Thursday, March 17, 2005

(Revised) Turku, Finland leads the way in reclaiming the commercial past for the drinking future.

(Originally posted at NA Confidential, re-posted here with additional notes on Finnish beers).

Turku, Finland (population 176,000) celebrated its 775th birthday in 2004. Located in southwestern Finland, Turku was Finland’s first capital and remains an important port and jumping off point for Sweden and other Baltic destinations.

In 1999, my good friend Barrie and I had the good fortune to spend the day in Turku while waiting for the ship to Stockholm. We wandered around the lovely and clean city, amazed at the seamless blend of new and old.

Perhaps befitting the home of two universities, Turku boasts a thriving nightlife and a series of excellent restaurants and pubs.Even beer hunting veterans like us weren’t prepared for the extent to which Turku has grafted together yesterday’s commercial structures with today’s drinking venues.

We first became aware of this at the city’s early 20th century Pharmacy – completely restored and in us as a bar. Ditto the old Bank. The News Stand down the way has a tiny microbrewery squeezed into the back, while the impressive former girls school in the center has been refurbished into a brewpub and restaurant, with a beer garden where the playground used to be.

Crazily, Turku’s public toilet has not escaped this trend to provide historic settings for imbibing. Yes, you can have a beer at the public toilet.

I'm not making this up. It’s all here: Beer Lovers Study Tour.

My point isn’t that such inspired preservationist thinking might ever seep into the conservative, clogged arterial passages of New Albany, although hope springs eternal.

Rather, it’s what can be done by thinking progressively, being unafraid to land somewhere outside the box, and having a little fun along the way.

As for the beers we sampled ...

Everyday Finnish golden lager beers naturally proliferated, but these can be of a higher-than-Euro-average standard, with a good, crisp malt character and some mouth feel.

I recall the schoolhouse brewpub having a German-style Dunkel Weizen as a seasonal, and the Daily News boasting a mildish bitter. Earlier in the trip, in Tampere, we had a good ESB at that city's downtown brew pub, Plevna, located in a huge former cotton mill.

The most frustrating thing about the Finnish visit was our visit to the Sinebrychoff brewery near Helsinki, which required fancy commuter footwork that still left us a couple of miles shy of the brewery (located in an industrial park), resulting in a healthy walk.

With a citation of "proprietary" information, we were asked to leave our cameras at the desk, and the seemingly inconvenienced export department employee glanced constantly at his watch as he led us through the tour.

Next to nothing was said about Sinebrychoff Porter, our sole reason for visiting. Eventually we were dropped off at the commissary and left to root through a fridge for samples, then given our gift package (including "L" tee-shirts and a few mainstream beers) and shunted off to wait for a taxi on the front steps.

I won't judge Finland by the boorishness on display at one brewery. Our hosts in Tampere, Henrik and Eva, are marvelous human beings and treated us to a cookout complete with Sahti at their sumptuous country weekend house.

And, in the final analysis, who can complain about a country where you can drink a beer at the bar in the old public toilet?

See Josh Oakes's Finland beer overview for further information on the beers of Finland.

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