Monday, February 7, 2011

Beer in Kazakhstan, Some History and a Few Bottles

January 2011 brought me to Alamty, Kazakhstan to work at the 7th Asian Winter Games. As usual, work comes first, of course, but in my off hours I was able to explore the city and discover a local love of the world's favourite fermented beverage.

Formerly the capital, Almaty is a thriving city of almost 1.75 million people, the financial and business heart of the fairly new 22 year old republic. Oil, gas and minerals are Kazakhstan's natural resources, and after centuries in Russia's shadow, they are now doing business with the world as a totally independent state. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world - their territory equaling in area the size of western Europe - geographically north of Tibet and south of Siberia.

Once a stop along the Silk Road between China, the Middle East and Europe, Kazakhstan has had many cultural and polital influences over the centuries. Most Kazakhs know their lineage back seven generations, and many can legitamately claim to be decended from Atilla the Hun and/or Ghengis Khan, both of whom's conquering armies settled down and spent time here, intermingling with local populations. In more recent times, the Imperial Tsars and the Soviets sent many Russians to colonize this land, though today native Kazakhstanis still represent almost half the population. Even though Kazakhstan is a predominately Muslim country, the government is secular, under the guidance of President Nursultan Nazabeyev, and is not unlike Turkey in some respects. In fact, the language of the Kazakhs, though using the Cyrillic alphabet, is Turic-based, like many of it's smaller neighbours: Kirgisistan, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan and Turkmenistan. And though Kazakh is the first official language now, most people also speak Russian.

Another interesting note: all apples in the world trace their genetic lineage back 6000 years to the Tian Shan mountains in southern Kazakhstan, where wild grapefruit-sized versions of the fruit used to dominate. In fact, the word 'Almaty' means 'appleness' in Kazakh. Tulips too have this same heritage, existing here in as many as fourteen wild varieties. Traders from Turkey and Persia first brought them westward, but it was the Russians who took them to Holland over 400 years ago, and we all know how the Dutch love their tulips.

The internet did not yeild too much information pertaining to Almaty beer bars and breweries in Kazakhstan, but it did shed light on the fact that this is a truly international city, where many cuisines and a great number of restaurants can be found - Italian, Chinese, Indian, French, Thai, Korean to name a few, and of course Russian and the delicious local dishes of Kazakhstan itself. It should also be noted that the world's largest land-locked country has a thing for Sushi - you can find it almost everywhere in Almaty.

Currently, there are about 60 breweries operating in Kazakhstan, many of them joint ventures with large multi-nationals, brewing anywhere from 200 to 1000 liters of beer a day, taking a 67% share for their local products, against a 33% share for the many imports available. These numbers may fluctuate from year to year as Kazakh breweries attempt to keep up with an ever growing demand. That said, there are also quite a number of small restaurants and larger brewpub chains that produce various quantities of their own beer too.

My beer hunting began at a small corner store not far from my hotel. I was flabergasted and happy to find local and Russian beers costing between 110 and 140 Tenge. The exchange rate was approximately 15,000 Tenge for $100 Canadian, so just under a dollar for a 500 ml bottle of beer. Any supermarket, large or small, also carry many varieties of beer, local and imported, as well as a slew of Vodkas, wine and other spirits.

The first beer I tried was Kruzhka Svezhego (Кружка Cвежего), literally translated as Fresh Cup, is from the Karaganda Brewery (Карагандa пивоваренный завод). This is a golden hued lager, clean and pretty straight forward, with a subdued aroma, a light and frothy head and good carbonation. It is 4.4% abv, light in body and commercially balanced, with no real hop or malt notes standing out, though easy to drink with a pleasant finish, this would make a good session beer. Kruzhka Svezhego comes in a unique brown 500 ml bottle, with a 'pull-tab' cap instead of the usual twist off. In fact, most breweries use their own unique bottles, as there seemed to be no national standard.
The Karaganda Brewery also makes a dark beer called Kruzhka Svezhego Barkhatnoye (Кружка Cвежего бархатноe), a 5% abv dark brown lager with a somewhat malty nose and a quickly dissapating tan head. Medium in body, this one has a malt accented balance and is lightly carbonated, but easy to drink with a pleasant mouthfeel, some sweet chocolate notes and a mildly dry finish.

