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Oakes Weekly - October 28 2004

Oakes Weekly October 28, 2004      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

At first, I had presumed there to be on this journey just two brewpubs - craft brewers, actually - between Moscow and Bangkok. Those being Stariy Georg in Samara and a German-run brewpub in Wuhan, China. Then of course I clued in to the Joker Bar in Kazan. There was still a big gap, however.

I arrived in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, expecting nothing more than marginal pale lagers and some abysmal Soviet relics. It was late when I arrived and I only found one Uzbek beer at my hotel bar. It was Azia Pilsner, a Bukhara-brewed beer, the product of an Uzbek-German joint venture. Later on this trip, this beer would be a real bacon-saver but as it turned out it was a non-factor in Tashkent.

I had arrived in Tashkent with a list of possible brewers. Few of those amounted to anything. But just knowing the name was enough to start with. My first order of business on my first full day was to get a visa for Kyrgyzstan. That completed, I headed back for the hotel. The heat was blistering (38C) when I exited the Metro at Oybek/Ming O’rek station. There is a large building on what I believe to be (having not brought my compass) the SE corner there, which huge signs announcing the Gambrinus bar. That was a name from my list. As it turned out, the list had the address for the brewery (behind locked doors I later found out) but nonetheless, the bar was surely open. There are two Gambrinus beers - filtered and unfiltered. Only the filtered was available. It proved an interesting pale lager with a malty palate and unusual fruity esters ranging from figs to pears to pomegranates. To me, if a searing country like Uzbekistan, with no beer culture, can make a lager as good as Gambrinus Filtrovne, I don’t see any reason not to be merciless in my assessment of other pale lagers from searing countries with no beer culture.

That evening, the temperature approximating reasonable, I went to check some more potential breweries off my list. And so began a running theme. I headed for the Besh Ye’goch brewery. I didn’t find it, but later found bottles of their awful, Soviet-style beer. On the way there, however, I found a sign for Heilend beer. That wasn’t on my list. Bloody hell. The building had a hall quite obvsiously set up for a wedding reception, and a window to the outside for passersby. I still don’t know where the brewery is located, but this tap is at 23 Bobur Kochasi. The pale is a sort of light, vaguely off-tasting beer that is better than it deserves to be, were one to judge it strictly on quality of craftsmanship. The sign has a picture of a grinning barman holding both pale and copper-coloured beers. The darker one was, alas, not to be found.

The next day was more dedicated to sightseeing. I had laghman (spicy noodle soup) and a pot of tea for breakfast at a chaykana (teahouse) at the Chorsu Bazar for $0.65. Lunch was shashlyk (skewered meat cooked over coals), melons, bread and tea for $0.75 at another chaykana across from the hotel.

That evening I was on the trail of some "beer bars", as my research had indicated. On my way to the ultimately non-existent Havbek, I saw a bar advertising Osterbrau Shilla. This was to prove the find of finds in the Central Asian beer scene. I stopped at the bar and ordered a half-litre of this delicious pale lager. I got to talking with some locals and they told me Osterbrau was a micro based in Shymkent (across the border in Kazakhstan) and with a second plant in the Tashkent suburbs. The bar to find this is on ul. Furqat, just south of the Xalqlar Dostligi metro station, on the east side. On the west side, there are more Osterbrau beers available in bottles, at a pair of store perhaps 200m south of the station, more or less across the bar with the draught. The Pilsner Special is actually a very special pilsner, being that it is a dunkel. It is excellent. Pilsner Classic is a more boring pale lager. Lux Oster is a fairly complex pale lager of a little stronger potentcy (5.5%).

The beer bar Coinot at 98/2 Uzbekistan Kochasi is not much in terms of atmosphere (big bright room with stage for live music and/or karaoke) but it is a good place to get your Czech fix, in the form of Budvar and Budvar Dark. The latter appears from the ratings to be a relatively new beer, and somewhat hard to find so to be only the 5th Ratebeerian to try it, and to do so in Tashkent, seemed pretty cool.

In Tashkent, you can also find Kazakhstani beers, which are usually of respectable quality. Irbis and Derbes are both worth drinking if you get the chance.

The next night, wandering around the old town looking for yet another non-existent brewery, I found yet another very much existent and heretofore undocumented brewery. At the corner of Akademik Obid Bodiqor and Farobi (I’d give street numbers but hardly any buildings in Uzbekistan bother with them) is the Schloss-Brau brewpub. The inside has much reedy decor, while the outside has a large patio with a canal running through it. The brewery is right behind the bar, but the Russian brewmaster speaks not the English tongue. His beer, a very soft pale lager, is somewhat neutral tasting and uneventful.

The next day was my last in Tashkent. I had one mission - to return to the Gambrinus bar and see if they’d finally re-acquired a supply of Nefiltrovne. Actually, this was a no-brainer because it’s right around the corner from the Kazakhstan embassy, where I blew off most of the day waiting around with my thumb up my ass in an attempt to secure a visa.

When finally my visa arrived, I got to the Gambrinus. The unfiltered rocked. Unlike the Moscow brewpubs, whose unfiltered beers smell, taste and LOOK the same as their filtered counterparts, this was gloriously unfiltered. It is probably the most-densely sedimented beer on the planet, besting even the likes of Widmer Hefeweizen. Some of the yeast settles into a whitish piles at the bottom of the glass. The flavour is hugely yeasty and malty with some estery fun in the aroma. After this, I headed back to the hotel for a beerhunt.

There’s a Russian bar around the corner and I see a bottle from Tajikistan behind the bar. Fighting through the Soviet-style service (this despite the fact that the servers were barely out of diapers when the USSR collapsed) I eventually determined that they stocked precisely none of the bottles on display and only had one draught - a raunchy local beer.

From Tashkent, I hit up the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarqand and Bukhara. Let’s just say that the beer selection outside of Tashkent leaves something to be desired. I did find one store in Samarqand that sold Osterbrau Shilla, but that was it. Bukhara has only about ten beers available, period. This is what I meant when I called Azia Pilsner a bacon-saver. With even the omnipresent Baltika reduced to its lousy 3 and 9 brands, Azia Pilsner is pretty much the only beer worth drinking by the time you get to Bukhara, though I did find one store with the drinkable Bravo No.2 and No.9. The saddest thing I thought was that all the posters for Samarqand’s Pulsar Brewery depict three - Silver, Gold and Black. Guess which one I couldn’t find.

Still, that I literally tripped over three craft brewers in Tashkent speaks of much promise, if not for the region or country then certainly for that city. There’s a beer scene just waiting to happen, and that the best brewer of them all is bottled makes me one happy beer hunter.


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start quote Fighting through the Soviet-style service (this despite the fact that the servers were barely out of diapers when the USSR collapsed) I eventually determined that they stocked precisely none of the bottles on display and only had one draught. end quote