Alesmith beers featured at Kanaal Bar in Sofia, Bulgaria
The bartender’s long, Amish-style beard and thick black-rimmed glasses looked as if they could be purchased as an all-in-one Halloween costume labeled “The Hipster.” I gave him a warm Western nod, ordered a blonde pale ale, and sat down at the permanently IPA-scented wooden bar. The barkeep’s pleasant demeanor faded as soon as I opted for the smaller sized beer — or maybe because I’d just ordered the blonde, the weakest beer on the chalk-written list. I sipped and examined the empty bottles of Stone and Alesmith that were proudly displayed near the cash register. Now, if you’re thinking that this is quite an unremarkable scene, you’re probably right — if it had happened in San Diego. But this occurred in Warsaw, Poland, two weeks ago at Jedna Craft Beer.
And I experienced something similar last week at Kanaal Bar in Sofia, Bulgaria. The only difference in Sofia was that I got to speak to one of the full-bearded brewers that night as I sipped his fresh, tasty IPA. His name was Branimir, he’s Serbian, and he’s one of the few craft brewers in the Balkans.
Both bars, and the beers they feature, are recent creations in these former Communist countries. Yet it all struck me as familiar: Had I stepped off a former Eastern Bloc sidewalk and into a bar in North Park? Of course, I was happy to see that my beer choices had expanded beyond the two mass-produced watery lagers in the country, but I was also perplexed. When did this happen? Was I experiencing the blossoming of a craft-beer revolution in Eastern Europe?
Two weeks ago in Warsaw, I asked the Polish bartender/manager where his employers got their inspiration and he responded with one word: “California!”
This guy — aside from his goofy Polish accent — even looked like he lived near 30th and University. Initially, he seemed a bit preoccupied and, perhaps, uninterested in talking to me. In a typical foreign situation I might assume that this meant he didn’t speak much English, but I knew this wasn’t the case. I sensed a combination of North Parkian beer snob attitude and Borat-like sexism in him. His expression seemed to say, “When are you gonna stop wasting your time and order a real beer in a real, man-sized glass?” So, I ordered the Brown Monk Extra IPA — half liter.
I guessed right. He nodded in approval and poured away.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“San Diego,” I said.
His eyes popped and his jaw dropped. He reached out to shake my hand and introduced himself properly. His interest was piqued by the mere mention of San Diego. He immediately asked me if I had been to Stone Brewery; if I had tried Alesmith X; if Pliny the Elder was really worth ten dollars a bottle. I answered the first two in the affirmative. This Pole was beside himself in amazement. He stopped short of kneeling and praising me with outstretched arms. I realized that for many international brewers and beer aficionados, San Diego is their Mecca.
Collective middle finger
The rise of craft brewing in San Diego and America over the past 20 years is no secret. In 2013, the New Yorker ran a big article about the microbrewing industry and the rapid growth of the U.S. market. Recently, books have been written and films have been made on the topic, documenting the history of American beer drinking since Prohibition. Often cited in brew history is Jimmy Carter’s 1978 revision of a home-brewing law that opened the door to the craft-beer surge decades later.
As the story goes, only a handful of American craft brewers began in the mid 1980s, amid the final, tense moments of the Cold War. At that time, Eastern European countries such as Poland and Bulgaria were still locked behind the Iron Curtain. Media images from that part of the world were stark and dreary, highlighting food shortages, scarcity; lack of basic freedoms, opportunities, and choices. After 1991 things opened up to capitalism and a few big corporations came rushing in: McDonald’s and KFC, among others — the kind of American exports that were more likely to evoke embarrassment than pride when spotted in 16th Century squares. So, when I recently came across craft beers in Eastern Europe, I thought to myself, Finally, here’s an American export (aside from music) that I can be proud of.
