Monday, July 30, 2012

Finland: A Tale of Cans and Bears

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It seems that the trend this Summer has been for West Toast writers to travel to Europe.  And why not?  We certainly wouldn't have the amazing beer, wine, and spirits we all love on the west coast if it weren't for innovation in Europe.  But while some have enjoyed the phenomenal wines of France, a Czech Pilsner in the alps, or a English brown ale in a tavern older than the US, I took a slightly different route.  I traveled to Finland; a country whose spirits are so bad that they are easier to joke about than drink.

I suppose the first question to answer would be why I decided to visit Finland in the first place.  When I was in college, I studied abroad in a completely unrelated nation and met a good friend who happened to be from Finland.  He came out here a few years ago for my sister's wedding and I wasn't able to reciprocate until now.  With years of research and waiting piling up, I was finally able to both afford the trip and take the time off.

Beyond being the home of indestructable Nokia phones and Santa Claus, Finland largely stays off of most people's radars. That's not entirely fair, though.  Helsinki (Finland's capital) is renown for its current fashion trend of wearing transparent white shirts.

Now that you know everything there is to know about Finland, let's get to drinking.  As hinted at before, Finland isn't exactly known for its own beverages.  In fact, it pretty much only has one; koskenkorva, which was described to me as "vodka made with the leftover crap from the first stage of distilling regular vodka."  With the bar set so high, let's see how their regional offerings hold up to my sophisticated palate.  

Karhu III
The first thing you'll notice about Karhu is that there's a bear on the can, which is important because this is also your first foray into the Finnish language.  Literally meaning "bear," my initial assumption was that this is a beer so ferocious that my insides would be sprawled across the ground much like a reindeer's after a run-in with the bear on the label.  My second assumption is that it is made with chopped up bits of real bear.

That, however, isn't the case.  You see, in Finland, the government ranks beer on a 1-5 scale.  The III after Karhu indicates that it is a third-tier beer, meaning it cannot supersede an alcohol percentage beyond 4.6%.  3 is the highest rating that can be sold at a typical grocery store and anything beyond that can only be purchased at a government-ran liquor store.  Likewise, 1 is non-alcoholic, 2 is "the piss we sell to Sweden" AKA Utah beer, 4 is 5.6% abv, and 5 is 8% abv.  So how's it taste?  Pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a 4.6% abv pale lager.  Not big on flavor, but it's light enough to actually be somewhat refreshing.

Karjala (pronounced ka-rill-ee-ya) is my favorite of the group.  While pretty much identical to Karhu in every way, there's a novelty to this brew that adds a little extra panache with each watery swig.  Not just a brand, Karjala is also a long-disputed region currently divided among Russia and Finland.  In the 1960s, the Karjala beer brand was about to go under until the Soviet Union ambassador to Finland publicly stated his distaste for the beer's label.  Because Finns are awesome, that acted as the best advertising ever and revived the brand.  It is said that if one drinks enough of it, you'll want to invade Russia and liberate the remainder of Karjala.  Did I ever invade Russia?  No, but many cans of Karjala were had over sausage and moose meat.

Gin Long Drink
Finland's version of alco-pop is a bit different than ours.  Instead of malt beverages, the popular strategy is to can pre-mixed gin and soda concoctions.  Of the ones I had, the generic Gin Long Drink was by far the most popular (especially with the ladies).  Think of it as a Fresca pre-mixed with very mild, non-sprucy gin. While I don't think I could ever have more than two of these at a time, they're pretty tasty on a hot day.

Salmiakki kokenkorva
You already know what koskenkorva is, so you're probably wondering how this magnificent liquid could get even better.  The answer is it can actually get worse.  One of the most popular candies in Finland is salmiakki, which is is essentially salted black licorice.  Clearly these two substances are a match made in heaven.  Exactly as it sounds, salmiakki koskenkorva is koskenkorva infused with salted black licorice. Think of the taste as Jagermeister, but slightly lighter and then shot with a salt-rimmed glass.  Even the locals hate this stuff, so I'm not entirely sure why it exists.

While the majority of this post was written in jest, Finland is a beautiful country with gorgeous scenery, incredibly nice people, and awesome Summer night life with 22 hours of daylight.  The beer and spirits aren't exactly great, but the company and surroundings more than make up for that.  I'd like to thank my good friend Matti for hosting me during my stay and to everybody else who made the trip a great success.  When you all visit Portland, be prepare to put your drinking pants on because you're in for a treat.

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