An Eastern Europe XI

Making any kind of ‘best ever’ list is always a risky business. It is, of course, entirely subjective. One man’s classic novel is another’s unreadable dross. One woman’s great piece of music is another’s unlistenable racket. The same rules apply to selecting a football team.

It becomes more difficult unless one begins by laying down some rules. Firstly, the concept of eastern Europe remains more political than geographical. By the second criterion, Slovenia would be excluded as being too westerly. However, its position as part of the former Yugoslavia sends it back to the east.

Secondly, should there be a time limit? For example, should we restrict contenders to those seen by the author? The simple answer is ‘no’, as this would rule out Ferenc Puskás and most football aficionados would surely concur that Puskás was one of the greats of world football, let alone only part of one continent.

No two people will come up with the same XI, or at least the likelihood is remote. Some may disagree vehemently; everyone has their own favourites. No matter; the Duck Holiday Eastern Europe XI is ready to take the field.

Needless to say, there are multiple possibilities for each position. There is also the question of formation and there is always a tendency to overload these kinds of selections with too many attacking players. That may, indeed, be the case here, but there are defenders of great quality and a fine goalkeeper behind them. It is with the goalkeeper that we begin.

Eastern Europe has produced some great goalkeepers, from Gyula Grosics of the great 1950s Hungarian team to the present-day Slovenian Samir Handanović. Russia has done even better than most, with two legends in Rinat Dasaev and the great Lev Yashin. The latter gets the nod. Yashin not only played in a succession of World Cups, but is also referenced in a song by Half Man Half Biscuit. No accolade can be higher.

The defence has a solid look. At right back, why not start with a man that played in Hungary’s 6-3 and 7-1 routs of England, not to mention the 1952 Olympic winning team and all rounds of the 1954 World Cup? Jenő Buzsánsky may not be as famous as Puskas, Hidgekuti or several others of the legendary ‘Magic Magyars’, but he knew what he was doing.

At left back, the Ukrainian Vasyl Rats is a strong candidate, but with a wealth of attacking options at our disposal, a more defensive player is required. Step forward (or back), another Ukrainian, Anatoliy Demyanenko. A stalwart of a very good Dynamo Kyiv team, Demyanenko played for the Soviet Union in three World Cup finals.

It is extremely tempting to include the very scary Bulgarian, Trifan Ivanov, in defence, but there are better candidates. The central defensive berths are filled by the team’s sole Georgian, Aleksandr Chivadze and by the Slovakian Anton Ondruš. Chivadze was part of the wonderful Dynamo Tbilisi team that won the 1981 European Cup-Winners’ Cup and Ondrus went one better, ass part of the Czechoslovakia team that triumphed in the 1976 European Championships. That tournament reached a fitting conclusion with Antonin Panenka’s audacious penalty, a style of kick that still bear his name. Ondrus knew where the net was too – he scored twice in Czechoslovakia’s semi-final success.

In midfield, there is an almost embarrassing amount of choice and it would be possible to pack the team with creative players. Think Prosinečki, Boban, Hagi, Savićević, Katanec and many more. We do, though, need someone in a deeper role and the job falls to the Hungarian József Boszik. A member of the team that destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley, Boszik could be described as something of a prototype Andrea Pirlo, a deep-lying playmaker. Like his colleagues, he was a man ahead of his time.

On the right, the skilful and eternally floppy-haired Czech Pavel Nedvěd is the choice. A player of attacking verve, Nedvěd’s workrate earns him bonus points. Here is a man not afraid to do some defensive work.

On the other side, the Ukrainian Oleh Blokhin can fulfil the role of left-winger. If necessary, he can play as a centre forward. A man with 211 goals in 432 games for Dynamo Kyiv knows how to find the net.

More centrally, the choice lay between two left-footed and rather moody magicians, Romania’s Gheorge Hagi and Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov. Stoichkov wins out. With 84 goals in 175 games for Barcelona, there is no doubting his world-class status.

