T’Ale of Three Cities

It’s been a while since I’ve written of my beery adventures, then just as I was thinking to pen something Dom & Poppy went on their adventure and wrote about all the places I’d been… however, I think I may have beaten them to this one!

I’d been planning a trip to the Caucasus region for a while, in fact I went as far as booking a trip in 2014… only for Russia to invade/liberate (depending on your viewpoint!) Crimea and eastern Ukraine days later, from which I’d booked to fly – by the time of my planned trip my departure airport Donetsk was literally rubble.

Since then, Wizzair and Ryanair have introduced more cheap routes to the region, and Azerbaijan has massively simplified (and cheapened!) their visa requirements (Armenia and Georgia require no visa). The trip was thrown together at short notice following the collapse of a planned Far East trip due to Coronavirus, but I was able to find cheap flights mere days in advance. I flew from Doncaster to Debrecen for the princely sum of £8.99, then next night from Budapest to Baku for £32 and a week later I flew Kutaisi to Milan for £7.49 (all with Wizzair). Travel between the cities was by train, I booked Baku to Tbilisi online and bought my tickets to and from Yerevan at the respective railways stations as they have no online sales platform. Each leg was approximately £27 in two-berth sleepers.

Landing at Baku around 6am meant I had a wait for beer o’clock, especially as not everywhere even opens at noon, so I did the tourist bit first, wandering along the Caspian ‘sea’ front, then as the funicular didn’t start ‘til later I walked to the top of the hill to look down over the city, before descending to the Old Town and greeting some of the many street cats. I then checked into the hotel and had a nap, having barely slept on the overnight flight, then it was beer time!

First port of call was Paulaner, a subsidiary of the Bavarian brewer, and with the same beers but brewed on site. The beers were decent but not exciting, and around £3 for a half litre so expensive by local standards.  As I had two days I decided to call it a night and tackle the rest the next day, and adjourned to my hotel.

Next day I had a lie in then set about the rest of the beer scene, starting with the NZS brewery, the largest independent brewery in Azerbaijan, which has an onsite restaurant serving their one beer, a fairly standard lager (the menu advertises an unfiltered version, but it wasn’t available on my visit). I blagged a tour of the brewery, being given a bottle of the beer fresh off the bottling line at the end. I jokingly suggested a collaboration brew next time I’m over, but I’m not sure Azerbaijan is quite ready for what we think of as craft beer! From there, it’s a short 13p bus ride to Mala Praga, a largish brewpub serving 4 beers – filtered and unfiltered pale lagers, a honey beer and a dark lager. Again the beer was expensive by local standards but average to us. I also had a bowl of merji shorbasi, a local lentil soup, served with a quantity of bread more commonly associated with the feeding of the 5000.

The other brewpub, Beerbasa, is at the opposite end of town, though easily reached using a metro then a bus, at 26p for the journey. The three beers here, a light, a dark and a red, were all fairly average, and halfway through my second beer the waiter put down an unsolicited bowl of pistachios on the table, which then appeared on the bill for about £6! Fortunately some brief remonstration got them removed from the bill, but it’s something to watch out for.

I had a couple of other leads as coincidentally a mate was going a couple of weeks later and had done far more research than I, my own efforts being limited to the Ratebeer places lists. The Brewery has closed down and been replaced by a fancy cocktail bar, Mesopotamia brewpub seems not to exist, at least not where it was purported to be, and Hops turned out to have nothing but macro beer and football fans shouting at the tv. My last port of call did exist though, Beer O’clock, and unlike the brewpubs is a proper locals’ pub rather than a tourist trap, both beer and food being less than half the prices I’d paid in the brewpubs. There’s no craft beer as such but independent breweries are served including Stara Praga and Falken.

The train from Baku to Tbilisi is very sociably timed, leaving at 2330 and arriving at around 10am, with the border formalities being 7-9am. I’d opted for ‘Spalny’, two-berth sleeper compartments, and fortunately nobody else was allocated in my compartment. Like Baku, not many bars open at lunchtime, so I did the touristy bit first. Unfortunately a combination of the late opening of bars and early departure of the train to Yerevan meant I only had time to visit three places in a little cluster of bars near Liberty Square, my mate’s research has another couple of bars nearby, and another little cluster in another part of town.

