Inside Croatia's Craft Beer Revolution

June 27, 2019

By Jelena Prtoric, June 27, 2019

If you’re a Croatian traveling abroad, there are usually three things that people say to you when you tell them where you’re from. First, there’s Game of Thrones—“Oh, that’s where King’s Landing is!"—ever since Dubrovnik, a UNESCO-protected city on the tip of Croatia’s southern coast,  became known as one of the key locations where the cult TV series was filmed. Then there’s the beautiful game: “You are super good at football, aren’t you?” someone might add, recalling Croatia’s nail-biting loss to France in the final of last year’s Football World Cup. Finally, there is Croatia’s burgeoning sea, sun, and sail tourism industry, which pretty much guarantees the remark: “I know somebody who was there recently on holiday.” 

But until recently, what Croatia was definitely not known for was quality beer. Despite the fact that Croatians are beer lovers to their core, the country’s market has been dominated for many years by industrial lagers. 

That has begun to change, however. Pioneering microbrewers—the sort of Croatians who have travelled and drank widely, and who want to add a national twist to the beer they love—are becoming common not only in  Zagreb, the country’s capital, but across the country. Joining them in forging a new direction for Croatian beer are craft beer-oriented pubs and beer-themed festivals, which are growing in number and popularity every year. These days, there are over 70 craft breweries in Croatia; not bad for a country of just over 4 million.

Croatian craft enthusiasts haven’t been reinventing the wheel. You’ll find your standard IPAs, APAs, stouts, porters, and sours on offer at most local craft breweries. But there is a sense of excitement in the air around the production of craft beer,  a D.I.Y. spirit that is alive and kicking. 

Photo courtesy of Garden Brewery.

Punk Pioneers: Zmajska Pivovara

When Andrej Čapka and his business partner tried to register their craft brewery back in 2013, they were met with disbelief from local officials. “They didn’t really know what to do with us—it had been so long since somebody tried to open a new brewery,” explains Čapka. Back then, the Croatian craft scene was virtually nonexistent.

“Zmajsko pivo” means “Dragon Beer” in Croatian, and this is an apt translation of the size of the challenge Čapka and his co-founder faced in 2013: to create a range of craft beers that would win over fickle Croatian consumers accustomed to conventional, industrial beers.

Fast-forward to 2019, and Čapka has well and truly slayed his dragon: Zmajsko’s brewery now sells some 500,000 liters per year to bars and retail shops across the country. Nevertheless, Čapka has stayed true to his pioneering, DIY roots. “You simply brew what you like to drink. The first two beers we launched were the ones I liked the most,” he says of his business philosophy. 

Zmajsko’s standard offer comprises six classical choices—a pale ale, a porter, an IPA, a wheat ale, and a pils (a lager is set to join the ranks as of July 2019). This simple, unpretentious range may or may not have to do with the fact that they are produced with the sounds of punk rock in the background.

International Festival-Goer: Garden Brewery

“One thing led to another,” is a sentence that sums up Nick Colgan’s life trajectory; a path that has led him from music to the beer business. Hailing from the UK, where he worked as a music producer, Colgan first came to Croatia on holiday in 2003, and three years later, he was already running Garden Music Festival—an event that has become one of Croatia’s biggest festival brands. 

“Seventy-five percent of our audience is from the UK, and people always want to try local beer,” says Colgan. “One night over dinner my friend and now business partner, David Plant, suggested we could make our own beer,” he recalls.

In 2016 Garden Brewery opened in the Croatian capital. The space also functions as a taproom and a concert venue. Garden’s five core beers—ale ale, pilsner, IPA, citrus IPA, and stout—are inspired by products from the United States and meant to satisfy the tastes of a wide audience. Master brewer Tom O’Hara, originally from Ireland, also likes to experiment with local ingredients. “On my birthday last year, I picked samphire on the coastal rocks. I used it in a sour beer to try to recreate the taste and feel of the Adriatic coast,” O'Hara recalls. 

In the future, O’Hara and his team plan to focus on low-alcohol beers.  “We have been working on sour beers, using fruit or herbs to create balance, and micro-beers, trying to obtain full-bodied flavor in sub-3-percent beers,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Varionica.

