It is with a (rather significant) delay that we bring you our report of what happened on the Romanian craft brewing scene in 2020. The year has been rife with trials and tribulations, yet against all odds, it still provided room for growth, as well as some interesting developments. From new breweries to an emergence of surprisingly popular beer styles, tarted up with a bit of spicy drama, there’s never been a dull moment. So fasten your seat-belts, and get ready to tuck into some fun stats and industry insights.
The Big C
There were actually 3 big Cs that defined 2020: canning, closures, and COVID-19.
The Covid pandemic was by far the ‘highlight’ of last year, and it’s impossible to do a retrospective piece on any industry without giving it a mention. What started off as a respiratory diseases claiming victims in Wuhan back in October 2019 took the world by storm a few months later, and by March 2020 ignoring it became non-negotiable.
We wrote several lengthy and informative pieces documenting how the industry has evolved and adapted along the way. You can read them separately, as part of our ‘Craft vs. COVID-19’ series.
The pandemic, as well as the way it was handled, had a profound impact on all small businesses, but particularly on those operating in the HoReCa field. On August 19th, the HORA organization (representing the interests of Romanian hotels and restaurants) organized a nationwide protest against the measures imposed by the Government in tackling the pandemic. Prior to this, they also had a discussion with the Prime Minister regarding reopening the terraces back on May 6th, yet no satisfactory conclusion was reached. The August protest caused such a stir that it even got a mention in international press. Even though terraces had reopened on June 1st and indoor sitting was allowed starting September 1st, several other HoReCa protests followed throughout October.
By extension, any blow dealt to the bar and restaurant industry had a direct impact on the brewers as well. Lockdowns, as well as reduced opening hours and seating capacity (aimed to observe social distancing rules) meant a reduced number of customers, and as a result, a drop in sales. According to a recent report provided by Romania’s Brewers Association, the HoReCa market share dropped to 8% in 2020, a significant decrease compared to 15% in 2019.
Bars and taprooms tried their best to adjust, but many had to contend with the fact that the surest way to continue doing business was through online sales. In Bucharest, several iconic bars (such as Craft si Draft, Beer o’Clock and The Beers) closed their premises indefinitely (Mikkeller Bucharest closed down permanently, but has been replaced by the new TAPS bar). Others, such as La 100 de Beri, closed their physical bar but switched to an online shop instead. (As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that the Blend. Brews & Bites bar in Cluj also closed, but not as a result of the pandemic, but the fact that the location was bought out by Klausenburger.)
Brewpubs also took a hit, and many stopped brewing temporarily, switching gears into food delivery (or, in the case of Turnul Berarilor, also selling small beer kegs). Tom Beer closed down its brewery and restaurant operation in Oradea in November 2020, after opening a second facility in Zalău in June 2020.
Add to this the fact that there have been no craft beer festivals in 2020, and you get a pretty grim picture. We haven’t aggregated exact output figures for 2020, but from our discussions with the brewers, it’s safe to assume that the production volumes have dropped by about 30% – 40% on average.
For some breweries, however, the struggles proved to be impossible to surmount. And as a result, 2020 also saw the first Romanian craft breweries closing down. Bere Cazino in Constanța closed in June, after 4 years of being on the market. Perfektum followed suit in October, thus ending a 5 year brewing career.
In some cases, the fate of the brewery is yet unclear. Such is the case of 1717 from Sibiu, who have been contract brewing in Germany since 2016. After trying to open their own brewery (paired with a side project aimed at distilling craft gin), in 2020 they ran head first into a bureaucratic tedium that effectively terminated their dreams. Although no clear, official announcement has been made, this one post from January this year hints at the fact that their story has come to an end.
And yet, in spite of the adversity, Romanian breweries have found a way to persevere. Hophead relocated to a new production facility and started brewing on a significantly larger equipment. Clandestin, Noah and Mustața de Bere have also undergone expansions. Anagram, OneTwo, Player One and Wicked Barrel transitioned from gypsy brewers to finally being able to brew at their own breweries. Other gypsy brewers haven’t been idle either, as is the case of Antidot and Zburătorul, who decided to collaborate on opening their own brewery, under the name of Bukowina Brewing Co.
