Taste-Off: Interesting Eastern European Corner Shop Beers

This beers we tasted for this taste-off post were paid for by Patreon subscribers and the topic was suggested via comments on a Patreon post by Aaron Stein and Andy M.

Cornershop beer seems to have evolved in the half decade since we last checked in, but has it got better?

There’s something appealing about the idea of discovering a hidden gem in the least pretentious of surroundings, standing on chipped floor tiles next to the permanently running dehumidifier near the tinned Bigos. Most people are too snobby, too xenophobic, too scared to tackle these mysterious labels, goes the inner dialogue, but me? I’m a brave adventurer. In fact, though, there’s hardly a beer geek in the country who hasn’t had the same thought and you’ll find any number of blogs reviewing this type of beer with a quick Google.

When we left London for Cornwall back in 2011 we had tried damn near every bottled Eastern European beer on sale in the cornershops of Walthamstow. Most were fine, some were foul, and Švyturys (Carlsberg) Ekstra Draught — an unpasteurised Dortmunder from Lithuania — was one of our go-to bottled lagers. Now, in Bristol, we once again have easy access to Eastern European cornershops with their dumplings, cured meats, quark, cherry-flavoured Jaffa Cakes and, yes, acres of exotic looking beer.

We dipped our toes back in the water with a return to Švyturys. Would it be as good as we remembered, or might our tastes have evolved? The good news is that, as a lager we can pick up on the way home from work for well under £2 a bottle, it’s still got it. Our memories were of a more bitter beer but it still has a remarkable clean, fresh quality that some ‘craft’ lagers swing at but miss.

Thus warmed up we returned to our closest shop and tried to work out some way to tackle the wall of beer. It stocks products from Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Poland and Romania. (And possibly some others we missed.) It’s an intimidatingly huge range though the vast majority are variations on pale lager or strong pale lager, and most of them are things we tried years ago. Since we last looked Radler seems to have taken off out that way and there are now any number of fruit-flavoured refreshers on offer but, frankly, that’s not our bag, so we discounted those, too. What we were drawn to was the oddities in two categories: first, a new strain of takes on world beer styles (Belgian Wit, Munich Helles); and, secondly, a bunch of unpasteurised/unfiltered products presented as upmarket, ‘natural’ variants on the standard lagers.

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Session #127: Festbier auf Englisch?

Autumn leaves somewhere in Europe.

For this month’s edition of the Session, when beer bloggers around the world write on one topic, Al at Fuggled has asked us to hunt down and consider Oktoberfest beers.

This is another one we were going to sit out because we haven’t seen any on sale and didn’t have chance to go hunting. But then we decided, once again, to just be the kind of idiots who ignore the instructions and come at it sideways instead.

So here’s the question we asked ourselves: what’s the English equivalent of Festbier?

First, we need to get our heads round what Festbier means in Germany. Yes, we’ve been writing about beer for years and should know by now but the fact is, it seems a bit vague; has been the victim of some apparently incorrect explainer articles over the years; and, being seasonal, hasn’t often been on offer when we’ve been in Germany.

So, without getting bogged down in its history, what does it mean now? What does a German consumer expect from a bottle with Festbier or Oktoberfest on the label? We decided the quickest way to get some kind of working answer was to ask a German, namely Andreas Krenmair (@der_ak) who blogs about beer and brewing at Daft EejitHe says…

Good question… personally, I’d expect it to be slightly stronger than an Export-strength beer but not quite as strong as Bockbier. For a Festbier, that would essentially mean a scaled-up Helles, with a thicker mouthfeel, possibly a slight booziness, and maybe a tiny bit more bitterness, but still relatively restrained. If it’s advertised as Märzen, I’d expect an amber to pale-brown colour, with noticeable melanoidin flavours, i.e. that maltiness coming from darker-kilned malts like Vienna or Munich malt.

