10 Years Later: A Decade of Romanian Craft Brewing

This is the history of the first decade of craft brewing in Romania. It’s told from the point of view of some of its key players, whether brewers, or people who gave a helping hand in bringing it to where it is today. It’s nostalgia-tinted, uncensored, unapologetic, self-indulgent, corroborated by interviews and the recollections of someone with a borderline obsessive-compulsive memory.

And above all, it’s a love letter to beer, and the people making it.

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Firing up the brew kettle

If this were a neatly scripted story, with punks sticking it to the man and hosting rare beer tasting sessions on a dark and stormy night™, the beginning of craft beer in Romania would look something like this:

The creation of hype. Unknown date. Colorized. (photo credit: Bereta)

But because this is a recollection of real life events, its beginnings were more humble, although no less complex. The Romanian craft beer movement was the culmination of a zeitgeist that had fueled the entire market — from drinkers to retailers to breweries — after the fall of the communism. As such, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment or place where it all began.

It started in the 90s, with the emergence of both microbreweries as well as macro brands entering a newly-liberated market. It started with brewpubs such as Berestroika and Becker Brau, and later on, the emergence on the market of imports such as Punk IPA, Thornbridge – Jaipur, and Oakham – Citra.

It started with brewers such as Ileana Drăghici (Zăganu), Radu Chițu (Bere Cazino), Valer Hasegan (Bere Gloria) or Matei Dumitru (Bere Lăpusna), who would one day open their own microbreweries or end up working in one of the breweries that would become signifiers for the Romanian craft beer movement.

It started in 2009, when Laurențiu Iancu opened the Fabrica de Bere shop, selling homebrewing ingredients and equipment, effectively laying the foundation for a new approach to making beer and breeding an entire set of movers and shakers who would actively shape the Romanian beer scene for years to come.

It started in May 2010, when Petre Ion opened the Beer o’Clock pub in Bucharest, hosting not just a wide selection of imports, but most importantly, the first ever homebrewer meetings, and later on, competitions.

“Beer o’Clock was an oasis in the early days of craft. Basically that’s where the spark that would start Ground Zero came from, where the Matache brothers probably had too many Punk IPAs one evening and concocted a plan, and then their beers, timidly introduced ‘Just some beers made by some new guys in Băneasa’, expanded into something bigger. Or at least that’s what it was like in my microcosms. I remember they had homebrewing events there, the first of their kind I think, and there was also something about a magazine at one point. My memory’s fucked. And God, draft only Parma Porter from Thornbridge. That’s it. And also, it was one of the first places to have Hop Hooligans in the fridges, which was also nice.” (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans)

But every good story needs a when, a where, and a who. It needs a protagonist to wake up one day, cast a discerning eye upon the current state of affairs, and declare:

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2011 – 2013: Let there be ‘artizanal’

For heuristic purposes, we will refer to Clinica de Bere as the first Romanian craft brewery. Admittedly, there were other small, independent breweries making beer on a commercial level before then. Most, however, were either privatized and assimilated by macro giants, were contract brewing abroad due to legislative changes, went bankrupt and called it quits, or reopened several years later. And you can’t assign the role of parental figure to a brewery that has an on-again, off-again relationship with beer. Clinica de Bere (with their Terapia range of beers) were committed. They opened in January 2011, they brewed on a small scale, and would stay true to their core principles for well over a decade. And people took notice.

“Terapia were the first [brewers] I took seriously. I had seen other regional beer brands along the years, but Terapia had a new approach, a cool branding, and a convincing product. They also had the story of the small entrepreneurs, passionate about beer, who put everything together to make a good beer for those who understand good beers.” (Răzvan Matache, Ground Zero)

The funny thing is that, despite the fact that we (and the vast majority of Romanian craft beer drinkers) consider them the first of their kind in the country, its founders were never keen on being labelled as “artizanal”.

“In the beginning, we didn’t like the ‘bere artizanală’ name because we associated it with brewing from hearsay, on your knees, in the garage. Instead, we wanted to focus on the fact that we make unfiltered beer using traditional methods, using natural ingredients exclusively, without any adjuncts or preservatives, and allowing it to ferment naturally. We don’t like using this ‘bere artizanală’ mark even today.” (Heinrich Loth, General Director at Clinica de Bere)

photo credit: Clinica de Bere

Alas, the thing with labels is that, once they stick, you can’t take them off (even though homebrewers and label collectors will disagree). And what helped Clinica de Bere grab a hold of the market was the very inspired decision to bottle their beers. That same year, over 300 km away, Klausenburger would also open a brewpub in the city of Cluj-Napoca. This was all well and good, but they wouldn’t bottle their beers until 2018, and by then, Clinica de Bere would have a secure position in collective memory as the first Romanian craft brewery.

Fast forward to 2013, the local market is about to welcome two more craft breweries in its ranks: Zaganu and Nemțeana. Several years back, we find the founding fathers of Nemțeana in Suceava, where they are being offered a rare chance to revive one of the country’s best known brands: Solca. For several years, they dedicate their time and passion for brewing to the Solca brand, but in November 2013, they launch their very own brewery in Roman. Nemțeana won’t take long to breach the Moldova (the region, not the country) borders, but by the time it does, it will find itself losing the head-start to another brewery that debuted just a month prior: Zăganu.

Out of all the craft breweries that opened between 2011 and 2013, Zăganu would be the ones to steal the spotlight. They would go on to make media appearances ranging from local press to internationally acclaimed publications. They would also be the first Romanian craft brewery to brew over 5000 hl per year, at a time when most of their colleagues brewed around 200 hl. With their iconic branding and approachable beers, they would power through the market to reach a nearly ubiquitous status.

One person who vividly remembers it all is Flaviu Odorhean. Now, Flaviu doesn’t play any brass instruments — otherwise he’d be blowing his own trumpet — but he is one of the key figures of the Romanian craft beer movement. His letter of introduction won’t bear the Beer Academy certified beer sommelier flourish for a couple more years, but as a barman, he was there as a witness to the early days of craft.

“For myself (and I think for many others) Zăganu was the first [Romanian craft beer I drank], closely followed by Terapia. I remember that I was super shocked to find something like this brewed in the country. I had read about beer styles and tasted pretty much everything you could find in hypermarkets, but when I tasted both versions the two breweries debuted with I couldn’t believe they were actually brewed in Romania. I was like wow, here’s a beer ‘ca afară'”. (Flaviu Odorhean)

“[Zăganu] were fresh, I remember I was so excited when they came out I even made a short film about it. I found it a cool novelty, a new Romanian beer, a bit like when Dacia Logan came out, you know? That was their advantage, they were the first and came out with a cool and professional label, got into a bunch of pubs in Vama Veche, etc. The beer itself was boring. I remember that 3 months after they launched I was already talking to someone […] about why the heck aren’t they making an IPA or a pale ale, even in small batches. I found it absurd to invest in something like this and only brew blond and dark [lagers].” (Răzvan Costache, Universitatea de Bere)

Little did the beer drinkers and bloggers know that, in just a few more months, their hop-starved taste buds were going to receive the treat they’ve long been waiting for.

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2014 – 2015: Into the haze

“Really hazy, creamy yellow color with off-white head. Aroma has milky yeast with floral and slightly dank hops. Taste is sweet at first, milky with some vanilla, continues hoppy and dank with growing bitterness on the finish. Medium plus body, soft carbonation. Really well made and easy drinking for a DIPA.”