And just when everyone thought that no further developments were possible on this woe-afflicted market, the industry showed yet another example of resilience that only underdogs are capable of: new breweries made their official debut.
Room for one more?
A total of 13 new craft breweries opened on the Romanian market in 2020. The number may be smaller compared to 16 in 2019, but upon closer inspection, the news is actually on the positive side: we’ve had 9 new stand-alone breweries, which is the same figure as the previous year.
One thing we’ve noticed about 2020’s new breweries is that they continued a previous trend of filling in the gaps on the Romanian craft beer map. As a result, counties and regions with no prior craft beer history are now joining the fray.
Such is the case of breweries like Scorilo, opened in Caraș-Severin, Dura in Maramureș, or Ferma de Bere in Olt county. Rock & Beer joined Pardon in Argeș county, Cibis Beer joined the Sibiu gang, Clusa became Hophead’s neighbors (quite literally) in Cluj-Napoca, while Brewing Propaganda sought to rub shoulders with heavyweights such as Noah in Mureș county. The Bucharest scene hasn’t been slacking either, seeing newcomers such as Beast From The Yeast (who were the first Romanian brewery to debut with canned beers) and Algoritm Brewing, founded by Alex Dumitrescu after almost 15 years of homebrewing.
On the other hand, the number of new gypsy brewers has almost halved, with only 4 newcomers in 2020. In Cluj, Acan Brewing became the foster child of both Kutuma and Bere a la Cluj, while in Bucharest, Ground Zero played host to the contract brewery Doi Flăcăi. Capra Noastră also adopted their first gypsy brewer in 2020, namely Takezo Art. And in the same vein, Hop Hooligans decided to dispel the myth that nobody can gypsy brew on their premise, by welcoming Low Frequency Brews into their midst.
It’s worth pointing out that, even though the number of new stand-alone breweries was the same as in 2019, this shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as a sign of the industry keeping a steady pace in spite of the pandemic. One must bear in mind that the process of opening a brewery in Romania takes about 1 year on average. Realistically speaking, the breweries that debuted in 2020 have set the ball rolling the previous year, and only received the green light to start producing in 2020. So in order to properly assess impact of COVID-19 on the craft brewing scene, we’ll have to wait until the end of 2021 to get the full picture.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that the new breweries mentioned above are strictly the ones we know about, and the ones that are operating officially. The real figures could in fact be bigger. As an example, back in March 2020 we visited an operational brewery in Cluj-Napoca. The brewery itself wasn’t officially open (hence we can’t give a name for it), and after checking out the layout of the production facility, we have our doubts that they will be allowed to operate legally. However, they were brewing and selling beer, albeit on a hush-hush basis.
Another example that could indicate that the actual number of operational craft breweries in Romania is much larger than we think is Berăria Dura. This brewery has been operational since 2019, and in the past has also been used for contract brewing by Kutuma and Bere a la Cluj. Their official debut, however, flew under the radar of pretty much everyone, and for the longest time, it wasn’t even clear where (or whether) their beers were being sold.
Given the fact that so many breweries are popping up without any proper announcement, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to keep track of the newcomers. Sadly, it also means that this could well be the last yearly review where we will provide a headcount of new breweries, as well as the new beers that are being released on the market.
Getting down with the cool yeasts
There have been several interesting trends in terms of beer styles tackled in 2020. But if you look at them through a microscope, there’s one surprising trait they tend to have in common: an emerging penchant for diverse yeast strains. And by diverse, we mean anything from the demure Saccharomyces pastorianus and toothsome Kveik, to bacteria such as tongue-pricking Lactobacillus.
One of the most spectacular developments in terms of styles was the massive increase in sour beers. From 5 mouth-puckering releases in 2018, to 17 new offerings in 2019, the numbers skyrocketed to 37 in 2020. Breweries like Bereta, Hop Hooligans, OneTwo and Double Drop Crew continue to embrace their love for all things tart, but we were also happy to see breweries like Hophead, Wicked Barrel and Zburătorul finally embrace such bold styles.
