Which country has the best beer? Difficult. What’s the best beer in Europe, or the world? Even more so. Which country produces — and drinks — the most beer?
All these questions are tricky. “The best beer country” depends on what you’re looking for: what style, whether it’s the cheapest or the most unusual, how strong it is, and all manner of other things.
To try and get a handle on it, we’re going to look at the top 10 countries by beer consumption per head of population, a couple of local things to do if you decide to investigate further, and how to say a toast.
1. Czech Republic
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If you suspected this would be number one, well done — it’s always number one in these surveys. Beer is the Czech way of life, and a fine, fine selection they have too. From the mighty breweries of Pilsner Urquell and Budvar, to Starobrno and beyond to the booming trade in microbrewing, there is no occasion on which a Czech won’t order a beer.
City to visit: Brno
The capital of Moravia, and the counterpoint to fairytale Prague, this laid-back, student-filled city is becoming the center of the microbrewing industry, with breweries popping up on an almost monthly basis. Wander the streets, meet the crocodile, and relax with a beer outside the Na Stojáka pub.
Beer: Lucky Bastard
A Brno brand, now exported around Europe, they make excellent IPAs, stouts and blonde beers.
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The Czech Republic’s neighbor to the south is similar in that brewers were never subjected to Germany’s Reinheitsgebot, or purity law, and therefore the variety of Austrian beers is relatively wide. Stiegl is the most popular of the large beer brands, although, in Vienna, Ottakringer is the dominant force.
City to visit: Salzburg
Beauty, river, mountains, Mozart, etc. Sure, Salzburg is famous for these. But it’s also worth visiting the Stiegl brewery. Tours are available, which finish in the huge museum with a large, free beer for everyone. Or you could take a pilgrimage to the small village of Kaltenhausen, where the Edelweiss brewery produces a beautiful, fruity wheat beer.
Try: Edelweiss Gamsbock
A full-bodied wheat beer, easy to drink but sneakily strong at 7.1% ABV!
As mentioned above, Germany’s Reinheitsgebot has been in force since it was adopted in Bavaria in 1516. It restricts all German beers to just three ingredients — water, hops, and barley. This means that German breweries are fairly limited in what they can produce, but the quality is generally never in doubt.
City to visit: Bremen
Often overlooked for Germany’s larger cities, the friendly town of Bremen is home to Beck’s, one of the world’s most popular beers. The brewery tour is extensive and interesting and includes a blind taste test for any potential beer experts. The tradition of the Ratskeller (a large bar in a basement) is alive and well in Bremen, including the original, open since 1405, beneath the town hall.
Bremen’s first brew pub, they’ve been preparing their own beers in-house since 1990
Hmm, an unusual one, this. Not traditionally a place many would associate with beer, the Estonians have an industry that is growing rapidly. This has not, however, resulted in a growth in microbrewing, as you might expect; the three largest breweries account for 95% of all beer sold, and all three are foreign-owned.
City to visit: Tartu
Estonia’s second city is also its oldest, and has a population of around 100,000. Home to the country’s oldest university, it is considered the intellectual heart of the nation. The historical center, destroyed during the war, has been successfully rebuilt, and the number of modern buildings reflects a new energy.
Try: A. Le Coq
Founded in London and originally marketed as ‘Imperial Russian Stout’, A. Le Coq has been brewing in Tartu since 1826, and is one of Estonia’s most-recognized brands.
Polish breweries produce the third largest amount of beer in Europe (after Germany and the UK), and these are divided into two very distinct categories. First, there are the large, multinational companies — brands like Tyskie and Lech (owned by SABMiller) and Żywiec (owned by Heineken). Secondly, there’s a newer selection of craft and brewpub beers that fall under the banner of the Stowarzyszenie Regionalnych Browarów Polskich, or the Polish Association of Regional Brewers.
City to visit: Kraków
Okay, so a beery weekend in Kraków might be a cliche, but it’s a cliché for a reason. It’s become the center of Poland’s microbrewing industry, and any chance to sit down and admire the scenery with a good, cheap local beer should be taken. The House of Beer in the Old Town and Omerta in Kazimierz are two examples of pubs that have taken advantage of a widening taste for interesting beers.
Try: Stara Zajezdnia
This unpasteurized, unfiltered beer is brewed and served in a converted tram shed in Kazimierz.
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Guinness’s Dublin brewery was founded in 1759, and the brand has loomed over the country since. A global success and one of the most recognizable products in the world, it remains the largest producer of stout on the planet. Along with Murphy’s and Beamish, stout still dominates the Irish beer market. But the importing of English ales, as well as a partly EU-funded scheme to set up more independent breweries, has diluted this influence over the last decade or so.