It’s June 2014 and, somewhere in Timișoara, Adi and Silviu are homebrewing their very first beer, a pale ale with Citra and Amarillo hops. And because making beer (whether in a brewery or a kitchen) is thirsty work, they’ve cracked open a bottle of Omnipollo’s Fatamorgana.

photo credit: Adi Biebel

Posting beer reviews on BeerAdvocate aside, things are looking up for the Bereta lads. Back in March, they published their own FB page, mostly dedicated to teaching beer drinkers the basics of styles, techniques and brewing terminology, promoting Viniloteca (a vinyl-shop-cum-beer-bar owned by Adi’s dad), and handling beer imports (Silviu’s area of expertise, who, just like Cristi, was an avid collector and beer trader). The lads may or may not know it yet, but in a couple of years they’re about to plunge the local craft beer scene into the haze craze, head first — and they will do so in more ways than one.

Things are also stirring further south, in Bucharest, where the Matache brothers are about to take a hammer to the rules and effectively force the local brewing scene to take notice of western craft beer trends. The plan is simple. Răzvan will take a brewing course in the UK and, using Alin’s skills at keeping a straight face while playing poker, they’ll get the funds needed to open a small brewery in Băneasa. A few months later, they release not just their first beer, but also the very first IPA brewed in Romania: Morning Glory. So far so good — the tricky part is convincing bars to sell it.

Time for Beer o’Clock to lend a helping hand. It’s the autumn of 2014, and Răzvan and Petre are having a bit of a tête-à-tête that would decide the future of Ground Zero. And if you’ve ever met Petre, you would understand why he would be a tad intimidating.

“[Petre] was an agitate fella – in the best sense of the word. He was beyond enthusiastic, and you could see this in the selection of beers he had in his bar and the ideas he had for the future.” (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans)

“The guy was awesome, straight to the point, really smart, school of life kind of guy […]. He understood business and alcohol and he always told it like it was.” (Răzvan Costache, Universitatea de Bere)

“Beer o’Clock was our first client, for sure. Petre wasn’t entirely convinced that I knew what I was doing, and I wasn’t exactly bursting with confidence either. But we had already known one another for several years and I understood that, if I was to make good beers, he would be selling them in his bar. The simple fact that [our beers] were available on tap at BoC meant that Petre liked them. And the bar’s clients were also pleasantly impressed by them. Back then the one thing I heard the most was people saying they didn’t believe those beers were actually made in Romania.” (Răzvan Matache, Ground Zero)

Sure enough, Petre likes the beers, and starts selling them in his bar. Back then, Ground Zero weren’t fully operational in a legal sense, so Petre simply sells them as “beers brewed in Băneasa”. Not that legalities would delay the brewers too much. In April 2015, Ground Zero officially goes live, followed by Sikaru later that same month.

Then, in October, the city of Cluj-Napoca is poised to welcome its second craft brewery, Hophead. And, slowly but surely, craft beer begins its march across the country, converting drinkers one bar and one pint at a time.

Meanwhile, Flaviu is busy giving a hand in spreading the good beer gospel.

It was around 2014 that [craft beers] started popping up in [bar menus] and it was around then that I started pulling all the strings I could get my hands on to get them in as many places as possible. I remember when Laurențiu [from Zăganu] came to Cluj and we were visiting bars with bottles in our hands, or when I was begging Marius from Terapia to send beer kegs to Cluj and he didn’t want to. Those were the days… And then, there were suddenly more and more breweries I was trying to get into as many pubs in Cluj as I could. I remember that in the winter of 2015 I hooked up a keg of Morning Glory at Old Friends Pub in Hașdeu, and it was the first (craft) IPA on tap in Cluj. […] It was around 2014 that Zăganu and Terapia got to Cluj. And then I saw things picking up with Nemțeana, Sara, Sikaru, Ground Zero, Hophead, and I realized that ok, it’s for real, the [craft beer movement] is finally happening here as well.”

“The tricky part was serving because brewers didn’t have branded glasses for the bars, so I had to improvise. And which piece of stemware are you likely to find in any bar that you could recommend for a beer? A white wine glass, of course! And quite a few times people would look at me with that ‘He said what now?!?’ look in their eyes, but it did help a lot in placing craft beer in the position it has now.” (Flaviu Odorhean)

Even back then, Cluj was a burgeoning craft beer scene, spurred by passionate individuals who not only had a taste for good beer, but were going the extra mile to make sure others knew what they were missing out on. And Flaviu isn’t the only one pushing for change. What makes Cluj stand out is the fact that it has its own NGO dedicated to promoting beer culture.

The Wizards of Barley (Vrăjitorii din Orz) started off as a group of people who enjoyed organizing beer tastings, homebrewing, and chasing the occasional whales. Founded by Alex Gabor, the group brought together several like-minded folk under one common creed: “The man who doesn’t like beer hasn’t yet been guided to a quality beer that fits his taste.” And among the men who found a quality libation suitable to their taste was Norbert Tatar.

Norbert picked up homebrewing while working as an engineer in Algeria. Several years later, he would become one of the founding members of Kutuma. In the meantime, though, he’s busy organizing an event that would act as a catalyst for the local craft beer movement.

Cue October 22nd 2015. Hosted by Hugo Restaurant, the Beer Meetup event brings together brewers, homebrewers, beer lovers, and more. It’s perhaps the first time that local craft brewers get together, that homebrewers and the general public get to meet them, that the public is treated to a moderated discussion about craft beer (with the help of local beer-loving wizards), and that brewers get to discuss where the industry stood in terms of production as well as distribution (one of the attendees is Ioan Mitroi, founder of the first online shop dedicated to Romanian craft beer).

The event also plays host to the city’s first homebrewing competition, and offers a fantastic networking opportunity. With the foundations laid out, it’s time for some of our key players to finally meet.

“I remember that evening perfectly because [Silviu and I] went there with one purpose: to talk to Ground Zero about brewing at their place. I wasn’t paying attention to the homebrewing competition, even though we had entered a few beers. I wasn’t paying attention to the public either, or even the concept. It was all a bit too early days for people to get it.”

What Adi does have his eyes set on is the big prize.

“Răzvan is the most intelligent, most laid-back dude I’ve ever met. […] He understood what we wanted to do from the get-go. He said yes from the get-go. And at no point did it feel that he wasn’t taking us seriously.” (Adi Biebel, Bereta)

And, just like that, history lends its pen to the people who would end up writing some of its most important chapters: gypsy brewers.

photo via Braseria Tatar

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2016: The craft beer revolution

2016 was a cornerstone year for the local brewing scene. On one hand, you have the country’s only Homebrewing Association organizing competitions that would effectively act as launch pads for some of Romania’s best-known breweries. On the other hand, you have beer excises that had been lowered by 15% and the issuing of a smoking ban, which would provide a (literal) clean slate for industry growth. You have international brewing collabs (between Ground Zero and White Stork, Royal Docks and Kanaal) and a whole host of new breweries pop up on the market (Perfektum, Cazino, 1717, Bere a la Cluj, Turnul Berarilor, and more). It’s such an auspicious year that even Zăganu’s spirit animal, the bearded vulture, returns to its natural habitat, and they (finally) brew a pale ale to commemorate the event.

