Every European Country, Ranked by Its Beer
It's not THAT long ago that Europe's beer superiority over America went completely unquestioned, and the "imports" section of a bar's beer menu was the desirable, classy place to be hanging out. But with the staggering surge in both creativity and quality that the US has experienced in recent years, the paradigm has shifted some, to the point that you have upstart breweries in former Soviet bloc countries working hard to score shipments of Citra hops.
Indeed, it's a fascinating time in European beer right now, with upstart breweries popping up all over to shake up their country's status quo. Of course, some countries had a pretty fantastic status quo to begin with, which is why these rankings* take into account the total picture of a country's beer-making culture, from treasured traditional brews to emerging breweries that are just starting to evolve their home nation's beer palates. But enough preamble, on to the rankings (sorry, Pope Francis).
*Unfortunately it was not in the budget for the authors to travel to each one of these countries for research, but between the two of them they have visited the majority, and where gaps existed they did their best to seek out a fellow beer nerd who did have some first-hand experience there, or score some of the beer stateside if it was available. That said, they're still just a couple of Americans who relish learning and hearing about new beers to try, so feel free to weigh in on whatever you find amiss in the comments. But please note: this is meant to take into account the beer PRODUCED in a country, not the quality/quantity of other countries' beer that's available.
47. Vatican City
If only Jesus had gone with a red ale for the Last Supper, things may have been different?
The good news: Monaco actually has a brewery?! The bad news, this is Monaco, so it’s the kind of brewery that throws Grand Prix afterparties co-sponsored by energy drink companies.
Liechtenstein: first in false-teeth manufacturing, decidedly not first in brewing. But hey, they’re super rich, what do they care?
44. San Marino
Titanbrau, San Marino’s entree into the craft-brewing game, was founded in 2010. Unfortunately, much like the country of San Marino itself, it can be really tough to find people willing to confirm its existence on the record.
If you want to drink local in Macedonia you’re dealing with a pretty steady diet of perfunctory pale lagers, but hey, they have bigger things to worry about right now, OK?
Let’s just say that the country’s lone brewery, Alpha, may have been a little bit ambitious when selecting a Greek letter to use for its moniker.
Pretty much all of the brews in Belarus come in the form of either unremarkable offerings from state-run breweries (including Krinitsa, the local kingpin) or unremarkable offerings from companies with foreign ownership, but hey, that doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down.
The beer scene in Montenegro is lagging a bit behind even by relatively modest Balkan standards, but hey, check out the beard on Nikola Mirotic? Maybe things are looking up?
Is it a common threat that if beer lovers misbehave, they get sent to an isolated bar in Serbia, like when scientists or special agents screw up in old movies? Because that would suck. Kind of like Serbian beer.
So Lord Chambray, the first craft brewery on Malta, isn’t actually on Malta. It’s actually on the tiny neighboring island of Gozo. That said, it's managed to generate some buzz and provide some options apart from Simonds Farsons Cisk, the more established and ubiquitous concern that dominates the island nation. Perhaps someday soon some brewery will capitalize on all the low-hanging "malt" puns, as breweries are suckers for easy puns.
Birra Tirana, the country’s most popular beer, has been breathlessly described as "not terrible" and “definitely drinkable if it’s really cold.” There’s not much of a burgeoning craft scene to speak of -- BrauHaus is a brewpub in the capital (Tirana!) mostly channeling the Bavarian beer-hall thing, but hey, gotta crawl before you run!
Culturally speaking, Moldova’s much more tied to its robust wine industry, but that said, the seeds of a burgeoning beer movement are juuuust beginning to grow in the former Soviet republic, with Litra Brewing leading the way as far as challenging the local hegemony of Chisinau, far and away the most prevalent brew there.
Being a fairly recently war-torn country with a majority Muslim population wouldn’t seem like a one-way ticket to a vibrant beer culture -- but damn if good beer and good people don’t do their best to find a way.
34. Bosnia and Herzegovina
If you passed through Bosnia there’s a decent chance you found yourself drinking a pale lager like Sarajevsko (or multiple, since they’re quite cheap!) and thinking to yourself, “hey, I can live with this.” However, if you squint hard enough you can see the seeds... of the seeds of a movement towards more exciting stuff -- Black Dog Pub in Mostar is a real beer bar championing the offerings of local brewer Oldbridz.
During your trip to Cyprus there’s a good chance you had a KEO and weren’t super impressed but hey, whatever, you were probably on a beach. However, if you’re hell-bent on seeking out something more, they are starting to appeal to more choosy tourists with brewpubs like Aphrodite’s Rock and gypsy brewer Hula Hops.
