Monday, February 7, 2011

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.

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