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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Bits We Underlined In Whitbread Way No. 13, 1979

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cover of Whitbread Way No. 13.

Whitbread Way was a magazine published by the mega-brewery for the education of its licensees. This issue from the summer of 1979 is all about lager and pub grub.

Actually, we had to work out the date from various clues — for some reason, it isn’t given anywhere in the publication — so don’t quote us on it. The magazine is glossy and professional looking, in that boring trade-mag way.

It starts with a news round-up by Graham Kemp which betrays some political bias in the wake of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister:

There is undoubtedly a groundswell of opinion towards a more pragmatic, commercial approach to life in Britain… The mood of the country over the past decade has been to go for the highest possibly incomes without considering where the money is to come from or what we have to earn nationally to sustain our present standard of living.

What goes around comes around and all that. This statement comes in the context of pressure from the Price Commission which wanted to keep beer prices down to avoid consumer discontent. ‘Prices ought to go down even costs go up’, says Mr Kemp sarcastically, oddly presaging last week’s Cloudwater blog post. What goes around… Oh, we’ve done that one.

Three men raising pints over a video recorder.
Licensee William Garside of the Dog & Partridge, Ashton-under-Lyne, is presented with the Phillips N1700 video recorder he won in a magazine competition.

The first substantial feature, by John Firman, is fascinating and if we’d got round to reading this earlier might have informed our big piece on lager louts. It is entitled ‘Violence — is it necessary?’ and concerns the stalling of what they refer to as the Ban the Thug Bill. It was proposed by Conservative MP Anthony Grant and was intended to ban convicted ‘hooligans’ from entering pubs for up to two years at a time. Violence in pubs was felt to be on the rise and damaging the trade, as supported by quotes from interviews with licensees. Again, the article is openly political: the last government, Firman asserts, didn’t like to do anything and so blocked Grant’s bill, but he expresses a hope that the new Conservative government might be more open to the idea. (They were; the bill passed in 1980.) It’s interesting with hindsight that nowhere in this discussion was lager mentioned, but then…

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Panic on the Streets of Woking: Rise of the Lager Lout

 This bumper #beerylongreads post is dedicated to the kind folks who have sponsored us via our Patreon page, like Chris France and Jon Urch — thanks!

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis.

Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets.

The police panicked, the public fretted, and politicians were pressed to take action.

What was causing this rash of insanity? Who or what was to blame for this descent into madness?

In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.

Lager. Lager was to blame. A type of beer that had arrived in earnest in Britain only thirty years before as the upmarket, sophisticated, sharp-suited Continental cousin of the traditional pint of wallop.

Where did it all go wrong?

Skol advertisement, 1960: "British Brewer Goes Continental".
In the Beginning

Lager was first brewed in Britain as far back as the 1830s and had its first boom in popularity, primarily as a hip, high-price imported product, from the 1860s until World War I. (See Gambrinus Waltz for more on that.) For the next 40 years or so it sat in the background, very much a minority interest, represented by imports from the Continent and the occasional attempt by British brewers such as Barclay Perkins. In the 1950s it had a less than 2 per cent share of the total UK beer market.

The 1950s were an unsettling time for British breweries. They could no longer rely on armies of industrial workers tramping to the pub on a regular basis to drink ale in substantial quantities. Young people seemed less interested in pubs and beer and drawn rather more to burger bars, coffee shops, Coca Cola and pop music. Mild was definitely passé – a relic of the slum era – and though sales of bitter were surging, it too lacked glamour. Bitter drinkers wore blazers and smoked pipes. The tiny handful of Lager drinkers, on the other hand…

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Magical Mystery Pour #20: Five Points Pils

The second of a series of beers chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is Five Points Pils, a lager from East London that comes in a can.

Rebecca says:

This was my beer of summer 2016. Last year, I was entirely dedicated to sours and saisons, turning my nose up at pilsners in particular. My boyfriend favours the pilsner style, but I was perpetually underwhelmed. This year, my palate has changed, making me more receptive to pales and pilsners. And it just so happened that one of my favourite local breweries released this little number, which has become a staple in our household. I still enjoy sour beer in moderation, naturally, but I don’t miss the acidity burning my throat after a lengthy session… Instead, this clean and bright Pils is the perfect Sunday afternoon beer that pairs easily with food or can be savoured by itself.

We’ve encountered a few bottled Five Points beers over the last year or two and always found them fine but middling rather than mind-blowing, with the occasional venture into accidental complexity. We gather the way to really enjoy them is on draught, and some people we think of as fairly aggressively discerning (that is, grumpy and fussy) seem to rate them too, so we’ve put our past shrugginess down to a combination of personal taste and problems arising from packaging/storage/distribution.

What we hadn’t got round to trying was their lager, partly because we weren’t sure how a brewery whose beers tend to the hand-carved would cope with this most technically demanding of styles.

We bought our cans from Honest Brew at £2.49 per 330ml. It has an ABV of 4.8%.

Five Points Pils in the glass.

It looked beautiful in the glass — perfectly clear, golden, with a soft, steady, organically architectural foam. So far, so good: no misplaced haze, the right amount of carbonation, but not fizz.

We couldn’t get enough of the aroma, either — we just kept huffing away making happy noises and thinking of a sunny day in Bavaria. Unusually for a lager it is dry-hopped and that absolutely works, surrounding the glass with a perfume mist wholesome, green, leaping-with-life summer leafiness. This is the kind of small, non-showy technique we’d like to see more German breweries play with rather than jumping straight to double IPA.

(There might have been a discordant note of something pulpy and vegetal but we didn’t agree on that and, anyway, it was hardly distracting.)

People sometimes talk about wine or beer having ‘structure’ and it sounds daft until you taste one that does. Drinking Five Points Pils we could somehow sense the flavour’s three-dimensional shape and texture: a sandpaper-grit sharp leading edge; a round, fruity centre; and then a fantail of of chewy grain sweetness. It was light but never watery, mellow without being dull. It didn’t taste of dandelions or spicy salad leaves but that’s what it made us think of in some less direct way. A real market garden of a beer.

We spent a bit of time trying to think which other specific lager it reminded us of and then it came to us: St Austell Korev. Like Korev, it isn’t some leftfield ‘take’, but a sincere attempt to mimic the Real Thing — to simply give lager drinkers an excellent lager to drink rather than obnoxiously challenging them. We think, on balance, that Five Points might be better than Korev — less reined in, only by a whisker, but enough to give it the edge.

If you like German lager, you’ll probably like this. If you don’t like lager, it might even go some way to changing your mind, nodding as it does, very subtly, in the direction of pale’n’hoppy.

Four thumbs up.

About to wrap up our review there, a paranoid thought began to nag at us: given that it is so convincing and clean, how we can be sure Five Points aren’t Pulling a Camden (as it is known) and actually having some or all of it brewed in Belgium or Germany? Well, it turns out they are, under exactly the same arrangement, described in much the same words. After exchanging some messages, however, we know for certain that any Five Points Pils in cans is being brewed and packaged in London. The stuff you find in kegs in pubs, which we haven’t tried, is likely to be Belgian-brewed, but we are assured that is also unpasteurised and unfiltered.