Most Serbians, engrained with a rich gastronomic culture highlighted by traditions such as kafanas (Balkan taverns) and rakija (fruit brandy), aren’t exactly known for their sense of adventure when trying new kinds of cuisine or libations.
“Go see in Serbia who wants to eat an oyster, and then get back to me,” 43-year-old mechanical engineer Branimir Melentijević tells me, in explaining Serbians’ typically conservative culinary tastes. “The craziest sushi you can [find] here is still salmon.”
So when Melentijević opened the small Balkan country’s first craft brewery, Kabinet, five years ago, it was tough going.
“In the beginning it was really a nightmare,” he says. Convincing people to try craft beer—and bars and shops to sell it—wasn’t easy at first. “But now it’s definitely easier. The number of people knowing it and wanting to try something different is getting bigger.”
Five years later, Kabinet is still by far the largest craft brewery in Serbia, even exporting to 21 countries, but there are now close to 70 other craft breweries in the country, and a handful of pubs specializing in artisanal brews.
I decide to pay a visit to Belgrade’s very first proper craft beer pub, Samo Pivo (meaning “Only Beer”), which offers an amazing selection of beers, despite a somewhat generic fashionably hipster feel—low-hanging LED filament light bulbs and all. I’m taken on a small tour by Raleigh Bruce, an American craft beer aficionado who started the website Pivoslavija, mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Balkan craft beer scene.
Jelena Rodić, one of Samo Pivo’s bartenders, explains how hard it is to get people in Serbia to try craft beer.
“My father doesn’t like this kind of beer. He’s like, ‘Well, what is this? It’s not beer. It’s juice.’”
Though much more popular now than even two years ago, craft beer still only constitutes between 2 and 2.5 percent of the market in Serbia, compared to 25 percent in the European Union.
Rodić says the price of craft beer is another thing keeping some people away in a country where the average monthly salary is equivalent to just $480 USD, among the lowest in Europe.
“Three hundred dinars [$2.89 USD] for a half liter of beer is too much,” she says. “For one craft beer, you can buy three decent lagers.”
Rodić says that despite these obstacles, craft beer in Serbia still seems to be expanding faster than elsewhere in the region.
Bruce explains that most Serbian craft breweries still aren’t too experimental, for fear of scaring off potential consumers.
“They still have to make it accessible to people who aren’t familiar with [craft beer].”
But there are notable exceptions to this, such as Crow, one of the three largest craft players, and voted Serbia’s best brewer of 2017 by RateBeer.com.
“[Crow] is creative in a lot of their beers,” says Bruce. “They’ve done some frankly quite weird stuff.”
Crow’s Alien pale ale is a noteworthy example. It’s brewed from winter savory—an herb renowned for its healing properties—grown on the enigmatic Rtanj mountain, which is shrouded in legends about wizards, UFOs, and its allegedly strange physical properties. A unique brew, and something you’re likely to either love or hate, it tastes almost like cough syrup, with strong herbal tones and a hint of thyme.
“It’s something you’d only find here,” Bruce says.
I think craft beer will be mainstream in Serbia soon. We’re really fucking good at it.”
At our next stop, nearby craft pub Miners, which is completely empty but more intimate and inviting than Samo Pivo, we’re greeted by the sprightly bartender Ranko Popović.
He’s excited about how craft beer has taken off in Serbia in recent years.
“I think craft beer will be mainstream in Serbia soon. We’re really fucking good at it. We’ve made such good progress in the last ten years.”
The next day, Kabinet owner Melentijević takes me on a tour of his brewery in the tiny village Nemenikuće, nestled along the slopes of Kosmaj mountain. The scenic location, pleasantly isolated but just 20 minutes from Belgrade, was very intentionally chosen in order to foster a hedonistic experience.
“The concept for the brewery was more like a winery,” he explains. “The whole idea was to bring people there and to [let them] be themselves in a way, to be relaxed and explore.”
The brewery is currently adding an on-site restaurant that Melentijević hopes to open in March.
Melentijević’s father was a prominent chef, and the son has been a life-long dedicated foodie.
“I was in the kitchen my whole life, and always had this interest in flavors and all that stuff,” he tells me. “The biggest inspiration I have is still from food.”
One of Kabinet’s notable brews is a porter called Olga, which is pleasantly filling but not too heavy, with a slight coffee smell, perfect for warming up on a cold winter’s day. It was RateBeer’s top Serbian brew for 2017.
But my personal favorite is Perfectly Imperfect, with roasted sesame and 70-percent dark Callebaut chocolate. It’s the exact color of molasses with a body that’s rich but not oily. The pleasant aroma slowly steps out of the glass and warms the entire room.
Kabinet is also notable for having a different (and often local) artist design each label, including painters, graphic designers, tattoo artists, and others.
“We said every label has to be different, like the beers,” Melentijević says. “You have only the name of the brewery and the beer that is constant, and in the middle it’s like a canvas.”
His wife and even his 5-year-old son (using a smartphone design app for kids) have also designed labels.
With its 83 kinds of beers (27 available at the moment), it’s hard not to find something to like in Kabinet’s diverse repertoire, including some very creative ones, but, like Samo Pivo, where Kabinet usually debuts its beers, it doesn’t have that subversive feel that some diehard beer geeks prefer.
“It’s fancy beer,” says Aleksandar Petrović, owner of the craft beer store and single-table pub Drunk Chiwawa. “But they don’t have that underground [feeling].”
For that, there’s NikolaCar (the “C” is pronounced “ts,” as in Tsar Nikola), an avowedly anti-big business rebel.
“Nikola Car is underground beer,” Petrović says. “[Nikola] talks about how craft beer must stay on the streets where it belongs, like punk rock.”
Just then, Nikola himself walks in, sadly just for a minute, which only adds to his allure.
One of Petrović’s customers insists on calling me over and buying me a beer, an interesting unfiltered, unpasteurized, yeasty brew from BIP (Belgrade Industrial Beer), Serbia’s first brewery opened in 1839.
He introduces himself as Dušan Ilić, 36, who works in the security sector, and tells me how he first got into craft after growing weary of the local commercial beers. He explains that in the early days, a decade or more ago, finding a homebrewed artisanal beer was like going on a scavenger hunt. He mimics a typical conversation from that time.
“‘Someone tried it!’ ‘Where?’ ‘It’s in that pub.’ You go there. ‘We don’t have it anymore.’ It was like a quest.
“You’d hear rumours here and there of new brews and you’d have to hunt them down,” he says. “It was almost like a black market.”
Ilić is glad that craft beer is easier to find in Serbia these days, but he misses the scavenger hunts, as he quotes a German techno group (a first in my career).
“As Scooter said, ‘The chase is better than the catch.’”