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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.