Beer and football. Football and beer. The two words are intertwined. It was an arduous additional challenge to drink at least one beer in all 55 football nations. But not at every stadium. Beer was sold at under half of the matches attended. I manfully surveyed the European beer scene outside the football. Who was top of the hops?
Europe’s fine beer tradition has been strengthened by a pleasurable plague, the spread of the craft beer movement. Sappy lagers are still the mainstream, especially around the Mediterranean in Cyprus, Greece and southern Italy. But interesting brews have been breeding in obscure places. Moscow has led a revolution in the former Soviet Union where I enjoyed diverse microbrews in Ukraine and Armenia, drank a refreshing wheat beer in Georgia and a passable dunkel in Azerbaijan.
My head hurt from beers like rocket fuel when I last visited Kraków. Poland is now a two-tier beer nation. Heady lagers are countered by more complex brews that lean on Anglo-American techniques at, naturally, double the price. It’s hard to get drunk in Norway. I paid an eye-watering £14 for two excellent Norwegian halves and made them last hours. My favourite Bergen barman poured me a free half when I ordered water with my expensive plate of meatballs. Bottled beers in Albanian and Kosovan bars lacked depth but were the cheapest in Europe. 65p gets you a big beer in Elbasan.
My alt mission was, of course, successful. I have the beer photos to prove it. And the odd hangover. I even combined the football and beer challenges when I enjoyed a sweet Viliniaus as the sun set on my summer match in Lithuania. There was nothing for sale, not even water, at Spartaks Jurmala but Latvian beer was amongst the very best. Riga brewery Labietis use unusual ingredients like catnip and juniper berries to spice up their excellent beer.
Maes is hardly one of the truly great Belgian beers but it somehow suited the comfortable surrounds of the Ghelamco Arena. Beer at Häcken was only 3.5%, the alcohol content restricted by Swedish law. There was no beer for sale at matches in Spain, Portugal, France and, although over-excited by a beer sighting at ADO Den Haag, it was non-alcoholic in the Netherlands. Maybe a good thing. I had enough things to do: photograph, take notes, sing with the locals and jump up and down when the home team scored. It was a refreshing reward to savour a drink after a match, collecting my thoughts, on my own or with others.
There were many enjoyable and instantly forgettable beers. But the very worst were surely in Belarus. I tried mainstream and microbrew, cheap and moderate, bottled and draft. It was all an unsavoury assault on the taste buds. “Why are you drinking Belarussian beer?” asked Vitebsk fan Anton after the ridiculous goalkeeper match. “It’s all awful. We drink German beer.” A bottle of Paulaner never tasted so good.