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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News, Nuggets & Longreads 31 December 2016: Kids, Krakow and Koelschips

We took last week off for obvious reasons so here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that got us thinking or smiling in the past fourteen days.

First, a bit of news that got rather lost in the fuss around Christmas: Heineken has taken over a large chunk of pub company Punch’s estate, as reflected upon by the Pub Curmudgeon:

The Beer Orders were revoked in 2003, so since then there was been nothing to prevent the major international brewers rebuilding tied estates in the UK. However, the dire state of pub company finances has probably put them off until now. Heineken retained the rump of the former Scottish & Newcastle pub operation under the banner of Star Pubs and Bars, and so were always the best placed to make a move. Selling out to a brewer with deep pockets is probably going to be the best exit strategy for long-suffering pubco investors.


A baby in the pub.

Here’s one to bookmark if you have kids, or friends with kids — a practical guide, both general and specific, to child-friendly pubs in East London, from the ever-thoughtful Bearded Housewife:

Sometimes it’s just not appropriate, for the feel of the pub as much as anything, to have kids there. For instance, I once had a bit of time to kill in central London and tried to take the progeny into the Harp, near Covent Garden. As I attempted to wrestle the buggy back out the narrow door after being politely rebuffed by the staff, I wondered what I’d been thinking. It’s hard to elucidate clearly why exactly this would have been a bad idea, but children in a pub like the Harp is an incongruous conjunction, like a rave in a library, not bad in the sense of wrong, or selfish, or unjust, but rather more like an uncomfortable juxtaposition.

(See also this post on ‘The New East London Pub Crawl’ from Rebecca Pate.)


Weathered wood with cyrillic text: KBAC.

Via Zach Fowle for Draft magazine the obscure semi-beer kvass rears its ugly head once again — will 2017 finally be the year our terrible prediction that it’s The Next Big Thing comes good?

To make their kvass, Scratch’s brewers soak toasted leftover loaves in hot water overnight. In the morning, the liquid is separated from the soggy bread, moved into a mash tun and combined with standard brewing malt (unlike most historical versions). From there, it’s treated like a typical beer, though brewers don’t add hops and they ferment the wort with the same sourdough yeast culture used in Scratch’s bread.


Various books and magazine from the last 40+ years of CAMRA.

On Twitter John West has given some bloggers a nudge: where’s the commentary on CAMRA’s Revitalisation report? We haven’t got round to it yet, partly because of weariness with the subject and the lack of anything much new to say, but Jeff Alworth, who has been observing British and world beer for years, brings an outsider’s perspective:

Beer has become something like a sacred beverage to people all over the globe. And of course, any time you have something sacred, it means there’s a vast world out there of the profane. Beer must be made and consumed in a particular way. To do anything else violates this sense of the sacred. This dichotomy doesn’t emerge arbitrarily, though. Sacred things are those which protect and nurture the group; profane ones endanger it. In the case of cask ale, CAMRA issued an edict about the nature of British beer. They did this to create a very clear inner circle of protection: this is the thing we’re talking about, and these are the things that endanger it.

(The exchange between Jeff and Nick in the comments is also worth your attention.)


A beer menu in Krakow.

Martin Taylor reports from Krakow where craft beer is fast becoming ‘a thing’. This especially caught our eye because, for one reason or another, we spent a fair bit of time in Krakow between 2000-2003, before we were especially into beer, and remember when C.K. Browar was the cool place in town — the equivalent of Mash in London, we guess.


Here’s some serious historic brewing from Ron Pattinson: a recipe for a Truman’s 1917 Government Ale, AKA Lloyd George’s Beer, which Ron observes was actually somewhat improved by rationing as its malt content was boosted in lieu of hard-to-get sugar.


