Hopping Around: Moldova

Our trip was drawing to an end, but there was still time to fit in country number 11, Moldova. The quick way from Bucharest to Chișinău would have been to fly, taking just over an hour. Being as thrifty as ever, we opted instead for the 10-hour night bus instead. This was as fun as it sounds, but eventually we made it to Chișinău, a mere seven hours early for our hostel check-in. Luckily, they let us drop off our backpacks and we set off exploring. Walking around Moldova is almost like stepping back in time 30 years or so. The Russian influence is still strong here, with grey concrete buildings and orthodox churches dominating the skyline. Now Moldova probably isn’t the first destination on most beer drinkers’ radars. This is unashamedly a winemaking region. In fact, just a few kilometres outside the city is Milestii Mici, the world’s largest wine cellar with almost 2 million bottles (well worth a visit by the way). Nevertheless, we were determined to find some beer worth writing about. Our hostel gave us a handy map of the city, marked with dozens of bars and restaurants. We picked out the Smokehouse, an American-style BBQ joint also promising a range of local craft beer. It didn’t disappoint: on the extensive beer list were plenty of local breweries. Poppy went for the Elvis Coffee Porter (7%), while I went for LaBREWtory Merge (4.2%), a delicious session IPA showcasing juicy Mosaic hops not often seen in this part of the world. The food was alright as well!
Just next door to Smokehouse was the pun-tastically named Taproom 27: A Hoppy Place. Actually, the two have the same owners and much the same beer range. However, the vibe is completely different and if it’s just beer you’re after, you can’t go far wrong at the Taproom. We decided to stay for a couple, my favourite being the fiery Tenemu Lemur Ginger Ale (4.6%). Anyone who’s read these articles over the past months will know how much I love a brewery visit, so you can imagine our delight at learning that the LaBREWtory Brewery was just a short bus ride from town. We hopped on the charming number 5 trolleybus – a true bargain at just 2 lei (10p!) per person – and arrived at the brewery, a fairly typical-looking building in a small industrial complex. It seemed strangely quiet, but we ventured inside. We entered a small room with a desk and a door but nobody in sight. We thought we must have got the wrong place and were just about to turn around and leave when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard an American voice: “You’re not from around here, are you?”. He led us through another door and suddenly we were in a warehouse with a bar and seating at one end of the room, and a full brewery setup at the other. Our American hosts introduced themselves as Bill and DeEva and guided us to the bar. There were 5 beers on offer; the Merge IPA I had enjoyed at the Smokehouse, alongside a pale, an amber ale and even a Belgian-style grisette. The best of the bunch though was the Brut IPA 3 (6.4%). It’s not usually my favourite style, but this was a really good example, pale and dry but still with the fruitiness you expect from an IPA.
LaBREWtory brewery
We got chatting to the owners and they told us how they had originally moved to this part of the world for Bill’s work. Bill, a keen homebrewer, dreamt of starting his own brewery and in 2016 the couple found two locals to help them get started. While showing us around the brew-kit they told us of their trials and tribulations with the Moldovan authorities, especially getting their brewing vessels into the country from neighbouring Ukraine. All’s well that ends well though, and the pair are now regularly crafting beer styles never before seen in this corner of Eastern Europe. There was still time to squeeze in one or two more beers before our night bus back to Romania. We hopped back on the trolley and headed to the Botanica district in search of Craft Baza, recommended to us by Bill and DeEva. This was a good find, a classic craft beer bar with bare brick walls and 18 taps offering different local beers. Poppy, still loving the dark beers, went for the Elvis Porter (5.4%), while my beer was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Litra Smoozik Blackcurrant Sour (3.5%) was decent but could’ve been a bit sourer for my liking. Nevertheless, it was great to see the local breweries branching out to new styles. Who knows what they’ll have by the time we make it back? It’s been a pleasure writing these articles over the last few months – thanks for reading and hopefully we’ll have some more adventures to bring you soon! Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Romania

After the unexpected delights of Serbia, we headed into Romania with renewed optimism. Both of us had friends in the country who had warned us there might not be much in the way of decent beer. Luckily, they were wrong! Our first stop was Timisoara, about 40 miles from the Serbian border. As we were strolling through the Fabric district, an interesting little place caught our eye. TapRoom was tiny with its pop-up bar and no more than half a dozen seats. It turned out that it was actually the main outlet for one of Timisoara’s newest breweries, OneTwo Brewing. In fact, the brewery was so new that none of their beers were ready to drink yet. Well, not officially anyway. Being the only customers on a quiet Wednesday evening, we got talking to the owner, Alexandru, and it turned out that we both had a love of sour beers. Sours haven’t caught on yet in Romania, so he was excited to meet a fellow fan and conjured up a bottle of one of his own as-yet-unnamed creations for us to share. I must say I thought it was excellent, with just the right level of sourness. However, by the look on Poppy’s face when she tried it, I don’t think she’s a sour fan just yet!
Enjoying a Bereta beer in Timisoara
Easily the best place in town, though, was Bereta. Another local brewery, they are a bit longer established and have gained themselves a reputation for excellent and varied beers. We’d tried a couple of their offerings at TapRoom and been suitably impressed, and their own bar didn’t disappoint. The 16 taps were brilliant enough, but it was the bottled range that really excelled. Poppy’s Hopdrops Northern Raven (10.5% imperial stout) was so good it literally brought a tear to her eye. Next up, a six-hour minibus journey away, was Sibiu, one of Transylvania’s seven ancient cities. The city has a long history of German occupation and the influence was certainly evident on the beer front. Now, it’s not often you come across a craft beer bar in the middle of an open-air ethnographic museum, but that’s exactly what we found at Astra. We were treated to an hour or two of traditional folk dancing while sipping a bottle of Urban Brewery’s Oktoberfest-style Märzen (5.5%). Back in town, the best option beer-wise was probably St Andrew’s Scottish Pub. Despite the name, there wasn’t a Tennent’s lager in sight. There was, however, an excellent selection of Romanian craft on offer. Big names such as Bereta and Hop Hooligans made an appearance alongside smaller local breweries like Bere Sibiu and Nembeer. Having been pretty impressed so far, we were by now especially excited to visit the capital Bucharest. There are no fewer than 15 permanent breweries here (not quite Sheffield standard, but not a bad effort!), as well as a handful of gypsy brewers. Romania’s biggest craft brewery, Hop Hooligans, are technically based just outside the city limits, but they dominate the Bucharest beer scene – not a bad thing as they are generally excellent. One of the biggest selections of their offerings was at Zeppelin Pub, a British-style bar with a (possibly overly) friendly resident cat.