The number ten role is the most revered in football and we have already mentioned some prime purveyors of the position. Sadly for the likes of Boban and Savićević, there really is only one choice. Ferenc Puskás cannot be omitted. For Honved, he scored a ridiculous 352 goals in 341 games. Not content with that, he added a further 156 goals in 180 games for Real Madrid. This is not only a European great, but a world legend.

The final attacking position falls to another great of Dynamo Kyiv, Andriy Shevchenko, who gets the vote marginally ahead of the outstanding Pole, Robert Lewandowski. Those who saw his lean spell at Chelsea may scoff, but Shevchenko’s 127 goals in 208 games for Milan tell you all you need to know. This is a goalscorer supreme. The Duck Holiday team were privileged to watch one of his last games for Ukraine. Fittingly, it took place in Kyiv and the adulation accorded the great man was stunning to see and hear.

'Sheva' scores for Ukraine

‘Sheva’ scores for Ukraine

Lastly, we need a coach, though one might argue that a team this good needs little direction. The man who led Hungary to Wembley glory was Gusztáv Sebes. However, the man behind the new tactical formation was the coach of the Budapest club MTK, Márton Bukovi. It is hard, though, to look beyond a man who coached both Dynamo Kyiv and the USSR three times, Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

Lobanovskiy

Lobanovskyi

Lobanovskyi was a talented, if rather dilettante left-winger. He retired from playing, disillusioned, at the age of twenty-nine, but was persuaded to go into coaching. Somewhat ironically, the winger that did not like tracking back became an advocate of a hard pressing game. After success with Dnipro, he returned to Dynamo Kyiv, won the league and cup double (note that this was the USSR league, where the big Moscow clubs ruled the roost) and made his team the first Soviet side to win a European competition, the 1975 Cup-Winners’ Cup. In later years, he led the USSR to the final of the 1988 European Championships, where they lost to the Dutch and that unforgettable van Basten goal.

Lobanovskyi died in 2002, but his statue in Kyiv reminds fans of his status and anyone that thrills to the sight of Barcelona or Bayern Munich winning the ball back deep in their opponents’ half should raise a glass to the man that made pressing an essential part of modern-day football.

The Duck Holiday XI

The Duck Holiday XI

1 Lev Yashin (USSR/Russia) 78 games, 0 goals

2 Jenő Buzánszky (Hungary) 48 games, 0 goals

3 Anatoliy Demyanenko (USSR/Ukraine) 80 caps, 6 goals

4 Anton Ondruš (Czechoslovakia/Slovakia) 58 caps, 9 goals

5 Alexandr Chivadze (USSR/Georgia) 46 games, 3 goals

6 József Boszik (Hungary) 101 games, 11 goals

7 Pavel Nedvěd (Czech Republic) 91 games, 18 goals

8 Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria) 84 games, 38 goals

9 Andriy Shevchenko (Ukraine) 111 games, 48 goals

10 Ferenc Puskás (Hungary) 85 games, 84 goals*

11 Oleh Blokhin (USSR/Ukraine) 112 caps, 42 goals

Coach: Valeriy Lobanovskyi (USSR/Ukraine)

* Puskás also played four times for Spain

Food

People say some very strange things to you when you’re a vegetarian. “What do you eat?” for one. Well, mainly, one tries to stick to food. A personal favourite was “You don’t look like a vegetarian.” Well, no, I thought I’d leave my fur coat and long floppy ears at home today, if that’s okay by you.

Something else that you hear on a frequent basis is that it is well-nigh impossible to remain vegetarian in other parts of the world, as though Great Britain were the only country on Earth that provides such fare. Clearly, such people have no concept of places such as Sri Lanka, or large swathes of India, where vegetarian food is the norm. The Duck Holiday team have also spent considerable time in sub-Saharan Africa and managed to avoid turning into carnivores, although it is possible that the occasional insect was swallowed inadvertently.

Eastern Europe does, it is true, generally lean towards meaty diets, but this has never presented a problem. Admittedly, spending time in capital cities and other large towns provides a wider choice than if one were to confine oneself to rural areas. This is especially true since the break up of the Soviet Union, with most cities offering food from all parts of the world. The Duck Holidayers had one of their best ever Indian meals in Budapest and one can find Chinese and Italian restaurants almost anywhere.

