Beers and bars on our travels to the North, pt 1
I don’t know if we expected much in the way of good beer from Helsinki, the first Scandinavian city either of us has ever visited. Whilst we’d encountered a few beers from the rest of Scandinavia – and even Iceland – in our time, we hadn’t yet seen anything of the sort from Finland appearing on British shelves. But there was a long way to go, quite literally, before we got to set ourselves straight on that score. Flying to Helsinki via Amsterdam (and the labyrinth that is Schiphol: more below) we started off in Manchester Airport where the security is so tight that in places you feel like you’re in some low-grade reimagining of Total Recall. It’s enough to make you thirsty – even if it’s only a little after 7am. Still, the bar was already open, so one of us was brave enough to sample one of the ales on offer.
Ant opted for a Marco Pierre White branded beer, which looked like the best of a bad bunch. Yes, that would be Marco Pierre White the celebrity chef, and to be fair, we’ve yet to get to the point in the UK where we associate fine dining with great beer, so we shouldn’t perhaps expect too much from this – and we’d be absolutely right. This clear, reddish ale may indeed be ‘all malt’ but the quality is average. Add to that (whilst bearing in mind the time of day was rather early) we were faced with a fairly uninterested young barman who didn’t know a great deal even about the limited beers on offer. One could almost imagine they’d made the bar deliberately mediocre so you wouldn’t have too much of a good time and miss your flight, especially after all that security. We made it to ours anyway, whether because of the airport bar or otherwise, and we were quite happy to bid a temporary farewell to Blighty.
Things were a bit (read: a lot) different by the time we landed in Amsterdam, and whilst the sun still hadn’t gone anywhere near the yard arm, what’s a holiday if not an opportunity to drink at times of the day usually deemed problematic? Schiphol Airport is of course just a means to an end, but its vast size ensures that it carries a large, competitive range of cafes, restaurants – and bars, even including a champagne bar. We found a very pleasant, traditional looking beer bar not too far from our departure gate – vaulted, lots of attractive polished brass and wood, with tables and chairs overlooking some of the runways – not to mention a decent selection of European beers. Ant ordered two bottles of the Belgian Trappist ale Affilgem Dubbel (to be then asked by the barman, ‘And for the lady?’ – clearly either Ant looked especially thirsty, or I didn’t look like I’d want one). Anyway, this strong pale ale packs some typically Belgian depth of flavour and did of course come served in the correct glass – something which is frequently lost on British travellers, much to the chagrin of the Belgian locals (as we know). It was nice to see people really enjoying the drinks they’d ordered here – not throwing them down their throats, but partaking alongside some good bar meals and conversation. It was starting to feel more like a holiday, and soon it was time for the next leg of the journey. To Finland!
First impressions of the city of Helsinki were very positive. A spacious city positively loaded with green spaces and wide open vistas, you can meander down to the seafront and watch a variety of sizes of ships making their way both far afield and more locally, with lots of sightseeing cruises helping tourists and locals to their destinations, or head into the main hub of the city, along the prestigious main shopping street Mannerheimintie – which also showcases some of the different architectural styles which Finland’s chequered past has bestowed upon it. From Art Deco to Russian Orthodox religious buildings to acres of very functional apartment spaces, the city definitely reflects the fact that it’s been part of the Russian, then the Swedish empires before finally gaining its independence in the twentieth century.
Although July is a typically a holiday month in the country, we found an abundance of eateries and drinking establishments all open for business, and as we’d had a long day, we stopped off for a bite to eat in a place called Iguana (IGUANA, Mannerheimvägen 12 Helsingfors – www.iguana.fi) to get a feel for the area. Whilst there wasn’t much all that impressive about this centrally-situated venue at first with its rather standard-issue ‘chips and something’ fayre and Carlsberg et al on tap, we didn’t have to look far to see that there were a range of Finnish beers available here too. For our first taster of a local beer, we plumped for one which was well-known and middle-of-the-road in terms of strength. This was the famous-in-Finland Lapin Kulta Premium IVA (5.2%) (www.lapinkulta.fi/en.php). This popular and mass-produced drink (at least, mass-produced in Finnish terms) wasn’t a particularly remarkable start, but hey, it had flavour, and no hint of the nasty chemical aftertaste we’re treated to with some of our more popular big-label lagers and bitters. To wash down some standard but much-deserved food, it was certainly pleasant.
