2019 has been a heck of a roller coaster ride for the Romanian craft beer scene. We’ve seen an outstanding number of new beer releases, new styles being tackled, the IPA dominion still holding strong, and a few welcome trends that are hopefully here to stay. But with less new breweries compared to last year, and topped with some changes in the market and the industry, it does beget the question of what the future holds. So let’s pour ourselves a drop and see where we’re come so far.
Please welcome to the stage…
If 2018 hit us with a booming number of new breweries launching on the market (22, compared to only 8 in 2017), the industry seems to have settled down this year. Not only that, but we’ve also seen a shift in terms of popular locations, with Bucharest no longer holding the center stage.
Out of the 16 new breweries that started producing beers this year, only 9 are stand-alone. Oradea and Bihor county may seem surprising contenders to the craft beer hot spots in the country, but in 2019, we’ve seen two new additions emerge from this region. First off is Bers Nova, who have been contract brewing since April under the name of Artisan Brewing, and launched in December under their new official branding. Meanwhile, one of the most renowned homebrewers in the country finally took it to the next level: Addictive Brewing launched in June, and has been very busy ever since, releasing 7 beers in almost 6 months.
Timișoara continues to thrive, with two new breweries opening just outside the city: Brauhaus Sincu in the village of Utvin, and Double Drop Crew in Șag. Although Berărescu has been open since December 2018, they only started brewing this year, and therefore make 2019’s list of newcomers as the only brewpub in the city. Zimand Brewery opening close to Arad also helped put the western part of Romania on the map this year, along with its current range of 6 beers. Also on the western front, Sibiu joins in with its first brewpub, Downtown Craft Brewery – B13, which opened in July.
Bucharest hasn’t been idle, welcoming two new players to the scene: Clandestin Beer, who launched in March after lengthy hurdles with bureaucracy, and Fabrica Grivița, who opened in June as the third brewpub to launch this year.
In a curious turn of events, almost half of this year’s new breweries come from gypsy brewers, with 7 newcomers. Bereta‘s BBC homebrewers collab program kicked off in January 2019, and since then, it has helped two eager homebrewers pursue their dreams further: Blackout Brewing, and Hopdrops. After brewing their first batches in Timișoara, both took their shenanigans over to Cluj-Napoca. And it wasn’t just the two of them who helped Cluj become the ultimate hot-spot for this year’s gypsy brewers: Player One Brewery launched in January, and after brewing a batch at Kutuma, travelled the country to brew each of their new beers in a new location (Patos Beer and Oriel Beer). Meanwhile, Propaganda Brewery joined the fray in December, and became the 4th gypsy brewery to call Bere a la Cluj home.
Bereta are, without a doubt, Timișoara’s sweethearts, and it goes to show that the city eagerly welcomes those with a wandering streak. OneTwo Brew is the first gypsy brewery to launch in the city this year, in January, and since then they have stayed true to their love for sours. Owl Brewery joined them in June, and have so far brewed two feathery IPAs under Bereta‘s wing.
Bucharest was quieter in terms of new gypsy brewer additions, and while 7 new players entered the scene last year, in 2019 Mystic Mash was the only new addition, currently having only brewed one beer at Three Happy Brewers.
Measuring the production estimates nationwide – industry speaking
Older and more established breweries have also had a busy year, and we’ve seen some growth in terms of output, as well as rebranding and plans for the future.
Bereta recently acquired new fermenting vessels, and after brewing about 360 hl this year, are looking to significantly increase their output in 2020. Three Happy Brewers have also grown in output, topping last year’s figures by 100 hectoliters (currently at 900 hl in 2019), as well as taking their beers through a label makeover. While there’s still no news regarding the sour line we were promised back in 2018, they have definitely had a busy year, and have put a lot of effort into contract brews and collaborations.
In spite of only opening in April, Double Drop Crew have brewed a total of 70 hl, matching Addictive Brewing, who also ended 2019 with a total output of 70 hl. Meanwhile, Clandestin Beer boast an output of 250 hectoliters, which is quite significant for a new contender who has been on the market less than a year. Plan Beer have been busy as well, and with an output of 400 hl, they can also pride themselves with providing the official beer for the 4th edition of Bucharest Craft Beer Festival.
