MOVIES AND BOOZE: Beers from the Barley Belt

Dean McGuinness and Kevin O'Brien from Carryout review Baltika 5, Perla Midowa and Triple Secret Des Moines


Countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea are known for wines – reason being that the climate suits the growing of grapes, and wines are often made close to the vineyard where the grapes are grown.  As you move further north, the climate better suits the growing of barley and, while barley is quite easily transported (meaning that beer does not have to be brewed close to the place where barley is grown), there is a ‘barley belt’ across Northern Europe that is known for beers.

Countries that are more associated with beer in this ‘barley belt’ would include Ireland and England, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic.  However, other countries have their own, slightly lesser known, beer culture.  To-day, we are looking at beers from three regions across this barley belt – Russia, Poland and France.  The beers that we are tasting come from across a range of quite distinct styles, and each reflect some of the particular influences that have shaped brewing in these countries.

Emergence of Beer Styles in Countries –

Defining beer styles is not an exact science.  Unlike wines, where the grape used in making a wine has a specific genetic identity, brewing beers involves formulating a recipe.  As with a chef that might design a recipe for a given dish, brewers can exert their own flair in interpreting how best to brew a particular beer.  Many factors can influence the brewer in their design of a beer.  These factors, in turn, tend to influence how particular beer styles emerge over time.

Beer styles evolve as a result of a confluence of factors.  Tax laws can influence how brewers brew beers – brewers might adapt their brewing practices to reduce the tax that will be payable on their beer.  Availability of ingredients and peculiarities in brewing processes practiced in a region can play a part.  Of course, market forces – the flavours that beer drinkers in a region respond best to – is a key consideration.  Sometimes beer styles evolve because brewers are influenced by beer styles that they see in other regions.  Each of these factors – and others – come together to shape how beer is brewed in different regions.

Beer styles evolve over time.  Defining a beer style is not usually the ‘birth’ of that style.  Rather, a certain style of beer is brewed and, if this beer finds popularity, the ‘style’ can be copied by other breweries.  Over time, a family of beers with similar characteristics emerge.  To make it easier to understand these beers, some beer writers put beers into families or ‘beer styles’.  By defining beer styles, beer writers can help people to understand what they might expect from a particular beer.

A beer style usually has one or a small number of focal points.  This focal point is the defining characteristic (or characteristics) that make this particular beer belong to the family or style into which it is classified.  Focal points for beer styles generally fall into one of three categories – the style can be based around historic brewing practices associated with a particular style of beer; secondly the style can be defined by key characteristics of the beer (such as colour, alcohol strength, ingredients and the flavours that result from them etc.); thirdly, styles can be defined by a brewers’ vision – the brewer comes up with an idea around which he builds a recipe with the goal of transforming this idea into a liquid reality.  Today, we will be looking at the styles for our three beers from the point of view of the first two of these models.

Russia –

The mid-eighties saw the fall of the Iron Curtain in Russia.  Before this, the Communist system defined political and cultural realities in the U.S.S.R.  These realities extended to have an influence over beer in Russia.

Russia is probably best known for vodka – in fact, at one point the Russian government started a programme to encourage their citizens to drink more beer.  This programme was borne out of the philosophy that Russians drinking two or three pints of beer every day were probably going to be more healthy when compared with fellow Russians who might be drinking two or three pints of vodka.

A lesser known fact is that brewing was a feature of Communist Russia.  In fact there was a ‘state beer’ of Russia, the brewing of which was controlled directly by the Russian Government.  The beer was called ‘Zhiguliovskoye’ or ‘Zhiguli’.  At one time, it was brewed by more than 700 breweries around the country.  While all of these different breweries brewed a beer ostensibly under the same brand, the reality was that the quality of the beer was quite variable.  Versions of Zhiguli that I had the opportunity to taste in the 1980’s were distinctly ‘worty’ (tasting like unfermented beer).

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, international brewing giants moved into Russia, and brought with them brewing standards developed by multinational brewing conglomerates.  Coming into this rather volatile environment, many of these international brewing companies found that they faced unanticipated challenges.  One brewing consultant friend of mine shared an anecdote with me about his attitude towards key success factors for breweries.  Before working in Russia, his standard answer to the question ‘what are the most important things to get right in a brewery?’ included such things as ‘ensuring that the brewing staff had a healthy attitude and desire to brew quality beer’, ‘investing in training of staff’, ‘quality systems to ensure ingredients and brewing processes met defined standards’.  After working in Russia, some other factors took precedence, and they included ‘paying off the local militia’, ‘making sure that the brewery equipment was not stolen by the local mafia’ and ‘making sure that you had water and electricity over the entire course of a brewing day.’