Now, the vast majority of 2020’s sours are rife with fruit, lactose and other adjuncts, but some have steered clear of the ‘pastry sour’ denominator. Oriel Beer have hosted a few ‘clean’ sours this year, such as Templed In Twilight (Barrel Aged Gose) and Blackout’s Sour Babe, but most notably, their very own reinterpretation of a historical English porter from the 18th century. And speaking of taking a trip back in time, Beast From The Yeast also tried their hand at bringing back the long-forgotten Adambier, in a collaboration with Russian brewery Plague Brew. Meanwhile, Addictive Brewing once more demonstrated that spontaneous fermentation and Bihor terroir are a match made in heaven, by brewing a wild ale with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
Barrel aged beers were another intriguing trend, with 15 new releases in 2020 (not counting beers aged on wood chips or cubes and whatnot). What made things even more interesting was the fact that, this time around, it wasn’t just rum or bourbon barrels that made the list of usual suspects. Almost 3 years after Ground Zero decided to use a Merlot barrel from the Rotenberg Winery for their Ticket To The Stars, it seems that local brewers finally decided to give wine barrels a closer look. Out came the barrels of local Merlot and Fetească Neagră, hosting a wide array of styles, from Imperial Stouts (in the case of Hop Hooligans), to Belgian Tripels (Capra Noastră). One Beer Later took a tour through the wine regions of France and Italy, returning home with barrels of Rivesaltes and Amarone, used to mature their very first barleywine, Secret Club.
There’s also been a renewed interest in Kveik, which became a popular yeast with several breweries. Strains such as Voss and Hornindal added an entirely new dimension to the brewing experience, becoming veritable contenders for hops when it comes to fruity notes, especially in consecrated styles like IPA. Breweries such as Bereta and Hop Hooligans are, of course, top of the list when it comes to using this yeast, but it has also made it into the fermenting vessels of Hophead and Plan Beer. Most notably, however, Kveik seems to have been adopted as a ‘house yeast’ by OneTwo, who have used it flawlessly in each and every one of the beers produced at their newly established brewery.
The ‘Pilsner revival’, as we call it, has made itself apparent in the repertoire of several established breweries, who in 2020 decided to delve deeper into bottom fermenting beer styles. Lagers and Pilsners were added to the brewing sheets of Bereta and Hop Hooligans, as well as breweries such as Anagram, Noah, Blackout, Owl Brewery, Ground Zero, and even Capra Noastră. The total number of bottom fermenting beer styles was 39 in 2020, a 30% increase compared to the previous year. We’re curious whether this is a result of the pandemic, and breweries trying to ‘convert’ a new set of clientele using a more approachable (and affordable) product that’s closer to what drinkers born and bred with lager are used to.
Speaking of new beverages that could also be more cost-effective, hard seltzers also crossed the mind of some of the local breweries in 2020. Now, these drinks (for lack of a better word) have taken the western brewing world by storm a few years back, and hard seltzers have become a household staple for many craft breweries in the US, for example. Personally, we’re not keen on the idea of breweries making them simply because, well, hard seltzer isn’t beer. However, breweries like Hophead and Player One have considered brewing them, and it’s likely they’re not the only ones. The only thing keeping hard seltzers at bay (for the time being) is the fact that Romanian legislation doesn’t know how to class them when it comes to excises. Whether that’s likely to change, only time will tell. As far as we’re concerned, hard seltzers are a worrying trend when it comes to the beer industry, so we’re happy to give them a wide berth for as long as possible – but we’ll tell you more on that later.
2020 also saw some ‘first in their category’ releases, not necessarily when it comes to styles, but the way they’re done. Such is the case of Bere Sibiu, who released the first eco-certified beer in Romania, or Nembeer, who released the first bio beers in the country (a Pilsner and a Dunkel). Meanwhile, Plan Beer released the first Romanian gluten free craft beer, MaltMeUp!.
