“Your driver is arriving in 3 minutes.”
As I put the beer bottles in my backpack, ready for the homebrew contest, there are two thoughts running round in my head. First, I can’t help but find it truly awesome that Cluj has a well established homebrewing community, going strong for more than 2 years now. Second, in a very apt turn of events, the date is May the 4th, and all “May the force be with you” puns aside, one has to admit that homebrewing communities are a veritable force driving the craft beer scene forward – whether in Cluj, in Romania, or anywhere else in the world.
“Your driver has arrived.”
The Cluj homebrewing competition takes place at Planetarium, which has been hosting the local homebrewers and their shenanigans since 2019. Two flights of stairs and a chat with the barman later, my bottles of beer are labeled with a randomly selected number (to keep things anonymous) and tucked away in a fridge, waiting to be judged. The style we’re dealing with today is Saison, which has been democratically selected by the group’s members using a poll.
Before judging actually takes place, the organizers take the time to discuss the style’s particularities, using BJCP guidelines as well as commercially available examples – in this case, the classic Saison Dupont, and Brasserie Fantôme’s La Dalmatienne. Introductions out of the way, the beers are brought forth, and each judge takes out their phone to dish out their verdict using a Google Docs spreadsheet.
Beer judging is done in silence – 10 minutes per beer, without any talking and influencing one another. And yet, the occasional raised eyebrow or appreciative nod can give contestants a hint as to how well the assessment is going. Not that it matters much – most of the times, people don’t recognize their own beers, so even if they participate as both judge and contestant, the anonymity still prevails.
As I look around me, sipping a beer and having a smoke, I can’t help but notice that the Cluj homebrewing group is a mixed bag of characters, which is perhaps why I like it so much. One one hand, you have homebrewers with varying degrees of experience, as well as gypsy brewers, actual brewers, an accredited sommelier, innocent bystanders, and even people who have set the ball rolling towards opening their own brewery. And for a group that brings together such a diverse cast, we all have one thing in common: the desire to drink good beers, and above all, learn how to make them.
Made by homebrewers for homebrewers, the Cluj Homebrewing & Competition group is the result of a joint effort made by passionate, like-minded people looking to perfect their skill, receive feedback, and encourage one another to pursue bigger things. It is a rare breed in Romania, but it’s not the first of its kind. Homebrewing communities have been the forerunners of craft beer years before the local brewing industry even caught wind that there were some drastic changes afoot.
And as every good story goes, craft beer started off as an unassuming, humble character, gently bubbling away on a kitchen stove.
“It all started when I picked up homebrewing…”
It’s a tale as old as time. Almost every Romanian craft brewer we’ve spoken to began as a homebrewer. The story of their brewery starts off with a beer kit, a kettle and a bucket, then levels up to all-grain beers, designing recipes, wowing friends and family with the results, sometimes impressing beer judges in homebrewing contests, before deciding that they have it in them to face actual consumers.
Foreign beers were definitely a stepping stone, back in the old days, allowing drinkers to develop and fine tune their palate. But it was homebrewing that gave them the opportunity to test their mettle.
Nowadays, beer lovers looking to pick up homebrewing have the whole world at their fingertips. There’s an entire wealth of online resources they can use to learn, whether it’s articles, podcasts or social media platforms. Homebrew shops such as Fabrica de Bere and Brews Brothers have a wide selection of ingredients, equipment and even classes. Meanwhile, the Homebrewing Romania group is an active online community where they can receive advice and feedback, trade ingredients and equipment, and also plan get-togethers.
But it wasn’t always like that. Alex Dumitrescu, brewer and founder at Algoritm Brewing, has been making his own beers since the summer of 2005, and he’s probably one of the oldest active homebrewers in the country. Looking back on how he started, he credits much of his love for homebrewing to Friday nights spent at the Brooklyn Brewery taproom and Mugs Ale House, chatting with Gareth Oliver from the New York City Homebrewers Guild, Zack Kinney from KCBC or Mary Izett from Fifth Hammer Brewing. There’s little doubt that homebrewers built New York, and in less than a decade, it was going to be homebrewers that would also put craft beer on the map in Romania.
