Published in N16 Magazine Summer 2005
I’m sure you’ve noticed some welcome new additions to our – already impressive – repertoire of inebriants here in Stokieskaya recently. Our new Baltic buddies are passionate about their beer and they seem to have brought a lot of it with them, certainly if my local offie – the UK Supermarket in Dunsmure Road – is anything to go by.
Of the recent Polish arrivals, Zywiec, which is pronounced something like ‘zuh-vee-etch’ is the daddy and is the only brand yet to have got into the mainstream, as it were – it’s on sale at the Rochester Castle as well as many of the local offies. At around £1.25 (5.6%: all prices are for 500ml) it’s about the cheapest and, although not the best, its restrained, light, dry flavours – think Beck’s for a familiar comparison – is a good introduction to the Polish style, in this case with a slightly chestnutty edge. The beer business is a truly global one these days and Zywiec is owned by Heineken. They also make crisp, clean-tasting Tatra (£1.29: 5.5%) in a pïlsner style which, like all the beers I tried, is seriously refreshing and more-ish when chilled to a point just north of freezing. Their Warka label (£1.49: 5.7%) is altogether a warmer, richer, maltier concoction with golden highlights and a hint of caramel and creaminess.
Lech (£1.29: 5.7%), is not named after the great trades unionist and begetter of glasnost, nor he after the beer, but rather both of them after the legendary founder of Poland. An elegant, pale gold and deceptively light in body, with a hint of sweetness and a really fine, tight mousse, it’s a born leader of men. At £1.39, both Zubra (which means ‘bison’), and Brok (which does not) are both excellent, the former slightly oaty with hints of lychees and the latter with rather refined notes of elderflowers. Tyskie (£1.25: 5.6%) is the biggest seller in Poland, according to their owners SAB Miller, and it’s well-balanced and rounded with a little residual sweetness to balance the hops.
Getting information from the back labels of these beers has not been straightforward, but I have managed to glean some useful nuggets to share with you. To whit: you shouldn’t drink Brok if you’re a pregnant American lady, and most of the breweries are quite old. If you want to know more, ask Pavel who tends bar at the Daniel Defoe. Another factor to bear in mind is that, by some extraordinary co-incidence, the more expensive brands are generally somewhat better than the cheaper ones.
The linguistic difficulties of Polish beer labels are, however, as nought compared to those of Lithuanian varieties, but I was helped along by the nice Ukrainian ladies at Kolos, on the corner of Northwold Road. Also, the brand names have an unfortunate tendency to sound like serious diseases but I can assure you that the only thing nasty about a case of Stipriausias is the alcohol content of 8% (£1.39). I wouldn’t have guessed that from the taste, which is well-rounded and almondish and has only a little of the sweetness of our domestic head-bangers, so I suspect a few bottles would do sterling service as a Mickey Finn.
Gintarnis (as in ‘Gintarnis elbow’) seems to come from the same stable – hopefully not literally – at the same price but is a (relatively) lightweight 4.7% alcohol. It’s not bad, but a little soapy, so given the choice I’d stick with its delinquent big brother. Slightly wheaty in style and a little yeasty to taste, Utenos (£1.39: 5.0%) is very pale and light and while it’s good beer there’s a lot of competition at this sort of price and its main market is going to be homesick Lithuanians.
Ukraine itself is represented by Obolon (£1.09: 5.2%) which is made in Kiev and is rather on the metallic side – not one of the world’s great beers, but as it’s come such a long way we must be nice to it and say it’s quite good value. It would have been good for me if I had remembered that another Polish brand, Redd’s (£1.39: 4.5%), make fruit flavoured beers, as my first big swig of their lemon variety came as a bit of a shock. Having recovered my equilibrium I came to quite like it – it tastes like the best shandy in the world, but without the unfortunate diminution of alcohol content that characterises that drink.