02 October 2013

Spotty Dalmatians

I hope y'all like consonants, 'cos I'm just back from the Balkans and there's nothing them fellas like more than squeezing a whole load of hard pointy letters into tiny spaces. Except possibly for shitty lagers. They like them too. Let's get started, shall we?

My introduction to Croatian beer was in the breathtaking surrounds of Dubrovnik's old port on a balmy September's evening. As in most of Europe, each establishment is contracted to sell one of the national brands of beer and variations from this model are rare. This particular place offered Favorit, brewed in Istria by a subsidiary of Dutch brewery Bavaria. It's a 5% ABV pale lager and smells of copper. The flavour is the sweet tanginess of cheaply made lager with some metal and some lactic sourness. A smorgasbord of awful not at all helped by the rather warm serving temperature. I didn't give it a second go in the hope of a cooler experience: Favorit-branded awnings and umbrellas meant a bar that didn't get my custom for the rest of the week.

The biggest national brand is Ožujsko, owned by MolsonCoors, brewed in Zagreb, and associated everywhere with the national football team. Though the same strength as Favorit, it's paler in colour, arrived cooler, and is mercifully more boring to taste. It's still a bit heavy, though I'll take that as an acceptable alternative to watery, and shares a certain tanginess, except this time I think I can detect the light presence of hops being involved here, rather than just a brewing flaw. While it wasn't a beer I'd ever go running to, I was at least content that there was drinkable beer in Croatia.

Beer three was the hot country lager I had been holding out for: Karlovačko. This is Heineken's local offering and is once again leaning to the sweet side of the house, but does it subtly -- nearly akin to the way a Munich helles works. Simple and refreshing, it did exactly what I needed from a holiday beer.

That just leaves Carlsberg in this corner of Europe's macrobrewing tug-of-war, and their representative is Pan. Not a very Croatian-sounding name, but since one rarely needs to order a beer by brand name there's no real consumer advantage to its easily graspable handle. Plain Pan is 4.8% ABV and there's that metal again, this time accompanied by a kind of aspirinish mineral soda quality. There's some saccharine and apple in the mix too. It's effectively an advertisement for trading up to the posher Pan Zlatini, an ironically-named 5%-er which isn't gold at all but an almost amber colour. I wish I'd spotted the cans before I bought my bottle of it because it was badly skunked, but at least this indicated the presence of hops. Hops are indeed quite a big part of the flavour: sage and grass come through in particular, balanced less by the taste of the malt as the weight it brings: this is heavy drinking.

I'm not sure if it's a trade up or down from Zlatini, but the beer I probably drank most of in Croatia was Pan Hajdučko. There are some lovely dark grain flavours in this medium-gold beer; almost roasty. The middle is hollow and watery, but we can skip past that to the gentle grassy finish. Definitely not as strongly flavoured as Pan Zlatini, but a more pleasant overall drinking experience, I thought.

Most of the breweries have a dark lager in their line-up you'll be glad to hear, though getting hold of them in the on-trade was very nearly impossible. Even in off licences they were relegated to the lower shelves and backs of fridges. Karlovačko Crno is a healthy 6% ABV and all about the liquorice: mildly sour with some light chocolate and coffee at the centre, then finishing with yet more liquorice. MolsonCoors takes it up a notch with their Tomislav at 7.3% ABV. It's a less complex offering for all that, though: a bit of liquorice but mostly big heavy molasses making it difficult drinking and showing the aspects of Baltic-ish porter that I don't especially like.

That's it for Croatian beer, but the neighbours get a bit of a look-in too, former Yugoslavia being not quite as broken up as events of the early 1990s might have suggested. Slovenian Laško Zlatorog is quite commonplace around Dubrovnik: a mix of skunkiness and melted plastic. Laško Dark is far better, being 5.9% ABV and mixing in sweet chocolate and metallic molasses with some smooth and creamy milk stout lactic qualities. There's even a touch of coffee too. Still a bit heavy going, but the best dessert beer I found.

An excursion into Bosnia-Herzegovina brought Sarajevsko to the table, a very pale 4.9% ABV lager with major apple off-flavours dominating the taste. Beneath this there are some pleasantly bitter herbal notes -- fennel and sage -- but nothing that really makes it worth drinking. Down in Montenegro, meanwhile, they drink Nikšićko, and maybe it was the beautiful surrounds of Kotor or the €2 price tag, but I really enjoyed this. It's a medium gold and the hop oils in the foam are immediately apparent in its aroma. Beneath that it's a little sweet, saccharine perhaps, but not at all outwith the bounds of decent pilsner. There's a growing floral quality to the taste and a satisfying bitter finish.

My bottom line for Dubrovnik, if you're going, is The Gaffe Irish Pub in the Old Town. It does O'Hara's Stout and Red on draught, for less than a fiver a pop in the early evening: a life-saver in a city otherwise saturated by medium-to-poor lagers.


  1. Anonymous1:50 pm

    I do be over that area a few times a year, and im a big fan of Niksicko and Niksicko dark, they are far superior to all the Croatian beers. Glad someone else sees it in a similar light it mustn't just be the surroundings!


    1. I saw the dark one in a Bosnian supermarket and didn't buy it thinking there'd be loads in Montenegro. There wasn't :(