When Alex moved back to Bucharest, he was faced with one dilemma: “How will I continue to have access to the awesome beers that I’ve had for years?” The choice of decent beers was scarce back then, so homebrewing was the natural choice. The difficulty was the actual brewing. For a while, he made do with whatever was available, but things were poised for some interesting developments. As Alex recalls, the opening of the online brew supplies shop Fabrica de Bere back in 2009 was a real game changer for homebrewers.
“Suddenly, I didn’t need to import malt myself from New York anymore, which I would actually have brought back in an extra suitcase when friends and family were visiting, or have my friends ship it from NY. So yeah, having a homebrew shop in Bucharest in 2009 was huge.”
The scene soon took a more interesting turn, when Fabrica de Bere’s founder, Laurențiu Iancu, also founded a club for local homebrewers. It started off as occasional beery get-togethers at Beer o’Clock (pretty much the first and only beer bar in Bucharest at the time), where future key industry figures, such as Dan and Cristi (Perfektum), Mircea (Hop Hooligans) and Petre Ion (Beer o’Clock / Hop Hooligans) would meet up to drink their homemade beers.
“The community was always cool. I saw it as more of social club rather than a commercial stepping stone. Kind of like a cigar appreciation society, a bunch of guys hanging out, who enjoy talking about a hobby, rather than ‘Hey lets start our own Cigar Plantation and make cigars’. But other people, like the Perfektum guys and Mircea saw it as a ‘Hey I can make this into a commercial venture’, and so did Petre.” (Alex Dumitrescu, Algoritm Brewing)
In just a few years, these meet-ups would grow into a fully fledged Homebrewers Association, thanks to the efforts of founding members Laurențiu Iancu (Fabrica de Bere), Claudiu Tufan (Mystic Mash) and Ovidiu Moldovan. Not only would the Association start hosting several homebrewing events and training sessions aimed at understanding beer, but it would also play a decisive role in nurturing beer lovers’ aspirations for bigger things.
Laying the foundations, one homebrew event at a time
One of the most important events on the Romanian craft beer scene took place in Cluj-Napoca on October 22nd, 2015. Organized by Norbert Tătar (who would later be one of the founders of Kutuma), the event’s tagline heralded great things to come: “Join a new era – the craft beer era!”.
And it truly was the dawn of a new era. There had been no events of the same caliber in Romania before. The event brought together breweries (Ground Zero, Sikaru, Hophead and more), online beer shops (back-then newly launched Berero Store) and NGOs (the Vrăjitorii din Orz association), for a one-day beer tasting bonanza. Yet what made that event stand out was the fact that homebrewers were also given a place of honor.
As the first homebrewing competition in Romania, the 2015 event in Cluj-Napoca was one of the triggers that pushed homebrewers further. First place was won by Mircea Georgescu and his Black IPA (he then went on to upscale the recipe, effectively turning it into Nigh Lights), with Silviu Burtă following in second place with a beer that would become Citro in 2016.
The following year, great things also started brewing on the southern front, in Bucharest. On January 30th, 2016, the Homebrewers Association organized its first homebrewing competition. It was backed by 11 sponsors, as well as the tremendous support of Mircea Georgescu, and Dan Stratulat (Perfektum), who gave a hand in organizing as well as judging the entries. The event featured international participants, as well as a collaboration with two other similar associations (one of them from Bulgaria), and it laid the ground rules for judging using BJCP style guidelines. It was later added to the calendar of European associations, to prevent overlapping with similar types of events.
Following Romania’s first homebrewing competitions, the industry quickly switched gears, as a new breed of homebrewers took over the steering wheel. After entering 11 beers and winning 4 prizes in the 2016 homebrew contest, Silviu and Adi (Bereta) joined forces in convincing Răzvan from Ground Zero to let them brew on his equipment, kick-starting what they called the Romanian Craft Beer Revolution and introducing the concept of gypsy brewing to the local market in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, Cristi and Mircea had sealed the deal with Petre from Beer o’Clock and, in November that same year, Hop Hooligans officially went live.
The Homebrewers Association second competition, in May 2017, featured other names that would in the years to come play a part in the local brewing scene, such as Horia Ciocan (Addictive Brewing), Paul Olău (Bers Nova), Ion Iliescu (former brewer at Hop Hooligans), Radu Drașovean (Hopdrops), Bogdan Glăvan (White Collar), Paul and Raluca Baran (Anagram) and Alex Dumitrescu (who was also there as a judge).