Bere Noah have enjoyed a great success in 2019, and brewed a total of 220 hl, on top of seeing their growing range of beers sold out to bars and restaurants before they were out of the tank. Mustața de Bere in Brașov have also been busy, releasing two new beers just before the year was out, in December, and brewing a total of 200hl this year. Kutuma ended the year with 589 hl, almost double compared to the 252 hl in 2018. Also in Cluj, Klausen Burger have seen a significant growth after deciding to bottle and attend festivals in 2018, and this year, they reached a total output of 1,000 hl, twice compared to their pre-bottling days (500 hl in 2017).
But not all breweries measure growth in terms of output. While Oriel Beer have remained constant at 100 hl this year (same as 2018), they are by far the most awarded Romanian craft brewery in 2019 with their BA Quadrupel receiving international acclaim, and topping the charts as Romania’s top rated brewery on Untappd. On top of that, they have also started kegging their beers, which meant that we finally got a taste of them at this year’s festivals, not just in Romania, but also in Holland.
One of the most elusive breweries in the country, Lăpușna, have also ended the year with a total output of 100 hl, but are looking to increase capacity in 2020, as well as taking their re-branded range to as many festivals as they can (rumour has it they’re even contemplating München). Amon-Ra Brewery have also had an interesting year, and although they only brewed 12 hectoliters on their own equipment, they took their recipes all the way to Holland for a bit of contract brewing at Brouwerij de Molen, while also re-branding under the Olovina label.
Some breweries haven’t yet had the chance to add up the figures for last year and compile an output report, yet that doesn’t mean they’ve been idle. For example, Hop Hooligans have added three new fermenting vessels to their collection earlier this year, bringing their total potential output to 1,300 hectoliters per year. They also released at least one new beer each month (except for April), and as a result, they take the cake in terms of most new beers released this year, with 45 new labels. After getting their new equipment on site, battling paperwork and relocating, Ground Zero have also officially begun brewing on a larger scale in July, and even though head brewer Răzvan Matache has left the picture due to various shenanigans, the brewery could be poised for exciting future developments.
Perfektum have also had an exciting year, and have released several new brews for the first time since 2017, as well as contract brewing two beers for the Eco Zen Boutique shop in Sibiu. This year was Patos Beer‘s second year on the market, and although things seem to have been somewhat quiet on their front, they have released an Amber Ale, as well as hosting their first gypsy brewer, Player One. Cazino have also had a somewhat quiet year, and even though the market in Constanța seems to be rather stagnant, they’ve made their beers more available via supermarket chains, as well as providing them in PET bottles to select locations.
Things have also been on the rise in Buzău, with One Beer Later doubling their sales volume compared to 2018, while also steadily growing their range and approaching new beer styles. Hophead have seen an estimated 20% sales increase compared to 2018, and are finally ready to tackle 2020 with an increased production line in a new location.
Speaking of yearly outputs, we’ve seen some interesting developments for breweries who needed a helping fermenting vessel or two, and resorted to contract brewing to meet demand. Carol Beer were very accommodating in that regard, and this year, they have helped Amistad, Sikaru, Bere a la Cluj and White Collar with their facilities. The latter is a very curious case. After opening in May 2018 and releasing a spectacular 9 beers in just 7 months of activity, in 2019, they decided to switch to contract brewing. This year, their total sales have doubled, reaching 100 hl of sold beer, yet the vast majority of it was brewed at Carol Beer, and two other breweries in the country. Most of their equipment has also been sold, and they are the only brewery in 2019 to have reverted from stand-alone to contract brewing.
2020 promises to continue this growth trend, and we have it on good authority that there are new breweries due to open in Cluj and Baia Mare next year. In Târgu Mureș, Bere Noah has enjoyed such a growth in popularity and demand that they’re looking to expand to a new premise after just over a year of being on the market, and are putting their old equipment on sale (if you’re interested in getting your hands on it, check out this post and give them a shout). Meanwhile, Amistad are ready to leave the ‘the smallest microbrewery in Romania’ tag-line behind them, and after purchasing 6 new fermenting vessels this year, they are looking to increase their output to 5600 liters per month in 2020.