No, I cannot buy a San Diego County IPA in a Bulgarian bar, and I don’t want to. It is not the export of a product but the export of an idea in a historically unique place that makes this movement so intriguing. Just like in the United States, craft beer in Eastern Europe is about creating a local, pure-ingredient, high-quality beer with a personality — a good alternative to the mass-produced, tasteless lagers that have long dominated the market and consumers’ palates. So, the question is: have I been witnessing a San Diego– inspired, homegrown, craft-beer revolution on the Eastern Front?’
Short answer: Yes.
The American (primarily West Coast) beer buzz swept through Western Europe a few years ago, mostly in England and Denmark, and is well-documented in a few articles (see Bon Appetit, “American Beers Conquering Europe”). But the fact that microbreweries are popping up in former communist capitals — Warsaw, Belgrade, and Sofia, to name a few — is a new and fascinating development. Fascinating because it’s a region that’s been relatively slow to adopt Western ideas and import our less-commercial products; fascinating because European eating and drinking habits have been well established for centuries and, for some, are a source of great cultural pride and tradition; fascinating because some Eastern European guys who can’t conjugate the English verb “to drink” are referring to Alesmith, Stone, and Ballast Point breweries. Though nowhere close to the mainstream, there seems to be a collective cry for craft-beer choice and quality among growing numbers of people east of the Elbe. The most widely distributed European beers, Heineken and Amstel, are beginning to appear old, boring, and unnatural. Huge multinational conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Miller-Coors reek of Walmart–esque market domination in a region that is all too familiar with foreign domination (see Soviet Union and Ottoman Empire). Of course, every Eastern European country has its favorite mass-produced, national, watered-down lager. Serbia has Lav. In Poland it’s Zwyiec. Bulgaria has Zagorka and Kamenitza. Even little Macedonia has Shopsko. The thing is that most of these national brands are owned by Heineken International or other large corporations, which gives this post-communist craft-beer trend its revolutionary flair. Though in its nascent stages, small Balkan brewers and their customers are giving huge beer companies the collective middle finger.
Jedna, the bar I visited in Warsaw, might have seemed an anomaly, but it turns out that Poland has had a rapidly growing craft-beer (and hipster) sector. If Poland is the forerunner in the Eastern European craft brewing world, it appears that Serbia and Bulgaria are right behind them. They are all about 15 years behind San Diego, but that’s not the point.
Last week I got an invitation to an event that would have most Bulgarians furrowing their brows in confusion: a craft-beer tapping party at Kanaal Bar.
I had been to this bar twice before and had once talked to the owner, Lubomir, a friendly international beer aficionado. On both previous occasions, his place was nearly empty. Last year, Lubomir had complained to me that Bulgarians weren’t yet ready to pay a few extra leva for good beer; that they were too accustomed to their tasteless lagers and it would take time for their palates to evolve and their awareness of quality ales to take hold. Lubomir told me, “Some people think that the dark Kamenitza is a good alternative choice, not realizing that it’s the same weak lager that has been dyed brown.”
This is part of what inspired him to import artisanal Belgian beer to Sofia three years ago when there was zero demand. Months later, when I visited Lubomir again, assuming he’d be appreciative, I presented him with two smuggled half-liter bottles from San Diego: an Alesmith X and Arrogant Bastard Ale. To say his reaction was ecstatic would be an understatement. He acted as if he were a desperate prospector and I’d just handed him two gold nuggets.
Lubomir kindly shared those San Diegan ales with me in his vacant bar. That was 15 months ago.
The recent tapping party for Kabinet craft beer at Kanaal revealed a much different scene. First of all, the bar is on a street that does not hint at hip or up-and-coming. It’s about as decrepit–Eastern Bloc as it gets, and the unlit wood-paneled entrance to the bar is easily missed, lost in the tacky mish-mash of Cyrillic signs. Once inside, I could have been anywhere in Western Europe, or California for that matter. The place was packed and warm with smiling people excited to try out new hoppy India pale ales. I peered through the crowd and spotted Lubomir. He was all smiles. It was the moment he’d been waiting for — perhaps the tipping point for craft beer in Bulgaria.