Disappointing with a beer labelled as Festbier/Oktoberfest-Märzen would certainly be either not enough or too much alcohol, any of the obvious off-flavours that some lagers suffer from, too much bitterness or an assertive hoppiness. In the case of Märzen, the lack of that typical maltiness would be especially disappointing, as it would be an indicator for an industrially brewed Märzen that is essentially Festbier coloured with Sinamar (Ron Pattinson once mentioned that some Munich brewery does that for the US export market, but I forgot which brewery it was). All in all, my expectation of a Festbier or Oktoberfest-Märzen is that I can drink at least 1 Maß of it without getting drunk, and wanting more afterwards, so drinkability is key…

As a bonus, if the beer is served from gravity instead of keg, and with slightly lower carbonation, that makes a good Festbier even more drinkable in my opinion.

That’s something to go on, and more or less fits with what we thought it meant.

So, an English equivalent would be a stronger, richer, smoother version of an everyday style, and a bit stronger than the norm but not Super Strength. Stronger, richer, smoother, 5 point something… That sounds a bit like ESB for starters, doesn’t it? The only problem is, ESB is available all year round, and a Festbier probably ought to be withheld if it’s to feel special.

With that restriction in mind, Spingo Special, from the Blue Anchor in Helston, occurred as an option. It only turns up occasionally, and is certainly rich. The only problem is… it’s not very nice — just so, so sickly sweet, and way too strong. It certainly fails AK’s drinkability test.

Another candidate might be St Austell Tribute Extra which is a stronger, maltier version of the famous ale that tends to appear on cask in November and December. (That’s right, not September, when Oktoberfest happens, or October when people understandably think it does.) Quite a few other breweries (a bit of Googling suggests) have winter versions of their standards ales along the same lines. So maybe that’s as close as we get, timing notwithstanding.

As it is, British autumn seasonals tend to be things with Red in the namerye in the grist, or both, and that’s fine, but it might be nice if those beers were also a full percentage point or so stronger.

Actually, ‘autumn ESB’ has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? How would you go about brewing one?


UPDATE 13:47 01/09/2017: Johannes Weiss (@weizen) works at Weihenstephan and says:

As for Oktoberfestbier, original gravity needs to be even higher than for Festbier, and in Germany only Munich breweries can call it Oktoberfestbier by law.

So there’s nothing there that really applies to Britain, but it’s an interesting distinction.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 29 July 2017: Germany, Quality Control, Staly Vegas

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that’s grabbed us in the last week, from the politics of micropubs to the price of a six-pack.

Suzy Aldridge (@lincolnpubgeek) brings interesting news from Lincoln which might or might not be meaningful in the wider scheme of things: the keg-heavy local craft beer bar has morphed into a cask-led micropub. Suzy quotes the local CAMRA chair:

As I see it, the craft scene is predominantly aimed at the younger market, and with Lincoln’s nightlife being predominantly student led I could foresee such a business struggling during the University break. Who knows in the future things may change, but for now I will support “The Craft Rooms” in its new incarnation as “The Ale House”.

This certainly fits with our reading of how micropubs and craft beer bars fit together — as versions of the same thing, both essentially products of changes in licensing law and renewed enthusiasm for beer, but catering to different demographics.


Detail from the cover of a German brewing textbook.

Ben Palmer (@Johnzee7) is a British apprentice brewer studying in Germany. On his blog Hop & Schwein he has gathered some observations on German brewing culture based on his experience so far:

The reason I make the generalisation about ‘German brewers’ in the first place is because they must all jump through the same educational hoops in order to become recognised as a brewer… I estimate that 99% of people in production based brewery roles have at some point completed this apprenticeship, sat the exams and, most importantly, received the certificate to prove this. Germans really like certificates. And official stamps too.

His thoughts on how this might be changing with the rise of learn-on-the-job American-influenced Craft Beer brewers are especially fascinating.


Anonymous beer can viewed from above.