For the intrepid traveller, however, these kinds of establishment should feature only as occasional treats or last resorts. Part of the pleasure of visiting new places lies in discovering new things, and food is no exception to the rule.

Many countries have variations on a theme, with food that is of similar style, though the names may be different. Soup can be found just about anywhere, though vegetarians need to be a bit careful, as sometimes seemingly suitable concoctions can have lumps of meat thrown into them. In city restaurants, though, it’s usually pretty obvious what is vegetarian and what isn’t.

Garlic lovers (which include Duck Holiday) can have a fine time in Eastern Europe. Garlic features prominently in vampire myths of the east and while you’re unlikely to be savaged by vampires, you can still use it as an excuse for scoffing plenty of garlic. Garlic soup is a delightful brew, especially nice with crusty bread and perfect for thawing out on a chilly winter’s day. This is also, in general, a healthy option, though those with concerns over fat levels might want to take care in Slovakia, where fried cheese is rife and your apparently healthy bowl of garlic or onion soup may well contain large slabs of the stuff. Tasty yes, cholesterol-friendly, no.

Garlic soup

Garlic soup

The Baltic region also has a passion for garlic. Tallinn and Riga both have ‘garlic restaurants’, where every dish contains garlic, so if you want to experience the novelty of garlic ice cream, head for Estonia or Latvia. A nice option if you want a few beers is a garlic tapas, where you can pick your way around a large platter of garlic-based delicacies and wash them down with your ale. There is no need to be intimated by the prospect of chomping your way through an entire bulb of roasted garlic; as with onions, the result of cooking the bulb like this gives it a delicious sweetness.

Garlic bread is another good beer snack and this can often be found in varying formats. Slovenia, which has many Italian influences, specialises in thin, crispy pizzas and a simple pizza base loaded with garlic goes well with a few glasses of beer. Further east, pampushkas, small round pieces of bread flavoured with garlic, are a favourite accompaniment to that Ukrainian and Russian staple, borsch. This wonderful dish – beetroot-flavoured soup, not beetroot soup – is often meat-laden, but it isn’t usually too hard to find a vegetarian version. It is normally served with another old favourite of eastern cuisine, sour cream.

Borsch

Borsch

Something else that frequently features sour cream is the potato pancake. Most countries have a version, sometimes plain, sometimes flavoured. Like soup, this is a good option for lunchtime, especially if you’ve been doing a fair amount of walking. There are many local variations, for example Hungarian lángos, potato cakes typically served with sour cream.

Potato pancakes

Potato pancakes

Langos

Langos

In any Balkan country, it is impossible to avoid burek, which is ubiquitous throughout the region. This is a pastry that is somewhat akin to a large and slightly greasy croissant. Sometimes, it is filled with meat, but cheese burek are very easy to find and if you’re lucky, you might get a marginally healthier one that is stuffed with spinach. Quality can vary wildly, but one saving grace is that it is very cheap and can come in handy if you are pressed for time or money.

Burek

Burek

Even if none of this holds much appeal, there are markets to be found everywhere. From the superb Dolac market in Zagreb to the Trnica in Ljubljana, the magnificent Central Market Hall in Budapest to the crowded Markale in Sarajevo, there are fruit and vegetables piled high. Markets are also a great way to experience the feel of a city, even if you’re not buying. The Pazari i Ri in Tirana is a good example, offering a real-world contrast to the slightly bizarre architecture of the Albanian capital. The Piata Amzei in Bucharest offers a similar experience. In a city that has no real centre, this feels like a beating heart. And if it’s all too much, sit back with a cup of coffee and watch the madding crowds from a distance.

Tirana market

Tirana market

Much of the produce in these markets comes from smallholdings, so what you’re getting, in effect, is fresh organic food, usually at very low prices. The markets tend to sell all sorts of other stuff, so if you’re after crafts and souvenirs, you can pick them up along with your strawberries and peaches. Try a few of the local cheeses, as well (one recommendation is to treat yourself to some fresh cheese and olives in Tirana), along with honey. Even if you’re not a fan of honey, check out the honey market in Sofia (opposite the Market Hall) and be amazed at just how many different types you can get.

