European Beer Odyssey: 111 Different Beers in 32 Days Across Five CountriesJanuary 03, 2018
By the end of August, I had been traveling for nearly two months, although this was less a period of extended leisure and more a journey with an unknown destination. There was a need to get out there, a calling reminiscent of Samuel Jackson’s character Jules in Pulp Fiction, “Basically I’m just gonna walk the earth… ya know, like Caine in Kung Fu, walk from place to place, meet people, get in adventures.”
As anyone would, I was partaking in local imbibing pleasures at each destination. In Cuba, there were Mojitos and Daiquiris. In Italy, I drank deep of wine and spritzes. In Switzerland, well, I drank whatever I wanted in Switzerland – they’re neutral – but generally followed the west to east wine to beer gradient which runs across the country as its French influence wanes into Germanic.
Then came Munich. I knew at this point it was time to say my fond farewells to the god of wine, Dionysus, and surrender myself in full to his mentor, Silenus, the god of beer and drunkenness – basically the god of good times.
It was time for beer, and a steady, unwavering diet of it.
From Munich to Brussels, in Bruges and in Ghent, onward to Rotterdam and Amsterdam, detouring to Lisbon before getting back on track in Berlin and Prague, it was time satiate my self-styled sileni yearnings for beautiful, overflowing sudsy steins.
What happened next spanned 32 days and five countries, in which I drank 111 different beers.
My only rules were that I promised myself to never repeat an order, and to try beers I had never had before whenever possible. And don't worry, while a number were three or four ounce taster pours, none were mere “sips” to pad the stats. I did this for myself, but really, I did this for you.
I brewery hopped across Belgium, and I picked brewery hops at one of them, before drinking the beers the hops would be used for (Palm Hop Select and Hop Select Limited Edition Green Hopping at Palm Brewery). I went to a brewery experience where they don't brew any beer (The Heineken Experience) in Amsterdam, but would still gladly go back for the beer and cheese pairings (Affligem Blonde).
In Munich, I went from garden (Franziskaner Weissbier at the Olympic Park biergarten) to garden (Hofbräu Münchner Weisse at the Chinese Tower biergarten), and in Prague, beer hall (Kozel black unfiltered at Lokal) to beer hall (Flekovský ležák at U Fleků). I went to beer museums (in Brussels, Bruges, and Prague) and beer festivals, guided tastings and tours. I tasted beers from monasteries with a thousand-year tradition (Brevnov Monastery and brewery) and from breweries making beers for less than a single year (the boat brewery, Loď Pivovar). Both in Prague.
I went against my doctor's orders by drinking beer at Lisbon's Dr. Wine bar (Super Bock Abadia). I drank beers on trains – draft beers, in real glassware, what a world! (Erdinger Weissbrau, somewhere between Frankfurt and Brussels) – and wanted to drink beers on a bicycle pub in Amsterdam, but missed my chance.
Beer was a celebratory tool fueling endless laughs in Bruges (over Mc Chouffe's and De Koninck's and Rodenbach's and more) and a coping one in Berlin, sitting at a quiet cafe and dealing with the numbing sadness I felt after visiting the city's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier).
All in all I caught up with family in one country, friends in another, and made new ones in the rest, and despite all this beer got into only one near altercation, which was at, of all places, an Irish pub in Brussels (Guinness – not counted in the tally). On another occasion, I opted for bemusement rather than confrontation, and merely pondered the appropriate reaction when an old man sat at my table and ate the pretzels I had just ordered (Lowenbrau Dunkel at Lowenbrau Keller).
The Big Takeaway – Bohemia & Bavaria Win Beer Culture
I came upon the realization that Americans are now paralyzed by choice when we go out for a beer. Sorry bartender, I'm not ready for my beer yet, come back in 38 minutes when I'm done perusing your 251 bottles and 24 drafts. Or the alternative, undone by the pressure to order on command and the undecipherable complexity of the menu, and opting to quickly call out for the first and most recognizable name you find.
Don't get me wrong, I love the breadth of American craft beer, I get excited when I find a great bar with hundreds of tempting available beers, and I love bars with creative, deep lists showcasing the best of that world and helping me to explore it. But there's sheer, simple beauty in the unpretentious realm of Bohemian and Bavarian beer culture. Prague and Munich share much in this regard, even if the cities and its denizens would be loathe to admit it.