Local beers in Bucharest
As you’d expect, many of the Bucharest breweries have fancy modern tap rooms, and it would have been rude of us not to visit a few. Ground Zero, located at the back of a car park in the business district, had a good selection of big, hoppy IPAs, while Zăganu and Sikaru’s brewery taps in the city centre both had decent ranges too. By far and away our favourite pub in Bucharest though was Bere si Bere. The friendly owner was passionate about craft beer and the bottle list stretched to almost a small book. It’s safe to say that our daily budget took a bit of a hit as we treated ourselves to all sorts of beers from around the country. Berea Clujenilor (8.5% double IPA) was the pick of the bunch, a collab between Hop Hooligans and three breweries from Cluj. Cluj was actually our ultimate destination, but there was time for a couple of nights in Sighisoara en-route. This isn’t a beer city by any means, but we did arrive just in time for the town’s “Oktoberfest”. The name somewhat oversold the actual event, which was confined to one pub and didn’t even have any German beer. The oompah music and free bratwurst were nice touches though! Finally we arrived in Cluj, home to breweries such as Hopdrops, Blackout, Player One and Kutuma. We were surprised walking around town to hear lots more British accents than we expected. It turns out that the city has some of the lowest tuition fees for medical students in Europe, and is very popular with Brits in particular. The vibrant Sisters Bar in the city centre was the best place to find the biggest range of beers, and it was evidently popular with the student population too.
Private beer tasting at Hophead Brewery, Cluj
My friend Robi had managed to arrange us a personal tour of another local brewery, Hophead. The tour itself didn’t take too long (there were only two small rooms!), but we ended up staying a lot longer for the tasting session afterwards. The head brewer, Darko, guided us through the full selection of the brewery’s beers including the unique Othervice (5.8%), an American IPA at heart but with Belgian and German yeasts thrown in for good measure. The result was a hoppy pale with hints of banana-y wheat beer in the background – I can honestly say I’d never tried anything quite like it. Sadly, Cluj was the final stop of our whole trip but don’t fear – there’s still one more Hopping Around article to come next month about our visit to Moldova, a truly fascinating little country. Now we’re back I’m hoping to start adding some more articles about beers closer to home to the blog (hoppingaround.co.uk) – at least until we’ve saved up to go away again! Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Serbia

It may be 2020 now but there’s still a few more countries from last year’s beery jaunt around Europe for me to get through yet. I hope everybody has had a relaxing festive break and is embracing the Tryanuary spirit. What better way to spend the long, dark winter nights than with a hearty stout or two? Our journey to Serbia was an eight-hour train ride from Budapest. How they managed to make it take quite so long I’m not sure; the train crawled through the unwaveringly flat Serbian sunflower fields at a snail’s pace, but eventually we arrived in Novi Sad tired yet otherwise unscathed. Neither of us really knew what to expect from Serbia, but what we found was a beautiful, charming city nestled on the banks of the River Danube. We spent the first morning exploring the town, but exploration is of course thirsty work and soon enough it was time to stop for a beer. My only previous experience of Serbian ale was a Dogma Hoptopod IPA that someone had brought to a Beer Central bottle share last year. I remember thinking it was decent enough, if nothing too exciting, so I had fairly limited expectations for the Serbian beer scene. How wrong I was. The first place we came across was Mazut Beer Shop. It’s an unassuming place from the outside but step in and you find a beer lover’s paradise, with half a dozen taps pouring local beers, as well as a wall of shelves full of bottles and cans from all over the world, from Sweden to South Africa. One of the best local craft breweries is Kabinet, and we both opted for one of theirs. Interestingly, both were collaborations with some very big names: I went for the Vista Milk Stout (5.8%), a joint effort with Mikkeller, while Poppy sampled the De Molen collab Perfectly Imperfect (8.0%), an intriguing dark ale brewed with dark chocolate and roasted sesame seeds. Our hopes raised, we set off around the city in search of more excellent beer. We weren’t disappointed; Beer Store, Brick Bar, Tehnolog’s, Škripa and Toster (the latter also serving wonderful Serbian-style hamburgers) all offered interesting local creations from breweries such as Dogma, Salto Pivo, Crow and 3Bir. While we were in Škripa, the barmaid informed us it was the last day of a free music and beer festival at Petrovaradin Fortress on the other side of the river. Now, the fortress itself is stunning enough, but add in a beer festival and you really have a winning combination. There were stalls from breweries of all descriptions, from the bigger names we’d tried in town to tiny local nano-breweries like Libeeri, RazBeerBriga and Premier Beer. It was a wonderful way to round off a great start to our Serbian adventure. Soon enough, it was time to leave Novi Sad and head to the capital city, Belgrade. Eventually we figured out how to use Serbian bus stations (they have a bizarre system where you have to pay not only for a bus ticket, but for a separate token to enter the platform too) and got on our way. Belgrade is a fascinating city where old meets new; the ancient citadel on one side of the river in stark contrast to the seemingly endless tower blocks of New Belgrade on the other. It’s also a city with plenty of choice for the discerning beer drinker. There are craft bars and taprooms dotted all around the city, but we went for a different approach and decided to explore Belgrade’s bottle shops. Right in the city centre, we found 300 Čuda. Part bottle shop, part comic book shop, it offered a good range of beers from Serbia and beyond (whether the comics were much cop, I couldn’t say). We picked up a bottle of Dogma Plutonium (7.5%), a zingy orange milkshake Double IPA. The bar upstairs, Samo Pivo, was also pretty impressive, its horseshoe-shaped bar lined with dozens of taps. Meanwhile, in Vračar district we found Pivodrom, a tiny shop with a surprisingly varied selection of beers, where we sampled 3Bir Shake (5.0%), a tasty milk stout. Nestled down a nearby alleyway was Pivski Zabavnik, a growler-fill shop which also sold beer by the glass to drink on their small outdoor terrace. By far the best bottle shops, however, were to be found in the urban sprawl of New Belgrade. Thrifty as ever, we decided to walk the 4 km journey to Pivopija, located in the imaginatively named Blok 21 district. Luckily, it was well worth the hike. We found a couple of beers from breweries we hadn’t seen before, Dilemma Hefeweizen (5.9%) and Crna Ovca Black Sheep (6.5%) dark IPA – no relation to the Masham version! Beerville, situated at the bottom of a block of flats over in Blok 67, was great too, a modern place with yet more new breweries for us to try. This time, Academia’s Dirigent Porter (6.5%) was the takeaway of choice. The last stop of our Serbian sojourn was Subotica, a small town in the north of the country with one of the few bus routes back to Hungary. It may be home to the third-largest synagogue in Europe (and possibly the continent’s fanciest branch of McDonald’s), but sadly there was precious little on the beer front. We made do with enjoying our purchases from Belgrade as our brief visit to the Balkans came to an end. We’ll certainly be heading back to this part of the world in the future! As I mentioned earlier, there’s still a couple more countries to write about, starting next month with Romania. Or as always, you’re welcome to head to our website, hoppingaround.co.uk if you can’t wait until then. Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Hungary

It was great to be back in Sheffield again for a few days in October for the Steel City Beer & Cider Festival. Once again, it was a really successful event and credit goes to all the volunteers who work hard throughout the year to make it so enjoyable. Poppy and I have now been back in the UK for a month, but there’s still plenty of countries to tell you about, so here goes… August Bank Holiday rolled around and we were back on the move again. Our destination this time was Budapest, the capital of Hungary and fast becoming one of Europe’s foremost craft beer cities. The perfect place for two young beer bloggers to spend a long weekend. We were staying a little way out of the city centre in Ferencváros, probably better known for its football team. However, the district is also home to Élesztő, one of Budapest’s famous ruin pubs. These bars aim to bring old abandoned buildings back to life, and of the 20 or so in the city, Élesztő has the biggest focus on quality beer from local breweries such as Monyo and Horizont. They actually opened a cask ale bar here a couple of years ago – Roger Protz was invited to the opening – but sadly it apparently didn’t take off. Just around the corner, Pepin also had a great selection of local bottled beers, including Fehér Nyúl White Stout (5.2%), a collaboration with London-based Hackney Brewery.
Hedon Bazilika tap room
A couple of days later, we headed into the city centre intending to spend the afternoon on a free walking tour, learning more about Budapest’s history and architecture. About half an hour in though, we decided that it wasn’t for us so we made our excuses and left. Coincidentally (or not), the point where we left the tour happened to be just around the corner from the Hedon Bazilika brewery tap room. The beers weren’t especially memorable, but the concept was; there are 32 taps lined up on the wall and you simply put some money on a card, then go up and serve yourself as much or as little as you like! We visited some of the other brewery taps around the city too: the Monyo tap room next door to the Great Market Hall was a cosy affair, a small bar with only 6 beers on draught but an extensive bottle list. The décor at the Legenda tap room was rather retro, but the beers were reasonably priced, especially given the strengths. I tried the double IPA, Snakebite (8%), but Poppy was even braver with her Bitumen imperial stout (12%), both of which came in at around £1.40. Meanwhile, Ogre Bácsi a couple of blocks away presented beers from Szent András microbrewery in a comfortable cellar bar setting.
Ogre Bácsi
If we’d had room in our backpacks, Csak a jó Sör (“Only Good Beer”) would have been the perfect place to stock up on some of the local bottles. This huge shop in the Jewish district offered hundreds of beers from Hungary and beyond to drink in or take away, as well as a handful of taps. Sadly, with luggage space at a premium we moved on to Hopaholic, where I tasted probably my favourite beer from our time in Hungary, the delicious Mad Scientist Szilvas Gombóc plum pudding gose (10%). Hungary was an anomaly on our travels as we actually left for a couple of weeks to visit Serbia. Serbia actually had a surprisingly thriving beer scene, but that will have to wait until the next issue. When we arrived back in Hungary, we stopped off for a few days in Szeged, a beautiful city filled with Art Nouveau architecture.
Csak a jó Sör bottle shop
We’d planned to spend an afternoon checking out some of the craft beer bars in the city centre. Sörök Háza (“House of Beers”) and Maláta both looked promising, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our side. As we were strolling through town a huge gust of wind appeared from nowhere, bringing down trees and flinging roofs off buildings. We arrived at the bar to find tables and chairs strewn around the beer garden; unsurprisingly they weren’t open for business that day. Instead we made do with spending the evening in our accommodation with a bottle of wine from the supermarket. As promised, I’ll be back next month to tell you about our adventures around Serbia. I must admit that as we’ve been working at various beer festivals since getting back, we still need to write the last few articles for our blog but we’re hoping to get them done in the next few days. If you’d like to check them out, please head to hoppingaround.co.uk – thanks again for reading! Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Slovakia

Our tour around Europe has sadly now come to an end, but we’ve had a fantastic five-and-a-bit months traversing the continent and exploring the beer scenes old and new. Poppy and I are back in the UK for now – until we’ve saved up enough to go again at least! In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of festival volunteering to keep us busy – as I write this, Steel City Beer Festival is just a few days away and I’m sure it will be a success as always. After the land of (admittedly rather good) lager that was the Czech Republic, the next stop on our tour was Slovakia. I had visited the capital, Bratislava, last year for a couple of nights so I knew there were a few new breweries popping up, but we wanted to see what the rest of the country had to offer too. First up was Trenčín, just over the Czech border. This was a unique stop on our trip; thanks to the extortionate accommodation prices, we only booked a single night. Nevertheless, we were determined to explore as much as we could in our limited time. Predictably, our bus arrived into town almost an hour late, our short sojourn already shorter. The weather was terrible too, torrential rain pouring down. Unperturbed, we dropped off our bags and headed straight out. Sokolovna Pub, not far from the football stadium, was our first port of call and a good one it was too, with its varied range of local and international beers and stunning views of the 13th-century Trenčín Castle that looms over the town.