At Beer and Present Danger Josh Farrington provides a useful round-up of recent quality control incidents in UK brewing — exploding cans, dumped batches, product recalls — and reflects on why some breweries continue to let customers buy flawed beer despite the current culture of highly-publicised self-flagellation:

Even in the past weekend, I had two canned beers from a pair of small breweries, only to find one was a scorched earth of smoky phenols crammed into a supposed Bavarian helles, while the other was a classic English IPA that had become a metallic soup, like slurping on a slurry of batteries. I can accept that mistakes happen after the beer is packaged – that everything was given the okay in the first instance, that the first swig tasted swell – but there’s no excuse for not making regular checks, or taking samples from across the range, to ensure that what you’re sending out to market is as good as you think it is.


The Wharf Tavern.

One of our favourite blog post formats is the thoughtful home town pub crawl and this week’s contribution is from Mark Johnson at Beer Compurgation who has been exploring Stalybridge, Greater Manchester. He starts by setting the scene:

To many in the north-west it is famous for its nickname of Staly Vegas, that came about (as far as I’m aware) through… a sort of revitalisation project around the central canal area by the new Tesco, improvements to two bus stations and an influx of age-restricting, dress-code-enforcing bars and pubs… The concept of Staly Vegas began to die around 2007 and officially broke in 2011, with the lowering of strict entry policies bringing delinquent youths and drug dealing to the once respectable bars. What the town has been left with for six years is numerous boarded up buildings once used as venues that seem to be no longer use or ornament.


Fry: "Shut up and take my money!"

Jeff Alworth at Beervana has some interesting thoughts on beer pricing that take into account the question of reputation over time:

Every decision a brewery makes about pricing has benefits and risks. Budget-pricing may move product, but it reduces profit margins and may eventually damage a brand’s reputation, miring it in the lower tier in consumers’ minds. Once there, it’s difficult to raise prices. On the other hand, pricing beer at the upper end increases profits, establishes a brewery as a premium producer, but may appear like gouging once the shine has worn off the brewery’s reputation.

(The first comment there is interesting, too, reminding us that even if conversations about price/value aren’t visible on social media doesn’t mean they’re not happening.)


And, finally, here’s some eye candy from the Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London which has recently been digitising some fantastic images of pubs from their archives, as shared on Twitter by Stef Dickers, Special Collections and Archives Manager.

A London pub in black-and-white, c.WWII.

What Makes a Beer an [X]-ian Beer?

“If a beer has German malt, US hops and Belgian yeast, can it really be called a Belgian style beer?” That’s a good, if puzzling, question.

Michael Lally from Bushcraft Beer asked it on Twitter while putting together an episode of his podcast and we gave a 140-character answer: yes, because Belgian beer often uses foreign malt and hops, but the yeast is the source of its essential character.

Roman, a Belgian-born Londoner who brews ‘modern beers abstracted from classic Belgian styles’ at Solvay Society seems to broadly agree, as per this blog post:

The fruity and spicy notes that we have come to identify as ‘Belgian’ are the result of by-products generated by yeast during fermentation. Many Belgian beers — such as the tripel, wit and saison — have characteristic clove and white pepper aromas… Fruitiness in beer can be derived from hops, but it is also the result of esters… It’s quite clear therefore that we associate certain flavours and aromas with Belgian beers, many of which have been derived from the choice of yeast and fermentation profile.

But what about this: a Belgian brewer operating in Belgium uses US hops, British malt, and lager yeast shipped from a lab in Germany, to make a 4.5% ABV beer with no spicy or fruity notes; at the same time, a British brewer ships in Belgian malt, Belgian hops and a bucket of Westmalle yeast to make a 9% Trappist-style tripel in Barnsley. Which is more Belgian?

The other week when we considered a similar question — is Belgian a flavour? — someone (we can’t remember who — maybe Roman again?) suggested that Belgianness was as much about approach as ingredients. In other words, a Belgian will somehow make a beer taste Belgian under any circumstances.

