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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Taste-Off: Inter­est­ing East­ern Euro­pean Cor­ner Shop Beers”