Efes dominates the local beer scene pretty thoroughly -- and both its pilsner and its dark lager offering are decent enough -- but if you’re passing through Istanbul you now have Bosphorus as a brewpub option (which means more have to be on the way... such is the universal law of brewpubs).
Ursus has long been the biggest, baddest name in Romanian beer (having a bear-inspired name will do that for you) -- but wait until people get a load of Ground Zero and its Imperial Fuck -- yes, that’s for real. Yes, there's a Kerouac quote on its website. Yes, rumor has it that it’s not half bad.
Hungarians love to drink beer. Thing is, outside of Budapest (which is experiencing a mini craft boom), their taste is similar to that of your NASCAR-obsessed uncle who will typically tell you his favorite beer is “on sale.” That dude’s the best. But his taste in beer sure isn’t.
Look, the Ukraine has enough to worry about without us taking digs at their pretty OK beer. So we’ll just go with that. The beer in Ukraine is pretty OK!
Portugal has a long, storied history of brewing. Unfortunately, the story is that the beer’s pretty meh, constituting mostly standard-issue lagers. There’s hope, though, as craft breweries like Sovina and Letra have been popping up and making waves. Things are changing, but they have a long, storied way to go.
When it comes to beer, Croatians mostly stick with what they know, which is straightforward fizzy yellow lagers like Ožujsko and Karlovačko, though the stronger Tomislav has been holding court since 1925. However, the country’s recently gotten a taste for craft beer thanks to the emergence of craft breweries like Hold'em and Dragon Brewery (Zmajska Pivovara), which are stepping up the game and bucking a tradition of reliable mediocrity.
Yeah, it’s got a population of less than 550k. But being bordered by Belgium and Germany, you’d think that Luxembourg would step up its game just a little. On the plus side, crossing over to one of those countries for a beer run is pretty easy!
Finland’s not really bringing the heat when it comes to innovating stuff in bottles (you’re as likely to find a can of Danish Carlsberg in a fridge as you are something local/also-gross from Hartwall). But that should do nothing to stymie the amazing experience of getting your hands on the homemade juniper beer known as sahti, which is also bottled but best experienced when made by an old person at a wedding. All you have to do is get invited to a Finnish wedding!
The Swiss had the good forethought to include a bottle opener on their army knives. And for that, we’re forever grateful. They’ve also got a shit-ton of breweries, though their identity crisis between lagers and more Belgian-style breweries also makes them ever-so-slightly indistinct. Maybe they’re just remaining neutral.
Russians love beer almost as much as they love vodka. HAHAHAH. Just kidding. There is no greater love. But they also love beers -- ranging in quality from light lagers like Tolstiak to Sibirskaya Korona witbier, Yarpivo pilsner, and Ochakovo pale -- which, when paired with the clear stuff, kind of explains why all those R's are backward.
The good news is, the tiny country of Latvia makes great beer, from above-average macro offerings to craft deliciousness like Valmiermuižas and Abula. The bad news? Well, it’s hard as hell to find (pasteurization isn’t really a big thing here), so unless you’re in Latvia, you’re out of luck. And considering most of you likely just thought "where the hell is Latvia," well, that dunkel’s not gonna be in your belly anytime soon.
Like Latvia, but with more Grateful Dead basketball jerseys!
Bulgaria is one of the beer-drinkingest countries in the world, and has a fairly robust variety of brands (albeit brands primarily owned by bigger conglomerates). Stolichno is a pleasing bock that provides a welcome diversion from the lighter-lager stranglehold and also sounds like a Bond villain. Things are happening though -- White Stork is playing around with Citra hops and constructing a brewery in Sofia while it brews beer remotely in Belgium... for now.
Pale lagers Union and Lasko are the dominant beer forces in Slovenia, but if you have cadre of craft upstarts, and one of them is called Reservoir Dogs, and one of its beers is called Grim Reaper IPA, and said beer tastes pretty solid... it would seem to suggest things are headed in the right direction.
People are more likely to head to Greece for wine, olive oil, or a sense of duty to help them climb out of bankruptcy. While the beer there’s hardly a reason for going, it’s definitely coming along. Many of the touristy areas have a local craft option or two to seek out (like Santorini Brewing Company and its donkey-themed ales... if you’ve been it makes sense). They can be challenging to track down, but hey, if you just end up going with a Mythos (as is often the option), you’re still in Greece. Life could be worse.
Estonia has emerged from the shadow of Soviet rule better than most. Capital city Tallinn has a sneaky-vibrant beer scene led by Pohjala, which has collab'd with Oregon’s Boneyard on its Baltic Notorious IPA3 -- how’s that for street cred?