Over time, Some of these International Brewing Conglimerates succeeded in overcoming these challenges.  Brewing giant Carlsberg is the owner of the Baltika Brewing Group.  Our first beer – Baltika 5 – comes from this brewing stable.  Beers under the Baltika brand account for about a third of the Russian market for beer – quite a considerable market share which is comparable to the position enjoyed by Budweiser in the U.S.

The prevalence of Zhiguli, and the flavour of this beer (which would be considered quite ‘quirky’ by standards of international brewers) invariably shaped the tastes of beer drinkers in Russia.    The challenges associated with brewing in this newly emerging society also meant that international brewing standards were not simply ‘cut and pasted’ into Russian breweries.  The expertise of the mass market breweries most definitely established better consistency in Russian beers.  However, the flavours that they established in the flavour profiles of some of the beers would be considered out of the ordinary when compared with other well-defined and internationally recognised styles.  Baltika 5 – our first beer – exhibits flavours that are most interesting – particularly when comparing this lager to other lager styles from Germany and the Czech Republic.

Baltika 5 –

Beer Style                           -  International Pale Lager

Alcohol by Volume          -  5.3% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Baltika Breweries – Part of Carlsberg Group

Brewed in                           -  Russia

International Pale Lager is a bit of a ‘catch-all’ category for mainstream beers.  At 5.3%, Baltika 5 would be considered to be at ‘export’ or ‘premium’ strength alcohol content.  Colour of this beer is the classic straw gold that one would associate with many popular lagers.  With many other internationally recognised lager styles (such as, for example, German Helles or Czech Pilsner) the key consideration in understanding the style would be an appreciation as to whether the balance of flavours in the beer leant towards malt character (as would be the case with Helles) or hop character (as would be more so associated with German Pils).  Baltika 5’s defining flavour is an unusual, interesting, and often divisive flavour.

Diacetyl is a flavour familiar to most people who have studied brewing, and also recognised by wine experts familiar with the buttery taste associated with some Chardonnays.  Diacetyl can range in flavour from the liquid butter topping on cinema popcorn to the rich and quite sweet flavour of butterscotch such as one would get from Werthers’ Originals sweets.  Individual sensitivity to diacetyl is quite variable – some people detect it at relatively low concentrations in beer, while others find that they are much less sensitive to its presence.

Diacetyl as a flavour also divides brewers.  In Germany, presence of diacetyl is considered unacceptable – brewers are trained to detect diacetyl, and brewing practices in Germany would consider the eradication of diacetyl to be ‘best practice.  In contrast, mild levels of diacetyl are considered acceptable in Czech Pilsners.  Other brewing styles (such as, for example, Scotch Ale or English Barleywine) allow for the presence of diacetyl as one dimension of complex and multi-faceted beer styles.

Individual reaction to diacetyl is particularly interesting.  One study involved analysing brainwave patterns of brewers exposed to diacetyl.  In some cases, brewers given a sample of beer spiked with diacetyl would verbally express disdain for the flavour while, at the same time, the pleasure centres of their brain would light up, indicating that they enjoyed the flavour.  Their training – particularly if they were trained in German traditions – told them rationally to reject the flavour, but their emotional reaction to the flavour was not always consistent with this.

Baltika 5 delivers an overwhelming blast of diacetyl.  The initial aromas of Baltika 5 are reminiscent of a bag of butterscotch sweets that has heated up in a car, and from which the aromas have concentrated and intensified.  This butterscotch follows through on the palate, and delivers intense butterscotch flavours which further develop into a relatively slick mouthfeel.  Balancing bitterness is incredibly restrained and virtually undetectable.  Malt sweetness is masked by the butterscotch character.

Often when I am describing craft beers, I describe flavours knowing that the intensity of flavour will divide people into people who like the flavours and those who do not.  Baltika 5 – with its distinctive character that is very much centred around this one particular flavour – is a mainstream beer that might have the same effect.  People who are particularly sensitive to diacetyl might find this character overpowering.  Those who like this flavour (and who have not been trained to reject it in brewing school!) will find it present in abundance in this beer.

Poland –

The Polish beer market is largely characterised by the presence of a number of large brewing giants who dominate the market.  As of 2013, three brewing giants controlled over 80% of the market.  In comparison with other countries where craft breweries have proliferated, Poland has a relatively small number of breweries – around 100.  When one compares this with Ireland (which has over 80 breweries in the Republic, and around 100 when one includes Northern Ireland), and when one considers the difference in population (circa 5 million in Ireland versus 39 million in Poland) the recent development of the craft market in Ireland surpasses Poland in a ‘brewery per capita’ basis by a factor of around 8 to 1.