Yet 2016 also brought forth militant stances, and was rife with interesting developments as a result.

In Băneasa, Ground Zero and Bereta finally get together for Romania’s first gypsy-brewed beer, ‘Ai Pi Iei. Unbeknownst to them, it’s more than beer that they’re brewing. And as malts and hops make their way into the brew kettle, they’re laying the foundation for a concoction that starts with “r” and ends with “evolution”.

The Romanian craft beer revolution operated on two fronts, led by Bereta and Ground Zero. Whether the “attacks” were coordinated or not is anyone’s guess, as many of the details were either forgotten or, with the passing of time, transcended from fact to legend, and later myth. One thing is certain: on May 24th, Bereta published their first “call to arms“:

“Heroes are born rarely and in strange ways. The Craft Beer Revolution in Romania started with a few crazy people from different parts of the country, but it can only continue with you and all your revolutionary friends.”

And on June 7th, they rallied the “troops” once more:

“We have a story to tell. With superheroes, adventures and green bottles. This is our very own comic strip, with and about the Craft Beer Revolution in Romania. It’s finally time to bring the Green Bottle face to face with the Revolution and its Fighters. It’s time to reveal its secrets, to demystify its tricks and, above all, to wipe that infamous smile off its face.”

By now, the first batch of their IPA has already been launched, its label tarted up with a comic strip depicting the revolution as it unfolds. It’s also gaining traction with local beer reviewers. And their revolutionary stance is about to receive significant reinforcements.

Spurred by hype and hop juice, it’s finally time for the masses to enter the fray.

Where were you when the hopheads stormed the BCBF? (photo credit: Dushky via Bereta)

It’s a gorgeous September afternoon and, on the fields of Verde Stop Arena, the Bucharest Craft Beer Festival is making its debut as the first event of its kind in the country. The festival’s aim is to make history ⁠— and it will, although perhaps not in the way it envisioned it. Among the many beer lovers come to enjoy over 50 different local offerings, a curious crowd of protesters begins to gather. No, they don’t have machine guns. They don’t have torches and pitchforks either. What they do have, though, is a message.

While Bereta were busy dousing beer drinkers in hops and instigating rebellion, Ground Zero were laying their very own plan of attack. “Where beer ends, craft beer begins” ⁠— that was the brewery’s core motto. It was elegant, catchy, and tame. Perhaps a bit too tame. So to help it pack a bit more punch, they revved their marketing engines and went all out on being punk.

The result? “Craft not crap”. Its message was as subtle as a kick in the groin. And, like any kick delivered to the proverbial gonads, it did make quite a few people squirm. Make no mistake, the craft beer community fell for it head over heels, and some of today’s attitudes towards macro breweries are likely to be vestiges of those heydays. As for the parties being “attacked”, well… this is where the story gets muddled.

Blame it on misinterpretation, forgetfulness or the rosy tint of nostalgia, but the story of the “craft not crap” motto and its aftermath changes depending on who you talk to. At one point, we had a chat with Sebastian, the man in charge of Ground Zero’s marketing and social media back then. Now, according to Sebi, macro breweries did not take kindly to being accused (albeit indirectly) of brewing crap beer (perfectly understandable). This resulted in a whiplash of craft breweries seeing random inspections (with the exception of Ground Zero) aimed to find bureaucratic irregularities and bad brewing practices that would lead to fines. Naturally, the brewers formed a common front and made an active effort to keep one another in the loop about the inspectors prowling around (with, apparently, the exception of Zăganu, who never said a peep).

Or did they?

“I can’t remember precisely, but I tend to think that Seba was the man with the idea [behind ‘craft not crap’]. And honestly, I don’t think it had any impact that’s easy to measure. It definitely didn’t lead to Heineken sending inspections to the small breweries. I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous things over the years but this is the first time I come across this. I do remember though that there were times when we had to delete FB posts that were considered offensive by big breweries, but nothing more.” (Răzvan Matache, Ground Zero)

Regardless, Ground Zero would continue to poke jabs for a couple more years ⁠— sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, sometimes on the nose, sometimes leaving it open to interpretation.

Sorry not sorry (photo credit: Deranj)

What about the craft beer revolution then?

Among the crowds of “protesters” at BCBF, you could see the occasional signs that read “United we can save craft beer”. Yet whatever they were trying to save craft beer from is still not clear, even after all these years.

Like many artifacts from the heyday of the craft beer movement, the revolution was either forgotten, or discarded. Bereta would drop the narrative, and by 2017, their beer labels would no longer include the (what was thought to be an iconic and permanent) comic strip depicting the revolution. Yet in retrospect, eschewing it didn’t turn them into rebels without a cause. If anything, it was a sign that they had outgrown that stage and decided to pursue other visual avenues to express themselves.

“At one point, [the comics] were no longer relevant to what we needed to express. […] When we started, we knew that we couldn’t be just another label on the market. So we chose to draw attention to ourselves, nothing more. There was no philosophy behind [the craft beer revolution], yet it wasn’t a scam either. Looking back on it, it may seem a bit childish. Back then it molded perfectly with what we felt we need to say. In our 2016 heads, the Craft Beer Revolution was a wave we caught and that was meant to take us to the shore. It wasn’t really the case.” (Adi Biebel, Bereta)

photo credit: Ground Zero Beer

The slogans and banners may have been dropped, but the driving force behind the craft beer revolution is still making waves. It still has a few battles left to fight, but overall, it looks like it’s gaining ground:

“There were two very distinct attitudes: the bar staff, lead by the managers, were very reticent, but when I was dealing with consumers, I was struck by their positivity, by people eager to discover a new world. It was a paradox. I remember the first edition of the [Cluj] Street Food Festival in the summer of 2016 when I was running a stand with about 30 different labels of craft beer, and people were queuing to hear their stories or waiting for [Vrăjitorii din Orz] ⁠— who had a stand nearby ⁠— to tell them about ingredients.” (Flaviu Odorhean)

In other cases, though, the shape the revolution takes is a bit more insidious.

Somewhere in Jilava, a homebrewer, a bar owner (spoilers: it’s Petre) and a certified beer geek are planning to open a brewery that would end up propelling Romanian craft beer on the international market.

“I kept bumping into Mircea at Beer o’Clock, at some of the few events happening back then, or at the Ground Zero brewery […], and I kept inviting myself over whenever he was making ‘beer in a pot’ in his backyard (to be fair, it was a pretty professional pot compared to what some of his colleagues were using). Along the way, the idea of scaling up came up, as in opening a brewery […]. We made a few monstrosities together, I still have a couple of bottles of some heavily hopped DIPAs and borderline barleywines, elegantly oxidizing on the balcony for the past… what, almost [6] years already? We also made prototypes for the real thing. And most importantly, I think and I hope that we had some fun. And we still do.” (Cristian Mihai Dinu, Hop Hooligans)

Yet Petre wasn’t the first person the Hooligans reached out to. Back before Ground Zero was a brewery, Răzvan and Mircea also keep bumping into each other at Beer o’Clock, and eventually start talking about opening a joint venture. Through a stroke of luck, Petre gets wind of Mircea’s plans, and offers to give him and Cristi some good old financial aid. It’s not that he has a soft spot for the guys — rather, his keen business sense tells him that something big is about to happen on the local beer market, and he’ll have a slice of it, risks be damned.

