14 February 2008

Lost in Lagerland

So there I was, as usual, standing in the supermarket wearing an expression of sheer awe at the variety of Eastern European lagers on sale. I suspect that the range from each country is in direct proportion to the number of people from that country living in Ireland, with Poland to the fore, followed some way behind by Lithuania then Latvia.

Sure, it's nice to feel at home when you're abroad, but do we really need quite such a range of 5-ish% ABV pale lagers which are so very similar to each other? It has me wondering if someone in the US or Britain is looking at a shelf full of Guinness, Murphy's and Beamish cans, and wondering why the Irish need so many thin dry nitrogenated stouts.

To give the prejudice above a bit more empirical weight, I bought a bottle each of the two most similar lagers and I'll be trying them back to back. Both are by Švyturys of Lithuania, and I've already reviewed the first, Švyturys Ekstra, back here, giving it fairly short shrift. The other is Švyturys Ekstra Draught: same strength, same price. Can it justify its place on the shelves as an independent entity by taste alone?

A bit more detail on plain old Ekstra first. It's a very sweet and sugary affair, but otherwise rather dull. The sweetness creates an illusion of high alcohol, despite being at the high end of normal at 5.2% ABV. According to the distributor's publicity, the difference with Ekstra Draught is that it's not pasteurised, which presumably means cold filtering of some sort. It's certainly not cloudy and comes out of the bottle paler than its sibling. The sweetness and the gassiness are also toned down, making it more palatable by making it taste of less. Are the two Švyturyses different? Yes. Can they justify their parallel existence? No. How about a dark beer in the range instead?

While I'm on the subject of cheap bottled lagers, I recently got a heads-up that Aldi were selling discount Spaten Helles and went along to pick up a few to bring me through this year's Six Nations. While there I noticed yet another eastern European import, their own-brand Staroslav lager from Bohemia, and I took one home to try. It has the rich gold colour of some of the better-known Czech lagers, but is severely lacking in flavour. The maltiness is there but toned way way down, leaving gassy carbonation as the dominant feature. Still, I don't resent the €1.48 I spent finding that out.

According to the last census, there were nearly twice as many British people living in Ireland as Poles. But do we see a proportional range of their beers in the supermarkets..?

15 comments:

  1. Funnily enough I was thinking about this today. I think it's fairly similar to Irish people craving Barry's Tea and Tayto crisps when they go abroad. No tea aficionado is going to claim that Barry's tea is up there with the great but it does have that familiar taste of home that emigrants crave. I'd imagine its the same with the Poles and beer.

    I don't think Tyskie, Okocim and Zyweic are particularly bad lagers but they're certainly nothing special and they're outrageously expensive. I love their porters though. They seem to be very rare over here. Shame.

    Since 90% of British beer drinkers don't drink cask ale, I think their tastes are perfectly well catered for over here. They might find our lager a little strong though.

    Sorry for the long comment but I was thinking about this today.

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  2. Cheers Wobbler, I'm glad I'm not the only one.

    I was thinking more about supermarkets with my British comment: compare the selection in an Irish Tesco with one north of the border.

    I agree on the dark Polish beers, though they get relegated to the independent specialty shops, like almost all decent beers here.

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  3. I agree, Okocim isn't really that offensive (and I used it to start a beer & cheese pairing with it a while back), but nothing to write home about either. It's not like it's trying to fool you, the label even indicates that it's just "OK." I'd love to see more of what Poland and other Eastern European countries have to offer with their specialty beer, not the pale Euro lager variety.

    Oh, and one more thing:
    It has me wondering if someone in the US or Britain is looking at a shelf full of Guinness, Murphy's and Beamish cans, and wondering why the Irish need so many thin dry nitrogenated stouts.

    All the time! And it's good you're getting Miller Genuine Draft over there. Ha!

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  4. Ah. We've come out about our guilty Svyturus secret on many an occasion. Even bought a bottle of Ekstra on the way home tonight.

    But fully agree, would swop all of those for some of the rarer darker ones!

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  5. And it's good you're getting Miller Genuine Draft over there.
    Made in Cork, of course: can't trust that foreign muck.

    Boak, the weird thing is I've never heard anyone, even committed bad lager drinkers, say they didn't like the dark eastern European beers when they've tried them. I'm glad that Budvar Dark is now normally found next to the light one, but it just doesn't happen with the Polish stuff.