Tasting flight in Lanius brewpub, Trenčín
The highlight though was Lanius, a brewpub and restaurant on the main square. I’m not usually a fan of these brewpubs with their one light beer, one dark beer and (if you’re lucky) a wheat beer, but this one was a pleasant change. Alongside the lagers, there were various styles from around Europe: classic British-style ales, Belgian wits and German goses, all pretty enjoyable and reasonably priced. Our 24 hours in Trenčín at an end, we headed to the railway station and boarded the very busy train to Piešťany. The town is known more for its abundance of spas and thermal springs, but we were here for the locally brewed beers. A pleasant stroll down the River Váh brought us to Piešťanský Pivovar, the home of ŽiWELL brewery. We spent the evening sampling the various offerings, along with some delicious pub grub. I particularly enjoyed Vandal (6.1%), a classic US-style IPA packed with citrusy Cascade and piney Chinook hops. Poppy, meanwhile, was a fan of the Black Elder Radler (3.4%), a refreshing low-ABV beer with elderflower syrup. As nice a town as Piešťany was, there was precious little in the way of beer apart from the brewery, so a couple of days later we hopped back on the train to Trnava. Known as “Little Rome” for the abundance of churches within its walls, the city is also the home of Pivovar Sessler, a small brewery on the edge of town. The rains of Trenčín had been replaced by blazing sunshine and temperatures of over 30°C, so rather than walk out to the brewery itself, we decided just to visit the tap room in town instead.
Sampling the Sessler beers in Trnava
At first glance, Krym seemed more like a pizza restaurant than a brewery tap, but it did indeed have four Sessler beers on offer. The brewery specialises in unpasteurised, unfiltered lagers and we diligently tried them all, from the light, bitter Trnavan 10° (3.7%) to the rich, slightly tart Svetlý špeciál 20° (7%). Most interesting though was the “rezané pivo” or “cut beer” – similar to a black and tan, but the top layer of Guinness was replaced by the brewery’s own dark lager for a striking visual effect. Slovak beer so far had been solid if not especially exciting, so I was looking forward to getting back to Bratislava where I knew there were some great beers to be found. First though, we had to check into our hostel – this was Poppy’s first time sleeping in a shared dormitory and I don’t think it’s an experience she’s in a rush to repeat! Luckily, just a couple of minutes’ walk down the street was one of my favourite bars from my previous visit, Kollarko. It was exceptionally busy when we arrived, but we managed to find a table and enjoyed beers from some of Slovakia’s finest craft breweries such as JAMA and Beer Division. However, the really good stuff was to be found in Bratislava’s Old Town. Žil Verne, with its walls decorated with scenes from some of Jules Verne’s most famous novels, offered 8 taps from mostly local breweries. We both chose beers from Hellstork: Poppy opted for the tart, refreshing Miami Weisse raspberry sour (3%), while I had the equally excellent MicroIPA (3.2%), which was hazy, juicy and full of flavour despite the low ABV. Directly opposite was Be Unorthodox, the tap room for Unorthodox Brewery; as well as six of their own beers, there were also a handful of international beers from the likes of Omnipollo and Wild Beer.
Žil Verne Pub, Bratislava
My undisputed favourite watering hole in Bratislava though had to be 100 Pív. It may be a tiny bottle shop with around half-a-dozen taps, but the range of local and international beers is one of the best to be found anywhere. We found room in the day’s budget for a real treat, a bottle of Omnipollo/J. Wakefield Brush (12%), a rich, boozy imperial stout with vanilla, hazelnut, chillis and more. Thanks to everyone who’s checked out our blog over the last six months, your support has been very much appreciated. Now we’re back, we’re hoping to carry on adding new content from days out and beer festivals around the UK, plus we’ve still got quite a few of these Beer Matters articles left to write. Our website address, just in case you’d forgotten, is hoppingaround.co.uk – see you next month! Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Czech Republic

As I sit down to write about this month’s adventures, we’re less than six weeks away from this year’s Steel City Beer Festival. Poppy and I have been fulfilling our roles from afar; the food stalls are finally all sorted, press and trade invites have been sent and attendee numbers on the Facebook event have surpassed this point last year. This all means we’re sadly into the last month of our travels, but with the number of places we’ve visited I think these articles will be continuing long after our return! The Baltics now a distant memory, our next destination was the Czech Republic, a nation well-known for its love of beer. In fact, it is the world’s biggest consumer of beer per capita at more than 140 litres per person each year. For comparison, the average UK drinker only manages 68 litres so we have a fair bit of catching up to do. Our first stop was Ostrava, a frankly rather odd town near the Polish border. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon to find the whole town shut down… apparently, everyone who lives there goes to the mountains every weekend, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Like Sheffield, Ostrava developed around the steel industry, but unlike our Steel City it doesn’t quite have the same beer heritage. Nevertheless, there were a couple of places to find a good beer in town. Two of the best bars, U Segala and Kurnik Šopa, were tucked away on council estates and both had a small but well-curated list of beers, mainly from local microbreweries. A particular highlight was Valášek Čokoládový Leoš (6%), a chocolate IPA – I promise it tasted better than it sounds! Also worth a mention was Pivotechna, a fairly typical craft pub with a decent international selection, including of course a few Thornbridge bottles. They do get around!