Honey in Sofia

Honey in Sofia

It is not always simple being a vegetarian, but rest assured that it is a great deal easier than it was 35 years ago. Sometimes, you need to be a bit resourceful, but there is always a way, even if if means the occasional curry or pizza to see you through. There is plenty more out there, though, it you look in the right places.

Wine

It is safe to say that Duck Holiday has a far broader knowledge of beer than of wine, but the DH team are nothing if not resourceful and have made every effort to bring their experience up to a suitable level when it comes to grape produce.

In the west of Europe, our acquaintance with old world wines rarely runs beyond France, Spain, Italy and Portugal with a brief encounter with Germany thrown in. Wine from the east of the continent is rarely seen on these shores, which is a great pity, because much of it is very good.

Perhaps the most familiar country to westerners in terms of wine production is Hungary. Of the various wine regions, Tokaj is the most famous. This area, the the north east of the country, is noted for its very sweet wines, with the golden Aszú being the most notable.

The area north of Lake Balaton is especially productive. The region closest to the lake, Balatonfured, is characterised by its volcanic red soil, and it is this that gives the wines a distinctive flavour. A high-quality Pinot Gris is produced in this region.

The most famous wine of Hungary, however, is Bull’s Blood. As vigorous as its name suggests, this fruity Bordeaux-style wine is made in Eger, just west of the Tokaj area. The name, incidentally, emanates from a story surrounding the Turkish siege of Eger in 1552. The defenders fortified their nerves with the local wine and it was said that the blood of bulls had been added to give the besieged soldiers strength. Happily for both vegetarians and bulls, the story is purely mythical.

Bull's Blood

Bull’s Blood

Slovakia also produces a number of wines of a similar style to Hungary. Indeed, most of the country’s vineyards are centred around Bratislava and towards the Hungarian border. Not surprisingly, the Tokaj style is common, as the region crosses the boundary. It is known in Slovakia as Tokajsky.

Neighbouring Croatia produces vast quantities of wine, though little is exported. Kabola Muškat is an aromatic and very fruity white from Istria and is a civilised 12%. Istria is also home to the Franc Arman vineyard, which produces a deep red Cabernet that has a hint of spiciness.

Kabola Muskat

Kabola Muskat

Good wine can be unearthed throughout the Balkans. Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia, predominantly Muslim countries, may sound unpromising, but this would be an incorrect assumption. All have goodly numbers of vineyards and there is some excellent, and very cheap, wine to enjoy.

Kosovo’s most noted winery is StoneCastle in Rahovec, about 80 kilometres from Pristina. Much is for the local market, though exports of Kosovar wine, particularly to Germany, are increasing. One of the exports is Amphora, a subtle red made from a blend of the many local grape varieties. A gentle 12%, it is highly quaffable.

SoneCastle Amphora

SoneCastle Amphora

Žilavka is a grape variety particular to the Mostar region in Bosnia. Stobi Žilavka is a light, but spicy white with a lemon zing. The most common red grape variety is Blatina, which is also grown in neighbouring Montenegro.

Stobi Žilavka

Stobi Žilavka

Romania – and this may come as a surprise – has more vineyards than any other country in eastern Europe. Sadly, there is a lack of investment and its potential is largely unfulfilled. It might take you some time to say La Catina Viognier Tamaioasa Romaneasca, but the effort is worthwhile. This is an intensely fruity, medium dry white that has such a delightful aroma that you could happily sit and sniff it for a while.

La Catina Viognier Tamaioasa Romaneasca

La Catina Viognier Tamaioasa Romaneasca

While Romanian wine can be a bit hit and miss, its smaller neighbour Moldova has a deserved reputation for good wine. In contrast to many wine-producing countries in eastern Europe, it has a sizeable export market. The Asconi winery produces the splendid-named Merry Mole range, which includes a Merlot that excludes dark fruit notes with hints of coffee and chocolate. There is also a delicious Sauvignon Blanc, a greenish gold affair with a touch of gooseberry and guava. For something novel, try to find a bottle of Stradivari Rubin. This deep red is a bit on the lusty side at 16%, but the bottle itself, in the shape of a violin, is worth collecting.

