Friday, February 6, 2009

CRITICAL INQUIRY: Battle of the B_rgs

There are some beers in Romania that whose whole raison d’être is unmistakably to act as a reliable method of alcohol delivery for anyone who can scrape a couple of lei together – viz. the 2.5- or even 3-liter bottles of Noroc, Bucegi, or Neumarkt, each one a stunning PET Fat Man bulging with its payload of regret. Then there beers like Ursus, which is sophisticated enough to make plausible claims on the upper end of the Transylvanian beer spectrum. But some beers sit confusingly in the middle: you don’t know whether buying it makes you a desperate (or desperately cheap) drunk, or the champion of an underdog beverage. Today we will turn our attention to two such awkward specimens, both of which apparently compete for the title of “Best Beer Beginning with ‘B’ With a Yellowish-Orangish Color Scheme.”

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Type: Pilsner
ABV: 4.8%
European Food
Price: 1/28/09: 1.38 RON = $0.43 @ Auchan (500 ML PET bottle)

Possibly one of the only drinks to be available in a plastic bottle especially reminiscent of a mortar round, Bürger comes to us from the western Transylvanian town of Oradea. Its proud parent, European Foods, also produces “Stixy” brand “salted sticks,” and “Jackpot!” brand pretzels, among a range of other downmarket beers. Peddling in processed grains is clearly this firm’s speciality, and some of this experience seems to have rubbed off on its efforts to churn out industrial quantities of very inexpensive beer.

The aroma is neither particularly flattering nor inappropriate. It is sweet and yeasty and brings to mind a sticky barroom floor, or a 5th-inning spill at a ballgame. At first taste, Bürger is hardly promising: a watery, noticeably carbonated, and slightly bitter mouthful awaits the sipper. Yet it was this touch of bitterness that maintained my interest in drinking more, and I found that it became fairly tasty after a while. Improbably, Bürger transforms itself from weak milksop to something with more body and a darker, nuttier flavor. I am not sure how this happens (alcohol + bloodstream???) or whether I am just imagining it, but it was a pleasant surprise. 

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Type: Lager
ABV: 5.0%
Manufacturer: Anheuser-Busch InBev
Price: 1/28/09: 1.59 RON = $0.497 @ Auchan (500 ML can)

Bergenbier was brewed originally in Blaj, very much within historic Transylvania, although from what I can tell it nowadays comes from Bucharest – most likely spewed forth from the bowels of a drab and monstrous plant. Being that Bergenbier is produced by the global beer colossus InBev, this speculation is more than simple, Transylvania-inspired prejudice against the south.

Rather than telling us what qualities the beer is supposed to have, InBev is cool with just letting us in on the “brand communication,” which is “based on male friendship, delivering conviviality and excitement. Bergenbier is friendly, dynamic and imaginative with a healthy sense of humour.” In fewer words, this beer is engineered to you get you drunk, possibly drunk enough (based on the description) to encourage those many submerged homoerotic desires kick the shit out of your superego.

But as with any drank, the journey to the liver begins at the mouth, and it is what happens there that concerns us most here. To the nose, Bergenbier smells as dry, faint, fizzy, and insubstantial as its light yellow (blond?) can suggests. The tongue reaches a similar conclusion, though it’s not all bad: the taste is manifestly aquatic and there isn’t much going on, but through these traits Bergenbier somehow encourages its own consumption as you are forced to take sip after sip to dry and detect the flavor. If you are patient and let some of the carbonation escape, this is a pleasantly lackluster beer to sit and sip, and I can easily imagine it being a refreshing choice on a summer’s day.


After this whole beer-off, I was feeling mighty fine, and so the REAL winner was ME. But if I, like Paris, were forced to choose who would get the apple of victory and who would go home to start a cross-Peloponnesian war, I would have to bestow that glorious fruit on Bürger because a) of its marginally more interesting flavor and b) because fucking InBev doesn’t have its filthy tentacles all over it. 

Friday, January 30, 2009

Maybe the Most Lively Thing I Have Ever Seen in Cluj

Yesterday, while non-striking French were inconvenienced by more than a million of their fellow citizens protesting against job insecurity, my temporary home here in Transylvania was racked by not one, but two demonstrations. Surely, the good burgers of Cluj-Napoca downed tools and demanded their own protection from the ravages of our World Crisis?

Not quite.

As I was walking home from my labors at the Central University Library, I could see that further down my route, the B-dul 21 Decembrie, a mass of people had gathered and attracted a number of emergency vehicles, which squawked and flashed their strobes. Curious, I went on ahead to investigate and, eventually, gawk like the slack-jawed foreigner I am. It became apparent quickly that it was some kind of procession. I picked a spot on a corner across from the Sora shopping center and gazed upon the spectacle passing before me. 

