Beer stories

I’m on Untappd since one week already and after 34 beers from 14 countries and 21 badges (well, I was on vacation) I still don’t get it. What it can obviously do - making a list of your drinks - doesn’t really justify any amount of emotional investment. That incessant refresh of pages plus its inability to work offline, especially when you’re on a bad net like in just any half-underground location or just off limits… whatever. True, I felt flattered getting the “beer connoisseur” badge after my first 5 checkins because they were from 5 different countries, but there’s still not much appeal beyond that. Ok, but how did I get to that many different sorts, especially in a country that poor in quality brews? First was the mall - seriously if you feel stranded in the Romanian sea of bad lagers, head to the nearest mall and you’ll find with certainty some goodies. If the mall has an Auchan store, an entire row of goodies even. But if you go out in Bucharest, there’s exactly one and half bars worth visiting (and I know another one in Transylvania). The half one is “O suta de beri” aka “One hundred beers” focusing on Hook Norton English beers, not bad (offers lots of vintage bottles) but not enough among the too many local brews. The proud bearer of the full mention is “Beer’o’clock”, pictured in all the images above taken by proud me (with firmer or shakier hand). Yummy, right? Just thought I’d mention this: although it has no American native beers, the American styles are represented as well here and there on the leather-bound beer menu. So in case you travel to Bucharest, you know what to tell the taxi driver. Actually, no, because the area is pedestrians only, so you’ll need some extra navigation help until you’ll reach the Delirium pink elephants marked umbrellas of beer heaven.

A real evening out in Bucharest cannot but begin with a drive by communist landmarks. The “Casa Scanteii” building, in Soviet socialist realist style might lie today covered with huge stupid advertisements, but the People’s Palace, the communist behemoth holding a few Guinness Book world records, could not stand such an offense. It hosts after all the Romanian parliament, that oversized mob of… don’t get me started. The REAL evening began with a great Rodenbach Grand Cru at the Beer’o’clock bar. I just love these Belgian sours for the summer, even more when they don’t overdo it with the sourness. And this was just a great fruit wine… beer, I mean. A chat and there was already the time for a bite, at the “Hanu Berarilor” hosted in this gorgeous old villa… wow. Too bad the name, translating to “Brewer’s Inn”, doesn’t mean zit. From the meager list I picked bravely an Ursus Unfiltered in the hope that, associated with a cheese plate, it won’t give me the same runs like last time. And lo, how I escaped them! However, I still can’t tell what for a beer this was. Weak and with little taste or aroma - although pleasant - it could be a light weizen, or a failed lager… I know I know, I have no idea about beers, but so the folks I asked around. All being said, we moved on to a theater cafe, the Godot, to watch a moderately funny (in a weird way) play about love and betrayal out of stupidity, fanfaronade and simplicity. The accompanying beer was a Guinness for lack of alternatives and I didn’t like it more than the play or the acting, the flavor is so watery simple… Our walk back under the mustard yellow street lights was rewarded by a few touching sights of the old Bucharest with its historical buildings, some restaurated many almost falling apart, until we reached our car covered in flyers for nearby undercover bordellos. Doh, these contrasts.

There aren’t that many sandy beaches on the Romanian seaside. Of its less than 250 kilometers share of the Black Sea coastline, the Danube Delta and its natural reservation eats up already a good half. Cliffs, forests, ports and industry leave only so many touristic places you can count on your fingers (include toes if you’re less demanding). The only surprising part is how crowded they got over the years. I visited as a kid Mamaia already and I didn’t recall having to negotiate paths between so many umbrellas, chaises, swimming rings and people, people, people. It’s crazy. The sand used to be finer too. Earlier this year there came a heavy storm (they don’t call it Black Sea for nothing) which washed away a bunch of the beach, so they had to complete it - with costly truckloads of annoyingly jagged sharp edged shell sand. Eh. You can move instead to the small town of Sulina, reachable only by boat on the Danube middle arm. The sand is fine in Sulina, there aren’t many beachgoers and you’ll find only two eateries on the beach. You can have there a frozen glass of the disappointing Golden Bräu (guess why frozen), a Romanian slightly sour and almost devoid of aroma pale lager, instantly forgettable after you got your thirst slacked. If you want (relative) wilderness instead and don’t mind BYOB in a cold box, you should go to Perişor towards the southern side of the Delta. This is another place reachable only by boat, with a picturesque barely three meter wide beach - only seashells, you must have a fakir training to be able to walk on them. But it’s quiet, looks just great and… I can’t figure other plus points.

IPA day, finally! Although Mamaia has nothing to offer, beer-wise, just one jump away there’s Constanța and its malls. Silly me, I should have thought about it before… Lots and lots of beers yet there was one single India Pale Ale on the whole Romanian seaside to grab: the English brew of Shepherd Neame. I didn’t like it that much, rather low on aroma hops it felt more like a thicker bitter ale. But I like Old Speckled Hen as well so there, checked in late for the international IPA day. Cheers!

