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.

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