Old Albania, 1994: Beer in the Land of the Eagle (Part 2 of 3).


Part 2 of 3.

One if by sea, 1985.

My first glimpse of the obscure and mysterious Balkan nation called Albania came in 1985. I was lounging on the deck of the ship traveling from Greece to Italy, eating straight from a tin of tuna with a camp fork and washing it down with Dutch Oranjeboom beer in a can, when the hazy shoreline of Albania became visible to the east.

After confirming our whereabouts on a nearby map — the Greek island of Corfu could be seen to the west — I went to the railing to investigate the shadowy headlands in the distance.

It didn’t look like very much was there, only barren mountains sloping down to the sea and an occasional village. The bizarre concrete pillboxes and defense emplacements erected by the thousands by Enver Hoxha were not visible from the ship. I knew that Albania was the hardest of the hardline Communist regimes in Europe, and that Americans were seldom allowed to enter, but the biggest question of all was one that was unanswerable at the time.

Was there beer in Albania?

Two if by land, 1987.

My journey through Yugoslavia took me to Lake Ochrid, an ancient freshwater body of water on the border of the now-independent province of Macedonia and still inaccessible Albania. The public bus took me to the last village on the Yugoslav side, where I could go no further, and I was so intimidated by the soldiers and the fences at the crossing point that I was afraid to take pictures. Would they shoot the camera out of my trembling hands? Would it be an international incident?

Would I die not knowing whether there was beer in Albania?

Finally, 1994.

I finally was able to answer the question that had come up years before. By visiting the newly free and non-communist Albania for nine days, charting the progress and the problems in this living laboratory of social, economic and political change, and learning about the long and fascinating history of the Albanians, I now am able to confirm that yes, beer is being brewed and consumed in Albania.

The Korça Experience.

It would seem that Albanian commercial brewing history is entirely confined to the present century. There is no evidence to indicate that beer was a factor during five centuries of Turkish domination, although wine and raki (indigenous firewater of indiscriminate fermentable origin) make appearances throughout pre-20th century Albanian history and lore. For the record, raki is the chill-relieving, euphoria-promoting and paint-thinning social beverage of choice in Albania, and Albanian wine is honest if not spectacular.

The first commercial brewery in Albania in the 20th century was built in 1932 by an Italian company in the southeastern city of Korça (KOR-cha). The city is located in a fertile agricultural valley nestled in rugged mountains and is renowned for commerce (ancient trading routes with Greece and Macedonia), learning (the first Albanian language school was founded in Korça), ethnic culture, and as a hotbed of Albania’s 20th-century quest for national identity.

The brewery is located on a tree-lined avenue on the outskirts of the compact city. Bulky iron gates bear the “Birra Korça” name in simple, red block letters. On the side of a building several yards away, a curiously pristine Communist-era historical marker notes the heroic action of anti-fascist partisans in 1945, who helped to liberate the area by burning some of the brewery’s storage buildings.

As our guide Agim translated the words, I asked myself: How could this really be a victory if the beer wasn’t liberated prior to the destruction of its home? Certainly the ideological struggle against capitalism could be suspended for a few rounds prior to the lighting of the arson’s torch?

The Korça brewery reeks of faded, degraded elegance. It is constructed in the traditional tower layout, with the barley conveyed to the top for milling, the mash tun and brew kettle taking up the middle, and the fermenters and lagering tanks at the bottom. The mustard-colored, green-trimmed buildings are in decent shape in spite of the neglect of the past few years, but conditions were chaotic on the day of our visit. A horse and several dogs roamed the compound, and mounds of rusted machinery — a staple feature of the contemporary Albanian landscape — littered the yard. Inside, some windows were patched with cardboard and there were more than a few puddles made by leaking pipes

Yet, in spite of it all, the brewery at Korça — the only one in Albania with a tradition of excellence, according to Agim — is shuddering back to life following a period of inactivity since the collapse of Albania’s economy in 1991-92.

It is being revived by a consortium of eleven investors who were victims of political persecution during the Communist era and who, as a means of settlement, were given a competitive advantage during the bidding to privatize industry.

On the day of our visit, the Korça brewery’s first test batch of the new era was boiling in the kettle. The new owners have had to overcome formidable obstacles just to arrive at the point of brewing. The brewery was somewhere in the middle of the process renovation as we toured the building, and it had the littered appearance of a construction site. We were told that until the European Union chipped in several thousand cases of used, East German half-liter beer bottles, there was nothing in which to bottle the beer — although a few dozen antique wooden kegs were left behind.

We briefly met with three of the new owners before departing. One of them worked in the brewery before and will now serve as the brewmaster, and he told us that they hope to resurrect Birra Korça’s three styles: 12-degree pilsner, 12-degree dark lager and a special 14-degree lager. The pilsner will come first, and the others will follow.

Interestingly, the adjective used for “dark” to describe a dark beer is the Albanian word for “black.” Owing to Albania’s proximity to Montenegro (“Black Mountain”), the former Balkan kingdom and Yugoslav republic — and more importantly, the birthplace of fictional detective Nero Wolfe — marketing possibilities flowed liberally through my mind as we sat in the old, musty, high-ceilinged office and listened to the brewmaster explain his choice of German hops, Italian malt and yeast obtained at the brewery in Athens where Amstel is brewed under license.

I left with the impression that the consortium would be able to pull it off and put Birra Korça back on the brewing map.

Next: Tirana’s beer.