Garden's world

After two years, we're catching up with Croatia’s Garden


It’s always gratifying when we spot a superstar brewery in the making, and in the case of Croatia’s Garden, it was pretty clear straight away that these guys and gals were onto something really special. Born largely out of a desire to create quality beers for the founder’s programme of Garden music festivals, Garden’s killer combination of business savvy and a top-notch brewing team has seen it evolve into a hugely successful international presence. Starting off with super-crushable crowd-pleasers, its beery repertoire has grown as its customer base has broadened, and now runs the gamut from pilsners and hazies to barrel-aged sours.

In short – and to the delight of headline writers everywhere – Garden has grown.

“It’s hard to get a gauge on time with everything that’s happened over the past two years,” says founder David Plant. “In essence, we’re selling a lot more beer, or different types of beer, in a lot more countries. We’re also about to move the whole brewery to a great new site, which will give us about triple the capacity, more flexibility and generally make things even more consistent and efficient.”

This new spot couldn’t be more on-brand. Based in a former garden centre in Zagreb, it has over 1000 square meters of outdoors space, which David is in the process of having landscaped with around 70 mature trees. 

“We’re creating a proper garden, big enough for 400-500 people. There will be trees, lawn, some nice hammocks, all kinds of stuff. But we’re doing a lot of work on making the whole site sustainable too, using solar panels, water recapture techniques; we’re even going to start growing our own plants that we can use in our beer. These things have always been important to us, but the new site will allow us to take it to a whole new level.”

On the food side, Garden’s long-standing partnership with a company called Submarine is set to continue. Submarine has 12 restaurants across the country, specialising in gourmet burgers, but pioneering plant-based options, as it has done since before veganism was widely practiced in Croatia. In addition to this though, David is keen to expand Garden’s experiments into home-made pickles and smoked meats; small foods with local provenance that work well alongside beer.

One very obvious use for the fantastic new outdoor space will be Garden’s frequent outdoor events which, even in the relatively bijou space of the old brewery, pulled in some big name DJs and musicians from across Europe. Indeed, live music and hosting great events in general is still very much part of Garden’s DNA, even though its ambitions and brewing priorities have evolved as it has grown.

“Yeah, our initial thing was to produce really good beer, brewed to drink in the hot sun by the Adriatic coast, so it was pales and pilsners basically. In a nice way, they were everyday beers. The kind of beers you’d drink at that sort of event anyway, but actually flavoursome and well brewed.

“We’ve absolutely moved on with other styles, of course, but I think the point about always wanting our beers to be drinkable has stayed the same. Even if it’s a milkshake IPA, we can have two or three pints of it. I think lots of breweries like fighting for the respect of 27 people with beards and tattoos in Shoreditch. And that’s a very relevant, interesting, informed crowd, but it’s quite small. For us, it’s about brewing a reasonably priced, very good craft beer.”

All of that said, one surprising shift David has noticed over lockdown is a steady reversing of the trend toward lower ABV beers; a trend that Garden had previously been way ahead of.

“I don’t know whether it’s that people drink more slowly at home, or perhaps they’re just less self-conscious about being drunk when they can stumble into bed at the end of the night, but the demand for our stronger beers is way up. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve gone from an average of about 5% up towards 10%. Even the hazy IPAs are around the 6% mark.”

Related to this is the shift to larger 440ml cans, which David says are now “absolutely essential if you want to be taken seriously internationally”. Again, somewhat counter-intuitively, it’s the high-strength specials that have proven most popular in this format, while most of Garden’s everyday core beers have stayed in 330s.

“That was a difficult decision really, because the trend we were witnessing didn’t make much sense. Do people really want 8-11% beers in 440ml cans? I saw Wander Beyond had started doing some of its beers in 250 or 200ml cans which were really cute and my gut feeling was that’s a much better way to go. But the big beers in 440 are doing great, so I guess people are just settling in at home with one beer for the evening.”

There are also some beers in the works which may even be of interest to David’s 27 Shoreditch beard enthusiasts, particularly those coming out of Garden’s nascent barrel ageing programme. As well as working with the ‘classic’ wood from port, sherry and bourbon barrels, David is clearly excited to be collaborating with some of Croatia’s more creative vineyards, to use wood that has previously matured some native grape varieties.

“I love barrel ageing and mixed fermentation, because its complex and intellectually interesting,” he continues. “It’s spontaneous and hard to track, because so much of it is in the lap of the microbial Gods, so to speak. You can guide it, but it’s much harder to monitor exactly what’s going on the lab, so to an extent it’s more about trying to find an interesting flavour than having a fixed target character.

“For example, we’re currently working with Plavac Mali barrels, which is a native grape in Croatia, the ancestor of Zinfandel, and there are loads of these indigenous varieties to work with, white and red. We’re also collaborating with some interesting breweries on these, for example there's one that does a lot of stuff with different fermentation techniques, it makes a lot of orange wines. You’ll be seeing a lot of these really special beers coming out around the time of our fifth birthday, which is in a few months.”

As it reaches this five-year milestone, Garden has already evolved into an impressive global brand, selling to more than 30 countries from Europe to Asia. Export has always been a focus for the brewery, and it’s positioned itself very effectively, both in terms of the beers it brews and the way the business is run.

“The beers have always been good, but I think today they’re better than ever – I’m so happy with that side of things now and I think we’re going in a really good direction. We’ve really got our core recipes dialled in, and with the extra capacity we’re able to lay more beer down for ageing and try new things. Combined with that, we got an export guy in from Lervig 12 months ago, Mario, and he’s amazing. We’ve known him for a long time and he’s very well connected, so he really wanted to come here and have a new challenge. He is really good; it’s me and him together pushing a lot of the commercial stuff and, it’s just taken off.”

While very rapid growth is exciting, particularly when it’s in new markets, the winds of craft beer blow notoriously fickle, so I gently ask David whether he’s worried Garden’s current success might turn out to be a hype flash.

“I think it takes a while to properly build certain markets and we were always conscious that you can’t really control if you’re hyped or not,” he answers carefully. “I don’t believe that breweries that became hyped necessarily set out for that to happen, though they shouldn’t be criticised for that either way. There are obviously a lot of people who burn brightly and then fade, and I think distributors are quite conscious of that now. So we tried to pick people that we could build longevity with, who would take a wide range of beers, including our core range, rather than the ones who were only interested in hazy hype-juice.”

Not that it’s been a deliberate strategy but – as a Brit-run brewery in the EU – Garden has definitely also benefitted from a Brexit bump. Several European distributors have reported serious issues sourcing beer from their most popular British breweries and come knocking on Garden’s door to take up the slack. 

“It’s not something we planned for, and we’re definitely not chasing to replace British breweries, but the reality is that it’s become increasingly difficult and expensive to get British beer in Europe, and vice versa in the UK actually.”

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