The Association went on to have a total of 4 homebrewing competitions, the last one taking place in 2019 (the 2020 edition was cancelled for reasons that are easy to guess).
Although Cluj-Napoca put homebrew competitions on the map, the city wouldn’t have another contest for 3 more years. Which is where we come into play. As co-organizers of the first edition (or second edition, depending on who you ask) of the Cluj Craft Beer Festival, as well as homebrewers, we made it our mission to bring these kind of competitions back to the city. The 2018 event had 28 entries from across the country, and was judged by brewers (Norbert Tătar from Kutuma and Rory Miller), experienced homebrewers (Horia Ciocan), as well as members of local NGO Asociația Vrăjitorilor Din Orz. By our reckoning, the event was a success, and it even encouraged one of the contestants to pursue brewing full-time (Alex Stoian, who went on to gypsy brew under the name of Propaganda Brewery, as well as work as a brewer in two of the city’s breweries).
The following year, we wanted to kick things up a notch and provide contestants and winners with diplomas that were approved by an authority in the field. So for the 2019 event, we teamed up with the Homebrewers Association in Bucharest for the beer judging, but also enlisted the help of savvy folk such as Horia Ciocan, and Dorin Nicolaescu-Musteață. The competition soon showed us just how fast things were evolving on the homebrew scene: if in 2018 it took us well over a month to gather 30 entries, in 2019 we got 44 entries in just 2 weeks. And, unbeknownst to us at the time, there would be further interesting developments in the works.
Apart from Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest, the only other city in Romania to have hosted nation-wide homebrewing contests was Iași. The city only had one such event back in 2019, as part of the Festivalul Girafelor craft beer event.
The importance of homebrewing communities
If beer is a social drink, then craft beer is the epitome of social interaction and conviviality. Since craft beer’s early days, local communities have been the pivot on which it was propelled forward. Homebrewing communities in particular played an essential role, providing future brewers with the opportunity to learn, discuss ideas and share their interests with like-minded people. In the digital era and in the wake of globalization, online communities became the norm. So it was only a matter of time before Romania would start having its own.
There are two online communities that played a crucial role on the local brewing scene: the Bere România and Homebrewing Romania groups. Founded by Silviu from Bereta on May 26th 2014, the Bere România group started off as a place for beer lovers to discuss their favourite drinks, breweries, track ‘white whales’ and engage in a bit of hype. There were a few posts about home-made beers as well, but it soon became clear that homebrewers were going to need their own designated hangout spot. The task was a perfect fit for Mircea from Hop Hooligans, who was not only an avid homebrewer, but was also beginning to rock the industry boat along with his colleague, Cristi. So on December 4th 2014, Mircea founded the separate Homebrewing Romania group, providing a much needed platform for the nascent homebrewing scene.
“Homebrewing Romania was an important resource and was basically the only element polarizing the emerging Romanian homebrewing community in those years.” (Radu Drașovean, Hopdrops)
Even so, it would take several years for the community to find its flow. The group allowed homebrewers to exchange information, share resources, discuss recipes and practices, desperately seek explanations to why their extract efficiency was so low, and also boast about their own concoctions. Homebrewers such as Radu Drașovean, Horia Ciocan, Ion Iliescu, Bogdan Pascu and many more were core inspirational figures, but the group also homed an emerging breed of super star homebrewers, waiting in the wings and gathering up as much lore and knowledge as they could.
And yet, some members were still closely guarding their brewing secrets.
“After brewing several NEIPAs (my favourite style back then) and finally making one that was truly WOW, I decided to bust this myth of secrecy and posted a step-by-step guide. People didn’t react well to it at the time, but after months and years, I still receive questions or see posts saying ‘So I tried Mihai’s recipe…’. And it makes me happy, that it meant something. Not only that, but people also started sharing their recipes, their secrets.” (Mihai Lazăr, Cluj Homebrewing and Competition group)
Offline communities played an equally important role, especially when breweries themselves got involved. In our neck of the woods, Bere a la Cluj were the catalyst that helped form the local homebrewers group. What started off as a guided tour of the brewery in February 2019 took a new turn just a few days later, on March 1st, when local homebrewer Alex Gagos created the Cluj Homebrewing and Competition group.