“I met Petre and learned this from him: ‘Before you folk in Banat start doing anything, you first count your money, then check if you have what you need for diapers, food, and whatever else. Only then do you make a plan with whatever money is left and if the risks are not too high… MAYBE you’ll do it. […] Meanwhile, here in Bucharest, we do it first, and only then do we check if we actually have any money for it’.” (Adi Biebel, Bereta)

The Hop Hooligans brewery makes its debut in November 2016. The lads join the market with a diverse selection of beers, ranging from some good old-fashioned ESB to a beer that would teach local drinkers to eat, sleep and breathe IPA. And, just 6 months later, they would face the prospect of having to close down.

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2017 – 2019: Golden years

The period between 2017 and the end of 2019 marked the halcyon days of Romanian craft brewing. It was a time when future heavyweights joined the industry, when brew sheets were awash with bold styles and ingredients, when craft beer festivals and smaller events catered to an increasingly curious and eager public, and when existing breweries began consolidating their market presence.

However, not everything is sunshine and rainbows in the local brewing scene. And after a spectacular debut in 2016, Hop Hooligans are about to receive some very distressing news.

It’s April 24th 2017 and Petre Ion is returning home after spending the Easter holidays with his family. His wife is driving, their kids in the back seat. They’re probably talking about their holiday and making plans for later that evening. They probably don’t think much about the lorry approaching in the other lane. They probably hear the loud bang as its tire explodes. And as seconds stretch to eons, they probably watch in horror as its driver loses control of the vehicle and the lorry smashes into their car.

By the time ambulance services arrive at the scene of the accident, it’s too late.

The news of Petre’s death shocks anyone who knew him, and rightly so. It was a callous twist of fate. At the age of 37, he was a young man. He had done much, and had loads more left to do. Eulogies follow, but no words could ever fill in the gap left by such a prominent figure or provide answers to all the what-ifs.

Back at the Hop Hooligans brewery, Cristi and Mircea spend the next few months scraping by, until one day, they decide to call it quits. They pour all their ingredients into what looks like it’s going to be their last beer. And in September 2017, they release an infinitely-dry-hopped IPA packing the kind of IBU that would make Sam Calagione fret in his sleep. Batch name: NOOB. And to anyone willing to look past the colorful label and the nuclear glow of hops, it’s a farewell later.

“After Petre died, complications with inheritances and other boring legal issues arose and we didn’t know which way to go. It was a time when we were already physically exhausted, ironically, at the very beginning of the road, and we preferred to close everything down rather than continue in a way we didn’t want to. And at the same time we were also financially down. Game Over, batch 1, was the beer that largely cleaned out the hop fridge. Why waste good hops, right? Eventually we got over that too.” (Cristian Mihai Dinu)

Mourning period over, it’s time for the Hooligans to get back in the game. And well they should — 2017 was a fantastic year for craft beer events of all shapes and sizes.

Organized by Eco Zen Boutique in Sibiu, the Beer Craft @ Art festival was the first of its kind to take place in Transylvania. Bucharest Craft Beer Festival saw its second edition in June, and also served as a launchpad for Ground Zero’s retail brand, Deranj. In Iași, the Beer Zone pub starts organizing Meet the Brewer events, while in Brașov, the (now defunct) Jar pub hosts Craft Beer Lovers’ Nights. In fact, more and more breweries are starting to launch parties for new releases, hosted by an increasing number of craft beer bars — such as Zăganu’s Craft Beer Bar & Bistro, Blend. Brews & Bites, or Mikkeller Bucharest.

In our neck of the woods (Cluj), we also begin organizing craft beer events, starting off with small tasting evenings and Meet The Brewer events at Off The Wall. Then, after getting riled up by Beer Crafters and their attempt at a so-called craft beer festival, we decide to make our very own. Not with blackjack and hookers — that’s probably illegal — but with real craft beer, and real craft breweries.

It’s a pleasant afternoon some time in September 2017 and Andrew and I are having a meeting with Vlad from Blend. Brews and Bites. A couple of weeks ago, we were in his pub taking photos of some empty Hop Hooligans bottles, and we must have looked important, because he dropped by and told us that, if we ever want to collaborate on anything, he’d be well up for it. A craft beer festival in Cluj is probably not what he had in mind, but alas, that’s what he’s about to get. We lay down some dubious terms that favor the brewers to the detriment of his earnings and, much to our surprise, he agrees.

Fast forward to October 13th 2017. After a sleepless night, we’re on site, ready to welcome the first brewers to arrive at our Craft Beer Days event. The main guests we’re waiting on are the Hop Hooligans lads. We’re not quite sure where we stand with them. They’re aloof and fickle, but they make good beers, and you can’t have a craft beer festival without them. And honestly we weren’t even sure they’d want to come to a festival organized by a bunch of wannabes who antagonized them on social media. I mean, Mircea was a nice enough bloke. But my only memory of talking with Cristi in real life was the two of us at Beer Craft @ Art festival, sitting on the grass, beer in hand, starry sky above us, me telling him that craft beer is amazing, his knee inches away from mine, hands fidgeting in his lap, leaning in to ask that one question any craft beer blogger longs to hear: “What the fuck do you want from me?”.

I’m having a fag outside the pub when I see their van approaching. It’s the cutest little thing, bright yellow, spanking new. And as it draws closer, I can’t help but notice that its back window is completely shattered. In a series of very unfortunate events, I watch Cristi mount the curve as he’s trying to park, hit one of the bollards, and have the entire front bumper torn off. I rush over, asking the kind of dumb questions people ask when they’ve just witnessed disaster and know there’s fuck all they can do to help:

“Oh my god, what happened?”
“Fucking Cluj happened.”

I am livid. Mortified. I have visions of Hop Hooligans never attending any of our events and making plans to nuke Cluj and its treacherous roads from orbit. I have visions of Cristi and I never sharing memes. I accidentally end up drinking too much beer before the festival even begins and having to ask David from Three Happy Brewers if he’d let me pass out in the back of his van (he does, because he’s a really chill bro). By the time I wake up several hours later, the festival is well under way, and everything is peachy — so peachy, in fact, that we go on to organize several other craft beer events.

POV: your main investor died a few months ago, your fancy new van got smashed to smithereens and you’re contemplating bankruptcy, but at least there’s hop juice on tap (photo credit: Blend. Brews and Bites)

Looking back on it, our beer events — and, dare we say it, even large scale festivals such as BCBF — were small fry compared to some of the concepts cooked up by local industrious minds. We first got a whiff of what was possible back in 2018 while volunteering at the Beavertown Extravaganza. We got as far as talking to a Lindr rep about renting draft systems and some bearded guy from Wylam Brewery (forgot your name mate, pls forgive) who said that coming to Romania for an international craft beer event sounds like a swell idea. However, we were a bunch of penniless noobs so our big dreams never amounted to anything. Which was probably for the best: when the pros finally rolled in the next year, big guns cocked and ready, they knew how to put on a show.

