Catching up in Russia
International beers dominate competition in Moscow
We British introduced Porter and Stout to Russia a couple of hundred years ago, and we are now once again selling these styles there. Sales can only have been helped by the success of British Porters and Stouts in a blindfold tasting in Moscow this winter.
I was a judge, along with panellists from the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany and the United States. We were marking the beers according to a scale set out by the Chicago-based Beverage Tasting Institute, with you are no doubt familiar. The maximum possible score was, oddly, 13.
In the Porter and Stout category, my highest mark was an impressive12 for a brew which I noted as having a purple to black colour; a coffee aroma; a firm, textured, body; and clean, well-combined, flavours, developing toward a toasty, cedary, oaky, dryness. This turned out to be a British brew, Marston's Oyster Stout. My fellow judges must have agreed, as this won the gold medal.
The silver medal went to another British brew, Shepherd Neame's Original Porter, which came a little lower on my score-card. My blindfold comments: Mahogany colour; some hop in aroma and palate; good "barley-sugar" malt background.
My second highest was 11-12 for a cerise-to-black Stout with a nutty aroma, espresso flavours and and an oily richness. This was later revealed to be Casey's, an "Irish" stout from Shepherd Neame.
The Baltic did not reach my score-card until number three, with the cherry-to-black, syrupy, herbal, rooty, cinnamon-ish, Aldaris Porter, from Latvia, at 10-11 points. This won the bronze.
The only St Petersburg Porter was the winey, almondy, example from the city's Vienna Brewery, which I gave a straight nine points. I managed to award only five points each to Concord's tar-like Porter and smoky, earthy Stout, the only entries from Moscow itself.
It came as no surprise to me that Marston's and Shepherd Neame produce very good beers, but I was astonished that British brews of 4.5-5.25 alcohol by volume had bigger flavours than Baltic and Russian beers in the 6.0-8.0 range.
It came as no surprise to me that Marston's and Shepherd Neame produce very good beers, but I was astonished that British brews of 4.5-5.25 alcohol by volume had bigger flavours than Baltic and Russian beers in the 6.0-8.0 range. Perhaps that was a testimony to top-fermenting yeasts.
The same two breweries tied for first place in the Pale Ale category. I had Marston's India Export (ten points on my scorecard) a clear winner, on the grounds of its complexity, though I liked the flavour development and dry finish in Bishop's Finger (eight to nine points), from Shepherd Neame. Third place went to a fruity Bass Pale Ale (eight). I gave seven points to the brave lone entrant from Russia, the spicy Admiral Kolchak, from the Arketspisheprom brewery, of Irkutsk.
This International Beer Tasting was open to any brews available in Russia, and there were sufficient from Belgium to merit a category of their own. Unfortunately, neither Russia nor any other country had a Belgian-style beer to enter, so the Flemings and Walloons had it all to themselves.
Chimay won the gold and silver with its spicy Blue and fruitier White respectively, while the grainier Verboden Vrucht and perfumy Duvel tied for bronze. I scored all of these beers within a point or two of the maximum, though I also gave a very high rating to Leffe Brune ("cinnamon, toffee, apples"). "This is the best flight by far," pronounced the Austrian judge.
In the Dark Lager category, the gold was won by one of my favourites, which I also scored highest, the chocolatey Bernauer Schwarzbier, from Berliner Burgerbräu.
In the Dark Lager category, the gold was won by one of my favourites, which I also scored highest, the chocolatey Bernauer Schwarzbier, from Berliner Burgerbräu. My scores were also in line with the other judges' for the silver and bronze, both of which went to two well-balanced, complex, beers from the Czech Republic's Nachod brewery. Its regular Primator dark lager, with a deep ruby colour, came in ahead of a paler, but still reddish, stronger version at 15 degrees Plato (1060). My highest score for a Russian entrant went to the Stanitza Brewery, of Magnitogorsk, for its malty, nutty, Rozhdestvenoe Beer.
By far the biggest category was for Pale Lagers, where the gold went to Feldschlsschen, of Switzerland, for its perfumy Hopfenperle, clearly the highest on my scorecard. Second came the malty, whiskyish, Staropramen, which I had not rated well. Third came a pale version of Primator, which had good bitterness but I thought somewhat astringent. Among the Russian beers I enjoyed: the Stanitza brewery had a nicely dry entry; the Cheboksary brewery had a honeyish beer called "301" with interesting grain flavours; and there was a good malt character to the syrupy, Red Label, from the Agoy Boyarskoe brewery, of Noyarsk.
The tasting was organised by the London-based company International Trade and Exhibitions (ITE), as part of the Moscow Beer Festival, at a trade show called Drinks Russia. The event took place in The Achievement Park, a sprawl of exhibition areas, museums and funfair rides, dotted with pavilions in every style from dacha to deco.
The Moscow medals were announced at a gala dinner. Not one Russian brewery among the awards? In a country where corruption is rife, there were inevitable murmurings.
As a participant, I had no reason whatever to believe that the tasting was anything less than scrupulously fair, though it is a shame that no Russian judges could be pressed into service. Nor, apparently, could every good brewery afford the entry fee. A bigger problem is that many Russian breweries have very old, neglected, equipment, and the industry does not have a perfectionist culture. Many beers were tasty but not very clean.
Yet a further question might concern the categories. Typically full-bodied Russian lagers, possibly containing rye, do not sit well in a category with classic Pilsner-types and international brews. In that ménage, I think the crisp, clean and reasonably hoppy tended to score best.
As in many other parts of the world, the notion of beer styles is not well understood in Russia.
As in many other parts of the world, the notion of beer styles is not well understood in Russia. This was illustrated at a brewpub called Sixteen Tons, on the northwest side of the city-centre. Sixteen Tons is something between a T.G.I.Friday's and an English pub, with high tables, booths, Tiffany-style glass and a screen etched with the legend: Bradford Third Equitable Building Society. (Bradford is an old textile town in Northern England; a building society is a savings-and-loan).
I was offered, from an unmarked tap, something identified as "Pale Special," and served in a German-style wheat-beer glass. It poured with a big head, like a wheat beer, and had a bronze-to-copper colour, with some haze. It was spritzy and refreshing, with some citric, melony, fruitiness and gingery, minty, hop notes, drying to a good bitterness. I rather enjoyed this mysterious brew. It was said to be a lager, but tasted very ale-like. A "Double Dark", not available that day, was said to be a "Stout".
It was evening, and the brewer was not there to be asked questions, but I was able to demand of the manager why the house beer went unannounced on the tap. "It is so famous that everyone knows we have it," she proposed. True enough, most customers seemed to be drinking it, despite brightly-lit fonts for Bishop's Finger, Spitfire, Master Brew Smooth, and Casey's Stout.
Sixteen Tons brewpub, 6 Pryesnyensky Val, Moscow. (near the Sovincentre exhibition halls). Tel/fax: 253-5300/0530.
Published Online: AUG 16, 1999
Published in Print: MAY 1, 1998
In: All About Beer
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