“The idea was to have a faster way to communicate with people from Cluj and neighboring areas. We already had a Messenger group before that where we were planning our next drinking get togethers, and where we discussed brewing processes, equipment, and a bunch of other unrelated stuff. We never saw the FB group as an alternative to Homebrewing Romania and we never did advertise at scale. We just tried to fish out local folk whom we’ve seen at our previous monthly meetings.” (Mihai Lazăr)
Dezso Peter, one of the founders at Bere a la Cluj, was a homebrewer himself, and while he never made it past kits, his enthusiasm rubbed off on several of the local guys. Peter quit homebrewing in 2016, yet he continued to support homebrewers, whether through fostering several gypsy brewers at Bere a la Cluj, or even opening the doors of the Planetarium cafe for the homebrewers’ monthly meetings.
“We had several meetings [at Planetarium] and I started to notice a pattern: me, Alex Gagos and Ștefan Patrinichi [Acan Brewing] were always present. Then Tudor joined us, as well as some other people here and there. The format was… well, there was no format. We would drink new stuff at the bar, continue with some homebrews (and there were a lot of homebrews), back to stuff from the bar, and then, without fail, we would go grab a shaorma – it became a religion. The next day, we were dead.”
“So Ștefan came with the idea to bring one bottle of homebrew each, and this is how we got more styles each evening. And since people are rarely on the same wavelength and some are competitive by nature, it was Ștefan again who decided to hold a contest among ourselves – poker style: we put 20 lei down as participation fee and the winner gets the pot. We had several discussions on how to organize it, how to judge the beers, who can participate. Maybe the concept is hard to grasp for outsiders, but for us the basic principle was learning: what to expect from a beer, how to recognize its flaws and merits, being able to give and receive objective feedback. […] In the end, to keep everything open and debate-free, we even even drew up a set of rules. And it changed our lives drastically: we no longer argue, we just refer to the internal regulations. After each [competition], we meet up and discuss what went well, what didn’t, what can be improved, but to our surprise, things have found their flow. There’s always room for improvements, but the changes we had in mind would ruin this feng shui, so for now we’re keeping this format.” (Mihai Lazăr)
At their core, homebrewing communities are more than just some people getting together to drink ‘moonshine’. There’s a feeling of curiosity and excitement pertaining to the homebrewing ethos, and above all, the desire to share your journey into discovering good beer with others. And if there’s one thing you can easily get people excited about, it’s beer.
“I’ve had several attempts at getting others into homebrewing. I would invite friends over while I was making the beer. […] Most of them are very surprised when I tell them that I homebrew. I guess it’s because us Romanians are only used with making wine or spirits at home. They’re curious about how the beer is made, the things you need, where does the color of the beer comes from (especially when you give them a Stout or a darker beer), and even how I cap my bottles. And of course, they’re surprised by how good the beer tastes.” (Tudor Lăpușan, Cluj Homebrewing and Competition)
Telling others about homebrewing often triggers an entire chain reaction, and in Romania, many brewers got into making beer as a result of friends and peers ‘converting’ them to homebrewing. For example, Radu Drașovean got ‘the bug’ from Peter (Bere a la Cluj), and then went on to inspire and teach several homebrewers (most notably Adi Oros from Blackout), before gypsy brewing under the name of Hopdrops.
But that’s not the only way such ‘conversions’ happen. Often, the difficulty with picking up a new hobby is knowing where to start. So in Bucharest, Brews Brothers have set up the perfect environment for those looking to get to grips with homebrewing, by hosting workshops open to anyone looking to make their own beers – especially newcomers.
“Most of the people who attend our workshops are beginners who don’t know how brewing works. So there’s always going to be something that takes them by surprise. First is the beer wort: they don’t expect it to look the way it does, smell the way it smells, or the fact that it’s so sweet. Then come the hops, with which they have a love/hate relationship: some are super excited about the way they smell, others not really. But the final surprise is the fact that, after a few hours, you get to go home with what can potentially be a very good beer.” (Andrei Conea, Brews Brothers)
For most people, getting into homebrewing is pretty straightforward:
“Drinking beer leads to discovering beer, which then leads to discovering that making beer isn’t exactly rocket science, and that you can play around and make your own recipes. When they start off, most people [who come to our workshops] make recipes from our website or other sources, but they all end up designing their own. I don’t think that people who get into homebrewing do it to save money. At the moment, you can’t say that it’s much cheaper to make your own beer at home, especially if you’re willing to invest in quality equipment, or if your passion is NEIPAs with the freshest, newest hop types. Sure, it’s going to be cheaper than beer in bars or craft shops, but this doesn’t necessarily say that homebrewed beer is cheap, but rather that it’s cheaper than craft beer bought in shops and bars.” (Andrei Conea)
Luckily, Brews Brothers don’t limit their classes to Bucharest only. In the past, they’ve been our guest at the Cluj Craft Beer Festival, held workshops at the Bucharest Craft Beer Festival, and even made into craft beer hubs as far as Sfântu Gheorghe, at Szimpla Sepsiszentgyörgy.
