Cornershop beers: supposedly hoppy lager and blackcurrant stout

We used to drink a lot of cornershop beers. Sometimes it was the ticking instinct – how could we resist a dark lager from Latvia or an IPA from Poland? On other occasions, it was about convenience: we wanted a few beers to drink in front of the TV with a film or sporting event.

But these days, post 20th Century Pub and with middle age upon us, we’ve more or less resolved to drink in the pub or not at all.

Every now and then, though, we pop into the shop nearest our house and marvel at the ever-changing selection of obscure beers from Eastern Europe. It’s fun to see unfamiliar names on unfamiliar labels – a kind of alternate reality, a world where Carling and Foster’s don’t exist.

Last week, we were startled to see three very nicely packaged beers in unusual styles from Vilkmerges of Lithuania – a stout, a dark lager and a witbier. Vilkmerges is a sub-brand of Kalnapilis, which is in turn owned by Royal Unibrew of Denmark.

They sat alongside products from a craft beer sub-brand of Russian brewery Baltika, ‘The Brewer’s Collection’, one of which, with a striking orange label, all in English, is billed as RUSSIAN HOPPY LAGER.

The latter looked gorgeous in the glass – that very pale yellow that seems almost green and somehow signals refinement, perhaps hinting at Champagne. It tasted drier and paler than standard Baltika with maybe a touch of floweriness but didn’t quite live up to the billing. Perhaps the lorry ride across Europe did for the hops? At any rate, it’s at the better end of bog standard and a fascinating thing – the beginning of the Camdenisation of Russian lager?

The Vilkmerges witbier is called Kveitinis. It was more orange than white with a fast-fading head and not quite enough body. It reminded us of a witbier we homebrewed with ale malt, not enough wheat, and too much orange peel. It was a bit sickly but not awful. Purists, look away now: it would probably be nicer with a slice of lemon floating on top.

Their stout, Juodųjų Serbentų, is dosed with BLACKCURRANT JUICE. It smells – brace yourself – like blackcurrants. It was ruddy rather than black with an off-white head that didn’t stick around. It tastes sweet – like Ribena said Ray, reaching for the obvious; like the medicine they gave me when I got worms as a kid, says Jess, more originally. It’s 5.5% but tasted basically non-alcoholic. We poured this one.

Tamsusis is a dark lager and smelled and looked like a classic Bavarian Dunkel. And, in fact, is considerably better than most bottled Dunkels we’ve come across. Sweet, round, with just a touch of roast… Almost hinting at the lusciousness of double stout, in fact, so perhaps not ‘true to style’. This was the great find in the set and we can imagine getting a few of these in next time we cook pork knuckles.

One odd thing, though: beers from Eastern Europe often come in larger than usual packages, full-pint cans and so on, but these Vilkmerges products were in 410 millilitre bottles and the Baltika came in at 440ml. At around £1.80 a pop, they were hardly bank-breaking but, still, it felt like a bit of a con.

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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