Stradavari Rubin

Stradavari Rubin

Further east, Georgian wine is of a good quality and for those visiting Russia and not wanting to pay a fortune for western wine, a very sensible (and sound economic) choice. Wine-making in Georgia is believe to date back some 7,000 years and the country has an astonishing 500 grape varieties and 18 viticulture areas.

Khvanchkara, from the Tbilvino Winery, was reputedly the favourite tipple of Josef Stalin, but don’t let that put you off. It is made from local grapes and has a strawberry sweetness counterbalanced by spiciness.

Khvanchkara

Khvanchkara

Despite its name, Saperavi Black Wine is, in fact, another red. As the name suggests, it is a very dark wine and is produced in large stone jars lined with beeswax. Pheasant’s Tears is a very easy-drinking red (12.5%) with blackcurrant notes.

Pheasant's Tears

Pheasant’s Tears

A good and inexpensive white is Mtsvane, from the Telavi Wine Cellar. Its name means ‘green’, which gives a clue to its appearance. Slightly strong for its type at 13.5%, it has a lovely dry finish and like many Georgian wine, offers a hint of honey to the taste.

Quevris Rkatsiteli is a Tbilvino white, a new wine, but produced using an ancient technique. A quevri is a large clay jar in which grapes are fermented with both skins and stems intact. This is said to give the wine a complexity lacking in other white wines. The result is a fruity delight, giving the drinker a bewildering array of fruit flavours.

While few of these wines are likely to appear on the shelves of your local supermarket or corner shop any day soon, the boom in internet shopping means that it’s possible to buy just about any of them from the comfort of your sofa. There are also a number of wine societies that not only promote their countries’ produce, but sell it as well. Drinking Georgian or Croatian wine in your living room may not be as exotic as hanging out in a bar in Tbilisi or Zagreb, but it’s the next best thing.

Beer – Weiss Squad

Wheat beer is something of an acquired taste, but happily Duck Holiday is a persevering type and has managed to come to terms with this style of beer. Perseverance is a rewarding experience, with plenty of delightful wheat beers available in the UK nowadays.

Several British breweries now make thoroughly palatable wheat beers, but the focus of this study is, of course, central and eastern Europe. It would, though, be more precise to say simply ‘central’, because Germany in general, and Bavaria in particular, is the undisputed home of this style.

Where better to start than with the excellent Erdinger brewery? This Bavarian brewery, north east of Munich, specialises in wheat beer, producing a bewildering number of different types from pale, fruity ones to dark, heavy wheat beers, along with special seasonal brews. A personal favourite is the delicious Urweisse, a relatively new concoction that is exceptionally drinkable. At 4.9%, it is not one of the stronger types of wheat beer and is very easy to knock back. Some wheat beers can have a rather cloying sweetness, but Urweisse’s sweetness emanates from a banana fruitiness and does not overpower the drinker. It also has a pleasingly spicy aroma. Around Christmas, also look out for the Schneeweisse, a little stronger at 5.6%. This is a beer with an equally clean taste.

Urweisse

Urweisse

Schneeweisse

Schneeweisse

Not far from Erding lies the town of Freising, home to the Weihenstephaner brewery. They produce a wide range of beers, including an excellent Kristalweizen (clear wheat beer, 5.4%) that, while lacking the appealing cloudiness of many wheat beers, retains the sweet-tart paradox of the brew with banana and clove scent and flavours.

Kristalweizen

Kristalweizen

Another wheat beer that is often spotted on the shelves of British supermarkets is Munich’s own Franziskaner (5%). This is a hefeweizen, with a wheat ratio of 50:50 or higher, and typical of the Bavarian style. Franziskaner is refreshing, fruity and spicy.