When they’re not nurturing the passion of amateur homebrewers, Brews Brothers also help hone the skills of those with higher aspirations. Two of the most notable names to have crossed their threshold are Bogdan Pascu (homebrewer at Abbey Lake Brewery, former brewer for Plan Beer and, currently, Three Happy Brewers) and Lucian Călărașu. Lucian is a rare example on the Romanian brewing scene, one of the few people who collaborated with breweries as a homebrewer, to make beers that are commercially available. And this year, he finally decided to stop pussyfooting about making things official, and began pursuing gypsy brewing under the name of Ultima Brewery.
However, it’s not just homebrewing associations and workshops that help shape the industry’s future. In fact, local craft breweries play an equally important part. For instance, Răzvan Matache (Ironic Beer, previously of Ground Zero fame) has offered his backing to homebrewers even before his brewery officially went live, and then went on to create the Gypsy Program, which effectively launched several breweries. Meanwhile, Dan Stratulat (Perfektum), Mircea Georgescu (Hop Hooligans), Horia Ciocan (Addictive Brewing), Paul Baran (Anagram), David Raets (formerly of Three Happy Brewers) and many more have also played an active role in supporting homebrewers. Even today, brewers like Cătălin Minea (Amistad), Tudor Petrescu (Olovina) and Radu Drașovean take the time to answer questions and offer advice on the Homebrewing Romania group.
Yet no brewery has had as big an impact as Bereta. It is perhaps because they’ve jumped through all the hoops needed to get them where they are now and received a lot of support along the way that they understood that, sometimes, you really just need someone to have faith in you to help you get started.
In October 2018, they launched the Bereta Brewing Community program, aimed at providing Romanian homebrewers with a one of a kind golden ticket to eternal fame: having their own recipes brewed in an actual brewery. What made BBC different from the Gypsy Program at Ground Zero was the fact that it made the process as simple as possible: submit a recipe, and if we like it, we’ll brew it. No tedious bureaucracy involved, just taking it back to basics. The BBC program had 3 editions so far, and it has provided a launch pad for three gypsy breweries: Blackout, Hopdrops, and Low Frequency Brews. And with the 2020 edition beers still due to be released, you can bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The imprecise science of upscaling
Mirroring homebrew communities across the globe, a significant chunk of Romania’s homebrewers have gone on to swap the plastic fermentation bucket for stainless steel conicals. It’s easy to think that if you can brew at home, stepping up to the big equipment is a piece of cake. However, there’s a whole new rule book with commercial brewing.
Homebrewing isn’t always easy, and to master it takes time and skill. Yet it is still a hobby, with no major repercussions if things don’t turn out as expected. Worst case scenario, you waste some ingredients on a bad batch of beer that you can tip down the drain without having to notify Customs.
That all changes when you scale up to a commercial level. Consumers tend to expect beer to be consistent, something that homebrew and craft beers often struggle with due to the nature of the brewing process and the ingredients used. In addition, no matter how great your homebrew recipes are, scaling them up to a commercial level isn’t a simple case of multiplying everything by an X amount.
For many of the homebrewers who made the leap, there were some important lessons they learned along the way. And it wasn’t just coming to terms with the fact that Romanian bureaucracy is a fickle fiend.
