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Tucked away on the north-east coast of the Black Sea is the Republic of Abkhazia. It is barely known of and is not visited very often by travellers from the West. However, it is popular with Russian holidaymakers and in the summer months there are even a few through trains from Moscow to get them there. Like most of the Caucasus region its history is complex and as this piece is about beer I won’t dwell too long on it, but some clarification is needed.

Abkhazia2It is a self proclaimed republic formed out of the break-up of the Soviet Union, yet has been a country in its own right in the past. At the formation of the Soviet Union it was an Autonomous Republic, later progressing to be full Republic. That changed in 1930 when it became an Autonomous Republic again, now as part of Georgia. That country gained its independence in 1991 still including Abkhazia.

In 1992 Abkhazian separatists fought the Georgian army and gained victory the next year. In 1994 a ceasefire was agreed, yet flare-ups have occurred since.

Abkhazia declared full independence in 1999, yet even today not many countries recognise it. Abkhazians are an ethnic group with their own language (sadly dying out in favour of Russian), so are different from the Georgians. As said, Russian is widely spoken and that country’s Rouble is the currency.

Abkhazia3The small country is geographically in Asia. Most of its 240,000 population live along the coastal strip. Inland are the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains where Mount Ebrus over the border in Russia is Europe’s highest peak.

The climate in that area is Alpine. However down by the Black Sea it rarely drops below 0°C in winter. In summer it is subtropical. Tea, tobacco, grapes, fruits, olives and much more are grown. Although wine is plentiful there is a positive beer culture.

I was travelling with my wife Linda and we arrived into the country from Russia. We were travelling around the southern part of that country in a steam locomotive hauled special train which had just visited the seaside town of Sochi, home of the Winter Olympic Games 2014 and also the Russian Grande Prix.

Abkhazia4Our train’s organiser Tim Littler had always wanted to travel by rail to Abkhazia and our day visit from Sochi was painstakingly planned by him. This included him undertaking an earlier visit to Abkhazia to meet the Minister for Tourism, who also happened to be the country’s Vice President!

We arrived on a hot day yet it was not humid at the station of Psyrtskha, near Novy Afon. This is situated in a cleft in the hillside between two tunnels and a deep river valley.

The platform held a welcoming party and with a wonderful array of produce for our delectation. I particularly liked the smoked cheese, one of the best I’ve ever had. Please see photograph above right of our fourteen coach train arriving, courtesy Paravoz IS by Bessochi. Then after a few wines on the platform we set off to visit the spectacular caves.

Abkhazia5RThe caves are incredible but I wish I hadn’t visited as the walk through them was steep and long. We then went for lunch, tasting Abkhazian cuisine at a restaurant, with beers from the country’s major brewery, more of which later. After, we took a coach to the magnificent monastery of Novy Afon (New Athens). Yet we didn’t go directly as we passed a farmer’s market on a playing field on the way and diverted to make an impromptu visit. Photograph of the monastery is above left.

At the market we experienced a serendipity moment. The offerings were superb: artisan wines, soft fruits, citrus fruits, honey, cakes and much more. Plus beer! In a corner we found a small stall with draught beer. It was called Хаит (Chait, said with a rough ch as in the Scottish loch). There were two beers on offer: Свeтлое (Light) and Темное (Dark). We tried both and thought they were excellent. We also made a take-away purchase. See photograph right. I think the guy who served us was possibly the brewer, he certainly knew a lot about the product.

Further research has revealed that these beers are brewed in the capital Sukhumi, further down the coast towards Georgia. They originate from the Tаверна Хаит (Taverna Chait) which has a very high reputation, being voted second best restaurant in Abkhazia. It specialises in regional specialities from the Caucasus area, particularly local dishes, especially fish caught locally, such as Abkhaz Mullet and Black Sea Flounder. Photograph of restaurant, below right.

Abkhazia6It is based in the old tobacco warehouse of the Laferm company and retains many of the original features. It opened its doors for the first time in May 2016 complete with the small brewery.

It is named after the Abkhaz good spirit of the sea (see their logo, left). It shows big European football games live on television.

It sounds great; good beer, great food and football on the telly; what’s more to ask for! I wish I could visit one day, very doubtful though.

Incidentally, there is a third draught beer offered in the restaurant and that’s Нефиьтрованное (Unfiltered).

Abkhazia7Before catching our special train back to Russia from Novy Afon station we stopped briefly at another market, this a permanent one. I visited a small shop to buy bottles of beer from the main brewery in Abkhazia which we tasted later on the train.

It is known as Sukhumi (Cухумское) as it is located in the capital. The brewery was founded in 1953 and enjoyed wide distribution in the Caucasus region from the beginning.

Today it is thriving and exports throughout Russia, to as far away as Murmansk in the frozen north through to Vladivostock on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The brewery bases itself on Czech principles and imports raw materials from that country. Their range of beers is relatively small yet we found them to be very good. The company also produces soft drinks and fruit juices utilising the plentiful harvest from the Abkhazian countryside, not forgetting mineral water from their well.

There are four main beers and these are Свeтлое Оригинальное (Original Light) (4.0%); Свeтлое Классическое (Classic Light) (4.5%); Бархатное (Velvet Dark) (5.0%) and ИванЫч (Ivanovich Wheat) (5.0%). All except the last are available on draught, our opinions on these are shown below.

There is one other notable beer to mention and that is Sukumskoye Unpasteurised (4.5%) which comes in wooden barrel-shaped bottles of 1.5l capacity. Only sold in Abkhazia, it is promoted as fresh beer, I wish we’d had it!

As we progressed across southern Russia on the train we tried the beers and this is what we thought. Original Light we found to pleasant but not very bitter although there was a bit detected in the after taste.

Classic Light we thought was the best of the four. It was full flavoured with good bitterness in the taste and in the finish, a very fine lager beer.

Velvet Dark was malty as expected. It was a very dark brown in colour with a slightly bitter after taste.

I’m not a lover of wheat beer yet the Ivanovich wasn’t too bad at all, having a bit of a hop finish.

So, that was our awayday to Abkhazia. A very enjoyable visit that proved that good beer is available in the most unlikely of places.

Visited on: Monday 8th October 2018
Bob Thompson