Balkans tour brings plenty of Eastern promise for ale

Hoppy Hour correspondent Andrew Nowell enjoying a craft beer festival by the sea in Zadar, Croatia
Hoppy Hour correspondent Andrew Nowell enjoying a craft beer festival by the sea in Zadar, Croatia

Our beer expert Andrew Nowell goes globetrotting in search of high-quality hops

Good beer is definitely becoming more international. From the brewing heartlands such as Britain, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and the USA the trail of high-quality ale is fanning out into all sorts of previously unexpected locations.

Previously I’ve enjoyed sampling the growing craft beer scenes in places like Italy and Barcelona while on holiday. And, over the past couple of weeks, it has been the turn of the Balkans.

A fortnight-long tour around Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina provided an excellent opportunity to assess the state of beer in the region.

A few things very quickly fell into place. A refreshing drink is widely and easily available in most of these places, with a few big breweries getting their products out almost everywhere.

They generally make a lager (no bad thing in the summer when it is over 30 degrees C for days on end), a dark beer and often a stronger premium-type product as well.

This sums up quite well the output of the likes of Nikšićko, Montenegro’s most popular beer, whose tamno (dark) is particularly enjoyable, packing plenty of German and Belgian dubbel-type flavours. It goes particularly well with a good plate of massive grilled prawns, which is where I sampled it on a restaurant in the old city of Kotor.

Similarly Sarajevo’s brewery, which can be easily spotted by the building being painted in the city’s symbolic and distinctive maroon and by the massive piles of crates outside, dishes up a good selection of easy-going golden sippers and darker brews.

Actually, that doesn’t do their dark beer justice, because it’s absolutely lovely: full of sultana, currant, berry and dark fruit flavours and with a tantalisingly moreish texture and body.

Another attraction of the Bosnian capital’s brewery is the extraordinary place you get to drink it in: all deep carpets, polished wood and metal and flamboyant curves and columns. It’s like a cross between an old-fashioned London men’s club, a German beer house and an Austrian high society cafe.

Elsewhere in these countries a few other popular lagers as well as Serbian and Czech beers can usually be found.

The most developed scene, though, is in Croatia. Zagreb concern The Garden has started to make international waves on the craft scene with beers like its pineapple IPA (a tricky thing to get right as you have to really slug the ingredient in for the beer to taste of much).

In the south of the country where we toured we didn’t see The Garden on offer but that wasn’t a problem.

There was the Dubrovnik Beer Company, dishing out brews such as its American-influenced pale ale Fortunal, full of delicious orange and other fruit notes balanced by a palate-cleansing but not excessive hoppiness. They also make a rather sweet and sickly milk stout, called Grego, and a special beer packing more than six per cent called Goa.

All this is served in a very trendy-looking industrial unit next to a car dealer with people sipping at tall stools and barrels late into the balmy Dubrovnik evening.

The ale scene was also out in full force at the Zadar Craft Beer Festival. I enjoyed a large glass of Krizevacko’s tamno, a very pleasant late-afternoon sipper with a healthy dollop of sweetness and a dash of bitterness. The texture and feel makes this a dark lager rather than a British-style stout or porter, but it’s enjoyable.

Elsewhere the American influence was out in force, with APAs and IPAs very commonly offered. There were also a good number of Teutonic wheat beers, the odd brown ale in a bottle and, inevitably in today’s craft scene, a healthy crop of sours.

The best thing about Zadar, though, is the setting, with drinkers spilling out of the festival to the promenade to dip their feet in the sea. An idea for Camra, surely?