Budapest Beer Week
Beer52’s Struan Logan gets in among the beer pilgrims at Hungary’s largest craft beer festival.
Friday 12 July 2019
This article is from
Down the Danube
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Generally, when you go to a beer festival, you’ll have a reasonable idea of what styles to expect from the home city or country. When it comes to drinking at Budapest Beer Week though, it’s a much tougher call, particularly when your reference points are a half-remembered lesson on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a Wes Anderson film.
While most festival organisers make an effort, Tibor Rebak and his fellow organisers have gone to extraordinary lengths to secure a great line-up, with 65 breweries spanning US hype monsters, UK stalwarts and more continental talent than Eurovision. There’s also excellent music for the after party, all staged in a huge venue that sold out despite the festival only being in its second year. Attendance was something Tibor had been unsure about in the week leading up to the festival, so when he introduces me to his mum I make a point of saying (via an interpreter) “your son has done a fantastic job”. She seems unmoved.
As a representative of Beer52 and Ferment, it’s my moral and contractual duty to absorb as much Eastern European beer as possible. While I love world-renowned breweries like Finback and Omnipollo, I can always pop down to my local bottle shop to try those. Who wants to travel into unknown territory to go for the safe options? Give me a Romanian sour IPA from Bereta Brewing Co. any day and I will be very happy. It’s so good, that the brewer lets me take an extra wee stash in a plastic bottle to be decanted later. Thankfully it stays beautifully fresh.
Hungary, like much of the rest of Eastern Europe, is still finding its feet in terms of how to develop its beer market and culture. It’s obvious from Budapest Beer Week’s sell-out crowds that there is a huge market for it, but while in the UK craft beer has arguably hit its rock-star phase and is slowly emerging on the other side, the Budapest beer scene is only just getting revved up. To aspiring brewers here, beer isn’t yet a way to get famous overnight; their sights are set on maybe making their passion project commercially viable in five years’ time. It’s refreshing.
But is there a distinct Eastern European approach to craft beer? While I wouldn’t say a full ‘yes’, they are definitely heading in a different direction from us in the UK and our hop-obsessed US cousins. As a country with hundreds of years of lager being the sole beer, Hungary’s pale ales are far crisper and have much less bitterness than I’m used to, perfect for the gorgeous weather. There is also a more open attitude toward sours; while here in the UK they are seen as a polarising style with only two options for them. They are much more enjoyed and more about a sessionable buzz rather than a acidic tang of sharpness.
While the Hungarian scene is still small, local breweries make up a sizeable proportion of the festival’s lineup, holding their own among the famous players like Wizard, Weldwerks and Siren. Reketye’s New England IPA is deviously sessional and tastes a lot lighter than 7%. When it comes to more out-there beer styles, Hungary manages to keep up with the best; mad Scientist’s Cucumber & Garlic Berlinner Weisse is fantastic and, yes, you read that correctly. The sourness is light and easy-going, the garlic is really well balanced, positioned as a foreflavour that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the cucumber makes it cool as a… thing. If you ever want a beer that tastes great and keeps away vampires, you are drinking the correct beverage.
As I mentioned, this isn’t just a get-together for new Eastern European breweries. American Chris Lennert from Left Hand Brewing is one of the most experienced beer veterans at the festival. He’s here talking about the brewery’s 26 years of knowledge, and showing off new technology that will allow impressive nitro stouts straight from the can. When I catch up with him for a chat, we are politely interrupted with a “you probably won’t remember me, but” story. Normally a huge red flag, but it turns out Isaac did an internship back in 2008, brewing at Left Hand in Colorado, and now owns his own brewery in Israel called Shapiro’s. As you can imagine, the focus of the conversation completely shifts to him, with so many more questions about what Israel’s beer scene is like.
We learn that, while Israel is not famous for its drinking culture, there is a small, dedicated craft following. Technically speaking, the first craft brewery in the area was Taybeh in Palestine, created in 1994 and still the West Bank’s only brewery. Although alcohol is forbidden in Islam, the 1500 residents of Taybeh can produce and sell beer, as it is an all-Christian village. With tension on both sides of the divide, one of Isaac’s life goals is to be involved in a collaboration beer made between Israeli and Palestinian breweries. For us in Europe, a collaboration brew is just an excuse to dick around with a like-minded mate and hopefully create an excellent beverage. To them, it is a political minefield.
Politics comes up several times when chatting to brewers – even if it’s just debating who has the crazier politics between the US and the UK – and there’s no doubt that the prevailing political winds can make or break a young brewery. Zoltán from Reketye tells us his biggest problem is the current brain drain in Hungary, which is making it very difficult for him to find good, dedicated staff. London has 400,000 Hungarians, making it the biggest Hungarian population outside of Budapest. Likewise, Tom of Croatian brewery The Garden tells me their government has prioritised tourism over all else, so now people struggle to find work six months of the year and afford craft beer in the down time. When chatting to Zagovar Brewery brewer, he says he’s struggling to grow across Russia, where a stagnating economy means locals are focused on buying cheap beer over good booze.
On the other hand, politics can also be the reason your brewery is famous. Bevog, featured in this month’s box, is based in Austria but is a completely Slovenian organisation. Its brewery could not get started because the Slovenian government refused to issue a water license. So Janus and the team popped across the border further up the same river and asked the Austrian government for a water license instead. Bevog is now famous in both countries, having been dubbed “Beer Refugees” by the local press. Instead of working in his home country, Janus now takes his morning commute into a completely different country to brew his beer. If needed, he could even take a quick 20-minute journey during the day to take his son to his swimming lesson.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the great stories and delicious beers from around Europe we experienced. There was a phenomenal camaraderie between all sides of this festival; between the brewers, the punters, the organisers and even some guy going around in a Beer52 t-shirt making a nuisance of himself.
I got to learn so much, not just about beer, but about other countries, since people were so open with their stories. My final beer of the festival was a destructively strong 13% Imperial Stout from White Stork brewing, Bulgaria’s only commercial craft brewery. More importantly I got to find out a lot more about Bulgaria rather than it just being the name of an old Womble who wears tartan.
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