9MTA is a modern craft bar, with 18 taps serving a few Georgian beers plus imports from the likes of Warpigs, Mikkeller and Brewdog. Four of the beers are from their own brewery, I tried the red ale and the IPA, both of which were pretty good, and then a Cherry Tripel from Lost Ridge brewery and a milk stout from Megobrebi. I didn’t try any imports due to time constraints, though unusually in my experience they were cheaper than in the UK. Also unusually for outside the UK, a 150ml measure cost exactly half the price of 300ml, no ‘ticker tax’!

The nearby Black Dog Bar has six beers from Number 8 Brewing, no small measures are served, so I just had a Zulu Run IPA before moving on. It was a decent IPA although nothing exciting to someone used to the UK beer scene. My last stop, sadly brief as it didn’t open until 1900, was SMA Bar. 6 Georgian beers on tap, plus usually a Belarussian lager, sadly off on this occasion so I had a raspberry blonde from Underground brewery and an IPA from Lumberjack brewery. I also acquired some takeouts for the train as they have a good bottle selection. I particularly enjoyed the Breccia, a gooseberry and tkemali (a tart berry native to Georgia) sour. I also had a cucumber kolsch from Megobrebi, and from Underground brewery a coconut IPA and a coffee stout with 20 grams of coffee per litre, possibly not the best idea just before bed!

combination of the train to Yerevan only running every other day in winter, and cheap flights from there being only twice a week, meant the only way to fit it in was to make a return trip from Tbilisi on consecutive nights. The outward journey is earlier than ideal, leaving at 2020 and arriving just before 7am. The border crossing was relatively painless though you can expect a bit of questioning if you have Azerbaijan stamps in your passport. Again I took a touristy wander, but at least here the bars mostly open at lunchtime, so I was in Dargett on the dot of 11am. I spend several hours here, during which I tried all 16 beers on offer – fortunately they offer three different flights of four beers each. I started with a barrel aged wild ale, before setting about the flights including everything from lager to IPA to stout along with fruit beers. I then finished up with a Double IPA and a very good Imperial Stout.

From Dargett I headed south to Dors Craft & Kitchen, another modern craft bar serving 8 of their own beers. Two different flights of 4 are available, I went for the one including a farmhouse ale, a cherry ale, and APA and a DIPA, the latter being a tad weak for style at 6.5% but packing a respectable 80IBU. Again all well brewed and refreshing. 4 x 100ml was about £2.

Next up was Labeerint, an underground bar with a selection of their own beers. Their Lager and Munich ale are available from self-serve taps at your table, while the bar has others including a Helles, a Weissbier and a Dark Lager along with another lager Kilikia brewery. Finally, Beer Academy is another ‘brewpub’ though it seems the brewery isn’t actually on site, serving about half a dozen of their own beers, sadly on my visit these included a ginger brew, which the brewer insisted I try.

My final day was in Kutaisi, the city I visited on my one very brief previous visit to the region. The pseudo-brewpub (the beers actually came from the sister pub in Tbilisi) I’d visited then is long gone, but a new pseudo-brewpub has opened since, namely Bagrati. The waitress spoke no English, but via google translate I established the brewery is not on site but is ‘nearby’. The one beer is a fairly standard lager.

I found English was spoken in almost all the craft bars visited, but otherwise not widely spoken, Russian unsurprisingly being the second language in all three countries. Getting around the cities is easy and cheap, all have metros and frequent buses. Baku uses a ‘Baku card’ which can be loaded with any amount or disposable 4 ride cards (available from machines, which I only saw at the airport and at metro stations), these are the only way to pay for metro and red bus routes, while white bus routes are cash only. Tbilisi has a similar card system for the metro but bought in person from a ticket booth, I didn’t use any buses. Yerevan metro is cash based, again I had no cause to use any buses. Baku metro and bus schedules are loaded into Google Maps meaning it’s easy to plan getting around, I didn’t check in the other cities but the metros run frequently. Wi-Fi is fairly widely available, but to be sure I downloaded all three countries in maps.me for navigation while offline. www.ratebeer.com/places has most of the visited places listed, and handily has a map feature to assist planning.

Overall a fascinating trip. Yerevan, Dargett in particular, had the best beer, but Tbilisi had the most bars worth a visit. Azerbaijan and Armenia I think can now be filed under ‘been there, done that’, but I will go back to Georgia in the not too distant future.

Dave Unpronounceable

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