This article from Joe Stange, co-author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium, on how Belgian brewers approach the global trend for in-your-face hoppy beer, provides evidence for and against:

[With] a few exceptions they are not cynical imitations of foreign craft beer. Instead, they adopt ideas about bolder hopping and fold it into the Belgian scheme: intricate mash regimes, high attenuation, relatively expressive yeast, and refermentation in the bottle… [But at the] Modeste [festival] in Antwerp… [the] winning beer was called Hip-Hop, and it claimed 100-plus IBUs using Columbus, Simcoe and Citra. It tasted more like 50 IBUs, with enough malt to carry it off… Come to think of it, it didn’t taste very Belgian. Maybe we should be afraid after all.

From Specific to General

This isn’t just about Belgian beer — you could ask the same kind of question about American, Czech, English or German beer. Or Yorkshire bitter.

At this point we started to think about a philosophical puzzle we only dimly understand — the Sorites paradox:

1,000,000 grains is a heap. If 1,000,000 grains is a heap then 999,999 grains is a heap. So 999,999 grains is a heap. If 999,999 grains is a heap then 999,998 grains is a heap. So 999,998 grains is a heap. If …… So 1 grain is a heap.

With apologies to any real philosophers who might be reading, we take the point of this thought exercise to be that you either (a) accept 1 grain of sand is a heap or (b) acknowledge that some things in life, like how many individual hairs you can have and still be considered bald, cannot be made precise, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless or non-existent. (See also: ‘craft beer’.)

There are many, many variables that contribute to a beer’s national or regional identity; if you flip each switch, one at a time, at which point does that identity cease to be?

Actually, hmm, this is worryingly close to being more generally, real-world political. That yeast answer we came up with first was much simpler.

Is ‘Belgian’ a Flavour?

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

We find ourselves using ‘Belgian’ as a shortcut flavour descriptor sometimes and have been thinking about what this means, for various reasons.

First, because we just finished writing an article about Liverpool’s Passageway Brewery. If you’ve read Brew Britannia you’ll have the gist of the story: it emerged in the mid-1990s, run in their spare time by two friends who worked together, and knocked people’s socks off by fermenting British-style cask ales with a then highly exotic Belgian yeast strain.

Secondly, because we’ve also been writing an article about British beer geeks obsessed with Belgian beer, which means we’ve been hanging out with a few of the same. One gently admonished us on this point, suggesting that ‘Belgian’ as used to describe flavour by non-Belgians usually just means ‘spicy yeast’, when of course Belgian beers might be tart, sherry-like, fruity (from actual fruit), literally spicy (as opposed to yeast spicy), hoppy (in various offbeat ways), and so on.

A bicycle outside a bar in Bruges, 2010.

And, finally, there have just been some beers that got us excited — beers that aren’t Belgian, or even fundamentally Belgian in style, but which use Belgian-derived yeast to add a twist. Stone Cali-Belgique, which we found confusing and underwhelming when we paid a fortune for it at The Rake in London years ago, is fast becoming a go-to in its canned Berlin-brewed bargain-price incarnation. Elusive Brewing’s Plan-B — a 3.7% pale ale brewed with UK malt, New World hops and Belgian yeast, was a contender for our Golden Pints bottled beer of 2016. And that Lervig/Magic Rock Farmhouse IPA from a few years back still haunts our palates. In general these days, we’ll pick up any kind of pale ale or IPA made this way — it just floats our boat.

So, yes, when we say something tastes ‘Belgian’, we do mostly mean that it has that faintly funky, abandoned-fruit-bowl, distantly gingery quality. The same character that, in our home-brewing, we’ve managed to get from various supposedly highly divergent Belgian-style yeasts, from dried stuff intended for producing Witbier, to saison and Trappist strains cloned from famous breweries and dispatched in vials.

But maybe sometimes we’re referring to something even broader — a very vague sense of faintly rustic, barely tamed oddness.

If this was flipped and a bunch of Belgian beer geeks were telling us about a beer produced in, say, Ghent that tasted ‘really British’, we think we’d know what they were trying to get across. And noting that a beer tastes ‘quite German’ certainly conveys something, too.

Shortcuts, like ‘proper pub’ or ‘malty’, are fine when used with caution, and don’t always need pinning down at every corner, especially if it stalls the conversation.