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Black Brit beers take top gongs in Moscow

The British introduced Porter and Stout to Russia a couple of hundred years ago, and we are now once again selling these styles there. Sales can only have been helped by the success of British Porters and Stouts in a blindfold tasting in Moscow this winter.

I was a judge, along with panellists from the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany and the United States. We were marking the beers according to a curious American scale, in which the maximum possible score was 13.

In the Porter and Stout category, my highest mark was an impressive 12 for a brew which I noted as having a purple to black colour; a coffee aroma; a firm, textured body; and clean, well-combined flavours, developing toward a toasty, cedary, oaky dryness.

This turned out to be Marston's Oyster Stout. My fellow judges must have agreed, as it won the gold medal.

The silver went to Shepherd Neame's Original Porter, which came a little lower on my scorecard. My blindfold comments: Mahogany colour; some hop in aroma and palate; good "barley-sugar" malt background.

My second highest was 11-12 for a Stout with a nutty aroma, espresso flavours and and an oily richness. This was later revealed to be Casey's (a nitro-keg, for heaven's sake), also from Shepherd Neame.

The Baltic did not reach my scorecard until number three, with the cherry-to-black, syrupy, herbal, rooty, cinnamon-ish Aldaris Porter, from Latvia, at 10-11 points. This won the bronze.

The only St Petersburg Porter was the winey, almondy example from the city's Vienna Brewery (mentioned here last month), which I gave nine points. I managed to award only five points each to Concord's tar-like Porter and smoky, earthy Stout, the only entries from Moscow itself.

It came as no surprise to me that Marston's and Shepherd Neame produce very good beers, but I was astonished that British brews of 4.5-5.25 ABV had bigger flavours than Baltic and Russian beers in the 6-8 range. Perhaps that was a testimony to top-fermenting yeasts.

The same two breweries tied for first place in the Pale Ale category. I had Marston's India Export (10 on my scorecard) a clear winner, on the grounds of its complexity, though I liked the flavour development and dry finish in Bishop's Finger (eight to nine points), from Shep's.

Third went to a fruity Bass Pale Ale (eight). I gave seven to the lone Russian entrant, the spice Admiral Kolchak from the Arketspisheprom brewery of Irkutsk.

This International Beer Tasting was open to any brews available in Russia, and there were sufficient from Belgium to merit a category of their own. Unfortunately, no other country had a Belgian-style beer to enter, so the Flemings and Walloons had it all to themselves.

Chimay won the gold and silver with its spicy Blue and fruitier White respectively, while the grainier Verboden Vrucht and perfumy Duvel tied for bronze. I scored all of these beers within a point or two of the maximum, though I also gave a very high rating to Leffe Brune ("cinnamon, toffee, apples").

In the Dark Lager category, the gold was won by one of my favourites, which I also scored highest, the chocolatey Bernauer Schwarzbier, from Berliner Burgerbrau. My scores were also in line with the other judges' for the silver and bronze, both of which went to two well-balanced, complex beers from the Czech Republic's Nachod brewery. Its regular Primator dark lager, with a deep ruby colour, came in ahead of a paler, but still reddish, stronger version at 15 degrees Plato (1060).

My highest score for a Russian entrant went to the Stanitza Brewery, of Magnitogorsk, for its malty, nutty Rozhdestvenoe Beer.

By far the biggest category was for Pale Lagers, where the gold went to Feldschlosschen, of Switzerland, for its perfumy Hopfenperle. Second came the malty, whiskyish Staropramen, which I had not rated well. Third came a pale version of Primator, which I thought somewhat astringent.

Among the Russian beers I enjoyed: the Stanitza brewery had a nicely dry entry; the Cheboksary brewery had a honeyish beer called "301" with interesting grain flavours; and there was a good malt character to the syrupy Red Label, from the Agoy Boyarskoe brewery, of Noyarsk.

The tasting was organised by the London-based International Trade and Exhibitions (ITE), as part of the Moscow Beer Festival, at a trade show called Drinks Russia.

The procedures of the judging were set out and administered by the Beverage Tasting Insttute of Chicago which provides tasting panels for the drinks industry.

Companies pay the BTI to judge their products alongside competitors. It also awards medals. The Moscow medals were announced at a gala dinner. Not one Russian brewery among the awards? In a country where corruption is rife, there were murmurings.

As a participant, I had no reason to believe the tasting was anything less than fair, though it is a shame that no Russian judges could be pressed into service. Nor, apparently, could every good brewery afford the entry fee.

A bigger problem is that many Russian breweries have old, neglected equipment, and the industry does not have a perfectionist culture. Many beers were tasty but not clean.

Yet a further question might concern the categories. Typically full-bodied Russian lagers do not sit well alongside Pilsner-types. As in many other parts of the world, the notion of beer styles is not well understood in Russia. This was illustrated at a brewpub called Sixteen Tons, on the northwest side of the city centre.

Sixteen Tons is something between a T.G.I.Friday's and an English pub, with high tables, booths, Tiffany-style glass and a screen etched with the legend Bradford Third Equitable Building Society.

I was offered, from an unmarked tap, something identified as "Pale Special," served in a wheat-beer glass. It poured with a big head and had a bronze-to-copper colour, with some haze. It was spritzy with some citric, melony fruitiness and gingery, minty hop notes.

I rather enjoyed this mysterious brew. It was said to be a lager, but tasted very ale-like.

It was evening, and the brewer was not there, but I was able to find out why the house beer went unannounced on the tap. "It is so famous that everyone knows we have it." True enough, most customers seemed to be drinking it, despite fonts for Bishop's Finger, Spitfire, Master Brew Smooth, and Casey's Stout.

Sixteen Tons brewpub, 6 Pryesnyensky Val, Moscow (near the Sovincentre exhibition halls). Tel/fax: 253. 5300/0530

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAR 1, 1998
In: What's Brewing

Beer Styles - Beer Review

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