If in 2019 IPAs took up 40% of the year’s total number of new releases, in 2020 they took a backseat as other styles started piquing the brewers’ fancy. Out of the year’s new releases, only 101 were IPAs of some variety, a subdued 32% of the total headcount (also the lowest percentage since 2017). Stouts and Porters (including those bearing ‘Imperial’ in their names) saw a 41% increase compared to 2019, with 58 new releases. Barleywines also had a bit of a boom, with 9 new releases, compared to only 2 back in 2019. Meanwhile, Belgian beer styles have fallen in terms of popularity, with only 13 new releases in 2020 (more than half of them courtesy of Oriel Beer). Wheat beers also fared poorly, with only 11 new releases, but in a curious turn of events, the number of Amber Ales released in 2020 almost doubled compared to the previous year, with 13 new additions.
A total of 317 new beer labels were released in 2020, a 13% increase compared to 2019. Now, this sounds all well and good and worthy of several rounds of applause. But upon closer inspection, it is very likely to be a portent of industry fatigue, pressure from the fandom and simply just struggling to make ends meet. Quite a few of the beers released in 2020 were either the result of parti-gyle, or the same base beer split into smaller batches and subjected to different additions of hops, fruit, coffee, or even barrel aging.
Admittedly, this is a perfectly legitimate practice that allows breweries to experiment with different flavour profiles. Similarly, parti-gyle is an old brewing technique that allows brewers to collect wort at different mash stages, and use it in beers that differ in strength and flavor. The problem is that they both raise concerns regarding how ‘organic’ this development is. On one hand, parti-gyle is not only a more eco-friendly brewing method, but it also allows you to make the most out of your grist. Therefore it does beget the question of whether it aims to mitigate the clash between staying on top of your costs while meeting a constant demand for novelty from some consumers. And here is where it gets a bit tricky.
The number of new Romanian breweries has been on a steady rise for the past 5 years, but in comparison, the market itself hasn’t budged enough to accommodate them all. Pair this with the difficulties and uncertainties of 2020, batch to batch quality fluctuations that put drinkers off core range beers, a quest for unique beers fueled by Untappd, as well as the increased availability of foreign craft beers sold by local shops. The result? An increasingly demanding (albeit small) consumer base, which is more likely to buy new beers rather than that same old IPA you’ve been brewing since 2016. Which is great news for brewers with a never-ending creative streak. But designing new recipes for the sake of a new release is very likely to lead to fatigue for both parties involved.
The Romanian craft beer scene seems to slowly be catching up to markets such as the US and the UK, where the pursuit of quirky novelty rather than the brewery’s identity dictates what is written down on the brewing sheet. And often, it is done to the detriment of a core range of otherwise perfectly good beers. Whether this is sustainable in the long run remains to be seen.
Make no mistake: 2020 has been far from idle. The ebb and flow of restrictions may have resulted in a drop in beer sales, but the brewers have been as busy as ever. Perhaps even more so, given the challenges brought on by the drastic change in the economic climate.
With bars and restaurants either reducing their operations or simply closing down, it became abundantly clear that having your own sales outlet is vital. As a result, many breweries finally tidied up their game and opened their own webshops, separate from simply selling beer via their social media pages (you can find a list of brewery-owned webstores on the BeerShops.ro platform).
Although the number of craft beer retailers has also seen some new additions (mainly in the form of chain stores belonging to Stația Rombeer and Casa Berarilor Artizani), breweries have also started prospecting a more diverse market, by reaching out to shops that don’t necessarily specialize in craft beer. Others have increased their focus on exports, as is the case of Bereta, who exported almost 60% of their beers throughout the summer of 2020. Blackout has also shipped much of its beer abroad, and has seen such an increase in output that, even as a gypsy brewer, it has prompted its parent brewery (Bere a la Cluj) to consider an expansion just to accommodate the demand.
We’ve already mentioned that canning was one of the three big Cs that defined 2020. Hop Hooligans were the first Romanian craft brewery to start canning, back in 2018, but it wasn’t until this year that cans really took off. Beast from the Yeast debuted with canned beers, followed by Bereta and Bers Nova also switching to cans. In the case of Bereta, their decision to change the way they package their beers also had a direct impact on their affiliated gypsy breweries, particularly Owl Brewery, whose beers are now fully transitioned to can.