Tian Shan (Тянь-Шань), named after the local mountain range just to the south of Almaty, is made by Brewery «Dinal», (Пивоваренный завод «Динал») a joint venture with Heineken. They make a number of beers, including a light lager that is quite popular, but pretty much a rather straight forward and unexciting commercial brew. Much more interesting is their strong beer Tian Shan Krepkoye (Тянь-Шань Крепкое). This 7% abv brew has a bright flowery-hop accented nose, a thick white head and is medium gold in colour. On first sip, the tongue is presented with a big hit of malt deliciousness. Indeed, this is a full flavoured, medium bodied, well balanced and malt-accented bock beer, presented in its own unique tall clear 500 ml bottle, with the common pull-tab cap. Quite tasty and much like any good German bock. This brewery also makes the local Amstel product.

Another brew in the bock direction is again from Karaganda, Karaganda Krepkoye Premium (Карагандcкое Крепкое). This 6.5% abv brew has a lovely hoppy aroma, a tight, white bubbly head that laces nicely, falls slowly and has lasting legs carbonation wise. There are some tasty malty tones that shine through the hop-accented balance with a pleasantly dry finish. This definately is a crisp and clean premium pilsner, and one of the hoppier products available. The Karaganda Brewery is actually part of the Efes Beverage Group, based in Turkey, and is one of the larger companies operating in Kazahstan, with a 220 million liter production capacity. They have two breweries in Almaty and produce 10 different brands. One of their other popular beers is Belly Medved (белый медведь) or 'White Bear', a beatuiful 4.2 % abv unfiltered Kazazh wheat beer. This tangy brew is appropriately cloudy and pale straw in colour, but without the traditional clove or banana notes of a German Weizen. The flavour profile here goes more in the direction of an American or Canadian made wheat beer; fresh citrus nose, crisp, clean, rounded and well balanced with a big rocky head that leaves some lovely thick lacing. It also has light citric notes intertwined in a sweetish malt base, is very thirst-quenching and has a long, lingering finish. It's in its own unique 500 ml bottle, with a polar bear's head on the pull-tab cap.

For a good local Czech-style brew, reach for an Alma-Ata Pilsner (Алма-Ата Pilsner). A 4.5% abv light gold coloured, hop-nosed, crisp and clear brew. Good carbonation, some hop in the balance, some sweet graininess, light bodied, dryish finish. Made by Derbes (Дербес), a beer venture with Carlsberg. They feature some two dozen products, including imports Corona, Tuborg, Kronenbourg 1664, of course, Calsberg plus the Baltica range from Russia. They also put out a few local products: Irbis (Ирбис). Golden (5.5%) and Ice (5%), are typical commercial lagers. Also available are Derbes Light, Classic and Strong (Дербес), variations on the same theme from light lager (4%) to pilsner (4.8%) to a strong bock-like brew (7.5%).

Another good 4% abv pale Euro-lager is Almatynskoe Zhigulovskoye (Алматинcкое жигулевское) made by Kazakh brewery Pyerviy Pivovarenniy Zavod (первый пивоваренный завод) in Almaty. It comes in a tall unique clear glass 500 ml bottle, a nice fresh big hop aroma, pours straw/light gold in colour with good carbonation producing a bright, white frothy head slowly falls to a light and even surface. The palate is crisp and clean, some fruity notes with a lovely dry finish.

Russian Bottled Beers in Almaty

One cannot ignore the Russian influence in Kazakhstan. 70 years under the Communists as a Soviet Republic, and a number of centuries colonized by the Imperial Russian Empire before that left many marks. The Russian language is one and old brutal architecture is another of those marks of empire waned. Aside from some left-over Soviet-era gray, dull flats, high and low-rises, there is new modern architecture too. In the last 20 years, money has come to town. Impressive condos have been built on the edge of town, grand old homes fully renovated, large gated mansions have gone up too. You see many high end European luxury and sport cars cruising the designer-boutique lined city streets, another indicator of quick economic growth. Though Kazakhstan is still a good trading partner with Russia, as most of Kazakh gas and oil flows north, there is also a passing resemblance to Calgary. Almaty is an international oil business center, has many 5 star hotels, casinos and restaurants, all open 24 hours a day. Weather wise it's high (3000 m above sea level) and dry (very low humidity) and has chinook-like winds, swinging temperatures from -30C to +5C. There are not a lot of heritage buildings, but there is a charming old wooden Sobor Russian Orthodox Cathedral built in 1907 in a downtown Alma park, one of the few buildings to survive the devastating 1910 Almaty earthquake.

So, Russian beer. Having not been to Russia in the modern era, I selected a few readily available and popular brands to sample. These are also mostly available for just over a dollar a bottle in supermarkets and convenience stores.