Moritz brewpub, Olomouc
The next town, Olomouc, was pretty enough but didn’t offer too much in the way of beer, although the Moritz brewpub is worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. The offering was fairly simple, just a light beer and a dark beer, but they were brewed well and provided the perfect accompaniment to the home-cooked food. The search for good beer continuing, we headed to the country’s capital, Prague. Like any European capital, Prague has a wealth of local and international craft beer bars offering something for drinkers of any persuasion. As you can imagine, we did some pretty thorough “research”, travelling to all parts of the city to find the best bars. There were some great contenders, but all things considered my highlight was probably Zlý Časy – ironically, the name translates as “Bad Times”. With its bare floors, solid wooden furniture and uncompromising barman, it reminded me of a classic East London boozer. Despite appearances though, the pub had an excellent range of craft beers, from local breweries to international names like De Molen.
Zlý Časy, Prague
Another bar we both thoroughly enjoyed (and not just because it had air conditioning, although that was very welcome) was the Bad Flash Taproom in Prague’s trendy Karlín district. I’d actually had one of their beers a few years ago in the Sheffield Tap and hadn’t been that impressed, but they seem to have really improved lately. The bar offered around 10 of their own beers plus plenty more in bottles. We enjoyed the Torpid Mind (10.5% imperial stout) and Bikini Ale (4.8% IPA), the latter of which recently featured on the international beer bar at the Great British Beer Festival. Now, no beer tour of the Czech Republic would have been complete without visiting some of the country’s well-known breweries. First up after Prague was Pilsen, the birthplace of pilsner lager and the home of Pilsner Urquell brewery. We were shown around the modern brew house and the enormous bottling plant, but the highlight was down in the cellars. In times gone by, all the brewery’s beer was matured in oak casks underground.
Pilsner Urquell brewery
Nowadays, only one barrel out of every batch is matured in this way, and as tour guests we had the chance to try some straight from the cask. This was so much better than the usual Urquell beer; more body, lower carbonation and a rich, sweet flavour – a unique treat for any beer geek. A somewhat dilapidated and uncomfortable train took us to our next brewery town, České Budějovice. Perhaps better known by its German name of Budweis, it is home to Budweiser Budvar, the Czech Republic’s last remaining state-owned brewery. Much of the tour focused on the company’s long-running legal battle with a certain similarly-named American beer (you’re left to make up your own mind about which came first!). Afterwards we visited Budvarka, where we sampled four of the brewery’s offerings. Poppy might always be more into lager than I am, but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the B:SPECIAL Kroužek (5%), a special edition beer with a delicious yeasty flavour reminiscent of a Belgian blonde. Last up on our circuit of the Czech Republic came Brno. Unlike most of the country, Brno and the wider Moravia region are really better known for their winemaking than their beer so we couldn’t resist trying some of the local specialities of the grape variety while we were in town. Fear not though beer lovers, there were still plenty of places to find a decent pint.
Sampling some Budvar beers
Výčep Na Stojáka in the city centre was worth a visit just to see the tap master at work; in the Czech Republic there are three styles of beer pouring and he was an expert at each of them. “Hladinka” is the standard style, mostly beer but with the traditional large European head; “šnyt” is the opposite, around one-quarter beer and then the rest foam; while “mlíko” is 99% head with just a sliver of beer. We never quite managed to work out the proper etiquette for when to get which one, but simply watching him pour the different styles was a simple pleasure. With that our Czech adventure came to an end and we headed to Slovakia, but more on that next month… In the meantime, if you’d like to keep up with our travels please check out hoppingaround.co.uk – thanks for reading! Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Poland

After a couple of months hopping around the Baltics, it was time for us to head to Poland. Poland is a country we’ve both been to several times before and always been impressed by, so we were very excited to see what it would have to offer on the beer front. A very slow train took us from Lithuania to our first Polish stop in Białystok. While it was a pretty town with a magnificent palace and café-lined main street, it unfortunately didn’t offer too much in terms of decent beer. One exception was the excellent 33 Krany, a multi-tap craft bar featuring Polish microbreweries such as Pracownia and Łańcut. Next, it was on to the nation’s capital, Warsaw. Like any European capital there are any number of identikit bars offering craft beer from around the world. However, we decided to go a little off-piste and headed to the Nowy Świat Pavilions, a somewhat hipster complex of bars and eateries offering everything from cheap shots to Vietnamese cuisine. Easily the best place for good beer was Szprycer, which had a superb selection of bottles from around Poland. My highlight was Inne Beczki Cookie Monster (7.8%), a delicious chocolate oatmeal stout.
33 Krany, Białystok
Not for the first time during our trip, it transpired that during our time in Warsaw there was a beer festival taking place. Lotny Festiwal Piwa was held in the shadow of Poland’s national football stadium and the beer coolers were definitely working overtime on the hottest day of our travels so far – over 40°C! Around 25 of Poland’s smaller breweries defied the heat and there were some fantastic ales on offer. Polish beer at the moment resembles the UK scene a couple of years back, so there were plenty of strong stouts and sours to be found. These included the beer of the festival winner, the delightfully refreshing kiwi sour Browar Moczybroda Kiwibonga! (3.5%). Our next stop was Łódź (pronounced “wudge”), a city once famous for its sizeable cloth industry. We’d heard from a few people that it wasn’t the most tourist-friendly of places, but we found the city to have plenty of attractions and the locals to be very amicable. Łódź’s Piotrkowska Street is one of the longest pedestrian thoroughfares in Europe at over 4km, but the best beer was located just off the main drag. The Piwoteka Narodowa brewpub had the best and largest selection, with 15 taps offering a handful of their own beers alongside some weird and wonderful guests.
