Saturday 29 September 2018
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Predictably for any journey involving the Ballardian dystopia that is London Stanstead, my flight into Trieste airport is very late. I’m tired, sweaty and regretting cramming a week’s worth of clothes and photographic kit into a cabin-friendly North Face bag. Fortunately, when I finally make it through passport control, Andrej Sluga and Uroš Komel from Slovenia’s Reservoir Dogs brewery are still there to greet me, rather than having given up and gone home.
“So, want a beer?” asks Andrej kindly, looking uncertainly at my less-than-composed face.
Skipping over the border into Slovenia at around midnight, “a beer” turns out to be meeting the full brewery team, a genuinely impressive bunch of individuals who collectively sound like the setup to a rather contrived joke: a doctor, a mathematician, an economist, and a software developer walk into a brewery…
This diversity of backgrounds and ideas is one of the things that makes Reservoir Dogs such a special and exciting brewery though. This comes through loud and clear as we sit in the stylish taproom, in the small hours of Tuesday morning, discussing everything from wild yeast (Andrej was previously involved in a small but well-regarded vineyard nearby) to abstract expressionism, cycling and paragliding. I almost forget I’m here to do a job.
Reservoir Dogs grew fairly organically from the group’s homebrew adventures (they jokingly called themselves the Reservoir Dogs at the time – in Slovenia, fermentation tanks are known as ‘reservoirs’ – and the name stuck), moving first to a gypsy brewing arrangement and last year into its own brewery in Nova Gorica on the western border.
Every member of the core team has kept their day jobs even as the brewery has grown, a fact that Andrej believes is important to Reservoir Dogs’ overall ethos and strategy.
“For me it’s very important that we’re not employed here,” he says. “Obviously we’ve invested and our money and our time, but this isn’t our livelihood – we’re not fighting to stay above water. That gives us freedom to do the things we want to do, stick to our initial vision and refuse all those things that some other brewers are forced to do, like working with big retailers who do nothing for our brand.”
He acknowledges that maintaining two responsible jobs creates its own challenges, but argues the team is more than capable, with each member fulfilling “organic” roles based on their skill set. “But there’s a lot of crossover and we help each other, and of course often have different opinions. So it’s a good thing.”
The brewery itself is one of the cleanest I’ve ever seen, which I realise sounds like an odd first impression, but it’s honestly immaculate in a way which suggests they haven’t just run a mop around for the beer journalist. It’s also huge, with plenty of room for extra fermentation vessels and bright tanks (on their way) as well as a barrel-ageing programme (taking shape at the far end of the space). The brewhouse is manufactured locally and is a good size for a brewery with ambitions, reinforcing the impression that nothing here has been left to chance.
Andrej continues: “The whole idea was to create modern beers that would stand up on the international market, and I think we’re doing that. Slovenia is a small country, but we’re not a provincial brewery; we’re very global, traveling around tasting the beers, looking at the trends and bringing back the best experience and the best ideas.
“Before we built the brewery, we took the time to see how things were being done at the best in the world. We looked at every aspect of how our production would work in practice: all the piping, the layout, the process floor and everything. We went to California, to Norway, absorbing all these best practices that these guys had learned the hard way, and applied them here.”
As ever though, the proof is in the beer, and it’s clear that Reservoir Dogs’ somewhat unconventional organisation is working perfectly. Its original core range of four beers – Grim Reaper, Starvation, Warrior, and Conqueror, named for the four horsemen of the apocalypse – has earned it a clutch of awards, including Best Slovenian Brewery two years in a row, while its subsequent releases have, if anything, raised the bar in terms of quality and inventiveness. This extends to the branding and beer labels: overseen by Andrej himself and often featuring the work of local fine artists, every design exudes class.
I’m particularly excited to try Lone Wolf, a single hop IPA featuring the Slovenian Styrian Wolf hop, that’s going into this month’s Beer52 box. As well as being a great IPA in its own right, it’s also a fascinating showcase for the characteristics which make Slovenian hops so popular among brewers. The classic Styrian herbal, lavender aromas are right there, front and centre, alongside a soft citrus that’s fresher and less astringent than you often find in New World hops.
It’s late by now, and I’m probably the only person in the room who doesn’t have an early start in a responsible job tomorrow, so we go our separate ways and agree to meet up for photography (and more beers) in the morning.
I awake to find myself in the midst of a sub-alpine paradise. Nova Gorica is just beautiful, an old-fashioned town with a distinctly Italian style, surrounded by lush green peaks partly shrouded in silver wisps of mist. When neighbouring Gorica was made part of Italy following the second world war, those on the Slovenian side of the border kept building east, resulting in two separate cities in a single urban mass, the Slovenian/Italian border running right down the middle.
After breakfast, Aljoša gives me a quick tour of the town by car, zipping back and forth over the Slovenian/Italian border. He shares some hilarious stories of how this route was once commonly used to smuggle consumer goods like TVs and HI-FIs in from Italy, where the selection was much greater. This was apparently a nice little money-spinner for several of the Reservoir Dogs during their misspent youth.
What a contrast to today, when the brewery sees itself challenging not only its regional peers, but the big names in much more established craft markets. Sitting in a cafe in the hills after our photoshoot, Andrej confirms that, while he and the team won’t be rushed, they’re not shy to grab opportunities either.
“We’re growing the business, not as fast as we could, but in a way that we’re completely happy with. We didn’t even plan to be operating on this scale this fast, but the opportunity came up and we went for it.
“Export is going to be hugely important for us in the future, not just in terms of bottles of beer, but the brand too.
“Even the taproom is deliberately designed so that it can be easily replicated in Paris, Vienna, Edinburgh... It’s very distinctive, but simple to replicate. Maybe in the future there will be oppotunities to invest in having a presence in those countries.”
In the meantime it seems like, unlike their cinematic namesakes, the guys at Reservoir Dogs are having a great time doing things their way.
Aljoša says: “It still feels like we’re a bunch of friends who are just really committed to this great thing we all enjoy. I mean, at the end of the film they all end up killing each other, but I don’t think that’s going to happen!”
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