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  6. The Bloody Tan12:08 am

    You are bang on there Beer Nut.
    The only thing I miss about Blighty - and trust me it is the only bloody thing - is a pint of GFB from the Hop Back Brewery in Romsey,makers of the legendary Summer Lightning.
    I bring cases of the stuff back with me on the rare visit.
    This very evening I have emailed them to try to get them interested in sending some stuff over.

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  7. The problem, Mr Tan, is the excise duty. It's not just a question of sending the stuff over, it's a question of getting someone willing to hold it over in bond until it's sold.

    Ireland has a handful of specialty distributors who do trojan work bringing interesting beers over, but they're limited by the small number of outlets who will sell them on.

    It's what pisses me off about the supermarkets, who have the power to import any damn thing they want, but insist on filling the shelves with rubbish and samey lagers. Superquinn seem to be getting better: they always had a good stock of Irish craft beer (reduced now to the Carlow range through no fault of their own), but now they seem to have London Pride and Old Peculier in on a semi-regular basis.

    It's the UK-based chains who trade here that I'm particularly annoyed with: Tesco and M&S could easily send the beers they buy, and have brewed for them, sent this way, but they don't.

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  8. THE BLOODY TAN3:14 pm

    But presumably you have to pay excise duty whether the beer is coming in from the UK or Belgium?
    I agree with your sentiments about Tesco.... the same applies to their wine selection which is piss poor in this country compared to their outlets in the UK.... as well as their ciders which are almost always uniformly dire.
    My local O'Donovans does make a bit of an effort and there's usually one or two interesting foreign beers.
    And Lidls do a Bass for about 99c a can which I usually have in for when I get a sudden urge for some ale.
    Keep the Faith !

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  9. If you're into buying your beer in Superkarkets, the Supervalus can be quite good. The one on Aston quay has an excellent selection.

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  10. THE BLOODY TAN8:49 pm

    By the way,who are the speciality beer importers you mentioned.
    The Hop Back Brewery have got back to me - they used to sell quite a lot of bottled Summer Lightning through Eurobeers until it went bust.
    I'd like to get them interested in getting some more products over here as it's a beer I enjoy.
    But you're right - if you look at
    just the UK section alone of www.beersofeurope.co.uk the variety is superb.
    I'm also a big fan of
    www.beer-pages.com/

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  11. Wobbler, the one on Aston Quay inspired this post, despite the pic of Tesco. It has a vast range of samey eastern European lagers. That they do Unibroue, La Trappe, and a handful of others is great, but they could be doing so much better.

    Better for me, I mean.

    Bloody Tan, the death of Eurobeers was a huge blow. AFAIK, one of the Eurobeers guys is working indepently now, though I don't know what his company's name is. The other big operator is Noreast who bring in Shepherd Neame.

    Bug Your Offy.
    I should get t-shirts made.

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  12. Super Valu Aston quay is (AFAIK) the best option for the city centre. They carry Unibroue (does anyone else carry their beers), Chimay, Duvel, La Trappe and a few fairly average English ales. When I'm in town and don't fancy a long walk, I nearly always by beers there. The result is that I'm actually starting to get tired of Unibroue.

    If there's anywhere in the city centre that I'm forgetting about, let me know.

    I sometimes take a walk as far as Wexford St or Camden St for Whelan's or Jack Carvils.

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  13. The best option for the city centre really isn't saying much, and it depends how you define the city centre. I tend to go to DrinkStore most of all, and of course there's the Bull & Castle too. When I worked on the south side I'd normally go up to Carvil's on beering expeditions, though Mitchell's on Kildare Street tended to have a good German and Belgian selection as well. Celtic Whiskey used to do a brilliant range but then dropped them.

    But really, nowhere in central Dublin can compete with the suburban specialists like Redmond's, Deveney's and McHugh's.

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  14. The Drinkstore is way off the beaten track for me, although everytime I go, I'm glad I did. Never knew about Mitchell's of Kildare St. I must investigate.

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  15. Yeah, spot on about the supermarkets. Here in the North West of England, where the likes of Tesco aren't exactly brilliant, they're at it as well. The ale section is being squeezed as they bring in the likes of Tyskie, Okocim and Zywei. Funny how they never move Carling off the shelves. Wouldn't be so bad, if they actually got some of the more interesting dark beers in, but oh no, let's not bother with that.

    Also, Wetherspoons boast about having these very average beers in their "world beers" portfolio, but yet don't stock any German beers.

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