13 beers that defined a decade of Romanian craft brewing

2021 marks a decade since the first Romanian craft beer entered the market. In the grand scheme of local brewing, 10 years may seem like too short a time for anything noteworthy. And yet, as if trying to make up for lost time, these past 10 years have seen some truly drastic changes to the beer scene. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the 13 beers that had a formative impact on both the drinker, as well as the industry.

But before you take this trip down memory lane, there’s one thing we ask you to keep in mind. These 13 beers are more than just firsts in their category, or prime examples of brewing skill. They are stories. Think of them as nostalgia-tinged Polaroids, snapshots of what the industry was like at the time, or landmarks and crossroad signposts that would bring Romanian brewers and drinkers to where they are today.

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photo credit: Clinica de Bere

Clinica de Bere – Terapia Platin

Opened in January 2011, Clinica de Bere was the first craft brewery in Romania. It was also an ambitious combo of brewpub, event venue and hotel facilities, and, through their Terapia range, aimed to breathe new life into the local beer scene by brewing naturally fermented and preservative-free beers with all-natural ingredients. Admittedly, they were not the only ones aiming to differentiate themselves from the macro beers available on the market. Brewpubs such as Berestroika and Becker Bräu were also selling unfiltered, unpasteurized beers. Yet there were two things that made Terapia stand out among the other proto-craft breweries at the time. For starters, the beer was actually brewed in Romania (legislative changes prohibited brewpubs from selling beers brewed on the same premise, which is why others resorted to contract brewing abroad). Secondly, the beer was bottled, which meant that it had a wider distribution reach. This gave them a significant head start on the market compared to Klausenburger, another brewpub that opened later in 2011, and which only sold their beers on tap. Clinica de Bere‘s lager, Terapia Gold, was a delectable brew in its own right, yet it was their wheat, Terapia Platin, that would truly entice local drinkers. At a time when imports like Nenea Iancu were teaching drinkers that unfiltered beers are more flavorful, Terapia Platin kicked things up a notch in terms of taste and aroma. And, to both drinkers and the industry, it signaled that a new breed of breweries was about to enter the fray, bound to bring irrevocable changes to the local market.

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photo credit: Zăganu

Zăganu – Blondă

The Zăganu brewery debuted in 2013 with two beers: a blonde and a dark. Their labels never truly clarified what style they were meant to be (ok, the Blondă was a Pils, but to this day, the Brună is a mysterious entity vacillating between Belgian Brown Ale, Dunkel Bock, and plain old Dark Lager). However, one thing was clear: it was a beer tandem designed as a counter-movement to similar dark-blond macro duets available on the market at the time. And out of the two, it was the blonde that caught the drinker, hook, line and sinker. With its recognizable yet fresh approach to branding, it was a stepping stone for those used to drinking macro lagers like Ursus and Timișoreana. It was familiar enough to not be intimidating, yet different enough to stand out. The beer itself was exactly what the beer industry needed at the time. As an unfiltered and unpasteurized Pilsner, it challenged expectations and packed much more flavour than other beers around. Its ubiquitousness in shops, bars, restaurants and (later) supermarkets made it an easy find for those looking to switch from macro to craft. It kept things simple and approachable, and in doing so, became a staple across the country, a significant cut above your typical bottle of Silva.

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photo credit: Ground Zero Beer

Ground Zero Beer – Morning Glory

If you’re looking for the moment when Romanian craft beer took a decisive turn towards what it is today, you’d have to go back in time to the autumn of 2014, at Beer o’Clock. Tucked between some neatly curated imports and local offerings, you would have found a bold beer, packing more hops than industrial lagers would even dream of, with a label displaying the three magical letters that would spellbind drinkers for evermore: IPA. Ground Zero‘s Morning Glory was more than just a beer. It was a statement. It took hops by the fistful and slathered them over the tongue in a burst of citrusy, floral, dank, resinous notes. It took conventional branding by the scruff of the neck and taught it to speak English, use cheeky innuendos, and challenge consumer preconceptions. And did it succeed? You bet your hop-loving taste buds it did. A mere 3 years after the start of the craft beer movement, Morning Glory did more than show consumers that Romanian beers can be on par with international tipples. In a feat of trailblazing glory, it taught local brewers that the time to brew IPAs has come, and that the time was NOW.

