Following a long journey, craft beer finally arrives in the land of the Magyars.
If only it was that simple. The thing is that the craft beer revolution that broke out in the late 2000s and grew into an uncrushable movement by the previous decade has not come on its own wings from the US to Hungary like a migrating-eagle. It mostly travelled as a set of imports inside the luggage area of a KLM airliner.
But not to push ahead so hastily. First, let’s see what’d happened in Hungary while Fritz Maytag was knee-deep in reforming the art of beer drinking on the other side of the sea.
“Free beer to all!”
Thundered the battle-cry once the iron curtain fell in 1990 and Hungary was finally able to dive in headfirst into their envisioned capitalist utopia. One that was brimming with freedom and (in the first few years at least) total mayhem.
This could’ve been the reason why during the time of long-overdue privatizations and the creation of the (not-so-welcome) taxation system, a few small things have been forgotten about. Such as beer.
More precisely, the taxation of beer-brewing. Resourceful as we are, Hungarians were quick on our feet to utilize the loophole. Newly formed breweries set up shop all-over the country, viewing the opportunity as a get-rich-quick method. In a few short years, almost 80 recently opened microbreweries were selling their own brews.
Don’t let the word microbrewery put you off however. These self-made beermakers were trying to get into the race with large beer factories by offering their products as cheap as possible. What they were painfully lacking, was innovation. We’re still in the good ol’ 90s when beer equaled unimaginative, boring lagers in the US, the UK and, of course, in Hungary.
If these three nations sound comical being mentioned on the same page, you’ll be surprised: they have more to share than you’d think. Regarding craft beer at least…
We last departed the United Kingdom when the enigmatic pubs brewing their own stuff were slowly driven out by cheaper, mas-produced beers with longer shelf-life (and less taste).
In the 70s, legendary public houses were going one by one as the public started drinking “fast beers” at their own houses. Needless to say, followers of the ancient British pub culture were not going to just sit around and wait for the total annihilation of their favorite establishments.
To save what they can, the remaining pubs’ owners and their patrons formed a special beer-guild exactly 50 years ago and created the Campaign for Real Ale aka. CAMRA.
And by real ales they meant Cask Ales, those brewed inside pubs without any additives or preservatives and without carbonation.
The initiative grew larger, started sponsorship and educational programs (yay, beer school!), and put pubs back into the British cultural heritage where they belong. Most of all, however, they sought to raise awareness to the many benefits of social drinking.
For this they created regular beer festivals, where visitors were able to experience the freshly tapped, delicious real ales of CAMRA members. By the late 90s, these festivals brought forth a renaissance for the traditional British pub culture and microbrewing.
Meanwhile in Hungary, things were less cheerful to say the least.
The second renaissance
The loophole-caused free market was rather short lived in Hungary. Looking around the massive number of local beer brands lawmakers eventually got to their senses and corrected their mistake.
As toads on a sudden dry day following a monsoon, the young breweries started disappearing in the ruthless desert of the Hungarian law.
Those breweries that were motivated to the craft by nothing but fast cash at least. Thankfully there were a few persistent warriors on the scene that decided to look for new opportunities instead of shutting the gates.
By the early 2000s breweries such as Fóti, Stari or Rizmajer started using their own innovative brewing solutions. The only thing missing was a CAMRA to pull them all together.
But they had a Dani Bart. A beer-fanatic Hungarian entrepreneur living in London at the time with several trips in the US under his belt – all for one main reason: beer-drinking, obviously.
He became acquainted with Fritz Maytag’s revolutionary craft beers and the microbrewery movement setting sail in his storm. Fostering close relationship with the just-as-obsessed leaders of CAMRA, Dani came up with the big idea: why shouldn’t Hungarians drink great beers as well?
We mustn’t forget that at the dawn of the 21st century, Europe was far from understanding the concept of craft beers. In Germany Hefeweisen and real Lager was flowing from all taps, in the Czech Republic the heavenly Pilsner, and the rest of us were left with cheap, boring, commercial liquids.
And Dani couldn’t stand commercial liquids.
That’s how our hero hit up his contacts in London, told them what he’s planning to start back home and they gladly obliged in providing knowledge of the trade, resources and lots and lots of munitions. With two likeminded colleagues, Kósa Kolos and Kővári Gergő, they began something that changed the Hungarian beer scene forever.
- A gossip spreads through the streets of Budapest. Something moved in the beer department.
Unruly breweries from all-over the country and abroad are lining up under the flag of a never-before-seen event that says: “Brew-Fest – the First Hungarian Craft Beer Festival”. 13th May, 9AM, a particularly hot day in Budapest. In the first few hours of the festival a massive failure was definitely not out of the picture. But Bart Dani was relentless and those food trucks and moving beer taps did roll out to Mikszáth Square loaded with the beers of many nations.
Then it happened. First only a few, then in groups, and by 2PM a massive crowd flooded the streets of the 8th district curious to taste something that was an unknown curiosity anywhere else in the world at the time beside England and the USA. Small, artisanal breweries with inventive ideas that all worked toward creating something original.
Those wandering the area that day could all feel that they were part of something extraordinary. They couldn’t have known that the moment was downright historic however. The unexpectedly successful, first Brew Festival was the stepping stone for the uncanny progression that the Hungarian craft beer movement journeyed in the last five years.
Two years after the festival, in 2013 the (much overused) craft beer revolution arrived in its second stage. The festival became increasingly successful, new breweries opened and Dani partnered up with an old friend, Imre to establish the base of said revolution in 22 Tűzoltó Street. And this is how Élesztő became the first Hungarian craft beer house with (then only) 17 taps serving strictly local crafts. The revolution could not be stopped anymore.
The origins of Élesztő worth (a few) stories in itself, but let those be topics of tomorrow. For now, it’s enough to conclude on the note that the events above started a massive, seismic movement in the tectonic layers of not just the craft beer scene, but the whole beer (or say, beverage) industry.