At some point last week, we came across a post written by an avid beer drinker, who decided to warn the market about the unpalatable quality of the new brand from Bere Sara, called Sandro Beer. Accusations were thrown left and right, mentions of infections, drain pours, and complete lack of shame on the brewer’s part for making such a beer. A Sandro rep got involved, claiming that the post was simply denigrating the beer without bringing any valid arguments regarding alleged infections. Things escalated in the comment section. Some other blogger brought his own shit-stirring paddle to the party. Lawsuits were mentioned. It got messy.
Normally we wouldn’t bother too much with such things because we’ve been tuning in to the ‘Sara Sucks’ radio station for ages, and the jingle was a bit stale. This time, however, things seemed poised towards interesting developments. And given the fact that we’ve had a little chat with Sara and Sandro recently, we decided to chime in with our own take on this story, as well as its background.
It may seem that the uproar concerning the quality of Sara beers is a recent fad, yet this topic has been an undercurrent on local beer groups since 2017. And it always came down to the same thing: it was a decent beer a couple of years after it launched in 2014, but recently it’s started going downhill. Even 3 years ago beer drinkers (both self-proclaimed connoisseurs and the average geezers) picked up medicinal notes, a sour taste, sometimes skunk (when they sold it in the green bottles), sometimes just plain flat beer.
Let’s address something though: Bere Sara are by no means the only Romanian craft brewery that have had bad batches. We stopped drinking Zăganu for an entire year in 2018 because all their beers had a very pronounced metallic flavour. Kutuma and Amistad have had beers that smelled like sewage. Bere a la Cluj have had beers that were infected. Carol have had beers that reeked of unfermented sugars and diacetyl. We have met bar owners who have refused to buy any more beers from Nemțeana because they reduced fermenting and conditioning times in order to meet increasing demand, and it had affected their quality. And yet, these breweries managed to address their flaws and bounce back on track. More or less. The only one who didn’t was Sara.
Over the course of three years, Sara have amassed bad review after bad review. Stories emerged of beer bottles exploding in people’s fridges, then those bottles started exploding on supermarket shelves, likely due to poor storage conditions but also other underlying flaws. And yet, those bad reviews never seemed to hinder Sara. On beer groups, the general consensus may have been that the beers are bad and not worth spending your hard earned cash on. Yet the unassuming beer drinker didn’t know that. And here’s the other thing: the unassuming beer drinker has a drastically different understanding of craft beer, or ‘bere artizanală’. Some people are still wary of drinking beer that’s not crystal clear because they fear it will upset their stomach. They mistake aroma hops for additives and artificial fruit flavouring. They still think that blond beer is low ABV, and anything else will get them shitfaced after a pint. Under these circumstances, it’s normal that beer, even when riddled with off-flavours, will continue to sell, because not everyone knows that something could, potentially, be wrong with it. The fact that several breweries producing beers of dubious quality have withstood the test of time (perhaps even the market) is testament to this.
So then, why was it that Sara in particular got this awful whiplash from the craft drinkers’ community?
One of the main factors in the rise of Sara’s bad reputation was the beer itself. Craft beer is rarely consistent, but in an unprecedented turn of events, Bere Sara have achieved consistency in releasing beers that, year after year, are consistently getting worse. Not only that, but they also refused to acknowledge that there might be a problem with their quality. Branding their beer as ‘bere de casă’ (which, in the strictest sense, translates to ‘beer made at home’), they can claim that the taste is intentional. They can claim that the market is too young to understand their product, or that people who give negative feedback are malevolent and trying to undermine their reputation. They will explain that their beers are greatly enjoyed at their taproom or at festivals and tasting events – and maybe they are. At the end of the day, the ultimate argument they can bring to the table is ‘If our beer really is that bad, then why are people still buying it?’. Because, let’s be honest, people still are.
The way we see it, Sara and Sandro made two mistakes when it comes to the way they’ve handled their declining reputation : they’ve failed to acknowledge any flaws, and they’ve discredited the opinions of craft beer drinkers.
Their tone-deaf attitude was obvious over the course of many years, yet it took an ugly turn with the release of the Sandro Beer range, a product which was meant to be more high-end than their traditional ‘bere de casă’. We’ve tried the beer and it had several flaws: harsh, over-carbonated, oddly smoky and boozy, with earwax notes and a sour twang. Others have also mentioned the sourness. The Sandro Beer reps got back to us ‘kindly’ explaining that ‘There are tastes that our beer cannot satisfy’ – which translates to ‘It’s not me, it’s you, you don’t know how to appreciate the beer’. Now, like that poor man who got a lot of stick for calling Sandro out on their bad beer, we’ve drank a lot of beers in our time, and one of us is a brewer. We know how to taste a beer, and even if we don’t like a certain style, we can appreciate its merits when executed correctly.