City to visit: Cork
Away from the tourist traps and stag parties of Dublin, Cork, in the southwest of Ireland, was founded in the 6th century and spans both banks of the river Lee. As well as being home to Murphy’s Irish Stout, a number of brewpubs around the compact center pour a wide variety of ales, stouts and lagers. The Franciscan Well brewery and pub has a huge, heated garden, and the Rising Sons brewery does a fantastic “Pizza & Pint” deal for €15.
Try: Franciscan Well’s Rebel Red Ale
Winner of numerous global beer awards, it goes perfectly with the burgers served at the brew pub.
Historically not a big beer-producing nation, it was only in the 19th century that people really took to brewing on an industrial scale. Since then, it’s become an important industry economically, as over 90% of the beer consumed in Croatia is domestically produced. Due to its coastline and climate, a lot of beer sold in Croatia is in ‘Radler’ form — that is, mixed with lemonade or another fruit-based soft drink.
City to visit: Split
The capital of Dalmatia lies on the Adriatic coast, and the locals relax in the bars and cafes of the waterfront promenade, before heading to Diocletian’s Palace and the maze of walled streets that hide any number of bars for you to stumble upon. Many are almost unmarked, or, if they are, will be so just by a tiny sign near the door. This is one of the delights of Split — getting conveniently lost so you can discover your new favorite place to stop!
Zmajsko pivovara was the first Croatian brewery to rank in the top 10 of RateBeer’s Best New Brewers list. Their excellent APA is full-bodied with a hint of citrus.
The only non-European country to make the top 10, Venezuela has suffered terribly recently, with massive social unrest and high crime rates. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend visiting at the moment, but if you do insist, here’s what we can tell you. Polar breweries, the country’s largest, was founded in 1941 and is now one of the largest industries in the country. Venezuelans are very proud of their product, although there isn’t much competition between brands — the two most popular being Polar and Regional.
City to visit: Mérida
Located on a plateau and known as the gateway to the Venezuelan Andes, Mérida is known for its relatively high standard of living, and the gap between socioeconomic classes is less pronounced, although recent political and social instability has not helped. The creation of a huge scientific and environmental center in the city, and moving from industry to tourism as its main source of income, has meant Mérida has become increasingly recognized outside of the country.
This beer is one of the few not affiliated with the big two breweries… but is part of AmBev, so not exactly a small concern. A passable attempt at a Pilsner lager.
Although known mainly for their vodka, Finns are also big beer lovers. Sinebrychoff is the oldest brewery in any of the Nordic countries, dating back to 1819. On October 13, Finland celebrates its national beer day in honor of the founding of the brewery. Sinebrychoff is now owned by Carlsberg, and this reflects the nature of the industry in Finland these days — most breweries belong to multinationals.
Other than the big names, Finland is home to a drink called sahti, made of oats filtered through juniper twigs and straw. According to English beer historian Michael Jackson, this method of beer-making has a direct link to the oldest recorded brewing of beer, that of Babylonian times.
City to visit: Turku
Turku is a small student city that has taken a number of small breweries to its heart. Alongside its medieval castle and huge art museum, there are a number of pubs to warm yourself up in during the cold winter months. Take Koulu. Koulu is Finnish for ‘school’, and it used to be — what else? — a schoolhouse; nowadays it produces four regular types of beer as well as a cider.
Try: Lammin Sahti
Founded in 1985, this brewery produces the sahti mentioned above, which was granted EU-protected status in 2002.
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The Romanian government considers both beer and wine to be food, so neither is subject to the taxes and restrictions many other countries impose on alcoholic beverages. In the 19th century, unusually, pubs were considered meeting places for the urban middle class; a place to socialize, of course, but also to talk politics and conduct business deals. The biggest beers in the country are Ursus, Timișoreana, Stejar, and Bergenbier. These are all your typical, German-style lagers, although a couple of the breweries do dark versions as well.
City to visit: Cluj-Napoca
The second-biggest city and unofficial capital of the Transylvanian region, Cluj is home to a large student population, a film festival, a jazz festival, and landmarks that veer from Saxon to Baroque with a large splash of Romanticism. Surrounded by forests, hills and gorges, there’s walking and mountain biking in the summer, and skiing in the winter. In 2015, it was awarded the title of ‘European Youth Capital’, and, according to a 2014 report, has the best air quality of the 100 largest cities in the European Union.
Try: Hophead/Ground Zero
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