Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Finnish wine and beer experience

Finland is definitely not your wine and beer mecca of the world, but times are changing.  My observation is that many people (not all) aren't exactly drinking in this country to savor a boutique micro-brew or Gran Cru Bordeaux, but they are looking to get loaded.  However, in all fairness I am noticing a better selection of beers at the grocery stores and different wines offered at restaurants and Finland's wine monopoly store, Alko.  In Finland you cannot buy alcohol over 5% strength in the local grocery stores (that includes beer, wine and hard liquor). So, that means that all liquor purchases (stronger beer, wine, scotch, etc.) must be purchased at the monopoly store.   That means that you can only buy your wine from one government chain.  It would be like saying in the United States, that all wine and hard liquor can only be purchased at the Beverages and More chain.  There is no concept of a wine shop in Finland and it is not even legal to have one.  The government completely controls all alcohol sales in Finland.

So you want to try Finnish beer?  I hope you enjoy gold colored lager style beers then.  75% of Finnish beer seems to have a very similar taste and look.  Karhu, Koff, Lapin Kulta,Olvi, and Karjala are all very popular ones.  They are all typically sold in 3-5 different alcohol percentage designations.

percentage by volumesold in restaurantssold in storesnotes
I-beer0.0% - 2.8%yesyesdoesn't require a license
II-beer2.8% – 3.7%yesyesnot usually used in Finland, however, it is used in Sweden
III-beer3.7% - 4.7%yesyesknown as "keskiolut", "kolmosolut" or "kolmonen", the most popular class of beer in Finland
IVA-beer4.8% - 5.2%yesnosteep taxation before the 1995 reform, usually sold as Export-beers
IVB-beer5.2% - 8.0%yesnosteep taxation before the 1995 reform, usually sold as Export-beers
If you want imported beers like Heineken, Miller or Corona you can get them, but be prepared to spend about $3 or more per can in the grocery store.  I was surprised to see Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (from my home state-California) in the Alko store, but they wanted like $4 per bottle for it!  I was also in this "American" restaurant called Chico's a few weeks back and they had a "Taste of California" feature on their menus and it included, not one, but 3 types of Sierra Nevada beers! They had the Torpedo IPA, Porter and Pale Ale.  Wow, It was a pleasant surprise that they carried it.  They even had a map in the restaurant highlighting the city of Chico, California.  Chico, Ca is a university town in Northern Cal that is famous for starting the Sierra Nevada Brewery among other things.  It is considered a micro-brewery and is now one of largest micro-breweries in USA.  So, spending $3 on a beer in a store might seem a bit steep, but if you want to go out for a beer to the center of Helsinki, be prepared to pay from $8-$10 per beer.

You want to try Finnish wine?  Ha - did you really think they grow grapes in Finland?  :)  Well,  I have heard of a few different Finnish fruit wines, but I haven't tried them yet.  In the meanwhile, you can get your wine from the monopoly Alko store.  The store prominently features wines from France, Italy, Spain and South America (Peru and Argentina).   You will not find that much California wine, at least not in most Alko shops.  Time to get used to that "un-oaked" Chardonnay or Chablis from France or a light earthy red instead of the California fruit bomb you are used to.  Actually, the selection at Alko is not all that bad, and many decent wines can be purchased for about $10-$20.

Wine in restaurants is a whole different "ball game" in Finland as compared to the United States.  First of all, you are quite limited when ordering by the glass versus buying a bottle.  However, if you think you are going to save money by ordering a glass of wine, think twice.  Finnish bars and restaurants actually measure the pour of wine they give you and it comes in 2 or 3 different sizes.  You can have a "normal" glass of wine which is 12 deciliters or a larger 18-20 deciliter glass.  Prices for single glasses are for the small version and if you want a larger pour you will be charged twice the price.  Essentially that means for a good glass of wine it will be $10 or more for a small and $20 or more for a larger pour of wine.  In US the larger glass would be the "normal" glass and you would pay much less than $20.   I was kind of shocked to see the waiters measuring the wine, seems kind of silly, but that is how they do it in Finland. So, then why not just save by buying a bottle of wine you might ask?  In a decent restaurant in Finland wine is marked up like 3-4x the normal cost of a bottle, compared to about 2x in US (most cases).  So, it is hard to find a decent bottle under $60 US.  OK, the first two options don't save any money, then why not just bring a nice bottle of wine to the restaurant and pay a corkage fee like in the US.  Sorry, bringing a bottle of wine is not an accepted practice in Finland and not allowed at this time (as far as I know).  I guess just try to limit your wine consumption in Finland or stick to wine at home that was purchased from the Alko store.

So, drinking wine or beer in Finland is quite expensive compared to the United States and the inventory is quite different.  However, if you want to splurge you can get very good non US stuff from your local Alko store or favorite restaurant.  Just remember to save your cash for a special occasion.  :)


  1. 12 deciliters would be a bottle and a half... 12 cl (centiliters) is the norm. Supersize, and you can get 16 or 24 cl.

  2. it for anyone who loves drinking alcoholic drinks or wine and I also highly recommend it to anyone who are mild drinkers because Bugnay wine is not a strong alcoholic drink that even