Taste-Off: Interesting Eastern European Corner Shop Beers

Collage of words for unfiltered/unpasteurized in various languages.

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.

The East Does The World

Svyturys Baltijos (label)

Being par­tic­u­lar­ly on the look out for Okto­ber­fest beers in the wake of the last edi­tion of the Ses­sion we start­ed with Švy­tu­rys Balti­jos Dark Red Märzen Okto­ber­fest – a name stuffed with key­words – at 5.8% ABV and £1.89 per 500ml. It’s an old beer, appar­ent­ly, brewed since the 1960s, but not one we recall ever see­ing before. Deep red-brown, it some­how con­trives to be both incred­i­bly sweet and harsh­ly bit­ter, not meld­ed or bal­anced but like two dif­fer­ent beers strange­ly entan­gled. The sug­ari­ness was of the crys­talline, burnt, tof­fee apple coat­ing vari­ety, which at least brought anoth­er lay­er to the flavour. (It does say caramel malt right there on the label, in Eng­lish.) Boak, who has lim­it­ed tol­er­ance for sick­li­ness at the best of times, declared against. Bai­ley, with a sweet­er tooth, thought it ‘not bad’. But that does­n’t amount to much and so it’s a miss.

Valonijos Blanc (can)

We could­n’t resist the attrac­tive­ly designed cans for Kalnapilis Bergschöss­chen Val­oni­jos Blanc, a Bel­gian-style wheat beer, at £1.59 for 500ml. Kalnapilis is anoth­er Lithuan­ian out­fit, this time owned by Roy­al Uni­brew of Den­mark, and the can is cov­ered with text, includ­ing plen­ty in Eng­lish – world beer indeed. We had high hopes here: why spec­i­fy Bel­gian-style if it was going to be any­thing oth­er than a clone of Hoe­gaar­den? Unfor­tu­nate­ly, and this may bring back trau­mat­ic mem­o­ries for vet­er­ans, it was more like Kro­nen­bourg Blanc. That is, sweet, can­dy­ish, almost like fizzy pop, offer­ing an unholy melange of marsh­mal­low, peach and rose flavours. Hoe­gaar­den remains fair­ly bit­ter com­pared to Blue Moon which has a pro­nounced orange squash char­ac­ter, but this is on anoth­er plan­et over again. Still, it might appeal to those who like their beers all pop art and pri­ma­ry colours. It’s a miss for us, though.

Miuncheno Helles (can and glass)

In the same range is Kalnapilis Miuncheno Svieu­sis Helles, also at £1.59 per 500ml can. Again, the detailed text and the styl­is­tic speci­fici­ty sent pleas­ing sig­nals, set­ting up cer­tain expec­ta­tions. It would be pale, sure­ly, gen­tly malty, and light on the palate. But in fact it was dark gold with a heavy-duty body and a spine of sol­id sweet­ness. There was some decent bit­ter­ness there too but, again, it felt like a clash rather than bal­ance. The more we drank, though, the more we were remind­ed of a spe­cif­ic beer: Löwen­brau, arguably the Munich brew­ery least loved by beer geeks, but cer­tain­ly the real deal. It grew on us, espe­cial­ly because the sweet­ness did sug­gest malt rather than sac­cha­rine. We’d prob­a­bly buy this again. It’s a ten­ta­tive hit.

Un-This, Un-That, Plastic Rustic

Kasztelan (can)

The first of the sup­pos­ed­ly whole­meal good-for-you beers we tried was the 5.6% ABV Kasztelan (Carls­berg Poland) Niepastery­zowane ‘fresh from nature’ which came in a 500ml can for (we lost the receipt) about £1.50. There’s a cer­tain uni­form look to the design work on this type of beer: a nod at min­i­mal­ism, dis­tressed let­ter­ing, promi­nent images of hops… All the stuff you might expect from craft beer in the UK only applied to pale lager rather than IPA. This beer was a lit­tle sweet for our taste but beyond that rather decent, with a sug­ges­tion of leafy green hops and crusty chleb whole­some­ness from the malt. We’d buy again, if we saw it right in front of us, so it’s a hit, kind of.

