Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Old" Albania: Beer in the Land of the Eagle.

The visit to Albania described herein took place in 1994, when the obscure Balkan nation was struggling for a grip during the period immediately following the collapse of Communism. Shortly after my ex-wife and I left Albania, the country’s economy began to crumble in the wake of an immense financial scandal, and boatloads again were crossing the Adriatic seeking refuge in Italy.

Next came the Kosovo conflict and subsequent NATO bombing of neighboring Serbia in 1999, which involved Albania in more than a peripheral way owing to Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population.

In 2005, the country is reasonably stable, and the rate of growth is such that there is optimism of someday joining the European Union.

The verdict? Nothing’s ever been easy for the Albanians, arguably Europe’s longest-serving underdogs, and an eternal source of fascination for me precisely because of it.

Are the breweries and businesses discussed here still in operation? I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to go back and see.


What is Albania?

It's nine hot, gritty days spent in a Fiat crisscrossing the central and southern Albanian landscape in the company of two guides and a deft, talented driver whose skill at dodging pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carts, herds of sheep and sagging shoulders put us at "ease," and allowed us to focus on the splendid mountains, the peeling buildings, the demolished Communist monuments, the ubiquitous concrete pillboxes - and most importantly -- the hardy, resilient, long-suffering Albanian people.

It's climbing the twisted, shadowed, cobblestoned alleyways of the old city of Berat, a short and steep walk away from the rotting 60's-era public buildings and the restored mosque across the main square from the huge pile of gravel and broken concrete marking the spot where the statue of the former dictator Enver Hoxha once stood and where the people with pick-axes and wheelbarrows could be seen physically dismantling the legacy of Communist rule within minutes (and centuries) of our vantage point amid the Ottoman dwellings that survived earlier tyranny.

It's driving 3 hours on the "highway" from the coastal city of Vlore, where broad, shabby, tree-lined avenues led to the port that is a short boat ride from the place the Soviets used as a sub base in the 1950's, ascending the forested mountains and pausing just before the crest to dine on fresh lamb, black olives and tangy feta cheese, washed down with cold Italian lager, before going over the top for the 5 and 1/2 hour descent through a vertical cactus and sagebrush landscape giving way to sheer ocean cliffs that somehow had been made to cradle a tortuous, switchbacked, guardrail-less crumbled asphalt ribbon that demanded patience and concentration of all drivers, and the necessity of honking at every zebra curve to clear the path ahead as the blue ocean met the rocks so far below.

It's being willingly and joyfully hustled by entrepreneurial urchins atop the craggy peak in Kruje that boasts the restored castle of Skanderbeg, national hero, slayer of Turks and role model for generations of Albanians, permitting the aspiring young businessmen to hawk postcards and needlework in fractured English -- but with considerable enthusiasm and a certain innocence, since Albania isn't yet overrun with tourists -- and being sure to sweep away the dried goat droppings before sitting on the boulders to haggle over wares in the midday sun made far more intense by the sleep-inducing beer enjoyed at the privately-owned roadside cafe on the way up the hill.

It's walking along the wharf at Durres and gazing up at the Chinese cranes, watching a handful of shirtless workers lazily chip away at the rust and cracked paint on the hull of a boat that may have witnessed the mass exodus of Albanians to Italy during the problematic winter when Communism collapsed, and now was reduced to serenely observing the re-enactment of those events by an Italian documentary film crew that was housed in the same seaside Italianate, pre-war grand hotel with lime green walls and red marble floors that housed us, where the crew complained about the quality of the $2.50-a-bottle Albanian Merlot wine and the greasy "beefsteak" before drinking and eating anyway and retreating to the bar to watch the World Cup live from America.

It's enough to make a tourist thirsty.


My first glimpse of Albania, the obscure and mysterious Balkan nation, came in 1985. I was lounging on the deck of the ship traveling from Greece to Italy, eating straight from a tin of tuna with a camp fork and washing it down with Dutch Oranjeboom beer in a can, when the hazy shoreline of Albania became visible to the east.

