All in good taste
One of the first craft breweries in Croatia
Saturday 03 July 2021
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Varionica was one of Croatia’s very first craft breweries, launching in 2014 into a market where only a tiny handful of drinkers were even aware of anything beyond macro lager. From day one, it has been an advocate for beer as a drink to be taken seriously and savoured, particularly alongside food, and has served as a magnet for enthusiasts, craftspeople and those obsessed with flavour in all its forms.
“Basically in 2014, you couldn't drink decent beer in Croatia; it was all industrial lagers because there were no imports of craft beers. So that's why most of that first wave of breweries started at around the same time,” says Davor Simičić, who co-founded Varionica alongside his friend Matija Mrazek.
“We started homebrewing as a way of drinking something for ourselves that was more interesting. And then we connected with other homebrewers and tasted what they we doing. That really just showed us how basic we were, so we started also to improve our skills and equipment! After a lot of hard work, we started to get some recognition from the local homebrew clubs and win some awards in homebrew competitions. When the idea of opening a brewery came up, it felt crazy because nobody had done it yet, but it also meant there was a gap.”
Food and other alcoholic drinks played a huge part in driving the pair to take this step. As enthusiastic gastronomes in the broadest sense, it struck Davor and Matija that beer was “the missing part” in a national dining culture that already included exceptional food, wine and spirits.
“Food pairing continues to drive us and influence our recipe creation,” continues Davor. “We really try to express ourselves through very balanced beers. So, if we are making an American IPA or pale ale or whatever, we really want to be representative of the style and well balanced, because those are the beers that accommodate food and elevate the whole gastronomic experience. So maybe it will not be for the hop heads, and some people might not think they’re particularly sexy, but you need to be very skilful brewer to produce balanced beer – you can’t just dial up one element and then hide behind it.”
Of course, from a standing start in a culture where beer was viewed very much as a second class citizen, education and advocacy has become a huge part of Varionica’s mission.
“Education is ongoing process,” says Davor. “I mean, the craft beer revolution in Croatia is only seven years old. But if you approach it with more in mind than just beer, people are receptive. We’ve found it's much more easier to educate a good restaurant than average bar. A good restaurant will think about what you are saying, because it is the same situation if they present local wine, or a local schnapps or local olive oil; they speak the language of provenance and flavour. So, maybe you will not close the deal that day, but they will not ignore you.”
Food pairing continues to drive us and influence our recipe creation
This approach certainly seems to be paying off. Far from being ignored, Varionica has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the Croatian restaurant business, on food-centric beers that are afforded the same respect as wine. One such beer, the passionfruit sour in this month’s Beer52 box, is a gold medal winning collaboration with Michelin-starred restaurant Noel.
“We try to be good collaboration partners, by under-promising and over-delivering,” says Davor. “For the collaboration with Noel, they wanted us to produce beer that could substitute a white wine, a Riesling. So we were basically talking about what aromas you can find in the wine, what kind of acidity and how we can achieve it in the beer. It took three months for us to pin down the recipe for a sour that they would be worthy of a menu in Michelin star menu, but everyone was really happy with the result.”
Another successful collaboration saw the brewery work with Mate Jankovič, one of Croatia’s top ten chefs, on a premium restaurant beer that’s as elegant as the Champagne bottle it’s presented in. “We decided to go with the old ale with the addition of molasses sugar, which undergoes a secondary fermentation with selection of Brettanomyces and left it in a wooden barrels for more than 18 months.”
Like several of Varionica’s beers, this premium effort picked up a gold medal at this year’s European Beer Challenge in London. In fact, every one of the brewery’s beers in this month’s box has won either gold or double gold. Don’t ever say we’re not good to you.
“It’s a really exciting time to be a brewer in Croatia, but also for drinkers and restaurant-goers. The options are expanding quickly, as the understanding spreads that beer can be a high-quality accompaniment to food. We’re very proud to have been at the forefront of driving this, and maybe opening some doors for the breweries that have come after. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing, keep honing our craft and keep shouting about the beauty of good beer.”
Why not try pairing your Varionica beers with a meal? Davor gives his tips for how to get the best from your brew.
American Pale Ale
“I have to say, this is great with fish and chips. We've done a lot of times, and it really works. The balanced bitterness and carbonation really cut through the grease and elevate the flavours.”
Siesta Session IPA
“Siesta packs a lot of aroma, but has a light body, which makes it the perfect aperitive beer to get your palate ready. You can also pair it with the sushi, spring rolls or other light, delicate foods that you don’t want to overwhelm. This beer will clean your palate and prepare you for another bite.”
“We’ve made tiramisu with a reduction of neon stout, which we used instead of coffee, and it was great. It was a little tricky though, so if you just want a straightforward pairing, it goes very well with red meat or a rich, creamy ice-cream.”
“This is exceptional if you get the pairing right. We would choose some greasy fish like halibut or salmon, or even foie gras, because the acidity of the beer will completely clean your palate. So the next bite will be same as the previous one. We actually tasted this beer recently with foie gras, with a bit of apricot puree and roasted hazelnuts. It was exceptional.”
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