Next, we decided to go the extra mile in an attempt to further our knowledge and understanding of their ‘very complex’ product. Last week, we visited their taproom, Mayerhoff Brauerei, where we tried Bere Sara this time, both on tap and by the bottle. It wasn’t sour, yet it wasn’t good either, with very strong phenolic notes. When we told the guy who served us that the beer was too yeasty and medicinal, we were informed that it’s due to the beer being unfiltered. In a speech that was somewhat embarrassing to listen to, he told us that, unlike 80% of Romania’s craft breweries, they don’t filter the yeast from the beer. He also blamed hops for the medicinal notes, and told us that in the past, they were caused by dry-hopping. We had the audacity to mention that we’ve heard of cases of their beers tasting sour when bought from supermarkets, and were told to keep the beer in the fridge for two days before drinking, because this ‘allows the yeast to recover’. He then explained that sometimes people who are new to unfiltered beer get an upset stomach because the bacteria in their colon does battle with the yeasts in the beer, and getting the shits is a like a baptism of fire that purges all evil from your gastrointestinal tract. Obviously that sounded like a bunch of nonsense to us, but we saw no point in arguing. After all, the man poured chunks of yeast from the bottom of the bottle into our glass, so it was clear that he didn’t know how to pour a beer, let alone understand how brewing works.
Admittedly, you don’t need to know how to brew in order to talk about beer on behalf of a brewery. Yet the other thing Sara did wrong was discredit and downright slander the opinion of beer drinkers on account of them not knowing what they’re talking about. Now, we can give them some benefit of the doubt over this. You can drink all the beers in the world, but unless you sit down and talk to a brewer, visit a brewery, read up on intended taste profiles for each style and how off-flavours work, you will always be an amateur taster who has a more trained palate than the average lager lout. It’s not just the case with Sara, but with other breweries, whose drinkers complain that the beer is too dry, or too dark, or not hoppy enough, and forget what it is that they actually have in the glass. Because beer is an every-man’s drink, it’s easy to be lured into a false sense of entitlement when it comes to the validity of your own opinion. Which takes us to another point:
In this day and age, everyone can have an opinion about anything, and have the freedom to share it wherever they please. When it comes to opinions about craft beer, we’re in a peculiar position because the local market is very young and most drinkers are inexperienced. So it’s easy for Sara and Sandro to believe that people don’t understand their product, and that they call it infected or undrinkable because it doesn’t look or taste like macro lager. However, we’re looking at years’ worth of accounts from dozens of beer drinkers who repeatedly mentioned a flaw with the beers. And one shouldn’t overlook that so easily. Admittedly, fake reviews are a thing, yet to believe that, for the past three years, random people have dedicated their time and money to ruin your brand is something that verges on conspiracy theory.
Let’s not forget that Sara doesn’t exactly have a reputation for transparency and integrity. Several years ago, they made the headlines after their Sara Motors car dealership scammed dozens of buyers by taking their money and ‘forgetting’ to deliver the cars. So it’s easy to assume that they’d be tempted to go for the same antics when beer is concerned, by gas-lighting those who say that their beer is subpar. But there comes a day when frustration over repeatedly buying bad beer will reach a tipping point. Drinking should be an enjoyable experience and you should never mess with a man’s beer, which is why calling them out seemed like the reasonable thing to do.
And yet, the vehemence of the attacks on Sara is unprecedented. As pointed out earlier, they weren’t the only ones with bad beers and bad batches, yet bad reviews were often kept private, in discussions on closed groups. In a way, we can’t help but wonder whether Sara’s attitude over the past years was what singled them out in this massive mess. Ignoring an entire segment of your market for years on end and downright refusing to improve your product is one thing. Actively trying to get away with it by claiming everyone else is wrong is another. And perhaps, unknowingly, Sara and Sandro were picked out by the beer drinkers as scapegoats in order to be made an example of simply because they were never in touch with the craft community.
Will we ever know what goes on behind closed doors at the Sara brewery? Unlikely. Will people continue to buy their beers regardless of the uproar concerning poor quality? Of course. Any publicity is good publicity. Personally, we felt the need to ‘commemorate’ this turn of events in writing because no other local craft brewery has enjoyed such a long-lasting bad reputation with the local craft drinkers crowd quite as Sara, and for once, they actually spoke back. The fact that we have a ‘craft beer scandal’, or whatever you want to call this storm in a teacup, is exciting, and maybe a sign that consumers are getting to a point where they’re tired of making up or accepting excuses. Perhaps we’re coming to a point where breweries will be more cautious about how they interact with their customers, and what they put out on the market. 2020 has the makings of a make-or-break year, so it’s interesting to see the ripples this seemingly small incident will cause.