Haze Fest came to us after two years of organizing Timișoara Craft Beer Fest. After two years of organizing it and three years of attending other beer events in Romania, I realized that the scene was maxed out, that there’s no more room for it to grow unless all those involved come together or unless we start getting “macro” alternatives. We (or I?) felt that we couldn’t grow in Romania with the [beers] we had in out heads. We reoriented. Europe already has the experience of beers like the ones we’re brewing now and were dreaming of back then. [But] compared to TMCBF, events like Haze Fest are cock blockers in terms of a decent income, or even just [breaking even]. As in, if you host Haze Fest, you’re losing money. For various reasons. That’s why I think that nobody [had] time and money to organize something like this. For us, it was a reason to attract [breweries] from outside Romania and open our brand to foreign markets.” (Adi Biebel, Bereta)

The thing with Haze Fest is that it wasn’t just a matter of dipping your toe into unknown waters and pushing the local market forward. It was a sign that the industry was maturing and needed bigger shoes to fill. Make no mistake, craft beer festivals (in Romania at least) are not a money churning machine, and even powering through several editions is not enough to guarantee a decent revenue. Events like BCBF, CCBF and Festivalul Girafelor would have happened organically sooner or later anyway. But it took people with know-how and a synergy with the international beer industry to recognize the potential of a young market and take a risk. Perhaps coincidentally, those people were beer geeks. Perhaps — though we doubt it.

Back in 2015, it was people like Adi and Silviu who went for a new approach when they reached out to Ground Zero and asked to brew their beers there. Admittedly, contract brewing has been “a thing” in Romania going back to the 19th century at least. And despite the naysayers, there is a subtle difference between gypsy and contract brewing: a certain chemistry between the parties involved. For example, 1717 had been brewing in Germany for years before closing down, but they were advised to refrain from disclosing who brews their beers — and to this day, the name of the family-run brewery that made their beers remains a mystery (to us, at least). That was never an issue with gypsy brewers, though. And there was only one brewery that could accommodate such bold, inquisitive minds.

2017 is a good year for Ground Zero. So good, in fact, that they expand the brewery and increase their monthly production to 10,000 liters — a significant step for a brewery of that size. And because sharing is caring, in 2018 they decide to kick start their Gypsy Program.

“At one point I was on the jury at a homebrew competition and I remember being impressed by the beers made by the guys from Bereta and Oriel. And the brewery gates in the courtyard in Băneasa were always open to the curious. This first GZ brewery had a lot to give to the Romanian beer world. It was here that we made the first GZ beers, Deranj, Bereta, Hop Hooligans [homebrew], Wicked Barrel, Tomești Hill, Zburătorul, the first Romanian and international collaborations. But the most important thing was the feeling that ‘it can be done here’. [GZ] was the first brewery made with a relatively small investment, with equipment from China, and with a focus on product and brand. It was impossible for it not to be what it was, and I admit, I didn’t see its potential back then. Rather, it was Seba who was the visionary. To my credit, I was open to sharing my humble experience with the interested and curious. The collaborative experiences and “nomadic” guests I have hosted over the years at GZ have been some of the best times and I will always remember them with joy. We’d get the occasional shy email asking if we could brew for them and then a homebrew recipe that we’d discuss, analyze and adjust for our setup. We’ve made cool beers, we’ve made failures, but we’ve all had to learn from each other.” (Răzvan Matache, Ground Zero)

In the years to follow, gypsy brewing would become a phenomenon in its own right, flying out the gates of the Ground Zero brewery and finding a nesting ground all over the country. After the Bereta lads opened their own brewery in June 2018, in October they threw the doors wide open to like-minded creative spirits, such as Blackout, OneTwo, Owl Brewery and Hopdrops (as well as back-then homebrewer Ionuț Bătrânache, who would open his own brewery, Mad Lads, in 2021).

In Cluj, Kutuma and Bere a la Cluj became foster-breweries for Player One, Neuron Mash and Propaganda. Meanwhile, Three Happy Brewers opened their gates to a wide range of brewers, from contractors such as Bere București, to Dead Men Hops, Mystic Mash and Anagram. Staying true to the idea of paying it forward, Anagram and One Two would then open their own independent breweries in 2020 and host the next generation of gypsy brewers, such as Ultima and Maktoob.

With more and more craft breweries and beer bars popping up, it was only a matter of time until draft craft would also start picking up. Time erases many things from memory, and sadly few people remember the hype that came with draft beers, such as Hophead’s first beer keg, Frank. And even though craft beer on tap is such a commonplace sight these days, it was an important change in packaging a mere 4-5 years ago.

“[Draft craft beer] was a pretty big deal. There’ are a lot of blockers that could make a bar not want to sell draft. It’s a challenge both when it comes to the availability of the draft system itself as well as its cleanliness, the lack of kegs available (until one-use kegs caught on), short shelf-lives, lack of bar staff training, difficulty adjusting pressure, and the list goes on. And when you say draft you’re basically saying turnover! As some of the [difficulties mentioned] above got sorted and demand started to increase, yes, it became a turning point. Also, beer expresses itself better on draft, and that results in a very cool feedback cycle: draft beer is more expressive, which creates more demand, which means that risk of perishability and so on disappear for pubs.” (Flaviu Odorhean)

But just as kegs and draft beer were becoming something the public took for granted, the craft beer industry pulled another stunt ⁠— and this time, it was something that was going to divide beer drinkers for years to come.

It’s July 2018 and Hop Hooligans just hit the jackpot: they got their hands on a canning machine. Admittedly, it did involve some ass busting, but who could say no to this beauty:

#pureunadulteratedsex (photo via Micro Can)

Of course, big news ⁠— whether good or bad ⁠— is always scary, and this change in packaging got mixed reviews. On one hand, the lads’ decision aligned with the western trends of switching to cans, a trend that’s been making itself felt across Europe and the US as early as 2011, so realistically speaking, it was only a matter of time before Romania caught up. It also ensured that beers were less likely to be oxidized during packaging and storage, it reduced shipping costs, and it was the eco-friendly thing to do. Yet not all beer drinkers were swayed. And, what was worse, HoReCa did not take lightly to this change in “attire”.

“The reaction was not a positive one. The can, as a form of packaging, is perceived as something designed for To Go, not a packaging for the catering industry. And they’re right about that. HoReCa is the environment in which every brand in the beverage industry expresses its creativity and branding image. It’s kind of like a drinks showroom, if you will. A lot is invested in the image of the product; there are brands that have created an iconic image out of the bottle their product is packaged in. See Coca Cola, Perrier water, distillates like Absolut vodka, Jack Daniel’s whiskey or even Grolsch beer […]. And going into the HoReCa “showroom” with this “to go” packaging is clearly not playing that image game. [It’s a backwards model of placing] the product in the foreground, and image/packaging in the background. Which somewhat reinforces the perception [that craft beer is] a product for hipsters, with a minimalist image, yet valuable content.” (Flaviu Odorhean)

Despite this, canning became the norm for some breweries in the years to come, with Bereta, Bers Nova, and Algoritm all switching to cans by the end of 2021. In fact, the Beast from the Yeast brewery launched their beers in cans in 2020, and by that time, the public was so used to it that nobody batted an eyelid.

The “golden years” of Romanian craft brewing were also a time when the macro giants caught a whiff of potential financial gains to be made from this new product. After Molson Coors-owned Bergenbier released an ale in 2015, it was time for Heineken-owned Silva to tart itself with a “craft” label, by rebranding its blonde and dark lagers, and throwing in a Romanian Pale Ale in the mix. The move was met with skepticism, but it was not enough to hinder macro breweries from trying to get a slice of the cake, and in 2019, Heineken-owned Ciuc also tagged along and released an IPA. The Ciuc IPA wasn’t just the first macro-brewed IPA in Romania, but it was also testament to the fact that corporations were taking the craft beer segment seriously, even if it was small.