A change in perception and classification
Back in October at Haze Fest, we had a curious discussion with Robert Ballai, one of the founding members of Cluj NGO Asociația Vrăjitorilor Din Orz, who proposed the following breakdown of Romanian breweries for 2019:
- Transitional breweries, which focus on traditional styles, brew large quantities, have a business plan that mainly pursues cushioning their initial investment, and have a decisive role in growing the craft market by targeting drinkers who are new to these types of beers;
- Beer prodigies, who stand out due to the quality of their beers and styles they approach, who focus on the long game and growing both locally and internationally, and have a key role in turning beginners into connoisseurs;
- Gypsy brewers, who launch with small batches of beers of varying quality, don’t yet have a business plan and are learning the ropes on others’ equipment, and while some are considering opening their own brewery, others are content with keeping the status quo.
This is an interesting breakdown to look into, especially in the light of Bereta publishing a note in December discussing the concept of ‘modern breweries’. As their post says, ‘Creating a nice synergy between all the modern Romanian breweries is at must’. While this mainly refers to collaborations, it fails to shed a light on what ‘modern’ actually entails, and whether it is, by default, the same as ‘craft’. Romania is still trying to find its craft identity, and although our database has so far focused on aggregating information on all breweries with a yearly output below 5000 hl and referring to them as ‘craft’ as an umbrella term, this may no longer be sustainable as of this year.
Zăganu is the main brewery that puzzled us when it comes to our own definition of what craft is in Romania. After hovering at around 4900 hl in 2018, this year, their total output exceeded 5000 hl, which takes them to the next taxation benchmark, as far as legislation is concerned. This also leaves us in a bit of a pickle, however, we can’t consider them less craft just because their output has grown beyond what other Romanian breweries can realistically reach at this point. Perhaps Zăganu might well follow in the footsteps of Boston Beer Company in the US, molding the definition of ‘craft’ based on their own output. What we’re hoping, however, is that they will use this as an incentive to adopt a craft beer seal. They are, after all, founding members for the The Craft Beer Producers’ Association, and with Sikaru already displaying the association’s logo on their beers as of this year, there’s no real reason why other breweries shouldn’t follow suit.
This year’s emergence of gypsy brewers also leads us to address another interesting point. From our discussion with brewers, it seems that not much has changed in terms of legislation, and Romanian authorities have failed to streamline the process for recipe approvals and even expansions, although the number of breweries is steadily growing. For instance, Hophead are back to square one in terms of paperwork for their new brewery, having to jump through the same loops and hoops as they did almost 5 years ago.
Attaching yourself to a pre-existing brewery is a very appealing way to bypass the legalities that come with physical amenities (from the actual building to brewing equipment), leaving gypsy brewers to mainly worry about having their recipes approved by Customs. Having a parent brewery can also take a load off having to sell the brews yourself, although not all gypsy breweries use the parent brewery’s distribution channels. Yet perhaps this is why the number of new gypsy brewers has almost been on par with stand-alone breweries this year. Another curious thing to point out is the fact that some of this year’s gypsy brewers debuted with what the unassuming beer drinker might perceive as extreme styles, such as sours or adjunct-heavy Imperial Stouts, which might not have been sustainable debuts for stand-alone breweries.
This isn’t to say that gypsy brewers are content with having parent breweries handle the hurdle. In fact, some are contemplating opening their own premises in 2020, with Anagram, Wicked Barrel and Player One already having their equipment on site, and are hoping to go live soon.
It Gose without saying…
… that 2019 was an interesting year, but perhaps the most exciting change was in terms of styles, with the sudden outbreak of sour beers. While 2018 saw only 5 sour beers effectively making it on the Romanian market, this year, Brett and Lactobacillus strains made a team effort and pumped those numbers up to 17 new releases. Bucharest and Timișoara have definitely been spawning grounds for this year’s sour IPAs, Gose and Berliner Weisse, yet it wasn’t just breweries like Bereta and Hop Hooligans fighting the good fight. The BBC program showed that, after a love-hate relationship with batches that have gone off, homebrewers have become fond of such styles, and beers like the Quince Berliner Weisse brewed by Bereta with Ionuț-Alexandru Bătrînache (another homebrewer you should keep an eye on in 2020) or the Brett IPA collab between Oriel Beer and Blackout were both very well received. OneTwo Brew were bold enough to launch with a pineapple Gose, which was such a persuasive beer that it convinced Double Drop Crew to collaborate on a watermelon Gose, as well as brew a clementine sour that is due in 2020. Meanwhile, Addictive Brewing took the style to the next level, releasing the first wild fermentation sour ale in Romania, complete with Bihor county’s finest terroir.
