Those of you who have been to any of the former Soviet Union know that they know how to drink, and Central Asia is no different. Of course the drink of choice is always vodka, however beer is also well loved – though more as a competitor to Coke or Fanta than to vodka! And of course, each of the five Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, have their own beer brands.
Now, I won’t go through every beer in each country, as we’d be here for days, but here are some of the most popular and common beers in Central Asia, as well as a couple of other notable ones.
Turkmenistan is a two-beer country – Zip and Birk . Any bar you go to, restaurant you eat at, or hotel you stay at, will sell either one or both of these simple drops. It’s a bit like Coke and Pepsi actually. Two of the more popular cafe/bars in Ashgabat are named respectively, Zip and Birk, as one sells only Zip and one sells only Birk. Neither of these bars are actually officially called these names, and you won’t find them on a map with those names, but they’re what everyone calls them. Try calling them by their real names and no one will have any idea where you’re talking about.
My favourite is Zip, both the beer and the bar.
They are both lower in alcohol than a lot of you would be used to usually being around 3.5-4% alcohol volume. They're both very simple lagers that need to be drunk very cold, and don’t have a whole lot of flavour. Nice and refreshing, but not really going to satisfy the craft beer connoisseur.
Sarbast is the most common beer in Uzbekistan and is produced by UzCarlsberg, which as you probably can guess, is a joint venture between the Uzbekistan government and Carlsberg. Uzbekistan has a history of successful joint ventures, with the most known one being GMUzbekistan, formerly known as UzDaewooauto.
Qibray is another one of the gang of beers on offer in Uzbekistan. This is a self-described Pale Lager, however they also produce an extra strong beer around 10% alcohol that actually has quite a bit of flavour, but it has a big kick.
Pulsar is probably the second most common beer you'll see in Uzbekistan, and is made by the Samarkand-Praha brewery. They also happen to own and run a bar called Zlata Praha which has a selection of beers – Filtered, Unfiltered, Dark Lager etc.
As far as foreign beers go, Tuborg is the most widespread and popular. It is of course also made locally though by the UzCarlsberg company, and comes with a slightly higher price tag than the other “local” beers.
Kyrgyzstan has gone the furthest towards producing genuinely great beer, and it’s becoming more and more common to find interesting and unique brews. The first microbreweries in Central Asia were in Bishkek and there is some great variety for those who like to drink more than a plain simple lager.
Save the Ales was opened by a mum and daughter team who produce some of the most amazing beers you will try. Whether it’s an old style Porter, an American Brown Ale or a triple hopped IPA, they are at the same place in brewing as the world’s most hipster craft beer companies. Even the hipster outdoor seating area could be in Berlin, London or Melbourne.
Arpa (Арпа) , Zhivoye (Живое) and Nashye Pivo (Наше Пиво) are the old school brands and quite honestly should only be drunk when there's not much else on offer. They offer a simple alcohol delivery which isn't too offensive. Whilst the presence of craft beers is becoming a lot more common now, there are still plenty of places where these (or one of these) will be your only option.
The most common “interesting” beer you’ll find is Red Sun Velvet Amber Ale . This is not quite as prolific as the other three I just mentioned, but it’s pretty cheap and readily available, and as a sign of its accessibility – you can even buy it in plastic bottles in most supermarkets! It’s the only non-lager that you’ll find outside of Bishkek. It offers a departure from other mainstream beers on offer as it has a beautiful ruby colour, lovely hoppy taste and a slightly sweet caramel finish.
Kazakhstan has a wide variety of lagers, quite often named after a town or place in Kazakhstan, for example Alma Ata beer (Алма-Ата) from Almaty, Shymkentinskoye beer and Karagandinskoye beer. Zhigulskoye , the famous Soviet brand of beer is also very common in Kazakhstan and is famous for their interesting can designs.
Something that is very common now in Kazakhstan is individual restaurants/restaurant chains that also make their own beer, a microbrewery essentially. In Almaty two of the more famous restaurant/pubs that produce their own beer are Pinta (Пинта) and Line Brew . However, these often still are simply filtered or unfiltered lagers, and sometimes a dark lager as well.
There are more and more varieties of beer popping up, mainly in supermarkets, but also in restaurants slowly as well, and there are even a few very trendy little beer bars now too.
In Kazakhstan it is also a lot easier to get all the world’s biggest brands, whether it’s Guinness, Tetley’s, Becks, Peroni, Hoegaarden or Paulaner. In fact, a lot of restaurants and bars will have their basic beer selection, and then might have one or two of these foreign beers available as well.
In 2012, Tajikistan was officially the cheapest country in the world to drink a pint in, with the average price being 45 US cents to enjoy a cold beer at a pub or bar. That being said, the locally produced drops are also considered the worst in the region, considered by beer experts to be overly sweet and very watery.
If you head to the main brewery in the centre of Dushanbe, Pivzavod Brewery , a pint of their headline beer, Dushanbinskoye , will still set you back less than $1.
Sim Sim is probably the most popular bottled beer available, a 4% very sweet beer. It's also very common on tap. They also have their own bar by the river in Dushanbe where they also sell a very nice wheat beer.
One problem at higher end bars/restaurants is that quite often they won't have local beers, and instead just sell Russian/European beers. They might not actually be much better, still often only offering plain lagers, but because of the foreign label, they come with a higher price tag.