A recent Ratebeer thread discussed a Yahoo.com article titled the 13 Best Beer Countries, which garnered a number of responses from the well-traveled Ratebeer membership. I decided to put down my thoughts, current as of early 2015, based on where I’ve recently visited and accounting for personal experiences and taste. Worthy beer countries I’ve yet to visit include Australia, Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Brazil, and Poland, so I can’t say anything substantial about what the beer scene is like in situ. Countries I’ve visited before, but not recently enough for comment, include England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Spain, so these are also absent from the list. With that big caveat, here is my list of personal favorites by country.
1. Germany. I’ve written extensively about the Franconian brewing scene here, so I’ll simply state that the unfiltered, naturally-carbonated Franconian lagers, when they are “on”, they are some of the finest beers in the world.
2. Belgium. It’s all about the hoppy pale Belgian ales, De la Senne and De Ranke are two of the best brewers in the world and them alone make Belgium worth visiting. I will mention Westvleteren for their hoppy Blond, even though the 8 and 12 are still appreciated (not world-beater to me like so many believe). It’s worth spending time seeking out the rustic and dry saisons and tripels that put to shame their American impostors. And of course there’s the unique lambic scene, which I’m not into anymore, though during my last visit it was enjoyable to try the fruited Cantillons again, this time from cask, fresh and young and sweet before all of the sugar had been fermented out.
3. New Zealand. I’m the outlier here. I absolutely love their emerging experimental brewing scene, and by experimental I mean hop-focused and malt-focused, they don’t get carried away with fruits, spices, kombucha, cucumber and other nonsense, they experiment with core ingredients which makes this purist very happy. The hop character to me is a unique blend of western / tropical with a stronger sense of their noble lineage than you get with American strains. From my experiences the hops appear to be used fresher and with more care for where they fit in the recipe, so there’s not a lot of beers with old, stinky-cheesy hops, there’s not a lot of resin and grass character in their NZ Pale Ales and NZ Pilsner, and only occasionally do you find the onion and diesel fume character which is more common in hoppy American beers. They embrace flameout and late boil additions to get that salivatingly juicy / oily hop character with balanced (not excessive) bitterness. Also compared to the states, the recipes seem better suited to showcase the ingredients with precise minimalism. There’s a big trend of single hop beers in New Zealand (controlling the experiment as we scientists say), giving the drinker a clearer impression of exactly what each hop can contribute to a recipe. You get varied malt origin as well, ales and lager using home grown New Zealand malt, some using American malt, some German and many using one of my favorite malts, English Maris Otter. Like your pale ales fruity-juicy somewhere between noble and tropical, but with savory-toasty-toffee-like English Maris Otter? NZ is the place to drink.
4. Italy (really Rome and a visit to Lombardia, Veneto, and Friuli in 2009). To me, the Italian brewing scene as a whole doesn’t have good definition, it’s a mix of old and new world, Belgian and American influences, sometimes in the same recipe (like Session IPA made with Saison yeast). There’s a lot of experimental and “extreme” strong beer, which I’m not into, but the Italian drinkers also have a better appreciation for balanced, flavorful lagers than most European drinking cultures. From a recent visit to Rome it seems the new trend is American hops, but most examples I tried were old (cheesy, onion-y, etc.), which makes me think that Italian brewers are getting the oldest, least-desirable American hops on the market (speculation). I understand this will not sit well with my Italian friends but my exploration of the scene was not thorough, and I know that I am more sensitive to the flavor and aroma character of old hops than most people. This is not an indictment of the scene, but I see some similarities with the US, with a lot of new brewers coming to market while still figuring out their focus. One highlight for me was the gypsy brewer Stavio, who produced a Rauchbier and Heller Bock that speak to Franconia. The good thing about the Italian scene is that beer is everywhere, it’s no longer niche, there are hundreds of restaurants and shops in Rome alone which cater to beer drinkers. The import scene is possibly the best in the world, consisting of a wide range of Belgian, German and American products from a seemingly endless number of producers, and Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa, and its sister restaurant Bir&Fud, could be considered two of the best drinking establishments in the world, and they just happen to be located across the street from each other in Trastevere. (I originally had Italy further down the list but I think for an outsider, in terms of quality and variety, it is one of the best countries in the world to visit).
5. USA. There’s good and bad, a lot of variety but the newness of the scene lacks focus. Not worth going into detail here since the scene is well understood. The signal-to-noise ratio is ever decreasing but there are enough gems out there that I’m happy.
