Beer Matters

Beer in the Balkans

Mrs Bibendus and I have been on holiday in Croatia. Whilst the physical damage inflicted in the Homelands War barely 20 years ago has almost entirely been repaired, the emotional scars are not far from the surface (most Croats will tell you the precise number of shells that fell on the Old Town of Dubrovnik). We chatted to a church caretaker who showed us the statues of the Holy Family defaced by invading soldiers and told us of the morning she was given half an hour to leave her home, taking her young son and her in-laws, while her husband stayed to defend the village.

But I digress. If you order a beer (and I soon gave up saying “Dva pivo, molim” when the standard response was “Large or small?”) you will get a pale lager. The first one I tried was the ubiquitous Karlovacko, which is not unlike a rather bland Czech pilsner. Ožujsko, almost as common, is slightly hoppier and distinctly less fizzy. At a restaurant in Dubrovnik I found Laško (from Slovenia), which came in a distinctive glass clearly designed to refract the amber colour of the beer up to the flat top of the handle.

Having become acquainted with a little back-street bar in Cavtat, where the beer was significantly cheaper than in the harbour-side restaurants, I enquired whether there was any dark beer to be had and there was – a rich, tasty brew named Tomislav (after the first Croatian king) from the same brewery as Ožujsko, slightly sweet but with a pleasantly bitter finish. Karlovacko also has a dark beer which is not unlike a traditional brown ale.

One thing is fairly certain, these beers are not used for the refreshment of ringers. Although I spotted the odd lever chime, the answer to “What’s up that tower?” in that part of the world is usually “three bells, swung electrically”. It seems to be the custom to only use all three on Sunday (and the first service is at 6 a.m.) and one during the week.

During a brief foray into Bosnia I didn’t have much opportunity to sample the beer (I was driving a hire car and, having been pulled over the previous day in Montenegro for passing an amber light †, decided caution was in order) but I did try a Sarjevsko while eating sausages in the shadow of the famous bridge at Mostar – pilsner style again but with a vaguely fruity, almost home-brewed flavour.

The other day a headline on MSN News caught my eye: “Man Rescues Beer from Burning Home”. It appears that, having shepherded his family and the cat to safety, this intrepid resident of Columbus, Georgia, went back into his blazing house to retrieve a case of beer. Just as I was thinking “What a hero”, I read that he had risked his life for a few cans of “Bud Lite”. Ah well, there’s no accounting for taste.

That article led me to another about the world’s strongest beer. Things have moved on since I reported on Samuel Adams’ Utopias (26% ABV) a few years ago. In 2009 the Scottish brewery Brewdog produced Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%). In retaliation the German holders of the previous record, Schorschbrau, upped the strength of their beer to 40%, whereupon Brewdog responded with the unsubtly-titled Sink the Bismarck at 41%. And then, as a pre-emptive measure, they created The End of History (55%).

At this point the Germans appear to have retired from the battle and the gauntlet was taken up by another Scottish micro, Brewmeister, with Armageddon (65%). You may wonder how it’s possible to produce a beer that strong when even the hardiest of yeast would struggle to survive in a vat containing more than about 20% of alcohol. These beers are not distilled (they wouldn’t be beer then) but the surplus water is removed by freezing.

Brewmeister’s latest offering is Snake Venom. The reporter seemed a little confused about the difference between degrees proof and alcohol by volume*, but it really is 67.5% ABV. Probably not the sort of thing you’d want to drink in the pub after practice night but, if I can lay my hands on a bottle, I’ll let you know what it tastes like.

Maximus Bibendus

† Fortunately I was let off with a stern warning “No green, no go!”

* Just in case you didn’t know, proof spirit, the old British yardstick of alcoholic strength, is a 50:50 mixture of pure alcohol and water by weight. Thus 100° proof equals 50% alcohol by weight or, since alcohol is less dense than water, about 57% by volume; a typical whisky, formerly rated 70° proof, is 40% ABV.

PS – Curiosity got the better of me. I’ve just ordered a bottle of Snake Venom.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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