The magic dragon
One of Croatia’s most respected and awarded breweries
Saturday 03 July 2021
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We first visited Zmajska Pivovara in its industrial estate home in 2018, and were hugely impressed by founder Andrej Čapka and his BJCP-perfect traditional ales. Today, it’s rightly one of Croatia’s most respected and awarded breweries, enjoying continued growth with its expanded range of beers.
Andrej is a fascinating character: a former software programmer, amateur firework-maker and keen home-brewer, he speculatively set up an online home-brewing forum in 2003 (he’d given up the fireworks after blowing himself up – there’s a lesson for you kids). The forum took off almost immediately, and today has around 2000 active members and has even spawned one of the region’s largest annual homebrew competitions.
Zmajska (meaning dragon) opened its doors in 2013, right at the dawn of the Croatian craft movement, and immediately established a rock solid core range of highly drinkable and superbly brewed beers, with a focus on hop-forward styles, which are clearly where Andrej’s heart is. This range has grown somewhat to include a session IPA and a Czech-style pilsner, to reflect the trend toward lighter beers.
Where he previously eschewed small-batch experimental brews though, Andrej has made some concessions with his Brewer’s Concoction series of one-offs, which range from barrel aged and wild-fermented beers to scandalously modern New England IPAs. These ticker-friendly brews are fun, but rarely if-ever repeated.
“I think we put our core IPA into the box in 2018. Well this time we’re giving you a New England IPA, a special called Summer Mist. It’s cloudy, but there’s no lactose in it; we just used oat flakes and played around with the mashing temperature, so it’s got good body but isn’t cloying.
“I think you’ll like it – the hop character surprised us a little, in a good way. We’re very happy with it. It’s loaded with hops, and good varieties that work very well together, so it’s got lots of fresh tropical fruit notes, probably most noticeably orange, but also a good medium bitterness, which you should have in a New England IPA.”
They're the people I want to keep happy, because they’re the people who will mean we’re still here in ten years’ time
Though he’s reluctant to call it a trend – Andrej is refreshingly reluctant to play pundit – he has noticed Croatian tastes pulling back from unchecked sweetness and milkshake viscosity, and a renewed appreciation for old-school hop characteristics like lingering bitterness and resin.
“I think a lot of people are moving away from lactose, and I couldn’t be happier about it to be honest. I’ve never been a fan; it was fun for people for a year or two, but then I like to actually drink beer not just taste it. I just sit down with friends and relax; we’re not here for the collectors who will just share a single bottle and you have five check-ins from a single bottle. I’d rather see zero check-ins for five bottles!”
This approach is really reflective of the way Andrej has built his business. Never particularly interested in hype, he obviously takes genuine pleasure and pride in the fact that Zmajska’s popularity is earned and consistent. “We have a good fan base that appreciates our beers for what they are. It’s nice to have such a community around us and those are they’re the people I want to keep happy, because they’re the people who will mean we’re still here in ten years’ time.”
And Zmajska certainly looks after its people well. The brewery taproom, under construction during my last visit, looks fantastic and is doing great business despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location. It also runs an annual festival in the carpark outside, inviting local breweries and a handful of its international friends to pour for around 3000 guests.
“Again, this isn’t the kind of beer festival where you have a sample glass and try 300 beers,” says Andrej. “It’s more about enjoying some live music, hanging out with your friends, having something from the food truck. It’s a festival where people drink pints and have fun. I think that really sums up what we’re about and what people enjoy about us.”
Book me on the next flight to Croatia please.
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