I got to have my first legal beer six months early. It was a weird feeling. I was 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on my way to Copenhagen with the three friends who were going to be studying abroad with me for the fall of 2007 at Lund University in Lund, Sweden. When it came time for lunch or whatever meal it was that they were serving (I honestly lost track of time on that flight; we had already been turned around over the Atlantic once when a passenger had a heart attack and then grounded in Quebec for four hours) the flight attendant offered us alcoholic beverages with our meal without hesitation. After a moment of hesitation, I ordered a beer, not quite sure if it was legal but not wanting to pass up the opportunity if he was offering. Bless the Swedes and their Scandinavian Air Services. The drinking age for served alcohol in Sweden is eighteen, and I’m sure he thought we looked the part as scruffy twenty-year-olds. Come to think of it, the only time I ever got carded in Europe was at the Systembolaget in Sweden, but more on that later.
The beer that we recieved was one that I had never heard of, but was one that was to become very familiar to us over the next few months: Tuborg. I wish that I could remember which one it was (probably Guld or maybe Grön) but that’s not really that important. What was important, is that this new unknown that the Tuborg can on my tray represented was the factor that drove me head on into learning about the world of beer. There is no Natty Light in Sweden, or Widmer for that matter. What are a group of college students from California supposed to drink in Sweden? We had all had Absolut vodka, and even Calsberg Elephant for that matter, but that was literally the extent that we knew of the local wares (Yes, I know that Carlsberg is Danish, but Lund is only 45 minutes by train from the brewery in Copenhagen, and it is actually the most common beer in the area).
The first week in Lund was a complete whirlwind; between finding our classes and figuring out how to live in a foreign country where we did not speak the language, each day was a struggle. I remember going out to a bar the second night we were there and just asking for a “dark” beer, figuring that they would have Guinness or something like that. No such luck, it was either Carlsberg (as was always the case) or Kilkenny, which is an Irish Red Ale that is served on nitro just like Guinness, and is actually not terribly different minus the roasted malt profile. It hit the Spot, but at almost ten dollars a half-liter, I realized that drinking out in Sweden was not going to be cheap. Sweden has a very high tax on alcohol, which is meant to raise prices and lower consumption. Bars are typically almost double the price that they are in the states. Luckily, we ended up doing most of our drinking-out at the Nations, which are student run clubs, and are much cheaper.
Another alcohol-controlling measure that they have put in place is called Systembolaget, which is the national alcohol retail monopoly. They are only open from like 9-6 or 10-7 on weekdays, 10-2 on saturdays, and closed on sundays. Any alcohol over 3.5% has to be sold on-premise at a restaurant or bar, or through the Systembolaget. This has lead to a whole market for 3.5% beer that is sold at grocery stores, but that is another matter…
A few nights in to our stay in Sweden, I went with some friends to a bar where one of them suggested that I try this beer called Chimay. It came is a funny little brown bottle and the label proclaimed that is was made by Trappist monks in Belgium. It was probably the best beer that I had ever had, and I was intrigued by the Trappist label, having heard of it before on the “Three Sheets” TV episode about Belgium. I looked it up, and somehow stumbled across a website called ratebeer.com, which is a collection of consumer ratings of most of the beers in the world, plus lots of educational stuff on beer.
If only I was to know how much finding this one site would change my life. I started looking up the beers that I saw at the Systembolaget, and entering ratings to keep track of the new beers that I tried (SamGamgee is my ratebeer account, so most of the beer link I post will link to my rating under that name). Every new beer that I had never heard of became an opportunity to experience something knew and write about what I thought of it. Looking up the top beers in the world according to the users of ratebeer.com was certainly enlightening. Most beers were in styles that I didn’t even know existed: Abt/Quadruple? Imperal Stout? Lambic? WTF are those? Thankfully ratebeer had articles about the various styles, and I dove into learning all that I could about them, even if it seemed like most were not available on the shelves of the Systembolaget, where a sea of dozens of pale lagers ruled.
