THE BEER BEAT: 30 years ago today, labels from beer hunting in Red Hungary … and töltött káposzta at Czarnok Vendéglő.


This article is one of a series documenting my 1987 journeys in Europe. 

Previously: Genesis live in Budapest on June 18, 1987.
NextThought and reflection in Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest.

According to my scant notes, the day after the Genesis concert was devoted to “Genesis recovery, organ recital, good dinner with cabbage dish and a Pilsner Urquell nightcap.”

I can recall absolutely none of this except maybe the cabbage. More about this in a moment.

When I rolled back into Budapest on June 15 after a marvelous respite in Kőszeg, the nearest IBUSZ state tourist agency office booked me into a private room in Buda, so now a primer on Budapest’s composition.

The Chain Bridge was opened in 1849, with the aim of helping Óbuda, Buda and Pest to merge more quickly. In 1867 Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth (“Sissi”) were crowned in Matthias Church. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy of the Danube came into being. In the history of Budapest the year 1872 stands out as a milestone, for it was then that the three separate settlements of Pest, Buda and Óbuda (literally “Old” Buda) were united into one city with a population of more than 150,000. Budapest officially became the capital city of Hungary, and underwent rapid growth in size and eminence.

Buda is the hilly right bank of the Danube, with castle, cathedral and citadel. Óbuda lies a bit to the north on flatter ground; it’s the site of the original Roman settlement. Pest is across the Danube on a riverside plain ideal for 19th-century housing and industry.

During the course of my stay in the city, I resided in each of these areas, and found reason to be fascinated by each, for varying reasons.

I fell into the habit of taking ridiculously long walks during the course of typical tourist activities, all the while snooping into shops and stores, looking for bottled beers and picnic edibles. I’d try to eat at a workers’ cafeteria for a big, inexpensive midday meal of soup, main course and dessert, then sample the forager’s bounty in the evening.

At this juncture, it’s worth remembering that in spite of “Goulash Communism,” which described the relatively mild reforms enabling a degree of private enterprise, Hungary was a firmly collectivist nation in 1987. Boundaries were being pushed, but there were limits. Larger enterprises remained nationalized; smaller retail and service businesses might be privately owned, or not.

Hungary was a member of COMECON, the Communist trading bloc, and so goods from other member nations could be found, from Chinese canned vegetables to Cuban orange juice. Owing to the comparative economic differences between East and West, there were very few items from West Germany, France or the United Kingdom. These were diverted to hard currency stores; if your cousin abroad sent you dollars, they could be used to buy these scarce “luxury” articles.

Somehow I’d decided that my goal for the trip was to drink a different brand of beer for every day spent traveling. It quickly became evident that inventory controls and supply chains simply didn’t exist in the same sense as home. A truck pulled up to a supermarket and unloaded, and the staff sold whatever came off it.

As a visiting beer drinker, this was both frustrating and exciting. Never knowing what was available was an adventure for anyone who didn’t have to live there year-round or couldn’t afford to buy Carlsberg at the hard currency store, and so my daily beer hunting became an obsession.

Sturdy half-liter returnable bottles were the norm. There were a handful of breweries in Hungary, including the once-dominant Dreher plant in the Kobanya district. The beers they brewed were lagers in the broad German and Austrian tradition, with an occasional dark or bock included in the range. “Imported” beer meant brands from Czechoslovakia, East German and Poland.

Here’s a brief vocabulary.

világos = pale
barna = brown or dark
bak = goat (bock)
különlegesség = speciality
sörgyárak/sörgyár = brewery
gyartjak = manufactured
palackozzák es forgalmazzák = bottled and distributed by

Finally, this: It had become apparent to me that paper labels on bottles meant ultimately for reuse often came loose in a humid breeze. I became a label collector, and here are some of them, hand-soaked in basins throughout Hungary.

We begin with the home country.

Following are some labels from Czechoslovakia, as marked for sale in Hungary. The first two merit analysis; they’re identified as imports from Moravia (Czech lands) and Slovakia, but the labels indicate they were bottled and distributed by Hungarian breweries.

Tanker transport?

Next, imports from Hungary’s fraternal socialist allies in the German Democratic Republic, including a pleasingly archaic Köstritzer Schwarzbier.

One day I strolled into the big market hall in Buda and saw a stack of Okocim crates from Poland. I bought a few bottles, and returned next day — foolishly, as all were gone. I never saw a Polish beer again while in Budapest.

Now, about the cabbage.

My artist friend Mike from St. Louis was good company for a few days. He introduced me to an establishment located behind the American Embassy in downtown Pest, called Czarnok Vendéglő (inn), enticing me by saying it served draft German beer.

My head filled with thoughts of Beck’s or Paulaner, I met him at the inn and found the beer in question to be from Karl Marx Stadt, formerly (and now again) Chemnitz — in East Germany, of course.

But the golden lager beer was good, and the töltött káposzta (cabbage roll) was even better. Here’s the Czarnok Vendéglő in 1987 …

… and still going strong today (2014, courtesy of Google’s street view).