Earlier this week, we were tagged by Bere și Lucruri (the geezers behind the most inebriated-sounding podcast known to man) to list our favourite beers from 2020. We posted them on our Instagram page, but after giving it some thought, we decided that a blog post is in order.
2020 was an odd year (to call it that), but we’ve had a lot of amazing Romanian craft beers on offer. This are our favourites, in no particular order, tarted up with a brief review and a story explaining why we loved so much. Tuck in!
Hophead Brewing – Kveik Star
Kveik Voss IPA – 6% ABV
This beer came out at just the right time for us. We’d been reading Lars Garshol’s book on farmhouse brewing, which highlights kveik and other intriguing yeast strains, as well as traditional brewing techniques and their background. In this brew, Hophead uses Voss Kveik, a yeast known for producing amazing aromas of juicy oranges and citrus fruits.
We’ve had other beers that use Voss, but this one seemed to really make the most of what the yeast has to offer. It’s simply a masterclass in brewing with kveik and adapting it to the tastes of the modern craft beer drinker. The thick body is reminiscent of traditional farmhouse brews, while the hops (Citra, El Dorado, Azacca and Idaho-7) give it a modern twist. There isn’t a single element in this beer that’s out of place: the hops work to enhance the fruity esters of the yeast, offsetting the juiciness with just the right amount of bitterness, while the oats and lactose round off the thick, chewy body. It is a sublime balancing act between the ingredients, and it truly is a textbook example of what a kveik IPA should be like.
Oriel Beer – Raspberry Vanilla Quadrupel
Quadrupel – 9.5% ABV
This is almost guilty pleasure for us. It’s like cracking into a big box of luxury chocolates: you know you should just have one or two, but the temptation to quaff it all is just too much. We always buy just one bottle at a time, and keep it in our fridge for days on end, a coveted treat that’s made even more tasty by the anticipation of drinking it.
Like all of the Oriel Quads, it’s a veritable jewel of a beer. Complex, boozy, with a lively carbonation that lifts up the malts and esters, giving it a light body that almost makes you forget the high ABV. The addition of raspberry and vanilla was most inspired, a perfect combination between the tartness of the fruit, giving this Quad a summery, youthful vibe, and the sophistication of vanilla that lends it a refined edge. We’re not massively into Belgian beers, but this one is an excellent common ground, delivering sip after sip of perfection that you wish would never end.
Acan Brewing – Coasa
Cream Ale – 4.8% ABV
As a relatively new gypsy brewer in Cluj, Acan Brewing doesn’t get a lot of attention at the moment, but so far they’ve created 3 pretty tasty brews. However, it’s this cream ale that takes top spot for us. It’s main selling point was the below 5% ABV, which is perfect for session drinkers like us, who prefer to drink ungodly amounts of beers over a long period of time (RIP liver).
Cream ale is also a rather obscure style here in Romania, but it’s delightfully light and flavourful in ways that few other beers can replicate. What sets it apart is the use of corn (and in this case, rice), which gives it a creamy texture and a unique sweetness. Pair that with a medium carbonation and just enough hop bitterness to cut through the corn, and you get the ultimate ‘lawnmower beer’. To us, this beer speaks of warm, early summer evenings, spending hours on one of favourite terraces, slowly sinking into a state of sheer contentment despite the odd circumstances the year had to offer.
Addictive Brewing – Falling Heads
Cabernet Sauvignon Wild Ale – 6.7% ABV
Addictive emerged in 2019, but it wasn’t until 2020 that we began to see the fruits of their terroir-touched labour. Falling Heads is a spontaneously fermented beer, or wild beer, made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from a local winery in Bihor county. With wild beers, you never really know what you’re going to get, but in this case, the gamble surely paid off.
Light and effervescent like a rose spritzer, dry, with a touch of red wine tannins, and a fruity tartness that’s remarkably docile for a beer with a pH of 3.3. This was an insanely gorgeous beer, and we just couldn’t get enough of it when we had it on draft. In fact, the first time we had it, we were also lucky enough to try Cantillon on tap – a very rare treat here in Cluj. And while it was great and all, it was Falling Heads that we kept ordering more and more of.
Hop Hooligans & Blackout Brewing – Haze Deprivation
West Coast DIPA – 9% ABV
Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the second edition of Haze Fest was cancelled last year. So when this beer came out in April, its timing was very apt. Haze Deprivation was a very welcome blast from the past, an almost crystal clear West Coast DIPA, packed with dank, piney notes and a crystal malt sweetness to reign in the bitterness. We’ll be honest with you: one of us is a little old-fashioned and not such a big fan of the man-juice that is NEIPA. It was also incredibly drinkable for a beer packing 9% ABV, and we quickly made our way through several 6-packs.
A great beer that deserves to be bought over and over again rather than just once and forgotten about. In the same vein, Anima is another fantastic West Coast IPA from the Hooligans, proving they can get off the haze train every now and then, and create some crushable classics.