Canning has always been a Pandora’s box of mixed reactions from the local beer drinkers. To this day, some folk are adamant that Hop Hooligans beers tasted better when they were bottled. Blame this on the haze of nostalgia if you must. Luckily, Bereta had a very clever idea when it comes to dealing with naysayers, and the first beer they canned, an IPA aptly named Bottle vs Can, was split down the packaging line in bottles as well as cans. We had a closer look at the differences between the two in a separate post. Oddly enough, nobody seems to have had any qualms with the newly released beers from Beast from the Yeast only being available by the can, or with Bers Nova switching to cans.
Other breweries have also gone through changes, as is the case of Three Happy Brewers. Previous head brewer and co-founder David left the team, and the brewery underwent not just a change of management, but also went back to their old label designs (after a complete rebranding in 2019). Speaking of rebranding, One Beer Later also decided that a change of attire is in order, and switched to a new set of eye-catching labels to mark their debut on supermarket shelves. Meanwhile, Alex from Propaganda Brewery joined Bere a la Cluj as head brewer, using his expertise to bring new styles to their range (such as Hefeweizen and Baltic Porter), as well as helping gypsy brewer Adi from Blackout give shape to some truly fantastic releases. (Alex also gets a special shout-out for holding the record of longest brew day of 2020, clocking in at a soul-crushing 16 hours.)
Another curious development in 2020 was the emergence of two brewery-owned taprooms, courtesy of two of Romania’s best known brewers: the lads at Hop Hooligans, and the former brewer at Ground Zero.
Opened in September 2020, the Hop Hooligans Taproom showcases not just their own brews, but also some interesting offerings from abroad. The way we see it, it’s likely to become a veritable contender for Bereta’s Taproom, but set in Bucharest. Fingers crossed that the guys also get the chance to host the second edition of Haze Fest on their own turf.
Opened in July 2020, the Ironic Taproom was another intriguing development that, perhaps, needs a bit more exposition. Going back in time to 2014-ish, Răzvan Matache was the head brewer and co-founder of one of Romania’s pioneering craft breweries, Ground Zero. As the years went by, friction started building up between Răzvan and his brother, who was also a partner in the business (rumor has it that the release of the supermarket-aimed Deranj range was partially responsible for this), and in 2019, Răzvan left the building.
Fast forward to 2020, Răzvan decided to come back in style, not only by opening his own taproom, but also picking up brewing once again under the ; ) brand (not a typo btw). He also had a brief rendezvous with the Bereta boys, gypsy brewing one of his beers with the very people he helped put gypsy brewing on the Romanian craft beer map in 2016. In a very fitting turn of events, the name of his brewery, Ironic, tells the tale of going full circle, and we’re eager to see where his brewing endeavours will take him in 2021.
On the other hand, some of 2020’s new releases have been downright catastrophic, not just when it comes to beers but also brands. Such is the case of Sandro Beer, a subdivision of Bere Sara. The thing with the Sandro beer range was the fact that it was marketed as a higher-end product, yet it failed to deliver. From dubious quality and the ensuing negative reviews, to the way those reviews were poorly handled by their reps, the whole thing degenerated in quite a bit of a scandal that we spoke about at length in this piece. To this day, Sandro’s Blonde Ale (Sandro № 1) and Dark Ale (Sandro № 3) are some of the worst rated Romanian craft beers on Untappd (and we’re scared to ask whatever happened to Sandro № 2).
However, they weren’t the only beers that were met with a drain pour by craft beer drinkers. The first batch of Saison from Clandestin received quite a few negative reviews, same as the IPL from Capra Noastră, and both breweries made official announcements about recalling them from the market. However, the Lip Smacc DIPA from Beast from the Yeast also suffered in terms of quality, but in spite of complaints from customers, the brewery continued selling it.