Mark Tranter

Here’s one that we probably should have included in our last round-up but somehow missed in the early morning bleurgh when these things are mostly put together: an interview with Mark Tranter of Burning Sky by James Beeson for Beeson on Beer. It’s interesting primarily because it contains a genuine scoop about a development which Chris Hall, among others, has suggested is a defining moment in British brewing:

‘When’s this piece going out again?’ He asks, pausing as if weighing up a decision in his head, ‘Oh, and we’re installing a coolship in Janaury.’ Exhaling deeply, he leans back in the rickety wooden chair on which he is sitting. ‘That’s the first time I’ve told anyone that.’


Finally, here’s an image to enjoy, via @iamreddave:

Baedeker on Schöps

We mentioned schöps beer in a post about the beer war of 1380 ages ago. This week, we came across another titbit in Baedeker’s Northern Germany (1893) in the entry for Schweidnitz (now Świdnica):

Schweidnitz (Thamm, at the station; Krone, Scepter, both in the market-place; *Deutsches Haus, R., L., & A 1.5km,;Riedel's; Gruener Adler), a town with 24,700 inhab., formerly the capital of a principality of the name (since 1741 Prussian), is prettily situated on the left bank of the Weistritz. in the Wilhems-Platz, near the station, are the handsome Law Courts. The tower (328 ft.) of the Roman Catholic Church commands an admirable prospect. The old fortifications were removed in 1862 and partly converted into handsome promenades. The beer of the place (*Bierhalle, with garden, in the Wilhelms-Platz) is famous, especially the 'Schwarze Schoeps' (in autumn only), which was largely exported in the 16th century.

As Evan Rail incubates grodziskie yeast in his fridge; and Ron Pattinson and John Keeling brew Fuller’s beers to recipes from the archives; does it matter if beer is all played out?

We think these folks are brewing and selling a version of schöpscan anyone with better German than us confirm that?

Snacks to beer part 2 — schmaltz/smalec

I have very happy memories of visiting Poland. Chief among them is the great joy I experienced in Wroc?aw when presented with a free — yes, free! — plate of bread and dripping with my first pint at Piwnica Swidnicka.

Since then, I’ve also enjoyed it at as ‘schmaltz‘ in various places in Germany, most notably Klosterbräu in Bamberg which has several varieties, including goose fat.

They say you shouldn’t eat greasy food with beer and, yes, if you’re carrying out any kind of formal tasting, it’s probably a bad idea. But, in the real world, nothing makes a wheat beer zing like a piece of rye bread spread thickly with spicy, salty, onion-laced lard.

These days, it’s thankfully very easy to get schmaltz/smalec in the UK in any shop which stocks Polish foods.

The one I bought to eat with my beery bread had a higher meat content than some (try saying “mechanically recovered chicken and pork” without saying “mmmmmmm”…) and was very satisfying indeed. Sometimes, you’ll find it in tins; in blocks like butter or lard; or in glass jars. It’s cheap however it comes.

Let’s be clear, though: it is not health food.

That salad I had with it cancels out the fat, though, right? Right? And it’s normal to have shooting pains in your left arm, isn’t it?

If you like your grease cut with other fats, why not give Obazda a go?

Bailey

Definitely not beer of the week

lechpils

Our local Turkish-run corner shop sells some surprisingly good beer but, on the flipside, they make most of their money flogging nasty ciders and strong lagers to tramps. Which is Lech Pils?

Lech Pils caught our eye because we’ve got a soft spot for Poland and because, unlike Lech Premium, it isn’t that commonly seen in the UK. There was also the thought in the back of our minds that, if Premium is a boring lager (and it is) then maybe Pils would actually be something more interesting — perhaps drier, hoppier and more bitter? It certainly looked the part, being as pale as a beer can be, and quite gently carbonated.

Sadly, it’s rubbish.  It smells a bit like WD40 and tastes like mouthwash. It reminded us of Fosters, and that’s not a good thing. Straight afterwards, we had a Pilsner Urquell for the sake of comparison, and it was streets ahead. Could this be the least surprising conclusion to a beer review ever?

When Boak lived in Poland, Lech Premium was her beer of choice, being the least likely of all the Polish beer brands to give her a migraine. “Best of a bad bunch” would be the phrase…