For me, travel and beer go hand in hand. I would have to say that I equally love them and life would be less exciting without one or the other. In travel, there is adventure. Beer is no different. I have met an array of interesting people through both travel and beer, and can say that through these mediums I have made very good friends. I have tasted a wide range of flavors from beer after beer, country after country, including our own U.S.A. It was on my travels that I literally discovered a world of beer way beyond the Rolling Rocks, the self-proclaimed royalty and champagnes of beer, and the icy and blue stuff of Canadian stock.
Experiencing beer usually starts in your backyard and tends to be a mixture of the “Big Beer (i.e. Bud, Miller, Coors)” and what’s locally available. For instance, growing up I remember the catchy jingle for Old Vienna Lager from Canada: “Just say OV, and an L, add and E, and you’ve got LOVE, LOVE OV/Love that Old Vienna Lager/Old Vienna Lager Beer/There’s a reason it’s so pleasin’/It’s great Canadian beer.” Too young to drink and not well traveled yet, I sang this syrupy tune without knowing about the real great beers of Canada. Regular border crossings, combined with college study abroad, work-related trips and fabulous opportunities for non-tourist destinations morphed into beer exploration.
Germany, England and Belgium are some countries that first come to mind when it comes to beer – who doesn’t know about Oktoberfest, British pubs and Trappist monks? While these countries have rich beer traditions and produce fabulous brews along with countries like the Czech Republic, Ireland, Holland and Mexico (better known for tasteless Corona, but producers of authentic delicious Vienna Lager), there are other fine beers from places you wouldn’t expect. In my travels and research, I have come to find that Finland has an incredible beer scene steeped in a rich beer tradition that dates back from the Viking days, perhaps even before. Sahti, a beer made with oats, juniper and brewed with baker’s yeast (instead of brewer’s yeast) was widely produced during the Middle Ages and continues to be brewed to this day. While it might not be a top travel destination for tourism, Finland is a beer lover’s delight, abound with microbreweries and unique pubs. To get a taste of sahti without breaking the bank, however, Dogfish Head of Delaware spins out its own version called Sah’Tea. Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø also produces a sahti and many other delicious beers readily available.
When it comes to Eastern European beer, the Czech Republic comes to mind. Famously known for its pilsners and for being the number one country in the world for beer consumption per capita, this small nation of ten million is a beer powerhouse. Two of its most widely known popular beers are Pilsner Urquell – the world’s first pilsner, and Budweiser Budvar, known as Czechvar in the States. It’s important to note that this is not Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser. In the Czech Republic, the city of České Budějovice was also known as Budweis, its name in German. The oldest brewery to use the term “budweiser” was not Anheuser-Busch, who named the very famous American Budweiser many years later. While the Czech Republic certainly dominates Eastern European beer in popularity, other countries such as Poland, Russia, and Ukraine should not be overlooked. It’s true that the larger conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Carlsberg Group and SABMiller now control some of these breweries, as is the trend everywhere it seems. However, these local breweries still churn out their recipes and produce a wide variety of beers. Drinking beer at the local source is always best of course, and in my travels I was extremely impressed with Ukrainian beer. There didn’t really seem to be a craft beer ‘scene’ and I suspect that beer probably comes in second to vodka, but is enjoyed nonetheless.
So how can you get your hands on some of these lesser-known beers? Since extensive travel might not be an option, bring the world of beer to you. Luckily, there isn’t a shortage of Eastern European beer in the Syracuse area. If you go to any of a number of small grocery stores that cater to these communities, you can pick up some Lvivske, Baltika, Obolon, Zywiec and many others. Even if you don’t read Cyrillic, pick some up and have fun with the mystique of it all! Beer stores and larger grocery chains also carry an array of international beers. Look for smaller breweries from countries such as Norway and France. Instead of Molson or Labbatt, try Quebec’s Unibroue. If you want to go the extra mile(s) and have an enhanced driver’s license, consider this little adventure: cross the border to Ontario and head to an LCBO store. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario sounds more official, but it’s basically a liquor and beer store. Niagara Falls is closest, so make a scenic getaway/beer-shopping trip! Not only was I able to get Canadian beers not available in the U.S., but other international selections as well – beer from Lithuania, Kenya and Iceland most definitely caught my attention.
Travel truly inspired me to learn more about beer, which in turn led to writing all about it. Great beer places like Germany, England, Belgium and the Czech Republic are definitely on my bucket list, but it was Finland and Ukraine – countries not wildly known for their beer – that filled me with a childlike wonder and unquenchable thirst for beer. Until I’m able to travel again, I’ve got a world of beer right outside my door waiting for me. It’s waiting for you too. What are you waiting for?! Kippis! Na zdrowie!
Originally printed in Table Hopping, November 2013