An effervescence of breweries and an overflowing pint – a 2018 review

Well, they’ve gone and done it, the absolute madmen: with 22 new breweries and 161 labels released, 2018 has been frothing with activity. Looking back to just five years ago, the growth we have seen this year alone is outstanding. But it also calls for taking a step back, pouring yourself a pint, and contemplating what’s in the pipes for the future of the brewing industry.

Double the breweries, triple the excitement

What makes the new breweries this year more exciting than in 2017 is not just numbers, but also their sheer versatility: from stand-alone breweries, to gypsy and contract brewers, to brewpubs.

Our map has always showed quite a bit of flocculation around Bucharest, so it was about time the rest of the country caught up this year. Sibiu was an interesting surprise, with Nembeer and Bere Sibiu joining the scene. Iaşi also had a couple of new additions, with Cearfisă and the re-branded reopening of Șapte Coline. Meanwhile, we’ve had the first breweries to open in Blaj (Bere cu Miere), Târgu Mureș (Bere Noah) and Braşov (Mustața de Bere).

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An amber and a red IPA, courtesy of Braşov’s first craft brewery (photo credits: Mustața de Bere)

Bucharest has carried on with its steady growth, with the long awaited Patos Beer coming out to play in May, followed closely by White Collar Brewing, and Plan Beer in August.

One thing that definitely had a say in the increased number of breweries is gypsy programs, such as the one at Ground Zero, as well as Three Happy Brewers. Out of the 22 breweries that launched this year, 8 were the result of the open attitude of the already existing brewing community. Ground Zero has accrued the highest number of gypsy brewers by far (with Wicked Barrel, Zburătorul, Antidot Brewing, Brews Brothers and Tomești Hill Brewery), whereas Three Happy Brewers are currently harboring 3 (Bere București, Anagram Brewing, and Dead Men Hops). Kutuma in Cluj isn’t far behind, and after helping launch Neuron Mash, they’re looking to start collaborating with Player One Brewery in January 2019.

Speaking of open house breweries, we were immensely pleased to see establishments welcome homebrewing projects as well. In December, newly opened Plan Beer played host to a group of very passionate homebrewers from Romania, and let them take over the equipment as they brewed a NEIPA, now added to the brewery’s repertoire under the name of Juicyca.

Brewpubs were also on the rise. So far we have Tom Beer in Oradea, Pardon in Lerești (Argeș county), and we’re looking forward to getting our hands on Berărescu next time we’re in Timișoara.

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Keeping it simple and traditional: Oradea joins the craft beer scene with its first brewpub (photo credits: Tom Beer)

Can your fermenting vessels handle the load?

Existing breweries have had a very busy year as well. After much bureaucracy, Ground Zero finally got their new equipment on site in December, so expect an increase in production in 2019. Three Happy Brewers have also grown, and quite significantly at that. The addition of 4 new fermenting vessels has definitely upped their game, to the point where two thirds of this year’s 800 hectolitre output was brewed in the past 6 months alone. Even Kutuma, who were already operating on 2000 liter fermenting vessels, decided that a 7th tank is in order.

Breweries with just one year on the market have also had a substantial output. Carol and its 3000 hectolitres are definitely up there in the lead, but smaller businesses are certainly catching up. Capra Noastră have not only brewed a total of 500hl this year, but the head brewer has also provided us with an interesting surprise. After consulting the expertise of a Belgian brewer for the original recipes, in 2018 Capra‘s owner has started coming up with his own concoctions, and his dark abbey beer (Noaptea Mâţei) has received many positive reviews (most impressive, given the fact that he did not have any prior brewing experience).

Since moving headquarters, Bereta have gone all out, in terms of not only output (210 hectolitres) but also recipes (with a total of 17 labels, including collaborations). Oriel Beer have had a total output of 100hl, still remarkable given the fact that their range consists of Belgian beers that require quite a bit of time to mature and reach their full potential.

Out of all breweries to launch this year, White Collar Brewing were definitely the most impressive in terms of recipes they took on. If last year Amistad had the most diverse launch repertoire (with a total of 7 labels), White Collar have released a total of 9 beers in the eight months since they opened.

Hop Hooligans take the cake for most releases this year as well, with a total of 34 new beer, as well as switching almost their entire range from bottle to can. This is quite outstanding, even for a brewery with 8 fermenting vessels, but then again, they are top mad lads, so we expected nothing less.

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Here she is, in all her splendor: Romania’s first brut IPA (photo credits: Hop Hooligans)

My IPAs bring all the boys to the yard…

… and they’re like ‘Hey mate you up for a collaboration?’

We kid you not, this year has been all about the IPAs. Out of all the beers released this year, 60 were IPAs (not counting pale ales). Even if you account for the fact that some were DIPAs, NEIPAs, even the new and exciting brut IPA (courtesy of the Hooligans), that’ still twice as many as last year.

Great minds think alike, and that’s probably why the number of collaborations between Romanian breweries has almost tripled. If last year we only had 6, this year we saw as many as 17. Add to that beers made for contractors, foreign breweries, and even homebrewers, and the numbers jump up to a total of 32.