Franziskaner

Franziskaner

Less easy to find, but very well worth seeking out, is Ayinger Brauweisse (5.1%). Aying is south east of Munich and this beer, while typical of a Bavarian wheat style, is a little more citrus to the palate, with zingy lemon amidst the spicy flavours.

Ayinger Brauweisse

Ayinger Brauweisse

Not all wheat beer is light in colour, with most breweries producing a dunkel (dark) version. Duck Holiday finds this style a little on the sweet side, but that is merely personal taste. One worth trying is König Ludwig Weissbier, a 5.5% beer with a malty taste, but retaining that familiar banana spiciness. The brewery is based at Kaltenberg Castle, west of Munich.

König Ludwig Weissbier (dunkel)

König Ludwig Weissbier (dunkel)

Eastern Europe does not produce many wheat beers of its own, but a few can be found. For example, Lvivske White Lion (Львівське Білий лев) is a Ukrainian version. At 4.2%, it is lighter than most Bavarian equivalents and perhaps a bit thin, but is, nonetheless, a pleasant and refreshing beer that is ideal for relaxing after a hot summer’s day in Lviv.

Lvivske White Lion

Lvivske White Lion

Svyturys Baltas is a Lithuanian take on the style, the 5.2% strength being, no doubt, more acceptable to the indomitable Lithuanian palate. It is a very cloudy beer with citrus notes and altogether not a bad version.

Svyturys Baltas

Svyturys Baltas

Russia’s giant Baltika brewery churns out a number of rather uninspiring beers, but Baltika No 8, a wheat brew, is surprisingly good. The 5% beer is very much on Bavarian lines, with banana, cloves, yeast and wheat to the fore, and is infinitely preferable to the turgid No 7 lager that seems to be increasingly ubiquitous.

Baltika No 8

Baltika No 8

Czech beer is often – wrongly – assumed to be uncompromisingly strong, but a lot of the country’s beers are quite gentle and easy drinking. Krušovice Pšeničné, a wheat beer from a famous brewery, is no exception at 4.3%. For those that like to drink wheat beer as a session ale, it is a good choice.

Krušovice Pšeničné

Krušovice Pšeničné

Many breweries are producing wheat beers and experimenting with all sorts of things (fruit, different types of malt, etc.) in a bid to turn out something different. This is all good; after all, the discerning beer drinker likes variety. Ultimately, though, rather like the 2014 World Cup, the Germans have this one all wrapped up.

Beer – Into the Light

Having dealt with the dark stuff, it seems logical to progress with a look at some of the paler beers from central and eastern Europe that are available in the UK. Not surprisingly, there is a greater range of these beers than the darker ones, but careful selection produces some excellent results.

A goodly number of light-coloured beers follow a Pilsener-style format and while some can be pleasant enough, a fair few are, quite frankly, rather uninspiring. Drinking beer should be about having one’s taste buds challenged, surprised and ultimately kept happy. Thankfully, there are plenty of breweries that are equal to the task.

Bavaria is synonymous with brewing, but there are good beers to be found from all around Germany. Kölsch is the generic name given to beer from Cologne and this tends to be very pale, quite hoppy, dry and with a vinous tang. The two found most commonly in the UK are Fruh and Küppers, both weighing in at 4.8%. Both are distinctively pale and are crisp, clean-tasting beers. Küppers has a slightly more citric taste.

Fruh

Fruh

Küppers

Küppers

From Berlin, the Berliner Kindl Brewery produces a range of beers, including some of those rather annoying 2.5 to 3% concoctions that seem to serve little useful purpose. While Duck Holiday does not subscribe to the view that beer must exceed 5% ABV to be worthwhile, there is little depth in such thin offerings. At 4.9%, Berliner Bürgerbräu Pils has more of a kick and is a good example of a Pilsener style.

Bürgerbräu

Bürgerbräu

Dortmund’s Dortmunder Union brews the 5.3% Export, easily found in many places. This has a malty feel initially, but hop character comes through and lingers. These attributes are quite typical of the Dortmund style.

