Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bulgarian Beer

For some of you, this will probably be the most interesting and useful post I’ve put on this blog. Others of you will find it completely uninteresting and worthless. Why is that? Because it’s all about Bulgarian beer (пиво или бира).

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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reflections on Six Months in Bulgaria

Six months ago my Bulgarian adventure began in earnest. It started with an awkward and uncomfortable introduction to a Bulgarian woman and her son, people who, along with their respective spouses, would act as my host family for two months of pre-service training. The awkward introduction was followed by an even more awkward first evening spent drinking rakia and understanding virtually nothing of what we attempted to communicate with each other. An eighty-two step walk from my bedroom to an outhouse blessed with a squat toilet in the shape of an iron made the evening complete.

This past weekend I returned, for the first time, to the Bulgarian family who adopted me as their own six months ago. I was unsure of both how I would feel seeing them again and how they would feel seeing me again. What I learned is that this crazy idea called the Peace Corps is actually working. I felt as if I was visiting relatives, and they treated me not as a guest but as a son and brother. There was none of the awkwardness between us that there had been six months earlier. It was obvious that the relationships and bonds we had developed were real, and the tears shed four months ago when we went our separate ways were genuine.

So, if you’re wondering what it’s like to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ll offer you this. Like any job, being a Peace Corps Volunteer has its pros and cons and ups and downs. But there are few other jobs which allow you to serve your country, see and experience a new culture, and help people in need. As mentioned at the very beginning of this blog, the primary goal of the Peace Corps is to promote world peace and friendship. Who doesn’t like making new friends and working toward making the world more peaceful? It’s a pretty special and rewarding gig.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Пловдив (Plovdiv)

Thanks to an in-service training conference, I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days exploring what many consider to be Bulgaria’s most compelling city – Пловдив (Plovdiv). One of Europe’s oldest cities, with a history dating back further than even Rome’s, Plovdiv is many things – historic, cultured, cosmopolitan, photogenic, and eminently walkable. There is plenty of information about Plovdiv on-line, and I won’t rehash it here. If you want to learn more about the city and what it’s like to live and work there, I encourage you to check out this blog written by a pair of fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who are currently serving in Plovdiv and who served as gracious hosts during our visit.

I'm neither insightful enough nor talented enough to capture the essence of Plovdiv and its many layers in words or photos, but if you scroll down you can take a walk with me through The City of the Seven Hills and see some of the reasons why I enjoyed my time in Plovdiv so much.

Plovdiv’s most iconic symbol is the Roman Amphitheater found in the heart of old town. Built in the 2nd century AD under the orders of Trajan and rediscovered in 1972 following a landslide, the amphitheater now hosts concerts and plays during the warmer months of the year.

Like Veliko Turnovo, Plovdiv has a rich collection of homes built during the Bulgarian National Revival, a period renowned for its characteristic architecture. Plovdiv’s old town is a showcase for these homes. This is the Georgiadi House. Built in 1848, the house is now home to a historical museum.

Constructed in 1829, the Lamartine House now is owned by the Union of Bulgarian Writers.

This is the Balabanov House. A bit of a phony, it was reconstructed in 1980 in accordance with the original blueprints after being completely destroyed.

This is the Kuyumdzhiev House. Built in 1847, the house is now an ethnographic museum.

Another of Plovdiv's iconic symbols, the Hissar Kapia (getting it's name from Turkish and meaning "The Gate of the Fortress") is one entry way into old town.

Exiting old town through the Hissar Kapia.

A couple street scenes from old town.

Old town also is home to a number of interesting churches. Built in 1844 on the site of a 9th-century shrine, the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa marks another entrance into Plovdiv’s old town.

One of the largest churches in Plovdiv, St. Nedelya Church was built in 1578 and restored in 1830.

The Church of SS Konstantin & Elena is Plovdiv's oldest. Originally built over a Roman church, the current structure dates mostly to 1832. The church is known for its art, especially the richly colored frescoes that decorate both the entrance to the church and its interior.

Crowned by a monument commemorating the liberation of Bulgaria by the Russian army from the Nazis, Bunardzhika Tepe is one of Plovdiv's seven hills and provides 360 degree panoramic views of the city. Here are some views from the hill.

I wonder what this guy was thinking.

Found at the north end of old town, Nebet Tepe is another of Plovdiv's seven hills. Rubble from an ancient fotress crowns the hill, which provides outstanding views of the city below.

Plovdiv also is home to several interesting markets. Here are some photos from the largest such market.

Plovdiv is home to two working mosques. This is the minaret of Dzhumaya Mosque rising above the nearby buildings.

A classic Bulgarian scene along Plovdiv's pedestrian mall: Dzhumaya Mosque, which is believed to have been built in 1364, standing above the remains of part of a Roman stadium that is thought to have held 30,000 spectators.

This is Imaret Mosque, built in 1444.