The number of Belgian ales has also doubled compared to last year, courtesy of breweries like Oriel Beer, Capra Noastră, White Collar (who seem to favour the style), and even gypsy brewers (like Anagram and Brews Brothers), reaching a total of 21 new releases. Traditional styles that have always been popular with the Romanian drinking crowd, long before the rise of craft beers, such as lagers, pilsners and wheat beers, are also catching up, with a total of 17 for lagers and pilsners, and 6 for wheat. Brewpubs like Tom Beer or Pardon carry the brunt of these styles, yet we were pleasantly surprised to see new breweries tackle more traditional styles, such as White Collar and their amber ale, or Mustața de Bere and their bière de garde.

Speaking of being pleasantly surprised, our love of sours has not seen us dying of thirst this year. While significantly fewer, Angel Piss from Ground Zero or the versatile ‘Sour Puss’ range from Hop Hooligans have shown that there’s an interest for this (so far) niche style on the Romanian market.

When not too busy tucking into a bitter hop bomb, beer lovers have been presented with quite a wide selection of something on the sweeter, maltier side: a total of 18 stouts, porters and imperial stouts have been brewed this year. And in a curious turn of events, in spite of all the IPAs, it seems that the RateBeer contenders for Best Beer in Romania in 2018 fall into the ‘barrel aged’ category. The recently released Buffalo Trace BA ‘Never Over’ from Hop Hooligans is so far in the lead,  followed by the highly acclaimed Jack Daniels BA Quad from Oriel Beer, and hot on their heels is the Merlot BA ‘Ticket to the Stars’ from Ground Zero.

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Good things come to those who wait: in the case of ‘Ticket to the Stars’ 11 months seem to have done the trick (photo credit: Ground Zero Beer)

While we’ve covered beer festivals in two previous reviews (here and here), it is worth mentioning that the drinking crowd have been presented with quite a wide selection of beer related entertainment. Events such as the Craft Beer Lovers’ Night at Jar in Braşov or the Blend Tap Takeovers are still taking place, and quite a few new beer releases have seen their own welcome party, courtesy of shops such as The Beer Institute, or pubs like Hangar Gastropub, Mikkeller or Absintherie Sixtină.

On a side note, we were very happy to see that pretty much all breweries out there have transitioned to draft this year. Looking back to 2017, there were still a few who were only bottling, but the industry has taken an interesting turn, to the point where new breweries like Cearfisă launched straight on tap, and only started to bottle afterwards.

Hops for the future

Our enthusiasm about the growth of craft beer in Romania is all fun and games, but we feared our pink-tinted glasses might be getting in the way. So we had a chat with some of the brewers, as well as retailers, to see what they think about the industry and the way it’s coming along.

There’s no denying, 2018 has seen a dramatic increase in both breweries and new beers released. However, this does not necessarily mean that the market itself has grown.

The craft beer scene as we know it today only came about starting 2015. Three years is too short a time for the market to accommodate a product that it has had little previous experience with. And it’s very easy to get sidetracked by numbers. After all, when you’re talking 22 new breweries and 161 new beers released this year alone, one could easily assume that the industry is bound to take notice.

Yet brewers are still encountering difficulties in selling their wares. True, you can now see more Romanian craft beer available in supermarkets, but that is not the target audience for the vast majority of breweries, not when their authorizations allow them a maximum of 5000 hectolitres per year (the next benchmark is 200,000 hectolitres, which is unfeasible for most). Pubs and bars may host launch parties for new beers, yet brewers still have to explain the significantly higher price of their beers, compared to macro brewed ones, and this can put off retailers.

One of the main difficulties also stems from the fact that the HoReCa industry in Romania is still very much old school. Menus are a cornerstone for every establishment, and most owners rely on a core range and constant supply in order to warrant getting new beers in. And when you have new products being released all the time throughout the year, it’s difficult to negotiate your presence on the menu. Luckily, there are bars and restaurant that resort to the ‘olde worlde’ blackboard, such as Fabrica de Bere BunăHangar Gastropub, The Beers, or Blend. Brews & Bites, but they are still too few and far in between.

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Maybe we spent too much time in the UK, but for us, blackboards like this and craft beer go hand in hand (photo credit: Hangar Gastropub)

What got us thinking was also the fact that one of the main grievances brewers had this year was with festivals. True, there were more festivals than in 2017, but at the same time, there was an increasing number of attending breweries. One of the main (and currently detrimental) tendencies most event organizers have is to bring together as many participants as possible. And while a wide selection of beers is always welcome, and ’50 craft breweries’ sounds great on the banner, the general consensus among brewers was that this approach was unbalanced, leaving many of them unable to cover their travel and participation expenses, let alone make a profit. Advertising is still slacking (especially as many organizers still rely predominantly on social media platforms), and ticketed venues are still before their time. Admittedly, one could argue that festivals are all about exposure for the brewers, but there is still much to be done in terms of making drinkers themselves aware of new products, before spoiling them for choice.

