Enter the dragon

Richard Croasdale visits Zmajska Pivovara, and finds a bastion of quality, traditional brewing on the outskirts of Zagreb


As much as we love the crazy variety of flavours and aromas the craft world offers, we also have a lot of time for brewers that know what they want to achieve, show respect for style and set out with a laser focus to perfect a small number of core beers. This neatly describes the entire ethos of Zmajska Pivovara, and its founder Andrej Čapka, whose immaculate traditional ales have earned it a spot as one of Croatia’s largest and most respected craft breweries.

Andrej is a fascinating character: a former software programmer, amateur firework-maker and keen home-brewer, he speculatively set up an online home-brewing forum in 2003 (he’d given up the fireworks after blowing himself up – there’s a lesson for you kids). The forum took off almost immediately, and today has around 2000 active members and has even spawned one of the region’s largest annual homebrew competitions.

So it’s hardly surprising that when, in 2013, he decided to take the plunge and open his own brewery, all those years of poring over BJCP style guidelines would inform his own approach.

“My philosophy is to be true to style, always high quality, high drinkability,” he says. “I prefer a really good, basic IPA to something dashed off quickly, but infused with tea or whatever. Besides, who would I sell that shit to? You’ve got smaller breweries who can make 300-litre batches of crazy shit, and those few bars in Croatia that have 10-15 taps will absorb it. And the guys at Garden can do small batches by brewing a quarter of their kettle capacity, because they can put it out through their own bars and events.

“I can’t do that – we put a lot of time and care into the details, even things like designing each label, so everything I do has to be full-scale or it’s not worth doing. We party hard here, but when we work, we do it by the book, and that means a smaller number of really high quality beers.

“Luckily I have four guys here in charge of the brewing; all very passionate, technically qualified with a great, scientific approach. Individually, they even take part in homebrew competitions, which I always think is a good sign!”

We party hard here, but when we work, we do it by the book

Having honed his craft at a time when even imported craft beer was very hard to come by, Andrej cites some classic brews as his main inspirations, including Sierra Nevada Pale, Stone IPA and BrewDog Punk IPA (the first west coast-style IPA to make it into Croatia reasonably fresh).

“When we did our first pale ale, it was Sierra Nevada on the table. Our pale ale is 70% of our volume; it’s bread and butter and it’s not even dry-hopped, it’s all done in the whirlpool. And we used the hops that were available: Cascade Chinook, Citra, nothing exotic. We knew we were ready when we got our pale tasting better than the Sierra Nevada. Of course, that was Sierra Nevada that had been sitting in a hot container for a month, but it still felt like a big achievement at the time!”

Andrej is proud of the fact that Zmajska has never had an infection in any of its 250-plus brews. While he’s keen to experiment with wild fermentation one day (he’s a big fan of Bretted beers) he’s adamant that the production brewery be kept absolutely clean; another example of his uncompromising approach to his craft.

“I really personally appreciate good technique,” he concludes. “It makes 90% of any great beer. The other 10% is down to the recipe, your mood when drinking the beer and everything else. In the end unfortunately that means having a very limited range of beers. But I’ll stand behind every single one of them.”

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