The lead banner in the parade told me that I was watching a "MARŞ PENTRU O IDEE" -- a  MARCH FOR AN IDEA. The idea, as it happened, was the Universitatii Cluj, or "U," athletic organization. "U" is one of the two professional soccer teams in the city, and are the secondary division Montagues to their primary division Capulets, CFR Cluj. Though their fan bases are naturally much more expansive these days, "U" (patently enough) represents the agglomeration of universities and colleges in the city (over a dozen with around a total of 100,000 students), and CFR was originally the team of the railroad workers (Căile Ferate Române is the national rail system), back when the city used to be called Kolozsvár. I've asked around, and while I am told neither team represents any particular socio-economic group, their competition for local hegemony has given rise to the rivalry of the two neighborhoods where the respective stadiums are located: Gruia for CFR and Grigorescu for "U." 

Well, I should say, "where the respective stadiums were located," since "U's" was demolished in 2008 to make way for a new one, and I think this had something to do with the march -- something about expanded resources and facilities both for soccer and for the club's other athletic endeavors. Whatever its precise argument, the march featured thousands of people wearing the team's colors (black and white), holding aloft team scarves, waving team flags and Romanian tricolors, and chanting slogans that I couldn't really understand. (One of these chant-songs was set to what was meant to be the tune of  "The Battle-Hymn of the Republic," but the pitches were not quite what they should have been.) Police, with some private security mixed in, flanked the crowd, and ambluances zipped up and down the boulevard, but things were entirely pacific. Here is a video of what you missed:

Oh! And what was the other demonstration? It was a motor-parade of licensed taxi drivers, campaigning for greater regulation against their black-market competitors. Although more close in spirit to yesterday's French demos, the taxi protest seems to have gotten a lot less press coverage. I wasn't there to see it, in any case.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

CRITICAL INQUIRY: Timişoreana : in Which I Write Too Many Words About a Not-Terribly-Interesting Beer


Type: Lager
ABV: 5.0%
Manufacturer: Ursus / SABMiller
Price: 1/24/09: 1.7 RON = $0.53 @ neighborhood alimentară (500 ml bottle) 

Hailing logically enough from the city of Timişoara (which admittedly is in the Banat and not Transylvania), this beer is advertised as the first beer brewed comercially in Romania.

(It is my duty to intervene here and insist on a more thorough historcization. In 1718, when Timişoreana was first brewed, the Banat was a part of the Kingdom of Hungary and in turn part of the Habsburg Empire. The nation-state of Romania did not yet exist – and arguably neither did the modern nation-state as such. Perhaps it is most accurate to call this beer “the first beer to have been brewed commercially in the area of what is now Romania.” But that would be bad marketing, and sound too sudsy, even for a lager. I digress.)

At any rate, it’s the kind of beer whose “heritage” gets played up so as to aggrandize its otherwise unremarkable character. Don’t mistake me: there’s nothing wrong with Timişoreana, but beyond the historical trivia it’s nothing special, either. In the same way that we are supposed to be impressed with how PBR won some award at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (though apparently this is in dispute), Timi seems to rest on its laurels – including some won when the town bore the (Hungarian) name Temesvár, reinforcing my earlier pedantry. It also seems to rely on its cheerful packaging – replete with “old-timey” typeface, ghostly images of Habsburg Timişoara (when it was called “Little Vienna”), and a color scheme that evokes the blue-yellow-red of the Romanian flag – to jazz up the utterly ambivalent drink held within. The official Timişoreana website contributes further paeans to the apparent significance of the beer’s sheer oldness. The site is only in Romanian, but there’s a little video that goes through 300 years of history or whatever to some Beatlesy music.

Timişoreana lays assault neither to the nose nor to the tongue. Its aroma is so faint that in trying to get a good whiff I just ended up getting a wet beak – quite in contrast to the SABMiller site’s claim that it is “aromatic.” The scent is vaguely yeasty, although the SAB site also insists that it is “hoppy.” Maybe it is, and maybe I am still too much of a novice to know the difference; but there isn’t much of it, whatever it is. Timi’s taste is accordingly quite smooth, but with very little body to keep the wateriness in check. There’s a slight edge of sourness that sweetens out over time. SABMiller alleges that the “higher alcohol content” (5.0%, cf. Ursus’ 5.25% and Stejar’s 5.5%) lends Timişoreana a “full taste.” Allow me to disagree. Instead, I would submit that this beer has a texture and flavor very much like High Life, Bud, or PBR, though maybe not quite as carbonated.