Cesu (glass and foil can covering)

Cësu Nefiltrē­tais (unfil­tered, in case you don’t read Lat­vian) came in a 568ml can for £1.79 and has an ABV of 5.4%. To under­line its pre­mi­u­mosi­tude, or per­haps acknowl­edg­ing the sketch­i­ness of some out­lets, there was a foil seal over the top of the tin. The brew­ery has a claim to being the old­est in the Baltic region but is now owned by a Finnish com­pa­ny, Olvi, and also makes a porter which we will be keep­ing an eye out for. This beer was a faint­ly hazy gold with an odd smell – like over­ripe bananas – and tast­ed like canned UK-brewed Stel­la Artois or San Miguel with a sim­i­lar stress-induc­ing chem­i­cal, rub­bery tang. It was weird, hard work, unnerv­ing. In short, bad. We did­n’t fin­ish it and it’s  a def­i­nite miss.

Prazubr (close up of can)

Prażubr Niepas­tur­owany is a ver­sion of that Pol­ish clas­sic Żubr, itself not bad on draught. At 5% it cost £1.79 for 500ml and came in a can designed to look like off-white paper, maybe? Some­thing rus­tic and coun­tri­fied, any­way – cer­tain­ly not indus­tri­al. (Żubr is owned by AB-InBev Asahi.) It is anoth­er deep gold beer but this time with a metal­lic smell, like a hand­ful of cop­per coins. The taste was all screws and nails at first, too, but a sweet, mild, orange-pith bit­ter­ness pushed through even­tu­al­ly. Hops became more evi­dent in the aro­ma, too, sug­gest­ing cut grass. It remind­ed us of Pil­sner Urquell to an extent, but not to the extent that we’d choose it over PU, which is about the same price in UK super­mar­kets. It would be harsh to call it a miss but it’s not exact­ly a hit either. It’s a shrug, we sup­pose.

1 PINTA label on the Volfas Engelman bottle.

Vol­fas Engel­man is a brew­ery in Kau­nas, Lithua­nia, also owned by Olvi of Fin­land. Rink­ti­nis is their ‘nepas­ter­izuo­tas’ pale lager and comes in a full pint bot­tles (568ml) for £1.89, with an ABV of 5.2%. And this we rather liked. Unlike many of the oth­er beers we tried it was light and dry, zip­ping over the palate. We’d have liked a lit­tle more bit­ter­ness, per­haps, but it was thor­ough­ly decent, and con­vinc­ing­ly draught-like. It’s a hit, com­pa­ra­ble to our bench­mark beer, Švy­tu­rys Ekstra, and our pick of this par­tic­u­lar bunch of beers, if we must.

* * *

If we reached a con­clu­sion from this exer­cise it’s that fan­cy pack­ag­ing and buzz­words more than ever sow the seeds for dis­ap­point­ment. Unpasteurised/unfiltered does­n’t mean good, and might not even mean bet­ter.

And, as with our sur­vey of British takes on Ger­man-style wheat beer, that sole exam­ple of a sup­posed Wit was enough to remind us how nar­row the para­me­ters are for a good exam­ple of that style.

In con­clu­sion, based on this brief sur­vey, if you’re an obses­sive tick­er (still at 5) or com­pul­sive bar­gain hunter then the shelves at your local cor­ner­shop are still worth check­ing out. Oth­er­wise, maybe not so much these days, when there’s such an avalanche of inter­est­ing beer every­where else you turn.

4 thoughts on “Taste-Off: Interesting Eastern European Corner Shop Beers”

  1. I worked my way through the beers in my local Pol­ish shop a few years ago. Every sin­gle beer tast­ed like Spesh. Absolute­ly fuck­ing foul.

    You can recre­ate the unique flavour by tak­ing a glass of Carls­berg and pour­ing in a shot of cheap vod­ka.

  2. The Baltic states now have their own shelf in my local beer shop (rather than cor­ner shop). Põh­jala is from Esto­nia and seems to be its own Siren or Bux­ton.

    1. Deserved­ly so – Lithua­nia has a beer cul­ture that is ful­ly the equal of oth­er major beer cul­tures in Europe – and prob­a­bly more inter­est­ing than eg Czech beer cul­ture. They appear to have their own yeast species and every­thing.

      No doubt some­where in Vil­nius there’s a blog­ger judg­ing British and Bel­gian beer cul­ture on the basis of cor­ner-shop cans of Smith’s, Ten­nents and Stel­la.…

      1. Just to be clear, we’re not judg­ing any­one’s beer cul­ture based in what’s on offer at our local cor­ner­shop…

        But there are loads of inter­na­tion­al blogs with reviews of John Smith’s and canned Bod­ding­ton’s.

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