Beering Around Europe
by Rob Cottignies
Six weeks. Eleven countries. Twenty-four cities. Over one hundred beers.
Contrary to the statistics above, my friend's and my recent European backpacking trip was not centered around beer. We just really like beer and trying new brews from new places is exciting. It should be noted that I am definitely not a beer expert nor am I a hop-head, so my choices tend to stray from IPAs and the like. Also, for the record, I wrote this objectively based on our experiences with no endorsements of any kind. From the common local brew to rare specialties, let's embark on a beer adventure around Europe. Join us...
Our first stop was Iceland, where beers are quite expensive. The trick to successfully drinking beer in expensive countries is to find out which ones are worth the money, and that's where this blog comes in. A very good and fairly popular brewery out of Iceland is Einstök Ölgerð (pronounce the Ös like flat O/U hybrids and that last thing like the 'th' in 'this'). Their doppelbock can be found in the USA during the later-year months and is quite tasty. Their pale ale is solid but their key to victory for me is the toasted porter. Roasty and lovely. You can find Einstök beers in most major retailers in Reykjavík and other main Icelandic cities, of which there is one- Akureyri- sixty miles south of the Arctic Circle and where the beer is brewed. Also in Akureyri is the microbrewery Gædinger. If your time is short and you can't make it up to Akureyri, fret not. Owned by the brewery is Micro Bar, located right in Reykjavík. They offer a great selection of Icelandic beers and their collection of American beer is surprisingly growing nicely. I had heard wonders about the Gædinger Stout but sadly the keg kicked before we got there. Next time!
Unless you enjoy the swill produced by the large American breweries, avoid Kaldi Lite. It was a nice reminder of why I stopped drinking light beer so long ago. Instead, enjoy a nicely-brewed non-alcoholic treat called Egils Maltextrakt from Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson. Say that three times fast. Actually, try just it one time slowly. This root beer can be found near the regular beer in a market and NOBODY should fault someone for unwittingly purchasing it without knowing it was a non-alcoholic root beer. After all, the label is written in the most insane language in all of Europe. If none of this has scared you away (and you enjoy the bitter cold), visit Iceland on March 1st- Beer Day, which commemorates the 1989 end of Icelandic prohibition.
If you thought beers in Iceland were expensive, you should probably skip over Norway. But don't even consider skipping Norway because it's an insanely beautiful country. Any beer- macro or micro, draught at a bar or can from a market- will run about 12-15 US dollars. The rule from Iceland applies especially in Norway- find out what's worth it. Though we certainly couldn't afford to try them all, the beers we did drink from Ægir Bryggeri in beautiful Flåm were excellent. For an interesting concept beer, try their wasabi saison. They also have a new distillery, if paying $40 for aquavit on the rocks is your thing.
Should you find yourself thirsty in the underwhelming city of Oslo, stop by Crowbar & Bryggeri. If you haven't figured it out, 'bryggeri' is Norwegian for 'brewery'. They have a great selection, including a few house brews. Also, to save a little money, keep an eye out in stores for expired beer. I don't know how common this is, but my friends and I benefitted monetarily from a six-pack of Pokal that went south six months prior. It tasted fine and nobody's jaws fell off, so cheers to victory!
The Swedes are very friendly people. Walk into a bar in Gothenburg or Stockholm and you'll find at least one statuesque person with a smile on his or her face, waiting to make new friends. Unfortunately due to Sweden's less-than-Norway-but-still-ridiculous prices, we did not sample many Swedish brews, however I know that St. Erik's is a popular brand. I even rated their IPA a 3 out of 5 (and I haaaaaaaate IPAs). The brand name is misleading though, mostly because St. Erik's Bryggeri shut its doors in 1929. The name has since been purchased by Galatea Spirits. For a fun little treat, look into a few bars until you find the familiar B of a Brooklyn Lager staring at you from the taphandles. Garrett and company decided to expand to the fabulous land of meatballs, bikini teams, and puppet chefs!
I'm here to make suggestions, not demands, but if you call yourself even the faintest hint of a beer nerd, you absolutely must go to Mikkeller Bar in Stockholm. Founded by two friends who shared a passion for beer, Mikkeller isn't actually a brewery. They brew their beers at and sometimes with other breweries from around the world. Found only in Mikkeller Bars, these rare beers will surely give your palate a treat, even if you don't enjoy them! If you absolutely cannot make it to this bar, show no fear- the original Mikkeller is in Copenhagen...