Yet not everything was doom and gloom when it comes to beer quality. We hand-picked our favourite beers released in 2020 and wrote a few words on why they stood out in a separate post, but they aren’t the only ones that deserve a mention.
Blackout and Bere Noah have both released some outstanding beers in 2020, and as a result, they also ended up face to face other as runner-ups for the title of Best Romanian Brewery on Untappd. Earlier in the year, Blackout finally took the cake as best Romanian brewery, dethroning Oriel Beer, who have reigned supreme throughout 2019. It was a sweet but short-lived victory, and a mere 7 month later, Bere Noah rose to the peak on the podium, a position it proudly enjoys to this day.
But perhaps one of the most intriguing developments of 2020 was an attempt to give craft brewers a voice when dealing with authorities. And the main figure behind this is Tudor, brewer at Olovina and Amon-Ra. It all started back in January 2019, when Tudor extended a formal invitation to local craft brewers to join The Board of Trustees for Independent Businesses.
In April 2020, the Board sent an official letter to Romania’s prime minister and the government, highlighting not just the struggles they have been facing as a result of the emergency measures implemented to tackle the pandemic (such as a 90% drop in their fiscal value), but also requesting that the VAT for craft beer be dropped to 5% (from 19%), and facilitating small brewer’s access to large retail chains. There has been no official follow-up regarding an answer to their request, however, it’s worth mentioning that Romania’s Brewers Association sent a similar letter to the prime minister in January 2020, which he addressed in an official press conference in October. (You can read more on the measures implemented to help small businesses on part 3 of our Craft vs COVID-19 series).
In September 2020, Tudor reached out to the brewers that were members of the Board with a proposition to collaborate on a series of guidelines aimed at defining craft beer in Romania. The local standard when it comes to beer quality was formulated at a time when craft beer wasn’t yet ‘a thing’ on the Romanian market, and as a result, it is not just outdated, but it also leaves a lot to interpretation. In his appeal to the brewers, Tudor highlighted the importance of protecting their interests when faced with macro brands describing themselves as ‘craft’, but also enabling consumers to form an educated opinion on what is actual craft and what isn’t. We’ve yet to receive any updates on this endeavour, but we’re hoping it will amount to something that will give local craft brewers a legal claim to their name.
It is difficult to predict what 2021 has in store for Romanian craft breweries, for several reasons. On one hand, any growth projections made in 2019 have been thwarted by 2020’s events. On the other hand, it takes breweries an average of 1 year to open, so it will be interesting to see how many breweries might have been tempted to apply for their authorizations in 2020. It’s also worth noting that a significant number of local breweries are owned by entrepreneurs who have a side business that allows them to inject cash into their brewery as and when needed, so the fact that a brewery will manage to stay afloat in 2021 may not necessarily be an indicator of success.
2020 had the makings of a make-or-break year, and it made this abundantly clear fairly early on. Yet it is perhaps premature to assume that breweries that survived ‘the year of the plague’ will be able to face whatever is thrown at them. True, they have the entire summer of 2021 ahead of them, and with vaccination rates rising, there’s always a chance that an ease in restrictions will generate a better sales flow via HoReCa. However, financial strains brought by 2020 may take longer to amortize, resulting in potential crippling debts. The brewers may have been courteous enough to take back stocks from bars and restaurants when they were forced to shut in the spring of 2020, but many breweries are still waiting on unpaid bills that retailers are only likely to postpone indefinitely.
Yet brewers are a resourceful and resilient breed, and we’re confident that they will be able to overcome adversity. Craft breweries may be small, but therein lies their strength, in the ease to adapt and adjust to a shifting market climate that industrial breweries would struggle with. And, backed by an overwhelming support from the craft beer drinkers’ community, their perseverance is surely bound to pay off in the long run.
We’ll wrap up this piece (and it’s probably the last time we’re doing this) with the list of Romanian craft beers released in 2020. Cheers!
One thought on “Bottomless barrels, the Pilsner revival and bittersweet farewells in the Year of the Rat – a 2020 review”
Welcome back, lovely to see new writing, and such a great overview of the year. Wasn’t aware of half of these things at least. Thank you!
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