So far in our first part of our trip to Helsinki we have had beer brewed in a UNESCO world heritage site, in a line dancing rock bar and in a castle that had been transformed into a hotel. We’d seen many sights and we were ready for more but we may not have been quite ready for the amount and quality of Finnish beers had to offer. I mean we do try many beers here at The Drunken Goat but the breadth of really excellent beers here in Helsinki alone was impressive. It’s a tough job but someones gotta do it right? A martyr to our cause we set off again in the interest of beer and all things Finnish.
After a relaxing following day, we decided to find a bite to eat in the evening – though still not Finnish cuisine, which we were saving ourselves for, but good old Italian. We ate in a cosy restaurant called Pjazza (www.pjazza.fi). An attractive setting, with candlelit tables and a well-lit high bar in the next room, we also had a little live jazz music while we ate our pizzas and pasta; very refined. Oh, and there was a decent beer menu, which proves the point that many eateries are cottoning on to this idea that offering good beer is as desirable as offering good wine, and can complement a meal just as well. We opted for an Italian APA – yes, there’s such a thing – by a brewery called Birrificio Indepentené Elev. The beer was called Grunge, coming in at 6.3% ABV; not a particularly appetising name but a nice beer, fresh on the palate, flavoursome but without overpowering the food.
Next up on our itinerary was a visit to a craft beer place called Tommy Knockers. As with a lot of trips to the best bars, this was a chance discovery: we had been originally looking for the Kvlt Store, ahem, a small local record shop specialising in black, doom and death metal (which we did find, and which was a very cool place with a suitably-taciturn owner, incidentally). As we’d headed on from the Kvlt Store into the centre of Helsinki that afternoon, we’d spotted Tommy Knockers and promised ourselves to head there later. Tommy Knockers is owned by the craft beer brewery of the same name which hails from Colorado, USA, so naturally, there were a lot of beers on tap from their own range, as well as a fair few from local breweries. Their bottle fridge was well-stocked and full of interesting beers from all over the place which we’d never seen before, and happily there was a member of staff on hand who really knew her stuff and could advise us according to our tastes of what we’d fancy. Some of the highlights: a punchy, complex and deeply hoppy 8.5% DIPA called IVT Mike (made by a Finnish brewery called Radbrew), another powerful 9% DIPA, from the hometown of the barmaid, Humulus Lupus, a perfectly silky porter called Lab Genius from Top Fuel breweries its 6.8% ABV cunningly hidden behind chocolate and dark malts. The bars own beers like Pick Axe IPA, 6.8%, were great too, a typical American styled IPA hoppy with lots of tropical fruit notes in it, the night slowly descended into more and more of a blur as the barmaid recommended beer after beer with a new sense of fervor every time, we were being hit with the big boys such as a Double Warthog, an American IPA 8.6% and then a hefty double porter by Pyynikin Käsityöläispanimo called Pajavasara, a monstrous 8.8% demon. Smooth, full of flavour and relentless in its high alcohol content, excellent.
The inevitable happened at closing time – well, it seemed inevitable – and the helpful bar lady invited us along to an after-hours bar: considering we weren’t leaving Tommy Knockers itself until the early hours, this is an indication of the fact that you can stay out for the duration if you so wish. Anyway, things were nicely hazy by this point, but the second venue went by the name of The Blackdoor – a traditional-looking bar which you could seat yourself next to whilst you whiled away the early hours. Before we finally headed home, we partook of a slightly smoky, but strangely almost sweet doppelbock Mallaskosken Savu Dubbel, the second most northerly beer we’ve ever tried (230 miles north of Helsinki, actually, though only the second furthest north as it’s not quite as far north as Iceland’s Einstok).