Of course, not everyone shares in our love of tart beers, and IPA continues to be the number one choice of style in Romania, for both craft brewers and drinkers. Out of the 280 new beers released this year, 112 were IPAs of every shape and ABV, from classic West Coasts, to hefty DIPAs, and the crowd pleasing NEIPAs. Compared to the 60 new labels released in 2018, this year has seen the numbers grow substantially. There were quite a few breweries who joined in on the hazy trend as well, with some releasing beers under the Hazy IPA, even when artistic licenses apply. Hop forward beers definitely make the world go round, though only 18 humble Pale Ales were released this year.
Dark beers have also more than doubled in terms of new releases, with 41 Stouts and Porters (including their imperial varieties) coming unto the market to balance out their paler cousins. Traditional, bottom fermenting styles like Lagers haven’t been left out either, and with 30 new releases, they come in third as this year’s most popular style. Belgian Beers have fallen slightly in terms of novelty, and even though Oriel Beer valiantly carried the trend, we’ve only seen 19 new labels this year. Wheat beers follow close by, with 17 new additions, while Amber Ales only numbered 7.
Apart from the rise in sours, there have also been some interesting trends worth pointing out for 2019. Perhaps the most unexpected one was the rise of barrel aged beers. There was a time when BA was instantly synonymous with Oriel Beer, but things are likely to change in the future. Hop Hooligans are becoming a clear contender, and their Never Over BA range of Imperial Stouts is on the leader board of best rated beers in Romania, along with their draft-only BA Barleywine, Mat Øl. Buzău is also catching up, with One Beer Later releasing four BA versions of their Imperial Stout in November.
Fruited beers have also been very popular in 2019, with 42 new beers enjoying fruity additions such as raspberry, quince and sour cherries. Beers brewed with specialty coffee are another interesting development, and although only 10 new labels were released this year, they are very likely to become a trend in 2020 due to their versatility, as specialty coffee can be paired with not just Stouts and Porters, but also IPAs, and even Lagers.
Session beers are another curious trend, and while the name seems to be applied somewhat liberally (we still have no idea what a Session Imperial IPA is, and this article sheds no light on the matter), we’ve seen 10 new beers put this style on the label, even though only 5 of this year’s releases were under 4% ABV (however, 39 new beers weighed in at under 5% ABV). It’s debatable whether lactose was an actual trend this year, seeing that it was just Bereta and Hop Hooligans going crazy over it, so we’ll have to keep an eye out for 2020 and whether others will jump on the Milky Way train.
Collaborations have seen a massive boom in 2019, and compared to only 6 in 2017, and 17 in 2018, this year we’ve had 43 new beers come to fruition due to brewers working together on recipes. Oriel Beer have definitely seen an increase in collaborations this year, while Zăganu have also joined in for the first time, brewing two beers with Hop Hooligans. Meanwhile, contract brewing for bars and restaurants, as well as exclusive releases for festivals and events, have also doubled since 2018, with 31 labels (not counting regular batches made via contract at other breweries).
We’ve also seen some ‘first in their style’ releases in 2019. Capra Noastră are currently the only craft brewery in the country to have brewed a non-alcoholic beer (admittedly, at a mere 0.5% ABV), as well as tackling new styles for the market, such as White IPA and White Stout. Meanwhile, Kutuma released the first hemp beer in Romania, while other breweries resurrected old styles, such as Cream Ale (Berărescu, followed by Hop Hooligans) or California Common (Anagram).
Hindsight is 2020 when heading in the right direction
With 40 independent craft breweries currently on the market, as well as 20 gypsy & contract operations, it’s also worth discussing where things are headed and how much the industry has actually grown. Even though we’ve tried to aggregate as much data regarding total outputs for 2019, we have yet to accurately determine what the market share for craft beer in Romania is. We’ve been told anything from 0.5% to 5%, though we still tend to settle for around 1% for no reason other than it strikes closest to reality.
