Friday, September 09, 2011

On beer

I am just back from an eastern European trip. In 19 days I visited Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova (including Turkic speaking Gagauzia and the largely Russian speaking city of Balti), western Ukraine, southern Poland, and then the Slovak and Czech republics. I consumed a reasonable amount of beer on this trip, because the weather was very hot and the beer was very cheap. (The price bottomed at about 30p for a half litre in the Ukraine). I always drink local beer when travelling, both to see what it is like and because it is usually much cheaper. (A basic beer from one place becomes a premium beer when sold in another country). The beer was all good. Mostly I was drinking national brands in Bulgaria and Romania. In Moldova, I was drinking Moldovan national brands in Romanian speaking parts, and Ukrainian national brands in the Gagauzia and the Russian speaking parts. In Chernovitsi in the Ukraine there were lots of interesting and local beers (including some excellent wheat beers) as well as the fairly bland Ukrainian national brands. It would seem that even after Stalin committed genocide and then relocated vast amounts of population, the beer making skills taught by the Austrians have survived.

In southern Poland, mostly Tyskie and Zywiec. National brands, but some regional variation. (Both those beers are Silesian. The third big national brand in Poland is Lech, which comes from Poznan, and you see it less in the south). Although this area of Poland was ruled at times by the Austrians and the Prussians, the Germanic style beers have not survived there to the extent that has happened in the western Ukraine.

None of this was bad beer - particularly not those lovely local Ukrainian beers - but a lot of it was large brewery lager. I was struck by how much better the beer was when I crossed the border into Slovakia and then into the Czech republic. Velvet divorce or not. the Czech beers are still much consumed in Slovakia. The two "national" beers one sees a lot are Pilsener Urquell and Budvar. There are always local Slovakian beers available too, usually somewhat cheaper than the Czech stuff. When I crossed the border into the Czech republic, there actually seemed to be an even greater focus on local beers, and less Pilsener and Budvar. Things were much more like what one sees in southern Germany. There will be a local brewer, who makes a number of different styles of beer (but all local brewers make the same styles). And in the territory of that brewer, that is what you will get.

Of course, the third Czech beer that one sees a lot outside the former Czechoslovakia is Staropramen. This was nowhere to be seen. This is perhaps like the way Australians don't drink Fosters or Danes don't drink Carlsberg. Ask a Czech for his opinion of Staropramen and he will tell you it tastes like cat's piss. I think this is a little hard on it, actually.


Jim said...

"A basic beer from one place becomes a premium beer when sold in another country" Yes, and then some!

I can recall being in a London pub (about a dozen or so years ago) and some young woman came up to the bar and ordering a (*gasp* *shudder*) Budweiser Light. I was horrified when she was charged more for that bottle of Bud Light than I had paid for the delicious draft Guinness I was drinking. (Standard Budweiser -- let alone Bud Light -- is justification for that question about how is making love in a canoe like American beers.)

I'd love to get a chance to replicate your tour through eastern Europe some time... thanks for the travelogue.

(I've enjoyed reading your blog for years now -- at least a decade? -- although I think I only comment once every year or two._

Michael said...

The blog was started in early to mid 2002, so it can't be quite a decade. It was at its most prolific in 2003 and 2004, I think, but since then it has never quite died.

AlanL said...

Whenever I'm out & about in rural Bavaria - or Austria, these days, I'm much less of a Bavarian beer snob than I used to be - I make a point of popping into the local Getränkemarkt ("drink shop") and picking up a bottle or two of everything I've never heard of.

I have a trip to the Frankenjura coming up in October ("Franconia" in English I think. The northern part of the state of Bavaria nowadays, anyway, although culturally "fränkisch" and "bayerisch" are regarded as two quite different things. But back to the point)

This is the area about which (other) south German beer connoisseurs think "if only we had as many small obscure village breweries around here as they do in the Frankenjura..."

I'm looking forward to it.

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