Walk into a local pivotéka in Prague and there's a good chance they're serving one brand of beer. They might make the stuff themselves or they might be a bar outpost and partner of a specific brewery. There's probably three beers on draft, 10-, 12-, and 14-degree lagers, maybe a fourth, a dark lager for good measure.
Or there's only one, it's reliably excellent, and you can walk in and order a beer you're going to love without taking a masters class in the latest six months of craft beer evolution, or worse, suffering through the bearded bartender's overly serious lecture on the matter.
In Munich, it's the same at the beer gardens spread across the city. Maybe the garden serves a Helles, a Weissbier, and a Dunkel. It won't take long to debate which one you'd rather pair with your pretzel or schnitzel. It's gonna be good – fresh and cold and well-poured, and cheap. Cheap! Wonderfully cheap. Why the hell are we paying $6 for lukewarm “happy hour” pints? What's happy about that? If you want to be happy, pick any beer hall in Prague and grab a delicious half liter for a third of the price, any hour you damn well please.
There's near-endless great beer in the Czech Republic and in Germany, but you're never in over your head. You're at the bar or the garden where they serve whatever brand they serve. Maybe it's Gambrinus at Prague's Letna beer garden or it's Augstiner at the Augustiner-Keller beer garden in Munich. Maybe that's why you came, maybe it's not, but that's what they have. Maybe you visit your favored local joint because you know the bartender comes to work with his own meticulously cleaned beer taps, the way a traveling chef carries her trusted knife with her wherever she goes.
That's the takeaway from this journey. That's the beer culture I most want to embrace and live in.
We need to tone down the snobbery and turn up the carefree joy of enjoying good beer in a fun place for the right price. I cheersed to the thought in Brno, as I enjoyed the final beer of this odyssey – a Budweiser. No, no, not that one, a Budweiser, the one made in the town of Budweis in the Czech Republic. That's a whole different story.
Top Bars/Halls/Gardens Visited (Alphabetical Order):
Biergarten Viktualienmarkt – Munich, Germany: This is the Munich you envision in your head if you've never been. Not the biggest or the oldest, but the Viktualienmarkt beer garden offers a perfect location near the Marienplatz. If the classic eats aren't good enough – they are – but nevertheless, you can still stock up at one of the dozens of sausage and charcuterie shops lining the market. They serve one beer for six weeks at a time from the major Munich breweries.
Lokál Dlouhááá – Prague, Czech Republic: One of several Lokal outposts, the cavernous, long hall is as deep as the entire city block it's on. A whopping two beers are on the menu, although each is offered with a range of pour styles indicating the ratio of beer to foam. Get some fried cheese. Or dumplings. Or any of their beer snacks.
Moeder Lambic – Brussels, Belgium: It's your first time in Brussels, which means you'll go to the original Delirum Cafe. You likely won't go back. Instead, spend your time visiting and revisiting Moeder Lambic, with a deep and rotating beer list, knowledgeable team, and chill environs at both city locations.
The Monk – Bruges, Belgium: Grab an outdoor table and get a five beer or ten beer taster paddle including some eclectic and local offerings, a mere two minutes from the charming city's (“it's a fairytale fucking town, isn't it?” – In Bruges) central square.
U Fleků – Prague, Czech Republic: Open for more than 500 years with 1,200 seats spread across eight separate halls and a garden. Accordion music. Classic Czech eats. Your choice of... one beer, delivered endlessly on loaded trays. If you don't have fun, it's your fault.
Cantillon Chouke – An equal parts mix of one, two, and three year old lambics from Cantillon. Tart and sour and berries and effervescent and distinctly memorable. Had the beer geeks at BXL BeerFest going gaga.
Flekovský Tmavý Ležák 13° – The name translates loosely to the Flek dark double lager at 13 degrees, and it's the only beer at U Fleku. You won't be sad about the lack of other options.
McChouffe – McChouffe from Brewery Achouffe. Easy drinking dark ale that sneaks up on ya at 8%. Plus, the skiing gnome in plaid pants on its bottle may or may not be my new alter ago.
Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier – Classically made Hefeweizen. Big flavor and nice aroma, not too many bells and whistles, just done right.
La Trappe Quadruple – All caramel and malt and mead and bread and banana. A quadruple that doesn't overwhelm you while packing in big flavors and 10%.