After confirming our whereabouts on a nearby map -- the Greek island of Corfu could be seen to the west -- I went to the railing to investigate the shadowy headlands in the distance.

It didn't look like very much was there, only barren mountains sloping down to the sea and an occasional village. The bizarre concrete pillboxes and defense emplacements erected by the thousands by Hoxha were not visible from the ship. I knew that Albania was the hardest of the hardline Communist regimes in Europe, and that Americans were seldom allowed to enter, but the biggest question of all was one that was unanswerable at the time.

Was there beer in Albania?


My journey through Yugoslavia took me to Lake Ochrid, an ancient freshwater body of water on the border of the now-independent province of Macedonia and the then still inaccessible Albania. The public bus took me to the last village on the Yugoslav side, where I could go no further, and I was so intimidated by the soldiers and the fences at the crossing point that I was afraid to take pictures. Would they shoot the camera out of my trembling hands? Would it be an international incident?

Would I die not knowing whether there was beer in Albania?


I finally was able to answer the question that had come up years before. By visiting the newly free and non-communist Albania for nine days, charting the progress and the problems in this living laboratory of social, economic and political change, and learning about the long and fascinating history of the Albanians, I now am able to confirm that yes, beer is being brewed and consumed in Albania.

The Korce Experience.

It would seem that Albanian commercial brewing history is entirely confined to the present century. There is no evidence to indicate that beer was a factor during five centuries of Turkish domination, although wine and raki (indigenous firewater of indiscriminate fermentable origin) make appearances throughout pre-20th century Albanian history and lore. For the record, raki is the chill-relieving, euphoria-promoting and paint-thinning social beverage of choice in Albania, and Albanian wine is honest if not spectacular.

The first commercial brewery in Albania in the 20th century was built in 1932 by an Italian company in the southeastern city of Korce (KOR-cha). The city is located in a fertile agricultural valley nestled in rugged mountains and is renowned for commerce (ancient trading routes with Greece and Macedonia), learning (the first Albanian language school was founded in Korce), ethnic culture, and as a hotbed of Albania's 20th-century quest for national identity.

The brewery is located on a tree-lined avenue on the outskirts of the compact city. Bulky iron gates bear the "Birra Korce" name in simple, red block letters. On the side of a building several yards away, a curiously pristine Communist-era historical marker notes the heroic action of anti-fascist partisans in 1945, who helped to liberate the area by burning some of the brewery's storage buildings.

As our guide Agim translated the words, I asked myself: How could this really be a victory if the beer wasn't liberated prior to the destruction of its home? Certainly the ideological struggle against capitalism could be suspended for a few rounds prior to the lighting of the arson's torch?

The Korce brewery reeks of faded, degraded elegance. It is constructed in the traditional tower layout, with the barley conveyed to the top for milling, the mash tun and brew kettle taking up the middle, and the fermenters and lagering tanks at the bottom. The mustard-colored, green-trimmed buildings are in decent shape in spite of the neglect of the past few years, but conditions were chaotic on the day of our visit. A horse and several dogs roamed the compound, and mounds of rusted machinery -- a staple feature of the contemporary Albanian landscape -- littered the yard. Inside, some windows were patched with cardboard and there were more than a few puddles made by leaking pipes

Yet, in spite of it all, the brewery at Korce -- the only one in Albania with a tradition of excellence, according to Agim -- is shuddering back to life following a period of inactivity since the collapse of Albania's economy in 1991-92.

It is being revived by a consortium of eleven investors who were victims of political persecution during the Communist era and who, as a means of settlement, were given a competitive advantage during the bidding to privatize industry.

On the day of our visit, the Korce brewery's first test batch of the new era was boiling in the kettle. The new owners have had to overcome formidable obstacles just to arrive at the point of brewing. The brewery was somewhere in the middle of the process renovation as we toured the building, and it had the littered appearance of a construction site. We were told that until the European Union chipped in several thousand cases of used, East German half-liter beer bottles, there was nothing in which to bottle the beer -- although a few dozen antique wooden kegs were left behind.