“The main thing that took me by surprise on a commercial level was the danger in which you can put yourself. The danger that on a homebrew level is 100 times lower. Meanwhile, in a brewery you are working with a lot of dangerous substances (soda, acid), high-pressure equipment, hot liquids, wet floors, etc. I think that, from a process point of view, they are quite equal. On a commercial level you have more precision but if you have good equipment at home (such as temperature control, good brewing kettle, refractometer) you can do reliable beer at home as well.” (Alex Stoian, Propaganda Brewery)
“I had to learn a lot of tricks in time, even after 2 years I found new ways of saving time or improving things. Indeed the paperwork was more difficult than I would have thought, especially given the fact that we built the whole thing from scratch and we had to apply twice for paperwork. Also, up-scaling seems to be different, as the homebrewed beers had nothing to do with the commercial ones (I would not say they were better or worse, just different). Even if we used the same malts, same yeasts, hops etc, and also the condiments, they were difficult to adjust from homebrew to commercial scale. I would not say it’s easier to make beer in the brewery than at home, especially when we work alone and we do all the hard work. At home it would take the same time, but it was less intensive.” (Laurențiu Mândrilă, Oriel Beer)
Of course, brewing the beer is just a small part of working in a brewery, and some of the surprises that come along the way are on the unpleasant side:
“What really took me by surprise in commercial brewing is how hard it is to get distributors to pay their bills. The end salesmen (bars, online shops, bottle shops) make more profit than the brewers, per unit sold, but you have to constantly beg them to pay you the beer they sold weeks ago. It’s really frustrating and I am quite surprised that the breweries don’t take a common stance to stop this behavior.” (Radu Drașovean)
While some folk have hung their homebrewing apron, focusing on commercial brewing instead, some still find the time to make their own beers at home. However, having worked in a brewery does tend to put homebrewing in a different light. In our case, Andrew finds it much easier to work on a commercial level: there’s more control over the process, you have access to professional equipment, and it’s much easier to hose down a brewery than clean up the kitchen and wash buckets in the shower when you’re done. Yet not everyone’s on the same page.
“Honestly I would say it’s easier to brew at home. While the beer is boiling you can watch TV or catch a game, it’s something fun you do in your free time at the weekend. After 15 years of homebrewing at least twice a month the process becomes automatic, it’s like boiling a pot of soup while hanging out. But I do enjoy the automation at the brewery, such as cleaning one 500l tank vs cleaning my bucket or conical 250 times at home for the same quantity.” (Alex Dumitrescu, Algoritm Brewing)
“As for the process itself, I find it infinitely easier to brew at home. I am getting close to my 200th beer batch but I still find it fun and relaxing. I am quite certain I wouldn’t find professional brewing fun and relaxing.” (Radu Drașovean, Hopdrops)
Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is often applicable to homebrewers. Although some of them have the means to buy top notch brewing equipment, others have to improvise, adapt and overcome. One of the prime examples is temperature control, which has a direct impact on the type of beer you can make at home. Take lager for instance: the average temperature needed to ferment it is between 11°C and 15°C, so unless you have a specially designed fermentation chamber (usually a fridge that’s been rewired to use a temperature controller), you might struggle to brew it in summer. As a result, homebrewers often brew lagers in winter, and use the summer months to brew styles such as Saison and wheat beers, which can comfortably ferment at temperatures of up to 24°C.
To their luck, the emergence of Kveik yeast and its commercial availability meant that homebrewers now had the opportunity to brew the beers they liked, regardless of the season or lack of temperature control. Depending on the strain, Kveik can ferment at temperatures as high as 38°C, and anecdotal evidence suggests it can go up to 41°C.
“Kveik became popular [among homebrewers] because you can use it to make any beers at higher temperatures. However, very few people know that you can also brew lagers using [SafLager] W-34/70 or Voss Kveik in the same amount of time, the only difference being the fact that one doesn’t work above 25°C, while the other needs 30°C.” (Andrei Conea)
Breweries rarely struggle with temperature control in summer. However, Kveik can be used to save costs, especially when it comes to cooling the wort before pitching the yeast. Kveik is also more forgiving of higher fermentation temperatures, and it won’t give off that harsh alcohol flavor even when it hits 40°C. Of course, taking Kveik for a test drive can be risky on a commercial level, but as a homebrewer, playing around with different strains and fermentation temperatures is far more feasible. One of the biggest local advocates of Kveik in commercial beer is Bogdan Pascu, who has used it extensively in his homebrewing before introducing it to the fermenters at Plan Beer. Similarly, the OneTwo brewery, who also spend a lot of time perfecting their craft at home, have switched to using Kveik for all of their commercially available brews.