The other thing with Romania’s “golden era” of craft brewing is that, on one hand, it was a growth spurt fueled by an increasingly curious and knowledgeable market, and a set of brewers who were not just into making beer but also knew how to meet the demands of this new breed of drinkers. But at the same time, it showcased a lawless playing field that was open to anyone who had the money to brew.

True — some of the beers released between 2017 and 2019 were paragons of quality that withstood the test of time. But some were not. And what was worse, some of the already established brands nose-dived into quality-related issues. The best example is Bere Sara, a brewery that debuted in 2014 with a well-received core range, but later ended up becoming a benchmark for low quality that bordered on farcical. Similarly, Kutuma had a rocky debut when they joined the industry with beers that were not true to style or were rife with off-flavors. Nemțeana would encounter a whiplash from some pubs and bars when they decided to cut corners in order to meet demand, which (unsurprisingly) had a direct impact on their quality. Across the board, issues with bottling lines meant that drinking craft beer became a Russian roulette of “Will this beer be oxidized?” And to make matters worse, the fact that more and more breweries made their ways into supermarkets meant that they were faced with improper storage, which resulted in not just off-flavors but, in some cases, bottles that literally exploded on the shelves.

“When supermarkets became interested in our products, we decided to give this selling method a try. But we knew that [it] wasn’t going to be easy, dealing with an environment we had no control over. To this day, no supermarket understood what our beers meant, they didn’t understand our product or didn’t want to accept the special conditions it needed to be kept in, especially when it came to refrigeration. Selling via supermarkets is a long-term compromise, and unfortunately, it does us more harm than good. On one hand, it helps us sell bigger quantities, but on the other hand, complaints coming from clients tell us that we’re making losses on quality. Basically, on the shelves, in shops, our beer is slowly deteriorating due to high temperatures, and sometimes turns sour by the time it reaches consumers. It’s the same as raw, unpasteurized milk: if our beer is kept warm, it starts refermenting, and spoils. It all depends on how fast the shop can sell it.” (Heinrich Loth, Clinica de Bere)

Tensions were also high among brewers themselves, and as the industry was gaining momentum, rivalry began pricking. Such is the case of Clandestin Beer, who in October 2019 decided to take a stab at some of the trendiest breweries in the country (no names were given, but we all knew where the fingers were pointed) by claiming that, unlike their competitors, their beers were free of hop burn, astringency, funky smells and off flavours.

“We all know what’s going on here. It’s just implied but we all know what’s going on in this [post]. The kids don’t know, but we do.”

Similarly, Bere Noah also experienced an unexpected whiplash from one of the breweries they helped out over the years. When they debuted in December 2018, after almost 2 years of working hard to get all their paperwork and authorizations in order, they were faced with slander from Bere Lapusna, a brewery they were not only close to, but also had helped in the past with bottling and brewing setup. The slander was borderline malicious, with Lapusna accusing them on social media of brewing poor quality beers made under dubious circumstances. Looking back, it was a bold statement coming from a brewery known to “fix” beers that have gone off using ginger, or worse yet, releasing bottles that come, Tequila-style, with a side serving of leeches.

Foul play was afoot on the eastern front as well. Capra Noastră debuted in July with the help of Belgian brewmaster Raymond Franciscus de Saegher, who gave them a helping hand with recipe design and early brew days. However, after they let their brewmaster go, they looked locally for recipe inspiration ⁠— no further than Wicked Barrel, who by then had opened their own brewery in Neamț county. The plan was to create a strong, dark beer, and Radu was happy to oblige. Once the beer was done, however, not only did the brewer refuse to pay Radu, but also claimed that the recipe was his ⁠— a statement we don’t take lightly, especially because we gave brewer Ionel Păsărică high praise in previous articles for (allegedly) coming up with such a bold beer.

Of course, one would assume that with the industry seeing an upward growth trend, as well as a growing interest from consumers, HoReCa as well as macro competitors, the brewers would come together and protect their interests. And, to some degree, efforts have been made to see this happen. In 2017, five local breweries (Zăganu, Sikaru, Perfektum, Ground Zero and Hop Hooligans) came together to form the Craft Beer Producers’ Association. Yet the Association was off to a rocky start. The idea itself stemmed from Ground Zero (specifically, from its marketing man, Sebastian Bucur ⁠— according to him anyway), and when it was first pitched to the other members, not everyone saw eye to eye. Perfektum was not on board with the idea, and brewer Dan simply left the room before getting the full picture. Yet in the end, the five members managed to agree on some matters, and in July of the same year they “went live” with the Xtraordinary Craft Beer Party event in Bucharest.

However, in the following years, the Association failed to achieve anything noteworthy. With the term “craft” being applied liberally to whatever macro breweries deemed suitable, a relevant point was made: should Romanian breweries follow western models and have a “craft beer” seal? In 2019, Perfektum designed a logo for the association, but oddly enough, it was only Sikaru who ended up displaying it on their labels (and what was even more curious, it was for the beers contract-brewed at Carol Beer, and not the ones made in-house). Unfortunately, no other breweries followed suit. In fact, no other breweries joined the association which, apart from organizing the odd event every now and then, were not doing anything that stood out. In 2019, breweries such as One Beer Later and Anagram started displaying their own take on a “craft beer” logo, independent from the one used by the Association, and focusing on the fact that their beers are made in Romania.

Less than a year later, the Association would delete its social media page and completely wink out of existence (spoilers: it would make a return some time in the spring of 2022). It was a curious turn of events because any mature craft beer market has a trading association that oversees its rights. Romania did have its own Brewers Association (Berarii României), however, the only craft brewery in its ranks was Clinica de Bere, who joined in 2011 and had been rubbing shoulders with macro giants like Heineken the entire time. (The only other craft brewery to join was Scorilo, who became a member in January 2022).

“We have been members of [Berarii României] since October 2011. In a direct way, it hasn’t helped us much, but it hasn’t hurt us either. But we have met some very ok people in the beer industry, and we learned first hand what the Romanian beer market is all about. We believe that we have more influence and can make legislative changes for small brewers through the Romanian Brewers than through a craft brewers association, which didn’t even exist when we joined. To this day, small craft brewers do not have a common voice to represent them before the legislator. Probably the rest of the craft brewers live with the impression that the [macro] brewing industry is their big enemy and don’t want to share the table with them. Also, it costs quite a bit of money [to join] and they probably don’t see any benefit. Those would be the main reasons why no other craft brewery has rushed to become a member of BR.” (Heinrich Loth, Clinica de Bere)

As far as the brewers and consumers were concerned, the 2017 – 2019 era was a great time to brew and drink craft beer. True, it packed more tension than a bodice-ripper. But it was the kind of tension that fueled restless minds and gave birth to new concepts, and some fantastic beers as a result. It was a time that foreshadowed market maturity and further potential for growth.

