The familiar smell of evening closes in around us, the perpetual murmur of other people’s conversations percolates through the air. We’re back at Élesztő, where one fateful evening Budapest Pulse was born, but this time, we’re with its owner, and we’re talking the past, present, and future of craft beer in Hungary.
Dániel Bart’s credentials are beyond reproach. Owner of Élesztő, founder of Yeast Wörks, and organiser of Főzdefeszt, Dániel’s been around the craft beer scene for as long as there’s been one.
“I’ve spent all afternoon working on our new range of beer cocktails’, he announces, “so apologies if I’m a bit too chatty.”
BP: So, how did you get into craft beer?
DB: Well, I started out as a literary translator, but sitting in front of a computer all day is so boring—I switched to journalism. I managed to get a job with Dining Guide, where I was given the chance to start building the brand reputation for Gösser, because no-one else wanted to do beer. I was the new guy, so I took on the challenge, and I started up a blog for index.hu—www.folyekonykenyer.blog.hu. The goal was to learn beer culture alongside Heineken. And I had this great chance to try different beers. Eventually one guy in the comments told me I should visit a microbrewery, so I did, and I found the niche for the blog. Over the course of six months, the blog grew massively. The brewery was Stari in Tapolca, and it wasn’t even craft beer, it was micro brewing. It was very limited to Pilsner type beers, other basic stuff, but nothing experimental. It was sort of agroindustrial beer. Anyway, as the blog grew, and I worked with other microbreweries, I invited ten guys to come to Budapest for a festival, Főzdefeszt—www.fozdefeszt.hu. It was Budapest’s first beer festival for years, the first craft beer festival in Hungary. The problem these microbrewers had was that they found it hard to jump from the freshness of just-brewed beer to something that could be sold in a pub in Budapest, after pasteurising it and filtering it. Obviously, it beats industrial beers, but from a business perspective, you have to be able to pasteurise and filter your beer to be able to sell it. Anyway, these guys ended up bringing about five kegs each, so around fifty kegs. And we sold out in two hours. They had to keep driving back and forth, to and from Budapest just to keep up. Until there was nothing left in the brewery—so their own pubs at home had to buy industrial beer, just so people had something to drink.
BP: So that’s how you got into craft beer—how about everyone else?
DB: Craft beer wasn’t the first revolution in Hungary, before that were the gastronomical revolution and the wine revolution. After the communist era, wineries in Hungary had to really work to build on quality. Pálinka was ten years later, and had governmental support with the ‘hungaricum’ labelling, etc. After that it was street food, and the ‘gourmet’ hamburger. All that was needed was the trigger, the same as with all these others. Once it was triggered, we were able to ride on the wave of the global craft beer revolution.
BP: Where does Élesztő come into the picture then?
DB: Well, after Főzdefeszt, we were broke. We realised we needed to be selling beer every day to make money, and a short festival didn’t pay the bills. We really wanted to marry the ideas of a ruin bar and craft beer. I’d been around the industry for a while, the guys who set up Szimpla are friends of mine. They helped us out a bit and we set up Élesztő in 2013 with almost no money. Because we were able to collaborate with the guys we’d invited to Főzdefeszt, it worked, but the whole place looked like shit. The ruin pub feel worked to help us, but the place was a permanent construction site, drill noises and everything. It wouldn’t work now. For the first year and a half, we were a ruin pub and not in the good sense—the idea behind a ruin pub is that it looks ragged but beautiful, but we just looked ragged. We’ve come a long way.
BP: But you managed to stay popular, and you’ve been around for five years now. How do you manage it?
DB: Good question. One thing I’d say for sure is that it’s a good place. Half of the people who come here would still come even if we only sold Dreher. We’re trying to build the message of a ‘gastro plaza’. We have a wine bar, a coffee shop, food, it’s never only about the beer. To start off with, we had a Persian guy who was investing next to us, he planned to do a shisha/pálinka place. We weren’t the first craft beer bar in Budapest, the first was down on Közraktár utca, weird place. It became a smoking bar just after that was made illegal in Hungary. Crazy group of people. It’s only open during the winter though.
BP: How was the craft beer scene at that time?