For a country with a historical battle with prohibition (been there, guys) that included a ban on beer above 2.25% (!) ABV until March 1st,1989 (a day now rightly celebrated nationwide as Beer Day), Iceland has made up for lost time quickly, with a small-but-impressive group of upstart brewers making waves with some legitimately impressive brews across a wide range of styles that you’ll probably have trouble ordering/pronouncing what with all those crazy Icelandic characters, but enjoy nonetheless.
Christmas beer is wonderful, and there’s a huge homebrew tradition. But with all the laws limiting potency and distribution, Norway is basically the Utah of Europe. Except, you know, with way hotter people at the bar. And, thanks to the likes of Fjell Bryggeri and Lindheim Ølkompani, the beer's better, too.
Poland lags behind only Germany and the UK in terms of beer production, but it’s far from just a quantity thing there. With burgeoning scenes in Krakow, Warsaw, and Wroclaw leading the way, the country’s finding itself with an impressive array of options from upstarts like Artezan and AleBrowar, meaning it’s not just Zywiec and Okocim (though rest assured you’ll find plenty of that, too).
Basically, all that stuff we say below about the Czech Republic, but smaller and more concentrated, with microbreweries popping up like weeds, especially in Bratislava, which is slowly becoming a destination for folks looking to go beyond the traditional Central Euro styles. So... get ready for hipsters, Slovakia!
OK look -- most hardened brewing devotees probably wouldn't list suds as the top reason to pay a visit to France, but hey, if there's one thing the French like almost as much as wine, it's revolutions, so it's no shock that France's beer scene has experienced some serious upheaval in recent years, with upstart brasseries and other small outfits turning local heads all over the country, and even within Paris proper (where, as you can imagine, brewing real estate is not easy/inexpensive to come by). Why yes, one of them is called Get Radical, how'd you guess?
With Spain being such a hotbed of culinary creativity, you had to figure it was only a matter of time before the brewing scene began to follow suit, and sure enough, it has (unsurprisingly Barcelona has proved to be a major hub of the beer boom, with the Barcelona Beer Festival having grown impressively in just a few short years). Make no mistake -- it's still quite heavily an Estrella country, but it's becoming easier and easier to come across truly exceptional craft offerings from the likes of Naparbier, Nomada (which has some serious stout game), and numerous other emerging outfits. Given Spain's reputation for creativity and appreciation for life's finer things, expect the upward trend to continue, quickly.
10. Czech Republic
The Czech Republic takes their beer very, very seriously, having started up the whole brewing thing in the ninth century and inventing pilsner as we know it (thanks, Urquell). In fact, these days, the country -- which ranks #1 in overall per-capita beer consumption, making it the Delta Chi of Europe -- predominantly consumes pilsner from breweries like Pilsner Urquell and Radegast.
But that doesn’t mean that more modern craft brewers haven’t emerged since the fall of Communism, with the likes of Matuska and Clock No Idols! popping out world-class IPAs and other newfangled beers that might confuse folks used to traditional bars offering one exclusive beer. Craft isn’t exactly exploding yet. But you can’t really blame folks for not wanting to deviate, considering the country’s been doing their thing, and doing it well, for half a millennium.
Over the course of the past 20 years, Sweden has seen a huge boom in its craft beer scene, with breweries like Nya Carnegiebryggeriet (in which Brooklyn Brewery has a hand) and Omnipollo bringing American craft influences in and leaving the ho-hum lager of old in the dust. Considering that more than 100 craft breweries opened in the tiny country in just two decades, it wouldn’t be unfair to compare the country to Oregon. But, like, Oregon in the ‘90s, back when the beer was still catching up to the hype. Which is to say, get excited to drink Swedish beer. Especially in, oh, let’s say 10 more years.
That delicious Stiegl radler you crave every time it gets too hot? That, friend, is as Austrian as John Matrix. Fun fact: Austrian beer is a lot like German beer, except they were never limited by the restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot, which means brands like Ottakringer, Bevog, and Schloss have long been able to make weissbiers along with stouts and other styles that are bold, yet don’t follow the rules. Also like John Matrix, actually.
Let's talk about Guinness. Actually, let's not talk about Guinness, because come on, you already know about Guinness (which you should, it's quite tasty!). But there's much more to the Irish brewing scene, a statement which was far less true a decade ago when the aforementioned stout king and a few other breweries pretty much had a complete hold on the local brewing industry. Get ahold of some Galway Bay or White Hag and you'll see why this is a lucky (!) development.
Perhaps no nation that's traditionally thought of as primarily a "wine" country has come further, faster in the beer department than Italy. Breweries like LoverBeer (aww!) and del Ducato are wowing local palates, gaining international attention, and showing everyone that there's much more to Italian brews than Peroni and Moretti. Many Italian restaurants stateside are taking advantage of this, so don't just reflexively order some Chianti next time, OK? Take a gander at the beer section of the menu.