A total of 46 stand-alone breweries opened between 2017 and 2019 alone, from Untappd heavyweights such as Oriel Beer and Bere Noah, to regional brewpubs such as Tom Beer and Pardon, to breweries that sought to revive old brands such as Grivița (paying homage to the historic brewery Fabrica de Bere Luther) and Șapte Coline. In terms of beers brewed, the 2017 – 2019 period was a birthing ground for not just first-in-their-category styles, but also beers that would become, in retrospect, defining beers for the local market.

And before we leave this prolific era, there’s one last brewery we need to check up on.

2019 was another fantastic year for Ground Zero. A second expansion is under way, and the brewery relocates to Pipera, where they not only manage to triple their brewing capacity, but also open their own taproom, Hangar. Yet Răzvan is restless. He leaves Darius (also a gypsy brewer at Zburătorul) in charge of making the beers, and takes off. He then spends a while floating through the proverbial void.

“I didn’t think I was going to brew again, in fact, I thought about changing the field I work in altogether. But at the same time, I felt that this wasn’t the correct way to end it, that I still had some beers left to brew.” (Răzvan Matache)

As fate would have it, Răzvan and his new partners, Dan and Sylvain, would sign the paperwork for his new brand ⁠— ; ), also known as Ironic ⁠— by the end of 2019. And, as fate would have it, things would then go on to take a turn for the worst.

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2020: Flameout

It’s March the 1st and I’m attending the third Meet the Brewer event at Jaxx, this time featuring Bere Noah. As always, I’m shirking the crowds by having a smoke outside. There’s something in the air that’s definitely not the chill of very early spring. Something ominous, a sense of foreboding fueled by too much doomscrolling over the past several weeks. I try to take my mind off it by talking to Calin about mundane affairs such as bars and restaurants not paying brewers for their beers. It’s absurd and unethical, why are brewers even selling them beers when they have outstanding bills worth hundreds of euros? Calin agrees, he’s made it a point of only selling his beers to those who pay him upfront, if all brewers did the same then surely all these silly practices would stop. I nod sagely and give him an imaginary pat on the back. Calin then goes back inside and proceeds to take photos with all the golden retrievers he can get his hands on.

Told you  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  (photo credit: Bere Noah)

Two weeks later, we enter the first COVID-19 lockdown.

Even with 2 years cushioning the event, it’s still difficult to assess the collective trauma caused by the pandemic. Meanwhile, the rapidly changing political climate rubs salt into the wound further, making yesterday’s fears and anxieties less valid in comparison.

In many ways, 2020 was a wake-up call for the local breweries, and the first thing it highlighted was just how reliant they were on the HoReCa sector. With bars and restaurants closing down, brewers had to think fast and come up with a new channel for selling their beers. For those who already had a webshop in place, the transition was easy enough to make. Others had to make do with taking orders via social media platforms such as Facebook. And others capitalized on hype and novelty releases and started focusing on exports.

With everyone having to sell beer online, brewers have to be creative in order to stand out. Discounts and free shipping become the norm. In Sibiu, Nembeer aim to stand out by brewing the first bio beers in Romania, while just a bit further down the road, Bere Sibiu are proudly displaying the Eco-Certified logo on their labels. Perfektum go all out on the personal touch and begin writing individual thank-you letters to their buyers. Meanwhile, slogans such as “Buy Local” and “Support Small Producers” take social media by storm, and a whole host of new content creators join in the fray with videos and interviews aiming to highlight that craft brewers are just regular people, not money-grabbing corporate entities.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Perfektum would close down the shop in October 2020, after Bere Cazino closed down earlier in June. Other breweries would try and persevere for a while yet, but the financial and moral blow dealt by the pandemic would leave deep scars that would never heal.

Yet 2020 wasn’t all doom and gloom. Despite the fact that most breweries saw an average 30% – 40% drop in volumes, the number of new beer releases continued its growing trend. With plenty of time on their hands, and with a local market becoming increasingly competitive, brewers start looking at new ways to stand out and meet an Untappd-fueled demand for novelty. There’s a renewed interest in brewing with Kveik, and the industry plunges head-first into the Sour Craze. And when sales drop off the map, sticking your beer in a barrel can be a great way to prolong its life and create something special for better times, which is why several breweries decide it’s time to roll out the barrel and let it work its charms. Most interestingly, though, 2020 was a year that allowed gypsy brewers to shine.

For the longest time, the Romanian craft beer charts had been dominated by the same heavyweights: Wicked Barrel, Oriel, Bereta, and Hop Hooligans (oh, and that one time Capra Noastră won Rate Beer’s award for Best New Brewer in Romania in 2018 and then again in 2019, which was a bit odd, so we don’t talk about that). And things are about to change soon enough, when one man enters the game: Adi Oros.

We first met Adi one October evening in 2017, while drinking away our anxieties on the eve of the Craft Beer Days event. He was chilling with his Wizard buddies when he clocked us and said “Hey look, it’s the guys from Beerologique, let’s go hang out with them.” And, to a couple of socially awkward geezers such as ourselves, being adopted by the local craft beer geek community was a massive boon. Over the years, we end up drinking a lot of beers with Adi, going mushroom foraging, and learning some fascinating facts about the prowess of his sphincter. But that’s not what his story is about.

It’s some time in 2017 when Adi decides to pick up homebrewing and makes an IPA for shits and giggles. He suffers a massive bout of beginner’s luck and ends up making the best beer — ever. He then goes on to join the local Wizards Association and, feeling confident in his newly unlocked brewing skills, brings them his second homebrew to try. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly met with high praise — the beer is infected. Adi doesn’t let that get to him, and in July 2018 he enters a homebrewing competition we’ve organized in Cluj. He fails to win any prizes.

When you gaze into that abyss, it gazes back, and it tells you what you are made of. And if you listen carefully, you may hear it impart some valuable wisdom: “Try harder, bitch”. (photo credit: Macadamian Romania)

That doesn’t put Adi off, and later that year, he submits a vanilla breakfast stout recipe to the Bereta Brewing Community contest. The Bereta lads like it, and he makes it on to the list of local homebrewers who would have their recipes put to the test on Bereta’s equipment. In February 2019, the beer goes live and Blackout is officially a thing. Eager and ambitious, Adi heads back to Cluj and, capitalizing on the fact that Andrew has a soft spot for him, asks him to suffer through several grueling brew days as he starts work on his core range.

By 2020, Blackout ends up making a name for itself, tackling a wide range of styles and gypsy brewing with all the industry cool kids. It also starts exporting, and pumps out so many new beers that its parent brewery — Bere a la Cluj — decides that it needs to expand in order to have some room for brewing its own beers. Other brewers begin to take notice, and soon start joking about an alleged rivalry between Blackout and Wicked Barrel. And in May 2020, working hard and playing hard finally pays off: Blackout becomes the highest rated Romanian brewery on Untappd.

Fortune favors the bold, and despite adversity, other brewers are also far from idle. Bereta start canning in April. Olovina ditch contract brewing at De Molen and bring their brewing equipment on site in May. Hophead relocate to a larger brewing facility. Wicked Barrel, Anagram, Player One and OneTwo each open their own brewery. Hop Hooligans don’t get the chance to host the second edition of Haze Fest (yet), but they open their own taproom instead.

And all the while, Răzvan is plotting his triumphant return.

