It’s no mystery that I like beer. It’s also no mystery that I don’t have particularly high standards when it comes to beer. If it’s cold, I’ll drink it. All the better if it’s free. That said, when given a choice, I do have preferences. My first preference is to drink draft beer. The only time I prefer bottled beer is when I’m dancing, and that occurs just slightly more often than a solar eclipse. My second preference is to drink stuff produced locally. But if the local brew only tastes good when flowing from a keg at a frat party or when used for cooking (think mainstream American beers), I’ll drink something else. My third preference is to drink something smooth but with plenty of flavor. And finally, I prefer beer which is relatively hangover-friendly. I’d be more than happy to drink nothing but Guinness and Hoegaarden the rest of my life.
So, how is Bulgarian beer and what are the best ones? Of course, the answers to these questions are entirely subjective, but I’ve received enough questions regarding this topic that I feel it’s worth sharing my opinion. After great sacrifice and painstaking research, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bulgarian beer generally sucks. This runs contrary to the prevailing sentiment among Bulgarians, many of whom consider their favorite Bulgarian brew to be the "best of the best." My opinion is more in line with those Bulgarians I've met (and there aren't many of them) who describe Bulgaria as a “wasteland” when it comes to good beer. There is, however, at least one Bulgarian beer that is really good.
The best Bulgarian beer I’ve found is Stolichno Bock. Produced by the same company which makes Zagorka (which is part of the Heineken empire), it’s in a league of its own compared to other Bulgarian beers. It has a sweet flavor and pleasing aftertaste and, at 6.5% abv, packs some punch.
I've had mixed results with the Carlsberg-produced Шуменско Тъмно (Shumensko Tumno). I'm not sure why, but strange things happen with this beer depending on the batch. Sometimes they get it right, other times they don't. At its best, Шуменско Тъмно is a close second to Stolichno. At its worst, it's on a par with Kamenitza Tumno. Шуменско Тъмно is produced as a winter beer and is only available seasonally. At 5.5% abv, it’s not quite as strong as Stolichno. The good batches have a nice malty flavor with a slightly bitter coffee kicker. The bad batches are a rather flavorless red.
More consistent in its flavor than Шуменско Тъмно is another seasonal dark beer: Ариана Тъмно (Ariana Tumno). At 5.5% abv, it’s on a par in strength with Шуменско Тъмно. It also tastes a bit like the good version of Шуменско Тъмно, albeit slightly watered down. Like Stolichno, Ariana is a Heineken-owned beer.
One dark beer I wasn’t particularly impressed with is Kamenitza Тъмно. It’s more of a red beer than a bock, and it’s rather flavorless. Very disappointing.
Of the many pale lagers produced in Bulgaria, none is outstanding, but most are drinkable. My personal favorite among these decidedly average beers is Шуменско Premium (Shumensko).
Bulgaria’s most popular beer is probably Zagorka. As previously mentioned, the Zagorka brand is part of the Heineken empire. Perhaps that is why Zagorka, like Heineken, generally tastes like skunk piss when coming from a bottle but is a pretty good beer when served on tap.
The rest of Bulgaria’s beers are all rather forgetable. Among these are Ариана (Ariana), Almus, Пиринско (Pirinsko), Шуменско Светло (Shumensko Svetlo), MM, Ledenika, Astika, and Kamenitza. I drink all of them from time to time, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend one over any of the others unless you are golfing and trying to down a beer per hole, in which case Ариана is your best bet. Славена is borderline undrinkable. Of course, if your usual beer of choice is Miller Lite, any of these should suit you (and I’ll happily drink along with you). Наздраве!
This is far and away my most read post, and there have been some interesting developments – some good, some not so good – since I first blogged about Bulgarian beer almost two years ago. Here’s what’s new, starting with the not so good.
Back when I first started drinking, I wasn’t a huge fan of beer. It was OK, but, as much as it pains me to admit, I preferred another drink – wine coolers. The typical wine cooler featured white wine mixed with fruit juice (or artificial fruit flavoring), and they were all the rage in the mid to late 1990s. I swore off of them after a friend’s high school graduation party at which I downed two two-liter bottles of Sun Country strawberry wine cooler and proceeded to puke all over my bedroom, including my phone, short-circuiting all the other phones in the house in the process. It wasn’t my best moment, but it did convert me, and, by and large, I’ve been a beer drinker ever since.
This winter, a new beer from Zagorka hit the market - Zagorka Rezerva 2011. Without reading the fine print, I bought myself a bottle and gave it a try. It’s unquestionably the worst Bulgarian “beer” I’ve sampled. It promises to be a “full bodied winter brew with rich fruity flavor.” To me, it tastes like someone drank too many Sun Country wine coolers, vomited into the beer vat, and they mixed it up and marketed it as something special. A few sips were more than enough for me.
Until trying Zagorka Rezerva 2011, another new beer had slipped effortlessly into the spot reserved for the worst Bulgarian beer. Kamenitza Fresh Лимон (Lemon) is weak in every sense of the word. At just 2% abv, it is exactly what you’d expect to get when mixing beer with Sprite – something that tastes unlike and worse than either beer or Sprite and doesn’t even give you a buzz.
But, all is not lost, as Kamenitza has otherwise been doing some nice things. First, I’m not sure if they’ve tinkered with the formula or have merely perfected it, but Kamenitza Тъмно seems much improved to me. In terms of dark beers, I’d rank it far ahead of Шуменско Тъмно (Shumensko Tumno) and Ариана Тъмно (Ariana Tumno) and just slightly behind Stolichno. More importantly, Kamenitza Пшенично hit the market earlier this year. It’s a 6%, unfiltered, wheat beer that’s delicious and refreshing. A rotation of Kamenitza Пшенично, Stolichno, and the run-of-the-mill Bulgarian pilsners is more than enough to keep me happy.