Every once in a while, a new customer walks into Ray Swerdlow’s Sixpack Store on Roosevelt Boulevard and drops his jaw in happy disbelief.
Maybe he stopped in for a quick sixer of Bud in cans or had a hankering for one of those “old man” beers, like Schaefer or Old Milwaukee – brews you can get almost anywhere.
But then his eyes focus on a familiar label on the top shelf. He opens the fridge door – Could it really be? – and grabs a clunky bottle.
“He’ll show it to me,” Swerdlow says, “and tell me something like, ‘Deese beer, deese from my country! ‘ “
In a Philly neighborhood where thousands of Russian, Slovak, Polish and other Eastern European immigrants have settled, the import rack at the Sixpack Store in the Great Northeast is a little taste of their old home.
In recent months, the busy shop hard along the Boulevard above Tyson has built a growing selection of hard-to-find brews from places like Moscow and Gdansk and Kiev.
Pointing toward the west side of the Boulevard, Swerdlow says, “That whole section used to be Jewish. But over the years, those families have moved out and they’re being replaced with people from Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia. . .Bustleton, Somerton, they’re just full of Eastern Europeans. “
A belly-warming glass of vodka (or three) is the favorite beverage of their former homeland. Until the breakup of the Soviet Union, beer was regarded as little more than a chaser. The worst – produced by the government-owned Zhigulyovskoye breweries – was sour and forgettable.
In the last half-dozen years, though, high-quality Eastern European beers with names like Baltika, Slavutych, Lezajsk and Hevelius have begun to woo the vodka gulpers.
Almost anywhere else in America, you’d have a tough time finding any of these beers. Retailers are reluctant to carry new imports with no name recognition.
But in big cities like Philly, where heavy populations of immigrants are looking for familiar tastes from the old country, many of the brews are showing up in area coolers.
Importing distributor Edward I. Friedland Co., for example, began stocking Obolon from Kiev when retailers in the Northeast pressured him for something from Ukraine.
“I’m not going to say it flew out of here like Corona, but I do about three pallets [30 cases to the pallet] at a time,” said Ed Friedland.
Near Allentown, Shangy’s does a brisk business with an old-style lager called Golden Pheasant from Slovakia. “We’ve got a Slovak church in Bethlehem that goes through a pallet a month,” says Shangy’s Nima Hadian.
“They grew up with it, and they love it. “
These imported specialties have a rich history in Philadelphia.
As early as 1915, Polish immigrants enjoyed an American version of of their favorite beer, which they called Piwo z Polski, or Polander. Brewed in Nicetown and Manayunk by Clebert & Olbert, the beer eventually faded after World War II.
Now, a Center City company is importing Polander straight from Brok Brewery in Koszalin.
“This is the kind of beer we enjoyed in Poland,” said Michael Blichasz, Polander’s sales rep.
How do they taste? Well, many of you will be just as happy with a Beck’s or a Molson at $5 less a case.
But there is a rich tradition in these beers, and a few – especially among the new breed of Polish beers – are worth trying.
Hevelius makes a very malty dark beer, called Kapper, the porter from Okocim gets high marks, and I can’t wait to crack this very handsome bottle of Magnat from Dojlidy.
Meanwhile, beer fans in the Northeast are awaiting the arrival of Baltika, the very popular Scandinavian-owned brewery in St. Petersburg. Its porter is considered a world classic, in the same hearty class as Finland’s Sinebrychoff and Britain’s Courage Imperial Russian Stout.
“We should have it within a month,” Swerdlow says.
Sounds like it’s time to start boning up on the Cyrillic alphabet. For now, though, you need to know only one word: Pyvo (say it: pee-vo) That’s how the Russians, Slovaks, Slovenians, Croatians, Poles, Czechs and Azerbaijanis all say beer!
Eastern European beers run about $2.50 for a 16-ounce bottle at the Sixpack Store. In addition to its super beer selection, the joint, on the northbound side of Roosevelt Boulevard at Princeton Avenue, offers one other important customer-friendly feature: It’s open till 2 a.m. daily.
Sippin’ by the River, the annual Penn’s Landing wine and beer fest, is Sunday. About two dozen breweries will be pouring. The event runs from 1 to 5 p.m. Tix are $15. Info: 215-922-2386.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, Oktoberfest is in full froth. More than 6.5 million liters of lager and 400,000 sausages will be consumed in Munich alone.
Not everybody, though, is happy.
Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, great-grandson of the last King of Bavaria, Ludwig III, griped to one reporter about everything from high prices to the lack of seats to the lousy tunes.
“There is little Bavarian music at the festival,” he told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday.
“If you go to the beer tents, you hear things like ‘New York, New York.’ “
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Okocim.