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…

Baltic Porters again

A little while ago, we wrote about a handful of Baltic porters we’d been able to get our grubby hands on. After much hunting and hoarding, plus a generous gift, we’ve got enough together for a second round.

D. Carnegie & Co Stark Porter (Sweden)

The label boasts that this was first brewed in 1836 and is still brewed to the same recipe, although now by Carlsberg Sweden. Michael Jackson penned an article over 10 years ago about the brewery’s founder, a Scot, which you can find here.

Once again though, for us this was a case of the history being more interesting than the beer. It’s a lovely opaque black, with a pillowy head. There’s a hint of coffee in the aroma, but not much else. The initial gulp is lovely — milk-chocolate and coffee flavours, some wine-like fruit and a good bitter kick at the end — but then it’s gone. What aftertaste is left is a bit like Marmite.

It’s pleasant enough and reminded us of Sam Smith’s Oatmeal stout. It’s definitely got a heavy stout-like body. It tastes stronger than it is (it’s “only” 5.5%).

Baltika no 6 “Porter” (Russia)

We’ve been looking for this little beauty for ages, ruthlessly scouring every new Russian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian shop to open in our manor. Finally, a new Lithuanian shop called “Tradicia” at the bottom of Walthamstow Market was able to deliver. [The shop has lots of other goodies too, which may fuel a blog post or two…]

It was worth the wait. It too is inky-black with a slightly off-white head. It has an oily, slightly bubbly texture, definitely lighter than the Carnegie. The aroma reminded me of creme caramel.

As for the taste, there’s a huge explosion of roasted malt, biscuits and molasses. It’s rich without being sickly sweet, and has a fruity aftertaste (cherry?) that lingers. It slips down way too easily for 7%.

I think this is what we were after when we went looking for a Baltic porter. Something where the English stout influence is clear, but that has evolved into something else. All the publicity says that this is brewed to a traditional English recipe and is bottom fermented, but there were definitely elements of Schwarzbier in there too.

Pardubicky Porter (Czech Republic)

In response to our first post on Baltic Porters, Evan Rail drew our attention to the tradition of Czech “baltic” porters, telling us that Pardubicky had been the only regular example for a while. Upon hearing that we couldn’t get it in London, he sent us a bottle in the post. Top man. Sorry it’s taken so long to review it…

This is definitely an interesting beast. On their website, this also claims a nineteenth century recipe. It looks great, with a fluffy head, and smells a bit Belgian — candy sugar and booze!

Tastewise, it has a pleasing sourness that the other two didn’t have, as well as notes of molasses and port. At 8% it’s also stronger than the other two. Overall we probably preferred the Baltika, but this one’s definitely worth trying, and also delivers the right mix of the familiar and the exotic…

Boak

Baltic porter round-up

balticporters.jpg

A long time ago, we bemoaned the lack of Baltic porters in London — dark, stout-like beers from Poland, Lithuania, Russia and other Baltic states. Light fizzy beers from these countries are now amply represented in cornershops throughout this fair city, but not a hint of the dark stuff.

We’ve always been intrigued by the history of these kinds of beers. They appear to have evolved as a hybrid of Russian Imperial Stouts and “local” (i.e. lager-brewing) traditions. I wonder why the Porter name, then? Did they also owe something to 19th century porters?

The Beer Judge Certification Progamme (BJCP) Style Guidelines identify Baltic Porter as a style, and say:

Baltic Porter often has the malt flavors reminiscent of an English brown porter and the restrained roast of a schwarzbier, but with a higher OG and alcohol content than either. Very complex, with multi-layered flavors.

It also reckons the style derives “from English porters but influenced by Russian Imperial Stout”. So let’s see.

Thanks to the Great British Beer Festival in August, and the Pig’s Ear festival in December, we finally got our paws on some proper baltic porters. Well, dark beers from that part of the world. We thought that by comparing and contrasting we might understand better if there is a unified style or not.

Utenos Porter – 6.8%

Utenos, from Lithuania, are very popular both over there and in cornershops in East London. Although it’s a different brand from Svyturys, it’s actually part of the same company, owned via Baltic Beverages. We weren’t overly impressed with their normal lager (a Helles type), but the Porter was much more tasty. Then again, at 6.8% it should be. It was a brown-red colour, with a treacly- toasted caramel flavour – and not a huge amount else. Not very complex at all, but nice enough.

Black Boss Porter, from Browar Witnica, Poland – 8.5%

Again, sweet-treacle flavours and not a lot else. Quite a heavy body, and reminded us a bit of Guiness Foreign Extra but without the bitterness. Not terribly exciting, and we’d expect a lot more for 8.5%. However, we would recommend the “Kozlak” (bock) from the same brewer. This is a *mere* 5.8% but packs in much more flavour. As well as the hints of treacle, there are liquorice, chocolate and coffee notes — and it’s not cloyingly sweet!

Huvila Porter – 5.5%

The labels on the bottle are all in Finnish, but the brewery helpfully provides explanations of the beer on its website here. The Porter is made with British ale yeast (I suspect the other beers above are lagers). We thought that it had a sticky but light body, without much aroma. It tasted very roasted, with hints of liquorice. Pleasant enough, and I’m quite intrigued by the brewery and their other English-style beers.