Americana: Nova Runda

Miroslav Šuvak’s perspective on beer culture changed dramatically when he visited the Czech Republic in 2009. He was sitting in a small bar in the Czech countryside when a young woman passed by on roller skates. She sat down, ordered a beer, finished it in almost one gulp, and carried on skating. “It was [then] when I realized that beer can also be a light drink, consumed for refreshment, rather than just a drink of choice for a boozy night out,” Šuvak recalls. Inspired, Šuvak started brewing at home, and in 2014, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, produced Nova Runda's first two beers—an American pale ale with Citra hops, giving that first brew a strong citrusy profile with elements of grapefruit, lime, and tropical fruit, and C4, a hoppy IPA,  which remains the brewery’s most popular beer to this day. 

Šuvek likes to experiment, but he’s not shy about admitting that his biggest inspiration comes from the US rather than Europe. “American brewers are the biggest in the world!” he says. Today, Nova Runda produces 150,000 liters per year, all sold as draft. “The beer needs to be fresh. There is no better taste than the one you get with the first glass from a new keg,” explains Šuvak.

The Gourmet One: Varionica

Varionica is a story of two brothers-in-law who dabbled in homebrewing and decided to go professional. Their first release, launched in 2015, was a full-bodied amber-colored pale ale, with citrus and pine notes. Today, their core beers include Neon Stout, a strong, full-bodied stout with aromas of black coffee and chocolate; and Siesta Session, a hoppy, light IPA. The brewery has also churned out more extravagant limited editions through collaborations, such as Lively Neon beer, a combination of the dark Neon Stout enriched with coffee extract. 

“We are very committed to the quality of our product. We've always wanted to produce beer for the people who look for excellence,” says Davor Simčić, co-founder of Varionica. 

The crew is currently in the process of moving to a larger brewery, in a bid to scale-up their production (currently 10,000 liters per month), and experiment more with coffee brewing.

Photo courtesy of Bura Brew.

Force of Nature: Bura Brew

When Alessandro Zecchinati and his wife Veronika decided to move from Dublin, Ireland, to Istria, a large peninsula on the northwest coast of Croatia, they had no idea they’d end up starting a brewery. Istria has been dubbed “Croatian Tuscany” due to its green hills dotted with vineyards, so a wine business would have been an obvious choice. But Zecchinati is a beer enthusiast.  “I had my first craft beer in 1998 in Italy,” he recalls. “I still remember that moment—I discovered how tasty beer can be.” Conveniently, one of Zecchinati’s childhood friends, an architect-turned-brewer, was more than willing to move to Istria and start a new venture. 

“Bura” is the name of a strong wind that blows in that part of the Adriatic. “The wind passes through the borders created by humans and doesn’t care about them,” says Zecchinati. Thus, the name “Bura” was perfect for evoking the international character of their brewery. 

Bura beers are not filtered, not pasteurized, and naturally carbonated. The standard offer is composed of the light Golden Ale; Redsand Amber Ale, whose color reminds of the red soil typical of Istria; Tornado IPA, an Istrian twist on the classic pale ale; and Hurricane IPA, characterized by herbal and tropical fruit notes. “We wanted to create flavors that wouldn't scare people away. Sometimes breweries can get too experimental,” says Zecchinati.

Bura's wild card? Limited editions of Istrian Belgian Ale and Trippin Tripel, creamier top-fermented Belgian style ales that take four months to mature in the bottle before release.

Girl Power: Brlog Pivovara

When Plavuša Beer (a wordplay on the beer style blonde ale and the Croatian word for a blonde woman) appeared on the market, the media went crazy, dubbing it “the first Croatian female beer.” This mild, somewhat bitter, citrusy beer is indeed the first Croatian craft beer produced by an all-female team, Ana Teskera and Maja Šćepetavec. “With this first beer, we were playing it safe,” explains Teškera. “We wanted to create a beer you’d want to drink all the time, something that will be acceptable to your mum and dad and friends and relatives.” 

Teskera comes from the family of wine producers, and she has always enjoyed looking for the perfect flavor. It took her 40 different combinations to find the taste of Plavusa—but it seems she got it right, because it became an instant success. The duo followed up with Neposlušna ("disobedient/rebel girl" in Croatian ), an amber-colored, caramel-flavored aroma beer, whose name is an homage to a women’s rights protest that happened in Croatia at the time.

Today, they produce 6,000 liters per month, selling to bars and specialized beer shops across the country. As the brewery grows, Teskera looks forward to experimenting with different local tastes. “We hope to use more local products, to reflect the tastes and smells of the region, but also to show our support to small local producers,” she explains. 

Top photo courtesy of Brlog Pivovara.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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