Moldova and Transnistria in 25 Microbrews

I’ve been readingThe Geography of Bliss lately, and was pleased find that the author, Eric Weiner, did something few people do. He flew to Moldova. Very few foreigners visit this little landlocked country. What’s even more remarkable is that Weiner went there to study happiness. Or, rather, unhappiness.

Weiner claims that Moldova ranks among the least happy places in the world. However, it depends on how happiness is measured. Another scale ranks Moldova as being not so bad–more along the lines of melancholy than miserable. It’s Europe’s poorest nation, so that must be one reason why.

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Unlike Weiner, we had no research to conduct in Moldova. Unless you count beer hunting, which I guess is a kind of research. Without knowing much about the country or its beer, we visited because we happened to be in the neighborhood. It took 3 hours by bus from Odessa, Ukraine.

Odessa is a charming and lively seaside town. We quite liked it. Chișinău (pronounced like Kish’-een-ov) can’t be described as charming, lively, or by the sea. However, it is a “pleasant enough” capital with “no overt signs of misery,” as Weiner describes it. To say I like Chișinău might be an overstatement, but I didn’t not like it.

Alexander Pushkin, the Russian writer, called Chișinău “an accursed town.” However, Pushkin was destined to hate it, because Moldova was his prison. He was forced to live there in exile. “Rarely can we muster affection for our places of exile, even if they are lovely places, which Moldova is not,” Weiner states, a little harsher than necessary. It’s not so bad.

Chișinău has cats, and Chișinău has beer: two starting points of a real city. We rented a serviced apartment and enjoyed walking around the town. The black kitten living in the parking lot was one of the cuter and more affectionate ones we met on our travels. He was well cared for, too. Neighbors made a soft bed for him under a shelter, and gave him plenty of food. Thoroughly trusting of humans, the kitten was a delight to play with and pet. How bad can a place be when stray kittens are cared for lovingly?

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We visited a Jewish cemetery, where I found a “Kessler” gravestone. No one related to me I presume, but you never know where the Jews went a-wandering, so I took a photo anyway.

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There’s a brewpub centrally located in Chișinău, as well as a good beer shop that fellow Ratebeerian took us to. Thanks to our beer buddy, we sampled several Moldovan beers that would have been difficult to find otherwise. We also drank in outdoor cafes, casual with plastic chairs. All total, we tried 22 different beers in Chișinău, most of which are microbrews.

Moldova is known more for wine, but Weiner said, “the sad truth is that nobody has the heart to tell the Moldovans that their wine, their national treasure, stinks.” If you’ve been there, it is highly likely you visited the cavernous cellars touted to be Europe’s largest. Moldova banks on the tourism potential of these cellars. Wary of tourist trails, we forewent the expensive excursion. Maybe next time. It wasn’t a huge priority on this itinerary, whereas Transdniester, or Transnistria as most anglophones call it, was at the top of the list.

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Just when you thought you were in one of Europe’s last remaining hinterlands, you find the door to Narnia. Moldova must have said to itself, “We’re never going to become the next Poland if all we’ve got is a dingy old wine cellar. We need some serious street creds. Ah–got it! A breakaway republic is cool. No, not hip enough for you? OK, OK. Let’s see. How’s about, a breakaway republic where the citizens carry the old CCCP passport? Does that work for you? Alright, let’s rock this thing.”

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In the case of Transdniester, you have the unique and fascinating opportunity to visit one of the last remaining Soviet territories. It’s a genuine time warp here; well, it’s warped on many levels. But certainly one of them is the fact that Soviet infrastructure and government remains firmly in place in a way that is overt enough to give you pause. It was expressly forbidden to take photos of this government building in the capital Tiraspol.

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Entering disputed countries not recognized by the global community isn’t nearly as frightening or adventurous as it sounds. The line moves slowly. The only difference is, you receive a piece of paper in your passport instead of a stamp. Same as with Northern Cyprus.

But Transdniester is nothing, nothing at all, like Northern Cyprus. Transdniester is one of the strangest places I have ever been and might ever go. It is stranger than Roswell, New Mexico.

Tiraspol is better described by what it lacks than what it has. Streets and sidewalks are deserted. We saw one grocery store, one or two cafes, and no actual restaurants. No one was walking along the river Dniester, even though there is a park and river trail. There were no vendors selling cold drinks. No grandmas, no dogs, no teenagers, no cats, nothing.

Except for beer. Drink Vicariously might suck at a lot of things, but we do always manage to find alcohol. We tracked down three beers brewed in Transdniester, one by coincidentally walking down the one deserted street that happened to have a bar. The building was totally unmarked; but a brewery poster on the window was enough of a secret handshake for Josh to open the unmarked door. Because you know, it’s a great idea to open unmarked doors in Soviet breakaway states.

Inside it looked like a community rec center, only without the community. Surprisingly, there was a man behind the bar. Who was he serving, besides us? There are no people around anywhere. He spoke no English but was pleasant and accommodating. The beer tasted like oppression (sort of thin and sour), but that’s not the important thing. It was an experience.

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Some of Weiner’s Moldovan fixers said “there is no Moldovan culture,” but I wouldn’t go that far. There is a culture, but it happens to be reserved, introverted, and self-deprecating. I would certainly return, to see more of the countryside, some of Europe’s final frontiers. If you’ve done Moldova and Transdniester in depth, please share your experiences with us.

The following charts are Josh’s Ratebeer.com entries for the Moldovan and Transdniester beers we tried. It is worth noting that there are many other microbrews that we did not try. So if you go to Moldova, it would be worth connecting with the local beer geeks. Perhaps beer is the way Moldovans mitigate their misery, just like a lot of people do.
Moldovan Beers Sampled

Kellers Bruna
3.3
2.78 10/17/2012
BH Bruna Nefiltrata
3
3.02 10/17/2012
BH Blonda Filtrata
2.9
2.94 10/17/2012
Kellers Blonda
2.9
2.54 10/17/2012
Arc
2.7
3.21 10/6/2001
Chişinău Nefiltrată
2.7
2.66 10/17/2012
Gotter Pobednoe Temnoe
2.6
2.76 10/17/2012
BH Blonda Nefiltrata
2.5
2.91 10/17/2012
Bohemian Kings Beer Blondă
2.5
2.79 10/17/2012
10  Orasul Vechi Semibruna
2.5
2.71 10/17/2012
11  BH Extra Nefiltrata
2.2
2.92 10/17/2012
12  Chişinău Specială Tare
2
2.15 10/17/2012
13  Gotter Blonda
1.9
2.58 10/17/2012
14  Chişinău Draft
1.6
2.2 10/17/2012
15  Dion Blonda
1.6
2.35 10/17/2012
16  Spicuşor Blonda
1.6
2.42 10/17/2012
17  Cogilnic Grand Gold
1.6
2.27 10/17/2012
18  Chişinău Blondă
1.5
2.18 10/17/2012
19  Unitanc Jiguleovskoe (Zhigulyovskoye)
1.4
2.32 10/17/2012
20  Regina Draft Beer
1.3
2.35 10/17/2012
21  Goldenburg
1.2
2.4 10/17/2012
22  Kellers Clasica Blonda
1
2.25

Transdniester

Staraya Krepost Klassicheskoe
2
2.27 10/17/2012
Slobodzeskoye Svetloe
0.7
2.13 10/17/2012
Benderskoye Svetloe
0.5
1.86

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