Lotny Festiwal Piwa
A few days later, we were on the move again. This time Czestochowa was our home for the weekend, a convenient stopping place between Łódź and Krakow. We weren’t aware but it turns out that the city is a site of pilgrimage for about 5 million Catholics every year who come to worship the Black Madonna. Religion isn’t our thing, but luckily there was some good beer to be found too and we spent our Friday evening exploring the many small alleyways which house the city’s best bars. The weekend over, it was time to head down to Krakow where we met up with a special guest – Poppy’s mum! We briefly braved the Old Town and its hordes of tourists, but most of our time was spent exploring some of the city’s quieter quarters. One of my favourite areas was Kazimierz, the old Jewish district, which is now home to some of Krakow’s best craft beer bars. Craftownia, Nowy Kraftowy and Beer Street all offered fantastic ranges, but for me the best was Omerta. This quirky Godfather-themed pub had two separate bars, each with their own selection of beers from Poland and beyond. I couldn’t resist a taste of beer from back home and sampled a very nice Weird Beard Zombie (4.5% stout).
Browariat, Katowice
The south of Poland is famous for its mountains, so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend a few days escaping from city life. We stayed in Zakopane and were shocked at how busy it was, even during the week. After weeks of relentless heat, the weather turned awful during our three nights in town. There were a few bars to take shelter in when the rain got too bad, although unfortunately the beers weren’t the best we’d ever had. Nevertheless, in such beautiful surroundings we were happy to simply sit and admire the views. As well as mountains, the area is home to two of Poland’s biggest breweries in Żywiec and Tyskie. We booked a brewery tour at the former (which wasn’t very different from any other large brewery) and opted to spend a few nights in nearby Bielsko-Biała. I’ll be honest and say it wasn’t a place I’d heard of before this trip, but having been there now I’d certainly recommend it! It was here, in Pigal bar, where I found probably my favourite beer from Poland – Les Cassis Fous/Szalone Porzeczki (5.6%). A collaboration between Browar Pinta and Belgium’s Oud Beersel, this wine barrel-aged blackcurrant sour had the perfect balance of tart and sweet.
Browar Stu Mostów
An hour’s train ride brought us to our penultimate Polish stop, Katowice. Here we were introduced to the world of industrial tourism, with many of the city’s attractions centred around the former mining and metal industries. There’s plenty for beer lovers to enjoy too, with the likes of Biała Małpa, Absurdalna and Kontynuacja all offering excellent ranges, including a couple of beers served from handpumps! It was Browariat which had the best offering though, with craft beers from around the world at very reasonable prices. Last but not least came Wrocław, probably the most picturesque city we visited in Poland with its magnificent central square. It also has a thriving craft beer scene and we could have easily spent our four days in town just exploring the different bars! I’m always a fan of trying beer direct from the source where possible, so top of my list was a trip to the Browar Stu Mostów brewery and taproom (beer geeks of Sheffield may remember them from a tap takeover at the Rutland Arms a couple of years ago). Here we got to try the local speciality style, Schöps, a very lightly-hopped beer with a slightly sweet flavour. As I’m writing this, we’ve just arrived in the Czech Republic – a country famous of course for its lagers. Poppy’s very excited about this but it remains to be seen whether I can be convinced! As always, if you’d like to follow what we’ve been up to, you can follow our blog at hoppingaround.co.uk. Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Lithuania

As I write this, Poppy and I are three months into our trip, just about the half-way point before we head back to Sheffield for the festival in October. Everything sounds like it’s coming along nicely and it should be another fantastic event this year! We arrived in Lithuania, the last of the three Baltic states, to an unprecedented heatwave. The sun was blazing as our bus pulled into Klaipėda, a picturesque seaside city at the northern end of the Curonian Spit. The city is home to one of Lithuania’s oldest and largest breweries, Švyturys (“Lighthouse”), so of course we had to check them out. They actually moved into a shiny new brewery just last year complete with a bottle shop and tap room, called the BHouse, which offered all of the brewery’s core beers. Like some of the bigger brewers back home, they also had a craft range under the name Raudonų Plytų (“Red Bricks”). These were definitely more interesting than the core selection – highlights included the generously-hopped Bocmano Ūsai (6% IPA), and Bėganti Kopa (4.5% witbier). Back in Klaipeda’s old town we came across Herkus Kantas, a classic cellar bar beneath a row of townhouses with whitewashed walls and sturdy wooden furniture. Nestled among the local beers on tap we spotted a very familiar sight, Thornbridge AM:PM. I couldn’t resist a taste of home and can confirm it’s a beer that travels well.
Švyturys Brewery in Klaipėda
Leaving Klaipėda, we took a two-hour ride on a standard of train we can only dream of back in the UK to the town of Šiauliai. Like most, if not all, other visitors we were really there for the Hill of Crosses, but as it was a Friday night we decided to check out the local beer scene too. We came across Cask 215, where we had our first introduction to Genys (“Woodpecker”) Brewery. The brewery offered the full range of styles from pilsners to porters and soon became one of our go-tos around Lithuania. Poppy was particularly enamoured with their tart but refreshing Raspberry Milkshake Ale (3.5%). Next up we arrived in Panevėžys, the country’s fifth-largest city. Apparently they don’t get many tourists here, but as there were two breweries in town (Kalnapilis and Dundulis) we opted to stay for a couple of nights. There was actually one excellent place in town, just around the corner from the bus station. Špunka Old Barrel Pub offered 8 beers from Dundulis on tap, and we duly tried most of them. More “interesting”, however, were the numerous anonymous bars dotted around Panevėžys offering some of the cheapest beer we’d ever seen, some less than 60p per pint! Unsurprisingly, these places were very popular with the locals. We didn’t exactly fit in with the clientele but we couldn’t resist popping in to try one out – as you can imagine, the beer wasn’t the best quality but the people-watching was second-to-none.
Cask 215, Šiauliai (the C and A were on the opposite side of the bar!)