Perhaps a better approach to assessing market growth is looking at distribution channels, from HoReCa, to festivals and events. Taprooms and bottleshops that focus predominantly on craft beer have definitely picked up this year, seeing new places open in Bucharest (The Beer Institute 2nd location and the Bere si Bere Pub reopening), Timișoara (Bereta and the TapRoom), Sibiu (Bere vs Bere), Cluj-Napoca (Blend Bottleshop and DoT) and even Craiova (Stația RomBeer), without counting brewpubs. More openings are due in 2020, in Bucharest (official opening of Hoptimist in January), and two new places soon to open in Cluj (Beer Wall and The Trappist).
Craft beer festivals continued with new editions, scattered across the country from Bucharest to Iași, Cluj, Timișoara, as well as Sibiu and even the town of Sfantu Gheorghe. Brașov was almost on the point of having its own beer festival in 2019, however, due to disagreements between the brewers and the organizers, the event flopped on that side (check the August review for more info on what went wrong).
Breweries have also started hosting events on their own, and apart from TMCBF and Zero Mai, we’ve also seen Fabrica Grivița host a mini-fest in their garden in October. Meanwhile, Bereta and Hop Hooligans came together and organized the first tasting-oriented craft beer festival in Romania, Haze Fest, with its second edition due in April 2020. It is also worth mentioning that craft beer was a guest of honour at this year’s edition of Electric Castle, bringing it close to a new set of potential consumers. And although not strictly industry related, we were happy to see that this year we’ve had 3 homebrewing contests, in Bucharest, Iași and Cluj. In the past, such contests have been triggers for new breweries opening, so we’re eager to see where this year’s winners will be headed next.
Having so many distribution channels (both new and old) may sound peachy, however the feedback we’ve received from the brewers themselves is mixed. Although it’s been almost 5 years since craft beer in Romania picked up and started working its ways on to taps and shelves, the HoReCa industry is still struggling to fully grasp the concept. Bars and restaurant owners often fail to understand that not all beers are made equal, and that they can’t expect the same price per keg across the board, regardless of the styles. While some are willing to pay the higher prices asked by modern, trendy breweries because they understand that their clientele is prepared to pay the price of hype, they are also drawn towards the cheaper end of the spectrum for their other beers, leaving middle-ground breweries in a bit of a pinch. Kegs in particular are more difficult to shift, leaving brewers to rely on mainly bottles, which are cheaper and more appealing to bar owners, especially if they come in the 500 ml variety.
Another HoReCa habit that has caused brewers a lot of grievances both this year and in the past is buying beers on credit. This is very problematic for brewers, as they pay for hops, malt and even equipment upfront, and are then left unable to recuperate their costs because bar owners are failing to pay them for months on end, mounting outstanding bills of thousands of RON towards the brewers. No longer supplying those bars is not always an option for the brewers, as most are already encountering difficulties breaching the market and meeting the ensuing demand, and in some cases, they even have to deal with aggressive sales pitches from other craft breweries reps kicking them off the shelves of bars and restaurants.
In a chat we had back in June with Adi from Bereta, we discussed the topic of keeping craft beer regional, and since then, we’ve seen them release several keg-only beers available exclusively at their taproom. We are currently at a point in the industry where we’re seeing breweries open in more diverse locations across the country, no longer clustering around the largest cities. This does leave us wondering whether it may be more sustainable for breweries to have a regional character as opposed to trying to go nationwide. Feedback is mixed on this front as well. On one hand, breweries like Bere Noah and Mustața de Bere are enjoying tremendous support from their local markets, and cities like Sibiu have a great focus on locally produced craft beer, which is easily available throughout most of its bars and restaurants. On the other hand, breweries like Cazino and One Beer Later are not enjoying the same response from the local market, with people prioritizing lower prices over locally produced beer, as opposed to France or Italy, for instance. This may be due to the economic rift between the east and west of Romania, which is why some breweries are drawn to making their beers available via supermarket chains as opposed to HoReCa.
Festivals are another point to address, and we were curious to see whether brewers actually benefit from the exposure they gain from attending them, and whether they’ve seen any increase in sales in the cities where the festivals were held. For most of the brewers we’ve spoken to, who have attended festivals both this year and in the past, the general consensus seems that they are more trouble than they’re worth. The main issue seems to be the fact that organizers charge a hefty participation fee plus a sales commission, leaving brewers with little headspace in terms of profit. Some brewers were also displeased with being charged the same participation fee as bar and shops stands selling beer from several breweries, which they deemed unfair. Admittedly, breweries who have kegs left over from festivals can sell them to local bars and restaurants, yet for most of them, it’s a one-time sale that might not necessarily result in them constantly supplying those outlets.
