Olut. Beer. Kippis. Cheers. Kiitos. Thanks.
For me, three essential words in Finnish to know (and not necessarily in that order) when in Finland. It’s no secret that I love to travel, and jumped at the chance to visit a country with a rich history and interesting culture and language. So I set sail (via plane) to Finland in 2008, packed with my Lonely Planet book and the tidbits I knew from my childhood correspondence with a Finnish girl from Kokkola. What I didn’t know was that Finland has a long beer history dating back to the Middle Ages. The oldest still-existing commercial brewery in Finland is Sinebrychoff (now owned by Denmark’s Carlsberg Group), founded in 1819.
I arrived to Helsinki’s airport and took the two-hour train ride to Turku (Abö in Swedish), a city with an impressive history to match its homegrown beers. I did not expect for Finland – Turku especially – to be such a wonderful place for a beer lover such as myself. April was cold and rainy in Turku, but I didn’t let the foul weather dampen my spirits. I walked around the streets, sampled local fare and bought the latest Scandinavian fashion pieces before they would be mass produced and sold at H&M six months later.
What’s interesting about Turku’s beer scene is not only the selection, but the bars themselves and the customs and traditions of the Finnish people. I didn’t know what to expect, nor did I know that my American sense of decorum was seen as odd behavior in a Finn bar. My limited Finnish skills were enough to order beer which was all I really needed. Wide awake from the time zone switch, it was time for a beer at the hotel’s nightclub. I glanced at the beer selection and saw Kilkenny, an Irish cream ale that I had never seen in the U.S. I had to try some but didn’t want to commit to a whole glass in case I didn’t like it. I didn’t think twice to ask the bartender for a sample. Lonely Planet didn’t prepare me for the fact that asking for a sample is a no-no. He reluctantly gave me one anyway. This Irish import went down like a silky treat, and I was immediately sold. A few euros put to good use, I tipped the bartender who shoved the coin back at me thinking I had made a mistake. While Lonely Planet did alert me that hospitality workers get paid a flat rate and tipping is unnecessary, my American sensibilities got the better of me. I couldn’t help it.
While I am a firm believer in sampling local food and drink wherever I go, I also wanted to take advantage of the European selections that I hadn’t seen in the U.S. at the time. It’s not everyday that I go to Europe, so why not try what I can’t buy at home? I was in heaven. Next up was the Finnish olut. Could it stand up to the competition? In a word, yes. Kukko dark, a beer with a rooster for its logo, was delightful and I just loved saying “Kukko” for the hell of it. Interestingly enough, all versions of Kukko beer are manufactured using wind power.
The brewpub scene in Turku is nothing short of eclectic, and it took me two visits to enjoy them all. There is definitely a theme that revolves around buildings that were once something else. I thoroughly enjoyed microbrews at Koulu, an old Swedish school converted to a restopub; drank fine ales with German colleagues and an eccentric Finnish actor at The Old Bank, a real bank converted to another fine drinking establishment. Whether it was by design or coincidence, these strange bars worked, from the round public toilet to the pharmacy – all once venues that were visited for very different reasons, but to find some sort of relief. Not much has changed, only the form of relief in which the residents of Turku turn to after a hard day’s work. Finns love their beer, and these bars are wonderful gathering spots to let loose.
I have to give credit where credit is due — Finland’s miicrobrew and pub scene impressed me so much so that it was my inspiration to create The Hoppy Nomad. Finland is a country with a rich history, delicious food, great architecture and natural beauty. From there I was on a roll — ready for more travel and beer adventures. Kiitos Suomi!