6. France. Low gravity, rustic and hoppy Belgian-ish beers and characterful Bière de Garde that show well the floral-herb-lemon hoppiness that makes Strisselspalt one of my favorite hops. I consider Daniel Thiriez of the most skilled brewers in the world, Page 24 remains a personal favorite producer, and Cuvee des Jonquilles for me has a special place. France would probably rank lower with more visits as the newness wears off. It’s not a huge beer scene but what is there aligns with my tastes, and though beer isn’t very widespread in France as it is in other countries, the focus of French beer is clear.
7. Norway (really Oslo). Haand is a favorite, though not everything they touch turns to gold, they do make some very nice hoppy sessionable beers, and their fresh batches of Dark Force and Norwegian Wood are uniquely classic in the world. Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri makes a variety of American, English and German-focused styles, some work and some don’t but the effort is appreciated. The bar and restaurant scene is pleasant and for an outsider there’s enough variety that I can’t imagine someone visiting Oslo not finding the newness (and generally high quality) enjoyable.
8. Finland (really Helsinki). Clean German and English-style beers from Bryggeri Helsinki and Suomenlinnan Panimo for the purists, with a vibrant import scene full of American and Belgian and French and sour rarities for the bottle chasers.
9. Czech Republic. As much as I love a hoppy Kvasnicove Svetly, the truly superb ones are few and far between, though many are decent to drinkable. I don’t feel the strong draw to return to Cesky given the prevalence of diacetyl, and the fact that indoor smoking is widely accepted, which is a huge turn-off for non-smoking beer travelers.
10. Sweden (based on Malmo and Stockholm). Akkurat scores big points for their worldwide selection, from the uber rare sours to the just-as-uber rare Franconian lagers. One of the few places in the world with a deep cellar menu that’s actually current. In general the beer quality was high, but Sweden does not have the economy which allow new brewers to easily start up and learn as they go. The beer scene is well-integrated with the food scene, and if they could ditch the state monopoly stores I would give the country a stronger recommendation. Närke Kulturbryggeri is probably the most well-known Swedish brewer, mostly for their prized Stormaktsporter bottles, but what many beer drinkers don’t know is that brewer HG Wiktorsson makes some of the most flavorful gotlandsdricka in the world (Bästa Rököl and Tanngnjost & Tanngrisnir). Närke is a tiny family operation, and their beer is not widely distributed, so finding bottles can be a challenge. In Malmo and Stockholm you can usually find one or two Närke products on cask and draft, and if you search long enough you should be able to find at least one of the famous Stormaktsporter variants (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), just be prepared to pay heftily for the pleasure.
11. Iceland. Limited number of breweries but the few at the top have good game. Part of my love for the scene is how young and exotic it is, and I’m sure the newness will wear off the more I visit, but I have enjoyed very much the Borg and Ölvisholt products and even Kaldi has upped their game with the Czech-style lagers. The locals and the tourists are embracing the scene and it’s only going to get better. State monopoly stores are a big minus but they don’t stock most of the good beer anyways. At Keflavik International Airport you can now find upwards of 30 Icelandic beers to drink on site or take with, so even on a short stopover you can explore the Icelandic beer scene without leaving the airport.
12. Denmark. Hard for me to place on the list because the interest is almost entirely in strong western beer with little love given to English or German styles. At Mikkeller bar I end up drinking Orval because nothing else seems to work (resinous American-hopped pilsners and “Belgian ales” are the alternative if you’re not into 18% Blueberry Barley Wine). I should give a shout out to Henrik Papsoe and Amager and their stellar rendition of Franconian Kellerbier, Sinner Series Greed, showing there is hope for the country.
99. Lithuania. So it’s certainly not my #13, but I had to mention it because it was included as a favorite by so many other people. DMS everywhere. I wrote about this already, but it’s not fair to call it a flaw because it’s a desirable characteristic to a lot of Lithuanian drinkers. In my limited time in Vilnius, I found only one of thirty beers that I would consider drinkable. Lithuanian brewing is unlike anything else in the world; many brewers don’t boil their wort, some don’t use hops at all, old bread is a common ingredient, and sanitation is not so important as it is in other countries. Beer author Martin Thibault has written extensively about the brewing process and yeast cultures in Lithuanian beer, and it should be understood that freshness is incredibly important to quality, these fragile farmhouse beers do not hold up well, do not travel well, and often times the barkeeps do not put effort into preserving the state of the beer. As a result, these low carbonated Gyvas alus are dirty-tasting and contain what most westerners consider major flaws (from the more recognizable diacetyl and DMS, which respectively manifest as butter and carrot / cabbage / cement mix off-notes, to the more strange, difficult to define, and sometimes gag-inducing off-notes that manifest as concord grape jelly, hen house, fried chicken breading, and ketchup). I really want to like the Lithuanian farmhouse brewing scene but I fear I’ll never go back.