Dortmunder

Dortmunder

One must, of course, consider the brewing stronghold of Bavaria. Hacker Pschorr Münchener Gold (5.5%) is a typical Munich pale beer. The prolific Paulaner brewery has something for all tastes and their Original Müncher Hell is not as intimidating as it might sound, being a relatively sensible 4.9%.

Hacker Pschorr

Hacker Pschorr

Paulaner

Paulaner

The Czech Republic is also a country that specialises in beer. the widely available Krušovice Imperial (5%) is a pleasant and clean tasting lager, a good example of the Pilsener style, which of course has its origins in that country. Pilsen (Czech Plzeň) is still home to the Pilsener Urquell brewery, the maker of another familiar beer. At 4.4%, this is a lighter brew than Krušovice, and a little maltier and sweeter.

Krušovice

Krušovice

PilsenerUrquell

Pilsener Urquell

Neighbouring Slovakia is not as noted for its beer, but Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) is found throughout much of Europe and while it is not going to produce any revelations, is a nice enough beer, again in the mode of a Pilsener.

Zlatý Bažant

Zlatý Bažant

A lot of beer from central and eastern Europe is around the 5% mark, but there are beers more closely akin to the strength of a British session ale. One such is Ukraine’s Lvivske Svitle (Light) (Ukrainian Львiвське Свiтле), a very mild 3.7%, a golden beer with a refreshing taste. Obolon Light (Ukrainian Оболонь Світле) is a little stronger at 4.5%, a touch maltier than the Lvivske.

Lvivske Svitle

Lvivske Svitle

Obolon

Obolon

Lithuanian drinkers regard anything under 5% as mere child’s play, but Svyturys Gintarinis bucks the trend at a mere 4.7%. Although it is is Pilsener style lager, it has a pleasing hop bitterness that is appealing to those of us that favour hops over malt. The Utenos brewery also produces a similar, though less hoppy beer in the form of Utenos Pilsener (4.6%).

Svyturys Gintarinis

Svyturys Gintarinis

Utenos

Utenos

For a corresponding style in Latvia, the 4.5% Aldaris Gaisais has a nice hop aroma and quite bitter taste. An even lighter option, built for session work, is Bauskas Alus Gaisais, a gentle 4%, but still with plenty of flavour. For those preferring something stronger, there is Lacplesis Gaisais, a 5% beer brewed in the Dortmunder style.

Aldaris Gaisais

Aldaris Gaisais

Bauskas

Bauskas

Lacplesis Gaisais

Lacplesis Gaisais

Beer from the Balkans is quite hard to find, a pity since there are some worthy brews, notably from Croatia. The most commonly found is the Slovenian Lasko. Their Zlatorog lager is not, in truth, terribly exciting, but it is a perfectly drinkable beer that is 4.9%.

Lasko Zlatorog

Lasko Zlatorog

This quick trip around pale beer is, of course, far from exhaustive and is confined to the brews that are relatively simple to find in the UK. There is, happily, a microbrewery culture growing up all around Europe and plenty of bars, especially in the bigger cities, where you can find all sorts of delights. This brief introduction, it is to be hoped, provides the incentive to discover more.

Beer – Into the Black

Duck Holiday takes beer very seriously indeed, and it is purely in the name of scientific research that we have worked so hard to sample so many different beers. This being a site dedicated to the pleasures – and occasional displeasures – of central and eastern Europe, it is logical to concentrate on produce from that part of the world.

Before we move on to the exciting part, there are two points to note. The first is that Duck Holiday has a goodly proportion of Irish blood and is thus rather well disposed towards beer that is dark. There is nothing wrong with a pale beer (except, of course, the mass produced, fizzy, freezing cold, chemical filth that passes for lager in Britain), but for now, the dark side wins. The second is that we will focus on beer that can be obtained in the UK. This, unfortunately, means that we cannot include excellent establishments such as the wonderful Kratochwil in Ljubljana, but certain restrictions have to be imposed or this article could go on for several years.