By the time I piled into a Volvo wagon a month later with four other guys to road trip down the autobahn to Munich for Oktoberfest, I had already rated forty new beers, and was starting to develop a real taste for most of the styles, including some Belgian beers and even an imperial stout. Germany was so different from Sweden when it came to beer that it hurt my newly-beer-loving head. From gas stations to random vending machines at campgrounds to giant tents, beer was everywhere… and it was all good.
I was determined to try all the festbiers, but only got five out of six (no Löwenbräu, but it was supposed to the the weakest one anyway). We also made it to the Ayinger restaurant, which had the best Märzen in town, though crappy service, as Andre can attest to. In other news, I realized that German wheat beers were way better than American wheat beers and tasted completely different, and I was very far from properly appreciating dunkel lagers (just because they are dark doesn’t mean they are supposed to taste like Guinness Extra Stout).
After drinking some more weizens in Berlin on the drive home, we finally made it back to Sweden in one piece. Well, not Adam; he got in a freak liter-mug breaking accident during our last night at the festival and had to fry back to Sweden for surgery on his hand. Talk about party foul!
The rest of my time in Sweden was a mix of trying new local stuff and whatever stuff I could find at the Systembolaget, and taking a few trips around Europe that were all eye-openers, beer-wise. I rocked Rochefort 10 for my 100th rating on ratebeer, and it totally kicked my ass. Going to Amsterdam introduced me to a slew of quality Belgian beers not available in Sweden, including the #1 beer in the world on ratebeer, Westvleteren 12. Visiting the famous Akkurat pub in Stockholm gave me the opportunity to try my first lambic, which is a style or very sour, spontaneously fermented beer that also comes from Belgium. All I can say about that one is that is was an “experience”.
Once our classes in Lund were over in December, we planned one final trip before coming home to California for Christmas and a return to UC Santa Barbara the next quarter. The plan was to go to Prague in the Czech Republic for a few days, and then fly over to Switzerland for a few days after that before coming back to Sweden and packing up to move home. There were six of us total meeting up in Prague, but my friend Adam and I flew in a day early and hit the city the first afternoon to find the fabled Strahov monastery brewery, which is on a hilltop not to far from the castle. Strahov is home to Klasterni Pivovar, one of the excellent lager microbreweries in Prague. We had mugs of their dark lager with pizza and goulash for lunch in the main dining hall before going over to the actual brewery to try their amber lager and strong christmas lager.
The dark lager was a great example of the dark check style that I was to become aquatinted with on our trip, and the amber and christmas lagers were very unique beers; maybe the the hoppiest beers that I had in all of Europe. Over the next couple days we hit a few more breweries between other sights, and I learned a ton about lagers that I could never have imagined. Coming from the United States, it’s hard to comprehend a rich craft brewing tradition that is based in lager beer and not ale. Oh, and in case you are wondering, I did have Pilsener Urquell while I was there. It is a lot better than the old bottles we get here, but it kinda gets lost in the quality stuff you can get in the pubs from the smaller brewers.
Prague was the shit when it came to beer. We had dinner a couple times at this place by our hostel called Pivovarski Klub that was an awesome beer bar/restaurant, which had lots of good unfiltered lagers on tap, as well as a great selection of bottled beers from the rest of the country and Europe.
As fun as the Czech Republic was, we had other places to see. Geneva was calling, and we took the short flight over after a couple days. Switzerland is a really cool country; part influenced by the French, and part by the Germans; it shows in their beer culture. We hit up a brewpub in Geneva called Les Brasseurs, which had a weird French/Belgian thing going on with the beer, which was not all that great. The main purpose of our trip was night sledding up in the alps around Interlaken, and there just so happens to be a local brewery called Rugenbrau that makes a few nice German-style lagers, taking advantage of the amazing local water.
That’s pretty much it for Europe. Lots of shitty Scandinavian lagers and not too much sun by the time I flew home for christmas. Sunrise at 9AM makes it waaaay to hard to get up early. I was excited to go home. I had been reading about all these highly rated beers online that I couldn’t get over in Europe, and I was determined to dive in head first when I returned to California. The only problem was that I wouldn’t be able to legally drink from two more months.