Homebrewing and commercial brewing are tied by a continuous feedback loop, especially when the people making the beers started off designing and perfecting recipes at home. Many of the craft beers on the market first saw the light of day as successful prototypes made on the kitchen stove, and even today, some beers are first taken for a spin at home before they make it on to the brew sheet.
Beyond the homebrew
It’s almost 9pm, and the 5th iteration of the Cluj Homebrewing Competition at Planetarium is drawing to an end. A total of 10 Saisons were entered into the contest, but only one will take the black belt home. And today, the 1st prize goes to Tudor Lăpușan. With only 30 minutes left before the pub closes, we rush through several other homebrews, including a Brett Saison brewed by Tudor, a beer brewed with Chardonnay grapes from Ion Iliescu, and even a “Lambic” brewed by Ștefan. Then, heads buzzing with beer and excitement, we each grab a cab and rush home to meet curfew. And thus we conclude the homebrew meeting on May the 4th.
But, as the story often goes, this is only the beginning.
“Lots of the times, the homebrewers of today will be the brewers of tomorrow”, says Alex Stoian from Propaganda Brewing. And in the aftermath of the last Cluj homebrew contest, he’s absolutely spot on.
After making beer at home for 2 years, Tudor Lăpușan is the latest example of a homebrewer taking it to the next level. On May 23rd, he officially became a gypsy brewer under the name of MUSAI Brewery. His first beer took him to Player One, where he brewed the very style that won him 1st place in the competition: a Belgian Saison. And a mere week later, he dropped by Bere a la Cluj for his second brew, this time a Pilsner.
The craft beer industry is not only fast paced, but also unpredictable and rife with surprises. And as a homebrewer, the world is literally your oyster. Some homebrewers are perfectly content with sticking to making beers for friends and family, while others will pursue their passion further. Some become gypsy brewers, some get jobs in breweries, some even decide to go all out and open their own place. And then there are those who decide to explore completely unexpected avenues.
One of this year’s most interesting endeavors was engineered by homebrewer Mihai Pleșca. We’ve known Mihai from the local beer groups on FB, and in 2019, he also won 1st place in the NEIPA category and 2nd spot in Saison at our second homebrew competition. And this year, we were pleasantly surprised to see that he’s decided to organize his own event: the Bucharest Homebrewing Competition.
What makes this event special is not just the fact that it’s the first homebrewing competition in Bucharest since 2019. Nor is is the fact that it’s organized by a homebrewer, or the fact that the competition will be followed up by a mini craft beer festival. What does make it stand out among similar events in the country is the fact that it provides homebrewers with a rare opportunity: the winner of the Best of Show category will get to brew a collab beer with Algoritm Brewing. It’s the kind of initiative that bridges the gap between homebrewing and commercial brewing, and hopefully give creative minds the incentive needed to take their hobby one step beyond.
We’ve always found the relationship between homebrewers and commercial brewers a curious one. On one hand, selling beer to homebrewers is a lot more tedious than selling it to the general public. Not only are they making their own beer at home, but they can brew whatever they like, however they like it. It’s not uncommon for homebrewers to tackle styles that are not yet available on the market, such as raw ales, or to brew beers that can rival or even surpass commercially available ones in terms of quality – whether they’re Romanian beers or imports.
“When you get to a point where you can brew a beer which can compete with any of its equivalents on the market, when you start brewing pastry stouts, meads, sours and wondrous Bretty stuff, and even contemplating barrel aging, the market itself starts taking a second place.” (Mihai Lazăr)
Yet homebrewers and breweries coexist as two sides of the same coin: the craft beer market. Homebrewers may be difficult customers, but their knowledge of brewing processes and ingredients allows them to better understand the product sold to them. Because they understand the product, they can then go on to use their expertise when they become actual brewers. And as we’ve seen in the past, it was homebrewers themselves who had an active role in giving the local industry the shape and identity it has today.
Whichever direction the Romanian craft beer scene is headed, you can bet that the next turning point is being decided right now in someone’s kitchen, in a mash where starch is converted into the next success story, in a plastic bucket where the next lodestar beer is unassumingly fermenting away. And when that beer is finally poured into a glass several weeks later, the industry may never be the same again.
Cover photo credit: Bere a la Cluj