By Rick Steves
When I’m far from home, I become a cultural chameleon. I eat and drink regional specialties with gusto, feasting on steak and red wine in Tuscany and stuffing down tapas at midnight in Spain.
So when I travel to countries that are known for their beer, I morph into the best beer aficionado I can be.
Germany is synonymous with beer, and there’s no better place to drink up than in Bavaria. German beer is regulated by the Reinheitsgebot (Purity Decree) of 1516 — the oldest food and beverage law in the world — which dictates that only four ingredients may be used: malt, yeast, hops and water.
You can order your beer “helles” (light but not “lite”) or “dunkles” (dark).
Beer gardens go back to the days when monks brewed their beer and were allowed to sell it directly to the public. They stored their beer in cellars under courtyards kept cool by the shade of chestnut trees. Eventually, tables were set up, and these convivial eateries evolved.
My favorite beer garden (and German beer) is an hour’s drive outside of Munich at the Andechs Monastery. The stately church stands as it has for centuries, topping a hill at the foot of the Alps.
Belgians would argue that they, not their German neighbors, have Europe’s best beer. With about 120 varieties and 580 different brands — more than any other country — locals take their beers as seriously as the French do their wines.
The only way to offer so many excellent beers fresh is to serve them bottled. The best varieties generally are available only by the bottle.
Belgian beers come in various colored ales, lagers and white (wheat) varieties and are generally yeastier and higher in alcohol content than beers in other countries.
Lambics, popular in Brussels, are the least beerlike and taste more like a dry and bitter farmhouse cider. Another Belgian specialty is the Trappist beer — heavily fermented, malty and brewed for centuries by monks between their vespers and matins. Try a Westmalle, Rochefort, Chimay or Orval.
Belgians are exacting consumers when it comes to beer. Most special local beers are served in a glass unique to that beer. Connoisseurs insist that each beer’s character comes out best in the proper glass. Many Belgians will switch beers rather than drink one from the wrong glass.
Another devout beer region is the Czech Republic. Whether you’re in a restaurant or bar, a beer, or “pivo,” will land on your table upon the slightest hint to the waiter, and a new serving will automatically appear when the old glass is almost empty.
And Czechs don’t go from bar to bar like many other Europeans. They say, “In one night you must stay loyal to one woman and to one beer.”
The Czechs invented Pilsner-style lager in Plzen, and the result, Pilsner Urquell, is on tap in many pubs. Other good beers include Krusovice, Gambrinus, Staropramen and Kozel. “Budweiser Budvar” is popular with Anheuser-Busch’s attorneys; Czech and American breweries for years disputed the name “Budweiser.”
The solution: Czech Budweiser brewed in the city of Ceske Budejovice is sold under its own name in Europe but marketed as “Czechvar” in the United States.
The British are equally passionate about their pubs. Short for “public house,” pubs are a basic part of the social scene. Many were built in the late 1800s.
Many Brits think that drinking beer cold and carbonated, as Americans do, ruins the taste. At pubs, long-handled pulls are used to pull traditional, rich-flavored “real ales” up from the cellar.
These are the connoisseur’s favorites: fermented naturally, varying from sweet to bitter, often with a hoppy or nutty flavor.
© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.