Germany is the obvious place to begin the quest. A particular favourite is Köstritzer, a gloriously black beer from Bad Köstritz in what we might call the German East Midlands. At 4.8%, it is a little on the vigorous side for a session, but if taken slowly, it can be spun out over much of an evening. This beer, sold by a number of off licences in the UK, is also available through the excellent Adnams Brewery in Suffolk, so those keen on a fix of Köstritzer might also fancy trying a selection pack of different Adnams’ ales.

Kostritzer

Kostritzer

Kaiserdom is in a similar vein, a 4.7% beer from the town of Bamberg in Bavaria. Like any good beer of this type, any malty sweetness is well balanced by bitter hops. The finish is a pleasing toasty coffee flavour.

Kaiserdom

Another familiar site on these shores is Krombacher, one of Germany’s oldest breweries located in Kreutzal, in central western Germany. This is closer to a session beer at a more modest 4.3% , so it’s a good choice if you want to make an evening of it.

Krombacher

Krombacher

Proving that not all German beers start with the letter K is Lausitzer Porter, brewed in the town of Löbau near Dresden. Although it is called a porter, the beer is more like a black lager and is a very quaffable 4.4%. It should be noted, however, that this is a beer for those with a sweet tooth.

Lausitzer

Lausitzer

Something that is more geared to those of us that prefer bitter beers is Marzen Smoked Beer, from the town of Herzogenaurach near Nuremberg. This is truly an extraordinary experience. Merely opening the bottle hits you with a blast wave of smokiness, as if you’d just unwrapped a particularly vigorous smoked cheese. At 5.1%, it is not overpowering in strength, but it is probably something you’d want to have as a one-off at the end of an evening. Having this as your first drink of the night means that it’s likely you won’t be able to taste anything else properly.

Marzen Smoked

Marzen Smoked

The presence of a substantial Polish community in Britain means that quite a few beers from Poland are easily found. Admittedly, many are rather standard issue lagers and not terribly exciting, but there are exceptions. For those with an adventurous nature and a strong constitution, the 8.3% Okocim Porter is worth a try. Like most beers of this strength, it is rather on the sweet side. The most visible Polish beer in Britain is Żywiec and this brewery produces an even more headbanging affair, a brain-clobbering 9.5% porter. Handle with care.

Okocim

Okocim

Zywiec

Zywiec

The Czech Republic is renowned for its beer and the cerny produced by Krušovice is a classic example of how a beer does not need to be mind-blowingly strong to have a depth of taste and character. At 3.8%, this falls firmly into the category of a session ale. The town of Krušovice is to the west of Prague and Krušovice beers can be found in many parts of Europe, also proving that mass production does not necessarily mean poor quality.

Krusovice

A liitle to the south lies the town of Březnice, where the exceptional Herold Black is brewed. This gorgeous beer is a bit more potent at 5.2%, but is very (and slightly dangerously) drinkable. It is everything that a black beer should be, full of toasted, roasted flavour.

Herold

Herold

The Baltic region produces some lusty porters. Lithuania is especially notable in this regard. Utenos Porteris, brewed in the north-east of the country, is a powerful 6.8% ale. Despite its name, Volfas Engelman Imperial Porteris from Kaunas is, in fact, a little lighter at a mere 6%, which in Lithuanian terms is relatively meek. Latvia, too, has a few porters. One of the more commonly found is Aldaris Porteris, brewed in Riga and another 6.8% beer. A slightly more easy going alternative is Bauskas Alus Tumsais Dark, from Kaunas. At 5.5%, this is getting close to the Baltic’s idea of a session beer.

Volfas Engelman

Volfas Engelman

Ukraine has quite a number of breweries, though Ukrainian beer does not tend to venture too far west. We did, though, discover Lvivske Porter (Львівське) – from the western Ukrainian town of Lviv, surprisingly enough – and this is another of those 8% affairs that is best drunk as a sipping beer at the end of an evening.

Lvivske (Львівське)

Lvivske (Львівське)

With the welcome return of some excellent independent off licences and some splendid online retailers (Beers of Europe is a site that can be browsed for many hours), there is every reason to suppose that eastern and central Europe’s hidden gems can be continue to be unearthed for beer lovers in the west.