After a pasting like this, you might be led to believe that I think Timi is a bad beer. Not so! Boring it may be, but this has its place. It’s what one might call a high-volume beer: a moderate ABV (despite what the official website says), an easy texture, and comparative blandness means that this is a beer suitable (though perhaps not advisable) for gulping, chugging, and generally downing with abandon. It would make a good, cheap keg beer, if they had such things around here. Certainly, had the college parties of my not-so-distant youth – I am reminded for some reason of Loose gatherings, for those in the know – been graced by Timişoreana’s “three centuries of tradition,” life would have been that much classier.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Sorry for the glare.

URSUS (a.k.a. Ursus Premium)

Type: Lager (Pilsner, I believe)
ABV: 5.25%
Manufacturer: Ursus / SABMiller
Price: 1/24/09: 2 RON = $0.60 @ neighborhood alimentară (500 ml bottle)

Brewed in the Mănăştur district of Cluj-Napoca, Ursus is the self-described “King of Beers in Romania. Like the Kingdom of Romania, Ursus received its crown through foreign intervention: it was just another provincial brewery until SAB’s ownership and marketing largesse helped propel its hegemony beyond the Carpathian Basin (or so says SAB’s website).  

Ursus, of course, is Latin for “bear,” and if it were also the name of a terrible beer I might have joked that it represented the animal whose urine made that beer’s chief ingredient (viz., Q: Does a bear piss in the woods? A: Only if trees were Ursus bottles, etc.). But that would be dishonest. Ursus has its charms, not least of which for me is that they make not far from where I live, even if it is still part of the vast SABMiller empire. As far as aroma, Ursus has a slightly raw, yeasty disposition – not unlike how it smells as you walk past the factory. I find this crudeness, this sharpness, mostly refreshing. On the downside, it is obvious even by scent that Ursus has a thin and watery taste; and its green bottle, though gilt in regal foil, means that this beer is virtually predestined to have at least a little bit of skunk. Sure enough, Ursus has a watery and mostly inoffensive flavor. However, as the official site points out, it also has a “marked bitterness.” In my opinion this wavers between being zesty and being just plain sour, but the more you drink the more pleasant it gets (which may or may not be a function of your elevated BAC). Therefore Ursus’ dryness lends it a punchier temperament than other basic lagers, though not nearly as robust (or, according to the prejudices of my sweet palate, domineering) as, say, a pale ale.

A shot of the Ursus Brewery, Cluj-Napoca

In short, if the American “King of Beers” is any guide, Ursus has many of the same qualities: simplicity, straightforwardness, and a congenial palatability that (I imagine) might make it hard for many drinkers to develop especially strong feelings one way or the other. I will say, though, that Ursus’ particular bitterness makes it a little more interesting than Budweiser. It’s not enough of a tang to incite controversy, but just enough to add character. And maybe that’s the power behind the throne.

Hot Executive Action

Just to follow up on an earlier post, it turns out that Obama did not wait for Congress to reverse the Bush administration's secretive record-keeping rules. Part of his "Transparency Week" was to knock down 43's executive order with one of his own. Hooray! Dare I begin to revive my childhood faith in the White House?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

To Hell With Poverty!


According to my AdSense account, I have officially earned $0.01 -- MY FIRST PENNY! -- from this blog. That is also worth .033 Romanian Lei or 2.23 Hungarian Forint! HELL YES LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL! GONNA BUY ME A DRANK!!!

Monday, January 19, 2009

CRITICAL INQUIRY: Beers of Transylvania: Stejar

In this series, which takes a judicious eye toward Current Events, I will be bringing attention to the many beers native to Transylvania, my temporary home. Romanian beer is too criminally inexpensive, and I too dangerously unoccupied, to overlook this Important Issue.

Let us proceed. First, however, a few remarks.

Moving to East-Central Europe demands certain alterations in the way one drinks beer. Most positively, volume rises and price enters a tailspin. While the 12oz. bottle does not leave the scene (in a slightly smaller .33l version, which also comes as a glass), especially not when ordering at a café or lounge, it can be argued that the basic unit of beer increases to a generous 500ml. In Romania, in fact, it is quite popular to buy 2-liter plastic bottles of low-end beer, often for a fraction of the by-volume cost of what comes in glass or aluminum. But then, this generally is a region where one can easily purchase alarming quantities of wine, beer, and spirits – such as a whole liter of moonshine for around $3 – and forget about their depressingly low individual share of GDP.

