These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

The Great Slovak Beer Taste-Off

Which is the best Slovak beer?

    A plethora of choice - the beer section at a Brarislava hypermarket.
 A plethora of choice - the beer section at a Brarislava hypermarket.
 Photo: Brian Jones

That was the riddle we set out to solve. So we assembled a panel of five - four passionate beer drinkers, plus a wine lover who enjoys the occasional beer. Nationality broke down like this: two Slovaks, two Brits, and an American (me).

Our method was simple. We went to a Bratislava supermarket with a huge beer section and put two of almost every bottle we found into our cart, like hops-obsessed Noahs preparing for a storm. Then we hauled them home, chilled them slightly, and unleashed them one by one on our panel, in small unmarked paper cups. We also served unsalted crackers and mineral water for palate cleaning between sips.

The panelists were instructed to rate each beer on a scale from one to 10, as well as to scribble descriptive comments. In all, they swirled, sniffed, and tasted a total of 25 beers in one sitting - 23 Slovak products with two Czech ringers thrown into the mix.

Some surprises emerged amid the wisecracks and the burps.

First, in a beer market dominated by huge multinationals (see "Slovak Beer: Quality Amid Consolidation"), the scrappy, Bratislava-based independent brewery Stein won the highest marks among Slovak beers in both the dark and light categories. Stein's dark (tmavé) beer led the way with an average score of 7.7 points. One strong supporter simply described it as "mmmm, mmmm!" Another found "cocoa flavor," a remark echoed by a third panelist. Even its harshest judge, who gave it only 6 points, found it "smoky, malty"-usually seen as high praise for a dark lager.

Stein's light (svetlé) beer, with 7.6 points, was outscored only by one of the Czech imposters, Pilsner Urquell. Stein svetlé appealed to all of our tasters, drawing at least seven points from each. The most intriguing comment was "herby flavors, borovička-like." (Borovička is the popular Slovak distillate flavored with juniper berries - often homemade and as subtle as a slap in the teeth.) Another found it "quaffable, with a nice hop finish." Interestingly, one taster described it simply as "bitter" - this person gave it 9 points - while another, less supportive panelist called it "pleasant, not too bitter."

Value-for-money enthusiasts should note that Stein tmavé was the cheapest dark beer we tasted, and Stein svetlé ranked among the cheapest light beers.

Another surprise was that while the Czech beers - represented by the popular Pilsner Urquell and Budvar products - showed well, they did not dominate. Pilsner Urquell, produced by the global beer giant SAB-Miller, did win top marks with 7.8 points. But it only just beat out the two Stein beers. Its strongest fan gave it 10 points, calling it, cryptically, "the most beer-like so far" (it was the ninth beer tasted.) Another supporter found it had an "integrated, long finish, well-hopped." That last judgment was echoed by four of our five panelists. Clearly, this is a beer for hops fans.

Budvar, placed by some critics among the world's greatest beers, made a relatively poor showing, tying for seventh place among light beers with an average of 6.5 points. One taster picked up "artificial" notes, while another detected "mineral" flavors. Its strongest supporter found it "well-knit, perfectly hopped"; another fan called it "full-flavored, soft," but described its texture as "watery."

The most expensive beer in our tasting, Budvar clearly didn't excite most of our panel very much.

Other interesting trends emerged from the evening. We tended to like Slovakia's dark beers (there were no Czech darks in the competition). The lowest-scoring dark, Topvar's Zochar product, averaged 5.7 points - enough to beat out six of the 23 light beers. The second least - appreciated dark, made by Corgoň, drew 6.35 points, which would have placed it in the top half of the light category. One quibble: panelists tended to find the dark beers overly sweet. Even top-rated Stein was described by one otherwise enthusiastic supporter as "too [damned] sweet."

Also notable, the behemoths that dominate the Slovak market - Heineken and SAB-Miller - are making respectable beer here. Heineken's Kelt product wowed most on our panel, coming in third among light beers with a 7.4 average. Its biggest fan, who rated it 10, declared it "just right"; another called it "orangey, drinkable"; while another found it "well put together," with "citrus notes." Its one detractor gave it just 4 points, adding simply, "yuck!"

Heineken's flagship Zlatý Bažant svetlé did less well, placing ninth among lights with a 6.2 average. It ranked as one taster's favorite; this person gave it 9 points, finding orange notes and praising its "long flavor." Another compared its texture to that of water, and derided it as a "boring hoppy ... beer."

SAB-Miller scored a hit with its Šariš tmavé product, which drew a 7.4 average, good enough for second place among darks. Even its least-enthusiastic supporter (6 points) found "smoky, soft, long flavors"; others detected "cream" and "chocolate syrup" notes; and a fourth praised its "fruit-like" profile. SAB-Miller also made a solid showing with its flagship Šariš svetlé, which drew a 6.6 average, placing it sixth among lights.

A final trend worth noting: our tasters showed a clear preference for high specific-gravity beers (see "Deciphering a Slovak Beer Label"). Specific gravity is the number that appears on Slovak beer labels beside a degrees or percent symbol. In general, the higher the specific gravity, the richer and fuller the beer will be. Particularly in the case of light beers, low specific gravity specimens ended up massed toward the bottom of the preference scale.

How does one proceed after tasting 25 beers in one evening? Our panel reached a consensus. Open a bottle of the beer you rated highest - and then spoon up a big bowl of fresh home-made guláš, ideally made from the special recipe of someone's Slovak father.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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