker will always be a better drummer than Charlie Watts. It also, on account of its relative unfamiliarity, tended to point up another great thing about Continental beers, a thing which has nothing to do with taste or composition: the name. Erdinger is fine, I don't bat an eyelid, or Jupiler, or Duvel - but Kwak; or Ritterguts Gose; or Slaapmutske; or Mahrs Bräu Kellerbier Ungespundet Hefetrüb - these are something else, these are beers with names that keep on entertaining long after the last drop has been swallowed. Even the silliest German wines will have difficulty making headway against a perfectly day-to-day, but preposterously-named, beer. It's a bonus.
My personal pick? A pleasant blonde I had in Luxembourg City - one of the most soporific places you'll ever visit - called Bofferding (see illustration). Apparently that was the founder's name - Luxembourgeois Jean-Baptiste Bofferding, who started the brewery in 1842 - but still, to see it peering up from a beermat after a long day just added to my sense of levity and general relief. Naturally, we're not making any comparisons with comedy names like Fursty Ferret or Bitter & Twisted or any of those crappy marketing-strategy confections, designed to confirm your own loveable whimsicality to yourself: the sincerity, the lack of an ulterior motive, is what makes Bofferding so right. To be honest, it's not the greatest-tasting drink I have ever had. I mean, it's okay. But then, how many other beers are an anagram of F. F. Bedgroin?