Whether it’s a weekend getaway or a summer of backpacking, no European trip is complete without a couple of cold ones along the way. You can find a pint anywhere, but having a decent experience at the pub or brewery isn’t always as easy as it sounds. The trick is to think beyond the big names of Munich, Dublin, and Pils. The best beer experiences happen in smaller cities around the continent where you’re free of the crowds of St. James Gate or Oktoberfest and can actually chat it up with locals who are just as passionate about their brews. These beer hotspots have plenty of regional variation on offer, ideal for any true beer connoisseur.
1. Maastricht, The Netherlands
Maastricht is known as the beer capital of The Netherlands, an honorable title in a country rich in pub culture and craft breweries. It’s just a few minutes from the Flandrian border, so expect plenty of Belgian influence in this Dutch student town. Specifically, you’re likely to find yourself enjoying something sour and brewed on a farm in one of the myriad pubs and cafes. This is especially true in places like De Gouverneur, a beer cafe focusing almost entirely on Belgian-style brews. If lambics and saisons aren’t your bag, you’ll be relieved to know that more modern (and dare I say Americanized) styles are also available. Brouwerij Bosch and Brouwerij Klinker are must-dos on the brewery circuit, and don’t miss the dedicated walk-in craft beer fridge in Cafe de Zwaan.
2. Gdansk, Poland
Poland is more known for stronger, clearer liquids than beer, and while there’s plenty of fun to be had in Gdank’s vodka bars, ignore its beer scene at your own peril. Situated on the banks of the Baltic Sea, the city has accommodated its fair share of German sailors over the centuries. With that global influence, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Munich. Your first order of business should be to seek out a decent weiss beer, preferably one that was brewed in-house. LaBeerYnt has you covered on both accounts. It’s also a perfect spot to recover if you do happen to overdo the vodka. Brovarnia is a brewpub located inside the luxurious Hotel Gdansk, a solid stop for live music and housemade beers both light and dark. Before leaving town, swing by The Old Gdansk Beer Pub & Cafe, another spot for live music that brings in specialty beers from across Europe.
3. Cologne, Germany
Cologne isn’t like other German cities. There’s no beer mädchens, no gigantic maßkrugs, and not a tremendous amount of lagers or weissbiers. Instead, Cologne has its own thing going on, and that thing is Kölsch, a hybrid beer that can legally only be brewed within 30 miles of the city. There are beer halls dedicated to the stuff, such as Bierhaus en d’r Salzgass and Peters Brauhaus, but the service takes a bit of getting used to. The staff circulates with trays of 12 200-milliliter glasses. If they see that you’ve finished, they’ll bring you a new one and mark your beermat to keep track of your tab. When you’re ready to tap out, you place the beermat on top of an empty glass. Be sure to do this if you ever hope to get out of there because they’ll just keep coming by with more beer, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by not being able to finish what’s in front of you.
4. Bergen, Norway
Bergen is the largest city in Vestlandet, the southeasternmost region of Norway, and it’s a packed with craft beer options. If you only try one bar while you’re in town, it should be Henrik Øl og Vinstove as its 50 taps include local brews, as well as the big names in Scandinavian brewing like To Øl and Mikkeller. But in the grand tradition of revelry, heading out for one pint invariably leads to more, and the Fest Bier at Bergenhus Bryggeri is worthy of your stop. Vestlandet is experiencing a craft culture renaissance of sorts, with hipster-friendly options stretching out beyond Bergen. Be warned, though; beer in Norway does not come cheap. If you want to save a bit of cash, stock up in Bergen airport when you arrive. There’s a bottle shop in arrivals with a really very impressive range of craft options.
5. Bristol, United Kingdom
Although the city has historically been known for cider, Bristol has evolved into the UK’s craft beer capital. With a wealth of former industrial buildings, it is fertile ground for young innovative microbrewers to ply their trade right in the city center. To borrow a phrase, it’s hard to beat drinking a beer in the building it was brewed in, and you’ll have plenty of chances to do just that.
Make Bristol Beer Factory stop one for a pint of the signature Nova ale, followed by one of the area’s most well-known breweries, Arbor. Head to Zerodegrees Microbrewery Restaurant when hunger kicks in, and round out the night at Wild Beer at Wapping Wharf, easily the most epically named beer hub in town. Bristol’s brew scene is so beloved by the locals that every September a team of volunteers hosts Bristol Beer Week, a festival celebrating all things independently brewed. As young people flock west to escape the high rents of London, Bristol has also become home to some of the country’s best street art and up-and-coming nightlife culture, offering the perfect opportunity to work off some of those calories.
6. Zadar, Croatia
Croatia is the newest member of the EU, having joined in 2013. In the years since, it’s successfully positioned itself as one of the continent’s most popular tourist destinations, especially for those looking for a wallet-friendly beach holiday. This stands in contrast to the local palate, which opts for darker brews. The first place to head is Brlog, a female-run, cooperative community brewery working hard to earn the town’s beer scene a firm stamp on the map. The Garden Brewery is another local brewhouse growing its presence around town. Elsewhere, the beer you’re most likely to encounter in the bars of Zadar is Tomislav, which at 7.3% volume is a dark, chocolatey beast. As many of these bars are on Adriatic coast, you can enjoy the unique experience of having your head blown off by a strong stout while dipping your toes in the ocean. It really doesn’t get any better than that.
7. Belfast, Northern Ireland
Visitors to Ireland inevitably have preconceptions about the pubs. To be fair, Belfast has no shortage of open fires, traditional music, and pints of the black stuff. But people in Ireland don’t really drink in tourist bars. Since the Troubles ended in the late 1990s, Belfast has emerged as one of the most eclectic and fun-loving cities in Europe, a characteristic reflected in the local beer scene and nightlife.
That’s not to say it’s forgotten its roots though. Nowhere embodies these two extremes better than the Sunflower Bar. The one-time security cage around the front door is now used to hang flowers rather than keep out nefarious elements. Inside, you’ll find nothing but independent beer, including a tap permanently dedicated to Kinnegar farmhouse brewing. The interior walls are adorned with images of local heroes while the beer garden is decorated by local street artists, and the pizza is great. Find local brews at Boundary Brewing Hercules Brewing — try the Yardsman Lager — and sample a rotating variety of craft brews at The Woodworkers.
8. Malmö, Sweden
With just over 300,000 inhabitants, Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city. It’s hardly a small town, but it’s just small enough to maintain that strong community feeling, and the local craft beer scene is no exception. Since 2010, this has centered around Malmö Brewing Co, a brewery, taproom, and club and event space right in the middle of town. With 42 taps, you won’t have to leave your chair to sample enough goodness for an entire trip. Elsewhere in town, South Plains Brewing Company and Ångström Bryggeri offer strong housemade ales, and the Olkafeet brings local and regional brews together in right in the heart of town.
9. Tartu, Estonia
Estonia became independent in 1991, but the people have retained much of their DIY ethos from the Soviet days. This is reflected in the country’s fledgling brew scene. Perhaps the best example of this is Anderson’s Craft Beer, started in 2014 by two guys who were frustrated by the lack of great beer in their own country. Each of their beers is made in batches under 2000L, the highlight of which is Applehoff, a sour ale reminiscent of apple pie. Puhaste Brewery is another big player in the city’s booming craft scene. In Tartu, the best place to find Anderson’s and pretty much any other craft beer is De Tolly. Be warned, though; you’ll probably end up staying to chat for hours with the barman. Hope you don’t have any other plans. The entire craft scene is bottled and celebrated up the street from De Tolly at Gambrinus Beer Shop.