Denmark’s most famous beer offering is Carlsberg, which is basically the PBR of Europe. It’s a constant, sure, but in recent years, the country’s tastes have evolved beyond lagers and into the stratosphere thanks to the emergence of inventive brewers like the gypsy geniuses at Mikkeller, who make some of the best beer, period, collaborating with brewers from around the world to create truly original beers in most any style. Breweries like Amager and To Øl are bringing the thunder to Copenhagen with imperial stouts and other high-impact offerings, too, making for a Danish beer scene that’s grounded in session beers but still stepping into the global arena when it comes to big beers.
4. The United Kingdom
After The Love Guru, we’re not normally down with agreeing with Mike Myers. But, well, by in large, in the UK, if it’s not Scottish...
We kid, we kid, though Scottish breweries like Orkney and Harviestoun have certainly helped light a fire under the English side of things, and BrewDog has done a great job of working as ambassadors of beer experimentation. The UK has long been teased for pulling warm pints of mediocre ale, and that’s certainly still a thing. But there’s also been a huge boom, with London breweries like Five Points, Fourpure, and Brew By Numbers stepping up the city’s profile, Mad Hatter proving Liverpool’s got more to offer than mop-topped geriatrics, and the likes of Wild Beer, Moor, and Old Chimneys dominating the countryside. Which is to say, the proper pint is getting a hell of a lot more proper now that its contents are better.
3. The Netherlands
In terms of beers that influenced the world, it’s hard to argue against the global dominance of Dutch behemoths Heineken and Amstel, or the iconic resealable bottles of Grolsch. But while the worldwide powerhouses tend to overshadow the little guys, the tradition of beer is ingrained in the Dutch culture as much as using red lights to illuminate certain districts.
It’s the land where the seasons are marked as much by changing weather as they are by the releases of strong lentebier, summer witbier, and autumnal bokbier, giving the Dutch quarterly reasons to throw down, Oktoberfest-style. Trappist breweries Brouwerij de Koningshoeven and Abdij Maria Toevlucht hold their own against their brothers in Belgium, while craft brewers are bringing new traditions to the Old World flavor. This is a country where, in the Middle Ages, beer was consumed due to lack of clean drinking water. These days, it’s consumed because it’s some of the best stuff in the world. Sometimes, necessity spawns amazing things.
To say that Germany's brewing traditions run deep is an understatement on par with suggesting that Germany/Hasselhoff jokes are just a tiny bit cliched. Anyone with a passing familiarity with German beer culture has heard about the Reinheitsgebot (or German Beer Purity Law), which held breweries to a high standard for generations, albeit while also placing them in a somewhat rigid environment creatively. That said, ignore the old-guard German brewers at your own peril, because a life without Ayinger is a sadder life, indeed.
However, with so much institutional talent and knowledge to fall back on, it's no surprise that the country's newer, more envelope-pushing breweries are doing so with aplomb as well. Vagabund is helping revitalize a once-desolate brewing scene in Berlin, and CREW Republic is shaking things up in Munich, right there in the shadow of Germany's original brewing titans.
Look, when beer is your religion -- well, more accurately, when your religious elite makes your beer -- you know things are going to be amazing. The brewing tradition in Belgium has produced not only the best beer in Europe, but also arguably the best beer in the world, the kinds of ales, sours, triples, dubbels, farmhouses, reds, saisons, and blondes that beer nerds lose their firkin minds over. Belgium is now, and has been, the gold standard of beer-making. They’re also really proud to be friends with some dude named Brett.
Beer is in the very lifeblood of Belgium (along with lace... so much lace!), with breweries run by Trappists in addition to master brewers who literally grew up on the grounds and were bred to become the new generation of a multi-generation family legacy. From Brussels to Bruges to Ghent, the sheer volume of breweries that dot the countryside -- from huge names like Leffe and Chimay to Steenbrugge, Affligem, and Rodenbach, which are among the nearly 200 in the tiny country -- is staggering. Table beers are poured with breakfast. Beer bars are just a part of the ancient architecture. Hell, the national symbol is a statue of a little boy peeing in a fountain... probably because he’s privy to the best beer in the world, and that stuff goes through you pretty fast.
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Executive Editor Matt Lynch was tempted to push Ireland higher, but had to be true to his palate. Watch him catch crap from his family: @MLynchChi.
Andy Kryza is a senior editor at Thrillist who just experienced an extreme struggle between his Scottish and Polish pride. Follow him to kielbasa and mash: @apkryza.