We briefly met with three of the new owners before departing. One of them worked in the brewery before and will now serve as the brewmaster, and he told us that they hope to resurrect Birra Korce's three styles: 12-degree pilsner, 12-degree dark lager and a special 14-degree lager. The pilsner will come first, and the others will follow.

Interestingly, the adjective used for "dark" to describe a dark beer is the Albanian word for "black." Owing to Albania's proximity to Montenegro ("Black Mountain"), the former Balkan kingdom and Yugoslav republic -- and more importantly, the birthplace of fictional detective Nero Wolfe -- marketing possibilities flowed liberally through my mind as we sat in the old, musty, high-ceilinged office and listened to the brewmaster explain his choice of German hops, Italian malt and yeast obtained at the brewery in Athens where Amstel is brewed under license.

I left with the impression that the consortium would be able to pull it off and put Birra Korce back on the brewing map.

Back in the Brewing Business in Tirana.

In contrast to the brewery at Korce, the plant dating from 1952 in Albania's capital city of Tirana is a utilitarian, white-tiled facility resembling a dairy more than a brewery. It was built with Soviet assistance, and looks it. Our ride from the port city of Durres to the brewery in Tirana took us past rustic villages, abandoned and dilapidated concrete irrigation channels, wandering herds of livestock, Albania's sparkling new Coca-Cola bottling plant, row after row of shabbby scialist tenements, and finally a vast lot where the burned-out remains of the city's Communist-era bus fleet reposed in blackened, skeletal lines.

At the time of our visit, the Tirana brewery hadn't yet been privatized, but it was working again. Typically, upon arriving at the gate we encountered reluctance at letting us enter. Eventually a wiry, chain-smoking worker with an impressive five o'clock shadow and darting, nervous eyes took an interest in us and went off in search of the plant director, who couldn't be found -- but by that time we were in, our guide Genci having persuaded someone to make a decision and let the foreigners come inside out of the blazing, midday sun.

Minutes later, we met the "lost" director in the hall, and he hastily grunted retroactive permission to enter, no doubt thanking his lucky stars that he no longer lived in a nation where such negligence might be rewarded with a trip to the eastern Albanian ore mines or the dungeon-like prisons of the citadel in Gjirokastra with its handy rooftop garden once used by firing squads, but now serving as a convenient point from which to survey the ancient hilltop town and surrounding mountains.

We were met by a diminutive, white-coated brewmaster who happily led us around the spartan, functional plant and answered questions through our interpreter. Like the older brewery in Korce, Tirana's brewery had ceased to function for quite some time. According to the employees, it closed because the former brewery bureaucrat had been paid off by entrepreneurs who were engaged in importing Macedonian Skopsko Pivo and who were intent on eliminating the local competition.

Only one style, a Czech-style pilsner, was being brewed at the time of our visit. Hops are purchased from Germany and barley from Italy. Yeast bought in Italy is being cultured in a so-called laboratory; some was foaming merrily in a kitchen-sink sized steel receptacle.

After 5 to 7 days of primary fermentation, the beer is pumped into the secondary tanks in the basement for 21 days of lagering at near-freezing temperatures. As we enjoyed the contrast in temperature between the frigid lagering cellar and the sunbaked streets outside, the brewmaster's assistant tapped off some two-week old, unfiltered Tirana's Best and proudly offered glasses to each of us. It was surprisingly tasty, and it was better than most of the Italian imports on sale in Albania.

Later, we sampled the filtered, bottled, final 11-degree product and noticed the lack of labels -- they haven't quite gotten to that yet, but they hope to soon. Appropriately, the beer is priced to sell below the lowest-priced imports; this is a sound strategy in a country as poor as Albania. On both sampling occasions, first in the cellar and then at the bottling line, we were joined in our tasting by the wiry, chain-smoking employee from the guard shack, who had accompanied us the entire route through the brewery.