Much of Lithuania’s brewing heritage belongs to the north of the country, centred around the small town of Biržai. In fact, when the town was destroyed by the Swedes in 1704, the brewery was rebuilt before the castle and the market! The brewery, Biržų Alus, still exists today but unfortunately tours were only available to groups of 15 or more people. Instead, we decided to visit Rinkuškiai Brewery about half-an-hour’s walk out from town, where we sampled an exquisitely presented nine-beer tasting flight. Highlights included the dark lager Juodasis (“Black”, 4.2%), and Naminis (“Homemade”, 7%), a traditional Biržai-style beer with plenty of malty flavour and hop bitterness. From Biržai, a rather hot and uncomfortable three-hour journey on a bus from the 1970s brought us to the capital, Vilnius. This was easily the most touristy place we visited in Lithuania and many bars had prices to match. The locals seemed to have a peculiar penchant for Newcastle Brown Ale (it was available in a surprising number of places) but there were plenty of pubs for the more discerning drinker to enjoy too. Just like in Tallinn and Riga, we did our research before we arrived and marked a few “must visits” on our free city map. Up near the cathedral, we came across Nisha Craft Capital, a proper craft pub offering 20 taps plus fridges full of bottles from around the world. It was here that I had my first pint of what turned out to be my favourite Lithuanian beer, Apynys Brewery’s Yellow Camper, a 3% session IPA that packed plenty of flavour and body despite its low ABV. In the Old Town we found Prohibicija tucked away in a small courtyard, which offered plenty of To Øl on tap, plus bottled beers from all of Lithuania’s best microbreweries.
Tasting flight at Rinkuškiai Brewery
By now we only had one city left to visit before our three weeks in Lithuania came to an end. Kaunas was actually the country’s capital between 1920 and 1939, but nowadays is better known as a university town. It’s set to be the European Capital of Culture in 2022 and there was plenty of building work going on in preparation, but that didn’t spoil the vibe of this fascinating and lively city. In terms of beer culture, the city was also home to two of our favourite breweries of the trip, Genys and Apynys. The former had recently opened a tap room on the main street (the longest pedestrian thoroughfare in Europe, no less), a BrewDog-esque bar with the full range of Genys beers on tap. Meanwhile, we found the best selection of Apynys just around the corner in Vingiu Dubingiu alongside the likes of Kuro Aparatūra and Bear and Boar. It’s Poland next for us and having visited a few times before, we’re very excited for the beers in store. Remember, if you’d like to keep up to speed with our latest adventures (it’s not all beer!), you can find our blog at hoppingaround.co.uk. Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Latvia

First up I’d like to thank everyone who has managed to check out our blog so far, we really appreciate it and hope you’ve been enjoying reading! If you haven’t managed to have a look yet, you can find it at hoppingaround.co.uk. So, after three weeks exploring Estonia we headed down towards Latvia. After successfully navigating the somewhat antiquated local railway system we arrived in Valmiera in the north-east of the country. One thing we noticed straight away was the number of people around compared to Estonia, which apart from the capital, Tallinn, had been extremely quiet.  Valmiera is best known among Latvians for the Valmiermuiža brewery on the outskirts of the town. The brewery offers tours and tasting sessions, but booking in advance is essential if you want an English-speaking guide.
Valmiermuiža Brewery
On the day we visited, the only English tour was taking place at 10am, so we dragged ourselves out of bed and started off on the half-hour walk out to the brewery. Our friendly guide, Ieva, explained that the 6 other people supposed to be on our tour hadn’t turned up, so we were getting a private showing! The brewery itself is based in the grounds of an old manor house, but while the logo and branding ooze tradition, they actually only started brewing in 2008. Ieva showed us round the fairly typical modern brewery set-up which was interesting enough, but we were really here for the tasting session. We were given five beers each, including the brewery’s core light and dark lagers, plus various other styles such as hoppy APAs, rich Baltic porters, and refreshing elderflower radlers.
Trimpus microbrewery tap room, Cēsis
Our next stop was Cēsis, an ancient town nestled in the middle of the Gauja National Park. We weren’t expecting to find much in the way of craft beer here; in fact, we were somewhat hoping for a couple of days off before Riga. But, with some online sleuthing, Poppy discovered there was indeed a microbrewery in town, Trimpus. It would have been rude not to visit while we were there, and what we found was a classic whitewashed basement bar with a tiny brewery in the back room. There were only two taps pouring while during our visit (they were still on winter opening times despite the 30° heat), but both were very enjoyable: Rietumcēsu (5.6% West Coast IPA) and Māmiņa (5% hefeweizen). After a couple of days exploring the town and the National Park, it was time to get back on the train and head to Latvia’s capital city, Riga. We’d originally planned to explore some of the bars around the Old Town, but on the walk from the station to our hotel, Poppy spotted an advert for the Latvia Beer Fest which just happened to be taking place that very weekend! Of course, we immediately dropped our plans and went to check it out.
Latvia Beer Fest is held every May in the Vērmanes Gardens
The festival is held in the Vērmanes Gardens, just outside the Old Town, and has apparently been going since 2011. Usually outdoor drinking is strictly prohibited in Latvia, but for a few days each May the park is granted a special license so that the thousands of festival-goers can enjoy their beers in the spring sunshine. More than 30 breweries big and small, mostly from around Latvia but also a couple from further afield, descend on the park to showcase their wares. Each brewery brings their own kit and sets their own prices, so it’s similar to festivals like Sheffield’s own Indie Beer Feast. All of Latvia’s best craft breweries were in attendance; we sampled beers from the likes of Malduguns, Labietis, Indie Jānis and Viedi. I was particularly impressed with Viedi – my personal favourite of theirs was Piena Ceļš (“Milky Way”), a flavourful 6.9% mango milkshake IPA. Meanwhile, Poppy was a fan of the Iļģuciems Brewery range of honey beers, particularly their festival special infused with cherry and hemp. The festival was a really pleasant surprise, and now we know it’s there it’s well worth another visit in the future! Another item on our Riga to-do list was the Beer District, which we’d first heard about back at Valmiermuiža. This was a 10-bar stroll around Riga’s New Town which began from the brewery’s “embassy” in the capital. From there, the route took us to some really interesting places: the Labietis tap room showcased all their latest specials, Zobens un Lemess combined Latvia’s finest heavy metal music with some pretty robust beers, while Riga’s hipsters flocked to the trendy Kaņepes Cultural Centre. Probably our favourite place on the route though was Taka, a seriously comfortable bar offering the finest craft beers from all over the Baltics. The DDH Mosaic Pale (6%) from Ārpus Brewery was one of the best single-hopped beers I’ve had in a long time.