Zolotaya Botchka or 'Golden Barrel'(Золотая бочка) In business with SABMillerRussia, this is a pretty straight up 5.2% abv premium lager. A rather neutral nose, but clear and gold hued with a tight foamed head, well carbonated, good even balance of malt and hops, perhaps with a touch of hidden malt sweetness that carries through to the crisp, dry finish.

Zhigulie Pivo (Жигули пиво) Perhaps the best of this bunch, a real traditional Czech pilsner. This Moscow Brewing Company produced product shows as a high end pilsner in every detail: immediate hop nose on pouring, a crisp, clean, well balanced and carbonated product, deep gold in colour with a soft head and palate that leads to a refreshingly dry finish. Comes in a unique, almost wine-like 500 ml green bottle with a regular beer cap and is 5% abv.

Starrie Melnick (Старый Мельник) 4.6% 'Old Windmill' is pretty much a straight ahead light bodied lager, but with a big malt flavour profile, some underlying fruitiness balanced against a minimal hop presence. Nice tight white head, some lacing, light gold colour, fruit-malt nose, lingering grainy finish.

Klinskoe Arriva (Клинское Аррива) A honey-gold coloured 4.5 % abv mainstream lager. Some sweet malt in the balance, no head or lacing, dryish finish. Comes in a 500 ml can.

Baltica 8 (балтикa 8) This is an unfiltered 5% abv wheat beer, pours with a cloudy haze and a fresh citric nose, medium bodied, balanced and refreshing, some wheaty sweetness in the finish, and citrus throughout. Very much in line with the other Kazakh wheat beers I tried here, akin to North American wheat in style.

Baltica 9 (балтикa 9) This is a big beer, and at 8% abv, one of the strongest beers I found. Big malty nose hints at its strength, as does the full bodied, deeply golden hued pour. A light head falls quickly, but laces coyingly. The first sip tells the tale: strong, bock-like, malt accented, alcohol evident in the palate, yet balanced with enough hop to keep the malt sweetness in check, especially in the lingering finish.

Almaty Brew Pubs and the Best Beer Bar

Okay, so now the fresh stuff... beer on tap! Some of it even naturally carbonated and served unfiltered. There were lagers, pilsners, white wheat beers, some bocks and even a few dark beers too. Most small restaurants in Almaty will have a beer on tap, if not a local, then something international. However, out in the city's pubs, bars and the high-end resto-scene, the price of a 500 ml mug or bottle of your favourite brew can be anywhere from 500 to 2000 Tenge (about $4 to $20) depending on the class of the establishment in which you are drinking.

The Staut Beer Restaurant on Dostyk Ave. is one of 9 locations for this brewpub/restaurant chain. They have an extensive menu that includes some Western fare, locally grilled meats and appetizers, plus a large selection of Sushi. We were very happy with our grilled meat selections, though most of the local crowd seemed to be going for elegantly stacked sushi rolls. They had two brews of their own on tap: a Pale Ale and a Wheat Beer. These were the first beers I had that were advertised as ales, though I must say the flavour profile did not stray to far from lager. The Pale Ale had a neutral nose, a quickly falling head, was lightly carbonated, clean and gold coloured. There was a a little fruitiness in this light bodied ale, balanced more towards a grainy malt, no real hop presence detectable for a pale ale, with a slightly sweet finish. The Wheat Beer was appropriately cloudy, pouring hazy straw with a nice full frothy head, somewhat neutral nose, light citrus on the palate, accentuating the wheatiness, some sweetness drying out in the finish.

Line Brew has a location in Astana, as well as the one we visited in Almaty, and their beers can be found at many other bars and restaurants within the city. It's a long, dark wood-paneled old fashioned Belgian-style pub with a replica of the Manneken Pis at the front door, a fire roaring in the room's centre, a long bar with 8 taps, and a large roof top patio in the shape of a boat for warmer weather. Their two brews on offer were the Line Brew Lager and the Line Brew Unfiltered Wheat Beer. The flagship beer is a standard Euro-lager, bright gold/straw hued, light on aroma, but with a big frothy head, good carbonation and light lacing. The usual serving vessel for this beer is a large 500 ml heavy, Hoegaarten-style glass with the bold logo. Clean and with good balance, with perhaps a slightly sweetish finish. The Wheat Beer was very nice, unfiltered, cloudy and hazy with a citric nose, some hints of clove and lemon on the palate, easy to drink, medium bodied well balanced and deliciously thirst quenching. A good wheat beer with a tart finish. They also served both Leffes, Blond and Bruin, Stella Artois and Hoegaarten. By the way, the food was excellent - from the home-made 'pelmenyi' to the soup and sausage, all was tasty and quite reasonable!