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photo via Untappd

Bere Artizanală Sikaru – Sikaru Wit

Back in April 2015, the Sikaru Wit was the first Belgian-style beer brewed in Romania. With its spicy, grassy notes and citrusy bite, it wasn’t exactly what the average consumer, used with the German Hefeweizen, would expect from a wheat beer. The Wit not only introduced drinkers to locally-brewed Belgian-style beers, but it chose to do so via an unusual channel: supermarket chains. It was a bold move, given the fact that all Sikaru beers were refermented in the bottle (and, sadly, this would come back to bite them on the proverbial behind later on). However, the fact that Sikaru breached the supermarket gates and made its way unto the shelves set a precedent for all Romanian craft breweries aiming for a similar spot. Along with the Blond, Stout and (red) IPA, the Sikaru Wit took craft beer availability to the next level, and even paved the way for beers designed specifically with supermarkets in mind, such as Ground Zero‘s Deranj range.

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Hop Hooligans – Crowd Control

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. You probably felt the undercurrent. The timid, squeamish whisper of something new, slowly but surely coming your way.” When Crowd Control was released in 2016, IPAs were already taking the craft scene by storm. Spurred by Ground Zero, more and more breweries were adding them to their core range. Meanwhile, Bereta were dialing up the hop additions with the release of their ‘Ai Pi Iei. It was an auspicious time for brewing IPAs, and there was a noticeable undercurrent of excitement buzzing through the craft beer loving community. Even back then, Crowd Control was one of the best locally brewed IPAs, packing that combo of fruity, herbal hops, mild bitterness and insane crushability that would become a trademark for Hop Hooligans. But then, something happened that the Ring the industry did not foresee. As if fulfilling the prophecy on the label, the Crowd Control broadcast seeped into the beer drinkers’ subconscious. The beer withstood the test of time and consumer preferences and, along the way, it created a gold standard for what IPAs should look and taste like. And nowadays, over 180 batches later, if you look up Crowd Control in the dictionary you’ll find it listed as a synonym for IPA.

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photo credit: Bereta

Bereta – Juicebag

Bereta have been shaping the Romanian craft beer scene ever since their debut in 2016, so picking a single defining beer from that year is tricky. On one hand, you have ‘Ai Pi Iei, which introduced the concept of gypsy brewing to the country. Then you have Citro, the beer that aimed to take local IPAs and pale ales into the hazy, juicy realms of New England. But the one beer that showcased what the lads were really made of was the first batch of Juicebag. A pale ale with Citra, Mosaic and a touch of Columbus, it was a veritable tropical fruit cocktail, livened up by grassy, resinous notes, and some oats rounding off the thick, juicy body. It delivered the hop-juice promise of Citro, and stayed true to the arrogant, douchebag attitude of ‘Ai Pi Iei. Juicebag was the first Romanian craft beer that took hoppy ales to Juice Town and essentially told brewers and drinkers “You folks may wanna settle in, because this right here is the future”.

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Wicked Barrel & Bereta – The Black Pot

If ever there was a song that could summarize The Black Pot, it would have to be Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. This beer had remarkably humble beginnings. From a 10 liter batch that went tits up, to a slightly bigger batch that suffered a gulyás-induced infection, things took an upward turn one fateful day when Radu from Wicked Barrel contacted the Bereta boys and suggested they head down to Ground Zero to collaborate on a Russian Imperial Stout. A lot of back and forth later, they got the recipe down to a T, and on February 18th 2017, the mash tun was finally fired up and the brew day got going. The resulting beer was an apotheosis of dark malts. It was thick and luscious, laced with notes of cocoa, coffee, vanilla and dark fruits, with the clever use of dextrose undercutting what would have been a cloying sweetness. At 11.5% ABV, it was the strongest craft beer brewed in Romania at the time. And in a rip-roaring crescendo of accolades, it not only won RateBeer’s award for Best Beer in Romania in 2017, but also catapulted Wicked Barrel to the stellar heights of 2nd Best New Brewer In The World for that same year. The Black Pot put Imperial Stouts of any variety on brew sheets as well as drinkers’ wish lists, and even though its ensuing iterations strayed into adjunct territory, the original continues to shine as a memento of what Romania’s craft breweries can achieve.

