One of the wonderful things about being an expat is the opportunity to explore other cultures, and in particular, their food and drink. Gastronomy is a universal language, and one that doesn’t require a knowledge of the local language – at least, not for those of us with adventurous palates.
Alcohol isn’t quite as universal as food, but for those who do drink, it can add a whole other dimension to the expat experience.There’s something special about sipping on a drink that is steeped in local culture, traditions and ingredients. Beer in particular offers the opportunity for almost endless exploration: there are dozens of different styles across the world, with substantial differences in color, aroma, taste, texture, ingredients, traditions, origin, and more. Even beyond these differences, individual brewers will add their own unique touch to any particular style. It’s always fun to explore the local drinks in a new country, but more so in a country that has a strong beer culture, due to the sheer variety that the drink offers.
If you’re one of the many beer-loving expats out there, here’s a list of the top ten countries you might want to live in.
United States of America
For decades, the US languished in beer hell. Bland, characterless, mass-produced beer ruled the market, and the rest of the beer-loving world cracked rude jokes about American beer. Today however, it would hard to find anyone wanting to mock American brews. In 1980, soon after what is often called the American beer renaissance, there were fewer than 10 craft breweries in the country; in 2014, according to the Brewers Association, there were 3,418. Of course, it’s still the minor share of the market that goes to these small breweries, but it’s quite a substantial minor share of 11%. American beer is truly booming, and in spite of worries about the bubble eventually bursting, things are still going quite well: every year, a few small breweries and brewpubs close, but many more open. Lots of exciting new beer is brewed, more people take a liking to craft beer, and the market continues to grow.
The average beer drinker isn’t particularly concerned with these numbers of course; but what they mean is that almost anywhere you go in the US, you’re likely to find at least a decent range of high quality beer, much of it local, and usually modestly priced. Without exaggeration, some of the most exciting and innovative beers in the world today are being made in the US, along with American interpretations of classic styles and some of the best examples of faithful traditional beer styles; including many obscure and even dead ones that have been recently revived.
Belgium is a kind of Mecca for beer lovers. For people who are passionate about beer, Belgium is a pilgrimage that must be made at least once in life. The country has brewing traditions that go back centuries and have, to a large extent, survived until today. Although many countries lost their old brewing traditions and styles as huge commercial breweries took over the market throughout the 20th century, Belgium – the home of a number of unique styles like the lambic, the dubbel, and the witbier – has retained its small, local breweries and beers, sometimes producing small amounts just for local consumption. Of the 11 recognized Trappist breweries in the world today, six are in Belgium. There are many Belgian beers that you will never find outside the country, and quite a few that you will not find outside the region in which they are brewed. Some beers are only available on the premises on which they are brewed, and only in limited quantities.
In addition, Belgium has a vibrant contemporary brewing scene, with brewers and breweries keen on experimentation and innovation. In a sense though, they’re simply sticking with a Belgian tradition – Belgian beer has always been adventurous, unlike its stricter neighbor Germany.
Like Belgium, Germany has brewing traditions that go back centuries, and a beer culture that has managed to remain diverse and deeply woven into almost every aspect of life. Unlike Belgium though, Germany has the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law, which restricts the ingredients to water, barley, and hops. Although sometimes seen as a guarantee of quality, the Reinheitsgebot had some unfortunate effects, such as the extinction of several styles of beer that used fruits or spices, particularly some local varieties. Today too, in spite of many exceptions allowed within the law, critics say that the Reinheitsgebot stifles experimentation and innovation.
Nonetheless, within the strict limits of the law, Germany has managed to produce some fantastic and diverse styles. In addition to the well known light lagers and pilsners, there’s Kölsch, Doppelbock, Schwarzbier, and plenty more. There is also a number of delicious ales made with wheat and other non-barley grains. And most recently, spurred by developments across the world, new small breweries have opened up, eager to both experiment with new flavors and styles and revive forgotten German traditions.
