Brewing on the edge of reality: what I drank in Kazakhstan

In June, I went to Kazakhstan. It’s the kind of place that, if ever brought up in conversation, you think, ‘Hey that would be amazing. I would love to go there.’ But you never really intend to go. And the odds of you going are much lower than you actually intending to go, even.

Pelmeni dumplings & fresh lager: a winning Kazakh combo.
Pelmeni (mutton dumplings) & fresh lager: a winning kazakh combo.

I was lucky in getting a press invite. Kazakhstan probably wasn’t going to make it onto my list of holiday itineraries too soon, although I have come back with an incontrovertible thirst to return for exploration of its vast steppes, canyons, alpine mountains and other natural wonders, many – nay most – of which I didn’t have time or chance to see on this go-round.

What I did make time for, in between visiting the sights of the country’s two major cities, Almaty (the ancient capital) and Astana (the new capital), was some beer sampling. Like everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, in the world right now, beer is having a bit of a moment in Kazakhstan. I mean, not a London moment, and certainly not a Copenhagen or Stockholm moment, but a moment. Or perhaps a moment is around the corner.

Kazakhstan has its own history of brewing light lagers in a kind of vaguely Russian/German style. More recently, probably (though I haven’t verified this) due to an influx of American and European business, some local breweries have opened and started trying out more colourful beers. I went to a few places, and here’s where.

Line Brew

line brew's dark ale
Line Brew’s dark ale

Far and away Kazakhstan’s most well-established local brewery, Line Brew has brewpubs in Astana, Almaty and Karaganda, and serves an excellent menu of Kazakh and western foods, including some delicious horse steaks if you are adventurous enough to try (I did and they were really good). I haven’t been able to verify when Line Brew started operating, but it has been on the scene for several years and is well-established enough to have multiple locations in each city and seems to be a local favourite. As for the beers, they brew a pretty refreshing lager, a very popular wheat beer (went well with the Kazakh summer heat), a Belgian-style amber karmeliet and, at the Almaty branch, a delicious dark ale that was for me the best of the lot.

I also very much enjoyed the American bar/grill atmosphere they cultivated. Although the german medieval decor inside the Astana branch was a bit hokey, the outdoor terrace (with misters to combat the summer heat!) was lovely.

Shtab

(delicious) beers of unknown provenance at shtab.
(Delicious) beers of unknown provenance at Shtab.

Shtab. Oh, what an odd experience. This tiny little, cluttered beer bar stocks a heap of different beers, most of which are Kazakh, and has insanely cheap prices to boot. But…it’s weird. The large fridge full of dried fish nods to the local beer snack culture. There are pictures of guns and artillery all over the walls, boxes and barrels and keg lines everywhere, no one is particularly friendly and, on my visit, no one spoke english. It was also hot as hades inside on a June night.

But what a selection! I went with two pals and none of us spoke any Russian, so honestly we were struggling a bit. The nice thing is, as a beer lover, you can pretty much point at anything on the menu and get something worth trying and finishable.

shtab: kind of a mental situation going on with keg lines and bottles in one room.
Shtab: kind of a mental situation going on with keg lines and bottles in one room.

We got a further bit of luck when a local couple at the next table offered to help us interpret the menu (thanks to their excellent English) and ended up trying a heap of interesting beers. I am pretty sure I tried the two house beers: shtabnoe (pilsner) and shtabnoe temnoe (dark ale).

0’16 Syra Hana

the roger syrasi (left) and syra (right) at farhi in astana.
The roger syrasi (left) and syra (right) at Farhi in Astana.

The Arka restaurant group operate a number of high-end restaurants in Astana, including 0’16 Syra Hana, which brews its own beers. These beers are available at some of the sister restaurants, including the wonderful Farhi, which I visited on the final evening of my trip. The two house beers I sampled were the syra, and the roger syrasi, both billed as ‘Czech pilsners’, but the syra is unfiltered. This brewery apparently makes a total of five beers, which I presume you can sample at the namesake restaurant.

Other Kazakh beers

bely medved and its awesome polar bear, spotted in almaty airport.
Bely Medved and its awesome polar bear, downed (several of) in Almaty airport.

I sampled quite a handful of other Kazakh beers at various random times, in cans or pints at the airport, etc. None of them were particularly notable or worth seeking out, but at the same time all were perfectly quaffable and did the job against the heat and hearty Kazakh cuisine.

Bely Medved Osoboe – brewed by Efes Kazakhstan, which is apparently a thing (Turkey and Kaz have a lot of business connections), this one slightly better (but similar pale lager to all the others). This one has an excellent white polar bear logo (see above) that I enjoyed immensely. maybe more than the beer.

Derbes – a solid three and a basic lager. You’ll see this all over Kazakhstan, and it’s perfectly drinkable but not very interesting.

Žatecký Gus – same story as above. Billed as a ‘Czech pilsner’ but goes down more like every other beer you’ll try in Asia that kind of mimics a German pilsner with less punch. Still, perfectly drinkable.

karagandinskoe svetloe, had on air astana between almaty and astana. not a shabby plane beer.
Karagandinskoe svetloe, had on Air Astana between Almaty and Astana. Not a shabby plane beer.

Karagandinskoe svetloe – another Efes Kazakhstan brew, this is a pale lager with not a whole lot to recommend it beyond the extremely awesome eagle on the can.

Would I recommend a trip to Kazakhstan purely for beer sampling? No, I probably wouldn’t. But it is a really off-beat place. Really off-beat. And if you find yourself here, or just have an incontrovertible thirst for something very different, it’s possible to drink quite very decently, and will certainly only get better over the next couple of years.

Full disclosure: I travelled to Kazakhstan as a guest of Air Astana, but I never give positive coverage in exchange for freebies, and I also paid for a few of these beers myself.