Zaganu Leads the Resurgence of Brewing in Romania
The destination was Bucharest, Romania; the location was Frankfurt Airport. Arriving in the early morning on a flight from Washington-Dulles Airport (IAD), I was hustling over the long distance from Terminal I to Terminal B to make my connection. My eyes and brain were still adjusting to life outside the plane, still orienting to the unfamiliar surroundings of Frankfort’s sprawling collection of corridors, stairways, escalators, trams and trains that the traveler needs to negotiate to get to their gate. And then I saw her. She was larger than life. She was dressed in bright blue, with a white apron adorned with a blue harlequin pattern. More eye-catching: in her hands were two large mugs overflowing with foam from the golden beer contained in each. Was it a mirage? Not hardly.
She was part of Germany’s promotion of Oktoberfest and she was an illustration placed in a prominent location on a column in the terminal. Some states promote their beer; in Germany, the whole country promotes its beer. What a welcome! “We are glad you are here. And, by the way, we are celebrating beer this month. No, really!” The Jung Frau on the column was not the only tribute to beer in the airport. Mobiles hung from the ceiling bedecked with beer barrels, hops, grains and other symbols of Oktoberfest. It was early morning, and suddenly I craved a beer.
Discipline prevailed, and I pressed on to my gate with intent to make up for what I missed in Germany by finding a fine craft brew in Romania. I’d briefly done a bit of Google searches on Romanian craft beer ahead of my visit so I knew there were some craft brewers in Bucharest. I just hadn’t gotten down to the details of which ones were the leaders, which ones had street cred and, importantly, which was most accessible to where I would be working and staying.
Ultimately I turned to Untappd for help deciding where to go for a good beer in Bucharest. I use the Venues tab to see if there were any certified venues or breweries in the area of the Sheraton Bucharest, my lodging for the week. The app identified Fabrica de Bere Buna as being a little more than ¼ mile from the hotel and that it was open (it was Monday so you never know). I checked directions on Google Maps and saw that the only thing between me and experiencing Romanian craft beer was a 10-minute walk, I headed out.
The streets of Bucharest are easy enough to navigate – – for the able-bodied. The sidewalks vary in width with some sections being impassable for wheelchairs and challenging for anyone with mobility issues. Accessibility in design has not yet been enforced in the central city. Otherwise, walking in Bucharest requires attention to the somewhat random traffic patterns of the side streets. There are striped crosswalks, but you best want to yield to cars lest vice-versa leads to proving your trust to be in vain. The architecture is a mix of modern steal-and-glass and older brick-and-mortar from the Communist past. Cracks and peeling paint give the buildings a tired look however they don’t convey a rundown feeling. It just seems that there are other priorities being tended to. Maybe something to do with health: never have I seen so many pharmacies in such close proximity.
Fabrica de Bere Buna is in the city center on the city’s popular shopping destination, Victoriei Avenue. Roughly translated as “Good Beer Factory”, Fabrica de Bere Buna is run by the people at Zaganu, a Romanian micro-brewery credited with leading a resurgence of independent breweries in the country. Romania had a rich brewing tradition prior to its Communist period. Starting up 5 years ago, Zaganu gets its name from a bearded Eagle that was hunted to near-extinction. The Zaganu is on the comeback, like brewing in Romania. There are several independent brewers operating again in Romania and you can sample many of their beers at Fabrica de Bere Buna. The tap list is comprised almost exclusively of Zaganu brews with offerings from the other breweries available in cans and bottles. On the first night I visited, there were seven Zaganu beers on tap. The board and menu listed 3 other options from Romanians Hophead and Capra Noastra, along with England’s Clarks, but they were also struck through as sold out.
When I walked in I noted many of familiar trappings of taprooms elsewhere: patrons sitting on stools enjoying their beers at counters along the front window overlooking the outdoor seating area, a central bar with the beer list artfully displayed in chalk above the taps, tall round tables offering a place for visitors to dine. I walked up to the bar to order and was told to have a seat and the staff would take my order. That was unexpected.
Given my jetlag and my work responsibilities the next day, I needed to stick to the lighter ABV side of the beer choices. I settled on a 4-taster flight of Zagnu drafts across the color spectrum: Blonda (I went for the unfiltered version), Bruna, IPA and Rosie (a red Belgian ale).