As we surveyed the women from the bottling line, who were taking a break as the line was repaired, I spotted our guide discretely posted behind a machine, taking a final, furious drag on his smoke as he removed the cap from an unguarded bottle and drained most of it in one swallow. In my view, it was his well-deserved reward for being responsive to the visitors, and I thanked him for it.

Plenty of Beer to Wash Down Your Qofte.

With only one brewery operational, and another fighting to revive, the thirst for beer in Albania must be met from elsewhere.

Albania's economy now is entirely open, and the entrepreneurial spirit seems to have taken root with a vengeance. Numerous small restaurants and bars are in operation, and street stalls and kiosks -- some no more than tables set up around the perimeters of dusty squares and thoroughfares -- vend all necessary consumer goods. Much of the import-export trade centers on cash-and-carry middlemen who have purchased used trucks from Germany and Italy, and who make buying trips abroad and purchase whatever is for sale and can in turn be resold in Albania.

In short, Albania still is in the transitional economic phase known as Big Lots Capitalism.

Although this wide-open business climate is bringing plenty of beer into Albania, the country is no Germany when it comes to beer. At least tolerable foreign brands are available, most commonly Amstel and Kronenbourg (both brewed under license in neighboring Greece) and a number of Italian brands, which attests to the status of Italy as prime investor in Albania at this time. Some of the Italian brands aren't bad: Dreher, Splugen Oro and Moretti, all spritzy, mild lagers, do a fine job of taking the edge off the Albanian heat if served cool. All these imports are available at reasonable prices that range from 50 cents to a dollar, depending on the venue, but they are numbingly similar in terms of flavor.

It should be noted that the Albanians themselves don't seem to care, and we can only speculate as to the availability of beer during Communist times. Our guides said that beer from Tirana and Korce was generally available in the old days, and reminded us that the traditional beverages of choice in the country are wine and raki (brandy in various forms), as well as non-alcoholic beverages like coffee and tea -- legacies of the Turkish presence over five centuries.

However, surprises lurk in the chaotic, nebulous Albanian beer market. We found a small, modern street side bar in Tirana that boasted Hacker-Pschorr (Helles) on draft and Pschorr-brau Hefe-Weisse in cooled bottles.

Genci and Agim weren't as taken with the Bavarian wheat beers as we were. The future of this particular establishment is somewhat in doubt, as it has changed hands once or twice since being opened (I think it is currently owned by an Italian tour company).

A Clean, Well Lighted Place.

Pending the completion of an Austrian-built hotel complex adjacent to the former Hoxha mausoleum, one of the most modern, well-appointed bars in Tirana is the Piano Bar, owned by two brothers who amassed capital while working in Germany and who developed a taste for German beers while in the process. The bar serves little food other than sandwiches, and it is being expanded to include a stage for live presentations and an underground keller where the stone walls and wooden beams were being cleaned and readied on the day of our visit. Of all the privately owned bars that we visited, the Piano Bar was the best and probably the beer-friendliest.

The Piano Bar sells a Greek-brewed, Henninger-licensed export contrivance known as Golden Lager, which turned out to be a solid, Helles-like lager. The owners are eager to begin selling Pilsner Urquell on draft as soon as they can purchase the necessary tapping equipment and find a way to ensure an uninterrupted supply. Also available are a half dozen bottled beers, including (drum roll, please) Rolling Rock.

Why? Because both Rolling Rock and Italy's Moretti are subsidiaries of Labatt's, and Moretti can be found throughout Albania.

In any case, Latrobe, Pennsylvania met Tirana, Albania on the last day of our visit when we bought a round Rolling Rocks at the Piano Bar for Agim, Genci and Nick, the latter our affable driver who pronounced it wonderful as the others looked on with a great deal of skepticism. It was too mild for them, and for me, yet it was fun to watch their reactions as we drank the only American beer to be found in Albania -- at least until Anheuser-Busch or Miller rewards the Korce consortium with vast profits for their reconstruction efforts and begins churning out Black Elk Mountain Light in aluminum cans.

It took nine years, but I was able to locate and taste Albanian beer.

Now I need a new obsession.

Are there hamburgers in North Korea?

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