Unlike the people of many countries, Danes are proud of their country's largest beer producer- Carlsberg. Don't expect a huge difference in taste by ordering one on draught just a few miles from the brewery, but enjoy it regardless. Try their Tuborg Classic while you're at it. You can get 2-for-1 during happy hour at Copenhagen Downtown Hostel. And after the rest of Scandinavia, you will be all-too-willing to spend the asking price.
In the last section, I mentioned that the original Mikkeller Bar is in Copenhagen, and I actually wasn't lying! I walked in expecting basically the same beer menu and was shocked to find not one was the same as the Mikkeller in Stockholm. I ordered a Belgian-style Sour Quadrupel brewed with Cassis. Once more, that was a Belgian-style Sour Quadrupel brewed with Cassis, which is French or something for blackcurrant. I liked it- didn't love it- but it was probably the most interesting beer I've ever tasted. They also brew that style with rhubarb, raspberry, spare tires, Eskimo tears, and who knows what else. As I've hinted, there's always something interesting to try at Mikkeller Bar.
For an experience that's more fun than their local beer, visit the quirky sub-section of Copenhagen called Christiania. This artsy village is trying to break free from the motherland and the purchase of every Christiania Thy Pilsner helps!
After Scandinavia, we went to the more familiar (and reasonably-priced) beers of Germany. According to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, German beer can only contain beer's four main ingredients- water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. This, along with careful and extensive brewing practices, ensures that every German beer will be of high quality but there's also not much room for varying tastes. Although the beers won't wow you with strange flavors, German brewers have developed tastes specific to their respective regions such as Kölsch from Cologne, Dortmunder from Dortmund, Berlinerweiße from Berlin, and the impressive array of beers from Bavaria. That all said, our first stop in Berlin was a Belgian beer bar named HERMAN. The owner/bartender is extremely friendly and knowledgeable about Belgian beers, likely because he is from Belgium. One fun fact he had for us was that the Quadrupel style is more of a Dutch innovation and Belgians tend to shy from it. After hearing that, I did the only reasonable thing- ordered a Quad! That Malheur 12 was a nice brew, but there are better Belgians lurking. We'll get to them in a bit. For those of you familiar with the one in Munich, there is also a Hofbräuhaus in Berlin. It's smaller and a bit more tourist-centered but worth a visit, if only for a liter of Dunkel.
And speaking of Munich, let's head there for Oktoberfest, shall we? If you do or don't enjoy anything about life, stop what you're doing and book an Oktoberfest trip immediately. It's an enormous carnival with huge tents filled with people drinking huge beers. I say 'carnival' because there are rides and games and stands all over the place. Yes, rides. In the morning, you may promise yourself that you won't go on a roller coaster after six liters of beer. Yeah, talk to me after the liters. Anyway, Oktoberfest is wonderful, despite what my friend Becky might say about it. My friends and I were in Spaten's tent and drinking their delicious Märzen while singing bad American songs from the 1960s was a magnificent experience. Even if you can't get a table in a tent, just walk around and find a seat at a table outside of a tent. No beer is served outside of the tent areas, so if that's your goal you'll have to find a seat. At least be a little prepared, unlike a group of Australians we met on a train who were going to Oktoberfest but had no idea how it worked. I guess they figured it out when they randomly found us and immediately ignored us and attached themselves to the girls in a group of strangers we were talking to. Ugh, Australians.
But speaking of countries which are proudly not Australia...
To Austria! Austrian beer is quite good but often gets overshadowed by German beers and because many people don't know what Austria is. Think Schwarzenegger. So Innsbruck is a lovely city with many great places to drink great Austrian beer. Gastgarten zur Eiche proudly serves Zillertal beers, which are all very tasty (and organic). Their Schwarzbier is excellent. Augustiner is a German brewery but their biergarten in Innsbruck is great, although often quite busy and chaotic. More toward the city center is Elferhaus, which has many interesting beers on tap and in bottles. One that stood out to me was the Schremser Doppelmalz. In nice weather, they have outdoor seating (which closes around 10 or 11) and the inside is quite nice if you can handle cigarette smoke. Lastly in Innsbruck is a brewpub called Theresienbräu. I was only able to go there early in the day for a short time but it seemed like a good place and the food is supposed to be great, though I found their Märzen to be just average.
On the other side of Austria is the country's capital, Vienna. It's a different world from Innsbruck but beautiful in its own way. Ottakringer is the local brewery which can be found on the outskirts of the city. As with many European breweries, schedule a tour a few days in advance if you'd like one. If not, visit the brewery's shop then head to Zum Bierfinken to sample the brew. Back in the main city, my disdain for Australians did not stop me from visiting Crossfields Australian Pub. It's a nice atmosphere with good food. Foster's is the only (sort of) Australian beer on tap but more can be found in bottles. Also, Ottakringer brews a lager specifically for the Pub, so check that out because you can only get it there. There are also two beers named after Australia's Ayers Rock. Both are tasty, but they're also not brewed down under.