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photo credit: Universitatea de Bere

Hop Hooligans & Bereta – Nutbusters

2017 was a fantastic year for ‘first in their category’ releases. It was the year we saw Romania’s first Imperial Stout, first smoked beer, first barleywine, first sours – you name it. It was also the year when the craft beer market flared with color and flavour as adjuncts found their way into boil kettles and fermenting vessels, from coffee and cocoa, to mango, orange, cherries, and berries of all shapes and sizes. Yet there was one beer that truly stood out in this dazzling cornucopia: Nutbusters. The first of many collaborations between the prodigies at Bereta and Hop Hooligans, it was a coconut and vanilla Smoothie IPA that also featured an ingredient both breweries would become absolutely besotted with: lactose. The beer also made the bromance between the two breweries official, and its branding was giddy with more homoerotic innuendos than you can shake a finger at. In terms of presentation, its clear, amber hue was a far cry from the pale looks and hazy consistency of its future batches. But the taste… oh heavens, the taste! We still remember the first sip we had when it launched at the 2017 edition of Bucharest Craft Beer Festival, and suffice it to say that, even after several years of drinking craft beer in the UK, we’d never had anything like it. Imagine the beer equivalent of ice cream. It was a burst of coconut, vanilla and pineapple, pillowy carbonation, touch of resinous pine to give it a manly kick, and the smoothest mouthfeel oats and lactose can buy. In the following years, both Bereta and Hop Hooligans would delve deeper into the world of adjunct-heavy styles such as Smoothie IPAs, Pastry Stouts and Pastry Sours, and release stuff that’s closer to alcoholic baby food rather than beer. But it was the elegant execution of Nutbusters that whet the palate of both brewers and drinkers for pastry beers, and the child-like joy they bring to the taste buds.

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photo credit: Ground Zero Beer

Ground Zero Beer – Angel Piss

Angel Piss was not the first sour beer brewed in Romania (Hop HooligansSourpuss: Raspberry takes that cake). It was, however, the first sour beer that really drove the message home, and did so without an ounce of pussyfooting. Sourpuss played nice and brought some fruit additions along to sweeten the deal. Meanwhile, Angel Piss took the gloves off, ditched the disclaimers and delivered a Lactobacillus sucker punch to the taste buds. Released in January 2018, it was a Gose with Guérande sea salt, coriander seeds, and a truckload of lemon skins to help drive that tartness like a javelin through your uvula. It was sour, in your face yet insanely drinkable, with a label that looked like a drawing scribbled next to a piss-stained urinal. It suddenly winked into existence and then never again graced the brew sheets at Ground Zero. And yet, it caused a ripple in the fabric of local craft beer scene that would make everyone think back on it fondly. It would take several rounds of hop-burn-bruised, pastry-stout-cloyed taste buds to help drinkers understand just how refreshing and crushable sours are. And when the Sour Craze arrived in full swing in 2020, you can bet that it was weaned on a lot of Angel Piss-fueled nostalgia.

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photo credit: Ground Zero Beer

Ground Zero Beer – Ticket to the Stars

One has to wonder whether, when Răzvan decided to split his Russian Imperial Stout in three Rotenberg Merlot barrels, he had even the faintest idea of what he was about to release into the world. Ticket to the Stars started off as a poll result back in 2017, when Ground Zero asked the people what beer they should brew next. Vox populi settled on two styles: NEIPA and Russian Imperial Stout. The first would be brewed in two iterations (Imperial Juice and Split the Pot), but it would be the RIS that would transcend the status of beer, and become pure, unadulterated hype. Brewed on March 2nd 2017, it was designed to push the limits of the brewing equipment, and featured a whooping 10 different types of malt. The resulting beer was a bit too boozy and astringent, but Răzvan gave it a second chance, and took it where no other local brewer had gone before: barrel aging. After 6 months in the barrel and a few more months of bottle conditioning, the beer went live a full year later. And what a beer it was! It took all the defining qualities of Merlot and combined them with a powerhouse of dark malts. It was a blend of chocolate notes, roasted coffee, dark fruits, and red wine tannins of cosmic proportions. It was also a beer that was never going to be brewed again, and people knew it. They swept it off the shelves and tucked it away in basements, fridges and cabinets, like a coveted gem. The first barrel-aged beer brewed in Romania, Ticket to the Stars thrilled drinkers with the prospect of beer aging and speculating on how it would evolve in time. And to this day, if you listen closely, you can hear the local craft beer community tremble with excitement whenever someone mentions that they still have a bottle or two of this rare tipple.