“According to our initial plan, we looked for a production space around Bucharest and a space for a taproom in the city. So in November [2019] we hired a warehouse in Balotești, started setting up, and ordered our equipment […]. I was looking for ways to minimize the impact our activity has on the environment and as a result I decided that we won’t be selling our products in single-use packaging (cans or bottles), but instead we’d sell everything in reusable kegs. My plans were thwarted by the pandemic. We didn’t open the brewery in 2019 because all the equipment that was due to arrive in January 2020 actually got there in June. Still, we decided to open the taproom even though we didn’t have a brewery, selling draft beers from Romanian producers we had built close ties with while I was at GZ (as well as some imports every now and then). Cristina, a friend who’s an architect and also left her mark on Hangar and the beer studio in Băneasa, helped us with the design, and all the interior was set up by me along with [my partner] Dan and Vasile, a homeless person who offered to help. The heart of the pub [was] a fridge display with 20 taps, a design I came up with and which took months to finish. […] These new beers I make under the [Ironic] brand are everything I want them to be. I started off small, made about 10 different recipes, but I would have made 100 if I had enough fermenting vessels. I have a small brewery which allows me to experiment and innovate, but I need a bit more time to organize it the way I want it to.” (Răzvan Matache, Ironic)

The Ironic Taproom would open in July 2020. It would then relocate in September 2021, and again by the end of March 2022. We only got a chance to visit it once, at a time when we were fidgeting with new ideas and aching to bring some of our old dreams to life. In one word, it was perfect. And by the time we finally got to see our own projects come to fruition, we would still look back on Ironic as what an ideal, down-to-earth taproom should look and feel like.

2020 wasn’t the best of times. Yet it wasn’t the worst of times either, and beer persevered because it wasn’t its first rodeo. And let’s face it: you can only start dry-hopping your beers once the brew day is well over.

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2021 and beyond: Biotransformation

In many ways, 2021 was a rehash of 2020: a roller-coaster of lockdowns, easing restrictions, more lockdowns, vaccines (yay), restrictions again (d’oh). Morale was low, and those who fought tooth and nail to make it through the previous year were already showing signs of mental burnout.

“The ‘industry’ died. Consumers were convinced by subpar products and the fact that ‘playing it safe’ is better. I don’t believe in the sustainability of small conforming breweries within the next 5 years.” (Adi Biebel, Bereta)

Breweries that took the worst hit in the 2020 melee are finally delivered their coup de grâce. 1717 abandon their brewing project in the beginning of 2021. David from Three Happy Brewers leaves the business to focus on selling equipment and ingredients instead, and the brewery falls off the radar for several months. Cristi from Clandestin also calls it quits, and the brewery is taken over by new partners, with the beers now made by Cătălin from Amistad. Rumors start floating about Clusa also being up for sale, but whether that actually amounted to anything remains unclear to us. Beast from the Yeast split up, with some of the partners forming the COM-MUTINY project. Closures would continue in 2022, when Sikaru leaves the brewing industry. Kutuma would also go on to drastically downsize their activity and, after discussing a potential merger with Bere a la Cluj, decide to sell their equipment and start contract brewing at Hophead instead.

Those who survived the trial by fire, however, go on to fight another day and write another chapter in the local brewing history.

In Bucharest, Algoritm start canning their beers, and they’re not the only ones eager to change their attire: Three Happy Brewers also get their hands on a canning line. Barrel aging becomes the norm, and if back in 2017 the question on everyone’s mind was “If you’re not brewing IPAs, are you even craft?”, the focus has now shifted to barrels, with 41 BA releases going into bottles and cans. Double Drop Crew are doing collab brews with the Pink Boots Society, while One Beer Later broadens its portfolio with by brewing fizzy drinks, such as tonic and cola. Tomești Hill open their own brewery, and after working with Răzvan back in 2018, when they started gypsy brewing at Ground Zero, they would later take their collaboration further by opening the Iași chapter of the Ironic Taproom. Gypsy brewers also return to their nesting grounds, and after only 4 new gypsy breweries in 2020, their number doubles in 2021, with several key players such as Ultima, MUSAI, Passenger, and Strange Companion (the latter is still aims to shroud itself in mystery, but we all know it’s you, Alin Sas).

It takes baby steps, but the industry is poised to make a recovery. And in our neck of the woods, we’re about to pull one final stunt.

It’s May 2021 and we’re having a couple of beers with Adi from Blackout and Sami from Player One. To the untrained eye, it looks like we’ve gathered to sample a bunch of pastry stouts. In reality, we’re here to talk big business: opening a taproom. Andrew and I have been dreaming about opening one since we were 18, so for us this is a pretty big moment. We’re still not sure about the other guys’ motivations, but so far we’re on the same page. Through a stroke of faith that could be used to prove the existence of a benevolent deity, we find the perfect location, slap bang in the center of Cluj. Luckily for us, Sami and Adi are made of money and have their own breweries. Luckily for them, Andrew is a whiz kid with a certificate in cellar management and connecting pipes and gaskets. We argue about stupid nonsense such as the typeface for the logo and the color of pub furniture, and whether we should do table service. We power through 3 months of hard graft and then, on August 25th 2021, The Brewhouse is officially open.

“Cozy atmosphere, hype beers, friendly and knowledgeable staff. 5/5 would visit again.” – Maria, our 99-year old neighbor who loves the pub because Adi keeps buying her cake

Not gonna lie, we had a massive carrot up our arses when we opened the pub. Covid was still a thing, and with the end of outdoor drinking looming on the horizon, we didn’t know if we’d have enough time to make a name for the pub and break even. And yet, there was an unspoken feeling that took us to the shore: the belief that, if we can power through winter, the rest would be plain sailing.

As I’m writing this, I have an unfair advantage: it’s 2022, and I know that everything turned out well — and not just for us. In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a plane and getting ready to (finally) sample some of the best brews the industry has to offer at the second edition of Haze Fest. I look at the latest beer releases and I’m glad to see that there’s still plenty of creative juices flowing through the brewers’ veins. I look at terraces and people enjoying a pint or two and I know that things are only bound to get better.

In just a mere 10 years, the Romanian craft beer scene went from a couple of breweries making blond and dark lagers to a conglomerate of microbreweries that can hold their own on international markets. It went from traditional beer styles to barrel aged spontaneously fermented sours and fruit and lactose-heavy NEIPAs. It created a demand that, despite the fact that it hasn’t yet managed to propel craft beer beyond a tiny percentage of the total beer sales, it led to an entire host of specialized shops, bars, and events that cater to the curious and open-minded consumer.

One of the things that always strikes me is the fact that, although Romanians are not a trusting nation, craft brewers did find a way to put skittish attitudes behind them. They opened their doors to people they didn’t know, turning homebrewers into gypsy brewers. They hosted a wide range of collaborations and built international friendships in the process. When times got tough, they helped each other out, and even gave HoReCa a hand. And all the while, they had the backing of a select group of visionaries who not only believed in their product, but more often than not, they were willing to support them without asking for anything in return.

And if that doesn’t speak volumes about the love we have for craft beer, I don’t know what does.

Cheers!

***

A 12,000-ish words long article is probably not enough to do the history of Romanian craft beer industry justice. Realistically, this should have been a book. But craft beer is one of the most dynamic industries in the world, and every bit of breaking news becomes outdated by the time it reaches print.

For the full picture and finding out who did what, where, and why it mattered at the time, make sure to check out the following series:

Cover photo credit: Dushky

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