Well, that’s all the baltic porters to date. There are more to go, but no more in our cellar — we still haven’t seen Okocim Porter for donkey’s years, and have never seen Zywiec Porter in London. (I had it on tap once in Poland and thought it absolutely horrid, but that was a long time ago and I reckon it had been sitting in the barrel for about three years.) So far, the Baltic porters we’ve had are sweet and not particularly complex.

I think I like the idea of a Baltic porter better than I actually like any of the Baltic porters we’ve had so far. I wonder if today’s incarnations bear any resemblance to the 19th century originals?

PS: Not a *Baltic* porter, but while we’re on the porter topic; we did pick up a”Hazelnoot Porter” from the Klein Duimpje brewery in the Netherlands, which we rather enjoyed. I remember that the hazelnut flavour was definitely present, but very subtle, and blended beautifully with the malt and hops. I’d happily drink this one again.

Boak

Mulled beer

London was an eery place yesterday. A thick fog descended, leaving visibility of only 10 metres in my neck of the woods. The streets were absolutely deserted – maybe people have left town, maybe those that are around were all hungover.

Anyway, I fled to my local for some signs of life. The beer wasn’t in great nick to I switched to mulled wine, which got me thinking. You have mulled wine, milled cider – why isn’t mulled beer popular?

I’ve had hot beer with spices in Poland, where it’s reasonably popular in the south in the winter. I seem to remember it being quite nice, especially a version with honey and ginger.  It obviously doesn’t taste much like beer, but it was very satisfying after a day trudging through snow.

A quick google search reveals this article on Realbeer.com about various historic mulled beers, and they sound extremely appealing.  I particularly like the bit about spicing them up to make homebrew more palatable, as we’ve got a fair bit of only-just drinkable homebrew in at the moment.

Has anyone mulled beer successfully and if so, what would they recommend? Does heating enhance or kill bitterness?

Boak

Okocim Mocne – is it more than tramp’s brew?

A break from the Belgian binge write-up to blog about this while I remember.

Most of the cornershops round our way stock a large selection of fairly similar Polish lagers. We blogged about the similarity of the light lagers (usually called “piwo jasne”) in one of our first ever posts.

There are a number of Polish lagers describer as “mocne” or strong, which I’d always assumed were little better than tramp’s brew. This assumption was based partly from bad experiences of Warka Strong on tap in Poland, and partly on the fact that any British lagers with “strong” on the tin are only drunk by gentlemen of the road and bingeing teenagers. But a comment by The Beer Nut a while back, together with positive reviews of Warka Strong on BeerAdvocate, made me think that perhaps I’d been a bit harsh.

okocim_mocne_beer_small.gifSo, looking for a lager to go with my chilli, I took the plunge and bought an Okocim Mocne from the offy down the road. Described as “malt liquor” on their website, it’s7%. I was hoping for perhaps an Oktoberfest style beer, or at least a drinkable “doppio malto” like Peroni Gran Reserva.

Initial aroma was promising – appley and slightly hoppy. Unfortunately the taste and body were very disappointing. It’s a very thin beer, not what you’d expect for this strength. And the only flavour I could detect was sweetness. No hops or anything else to note. It wasn’t even particularly refreshing.

It’s not revolting, but I can’t imagine a situation where I’d drink it again. Most cornershops stocking this also stock Lithuanian Svyturys, which is a better bet for cheap, convenient lager. And if I want to drink to drown my sorrows, I’ll do as the Polish tramps do and go for wodka instead.

However, if you do spot Okocim Palone, or the even rarer Porter, snap them up. In fact, does anyone know if the Porter is even still in production? I haven’t seen it for years, but the Okocim website seems to suggest it is.

The Beer War of 1380

wroclaw.gifWrocław, Poland, is a fascinating place. It’s been part of Bohemia, Poland, Germany, and probably a few other countries I’ve forgotten. It also has a decent brew pub, Spiż, in the town square – probably on the same site as a German bierkeller from its days as the German city of Breslau.

What I didn’t realise until today is that it was also the home of something called “The beer war of 1380”. The city’s website says:

The duality of municipal governance – ecclesiastical and secular – gave rise to the famous ‘beer war’ of 1380. The City Council defended the city’s monopoly on the sale of beer against the Cathedral canons, who lived in Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). As a result, an interdict (a church disciplinary measure) was imposed on the city’s churches, which were subsequently pillaged. It took a papal bull to end the conflict.

Now, having a war about beer really is taking it too seriously.

I read about the beer war in Norman Davies’ Microcosm, a history of the city of Wrocław/Breslau. In the same book, he also talks intriguingly about the two dominant beers in Wrocław in the middle ages. One was called “Schöps” — Davies says it was a brand name and was first mentioned in 1392. It came to be the most popular brand in the area in the late 15th century, superceding something called “Schweidnitzer”. I’m adding both to the list of weird historical beers, along with Pimlico Ale.

Also see a much older post, “Why isn’t Polish beer good?”

Boak