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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Magical Mystery Pour #31: High Weald Charcoal Burner

The second Sussex beer chosen for us by Rachael Smith (@lookatbrew) is a 4.3% ABV oatmeal stout from the High Weald brewery of East Grinstead.

We bought our 500ml bottle for £2.75 by mail order from South Down Cellars.

Rach says:

High Weald has been on the scene since 2012 and recently underwent a massive re-brand, which seems to have thrust the core beers forth and more into the local spotlight than ever before. This oatmeal stout is a favourite of mine on cask where it takes on a creamy character. It’s a great session strength brew, smooth, with all the classic characteristics of chocolate, coffee, a touch of smoke and balanced sweetness.

We don’t advocate judging books by their covers but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a moment to appreciate a nice bit of graphic design.

The label for High Weald Charcoal Burner: farmer chased by Dragon.
SOURCE: High Weald website.

High Weald’s labels look like cover designs for Nonsuch-era XTC singles and (we’d guess) were inspired by those for US brewery Odell’s. Printed on textured paper, they look even nicer.

When we opened this work of art there was only a faint air-kiss of carbonation and it looked flat as it poured. Then one of our favourite things happened: a just off-white head magically materialised out of the black body of the beer.

The beer smelled smoky, autumnal and enticing.

High Weald Charcoal Burner.

The flavour was less immediately impressive — that stale note we so often get in packaged beers from small breweries dominated for the first mouthful or two, muting the other flavours so that the beer seemed almost bland. Throughout the middle stretch, things improved and we started to throw about words like rum and chocolate. At the very end there was another dip — it began to seem merely sugary, like the dregs of a cup of sweet, creamy coffee.

 

Overall, we felt fairly warm towards it. It’s a stout, of which there aren’t enough, and a decent one at that. A few tweaks would improve it, though — more body to hold the sweetness, or more bitterness to match the body. As it is, it reminded us a bit of a watered down imperial stout. But remember, we are fussy devils. At any rate, we’ll certainly try more beers from High Weald if we get the chance and (that now familiar catchprase) look forward to trying this on cask one day, perhaps near an open fire.

Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout, 1970

Last night we sat down and, with due reverence (radio off, notebooks out) drank a bottle of 47-year-old Barclay’s (Courage) Russian Imperial Stout. And it was great.

The last very elderly bottle of RIS we got to try was at the specialist cafe Kulminator in Antwerp where we paid something like €18 for a relic from 1983. This new old bottle was found by Bailey at a car boot sale in Somerset and cost a much more reasonable £1.50.

The seller was an elderly bloke who had worked at Courage in the 1960s and 70s and said, ‘A mate of mine called me down to the cellars in the brewery at Tower Bridge one day where he’d found a stash of this everyone had forgotten about. He used to drink a bottle every morning before his shift started.’ This bottle, he said, was part of his own employee allowance that he’d never got round to drinking.

The cap of our bottle of RIS.

Having been stored who knows where for almost half a century, and then left on paste tables in the sun for who knows how summer boot sales, we didn’t have high expectations for our bottle’s condition. There was the usual hesitation when the time came to apply opener to cap — should we save it? But the answer to that question is generally ‘No’, and even more so when nuclear missiles are whizzing about on the other side of the world. So, one, two, three, and…

There was a smart snap and an assertive ‘Shush!’ Pouring it was easy enough, the yeast having fused with the bottle over the course of decades. We were left with a glass containing about 160ml of beer topped with a thick, stable head of sand coloured foam.

The aroma it threw up was immense, almost sneeze-inducingly spicy, and unmistakably ‘Bretty’.

The foam in the glass.

Oddly, perhaps, the Brett didn’t seem to carry over into the taste, or at least not in the ways our fairly limited experience (mostly Orval and Harvey’s take on RIS) has led us to expect. It wasn’t dry or challengingly funky. But perhaps it was simply that it was in balance, blended and melded with the rock solid bitterness.

The texture was like cream, the taste like the darkest chocolate you can imagine, with no hint of the sherry character we’d assumed was all-but inevitable in old beers. It was just wonderful — more subtle and smoother than Harvey’s, the nearest comparison, and overwhelmingly deep.

What amazed us most was how fresh it tasted, and how alive it seemed. If you’d told us it was brewed last year, we wouldn’t doubt you. (Disclaimer: such is the dodgy provenance of the bottle, we can’t say for sure it wasn’t brewed last year.)

Two hours later, Boak sighed dreamily: ‘I’m still tasting it.’

Beer as experience indeed.

Magical Mystery Pour #30: Long Man Best Bitter

This new season of Magical Mystery Pour, with Sussex beers chosen by Rachael Smith of Look at Brew, is one of those trendy but annoying short ones like Game of Thrones does these days.

That’s because with us moving house there was a bit of a delay in ordering the beers, and because the online store Rachael suggested — the only one with a comprehensive range of beers from Sussex — turned out to be a bit flaky. She picked five beers of which we ended up with three. (A fourth, from Burning Sky, was delivered past its best before date.)

The label for Long Man Best Bitter.

Anyway, crapness aside, the first beer we tasted was Long Man Best Bitter, a 4% ABV ale which cost us £2.80 for one 500ml bottle from South Down Cellars. Rach says:

I’ve picked this as it has become a staple in many a Sussex pub (on cask of course) as the core Long Man range is becoming synonymous with good quality beers at the traditional end of the Sussex brewing spectrum. It’s a classic session bitter with well balanced malts and bitterness, with some nuttiness coming through. It’s well worth seeking out on cask, but the bottled version is handy to have around. Not quite Harvey’s but a fine alternative.

The beer isn’t bottle-conditioned and was therefore no trouble to pour, giving us a thick, stable head above a body that it feels harsh to describe as brown such was its glow. (This is why marketing people so often resort to ‘amber’.)

Best Bitter in the glass.

The aroma was muted but suggested toffee and hot jam to Bailey, and a purely beery, woodland earthiness to Boak.

It seemed to be missing something on first tasting — a fizz, more toffee, and then a watery hole. As it went down and hung around, though, a warming orange marmalade note emerged.

It’s hard to find much more to say than that. It reminded us of any number of other traditional bitters you might find in the supermarket from breweries such as Badger or Butcombe, although with perhaps just a bit more oomph. Which is to say, it was a clean, bright, mainstream beer that with the right marketing could easily become a national brand.

We can’t imagine going out of our way to acquire another bottle but we’d certainly recommend it to friends who like normal beer and, as per Rach’s suggestion, suspect we’d get much more of a kick out of it on cask.

 

The Craft Beer Life on a Budget

Is craft beer in the UK (definition 2) hopelessly exclusive to those on a budget or are there ways in?

We got thinking about this in response to two Tweets, the first from Mark Dexter…

…and the second from Tony Naylor who writes about food and drink for the Guardian and other publications:

Mark (former blogger, actor, doesn’t like 330ml bottles) went on to argue that those who suggested paying it was reasonable to ask more for a better product were essentially saying, ‘Screw poor people. Let them drink piss.’ (His words.)

This is something that nags at us somewhat. A few years ago we suggested that breweries might consider finding a way to offer an entry level beer at a reasonable price by, for example, being pragmatic about hops and shooting for a lower ABV.

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