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Oakes Weekly - October 14 2004

Cheboksary to Kazan
Oakes Weekly October 14, 2004      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

The train ride from Moscow to Cheboksary was one of those legendary Russian train rides. Whereas from St. Petersburg to Moscow the first thing my cabinmates did upon boarding was go to sleep, this time the first thing my cabinmates did was crack their beers. I hadn’t even brought any. That situation did not last long, suffice to say. The beer flowed freely, as did the vodka.

A few notes about Russian vodka-drinking. Russian vodka is rough to my Western palate. That’s because we mostly want it as a mixer, so the smoother the better. Russians take it neat, so they want it to have flavour. If you decide you are going to drink vodka, you must have three shots. After that, you can decide to stop or continue, but you must have three. A toast typically accompanies each round. And, despite all the warnings, moonshine vodka is generally harmless, if a little strong. You see, vodka-making is hardly the subject of secrecy in Russia - home-distilling has a long and storied tradition. We bought some at a station stop, where locals come to meet the trains and sell their wares on the platform.

At just after seven the next morning, we hit the stop at Kanash. That afforded me a crack at my first Chuvashian beer, which also happened, by the time I got around to drinking it at 7:45, to beat the trip record for earliest beer by a full ten minutes. My friends Nikolai, Valeri, and Mikhail hooked me up in terms of helping my cause. First we went to the Yantar Brewery, where we were redirected to the Russian Hop Grower’s Association. They in turn talked to SUN-Interbrew, whose Bulgar Khmel plant is located in nearby Novocheboksarsk. All the while, I thought I had it made - the beer writer getting gold plate treatment - everything I wanted and more. But it was not to be. Indeed, it was a very strange day. I check into the hotel that SUN-Interbrew arranged for (the most expensive in town, on my dime!). They were, I thought, working on an itinerary which would allow me to see their plant, visit a local hop farm and check out traditional Chuvash brewing, as I’d requested.

Nope. I was told to wait so I did. The hotel had no local beer, which was bizarre. I had kitchen facilities in my room so I went to the grocery store to get supplies. Turns out the store had Eggenberg, Achouffe, Abbaye des Rocs...even magnums and jereboams of Bon Secours. I could not control myself - I grabbed a new (for me) Abbaye des Rocs, an Armenian lager (which turned out to be decent) and a bunch of local stuff.

I talked again to SUN-Interbrew. Their tone had changed from helpful to interrogative. The Soviet Union dies hard in the provinces I guess. They more or less lost interest in me after determining that I wasn’t from the New York Times or some other such paper. Never mind that I reach more serious beer lovers than such publications. Chimps.

Anyway, they didn’t comprehend how I could just show up out of the blue and learn stuff. Because I’ve been doing it for years, maybe? Nuts to them, I headed for the Beer Museum, having already squandered three hours waiting for them to call me.

The Beer Museum is shaped like a keg, and inside you’ll find two floors featuring production, history, old photos, newspaper clippings and bottles, all pertaining to Chuvashian beer. On the third floor, there is a bar, carrying all 20-odd of Buket Chuvashia’s brands and a couple from Yantar as well. The first one I grabbed was from B.C.’s premium line Pennaya Kolletsiya. It was the Svetloe, a quality German-style pils. At this point I hooked up with some locals. Things got weird from there.

We went back to the Yantar Brewery. After my guide failed to use his much-hyped "connections" to get me a tour, we went across the street to the brewery’s summer tap room - a big beer tent and shashlyk stand. Yantar doesn’t pasteurize, and my guide was all about "live beer". I really couldn’t argue with that. I started with Klassicheskoe (Classic). A drunken local took great interest in me, and so the fun began. Apparently, Westerners are uncommon in Chuvashia. This drunkard was all over me like a cheap suit, wanting to be best friends. His wife was offering herself - the skanky, garish cougar she was. To hell with that crap, I was gone.

My guide, his friend and I hit up a Buket Chuvashia tied house for a few beers. It was all good again. Then, these guys decide what they really need to do was to invite themselves back to my hotel room to continue drinking. Call it cultural misunderstanding, but I’m Canadian and to us it’s a huge insult to invite yourself to someone else’s home. There were other offenses given, too, and I just decided it was better to bail.

Next morning, it was off to Kazan. Not known as a beer spot, Kazan was also home to some weirdness, albeit of a different sort. Beerhunting often involves walking and trying to sort out where you are. In this instance, I was looking for the Joker Bar, at ul. Kirova 1a. So I found ul. Kirova, and was many numbers higher. I walked back, past so many collapsing, burned-out buildings that I thought I was in Kabul. Then I come around a slight bend and a mirage appeared. The Mirage Hotel, that is. The only building on the entire street fit for habitation was a four-star hotel. The Joker Bar is in the back, facing the Kremlin. Joker is a brewpub, firmly in the American style though they describe it as being European in style. They make German-style lagers and the Helles is quite pleasurable. It stands as perhaps my favourite Russian beer.

From there, I wasted my time with six consecutive one-star wonders until I found a marginally drinkable bock. It’s Joker or bust in Kazan, though there are a couple of bars pouring Franziskaner. But my job is to find out which local brews are worth drinking so I personally didn’t linger in those establishments.

Next week...Kazan to Samara


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start quote ...the first thing my cabinmates did was crack their beers. I hadn’t even brought any. That situation did not last long, suffice to say. The beer flowed freely, as did the vodka. end quote