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.

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