As I inched my way through the crowd, a tall blonde guy tapped me on the shoulder. That’s how I met Karel, a Dutch wine-turned-beer entrepreneur living in Sofia. In 2013, Karel purchased and semi-popularized White Stork, the first local craft beer in Sofia. Turns out that he’s also distributing Kabinet, the Serbian beer that was the cause célèbre of the night. Now enthralled by this Balkan brewing phenomenon, I jumped at the chance to ask Karel what inspired him to invest in craft beer in Sofia.
“There was no quality local beer in Bulgaria,” he said. “Craft brewing is exploding in Western Europe. We saw an opportunity here.”
Aside from the potential profit, Karel made clear his dislike for the big-name lagers, which he described as “sugared, carbonated alcoholic drinks with little taste.”
I asked him if any California breweries (10,000 kilometers away) had captured his attention. “Of course,” he said. “A few come to mind: the Bruery in Orange County and Bear Republic, makers of Racer IPA.”
“Any from San Diego?” I asked. I told him I was from there.
“Well, everybody knows about Stone,” he said. “Everybody.”
Karel turned to grab the shoulder and attention of a bearded man with dark hair and thick-rimmed glasses. “Let me introduce you to the rock star of the night. He makes this great beer you’re drinking — Kabinet.”
I shook the man’s hand and expected him to speak fluent English because he looked just like a guy I knew in South Park.
“Hello, I’m Branimir,” he said with a thick Balkan accent.
Karel introduced me as an American who “teaches, writes, and plays drums.” It seemed that Branimir couldn’t care less. He was gazing around the room, reveling in the moment. Everyone was drinking his beer and having a great time.
“Your pale ale is really good, man,” I said, and added, “Mnogo dobre” just in case he didn’t speak much English (Bulgarian and Serbian languages are close enough).
Branimir smiled politely and asked where I was from.
“San Diego, California,” I said.
His jaw immediately dropped and an undeserved reverence was directed right at me. It was like Warsaw all over again. Based on nothing more than geographic luck, my judgment and street cred on craft beer was considered a given. Suddenly, my compliment about his beer meant the world to him. He became more energetic and asked me over the crowd noise about Stone Brewery, Alesmith, Ballast Point, Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and other breweries I’d never even heard of. I felt like I had been to the moon and back and here was an expert astronomer, picking my brain for details he’d seen through a telescope but never experienced.
Of course, Branimir wants Kabinet to expand its distribution and flourish, but he emphasized his desire for independent microbrewing to spread throughout the Balkans; for an increased awareness of the genetically modified products and chemicals that are in many mass-produced beers; for a new consumer consciousness about quality ingredients and so on. He didn’t sound like a businessman. His words were those of a revolutionary. Our conversation ended with an invitation to his brewery near Belgrade. I thanked him and left Kanaal Bar feeling that I had taken part in an underground rebel meeting directed at challenging the corporate beer giants and all that they symbolize.
I’ve been swept up by the empowerment and passion behind this Eastern Bloc craft-beer revolution. Though it is old news stateside, it feels cutting-edge here. It’s invigorating to witness the excitement surrounding something new and meaningful —anti-corporate, local, personalized, community-based, and “organic” (whatever that means now). This Eastern Bloc craft-beer wave doesn’t seem to be a trend that’s about drinking stronger, more expensive beers in a semi-gentrified setting that once suggested hip but is now taken for granted — or even considered banal. In any former communist country — where repression and uniformity was once the norm, a small act of rebellion can feel especially liberating. It breathes fresh air, choice, and hope into a once dreary, monochromatic place. I never thought that the creation and distribution of beer could be so inspiring. And I never imagined that small yet growing numbers of people in places like Serbia and Bulgaria would be so awed by a few small breweries (and former residents) of San Diego.