End of September, autumn has officially arrived, and in Munich the October fest is at full blast. What would I like to do to make the summer stay a little bit longer? Chill out in a sunny country and have some beer. I confess that I am a real ale fan. A bit of a beer snob, in fact. English beer — London Pride, TEA, Sussex Bitter, Timothy Taylor’s are some of the beer names that spring to mind. The good news is that it’s not all lager in Bulgaria, in this first part of my guide to beer in Bulgaria, I’m going to take a look at the Bulgarian beer scene. So pour yourself a beer and join me on my beer travels of Bulgaria.
Size Isn’t Everything
For its small size, Bulgaria has quite a number of beer brands. There are thirteen breweries throughout the country – one in almost every major town and city – that used to produce their own distinctive brand of beer in former times. Nowadays, many of them have been bought by foreign breweries and produce world famous beers too. InBev, Carlsberg and Heineken own a big portion of Bulgarian breweries and this explains why Stella Artois, Beck’s, Heineken, Staropramen, Tuborg, Amstel are brewed locally today.
However, I always prefer to have Bulgarian beers when in Bulgaria. Although some seem to be losing their rather creamy local taste and have been more or less changed to the international standards, I can still find some local beers that touh the spot. If wine is more your thing then click here for my top fave wine.
So read on for my trip to Bulgaria’s main cities and the beer to be sampled. So, in no partiular order we start with the oldcapital of Bulgaria and the new home of Ryanair in BG…
Plovdiv – where it all started
Plovdiv is the place where brewing became an industry first. Before that were only the home breweries. In 1879 – 1881, two Swiss men built the first beer factory in Bulgaria. It was called Kamenitza and still has the same name today although it is now part of InBev.
I am not a huge fan of the slightly bitter and tart taste of Kamenitza lager, but I really enjoy the rich, but not too heavy, Kamenitza Dark. You can decide for yourself after you taste it in one of the numerous cafes and pubs in Plovdiv. Believe me, you will need the beer because there is really a lot to see in Plovdiv.
Plovdiv is a great place to visit in autumn as it’s generally one of the warmest and driest places in the country, the biggest city in the South of Bulgaria and one with the most ancient history. Founded 6,000 years B.C., Plovdiv has kept something from all the eras to become like an open museum today. There are remains and monuments all over and a walk in the centre of Plovdiv is like a walk in history. Together with the modern buildings and shops, you can see a Roman Odeon and Roman Stadium right on the main pedestrian street.
Going up in the old town is a must. The architecture there has been preserved as it was during the Bulgarian Renaissance. Even if you do not go into the numerous museums there, tread on the cobbled streets and enjoy the atmosphere. Stop to have a Kamenitza in one of the wonderful cafes and restaurants in the old town. Then go up to the Ancient Theatre – an amazing construction built in early 2 century by Roman emperor Trayan. The theatre hosts about 3,000 spectators and is not only preserved exactly as it was, but is also used as a theatre today. If you are lucky, you can see a play, opera or concert in it. If not, just enjoy the spectacular view it commands over the city.
Of course, Plovdiv is not only ancient history. It does have its modern developments, shopping malls, an International expo and wine fare. A nice place to be in the sun, and sip your Kaminitza dark, is the Plovdiv Canal, situated in a nice green area with many nice cafes and restaurants.
If you have more time, being in the centre of the country, Plovdiv is the perfect starting point for nice trips to places around, such as the ancient tombs in Starossel, SPA town Hissar, my top paragliding spot in Sopot, hiking in the Rodopi mountains and more. Another major beer centre – Stara Zagora – is about 80 km from Plovdiv on the highway to the Black Sea coast.
So if you aer in the UK, brave a Ryanair budget ticket — take in a fab city and then haul yourself to Bansko. Kamenitsa dark is widely sold in supermarkets and some bars. This is just about as close to a decent pint if bitter I’ve yet to find. Actually a mix of a “mild” and an American style anchor steam bitter. Not bad at all.
Zagorka: More Than A Nice Bottle
The beer Zagorka is the emblem of Stara Zagora. The brewery was built in 1902 and today is part of global brewing group Heineken. Its Bulgarian brands: Zagorka, Ariana and Stolichno are market leaders and the brewery also produces Amstel and Kaiser.
Lots of Bulgarians and foreigners fall for the moderately strong and distinctive taste of Zagorka lager. I admit it has a decent full taste and used to be my favourite too. However, I would like to give credit to their great achievement in dark (bock) beers – Stolichno. It was my first choice last winter. It is like an English old porter ale — but mixed with a stout. Caramel, chocolatey and just a little smoky in taste. Try one or two; make it four of five and you’ll think you can ski the Tomba faster that Bodie Miler. It’s damn strong.
You can enjoy these beers nicely in the town of their origin. Almost as old as Plovdiv, Stara Zagora has a lot of history and remnants from Roman time. It is known as “the town of straight streets, linden trees, poets and beautiful women”. Indeed, it has a nice pedestrian area with cafes under the linden trees and also numerous parks. The biggest one – Ayazmoto – is a magnificent park on a hill that hosts the Stara Zagora Zoo and is the perfect place for you if you’re travelling with children.
Situated in the same valley as Plovdiv, the town has mild climate and lots of sun. We have to leave the sunny valley now and go to the northern part of the country to try another really popular Bulgarian beer – Shumensko.
From Shumensko To Pirininsko
While I would not advise you to take a special trip to the town of Shumen, I would strongly recommend trying its beers.
Shumen rivals with Plovdiv to be the cradle of beer brewing in Bulgaria. A group of Hungarian immigrants founded the brewery in 1882 and set high brewing standards. It was acquired by Carlsberg Breweries in 2002. Tuborg and Holsten are also made there, but Shumensko is my favourite among them. Carlsberg also owns Pirinsko, brewed in brilliant Blagoevgrad. Pirinsko is the most popular beer in the region of Bansko – a very light lager that does not give you headache. Best to buy Pirninsko in bottles rather than plastic containers. You can taste the difference . Sip a Pirinsko in Blagoevgrad’s many cafes and bars… or for beer in the early morning, try the ever popular Underground nightclub.
The town of Shumen with its colder climate has not inspired me to visit it yet, but if it’s on your way (to Varna for example), check it out. Pack a few Shumensko beers in your backpack and you can take a walk on the tourist routes on the Shumen plateau and to the Shumen fortress. “Madarski Konnik” (The Rider of Madara) is 15 km away. Dating back to 710 A.D. and on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Madarski Konnik is a large rock relief carved in a vertical 100-metre-high cliff.
All the above beer brands are market leaders in Bulgaria, but you have to try and decide for yourself if they are your favourites. Stay tuned to the second part of the article when I will reveal some less popular but great tasting beers — and even better destinations in Bulgaria.
What are your favourite beers? Places come and go, please let us know your favourite bars and restaurants in Bansko to enjoy the perfect apres ski beer.
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