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Oakes Weekly - November 4, 2004
Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan
November 4, 2004
Written by Oakes
I departed from Bukhara to begin a three-day, multistage journey via Kazakhstan to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. At this point, my hopes for good beer were pretty much nil, but I was at least feeling good that I’d be the first person to rate any Kyrgyz beer, anywhere.
I stopped in Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan. Coming from Uzbekistan, it really felt like I was going back to Russia. I had in my plans a big tasting session but it was not to be - there was to my dismay a better variety of Kazakhstani beers in Tashkent than in Shymkent. Indeed, the local brewer (a Carlsberg company) rules this town with an iron fist and all of one brand. (Though annoyingly all their draught towers have two taps, and the second one - Dark - was never available). The micro Osterbrau, which I’d been originally told was a Shymkent company, was not to be found anywhere. Not even a discarded bottle by the side of the road. So while I cannot with 100% certainty say, it seems to me that Osterbrau is indeed an Uzbekistani operation.
Arriving in Bishkek, it quickly became apparent that there are very few local brewers, and consequently local brands, in Kyrgyzstan. There are a few, but much of the beer there is from Russian giants Baltika and SUN-Interbrew, and a few from Kazakhstani brewers as well.
Undaunted, I headed for the town’s brewpub, Steinbrau. I walked one street too far - the type of accident I’ve become accustomed to in my beerhunting career - and tripped over a tap from another craft brewer - Kellers Bier. German themes do run rampant amongst microbrewers in Central Asia. The brewery itself is apparently a brewpub at Bishkek’s Manas Airport, which is situated 30km north of the centre. The tap serves pale lager in - you’ll never guess - filtered and unfiltered forms, both fairly fruity and the latter a particularly pleasurable brew.
Around the corner and tucked into a maze of typically dreadful Soviet apartment blocks is Steinbrau. The place is huge - a large open restaurant, massive patio for a couple of hundred, and a brewery the size of Three Floyds circa Ratebeer Summer Gathering 2003. I have no idea why the brewery is so huge - I never saw any bottles anywhere in town, nor any handles in other establishments.
They had four beers on. The first I tried was Kolsch, my first ale in about a month. I’d say it was authentic, but I don’t think that under the circumstances I had much frame of reference. I will say that is was crisp, hoppy, and quite tasty. Pale, amber and dark lagers followed, all respectable. I’m really happy to see so many craft brewers operating in Central Asia. It seems every corner of the world, from Bishkek to Istanbul, from Patagonia to South Africa - they all have craft beer.
I left Bishkek with the full assumption that I’d seen my last craft beer for a while. I stopped at the small beachfront town of Tamchy. In deference to all the Russian holidayers from Kazakhstan there, pretty much all you can buy are Russian and Kazakh beers.
From there I went to visit Kyrgyzstan’s number one attraction - the mountains. After summitting the 3900m Ala-Kol Pass, I celebrated with an Abbaye des Rocs Altitude 6. When I arrived back in civilization, I was faced with a long two-day haul to the opposite end of the country, Osh. In the course of gathering supplies for this, I stumbled upon another microbrewer. Tunuk-Bulak is located in Jalal-Abad (not far from Osh, actually), which is a faded Soviet-era spa town. I bought Admiral Svetloe and Admiral Yantarnoye, both bottle-conditioned.
At this point I was to rant about bottle-conditioning session-strength beers, as both of these were a little tart, three months before the best before date. After all, a few people had become interested in these beers simply because I’d purchased them (a man in the store, the chef at the guesthouse), and I feared that they’d be turned off by the tartness. I more or less was. But now I have another theory. A number of traditional Kyrgyz fermented beverages, such as kymyz and bozo, are also rather tart. I don’t think this character would prove disappointing to a Kyrgyz person. I had a third beer from the brewery, Gladiator, and it was the same deal only four months before the date. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like a reasonable explanation to me.
Just to specify from the previous paragraph, kymyz is fermented mare’s milk. It generally tastes like smokey sour milk, but I did have some on one occasion that wasn’t smokey at all, and thus tasted more like kefir. Bozo is made from millet and can be either semi-tart or very tart. It is thick and mealy, and reminded me a little of African sorghum beer. Both are relatively low in alcohol.
In Osh, I found another microbrewer, Chastnaya Pivovariya. They make a boring pale lager called Akademiya Gold. The way they serve it does it no favours either - they deliberately aim for very low carbonation and a huge head. So without nitrogen apparently this can be done, but it takes about fifteen minutes for a half-litre to be poured. And since neither quality is something I particularly value in a beer, I wasn’t into it at all. However, if that’s what the locals want, I guess that’s what they’ll get. And if that’s what it takes to kickstart craft brewing in Central Asia, then I’m okay with it.
Next stop - China.
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... they deliberately aim for very low carbonation and a huge head. So without nitrogen apparently this can be done, but it takes about fifteen minutes for a half-litre to be poured.
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