Saturday, April 30, 2016

Old Albania, 1994: Beer in the Land of the Eagle (Part 3 of 3).

Part 3 of 3.

Back in the Brewing Business in Tirana.

In contrast to the brewery at Korça, 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 shabby socialist 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 Korça, 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 beer, 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 Korça 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 of Rolling Rocks at the Piano Bar for Agim, Genci and Nico, 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 also 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 Korça 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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