Europe’s best beer cities: seven destinations to explore in 2022 and beyond
Where ever you go in Belgium, you’re never far away from beautiful beer — but, it’s perhaps Brussels, more than anywhere else, that best showcases the flavour, reverence, tradition and variety of Belgian brewing.
Check out some of the classic traditional beer cafes and estimanets (small bistros) such as Poechenellekelder, an iconic alehouse within tinkle distance of the Mannekin Pis and the handsome, historic and ornate Café Mort Subite (‘Café Sudden death’) with its extensive beer list and traditional beer snacks.
Where to start: Connoisseurs flock to Cantillon, the legendary producer of Lambic — beer fermented with wild, airborne yeast. Just a short walk from Brussels Midi station, yet a million miles away from most breweries you’ll visit, this brewery-cum-working museum is a terrific, tumbledown time warp with big frothing oak barrels lining its crumbling walls.
The west German city’s chief appeal to beer-lovers is its status as the birthplace of kölsch, a delicate golden beer that’s brewed like an ale yet matured like a lager, in cold conditions.
It’s served by notoriously grumpy, apron-clad waiters (köbes) in small, session-friendly 20cl glasses called ‘stanges’, which keep the beer fresh and encourage the convivial buying of rounds.
You simply can’t drink alone in the city’s famous brewpubs, where, surrounded by every stratum of stangen-swigging society, strangers buy you beers. It’s easy to understand why Karl Marx deemed Cologne immune to revolution — the workers, he said, drank too much beer with their bosses.
Fruity like a golden ale with the parch-slaying prowess of a Pilsner, brisk and convivial, the beer embodies the city’s unique beer-drinking culture and the local philosophy: a relaxed way of being, a shoulder-shrugging acceptance that et hätt noch immer jot jejange (‘it will be alright in the end’).
Where to start: Braurei zur Malzmühle, a traditional, lively brewhouse in the Haymarket area, makes a cracking kölsch and plenty of pork dishes to soak it all up with.
Brussels Beer Project, in the Bailli region of the city.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRUSSELS BEER PROJECT
Back in its 18th-century heyday, the birthplace of porter, pale ales and IPAs was an unrivalled brewing metropolis with more than 130 breweries. But by 2006, you could count London’s breweries on one hand — albeit one with six, maybe seven fingers.
However, today the Big Smoke’s beer scene boasts more than 100 micros within the M25 — and then, of course, there’s the plethora of historic pubs, funky beer bars and tap rooms.
The cornerstone of London’s lively beer scene remains cask ale — an unfiltered, unpasteurised, hand-pulled ‘real’ ale that undergoes secondary fermentation in the barrel and lands, alive and kicking, in your glass. Properly brewed and lovingly looked after, it’s beer at its best.
Where to start: The Bermondsey Beer Mile, a (two)-mile-long stretch of railway arches, is a microcosm of the capital’s cracking craft beer scene, featuring numerous breweries, beer bars, blenderies and bottle shops.
Back in 1842, the brewers of Pilsen created pilsner — the world’s first truly golden beer. It glistened, it glowed and flickered like a flame in the glass and, given that most beer was, hitherto, dark and drunk from tankards, everyone was very excited.
Thing is, the people of Pilsen neglected to patent it. The fools. Fast forward more than two centuries, and pilsner is brewed all over the world — what’s more, much of it isn’t very good.
Pilsen, however, remains the original source, and a tour of the Pilsner Urquell (meaning ‘original pilsner’) brewery, with its long and cold labyrinth of underground cellars where the beer is matured, is a pilgrimage well worth making.
Where to start: Na Parkanu, one of very few places where you can drink Pilsner Urqell Nefiltrovaný, an unpasteurised, unfiltered and relatively untouched draught version tapped straight from oak barrels.
Brus serves up craft beer in Nørrebro, Copenhagen.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LIAM BIALACH @SKALBROS
It’s been 900 years since the absurdly attractive Franconian town of Bamberg first issued a licence to brew beer. Before refrigeration, the huge sandstone hills that surround it were ideal for storing the beer, the nearby lakes provided ice to chill it and the region was blessed with barley and, later, hops.
At its peak in the early 1800s, there were 65 breweries for a population of just 20,000. Today, the ratio is still impressive, with nine breweries catering to 70,000 people — not to mention its traditional taverns and bucolic beer gardens.
The local speciality is rauchbier, a smoky lager brewed using malts kilned over smoked beechwood. It’s an acquired taste reminiscent of seaweed, iodine, sawdust and bacon, with the smoky smoothness of a leather-trousered lothario playing acoustic guitar around a campfire.
Where to start: Schlenkerla Tavern, the ‘limping man tavern’ is Bamberg’s most famous beer bar, where getting leisurely ‘schlenkerlared’ on its iconic Aecht Schlenkerla is a must for any beer tourist.
The Danish capital is heaven for beer-drinking hipsters and beer geeks. You’ll find uber-cool craft beer bars, brewpubs and taprooms strewn all over the city — especially the neighbourhoods of Vesterbro and Nørrebro.
Be sure to check out WarPigs, Mikkeller’s massive brewpub in the Meatpacking District, the fabulous Fermantoren, Nørrebro Bryghus and Ølbaren— Copenhagen’s oldest craft beer bar, where its hygge knob is turned up high.
Then there’s the Carlsberg Brewery. Hardly the connoisseur’s choice but, historically, incredibly significant. It was here in the 1880s that Emil Hansen, a brewery boffin, discovered how to distinguish between ale and lager strains.
Rather than keep the secret to itself, Carlsberg generously shared the discovery with the rest of the brewing world, which is something worth drinking to.
Where to start: Brus, a stark contrast to the traditional, dark ‘brown bars’ this is a deftly designed, classy craft beer bar, restaurant and eatery in Nørrebro, which is owned by To Øl, one of Denmark’s leading brewers.
Food and drink at Nørrebro Bryghus Restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN SOL SEREJO
Do the Italians make awesome artisan beer? Is the Pope partial to daft millinery?
Closely entwined with the nation’s slow food movement, Italy’s beer scene is the world’s most stylish, and Rome is rightly acknowledged as the craft beer capital of Southern Europe.
Everyone knows beer goes brilliantly with pizza, but the folk at Be.Re, a lovely little joint near the Vatican, take this classic culinary kinship to another level, pairing trapizzino pizza pockets with some incredible indigenous beers.
Get your geek on at Illuppolati, where a varied selection of Italian ales and lagers are dispensed fresh into special cans, alongside some tasty arancini. And don’t miss the diminutive Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà, which, loosely translates as ‘what did you come here for?’. The answer, aside from the lively dive bar vibes, is the outstanding array of Italian brews on draught.
Where to start: Open Baladin. Teo Musso, the man behind brewery Birrificio Baladin, is one of the founding fathers of Italian craft beer. With more than 40 beers on draught and bottled specialities lining the shelves, this is the ideal place to immerse yourself in Italy’s beer culture.