The UK is another country whose brewing traditions go back centuries. The tradition hasn’t been entirely unbroken: like the US, the beer scene in the UK in the latter half of the 20th century was dominated by mass-produced, homogenous, mostly tasteless lager, and many traditional styles either died out or became extremely difficult to find. The last several decades however have seen a revival of traditional British ales, as well as the growth of modern craft brewing. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) played an important role in the revival of British beer, although the organization’s fondness for tradition has sometimes been criticized as excessive, and described as being an impediment to innovation as well as to quality and practicality.
Nonetheless, beer in the UK is doing extremely well today. You’ll rarely need to go too far to find a pub, most of which will always have at least some local and/or seasonal beer on tap. With the combination of the UK’s traditional bitters, stouts, IPAs, and other styles, and the modern, experimental brews being introduced by the younger, more innovative breweries, the beer scene in the UK is one of the most diverse and exciting worldwide.
Beer and pubs are inextricably linked with Irish culture, but when outsiders think of beer in Ireland, they almost always think only of Guinness. However, there’s a good bit more to Irish beer than just this one brand. Even though lager has taken over a large share of the market, Ireland is still probably the one country in the world where roughly half of the alcohol consumed is beer, and 34% of the beer consumed is stout. And there are plenty of stouts to try besides Guinness: Murphy’s, Beamish and O’Hara’s, to name just a few. In addition, there are a small number of traditional ales, with Irish reds being the most popular. In recent years however, a younger, more innovative craft beer scene has also arisen, with breweries creating some fascinating, well-crafted beers with modern or local touches. Examples of this include oyster stouts, whiskey stouts and hoppy ales.
The Czech Republic tends to be overlooked when people think about the best countries for beer, and this is at least partly because it sits in the shadow of Germany, its western neighbor. Further west is Belgium, and still further west, across the sea, is the United Kingdom. These three countries tend to get all the attention, but Czech beer too goes far back into history, and even today, the Czech Republic boasts of the highest per capita consumption of beer in the world. One of the most popular styles in the world today, the pilsner, comes from the city of Plzen in the Czech Republic, which is where it was first brewed. In fact, Pilsner Urquell, the first pilsner in the world, is still brewed in the city today.
Italy too is rarely mentioned in relation to beer, but unlike the Czech Republic, this is because the country has no real beer tradition to speak of. Italy is in the European wine belt, and Italian wines are of course famous across the world. However, the combination of the global boom in craft beer and the perception of wine among young Italians as overly traditional has led to a new interest in high quality, innovative beer. In addition, the lack of a beer tradition gives brewers a certain freedom, while the strong wine culture adds its own influence. The result is some highly inventive, rich, and unique beers.
Japan is known for a lot of things, but beer isn’t usually on that list, and even today, beer isn’t particularly popular in the country. However, for nearly two decades now, a Japanese craft beer scene has been steadily growing. And of course anything the Japanese do, they do well, with a mind-boggling meticulousness and thoroughness. One more thing they’re known for is their love for quirky, outlandish innovations. Bring those two approaches to beer, and you have one of the most exciting new beer scenes in the world, with finely balanced world classics such as stouts and IPAs; innovative beers that incorporate local brewing traditions and flavors, such as buckwheat and cherry; and some strange but tasty options like Tomato Bibere.
New Zealand too is known more for its wines than its beers, but the beer scene here has been slowly and quietly growing, with over a 100 microbreweries in the small country at last count. Quantity and accessibility are of course important, but without quality, they’re not worth much; fortunately, New Zealand has been producing some fantastic beers in the last decade or so. It certainly helps that the country grows among the best hops in the world, many of which have unique flavors and aromas, but the New Zealand breweries are experimenting with other ingredients and styles too, making beers that are as good as any other country that takes its beer seriously.
The Scandinavian countries all have interesting beer scenes, but Denmark is probably the most vibrant and exciting. Norway’s craft beer scene is still in its early stages, and Sweden is struggling with certain legal restrictions. Denmark however has firmly established itself on the world beer map. A large part of the credit goes to two breweries, Mikkeller and Evil Twin, both of whom produce innovative and often extreme, challenging, but well-designed beers. However, there are a number of other small breweries in the country, and all of them have contributed to the creation of a fantastic beer scene that is producing some of the most sought-after beers in the world.
Have you tried the local brews in your country? Which is your favourite? Let us know in the comments!
by Garreth D'Mello