My friends and I went to Budapest for a weekend, but I had a nasty cold and cannot really comment on the beer scene, or much else for that matter. I do know that some beers were the equivalent of 80 American cents. That price blew my mind, having been in Norway two weeks earlier. I heard great things about bars built on top of old ruins and the nightlife in general is definitely not for the uninitiated. Again, next time!
Should you find yourself in Interlaken, Switzerland, consider yourself very lucky. The lakes, hiking, air, and water are unbeatable. But you're here to read about beer, right? OK then. Ittinger and Feldschlössen are the most popular Swiss breweries, each with mostly average but solid products. If you happen upon a restaurant called Little Thai, go in for possibly the best soup you'll ever have and a surprisingly excellent selection of craft beers. This time around, I had a Star Porter from Stözi-Bräu, which was very tasty and rare enough that I had to enter it on Untappd. The owner is very beer-savvy so the selection constantly rotates and there is always something good. Also, seek out Adelscott, a French version of a Scotch Ale which made me very happy. This can sometimes be found at Little Thai or a really good beer store across town. Should you find yourself in Basel, have a pint or two at Paddy Reilly's Irish Pub then quickly get out of the most depressing city I've ever experienced.
The Netherlands (or interchangeably, Holland) is not really known for beer aside from Amstel and Heineken. If you're still reading this blog, I take it you've had each of those plenty of times and have since moved on. We all know what Amsterdam is popular for, but there are plenty of good places to raise a glass or ten. Durty Nelly's Irish Pub is a good start. It's named after a pub in Shannon, Ireland, and is a great place to drink but its hostel is not the most accommodating. I tend to shy away from Heineken, but do seek out Oud Bruin, their black lager which is mighty good and can only be found in Holland. Brouwerij 't IJ (the I) is a lesser-known but superb micro-brewery that is worth the long walk from city center. They brew an array of beers and the ones I tried were all quite enjoyable. A definite is Zatte, their Belgian-style tripel and the first beer they produced. Bartenders in The Netherlands say their country is not very big on beer production because Belgium is close so they mostly import from there.
And speaking of Belgium...
You may recall from the beginning of this article that our European journey was not centered around beer. Well throw that out the window right now because my friend and I very purposefully ended our adventure in Belgium, the land of amazing beer. Why is it so amazing? Well, hundreds of years ago, Belgium was half-controlled by France while Germany claimed the other half. The Germans brought high-quality beer that they'd been brewing since 1516 while the French were more experimental. Instead of choosing a side, Belgians took the best from both to create their own fantastic brews. So there's your history lesson. Now, the coolest thing about getting beer in Belgium is that every order- draught or bottle- is served in a glass created by that brewery, sometimes even just for the specific beer. The Belgians take great pride in this presentation, which always has the label facing the customer. Just please don't ever steal a glass or some poor guy like me will have to drink Kwak from one with Carlsberg written on it.
We started our Belgian journey in the really awesome and historic city of Ghent. After seeing the three main buildings and climbing the bell tower, you should start with a Jupiler, arguably Belgium's blandest brew. From there, grab an excellent beer from a grocery store (I got Chimay Blue for €2.50) and walk around. It's legal to drink in the streets, just don't be a jerk about it. Herberg De Dulle Griet is a marvelous bar serving only Belgian beers, as most do because Belgian beer is the greatest. Their draught selection isn't very big but take a look at the bottles they offer and try to narrow down a choice in less than an hour. I say order a Cuvée Des Trolls while you peruse. It's a tripel brewed by Brasserie Dubuisson, who also makes a line of Bush beers. These are obviously not the Busch beers known to American college kids and tailgaters. Try the Bush de Noël, then take a break. It's 12% alcohol and 100% delicious. The sudsy jewel of Ghent is Gentse Stadsbrouwerij, who makes a line of five Gruut beers. They have this name because four of their beers don't use any hops, but an ancient and secret mix of herbs and spices known as gruit. As a hop-hater, I was immediately attracted to this brewery. The amber and brown ales are marvelous while the other three (witbier, spicy tripel, and blonde) are also quite noteworthy. The brewery is small (1,000 hectoliters per year, which is about 850 barrels) but the tour is great. Our guide (Bram, possibly spelled that way) was very welcoming and knowledgeable and you get to sample three beers along the tour. Make sure to try all five though.