It’s an odd thing, but we felt a tad delicate the following morning. We decided to take the air by walking down to the sea front, where we’d been looking at the array of delicious food stalls for the past few days and finally felt that this would do us the power of good. Nestled alongside the souvenir stalls selling antler, furs, knives and other items guaranteed to send the customs officers into a state of apoplexy, these stalls were our first taste of Finnish cuisine proper: Ant had a vast plate of one of the local specialties, roast reindeer sausages and meatballs, whilst Keri had a plate of incredibly fresh grilled fish, all with new potatoes and vegetables – sitting at an outdoor table with a great view of the people passing by. This was superb value and far more than we could easily eat! This gave us the strength to visit the National Museum of Finland, situated a little way out of town and guarded by a bear, the Finnish national symbol (and not just the preserve of Karhu beer!)
Later, we had the chance to meet up with one of Keri’s oldest friends, now living as a doctoral student in Helsinki. This was a very nice catch-up, much overdue and not at all marred by the fact that our first venue of choice, 100 Dogs, would only serve the standard-issue Karhu in dinky glasses (so our companion simply ordered two!) There were some good beers on the menu, and some interesting variations of the hot god theme for food, but we didn’t stay too long – moving on to somewhere infinitely more cool.
Kafe Moscova is part-owned by two of the most famous working Finnish directors, and the vibe which they’ve created here is of the utmost austere and down-at-heel Russian dive. That might not sound like it’s your thing, but once you’ve seen the jukebox, the beautifully hideous hanging pictures and the Aeroflot wall clock, you’ll feel like we did – like you’re in the middle of a fascinating time capsule. Totalitarianism can be fun! Forget a swanky beer menu: here you can have Karhu, Russian beer or vodka, and feel lucky to be served that (though I was slightly disappointed by the essentially polite barmaid, as I’d heard promise of a particularly surly Soviet approach). Eventually moving next door to the slightly more upmarket Corona Baari & Biljardi (which serves food, such as toasties, as well as a greater range of ales and has a pool table), we had a few ‘Koff’ porters, then ambled out into the night to find ourselves in the rock-orientated Bar Loose – which was quiet, but good, with a few nods to rock and roll in the framed photos on the walls, but nothing too fancy. We stuck with the main room upstairs for the most part, although there was a basement bar (sadly deserted!)
Bar Loose was open until late, but we were still ‘thirsty’, so had an abortive wander around the streets of Helsinki looking for somewhere else open late – like the true Brits that we all are. However we had to take no for an answer eventually, so we said our goodbyes and made our way back to our room with the promise of returning the beer tour favour in York in future. Happy days.
Luckily, our drunken night out didn’t have too much of a negative effect on us the next day, so we were able to visit the wonderful Ateneum Gallery – again in the centre of town (Helsinki is very convenient for getting around, as so many of the sights are walking distance around the main hub of the city). The Ateneum’s real highlight was The Magic North exhibition; it gave us the chance to learn snippets about Finnish (and Norwegian/Swedish to an extent) folklore through its depiction by a range of artists more or less all entirely new to us. The Ateneum’s a very well-laid-out, educational and engaging gallery; it comes highly recommended for people with an interest in how stories can be brought to life and how national identity is fundamentally linked to its art.
We followed up this visit with a quick recce on the sizeable beer festival which we’d been so delighted to find out was in town at the same time we were – we didn’t intend to stay, but we had such a good time that we did in fact stay put for a few hours. Held in a large cordoned-off open top courtyard area just adjacent to the main railway station, the side wings were choc-ful of Finnish brewery stands whilst the top wing contained food stalls and a stage. To gain access to all this, you paid €3 – and got given a commemorative glass, as well as a magazine and various vouchers for use in local shops, bars and other businesses. We were also impressed that glass-washers were available for customers to use, so ensuring a fresh clean glass for every new beer tried. This is a great idea which should be available as a matter of course in UK beer events – in our humble opinion, of course.
