Expat view

Darryl Stafford, originally from Canada and now based in Turku, divides his time between teaching, finishing up his PhD in General History, and strolling endlessly up and down the Aura River.One of my favourite aspects of life here in Turku is the summer shift into a social rhythm of what I think of as beautiful and serendipitous simplicity. Life settles into a process of meandering from park to park, up and down the river, channelled by series of random encounters with friends, usually resulting in at least one spontaneous picnic and/or drink together. However, I often find that hindering the completion of this idyllic scenario is the lack of quality cold beer available for purchase in the shops. This is a Turku-based assessment, but I am presuming it does not differ too drastically in other parts of the country.

The frustrating, and perhaps puzzling aspect, is not that there is a lack of interesting beer choice, even small shops have started to offer a refreshingly extensive selection, but that, as if almost by some rule, the interesting beer sits at room temperature while the cooler is filled with a very dull and uniform selection of the essentially same-shit-different-can variety. The division is clear cut, standing in the aisle with the warm shelf of interesting variety on one side and the cooler on the other I feel like I am on the Danube in Bratislava looking at a beautiful and intriguing old town on one bank and a veritable wall of communist-era blocks, in all its lowest-common-denominator uniform soullessness on the other.

So good beer is to be had, but for the spontaneous consumer (the ones for whom drinking is not a planned or scheduled activity and who use the city as an urban living room rather than retreating to home and the proximity of stockpiled alcohol and the refrigerator) one is subjected to the choice between room-temperature sophistication and quality or a cold can of something that seems less like a pleasurable taste experience than a liquid means to drunken ends with an aesthetic both adolescent and frat-boyesque. Furthermore, the 'variety' of cold beers is the same variety found in every shop, presenting an archetype of Naomi Klein's concept of "no choice", an illusion of consumer variety created by a multitude of brands, which masks what is in essence a narrow uniformity and a reality of very limited choice.

Admittedly so far I have been speaking on very subjective terms, "interesting", "shit", "lowest-common-denominator", "beauty" etc. are my personal opinions not facts, so I want to now turn this cold beer/warm beer discussion to something more concrete. In Alko (again I am speaking about Turku) near a shelf of vast beer choice is a small cooler offering the same cold beers as every other shop. When I looked closer I saw that what was offered was not in fact the same beer but versions of these beers with higher alcohol content. Thus, Alko puts the spontaneous drinker in a position that if they want a cold beer they are going to be drawn to (or if needing convenience, forced to settle on) higher-alcohol content options, the cooler is a form of promotion for these beers. Now keep this in mind while reading the following text from Alko's website:

Alko Inc. is an independent limited company wholly-owned by the Finnish Government and administered and supervised by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The Finnish alcohol system is based on responsibility, and its objective is to minimise the harm that alcoholic beverages may cause.

Alko's beer set up seems to be the antithesis of the promotion of responsible drinking. I am returning to the subjective but I think the concept of quality and responsible drinking can actually be linked. If beer is not about tasting something new, savouring something excellent, or enhancing the aesthetic of a moment, it becomes disproportionally conceptualised in terms of a drug whereby it is not about the process of drinking but about drunkenness. If beer is about taste one can be all that is needed, but if it is a means to drunkenness, almost by definition, the idea of one (thus moderation) becomes negated. Anyway, I am diverging, this is not meant as a moralistic condemnation of drunkenness (and if it were I would be a hypocrite for giving it) so I return to my original point with a plea to the shopkeepers of Finland: Please help make our picnics more beautiful and diversify your beer coolers!