Beer is big in Scandinavia. I suppose it helps make those long, dark winters go by a little easier. We’re not here in the winter, though – summer is in full swing, and the beer is flowing in celebration. There are festivals large and small everywhere we go, and beer is a big part of the festivities.
On a summer’s day in Turku, the banks of the River Aura are one long festival: there are old sailing ships tied to the dock, every one turned into a floating restaurant/bar, where everyone is welcome to find the one that fits them best. We went for the Esposito, a suitably decrepit old scow, and placed ourselves in among the locals, the first tanned people we’d seen since arriving in Scandinavia. We looked over at the guy sitting at the next table: he was a biker, head to ankles: black hat, leathery face, black leather vest, black jeans and slip-on platform clogs, two sizes too small. He was drinking his beer though, so I guess his biker cred was still somewhat intact.
There’s a long history of beer in the region. The brewing of ale and mead goes back at least 1000 years, before the first runes were carved onto stones; beer brewing goes back about 500 years, with the importation of hops from Germany. I was told by an amateur historian that Leif Ericsson left Greenland for the New World when the weather turned too cold to grow barley; they couldn’t import it from Denmark fast enough to keep the colony supplied with ale, so they sailed southwest in pursuit of a warmer climate.
All alcohol sales are made through a government agency; you can buy beer in the grocery stores up to a certain percentage alcohol (from 3.5% in Sweden to 4.7% in Finland), but for anything else, you have to go to a bar or a government monopoly store. The hours of the government monopoly stores are limited: depending on the country, stores close at about 6 most days, mid-afternoon on Saturday and not open at all on Sundays. Prices and selection are the same everywhere. (Small stores carry fewer brands, but those brands will all be available in the larger stores.) Bars have to buy through the government monopoly too, so there’s not a lot of variety there, either.
Prices are kept high to discourage drinking: in Norway, a pint of beer can cost $12 in the monopoly store; prices in Finland are about half that; still high, but much more reasonable. We wonder if that’s because Estonia is so close – Tallinn is just an hour and a half from Helsinki by ferry – so Finland sets the price high enough to limit drinking, but not so high as to encourage black market selling. By contrast, wine prices are pretty reasonable. French, Italian and Spanish wines are about the same price they are in Austin. We found wines from South America, California, Australia and so on, but they’re not as good a deal as they are in the states – so we drink pretty good European wines for the same price. For hard liquor, you have to ask somebody else. We’re not the experts there.
Because of the government controls, beer brewing is a big operation. Most of the beers we see are major local brands: Carlsberg, Hansa, etc. They’re good – definitely better than the major U.S. brands – but it makes us miss the medium-sized American brands, like Shiner, New Belgium and Stone. So, we’re encouraged to see that there is a small but growing craft beer movement. We’ve found local beers by the bottle in some bars, and we helped Helsinki celebrate its second annual craft brew festival. There were traditional Nordic beers, which tend to Pilsners, as well as wheat beers, lagers, porters, stouts and even IPAs (pronounced EE-pa here). We did our best to encourage them by trying as many as possible (one time when it’s good to have a small glass) and didn’t find a bad one. We learned to say Kippis instead of Skål , and met several interesting people, who contributed to the research for this piece, whether they know it or not.