Plovdiv's long pedestrian mall is a great place for people watching, drinking and dining (and probably shopping for those so inclined). Other than the signs in Bulgarian, this area has a very different feel to it than anywhere else I've been in Bulgaria. It seems more like Western Europe than the rest of Bulgaria and oozes with an optimism otherwise lacking in most places in Bulgaria.

Plovdiv's many parks offer sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of city life and were particularly pleasant on our visit.

A pleasant and unexpected surprise ... we went and saw the Harlem Gospel Choir perform while we were in Plovdiv. This is the choir, along with some new Bulgarian friends, performing "We are the World."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Honoring Local Heroes

A day after returning from a two-week vacation occasioned by swine flu hysteria, our school cut classes short so everyone could attend a ceremony remembering the heroes of a famous local battle in the Serbo-Bulgarian War. From an outsider’s perspective, what was most interesting was the lack of precision of the Bulgarian armed forces which attended the ceremony. The lines were crooked, shoulders were slouched, and instruments were rested on the ground. Not exactly what you’d expect from an army which purportedly is the only armed force in the world to have never lost a flag. Of course, an ability to march and stand in line says nothing about fighting ability.

Here are some images from the ceremony, which took place in the town center.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Recipe #6: Боб чорба (Bean Soup)

Bulgarians love their боб чорба (bean soup). I’m not a huge fan, as it tends to make me even gassier than usual, but it’s not a bad meal. It’s also cheap, reasonably healthy, and easy to prepare. Here's a fairly standard recipe.

2 cups white beans
1 onion – diced
3 carrots – peeled and diced
1 hot pepper – diced (can be omitted if you dislike spicy foods)
1 tomato – peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic – diced
2 tablespoons sunflower oil

Sort and wash beans. Soak in cold water for at least four hours (preferably overnight). Drain and rinse beans. Put beans in pot, cover in fresh water, and bring to a boil. Drain beans, discard dirty water, rinse beans, return beans to pot, cover in fresh water, and bring to a boil again. Repeat process until beans have been brought to a boil three times (this theoretically makes the beans less gassy although you couldn’t prove it by me). After bringing beans to a boil a third time and discarding dirty water, return rinsed beans to pot with fresh water. Add sunflower oil, onion, carrots, garlic, and hot pepper. Bring to boil and then simmer until beans begin to soften. Add tomato, savory, and salt and pepper to taste. Thin/thicken soup to desired consistency with flour and water as necessary. Simmer another 20-30 minutes or until beans are soft.

A bowl of Bulgarian Bean Soup.

Friday, November 6, 2009

София (Sofia)

Before today, I had visited София (Sofia) perhaps a dozen times and found it to be a city with very few redeeming qualities. I would have described it as little more than a giant cluster@%#&! But on my previous visits, I was in Sofia for a specific purpose – Peace Corps’ meetings, lichna carta red tape, etc. – and I wasn’t able to see past its obvious flaws. Today, I was able to wander around Sofia aimlessly and just take it all in, and that made all the difference in the world.

Even though I’m happiest tromping around in the bush, I love great cities too. And the sensory overload that hits you in a great city is something magical. Walking around Sofia today, I wasn’t hit with that special feeling, but, for the first time, I found myself enjoying and appreciating Sofia. It’s a place where worlds collide; where east meets west and past meets future. And of all the cities in the world I’ve visited, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another city which provides greater insight into a country’s people and its past, present, and future than Sofia does with respect to Bulgarians. There is contradiction everywhere, and, without knowing Bulgarians, none of it would make any sense. But seeing top-of-the-line Mercedes and BMWs share the roads with horse-carts and donkey-carts and seeing remnants of Thracian, Roman, medieval, and Ottoman-era buildings amongst a concrete jungle of Communist-era eyesores which now house McDonald’s, KFC, Gucci, and other familiar names all seems right. None of it screams Bulgaria, yet all of it does.

One of the best things about Sofia is all the parks. Men play chess, women talk, children play, lovers smooch. It's pretty cool. This is one of my favorites if only because of the view of Alexander Nevski Memorial Church.

A closer shot of Sofia's most famous building, the Alexander Nevski Memorial Church. Built in stages between 1882 and 1924, it's one of the world's largest Eastern Orthodox churches.

This is the National Gallery of Foreign Art.

Built in 1873 for Sofia's Ottoman rulers, this building now houses the National Gallery of Art.

This is the Party House. Built in 1954 as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party, the building now belongs to Bulgaria's parliment.

Built in 1913, this building was formerly home to Sofia's Mineral Baths.

Constructed in 1576, this is the Banya Bashi Mosque, the only Muslim place of worship in Sofia which still serves its original function.

This is Sofia's Central Market Hall.

Consecrated in 1914, this is Sofia's Russian Church.

Built in 1907, this is the National Theater.

Used as a church since the 6th century, this is the Rotunda of Sveti Georgi.

An interesting sculpture outside the National Gallery of Art.