One Beer Later – Secret Club (Amarone BA)
American Barleywine – 9.5% ABV
One Beer Later impressed us last year with their 4 barrel aged Imperial Stouts, and they’ve done it again this year. Secret Club however, is an American Barley Wine, a fairly uncommon style in Romania, but one that can be utterly delectable when it’s done right. Our favourite iteration was the first one we tried, the Amarone (a dry Italian red wine) barrel aged version.
From the moment you open the bottle, you could tell this was going to be a beer that demands you take your time over. Each sniff revealed another layer of complexity: citrus, dark fruit, toffee, fruity esters, red wine tannins. Each sip carried you further into the depths of flavour and aroma: honey roasted nuts, sherry booziness, woody dryness, the rich aromas of quality tobacco, smoky leather, dried apricots, a touch of raspberry, sherry-soaked plums, and a lingering hop bitterness. Drinking it was like wandering the Saharan desert, trying to catch up with a Fata Morgana: just when you thought you reached the end of the flavour profile, a new and exciting aroma would plunge you deeper into the realm of taste. Pure poetry.
Bereta Brewing & Ironic Taproom – Socks
Berliner Weisse with pistachio, honey & vanilla – 4.9% ABV
Some of our favourite evenings many moons ago were spent sipping mead in good company after hours at one of the pubs we used to run in England. While Socks isn’t a mead by any means, it shares some of the qualities of that tipple we were supping. This honey, pistachio and vanilla Berliner Weisse oozes honey notes at first smell, and it only gets better from there.
Anyone who has enjoyed the sickly sweet and sticky treat that is baklava will appreciate Socks, which is almost the liquid version – sans the cloying sweetness. Nice and tart, with a mild carbonation that tickles the tongue, a noticeable dryness from the honey that’s (mostly) fermented out, balanced by the rich, roasty notes of pistachio. A great collaboration between Bereta and the new Ironic Taproom, which we hope to visit soon.
Hop Hooligans – PHI – Gyle 500
Kveik DDH Triple IPA – 9.5% ABV
Gyle is an old-fashioned word that still sees regular use in British brewing. Essentially, it means ‘batch’. This monster of a triple IPA was the 500th batch brewed by the Hooligans, and to celebrate, they showcased just how far they’ve come as well as going back to earlier days: Hop Hooligans were the first Romanian brewery to brew with kveik, back in 2018. This time, they used the Hornindal strain, known for producing pineapple and tropical fruit aromas.
Another showcase of what kveik can achieve, it’s also a prime example of how each ingredient can harmonize into a coherent whole: juicy tangerine and pomelo notes from the yeast, slight grassy bitterness from the hops, rich, oaty body, and a lingering alcohol heat at the back of the throat, just enough to remind you that it’s a beastly 9.5% ABV beer you’re drinking. Perfectly balanced and dangerously moreish.
OneTwo – 01
IPA – 6% ABV
OneTwo finally started brewing in their own space in 2020, and this was their first non-gypsy brewed release. While it’s ‘just an IPA’, for us it was much more than that. It’s wonderfully executed for starters, similar to Noah’s incredible range, but with its own distinct identity. An assertive bouquet of hops on the nose, lime zest and mango notes, a mild passion-fruit-like tartness, biting carbonation that cuts through the pretty full body, and a dry finish that leaves you craving for more.
This beer took us back to early 2017, to a time when we were excited about each and every new release on the local craft beer market. It was a time when beers seemed more honest and genuine in their attempts to form an identity that still aligned with Western trends, and when IPAs that delivered this level of hoppiness were a thing of wonder. What we like most is that it doesn’t claim to be a NEIPA, or a West Coast, or a DDH IPA, or a Milkshake something or other. It’s just an IPA. Simple and almost humble in its presentation, it lets the drink in the glass do the talking. It may not be unique in its characteristics, but for us, it’s everything a modern Romanian IPA should strive to be.
Bere Noah & Wicked Barrel – Nymphetamine
Russian Imperial Stout aged on bourbon barrel cubes – 11% ABV
Not only is this a stand out example of a well-made, adjunct-free Russian Imperial Stout, but it also comes with a side serving of nostalgia, albeit recent. We first had this beer shortly after its release at a Meet the Brewer event at Jaxx. This was on the 1st of March, and while we all had a lot of fun, there was a tension in the air that hinted at things to come. A couple of weeks later, and evenings at the pub crept out of reach as we entered lockdown.
This beer is the first dark beer made by Noah, brewed in collaboration with Wicked Barrel (who have enjoyed international acclaim for their Imperial Stouts since their debut). Right off the bat, it was destined to be a recipe for success: rich and sumptuously chocolatey, with a noticeable cocoa bitterness, velvety mouthfeel, and a layer of sophistication added by the bourbon wood cubes. It has the makings of a timeless classic, and we can only hope that the lads will treat us to a second batch this year.
For us, the best beers that stand out always come with a story, a setting and an atmosphere. While every beer on this list is extremely well made, they all also contain a secret element that elevates the liquid in the glass into something a little more special.
Here’s to the beers and the stories that await us in 2021. Cheers!