From Ghent we went to the sort of fabled city of Bruges. Get there during the day so you can walk around and awe at the canals and alcoves and old but very well-preserved buildings. Climb their bell tower then do your best to find Staminee De Garre. This lovely bar is hidden down a creepy-looking alley but is worth the find. Brouwerij Van Steenberge (famous for Gulden Draak) brews a tripel just for the bar, aptly called Tripel Van De Garre. Their selection is very nice but the environment is the true appeal. Just order a beer, hang out, and forget that things outside of the bar exist. Should you feel like leaving De Garre, head to The Druid's Cellar, an Irish pub in the basement of an old building. The beer selection isn't great but it's a really fun place and the Irish bartender is as cranky as he should be. Trivia (in English) on Monday nights. A little out of the way (but the city is rather small) is Café Vlissinghe, a nice place that has a tasty blonde beer of their own. Brouwerij De Halve Maan has recently grown in popularity and for good reason. They produce four beers- oddly, the blonde and dubbel go under the name Zot while the tripel and quadrupel are called Straffe Hendrik. Start with the blonde and go up in order from there; they are all outstanding. In fact, I considered their quad to be the best beer in the world until I went to...
Westvleteren. Beer geeks are drooling from experience and/or jealousy right about now. Rent a car in Bruges and take the beautiful hour drive to the small town. The Abbey of St. Sixtus is one of six Trappist monasteries in Belgium. Trappist Abbeys produce not just beer but cheese, chocolate, and many other products. In order to get and use the name Trappist, the products must be made by or directly under the supervision of the Abbey's monks and all proceeds must go back into sustaining the monastery or to charity. Westvleteren is the only Trappist brewery in which the monks currently do all of the brewing. They don't ship out their beers nor do they approve of reselling, thus making the beer extremely rare. Tours are limited to one person per year and that must be a very prominent beer journalist. Your best bet would be going to In De Vrede, a nearby café owned by the Abbey. There, you can have all three beers (on freakin' tap!!!) and order food, some of which bears the Trappist logo. You can buy souvenirs at the shop along with a maximum of two six-packs. This may sound strict but be thankful- you used to have to reserve a case well in advance and hope it was available when you visited. The blonde is great, the 8 greater, and the 12 officially has my stamp as the greatest beer in the world. I am not alone with this assessment.
After struggling to leave Westvleteren, we drove into France (how cool is Europe that you can just drive to France for a few hours?) to search for a street with my last name. We found the street, but no road signs labeling it! The French... I was furious, but on that street in the town of Wasquehal was a restaurant called Beers & Co. It's a nice sports bar that's obsessed with Madison Square Garden for some reason. The excellent beer I had there was Réserve Ambrée, an amber by Brasserie Fischer, brewers of the aforementioned Adelscott.
In order to not spend too much time in France, we quickly drove back into Belgium and found the lovely town of Silly. Yes, Silly, pronounced silly. Good news- there's a brewery in Silly, Brasserie de Silly! Tours are hard to come by (e-mail them directly well before you go) but next to the brewery is Café de Brasserie, a dive bar that ended up being much cooler than its first impression. My friend wrote a blog about it which you can read here. All I can add is that the beers we tried from their fairly extensive selection were very good and the overall experience was just wonderful.
After we got Silly, we ended up in Antwerp. Not knowing much about the city, we wandered and found 't Waagstuk, possibly the best beer bar I've ever experienced. Our first order was De Koninck, the local Antwerpian(?) brew. Alex, the American bartender/co-owner, said he could surely pour that beer for us, but we should consider ordering something else because of the caliber of the bar. I was very appreciative of this and, at his suggestion, opted for a Hop-Ruiter from Scheldebrouwerij, which smelled like an IPA but tasted like pure magic. The hops were present but absolutely toned down presumably for my enjoyment. I also had a Scotch Ale called Gordon Highland which was very good and a Faro by Brouwerij Lindemans. I had only heard of the latter style, which was a sour/sweet/salty beer and absolutely fantastic. The other co-owner, Hans, came in and was gracious enough to chat with us for a while with one of his students from the beer-tasting class he teaches. It was a most-interesting experience that perhaps you can replicate on your visit. Hans also works at t' Pakhuis in Antwerp, a micro-brewery housed within an impressive restaurant. Obviously we went there the following day to sample their first-rate beers. And before leaving Antwerp, we stopped at Matterhorn for a De Koninck, which was surprisingly good for a local 'eh' beer.
Having limited time in Brussels, my friend and I shared a Westmalle Dubbel before going to Delirium, a staple if you're in the city. They have a very good selection in addition to the delicious Delirium beers.
Cheers! Prost! Skål! Op uw gezondheid! Egészségedre!