Ultra's Brewery and Restaurant is the big player in town. They have 8 other locations, aside from the one we visited near the Astana International Hotel. It was a four story building, with a casual pub on the main floor, and fancier restaurants as you go up. The brew house is on the middle floor, grain ground upstairs and chuted into the mash tun, conical primary fermenters also up on level 3, and large serving tanks (horizontal ones, interestingly) down on the main level. Their main brew, Platinum Beer, was filtered to a beautiful clear gold colour, tight white head that laced, a really good balance, smooth mouthfeel, medium bodied, slight fruit aroma, enough hops for a dry finish. A good clean ale. It also came in an Unfiltered Platinum version. This was a little bigger in every way, more fully flavourful, frothier head retention, great lacing, the fruitiness a little more prominent, but still crisp with perhaps an understated note of apricot sneaking through in the finish. The White Beer was exceptional. Typical cloudiness, silky head, big lace rings, a citric fruitiness dominates the palate with a malt sweetness accenting the balance of this medium bodied brew. Very tasty, easy to drink and a favourite of thr gang I was with that night. They also had a Tomnoye or Dark Ale (темное). Malty/fruity nose, nice full head, dark brown in colour with a deep haziness (unfiltered?), certainly the fuller bodied brew of the bunch, but not heavy, some roasted malt notes, and tones of liquorice. The finish was a touch too sweet for my palate, more hops for balance would be nice.
As an appetizer, we were introduced to 'chechil' here. It's a dry, stringy smoked cheese, a little bit salty, that goes really well as a snack with beer. This restaurant was also known for it's horse steak. Cut thin, cooked to medium and served in a mushroom/peppercorn sauce, it was lean and delicious, similar to bison.

Pinta (пинтa) means 'Pints', and they have two locations not far from each other at the intersection of Furmanova and Gogol Streets. We popped into the one on Furmenova and were lucky to get a table, there were many reservations. This is an almost Western-style 50's diner, done up with a little Kazakh panache, booths all around the perimeter, cafe tables and chairs and a U-shaped bar. Even the menu offered burgers and fries, Cajun chicken and Burritos. They had three beers to offer: the house ale, Pinta Filtered or Pinta Unfiltered and a Wheat Beer. The house beers were good complements of each other, one filtered, clean and crisp, the other unfiltered, so fuller, fruitier and lingering. The wheat beer presented much as all the other pub brewed versions had, citric nose and palate, cloudy, balanced, fruity with a slightly sweet finish. They also had Blanche de Bruxelles on tap, and Guinness and several International lagers available in the bottle.

I saved the best for last. The best little beer bar I found in Almaty is a tiny, little place across from the Hotel Ambassador called Shtab (Штаб), which is 'Headquarters' in Russian, and it sure is, for beer. It has about 6 tables on one side, a small room for maybe 8 on the other, and a covered patio for warmer weather on the street. As you enter you notice there are kegs sitting all over the place, with beer hosing running everywhere, delivering the vast selection to the taps. They had 23 different beers on tap the night we visited. "That's nothing," one of the waitresses told me, "In the summer we can have up to 35!" Ya, baby, this is were the adventurous beer geek comes to get his fix in Almaty!
They had Line Brew, Baltica 3 and Baltica 7, Kronenbourg, Bitburger, Tuborg, Leffe, Zhigulevskoe, something called Nottingham, Debes, Irbis to name but a few. There was even a couple of Belgian Frulis in the fridge. They also serve 16 kinds of Vodka, 10 whiskeys, 14 types of cigarettes, a number of different dried fishes, sausage and cheese plates, chechil, potatoes and salad. This is way off the tourist map, just a real good local spot, full of real beer-loving locals - my kind of people! They also had what some say is the best beer in Kazakhstan - Shykentskoe. This straw coloured pilsner pushed all the right buttons, hop aroma, malt accented, but a crisp, clean bitterness underpinning the palate, white full head, some fruitiness, but a nice dry finish. Could be the best Kazakh made brew. It's dark counterpart is called Barkhatnoeархатное) or 'Velvety'. It is dark brown with ruby red highlights, dried fruit aroma, light tan head that dissipates quickly, no lacing, exhibiting a sweet malt accent, and it does have a velvety mouthfeel. Serious dark malts predominate.
We supped and were sated. We tried a few more brews, mostly tap versions of bottles I'd had and decided to call it a night. The helpful waitresses asked if we wanted a cab as they delivered our bill to the table. Yes please! It was the best and cheapest night out of the whole trip!