Suitably knackered, we decided to retire to the hotel bar for a late pint before bed. We were staying at the eccentric-looking but very comfortable Hotel Glo Art (Lönnrotinkatu 29 – http://glohotels.fi/). However, as lovely as the hotel was overall, here’s the first time where we really noticed a little of Finland’s much-vaunted conservatism about some kinds of drinking which we Brits take for granted. We had been told that in some cases, access to alcohol was more limited than we were used to. For instance, in common with some of the other Northernmost European countries, the government regulate stronger alcohol and you can only purchase it at designated shops called – oh dear – Alko, so there’s no chance of popping into a local supermarket for a bottle of spirits, or even a particularly pokey beer. Drinks are not permitted to be ordered and taken to your room, and the hotel bar itself isn’t designed to look particularly inviting (being little more than a hatch behind which you can barely see anything). Still, we’re resilient, so we chose a seat in the lobby/bar area and went on a journey into the unknown, each first ordering a Ruisreiska by a Lahti-based brewery and distillery sixty miles north of Helsinki, Teerenpeli (www.teerenpeli.com/). This organic red rye ale weighs in at a modest 4.7% but it’s a tasty and solid beer, like a lager almost in that it is highly carbonated, but with plenty of dark ryes and hops apparent.
We had just about time at the bar to follow this up with another Lapin Kulta – their Arctic Dark Lager this time, which is slightly less weighty than the Premium at 4.6%. Slightly less flavour than the first beer too, which is to be expected, but nonetheless refreshing and a bit of a nightcap before we called it a day.
The next day was our first proper excursion. We made our way to the bustling seafront with its array of food stalls and souvenirs before hopping on one of the many little boats we’d seen on our first night. The route we were taking wove through some beautiful, unspoiled islands and little beaches on the way to the 210-hectare island fortress of Suomenlinna. Originally called Sveborg (in the old Swedish designation), this remarkable place is one of the world’s largest sea forts and a UNESCO world heritage site. Not only that, but it’s also become an island community, one which is a highly desirable place to live with highly competitive waiting lists to get out there. Suomenlinna houses the current Finnish Naval Academy, day centres, museums, houses, restaurants, schools and of course – for when you’ve spent the day enjoying the scenery and the history of this location – the all-important brewery.
Whilst you can’t visit the brewery itself, you can visit the attached Suomenlinnan Panimo bar (http://www.panimo.com), a place with surely one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world. Beer is literally rolled a couple of feet from brewery to tap. This makes for some of the freshest, tastiest beers we’ve had the pleasure to taste. We favoured an unfiltered, unfined golden beer in the American Pale Ale style called Diipadaapa (6.4%). The lady behind the bar told us that apparently the approximate translation of this word is ‘so-so’, something which may be an example of that understated Finnish sense of humour, because it was a thirst-quenching, deeply enjoyable drink and a great way to finish a busy day out. We had to make our way back for the boat, so we couldn’t enjoy any more of the beers on offer, but it’s a great place that we’d love to visit again, and we really liked relaxing in the bar’s agreeable surroundings.
Day two ended with a visit to a local rock bar called Boot Hill (http://www.boothill.fi/) a place which had the good grace to be a couple of doors down from the hotel. We were a bit confused by the apparent popularity of impromptu line-dancing in the bar because in the UK this is something we’d mostly associate with hobby classes in working men’s clubs in the nineties, but what the hell – clearly Americana is a thing there, people were having fun, and for non-dancers there was a huge list of beers to play with. Far too many to list, even on a beer blog, but we partook of another local beer, Sinebrychoff Porter (affectionately called ‘Koff’ locally), a thick, chocolately malt which packed a punch (7.2%) and finally a Karhu Tosi Vahva (8%), another Sinebrychoff beer – the name means Strong True Bear, by my best translation. That seems a fair name, to be honest, and a good point at which to retire to bed.
Two days down, then, and we’d made a start on seeing what Finland had to offer to its…thirsty visitors. We’d been doing a bit of research on the sly, too, so we’d promised ourselves that after some more sightseeing the next day, we’d go and find some of the excellent craft beer bars we’d found out about – as well as paying a visit to a huge beer festival which we’d heard was taking place just adjacent to the main railway station, a coincidence which seemed too good to be true.