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.