On the other hand, attending events such as Beer Crafters and even Electric Castle may become more appealing, due to the fact the kegs are paid for upfront without a discount, and sold by the festival staff and volunteers, while also reaching a larger segment of the population. One could argue, of course, that if event organizers lowered their participation fees, things would be better for everyone involved. However, throughout the 4 editions of our Craft Tranzition Party events we hosted this year, we’ve learned that, while a 20% sales commission and no participation fee may be great for the brewers, it’s not sustainable for the organizers in the long run. It is also debatable whether other craft beer festival organizers made much in terms of profit this year, so perhaps it’s worth considering a different approach for such events in the future.
The 280 new beers released this year alone also raise questions regarding sustainability in terms of distribution channels. Bars and restaurants that focus on Romanian craft beer and their patrons are spoiled for choice, but with most breweries trying to get a spot on the shelves of pretty much the same locations, this may not be feasible in the long run. Shops like The Beer Institute are trying to keep on top of the newest releases, but at the same time, their shelves and fridges also need to accommodate a very large existing range. Meanwhile, restaurants like Blend. Brews & Bites or online shops like Berero have taken a curating approach to their stock, focusing on a mix of new beers, as well as quality classics. Festivals have also started curating their list of attendees this year, and if in the past boasting line-ups consisting of everyone making craft beer was a must, this year we’ve seen the numbers hover at around 25 participants.
Giving the brewers a voice and expressing their concerns through such articles is great, however, we should also address the elephant in the room, as far as both consumers and HoReCa are concerned: quality. In spite of all the new beers and new breweries, not everyone seems to be on top of their brewing practices, and as a result, 2019 has seen its share of bad beers. For all our love for Hop Hooligans, we’ve lost track of the amount of times we’ve asked for a Banana Split Machine and had bar staff shake their head with a ‘Nah, you don’t want that, trust me’. Kutuma and Bere a la Cluj have had cases and kegs sent back due to infections, while Ground Zero‘s bottling station has caused so many oxidization problems for Wicked Barrel that they swore never to bottle an IPA there again. Meanwhile, beers going bad due to improper storage conditions in supermarkets has taken its toll on some breweries’ image, to the point where boasting about your most unpalatable finds has almost become a national sport for members of Romanian online beer communities.
The truth of the matter is that the current market is so young that people will buy bad beer, and it’s only natural that in these early days of Romania’s craft beer awakening that some beers don’t quite hit the mark in terms of quality. Some of the pioneering craft brewers around the world, who later went on to lead in their markets, were known for consistently releasing beers that would sour within a month, or suffered other defects, in their early days.
This isn’t to say that Romanian craft beer lacks in quality. Quite far from it, in fact. We’ve seen many breweries take their brews outside the country, with Capra Noastră developing a brand just for the Japanese market (Bacchus), on top of exporting to France, Italy and Belgium. Oriel Beer have received excellent feedback after starting exports to Holland, Belgium and Spain this year, and they made the lineup of the Leuven Innovations Festival in 2020, as one of the only 16 craft breweries participating from around the world. The quality and status some local breweries have with their outside peers has made international collaborations almost commonplace this year, with Bereta flying across the Atlantic for the first Romania – US collaboration brew, with Finback (still waiting for the official release of that sour DIPA, you guys).
As it stands, not a single Romanian craft brewery has closed its doors since opening, and none has declared bankruptcy. Looking at neighboring Hungary and Bulgaria, both have had craft brewery closures already, in spite of their industry not being that much older. Whether that’s a good or a bad sign remains to be seen, although we strive to maintain a positive outlook.
We’ll wrap up the 2019 review by mentioning that the number of Romanian businesses operating under a primary NACE code for ‘beer production’ has also risen, currently counting 120 business. And while we hoped to aggregate enough numbers to give you an exact market sales percentage, for now, suffice it to say that the growing number of entrepreneurial masterminds joining the industry is a sign that we’re on the right track.
And for you curious ones, here’s the list of Romanian craft beers released in 2019.