Mamaia might be the most expensive (and best looking as well) place on the Romanian seaside, but when it comes to beer, this pearl of the Black Sea provides almost nothing worth mentioning. I’m not surprised: the only thing officially called “pub” is placed in the snotty Casino building, with three scantily clad bimbos pole-dancing in front of it - I didn’t think it worthy taking pictures, let alone entering. So, let’s have a look at the beer offerings, will you. There are the indigenous brands first and not that many of them: Ursus, Ciuc, Timișoreana, Silva, Red’s, Bucegi, Noroc, Bergenbier and Golden Bräu. Fancy names for many pale lagers or mixes and three dark lagers, most of them in the “meh” quality - some below, one above (mentioned last time, Ursus Black). Then you’ll have the usual international names brewed in these places: Beck’s, Stella Artois, Tuborg, Holsten, Peroni(!), Heineken, Skol and Carlsberg, pretty much on the same level as the originals, like them or not. This is also what you’ll get on the tap in restaurants or bars, one or two taps at the maximum. Because Mamaia wants to be an international resort, you’ll notice also imported beers - of course - detached winner being Leffe, blonde or dark, which somehow managed to creep into every small shop or terrace and become THE import beer. Otherwise if you keep your eyes really really open, you’ll find here and there a Grolsch (yes, the Dutch one), some Czechs like Staropramen, Pilsner Urquell and Krusovice, the Turkish lager Efes, Birra Moretti from Italy and a surprise from Austria, Zipfer. All lagers again (except Leffe of course), so if you dream of something different you gotta be lucky to run into the very few shops or terraces offering Guinness, the even less ones selling yummy Hoegaarden, or discover the food shop in front of the Casino where, under the red arches, in a small refrigerator on the left, a few bottles of Weihenstephaner weizen will reward the persistent searcher. Now you know why IPA day brought me nothing at all…

I was tempted to call the Danube Delta an Amazon trip on a shoestring, but that wouldn’t do it justice. Yes, it’s true that here the water snakes barely reach one foot long and the biggest lizard can float on a white water lily flower. Indeed, no crocs, no anacondas, and the most dangerous animal might be the elusive (to us) wild boar. But that’s cool, you know - you can hire somebody to give you a boat ride to some patch of drier land and leave you there for a quiet afternoon read. Reading, with beer that is. I got a small stock of what I think it’s the best Romanian beer: Ursus Black. I know I wrote about it already but today i just loved it. It’s a lager thus appropriate for this summer day, dark and bitter with hoppy hints and yummy malts reminding you of those full stouts. Just light. And around it’s so quiet… but no total silence, of course. From time to time motor boats drive by and scare the patient snow-white egrets watching for careless fishes. For a second the black ducklings freeze under the willows, then the engine roar fades away on the channel labyrinth and hundreds of hidden birds start again their chatter. Frogs look at you with blank stares from the floating weeds while dragonflies chase each other by color - blue with blue, red with red, only blacks are by themselves. And the afternoon is gone; the driver loads you again and the trip back over the small lake chases away a gang of timid pelicans. Yes, timid, that’s how they are around here, these pelicans. Many birds in the Danube Delta… cormorans and gulls by the hundreds but if you’re (moderately) lucky you’ll get even a glimpse of a shining blue roller or a sharp looking harrier. Just watch for rogue horses and… swimming cows! Not joking.

I don’t get Radlers. Shandy, Alsterwasser, whatever your name is, I don’t get you. Why would someone mix willingly beer with lemonade? The hint of bitterness can come from lemon zests, hops cannot be discerned anymore, why then? Yet in every Romanian shop half of the beer fridge is filled with them. Ciuc LemonRadler is just one of the many, great can design hiding an average thirst quencher inside. A bit like how the wonderful blooming streets of this town drive your eyes away from the holes in their asphalt. Contrasts… Bistrița hosts every year this folklore festival “Nunta Zamfirei” (Zamfira’s wedding) gathering groups from all over the world - in one single half evening of the many we watched dancers from Italy, Russia, Egypt, Serbia… The historical center, the warm weather and the many surrounding booths selling traditional products surely made for an exquisite eye candy. Soft white cheeses with mouth-watering smells, fancy decorated bottles with the strong yet so tasty schnapps “țuică”, hand woven fabrics and colorful garb alongside fine woodwork, even chimney cakes freshly roasted according to the traditional recipe “kurtös kalacs” of the Hungarian-speaking folk, all is there yet as a merchant dryly put it, not nearly enough buyers. Can it be otherwise, when every second clothing shop is a second hand, each street has its own pawn shop and “for sale” signs belong since long to the landscape?

Scything and building haystacks is not exactly something you’d think to put on a contemporary CV, agree? Yet there are these Romanians trying to scratch a living with more or less traditional methods while the whole world around them seems generations ahead. Many of them went abroad, to Spain or Italy or even farther away to earn better money, and they mostly managed just that until the crisis hit everybody hard. Construction sites closed, manufactures shut down, agriculture couldn’t occupy them all and the Romanians started to come back… to what? Even townspeople started to retreat to the countryside, not exactly happy with it but still very proud with what they re-learned to produce. Their small and dark spotted apples might be unable to compete visually with the industrial products found on the usual counters, and probably wouldn’t give the highly liked full colors Instagram picture. Their only virtue is their taste: simply great and you can take my daughter’s word for it. The plums our kids picked from the small tree were also great, so we thought we’d sit and have a quick bite on the remote garden of our relatives we just visited. Right there, in the sticks, why not. But what to bite? Our cousin remembered she has in the trunk a slab (or two) of bacon-mostly-lard, the neighbor overheard us and jumped in with a loaf of bread and harsh wine of his own making, the uncle we just visited contributed with a fine bottle of high spirit - also home made, add to the mix some onions and garlic we found in the cabin and… only a fire was missing from the picture, but not for long. Kids gathered twigs and dried wood and whatever was around so there we went, feasting on tasty unhealthy nice stuff prepared (deeply burned, that is) on a quick fire under the trees full of summer fruit. There’s no real beer in this picture (alcohol-free not counting); the local traditional crafts are proudly represented by the strong spirit burned by this uncle. With 52-53 ABV it’s not for the faint at heart. Fruity aroma, with the specific small but lasting bubbles, the pure plums “tzuica” warms you from within and works just great paired with this fresh white cheese speciality called “urda”.