Lagers are particularly prevalent in Poland – with influence from Czech Pilsners in evidence in a number of popular hoppy Polish lagers.  Surveying the range of beers available in Poland, certain styles stand out on labels.  ‘Mocne’ is a monicker on many polish beer labels – it indicates a relatively strong lager style.  Baltic Porters are often in evidence.  This style of beer is a dark beer with flavours that one would associate with rich, smooth porters or stouts, but which are brewed either with lager yeast or with ale yeast at relatively low fermentation temperatures.  A historical style associated with Poland is ‘Piwo Grodziskie’ or ‘Gratzer’ – a relatively low gravity beer brewed with oak smoked wheat malt.

A fondness for sweet flavours seems to be prevalent in Poland.  This is reflected in the honey beer that we are tasting today.

Perla Midowa –

Beer Style                           -  Midowa (Honey Beer)

Alcohol by Volume          -  6.0% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Broward Lubelski

Brewed in                           -  Poland

Perla Miodowa comes from the Lubelskie Brewery in Poland – one of the largest independent breweries in Poland.  This particular beer is a honey beer – brewed on a lager base, and using honey as a core ingredient.

This beer presents with a burnished gold appearance.  Head forms, but dissipates relatively quickly.  Initial aromas reflect the honey flavour of the beer, and integrate a floral character.

On the palate, this beer is distinctively sweet.  While the label suggests that the honey character of the beer is balanced by hop character, the reality is that the perceived bitterness in this beer is distinctly understated, and the balance shifts significantly towards honey.  The mouthfeel of the beer is quite luscious – reinforcing the honey character of the beer.  Fermentation flavours are clean, and the body seems to eminate primarily from residual honey sugar n the beer.  The honey character lingers into the finish.

People with a sweet tooth will be well satisfied by this beer.  Residual dextrins (unfermented sugars) provide body and sweetness and the aromas of honey reinforce this.

France –

France is notably best known for its wines, and this somewhat overshadows the fact that there are a number of quite well established regional breweries around France.  Brewery Goudale – brewer of our third beer for today, Triple Secret des Moines – was originally established in the town of Douai, but moved to Arques.  Both of these locations are in Northern France (the latter, just south of Dunkirk), which goes somewhat to explain the influence of Belgian styles on this beer.

Belgium is considered to be one of the brewing meccas of the world.  The famous beer writer Michael Jackson was instrumental in establishing the idea of beer styles in his book ‘The Great Beers of Belgium’.  Somewhat ironically, he chose a country with amazing beers, the brewers in which expend copious amounts of energy in expressing their individuality and repelling any efforts to categorize them or their beers in any way.  The culture of Belgium can best be understood (especially in brewing terms) as an ongoing venture in protecting and projecting their unique Belgian identity.  Over hundreds of years, Belgium was a ‘battlefield of Europe’ and at various points up to their achievement of independence, Belgium found itself under the control of its various neighbours.  This imposition of control over Belgium by various and numerous foreign powers instilled and encouraged a rebellious spirit in the Belgians – this spirit is reflected very much in its brewers and beers. 

A secondary effect of Belgium finding itself under the control of its neighbours was the bleeding of Belgian beer culture into these neighbouring countries.  The farmhouse brewing traditions of Wallonia are not confined within the borders of Belgium, and are in evidence in Northern France.  France’s ‘Biere de Garde’ is that country’s second cousin of the Belgian Saison Farmhouse Ale style.

Triple Secret Des Moines –

Beer Style                           -  Belgian Tripel

Alcohol by Volume          -  8.0% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Brasserie Goudale

Brewed in                           -  France

Our third beer for today is Triple Secret Des Moines from Brasserie Goudale (a name which literally derives as ‘The Brewery of Good Ale’).  Opening the swing top closure of this 750ml bottle resulted in a distinct and noisy pop, reflecting the pressure built up in this beer that is ‘refermented in the bottle’ – a description popular in Belgium indicating that yeast in the bottle continues the fermentation process after packaging, devouring residual fermentable sugars, developing the beer’s character, and building pressure in the form of increase carbonation from the secondary fermentation. This beer presents with a pale gold colour and cloudy appearance, which reflects the presence of the yeast responsible for this bottle conditioning.

Stone fruit aromas (peach, apricot) come through on the nose, and combine with an initial whiff of barnyard character.  The fruit flavours quickly dominate the aroma, and this character follows through in the flavour.  Juicy and sweet stone fruit character develops on the palate.  This beer is subdued in its bitterness, and balancing character comes in the form of a relatively understated fermentation spiciness – white pepper and a suggestion of cloves.  Juicy fruit sweetness predominates on the palate and survives into the finish.

The alcohol character is notable in this beer only insofar as it is virtually indetectable behind the fruit flavour.  Alcohol flavour in this beer is incredibly smooth, and there is an absence of any harsh higher alcohols – notable given the relatively high strength of the beer at 8% a.b.v.

All beer is available in Carryout Off Licence nationwide

Please drink responsibly!