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Oriel Beer – Barrel Aged Quadrupel series

When Oriel Beer debuted in December 2017, they were the most eagerly awaited brewery in the country. Not only did they rouse interest through their commitment to focus on Belgian styles, but each of their beers oozed the promise of luxurious indulgence. From the painstakingly slow brewing process, to the distinctive shape of the bottles, emphasis on using the right glassware, and food pairing suggestions, everything they did aimed to elevate beer drinking to a gourmet experience. Yet what really made everyone take notice was when they decided to barrel age their beers. On their own, Belgian Quads already deliver layer upon layer of complex flavours. But when you add barrels to the equation, you propel them into a literal fourth dimension: time, and all the ensuing goodness. Oriel Quads were always destined for barrels, and the first beer in the range spent 6 months in a Jack Daniels barrel before less than 1000 bottles graced our taste-buds in July 2018. The beer was a sumptuous melange of dried plums, vanilla, chocolate, woody notes, fruity esters, and the cozy warmth of its 11.5% ABV. It was a beer that stopped everyone in their tracks, and when we say everyone, we mean the world. The Jack Daniels BA Quad won RateBeer’s award for best beer in Romania, and also graced Oriel Beer with the laurels of 5th Best New Brewer in the World (no mean feat, given the fact that that year they were toe to toe with heavyweights like 3 Sons Brewing and Pips Meadery). In the years that followed, their barrel aged Quads won them the gold at the European Beer Challenge (for the Mezcal BA), Meininger’s International Craft Beer Award (Belize Rum BA), and the Frankfurt International Trophy (Auchentoshan BA). Today, their BA Quads are not only the most awarded beers in Romania, but also a paragon of world-class quality.

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Hophead – Kveik Star

Two very exciting things happened in 2020. First: the number of sour beer releases more than doubled compared to 2019. Second: the industry saw a renewed interest in using kveik. Almost two years after the first kveik beer was brewed in Romania, the unique qualities of this yeast finally caught brewers’ imagination. Voss and Hornindal strains found their way into the fermenting vessels of Hop Hooligans, Bereta, and Plan Beer. Meanwhile, OneTwo were using the descendants of farmhouse brewer Harald Opshaug’s house yeast for the first beers brewed at their own brewery. Yet the true star of the show would be Hophead‘s kveik IPA. On the surface, Kveik Star seemed just another hazy IPA featuring Citra, El Dorado, Azacca and Idaho-7, with a demure label that hinted at the rustic origins of kveik. Inside the bottle, however, lay the culmination of all things heralded by New Lands two years prior. The beer was a pinnacle of brewing with kveik, and a masterfully executed balancing act between ingredients. Everything worked together to form a cohesive whole, with the high alpha acid hops offsetting the fruity esters of the yeast, and the oats and lactose rounding off the thick, juicy body. Today, brewing with kveik is still a nascent phenomenon on the Romanian craft beer scene. And yet, it’s beers like Kveik Star that helped nurture romantic dreams of misty fjords and homesteads where tradition is still alive, and showed that, in the days of modern craft brewing, there is still much to learn from ancestral practices.

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photo via Untappd

Bereta – Where Is Your God Now?

By the summer of 2020, the Romanian craft beer scene had seen pretty much everything. One thing it hadn’t seen, though, was a double dry hopped, triple fruited, milkshake oat cream vanilla maple syrup imperial sour pilsner. And if there was one brewery who could rectify that, it was Bereta. Its name left no room for interpretation: Where Is Your God Now? was a blatant Reinheitsgebot apostasy. It took the holy trinity of water, hops and barley and placed it as a sacrificial offering on the altar of the Lord of craft beer ennui. In a flurry of blows that would put the zeal of a self-flagellating Catholic to shame, it ticked off all the boxes of things you can do to a beer: from bottom fermenting yeast to Lactobacillus, from dry-hopping to fruit additions, from lactose to maple syrup. Admittedly, it wasn’t barrel aged, but the spirulina version took the sacrilege further by being teal-colored. It was the kind of beer that parents use as an example when they tell their kids “Never go full craft”. The resulting beer was a devilish bombast of flavours that, toeing the line between fruited IPA and fruited sour, and rife with more vanilla notes than a Yankee Candle. It was an exercise in excess that was, perhaps, not as gratuitous as it appeared. At a time when hype and beer tickers seemed to have more say on what goes on the brew sheet than the brewers themselves, it was testament to how far the craft beer scene had come, and how much consumer preferences had changed.

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So there you have it, the 13 craft beers that defined 10 years of brewing in Romania. The local industry may be just a decade old, but already it has displayed clear signs of world-class quality, creativity and resilience. Here’s to the next 10 years, and all the new and exciting developments they will bring.

Cheers!

Cover photo credit: Ground Zero Beer

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