During the depths of the pandemic lockdown last year I often found myself fantasizing about beer-themed vacations I might enjoy once the virus is vanquished. Even though the prospect of travelling was unfathomable then, picturing myself wandering the streets of Berlin, Brooklyn or Buenos Aires in search of my new favourite beer gave me comfort and inspiration to keep moving forward.
Now that it’s 2021 and vaccinations are actually happening, it’s becoming more reasonable to imagine travelling somewhere. We might be limited to Canadian travel in 2021, but even so, there are great options for beer explorations within our borders. And it certainly seems like life will be largely back to normal by 2022. So why not dream a little now?
Along with some bucket list picks of my own, I reached out to some fellow beer scribes to get their suggestions, too.
There are nearly 1,500 breweries in Germany so you won’t have trouble finding locally made beer anywhere you travel there. Be prepared to taste a lot of helles, dunkel and weissbier because most breweries typically only make those standard German styles, but deeper exploration will lead you to regional or seasonal specialties like rauchbier, bock, kölsch and altbier.
The top spot on my bucket list is Berlin. Apart from a single day there while backpacking around Europe in 1991, I’ve never been back to the German capital so I would love to spend a week exploring its urban geography and visiting breweries. In addition to its eponymous Berliner weisse style of sour beer, many of Berlin’s young brewers are influenced by American craft beer, so this is the one place you might actually taste a German IPA.
In his excellent 2018 book, Will Travel For Beer, Toronto-based beer writer Stephen Beaumont recommends a pair of western German cities separated by a half-hour train ride: Köln and Düsseldorf, homes to kölsch and altbier styles respectively. Each city celebrates its own beer with pride and style, including unique glassware and serving traditions.
Another German destination on my wish list is Bamberg, a small city in northern Bavaria that is famous for its rauchbier, made with smoked malts, but also for the sheer number of breweries in the city and surrounding towns. There are so many that you can walk between breweries along forest trails for days on end. Sounds like heaven to me!
Tops on Stephen Beaumont’s bucket list and a close second on mine is Prague, a beautiful city with amazing architecture and history to go along with the delicious beer. Světlý ležák is the Czech name for what we call Pilsner, and along with that delicious golden lager, many Czech brewers make a fantastic tmavé pivo (dark lager). No visit to Prague is complete without a stop at U Fleků, a restaurant-brewery that has been brewing continuously since 1499. It is definitely a touristy spot, but its dark lager is delicious and the kitchen does a fine job of making traditional Czech dishes.
I also recommend visiting the Pilsner Urquell brewery in nearby Plzeň, where the Pilsner style originated in 1842. The tour of its historic facility includes a visit to the extensive cellars under the city used to lager the beer before the advent of modern refrigeration. They still brew small batches down there in open-top fermenters, and there is nothing quite like tasting that beer.
Crystal Luxmore, co-editor of The Growler Ontario, listed three Belgian breweries at the top of her personal bucket list: Cantillon, Orval, and Rodenbach. I was lucky enough to visit Belgium for a week in 2014, and I would love to go back. Each of the breweries she mentioned offers a very different experience, and that is exactly what makes Belgian beer so exciting. Unlike Germany where most of the breweries make the same handful of beers, no two breweries in Belgium are alike.
The Cantillon Brewery in Brussels is also a museum, where you can take a self-guided tour that showcases the traditional Lambic brewing method it has employed for more than a century, and then taste the results: gueuze, framboise, kriek, and more. Wild-fermented and sour beer lovers will also want to visit Moeder Lambic, a specialty bar with two locations in Brussels.
Rodenbach’s brewery tour features a majestic hall filled with 294 giant oak foeders, some of which are 150 years old. Its Flemish roodbruin (red brown) ales are tart and refreshing with big cherry and plum notes, despite the fact that no fruit is used in the recipes.
Orval is one of six Trappist breweries in Belgium. It does not offer brewery tours, but the old Abbey’s ruins are open to the public, and there is a café where you can taste the “jeune” version on draft alongside the “vieille,” which is bottle-conditioned with Brettanomyces yeast, creating the famous “goût d’Orval.”
I could list Belgian beer destinations for pages and pages (Bruges, Antwerp, Westvleteren, etc.). Suffice to say, Belgium is an ideal choice for any beer lover to explore.
It might be surprising to feature Italy on a beer bucket list, but I’ve been hearing many good things about the craft beer scene there. Italian beer writer Maurizio Maestrelli recommended Rome and Milano: “The capital has always been considered the capital of craft beer in Italy. A small pub in Trastevere, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà (translated: What the hell are you doing here?) was elected best pub in the world a few years ago by Ratebeer, but there are many other good beer places in the city (Open Baladin, Barley Wine, Hop & Pork to drink, and Johnny’s Off License to buy Italian craft beers). Milano also has very good places like Birrificio Lambrate, the oldest brewpub in town and a very cozy place, Birrificio Italiano, Scott Duff, Lambiczoon, and Birrificio La Ribalta. From Milano you can also visit by car some great small breweries such as Birrificio Rurale, Alder Beer, Birrificio Menaresta, and Birrificio Hamer.”
Evan Rail, a Prague-based beer writer, agrees. “If I could go anywhere right now, Italy would be it. Because of my lockdown-induced wanderlust, I’ve started dreaming about where to go when we can travel again, and a beer tour through the Dolomites in the Friuli region is at the top of my list, starting with Birrificio Artigianale Foglie d’Erba. The first draw is that Foglie d’Erba make excellent, charismatic beers. But the brewery itself is set in the Dolomite mountains, one of the most beautiful parts of Europe. I’ve been through the area a few times over the years and was always wowed by the scenery.”
The U.S. is home to many of the world’s most exciting breweries. My last pre-pandemic trip was to New York City, and I can certainly vouch for Brooklyn’s incredible beer scene. While Crystal Luxmore would love to visit Scratch Brewing, a farmhouse brewery in a forest in Illinois that brews with farmed and foraged ingredients like mushrooms, nettle and hickory.
The U.S. west coast offers several craft beer hotspots, including San Diego, Portland, and Seattle. Heck, once the Canada-U.S. border opens again, I’ll be happy just to visit Bellingham, which is a three-hour ferry ride from where I live in Victoria, B.C.
What destinations top your beer bucket list? What places should we add to ours? Share them with us on social media with the hashtag #beerbucketlist