As for the clientele, clearly Finnish beer has a large, appreciative and eclectic gang of supporters, as the various picnic tables and stools laid out for use were pretty full, even in mid-afternoon. Although British beer fests are changing quickly to reflect the changing face of beer drinkers, we were impressed that there was a truly eclectic mix of people present, young and old, male and female. We also think we found every metal fan in the local vicinity, as there was an abundance of metal logo tee-shirts and patches to be seen. Entertainment was in abounds there also as there was a most peculiar if not amazing sight to behold. You would hear in the background a piano playing things from Sibelius to the Beatles and Europe, the bizarre thing was it sounded as if it were moving. We thought nothing much of it until I turned around to see a chap riding a piano come bicycle contraption and playing it at the same time! That’s entertainment for you, pure class, ending each random tune with a laugh, a bow and a shout of “I’m an entertainer” as he pedaled off into the crowds. Well done Finnish beerfest, well done.
Obviously, we were ready to try a few drinks and all the queues and such like were carried out with typical Finnish understated efficiency. Where to start? Well we just started at the nearest one on our right. And what a start. We started with a foreign beer actually, although the young man who served us (wearing a Swedish flag tee-shirt and stood behind an array of Swedish flags) was quick to tell us that he was actually a Finn. Anyway, ‘Svartkropp’, which literally means ‘black body’, is a thunderous 8.4% American Imperial/Double Stout made by the Modernist Brewery (www.modernistbrewery.com). It’s a heavy, malty and surprisingly sweet beer (muscovado sugar is one of the ingredients) with an abundance of flavours stemming from its nine varieties of malt and the Chinook/Cascade hops used. As an introduction to anything whatsoever, this would be a good thing to have. We were massively impressed, and found it hard to pry ourselves away from the very first stand we’d even tried. However, Maku Brewing (http://makubrewing.com/) tempted us away with their 7.3% India Pale Ale – deceivingly light, almost tropical and full of understated flavour. Next up was Siperia, by Tampere’s Koskipanimo brewery (http://www.plevna.fi/): this much heavier and darker 8% beer (An American Imperial/Double Stout) was so weighty it was almost like treacle, and another excellent beer. Finally, last up – because we knew we needed to head back at some stage – there was another Tampere beer, Pajavasara – a double porter at a ‘goodnight, Irene’ strength of 8.8%. But that’s the thing about so many excellent, flavourful beers – they often come in at higher than average strengths. Still, we’d had a good afternoon, tried some superb local brews, and hadn’t had to go to Alko once…
Our final venue for our final full day in Helsinki was Bryggeri Helsinki (http://bryggeri.fi/en/). We’d promised ourselves to take in at least one brewery whilst in the country, and we had also saved the pennies for one blow-out posh Finnish meal. Brygerri fulfilled both of those criteria, and its smart, functional interior displayed copper brew kettles and a brewmaster who makes an array of seasonal wares in full view of the visitors. There’s also an accomplished chef and team serving a range of simple but refined cuisine – Keri had been waiting all week to try some of the famed Finnish cream of fish soup, and was not disappointed.
As for beers, Ant enjoyed the Bryggeri Supernova (7.8%), whilst Keri went for the slightly weaker, but no lesser in quality, bottle of Raivoava Rakki (6.2%) which literally means ‘rabid dog’, a powerful and tropical IPA. Food slowed us down, but after an excellent meal we stuck around to try, respectively, a Manu porter – lightly smoky – and a pint of the Bryggeri’s own IPA (5.5%) . This American-style IPA was smooth and fruity, nicely-balanced and hoppy. This meal and drinks were a lovely way to conclude a beer lover’s holiday, all told, in a great location (though we did decide to use some Karhu III as a nightcap at the hotel for ‘old time’s sake’ because, well, why not?)
Finland is a superb place to visit. The people are cool, calm and collected yet friendly and helpful, there’s an abundance of natural beauty and things to see, and for beer lovers – which if you’re not, you’re seriously lost! – then this is definitely a country on the up. We’d absolutely love to visit again, and we recommend that you do the same.tourtour