DB: Craft beer was run by the old guard. They weren’t able to keep up with the newest European trends. We started out with the Főzdefeszt guys, but as Élesztő grew, we also saw more craft breweries opening in Budapest, and they were selling their first beers here in Élesztő. It was sort of guerilla selling, we were like a kindergarten for Hungarian craft beer. The marketplace was immature, and the people in it were like children, so it started to get complex. Last year, we made the decision to settle down with six or seven breweries we know well and we like working with, and only keep a couple of taps for experiments. We’re working with brewers like Horizont, Féher Nyul, Mad Scientist, and so on. People used to come knocking on our door to sell their beer, but our focus has changed. We’re not looking at the ever-changing kaleidoscope of beers any more, we’re focussing on quality. There are other craft bars in Budapest now where brewers can sell more experimental beers.
BP: What’s changed?
DB: Hungary, beerwise, is like the US of Europe because of Trianon. After Trianon, all of the best beermaking regions of Hungary were no longer part of Hungary. During communist times, there were often beer shortages, and the focus was really on wine until ’88. That means that the beer culture in Hungary was totally new, and it was able to go in any direction. There were no real opinions or regulations we had to fight. I think I’d describe Hungarian beer as innovative for that reason. That’s where Yeast Wörks grew from. I think my favourite beer is obviously our Duke of Budapest, but I really like what Mad Scientist are doing, and the sours and kettle sours. My favourite worldwide is Rodenbach Grand Cru.
BP: Does the craft beer scene in Budapest have a happy ending? Many people see it as a passing fad.
DB: We say in this industry that once you have a great craft beer, you can never go back. As well, with brands like Dreher and Soproni introducing their own mass produced IPAs and Pale Ales, more and more people are going to be getting into craft beer. In fact, I wrote an article about it called “It’s high time they did something for us”. For years, they’ve been going with this brainless drive for functional beers. They’ve been carving the soul out of beer in the name of profit. After nine years, Soproni have finally started to realise the movement that I started all those years ago. It’s perfectly normal that they’ve jumped on the train now it’s up to speed. After all, IPA isn’t a swear word any more, it’s not snobbish or weird.
BP: What tips would you give to new brewers who are just starting out in the beer business? If you could start again five years ago, what would you do differently?
DB: The first tip I’d give you is don’t do it. If you’re a genius, you might be able to get going, but otherwise don’t do it. If I can dissuade you from doing it, this business is not for you. Only the best and the most motivated will succeed. Maybe. But then, I don’t know it all. The market is developing. One thing I would say is not to do it without big money if you want to be successful. If you’re planning on doing it as a hobby, that’s fine, but to be successful, you need money. But then I started to learn this thing when I started this thing. I had no idea about the business side of it either.
BP: What was the most disappointing experience you had on the craft beer scene?
DB: I think the most disappointing experience has been with Hungary’s first craft beer. Keserű Méz from Fóti. He’d put together this really nice Bavarian beer with loads of Bavarian hops, and it was sort of a bridge between the microbeer of the nineties and American-style craft-beer. I really got behind the beer and invented the whole concept, the branding, everything. Recently though, the beer’s been abandoned. It’s changed so much, it’s not the initial beer that I got behind and I’m not really very happy about that. I can’t really say very much more, but I’m planning something big for the brand in the near future.
BP: Who is the next big thing in Hungarian craft beer?
DB: I think at the moment, it’s Mad Scientist. There are loads of great individual products, but Mad Scientist have the art and the science together to let the build great things. They think differently. Everyone there is well paid and respected and creative and inspired. It’s a great brewery—it’s a great Hungarian company overall. I’m also really looking forward to Zip’s opening up soon. When those guys hit the mark, they can really do great things. I’m also looking forward to seeing the next move from Pécsi Sörfőzde.
BP: What’s the future for Élesztő?
DB: We really want to start the craft spirits revolution! Very soon, the first Hungarian whiskey will be out and we’ll be selling it, it’s called Gemenci Gabonapárlat. We’ll also be selling Kalumba, a gin from Zwack, and we’ll be starting the craft spirits revolution. We’re also working on our beer cocktails, and we’ve redone the the kitchen and rented it out to Butcher’s Kitchen, who are doing some great, real meaty food.
BP: One last question then to wrap up, if you’re not working hard at one of your bars, what else do you like to do? What are your hobbies?
DB: Running a bar is a hobby! For a long time, all sorts of hobbies were kind of off the table because I was so taken up with the beer industry, but I never ceased to enjoy cooking Italian and Indian and of course Hungarian food. I love to hike and read and I enjoy sailing a lot. I do some translation work still for friends, and I’m still writing my beer blog, Folyékony Kenyér, but that’s not really a hobby, I’m not graphomaniac! When I write there, it’s because I have something to say.