Okay, so now the fresh stuff... beer on tap! Some of it even naturally carbonated and served unfiltered. There were lagers, pilsners, white wheat beers, some bocks and even a few dark beers too. Most small restaurants in Almaty will have a beer on tap, if not a local, then something international. However, out in the city's pubs, bars and the high-end resto-scene, the price of a 500 ml mug or bottle of your favourite brew can be anywhere from 500 to 2000 Tenge (about $4 to $20) depending on the class of the establishment in which you are drinking.
The Staut Beer Restaurant on Dostyk Ave. is one of 9 locations for this brewpub/restaurant chain. They have an extensive menu that includes some Western fare, locally grilled meats and appetizers, plus a large selection of Sushi. We were very happy with our grilled meat selections, though most of the local crowd seemed to be going for elegantly stacked sushi rolls. They had two brews of their own on tap: a Pale Ale and a Wheat Beer. These were the first beers I had that were advertised as ales, though I must say the flavour profile did not stray to far from lager. The Pale Ale had a neutral nose, a quickly falling head, was lightly carbonated, clean and gold coloured. There was a a little fruitiness in this light bodied ale, balanced more towards a grainy malt, no real hop presence detectable for a pale ale, with a slightly sweet finish. The Wheat Beer was appropriately cloudy, pouring hazy straw with a nice full frothy head, somewhat neutral nose, light citrus on the palate, accentuating the wheatiness, some sweetness drying out in the finish.
Line Brew has a location in Astana, as well as the one we visited in Almaty, and their beers can be found at many other bars and restaurants within the city. It's a long, dark wood-paneled old fashioned Belgian-style pub with a replica of the Manneken Pis at the front door, a fire roaring in the room's centre, a long bar with 8 taps, and a large roof top patio in the shape of a boat for warmer weather. Their two brews on offer were the Line Brew Lager and the Line Brew Unfiltered Wheat Beer. The flagship beer is a standard Euro-lager, bright gold/straw hued, light on aroma, but with a big frothy head, good carbonation and light lacing. The usual serving vessel for this beer is a large 500 ml heavy, Hoegaarten-style glass with the bold logo. Clean and with good balance, with perhaps a slightly sweetish finish. The Wheat Beer was very nice, unfiltered, cloudy and hazy with a citric nose, some hints of clove and lemon on the palate, easy to drink, medium bodied well balanced and deliciously thirst quenching. A good wheat beer with a tart finish. They also served both Leffes, Blond and Bruin, Stella Artois and Hoegaarten. By the way, the food was excellent - from the home-made 'pelmenyi' to the soup and sausage, all was tasty and quite reasonable!
Ultra's Brewery and Restaurant is the big player in town. They have 8 other locations, aside from the one we visited near the Astana International Hotel. It was a four story building, with a casual pub on the main floor, and fancier restaurants as you go up. The brew house is on the middle floor, grain ground upstairs and chuted into the mash tun, conical primary fermenters also up on level 3, and large serving tanks (horizontal ones, interestingly) down on the main level. Their main brew, Platinum Beer, was filtered to a beautiful clear gold colour, tight white head that laced, a really good balance, smooth mouthfeel, medium bodied, slight fruit aroma, enough hops for a dry finish. A good clean ale. It also came in an Unfiltered Platinum version. This was a little bigger in every way, more fully flavourful, frothier head retention, great lacing, the fruitiness a little more prominent, but still crisp with perhaps an understated note of apricot sneaking through in the finish. The White Beer was exceptional. Typical cloudiness, silky head, big lace rings, a citric fruitiness dominates the palate with a malt sweetness accenting the balance of this medium bodied brew. Very tasty, easy to drink and a favourite of thr gang I was with that night. They also had a Tomnoye or Dark Ale (темное). Malty/fruity nose, nice full head, dark brown in colour with a deep haziness (unfiltered?), certainly the fuller bodied brew of the bunch, but not heavy, some roasted malt notes, and tones of liquorice. The finish was a touch too sweet for my palate, more hops for balance would be nice.
As an appetizer, we were introduced to 'chechil' here. It's a dry, stringy smoked cheese, a little bit salty, that goes really well as a snack with beer. This restaurant was also known for it's horse steak. Cut thin, cooked to medium and served in a mushroom/peppercorn sauce, it was lean and delicious, similar to bison.
Pinta (пинтa) means 'Pints', and they have two locations not far from each other at the intersection of Furmanova and Gogol Streets. We popped into the one on Furmenova and were lucky to get a table, there were many reservations. This is an almost Western-style 50's diner, done up with a little Kazakh panache, booths all around the perimeter, cafe tables and chairs and a U-shaped bar. Even the menu offered burgers and fries, Cajun chicken and Burritos. They had three beers to offer: the house ale, Pinta Filtered or Pinta Unfiltered and a Wheat Beer. The house beers were good complements of each other, one filtered, clean and crisp, the other unfiltered, so fuller, fruitier and lingering. The wheat beer presented much as all the other pub brewed versions had, citric nose and palate, cloudy, balanced, fruity with a slightly sweet finish. They also had Blanche de Bruxelles on tap, and Guinness and several International lagers available in the bottle.
I saved the best for last. The best little beer bar I found in Almaty is a tiny, little place across from the Hotel Ambassador called Shtab (Штаб), which is 'Headquarters' in Russian, and it sure is, for beer. It has about 6 tables on one side, a small room for maybe 8 on the other, and a covered patio for warmer weather on the street. As you enter you notice there are kegs sitting all over the place, with beer hosing running everywhere, delivering the vast selection to the taps. They had 23 different beers on tap the night we visited. "That's nothing," one of the waitresses told me, "In the summer we can have up to 35!" Ya, baby, this is were the adventurous beer geek comes to get his fix in Almaty!
They had Line Brew, Baltica 3 and Baltica 7, Kronenbourg, Bitburger, Tuborg, Leffe, Zhigulevskoe, something called Nottingham, Debes, Irbis to name but a few. There was even a couple of Belgian Frulis in the fridge. They also serve 16 kinds of Vodka, 10 whiskeys, 14 types of cigarettes, a number of different dried fishes, sausage and cheese plates, chechil, potatoes and salad. This is way off the tourist map, just a real good local spot, full of real beer-loving locals - my kind of people! They also had what some say is the best beer in Kazakhstan - Shykentskoe. This straw coloured pilsner pushed all the right buttons, hop aroma, malt accented, but a crisp, clean bitterness underpinning the palate, white full head, some fruitiness, but a nice dry finish. Could be the best Kazakh made brew. It's dark counterpart is called Barkhatnoe (Бархатное) or 'Velvety'. It is dark brown with ruby red highlights, dried fruit aroma, light tan head that dissipates quickly, no lacing, exhibiting a sweet malt accent, and it does have a velvety mouthfeel. Serious dark malts predominate.
We supped and were sated. We tried a few more brews, mostly tap versions of bottles I'd had and decided to call it a night. The helpful waitresses asked if we wanted a cab as they delivered our bill to the table. Yes please! It was the best and cheapest night out of the whole trip!