There are two branches of the Beer O'Clock pub in the city, only a few streets away from each other. One is a poky upstairs-downstairs arrangement, about the size and shape of Gollem in Amsterdam; the other brighter and roomier, with a bank of bottle fridges behind the bar meaning you don't have to rely on the not-very-reliable menu. There's a very decent selection of international beers, including Thornbridge, Oakham and Andechs on draught, though most of the taps in both places are given over to local microbrewery Hop Hooligans.
Hop Hooligans appears to have just set up in the last couple of months, and if so has definitely hit the ground running, to say the least. The first from them I tried was Crowd Control — getting the last bottle in the pub since the draught had already kicked. It's an IPA of 6% ABV, unfiltered yet a perfect clear gold when poured from the half-litre bottle. The aroma is real Here-Be-Hops stuff: dank resins, a touch of savoury herbs and a light citrus buzz. On tasting it bursts forth with a fresh and juicy mandarin flavour, finishing on a sherbet tang, with a tiny soapiness on the very finish the only thing close to a bum note in the whole symphony. It tastes stronger than it's marked, with a big full body that might get a little syrupy if drinking more than a couple in sequence, but it's still a very impressive beer and definitely the place to start when exploring what Romania is brewing.
The dark beer next to it is a draught pint of Chupacabra, the brewery's spiced imperial stout, though only lightly imperialistic, at just 7.5% ABV. It arrived a little cold and flat but the flavour was there in spades: rich cocoa with a bitterness more akin to good dark chocolate than hoppy beer, and then just a gently warming pinch of chilli seasoning at the end. Far from a powerhouse stout, but tasty and well-made nonetheless.
|L: Summer Punch, R: Shock Therapy|
Herself, meanwhile, had picked the other Hop Hooligans IPA, by the name of Shock Therapy. It looks the same as the beer next to it, except for that handsome mane of pure white foam. It doesn't smell fruity, though; it smells funky: part dank, part old socks. That's how it tastes too, with a kind of cheesiness that I don't think is caused by old hops. When I look up the varieties I discover that Waimea and Rakau are the guilty parties, and I'm not surprised. I've picked up an unpleasant funk from those high-end Kiwi hops before. As a saving grace there's just a slight citrus spritz in the background, but otherwise this beer just didn't suit either of us.
When we moved to Beer O'Clock 2 a couple of days later I got to clear off a few more of the Hop Hooligans set. Royal Execution is badged as an ESB and is the right shade of amber, though rather murky. It's a substantial 6.5% ABV and smells pleasantly of orange chocolate biscuits. This intensifies to bitterer jaffa pith and sweeter toffee on tasting, with strange rubbery overtones. I was expecting it to be too hot and too sweet — beers that describe themselves as ESB but aren't actually Fullers ESB usually are — but here it's that rubber off-note that is the kicker.
I rounded out my Hooligans with Cannon Fire, a 5.7% ABV coconut stout. It's pure black in colour and tastes exactly like a Bounty bar, with all the sweet and oily goodness of moist coconut flesh coated in smooth milk chocolate. The texture is so silky that I was most of the way down the pint before I went looking for any nuances, but when I did I found a certain pleasant alcohol heat — Malibu, maybe — a touch of dry coconut husk and some sweeter vanilla. So, yeah, it rewards careful sipping but all I wanted to do was slug it back and giggle. This is a very silly beer and I absolutely loved it.
Not quite 100% perfection from Hop Hooligans, but they clearly know how to make beer and have some absolute triumphs in their range.
Our next venue isn't a pub, and it's hard to describe exactly what it is without being scornful. The Urbanist is roughly a cafë, though also sells skater-chic clothes and accessories. Its menu describes it as a "contemporary lifestyle hub" but it's probably best to skip past that to the bottle fridge.
Here I found another of Romania's leading lights of beer, Ground Zero. I was looking for their seemingly iconic but poorly-named Imperial Fuck, but had to settle for a Morning Glory IPA. No hardship either. This is another 6%-er, though darker than our friend Crowd Control above. There's a spicy orange hop aroma, separating out into resinous peppery herbs and mandarin juice on tasting. It's a little on the sweet side though very much in a juicy way, with no sticky malt interfering. The bitterness is present but understated giving it just the right amount of balance. Overall, though, this is a beer that just begs to be consumed, not analysed. I'd have happily chugged another straight after.
I only tried one beer from Bucharest's Perfektum, based not far from Hop Hooligans but inside the city limits. Perfektum Pale Ale is in a half litre bottle, 5% ABV and hazy orange with a promising pineapple aroma. It unravels a little when tasted, clanging out saccharine metal and sharply dirty yeast. There's a bit of a fresh hop character underneath but at the same time it's harsh and acrid with only the faintest trace of citrus fruit flavour. Turns out the aroma is far and away the beer's best feature. I wasn't in a mad rush to try the rest of Perfektum's range.
The final brewer in this set is Sikaru, and for this we turn to the last of the notable beer bars of Bucharest I visited: La 100 de Beri. I didn't count if they really had 100 beri, but there's a damn decent selection in stock, including a couple of English beers on cask, a good range of Belgian classics, as well as a solid mix of German beers from both the traditional and new-wave sides of the house. But it was the Romanian beer I was after, beginning with the aforementioned Sikaru. I've no idea where it's brewed.
Sikaru Stout is 5.5% ABV, opening with an intensely dry, burnt-toast aroma, and keeps that theme going in the flavour. Or at least at first: a couple of sips in I started to get hints of chocolate and a little rosewater too. But despite these minor sparks of fun it's mostly a serious charcoal affair, although one which I found myself warming to by half way through. It's a little homebrewish, perhaps, but there's a rough charm to it.
Green Griffin is the Sikaru IPA, a slightly worrying brown-red colour and medium-strong at 5.8% ABV. The texture is big bodied and smooth, which is how it looks, but the aroma is remarkably bright and fresh with happy doses of invigorating hop spice. There's zing aplenty in the flavour, mixing up spritzy lemon sherbet with green vegetal bitterness and, best of all, absolutely no sticky malt, despite appearances. A long acidic hop bite is the beer's parting shot. It may look ugly as hell but this is a very decent new-world style IPA.
There's more in the Sikaru range but the only other one I got to was Summer Tide which they brew for Sunstone Alehouse across the border in Moldova. It's described as an American-style pale ale and is 5.2% ABV. The aroma starts off on the wrong foot immediately, smelling musty, rusty and rotten. That staleness comes through in the flavour as well: a grain-husk staleness overlaid with cloyingly sweet orange cordial. Carefree summer drinking this definitely isn't. The inevitable metallic twang is the final grim flourish. I got through it but it wasn't an enjoyable experience and I know the brewery is capable of much better.
But it's all downhill from here. The above is the best I found Romania had to offer. There'll be more cross-border contract brewing and independent breweries in the next post, but the quality quotient will be taking a bit of a dip overall.