Saturday 29 September 2018
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The road border between Croatia and Serbia is pretty rigorous. After some delay, our passports are returned – mine bearing a fresh stamp – and we’re sent on our way. The road into Belgrade seems to confirm what I’ve heard about Serbia; namely that it’s not as affluent as the countries I’ve visited so far. There are a lot of derelict industrial buildings, nestled in a landscape of brutalist concrete architecture that point to the city’s past. At the same time though, it already feels a lot more metropolitan than everywhere else I’ve been, and I’m told that Serbian people are among the warmest and most welcoming you’ll find anywhere.
This is certainly borne out by my introduction to Vladimir Stojkovic, CEO and co-founder of Dogma brewery, who has come to collect me from the central bus station. There is no car park, and my phone tariff doesn’t work here, so we spend 10 hair-raising minutes chasing each other around a large roundabout, before I finally manage to dive across two lanes of traffic and into his back seat. He greets me like an old friend, and begins to tell me about everything he’s got planned for me over the next two days.
We take the long route to the brewery, giving me a chance to get my bearings a little. The centre of Belgrade is just beautiful, sitting on the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers, with an eclectic mix of old and new architecture.
Dogma is based in an old red brick sugar factory complex, part of which is still derelict, but part of which now plays host to a thriving community of small businesses. From a distance, Vladimir points out the factory’s twin chimneys which still mark out the site, but when we get close he pulls up around the corner from the brewery, ostensibly to keep his new car out of the blazing sun.
As it turns out, this is all part of a ‘big reveal’, and I must admit it has the desired effect as we round the corner on foot. The brewery and taproom is phenomenally cool, with an inviting beer garden and superb street art – old and new – adorning the sugar factory’s brick walls. Vladimir seems pleased with my reaction.
The interior is just as impressive, with neon signs, musical memorabilia and tasteful furniture, as well as a large window onto the brewhouse floor. We pull up a seat in the cool, as Vladimir pours a pint of Dogma’s flagship IPA, Hoptopod: an absolutely knock-out beer that’s undoubtedly one of the highlights of this month’s Beer52 box.
Vladimir describes Dogma’s origins as “a little-dream like”, stretching back to his childhood in the copper and gold mining town of Majdanpek, about 100km from Belgrade, where he grew up with the brewery’s co-founder Mladjen Merdović. He left town as soon as he’d finished school though, to attend a food engineering course in another city about 70km away.
“At the end of that course, we each had a chat with the main professor, who asked what we would do next. I said my goal was to create a brewery. At that moment, we knew nothing about craft brewing, but I had seen microbreweries in the Czech Republic and Germany. But I knew my next step had to be a bachelor’s degree in Belgrade, specialising in beer and malts.”
As it turned out, Vladimir arrived in the capital three days before the revolution – testing times, and doubly so for “some kid from the provinces” – and to cap it off he contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite.
“But I fell in love with Belgrade anyway,” he says. “it’s a hell of a city. In the next five years I think there will be more and more tourists, with more and more low cost flights from all over Europe. It feels like a real metropolis, and the locals have come round to the idea that tourism is really a benefit for everyone. People here are really warm, they want to help you, they want to show you. It’s like a product, and we’re proud of it!”
Vladimir first encountered the craft beer movement while researching root beers for his bachelor’s degree, when he stumbled across Dogfish Head and Stone. He was intrigued, but access to such beers was non-existant in Serbia at the time, so he took a job at a brandy distiller (Serbia, like many countries in the region, is big on its brandies), where he became one of the country’s youngest distillers. As well as learning some of his craft, he also took away an important lesson about quality; after he had joined, control of the family business passed to the son, who was “more interested in profits than brandy” and the quality dipped to the point where Vladimir no longer felt he could be involved. It’s hard not to conclude that this later fed into his commitment to quality ingredients and uncompromising brewing standards at Dogma.
Seeing the writing on the wall – and sensing there might be something to the whole ‘craft beer’ thing he’d been reading about – Vladimir teamed up with some old friends to open one of Belgrade’s first craft bars, the Miner’s Pub, in early 2014. It was a great success, and he only sold his stake to his partners in May 2018.
“There I had the best market research,” says Vladimir. “I got to know the whole scene, spoke with tourists, writing and homebrewing at my own place. It’s quite a typical American story really, and our beers are really typical American beers! In 2015 I organised the regional craft beer festival here, I was importing Zmajska’s beer from Croatia, Bevog beer from Austria, Pelicon from Slovenia, and making a name for myself.”
It wasn’t long before he began thinking bigger though, and in 2015 he began sounding out investors for a brewery of his own. The interest wasn’t as enthusiastic as he’d hoped though, until he reconnected with his childhood friend Mladjen, by now a very successful entrepreneur (including being one of the leading Bitcoin pioneers).
“It was September 2015 and I was getting my tonsils taken out,” Vladimir recalls. “Mladjen came to see me in hospital, and I was feeling pretty anxious about the surgery. He just came in and said “we’re going to build a brewery”. Fuck – don’t tell me that now, I won’t sleep! I’m having my tonsils out at age 35, what the fuck are you doing?! But a few weeks later, we met up, got it all planned out, put in some calls to the equipment manufacturers and it all started happening very quickly.”
In Nov 2015, the brewery was officially registered, and the inaugural brew happened at the end of July 2016.
“The highlights of the past couple of years have to include that first 20 hectolitre brew of Hoptopod on our own kit, definitely,” Vladimir continues. “We expanded fast, doubling our capacity from 16,000 litres to 32,000. We’ve put together an amazing crew in the brewery, with four food technology engineers - they’re our guys for the future. This taproom opened March 2017, eight months after the first brew, which has really helped build our brand. And the success of Hoptopod as our flagship, which is normally around 50% of our volume.”
Another major highpoint for Vladimir was the opportunity to collaborate with one of his original craft heroes, Flying Dog of Colorado, after the brewery’s Jim Caruso was introduced to Dogma’s Hoptopod on a trip to Serbia and was blown away. As well as working together on a beer – Flying Dogma IPA – Jim has been singing Vladimir’s praises to everyone who will listen, and is quoted as saying “don’t be surprised if your next favourite IPA comes from Serbia”.
Collaborations have been a crucial part of Dogma’s development, and everyone I’ve met on my journey has asked me to pass on their regards (and, in the case of Andrej at Reservoir Dogs, a bottle of his wine).
“I really enjoy the relationships we have with the other brewers in the region. Croatia’s an exciting market - I think they’re probably about a year ahead of Serbia. Garden’s pilsner is great - they’ve really evolved it. It’s gone from being a good pilsner to a great one. Reservoir Dogs are really great in big beers, so I’m pleased to hear the black IPA is going into the box. Lone wolf is a great beer too. Styrian Wolf is one of my favourite Slovenian hops - you have vanilla, silkiness, elderlower. We’re going to do some collaboration in October I think.”
With such an outward-looking philosophy, it’s little wonder that Dogma’s next big frontier is going to be export, particularly France, Italy and here in the UK.
“When you’re breaking into a new market, I think the biggest challenge is getting people just to try our beer,” he concludes. “If we can do that, I’m absolutely confident that they’ll stand up against IPAs from anywhere in the world. Dealing with distributors can be difficult, but with customers who are drinking, you see them coming back day after day to drink Hoptopod and Plutonium. Just try them and you’ll be hooked.”
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