The main trade-off, as I see it, of living in this wonderland of cheap suds is that variety, even in the big cities, is generally not on par with what the spoiled American beer-drinker can access at his or her local supermarket. At bars, do not hope to see a phalanx of gleaming tap-heads; at the store, come prepared to buy something in any flavor – as long as it’s lager or pilsner. To be fair, a hypermarket like my local Auchan can supply you with stout (Guinness) or wheat (something German), or limed-up Mexican beer, if you are willing to pay a little more. But for the most part it is variations on two themes, and you had damn well better like the tune.

That said, Romania, Hungary, Poland, and of course the Czech Republic (these being so far the only places of which I can speak from experience) are all felicitous places to find oneself with a beer in one’s hand. Let us look closely at one of those beers now, together.

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Type: Pilsner
ABV: 5.5%
Ursus / SABMiller
Price: 1/19/09: 1.68 RON = $0.51 @
Auchan (500 ML can)

Bearing as its name the Romanian word for “oak,” Stejar proudly markets itself as a beer for manly men – presumably for those, in particular, who reckon their tumescent members recall the limbs of that eponymous tree. To quote the SABMiller promo page:

Stejar Pilsner has an intense taste and provides a refreshing sensation and a ‘thirst for adventure’. It’s a mainstream beer, created for men who want more, who enjoy having fun and who live their life to the full.

Indeed, the can promises INGREDIENTE SUPERIOARE, CARACTER MASCULIN, and GUST INTENS. It is clear that the fate of an entire constellation of gender norms rests in Stejar’s tawny depths. But once loosed from its reasonably butch-looking can, Stejar gallops enthusiastically towards ambivalence. The aroma, while not exactly precious, strikes me as more floral than hoppy; rather more like mowing the lawn than panther-clubbing when it comes to a “thirst for adventure.” With regard to color, on the other hand, I think it is fair to say that Stejar has a respectably nutty-golden tan, as though reflecting the dermal effects of many hours of outdoor drudgery familiar to its targeted consumers. As for flavor, gust masculin must have something to do with its relative bitterness – which I would not describe as “full-bodied” or “robust,” but instead as “feigning emotional impenetrability” or “cry on your own fucking shoulder, Steaua's on the teevee.” This is not a sensitive beer, but neither is it the stern cock-clocking advertised by the SABMiller marketing combine. Still, at fifty Yanqui cents a can, there’s nothing to complain about, especially when at that price it gives a beer like Natty Ice even more reason for self-loathing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Humble Pie, à la Emergency Preparedness

Every time I look over those optimistically illustrated safety cards they have on airplanes, I smirk (in spite of my own peril) at the idea that a plummeting jetliner might ever wind up resting placidly on a body of water. But I guess all that flotation impedementia I had once mocked came in handy yesterday for 155 people on board U.S. Airways flight 1549, when some birds ruined both of the plane's engines and the pilots had to take her into the Hudson. Shows what the hell I know -- but I am very happily wrong.

P33$ 4 R TYME!!!

P33$ 4 R TYME!!! LOL
Myspace Glitter Graphics

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

In Post-Kleptocratic Romania, Joke Tell YOU

Last night over drinks my new Romanian pal Mihai told me a joke that I thought I would relate here, as faithfully as possible, so as to give a taste of how the kids this side of the Gazprom pipeline like to get their giggles. It inexplicably guest-stars Barack Obama, I guess because a little of the Hope rubbed off on folks here, too. Mihai tells me it accurately describes certain aspects of law enforcement in Romania; it's pretty savvy about the USA, in any case.

One day, Barack Obama held a contest to see which of the world's intelligence services was the best. He set free a rabbit in the woods and told the contestants that whichever agency caught the rabbit first would be the winner and receive the grand prize.

The first to try their hand was the CIA. The Americans deployed their finest agents, who brought with them their best equipment. They scoured the forest floor for rabbit-prints, analyzed the forest air for rabbit pheromones, and kept vigil over the scene with their most advanced spy satellites. But after a week they could produce no results and declared that the rabbit just wasn't in the forest any longer.

Next up was the FSB (the successors of the KGB), and Obama released another rabbit into the forest. The Russian spies dressed up in tree costumes and erected carrot traps to lure the rabbit into their grasp. But despite their patience and discipline, a week passed and still they had found no rabbit. The prize would not be theirs.

Third and finally was the SRI (Serviciul Român de Informaţii), Romania's agency. Obama set a third rabbit free and told the SRI to succeed where the others had failed. The Romanian officers, wearing riot gear, spilled out of their paddy wagon. They swore and brandished their truncheons and shot tear gas wildly into the trees as they charged the forest. After three minutes a bear came running out, crying and waving his paws in surrender. "OK, OK, I admit it! I give up! I'm a rabbit -- I'M A RABBIT!!!"