As of 2018, the Romanian craft beer industry has become much more competitive, and it shows no signs of slowing down in the year to come. Looking at the breweries and beers on the market at the moment, we can draw a realistic (and somewhat harsh) breakdown of the three main types of products:

» new brews hitting the market with low prices to entice new customers;

» mid range beers with a medium price tier, typically with an established reputation for consistency;

» high tier brews and ultra niche styles, which are perhaps not sustainable on their own in the long run, due to high price tags and a largely unfamiliar market;

At Beerologique, we always try to be impartial about the industry, which is why we refrain from posting beer reviews. However, we have been disappointed by some releases, both this year and in the past. Which is why we always applaud breweries who choose integrity over pushing a subpar product.

Earlier in December, when Bereta admitted to having had problems with oxidization due to improper bottling, we tipped our hat to them for being honest towards their consumers. When Bere Noah chose to throw 3 batches down the drain instead of rushing to go live on the market (after almost two years of waiting to open), we saluted them. The same applied to Bere a la Cluj, who disposed of 5 batches this year because the beer was not fit for selling.

There are other examples of breweries who chose to count their loses, some perhaps a bit prematurely. Such was the case of the elusive Bere Retró close to Oradea. After opening earlier this year, with a range of three beers and practically no presence on the market, it has now come to our attention that the business and equipment are being sold.

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Down the drain it goes: craft brewing is not just about sales and ratings, but also about transparency and integrity (photo credit: Călin Ignat)

2018 has also seen regions around the globe struck by drought, and it has definitely taken a toll on the yield and quality of barley crops in Europe. A big barley harvest in France has rescued Europe’s beer brewers from supply shortages at the last minute, but that doesn’t mean things are looking up. As most Romanian breweries use German malts (with some relying on English maltsters, as well as Belgian), it would be interesting to see whether they will chose to switch suppliers, and how this will impact the overall quality of their beers. Hops have not fared better either, so questions arise whether the price of an already expensive product is bound to rise even higher.

Things are not all doom and gloom, however. After talking to beer reviewers, such as Universitatea de Bere and Dorin’s Beers, there is some consensus that this years batches have seen an increase in quality, both for new beers as well as existing ones. Take Perfektum, for example, whose most recent batch of Black IPA has seen better reviews than a year ago. Carol Beer and their recently launched Session IPA was also well received, as were newer batches of existing beers from Hop Hooligans, Amistad, or Kutuma. New breweries have also received a thumbs up, such as Anagram, Antidot Brewing, and (after the many dry-hopping hiccups on their first batch) Neuron Mash.

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The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades: here’s to one of the many new and very promising breweries launched this year (photo credit: Anagram Brewing)

‘All this reading is making me thirsty, what’s 2019 going to bring us?’

It looks like the barrel aged trend is here to stay. After the success they’ve had with ‘Ticket to the Stars’, Ground Zero are taking their XperimentALE series in that direction, so expect to see a BA version of their ‘Cox’ imperial stout by 2020. Oriel Beer are also becoming very fond of barrels, and are due to launch 5 BA beers in 2019: their Belize Rum and Mezcal BA Quads, a țuică BA Tripel, as well as two very interesting beers (a blond and a dubbel), currently maturing in barrels from the Liliac winery.

After pioneering the first brut IPA in the country, Hop Hooligans are looking to tackle lambics next. Those of you who attended their 2nd anniversary party might have had a snifter of their ‘Trial and Terroir’ lambic with berries. But for the rest of us, the official launch is due some time this year.

Three Happy Brewers are also keen on experimenting, and after brewing a beer with kveik (due to launch), they’re going to start work on their sour line in the first quarter of this year. Capra Noastră have something in the works for the designated drivers out there, so you can expect the first non-alcoholic Romanian craft beer in 2019. Berărescu received their authorizations in December and are also due to start brewing, so expect more excitement in Timișoara in the months to come. Meanwhile, Wicked Barrel have decided that settling down is in order, and are hoping to open their own brewery in Bicaz soon.

We’ve always had a soft spot for Bereta, and how can you not, when they do stuff like the Bereta Brewing Community? Taking inspiration from their own humble beginnings, back in October they held a competition of sorts, which resulted in 5 homebrewers being chosen to come round and try their hands and recipes on larger equipment. The first beers has already been brewed, a juicy, hoppy concoction due this January. That’s just one out of 5, so keep an eye out for what the bright and creative minds of homebrewers all over the country will come up with.

There are currently 98 companies in Romania operating under a primary NACE code for ‘beer production’. Some are macro giants, some have been on the market for many years, others are homebrewers ‘securing’ a company name for future endeavors. Whatever the industry holds in 2019, it looks like there will be no shortage of beers to look forward to.

‘So then, were there reaaaaly 161 beers released this year?’

Aye folks, there were. But because this article has already exceeded its 3000 words limit, we decided to post them separately. So buckle up, and check them out over here.

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As for us, we’re going to sample some of the beers we’ve been maturing in our cellar basement this year. Cheers!

 

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