Miezis & Kompānija, Liepāja
Our time in Riga at an end, we headed to the coast, passing through the seaside resorts of Jūrmala and Ventspils. Unfortunately, neither had anything to offer in the way of decent beer so we made our way to Liepāja, our last stop in Latvia. We arrived on a Saturday evening and found a town offering something for drinkers of all persuasions, from beach bars open until 6AM to sports pubs and late-night cafes. From a beer point of view though, the highlight was easily Miezis & Kompānija, an industrial basement bar with 10 taps and more than 100 bottles. We’ve now arrived in a very sunny Lithuania, so we’ll be back next month with all of our beery adventures from the last of the Baltic states! Dominic Nelson

Hopping Around: Estonia

It only seems like yesterday that I wrote my letter stepping down as editor of Beer Matters but here I am having spent the last few weeks in Estonia with Poppy, making a great start to our journey through Europe. In Estonia we have discovered a country with a burgeoning craft beer scene, from macro-breweries trying their hand at more niche beers to the new kids on the block creating some really interesting experimental styles. We flew into Riga in Latvia (the flights were much more reasonable than going directly to Estonia) and spent a couple of days there acclimatising to the more relaxed travelling way of life before getting the coach up to Pärnu in Estonia. A beach resort known as Estonia’s “summer capital”, Pärnu was quiet in late April but its streets are lined with restaurants, cafes and bars. Most of these served the big Estonian brand-name lagers such as A. Le Coq and Saku, but some had a selection of Belgian beers in bottles too. The main attraction for beer lovers in the town was undoubtedly a little bottle shop called Õllepood Nr.2 Gambrinus, which looks unassuming from the outside but within stocked well over 300 Estonian beers as well as a (yes, one) table where you could sit and sample them. We left the shop with a few breweries to look out for on the rest of our trip: I was really impressed with Pühaste who had a good range of all styles, while Poppy was a big fan of Sori Brewing and their milkshake DIPAs. Having made a full recovery, we headed off to the ferry to spend a few days exploring Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island (about the size of Luxembourg apparently). We stayed in the island’s main town, Kuressaare, which allegedly has a population of 14,000 – they must have been hiding while we were there as the place was deserted! We had hoped to spend one of our days on the island visiting a local brewery, Pihtla, who specialise in a beer style called taluõlu (Estonian for “farmstead beer”), not dissimilar from the Belgian saison.
Sampling some local beers in my trusty Beer Central glass
Unfortunately, we discovered the brewery only opens to visitors during the summer months so we couldn’t go, but luckily we found a place just around the corner from our apartment called Saaremaa Veski that sold their beers. I tried their Pihtla Õlu (7.6%) and was pretty impressed. It had the yeasty flavour you might expect from a farmhouse-style ale but apparently the beer is bittered using juniper rather than hops, which gives it an interesting twist. It was also very obviously unfiltered and unfined – I think back home they would call this a real ale! We tried out a couple more of the bars in Kuressaare, but actually the place with the largest selection of local craft beer was the Coop supermarket – they had Pihtla and another Saaremaa brewery, Pöide, as well as beers from the neighbouring islands of Muhu and Vormsi. I can’t say any of them were particularly outstanding, but it was great for ticking off some new breweries. Next up was Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn. We arrived here knowing exactly what we were looking for on the beer front having done our research online, so the first port of call was the tourist information office. Poppy, always a fan of a free city map, picked one up and we marked on the best-rated beer bars so we could work out how to fit them in with our sightseeing. After visiting them all, our favourite was an underground bar called Põrgu, which translates into English as “Hell”! Despite the name, it was a really comfortable and friendly place with a huge range of beers and some excellent food too. Our beer highlights were again from Sori Brewing and Pühaste, but we also sampled beers from the likes of Lehe, Põhjala and Kolk during our three visits.
The Põhjala brewery and tap room
No beer trip to Tallinn would be complete without a visit to the Põhjala tap room, so one Saturday afternoon we headed to the trendy Kalamaja district where the brewery is located to try it out. We were already aware of Põhjala having seen their bottles around Sheffield, but there’s nothing quite like trying beer at its source. We were very impressed by the tap room, a large modern bar with a vibrant atmosphere and 20-odd beer fonts, 80% of them serving the brewery’s own beers. The tasting flights were pretty reasonably priced too, giving us chance to try as many as possible. The final destination on our Estonian beer tour was Tartu, a university city in the south of the country. It seemed common sense that where there were students there would be beer, and so it proved! The city is home to the country’s largest beer manufacturer, A. Le Coq, which offered an enjoyable brewery tour for €10 per person, although the tasting at the end was limited to one beer each, which seemed a little stingy. Tartu is also the location of Pühaste brewery, and while the brewery itself only opens for special events, their flagship bar in the city centre is open all year round and was well worth a visit. Our highlight though had to be the deTolly Õllebaar, hidden downstairs under a building that looked like a public toilet but was actually a cafe. The bar itself was small but stocked a good range of beers, all presided over by a friendly (and very tall) owner. As I write this we’re about to head into Latvia to see what we can find there. If you’d like to keep up to date with our adventures you can go to our blog, hoppingaround.co.uk – thanks to everyone who’s already been reading! As well as beer, Poppy’s also been writing up some of the other interesting places we’ve been and she’s been keeping a daily photo gallery, so there’s something for everyone. Dominic Nelson