The beers were served in 4oz glasses delivered via a wooden paddle with the beers labeled in chalk next to each one. Of course, with this particular flight it wasn’t hard to tell each by their color and smell. The flight was accompanied by a bowl of warmed mixed nuts making it a nice order for the visitor looking for a quick taste of Zaganu’s beers or visiting multiple breweries on the day.
I went light to dark with the tasters:
- The Blonda was unfiltered and an earthiness and wild flavor to it like a farmhouse ale
- The IPA was clean and piney with a nice dry hop bight
- The Bruna is listed as a schwarzbier, it had a rich, deep flavor. It was interesting to pick up hints of black licorice and even something that reminded of sarsaparilla, but not sweet.
- The Rosie tasted a bit like the Bruna except the flavors were less intense and the mouth feel included higher carbonation.
I’d love to talk with the brewers to learn more about their recipes because on the website they write, “The beer we produce here is called Zaganu and it’s a craft, unpasteurized beer, produced only from the finest raw materials whose name is easy to read and pronounce: water, malt, hops, yeast.” They are doing a lot with a little in that case.
I added dinner to the mix by ordering a haloumi burger. The haloumi cheese stood in for the beef in this “burger” and it was served on a sesame seed bun along with tomato, mushrooms, lettuce and an excellent sauce that seemed based on tahini. The staff was friendly, attentive and spoke English making Fabrica de Bere Buna an easy place for a tourist understand and communicate what they want to drink and eat.
Completing my tasters and dinner, I headed up the stairs to the right of the bar expecting to get a view to the brewing equipment. Instead I found another dining room with more traditional tables and chairs.
Back downstairs I asked the staff where they brew and learned that brewing is done off sight at Zaganu Brewery outside of Bucahrest in Maneciu-Ungureni.
The end of the work week presented me with an opportunity to return to Fabrica de Bere Buna. My goal was to try the Zaganu options I missed in my previous visit and order at least one beer from another Romanian brewery.
Going for the tasting flight again, I added an American Pale Ale called Adonis and an Imperial IPA. The guest taps were still out. The Adonis didn’t stand out, it was fine, just not distinctive when compared to their other beers. The Imperial was nice: smooth with a hoppy character, pine notes and not revealing of its 10% ABV.
Committed to trying another local, I ordered ‘Crowd Control’, an IPA from Hop Hooligans. I was surprised to find it a hazy NE style IPA. Shame on me for assuming that a European brewery would stick to brewing in the European style. Even the can art made me check my thinking that the packaging would also be old style, traditional and not reflective of the creativity seen on cans in the UK and North America.
This night, a Thursday, was slower than on my Monday visit. I thought there would be a buildup like you find on Thursday’s in the US as workers take time for a pre-weekend session with their colleagues before getting into TGIF mode the next day. There were other patrons in the place but there were more empty seats than those occupied, leaving the staff with opportunities to interact with each other. At times their banter surmounted that of their guests. It is nice to see a staff that enjoys working together yet it brought a lull to my session and I waited a long time between finishing my first round and ordering that Crowd Control. Another odd thing: when a couple of visitors sat down at a nearby table, the waiter came and took the menu from me without asking if I was using it, or if I was going to order more. Are there really so few menus in the place and on an uncrowded night? The waiter was also indifferent to my questions for much of the evening until I asked about t-shirts and bottles To-Go. At that point he was helpful, getting a colleague to search for a shirt in my size and explaining to me the bottle options. As they say on their web site, “…our Zaganu beers are bottled by request, according to the orders of our customers that are selling our beers: bars, bistros and specialized stores.” So it is not surprising that they didn’t have a full allotment of bottles available that night. I ordered two IPAs to bring back to the US.
With 2 visits in 4 days I feel I got a good idea of what Fabrica de Bere Buna has to offer: you are going to get a wide selection of Zaganu beers on tap, an extensive menu of bottles and cans from other independent breweries, many of whom are Romanian, and you might just get a choice of some guest brews on tap. You will find a menu of simple but interesting food options prepared on site, in fact ‘in sight’ if you sit downstairs. You can get excellent, fresh beer from a variety of brewers and excellent food in one spot. While my time in Bucharest didn’t allow me to venture to other venues to offer a comparison, I find it hard to believe I could do better than Fabrica de Bere Buna. With what I sampled though, I wouldn’t mind doing the research to find out