How does your garden brew?

Richard Croasdale visits Zagreb's Garden Brewery, to see how it's combining great beer and great parties


The journey to Zagreb by bus is beautiful and surprisingly short. We pass through a border significantly more noticeable than that between Slovenia and Italy, with stern police checking and stamping passports (though seemingly without much interest in whether my face matches). At the central coach station, most of my fellow passengers seem to be visiting family, and there is much hugging on the platform. I feel that heady mix of excitement and displacement that comes with arriving alone in a strange city, with relatively little idea of how I’ll reach my next stop.

Fortunately, this question is quickly answered. The public transport in Zagreb is as comprehensive as it is user-friendly, with a cheap day ticket covering unlimited trips by bus and the city’s ubiquitous trams. Even though today is a public holiday, the No.2 tram arrives quickly to whisk me out of the town centre and to the industrial area where Garden Brewery has made its home.

Tucked away behind what seems to be a graveyard for obsolete Coca-Cola vending machines, Garden’s name is picked out in incandescent bulbs on a peeling redbrick exterior. The brewery and taproom occupy a single cavernous space in the kind of cool former industrial unit that would be converted into luxury flats in a heartbeat if it was within 40 miles of London. There’s plush furniture on the rough concrete floor, a burger counter in a bright yellow shipping container, a long bar with eight lines of Garden’s own beers and – looming above it all – a mirror ball that I’m assured is the largest of any brewery in Europe. Because that’s a competition, apparently.

There’s classic rock thrumming out of a bassy soundsystem, somewhere back in the depths of the brewery, audible under the shrill jangle of the bottling line. The brewery is closed to the public today, but head brewer Tom O’Hara (source of the dubious mirror ball brag) is around to greet me and share the brewery’s story.

The seed of Garden was planted around 15 years ago, when Brit Nick Colgan – a legendary taste-maker and former studio manager to UB40 – and his business partners decided to open a bar in Zadar, which would run seasonally. This idea spawned the Garden dance music festival, which eventually transformed into the Love festival and was taken over by Love International. The team stayed in the events business though, essentially providing all the infrastructure you might need to put on a festival – including, crucially, alcohol – and working with all the big touring festivals coming to the region.

The idea for the brewery arose four years ago, initially as a way of reducing the festival business’s largest overhead: booze. Garden was to be a simple production brewery in Zadar, operating seasonally, for the sole purpose of supplying thirsty music-lovers. 

“That idea obviously snowballed, and here we are,” says Tom cheerfully. “We’ve been in this building for just over two years now and we’re brewing all year round, though it remains very seasonal, because during the summer everyone in Zagreb goes to the coast. 

“This year we opened two bars, one in the centre of Zagreb and one in Čakovec, which is a small town, but the bar is essentially in a castle. A really nice spot. It’s a concept, and if it goes well we’ll look at opening more bars, maybe even outside Croatia, in Italy and Germany.”

While Tom and his team are clearly passionate about the beer, Garden’s roots remain firmly in Nick Colgan’s love of music. The brewery tap room has played host to the likes of Lee Scratch Perry, Jazzy Jeff, DJ Nu-Mark, Pete Rock and Andy Weatherall. Craig Charles has also brought his Funk and Soul show here three times, though the locals still know him as Lister from the TV show Red Dwarf, much to his apparent chagrin.

Between the bars and the festivals, around 40% of Garden’s production goes through its own channels. There are also a few bars around Zagreb that take a decent number of kegs, but Tom says the country’s macro brewers are now actively trying to push out their craft competitors, leaving a ‘dogfight’ for the limited number of taps still pouring genuine craft. Rather than get down into the trenches, Garden is focusing its effort on a small handful of local bars and restaurants, and expanding its growing export business.

“We’re starting to do well in Norway, where it’s still very much about strong and weird beers,” continues Tom. “We were in Oslo a couple of months ago for a tap takeover with Lervig and it went very well. France is an interesting market, and I think is about to really explode. They’ve skipped a couple of stages in the usual ‘craft appreciation timeline’ and have gone straight into sours, big-time. All our sours basically go to France and UK – nobody here will touch them yet.”

As for the beers themselves, the core line-up reflects Croatia’s love of big and hoppy brews, from the fruity Citrus IPA (the origins of which lay in a happy brewing error, though I’m sworn to secrecy on the details) to the bold and bitter west coast-style DIPA, which fresh out of the tank is a dank and aromatic treat.

There’s also been a steady turnover of seasonals, where the brew team get to experiment with wilder ideas, though Tom insists he gets his kicks from quality control and perfecting a handful of styles.

“Over the past year we’ve made a lot of different specials. Now we want to pick the best of those and start honing them. That’s what we did with our pale ale; just kept working on it until we were really happy with it, and it’s still developing. We’re currently drying it out a little bit, because that’s the way the market’s going, but I think it’s right up there with the best pale ales from UK breweries. Summer months are very pilsner heavy, but the rest of the year 50% of our production is pale ale.”

Tom wants to lower the ABVs of some of Garden’s beers over the next six months, in an attempt to “move the conversation on” from Croatia’s continuing obsession with strong beer.

“We made a triple IPA last year, which we took to a beer festival – not a particularly crafty one. Everyone was going crazy over it. Dads with their kids were sinking pints of it. It’s very early days in the Croatian craft scene, so people are still very focused on how many IBUs does it have? What’s the ABV? We obviously want to give people what they’re looking for, but I think we’re also in a position to help push people’s palates. For example, we do quite a few kettle sours and I’d really like to see those do better in our domestic market. I’d also love to make more lagers and pilsners. You always know who’s in the industry at a beer festival, because they’re all hanging out next to the pilsners!”

Hailing originally from Northern Ireland, but living in Serbia for a good number of years, Tom has an interesting perspective on the nation’s political sensitivities, its relationships with the other former Yugoslavian countries, and the looming memory of the war in the early 1990s. While cross-border cooperation is generally rare, Tom sees craft as a way of building bridges, and has already brewed a successful collaboration with Serbia’s Dogma, and his dream is to undertake similar projects all over the Balkans.

While we’re talking, a pair of beer mat collectors arrive at the closed tap room, looking for samples. Tom is the embodiment of politeness, even when the demands become a little outlandish, and the duo leave happy, arms full of fresh cardboard. Sadly, it’s time for me to hit the road too, back across town for my next appointment with Zmajska Pivovara.

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