With friends, après ski, après Pirin hiking or just after a long day in the office; yes, it’s beer I’m talking about. Beer the key ingredient for a successful Bansko drunch! And here in Bulgaria, the beer is quite good — and I’m investigating here if it can get better. Read on to see if beer can scale the heights that the wine scene has managed over the last ten years, or just continue to serve up more of the same.
Beer is amongst the cheapest I’ve seen in Europe. But is it any good? Well yes, and no. Not good in the sense of deliverring interest and variety, like Bulgarian wine does so well. Not like a fine English ale, or a live beeer bursting with hoppy, sweet, butter, malty flavours. Yes, in the respect it is better than many similar lager mass produced beers elsewhere.
Big Beer Brands vs A Microbrewery
In part 1 of my Beer Guide To Bulgaria we toured Bulgaria and found that beer is dominated by huge brewing corporations. Good in parts – but not so fascinating to revisit this beer story. So I delayed posting this part II until I had tried a microbrewery in Sofia. Whilst the UK has more breweries now than at any time since the last 100 years, Bulgaria has, as far as I am aware, just three small microbreweries to its name. These niche players compete in a landscape dominated by big brand beer corporations and large scale mass advertising. Promotion based more on price, and on the bottle shape, than taste. I think things are ripe for change in the beer drinking world in Bulgaria.
Pri Kmetra (“Mayor’s Pub): A Beer Oasis
- Beer: 18/20
- Food: 13/20
- Service: 13/20
- Atmosphere 10/20: Overall: 15/20
So it was off to the Pri Kmeta (“Major’s Place”), suggested by Atanas (from restaurant listing site zavedenia.com), friend, and beer enthusiast. Located just off Raikovski on Paris Street, and a stone’s throw from Alexander Nevski Church. Here is a small brew pub, supplying itself and three other places. After a tour, we tasted the beers. The highlight for me was their red beer – a cooled down and fizzy “pale ale” style beer. It reminded me of San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer – a large microbrewery I had the good fortune of a tour some sixteen years ago. So back to Pri Kmetra beer. All their beers are unfiltered and unpasteurised. There are four beers, three were on tap on my visit.
- Kmetsko Lager Beer – a typical pilsner lager style beer. A subtle and very pleasant hop aroma. An allround summer lager Alcohol: 4.2% vol
- Kmetsko Wheat Beer – a wheat beer. With typical cloudiness and a bready flavour this one makes a happy change from the usual. Nice refreshing finish. Alcohol: 4.2% vol
- Kmetsko Red Beer – a copper red coloured beer. A good depth of fruit flavours from the caramel malt . A good substitute for those craving “real ale”. Alcohol: 4.8% vol
- Kmetsko Dark Beer – not available during my visit in August but am told it has a toffee flavour and makes perfect winter drinking. From the others I can believe this. Will try soon. Alcohol: 5.2%
At last; I had found a locally hand made beer from a Sofia microbrewery. Service was good, smiling and helpful. Sausages and chips with mayonnaise and mustard — perfect beer food. In addition you can order up a large 50lv beer keg with your favourite real beer to take away. Good for a home party. Will have to bring one to Bansko to celebrate the first ski run of the season. I feel there are some areas for improvement; more beer information from both the menu and from the waitress would be good, a shorter menu focussing on these excellent sausages would be a smart move too. However our guide and pub manager was a wonderful host, full of enthusiasm and pride in the beer. The beer tour was worthwhile. The BTV story (see http://youtu.be/_9u-oCWLkP4) tells you what you need to know!
The actual premises were not my favourite in Sofia. The simple wooden seats in a conservatory, looked in need of a refresh. Functional; rather than cosy.
Downstairs there is Pri Kmeta has a pub like interior, this is more comfortable. However, again I think is in need of a redesign. Many new bar and restaurants are setting a high standard in Sofia, albeit with a price to match the surroundings. New restaurant openings in Sofia keep coming. Investment in Pri Kmeta will make it the place it so richly deserves to be. That said, the beer is the star and that makes it both my top beer choice and top beer venue in Bulgaria. Highly Recommended. 18/20 for the beer, but overall 15/20.
The (Mass Produced) Bulgarian Beer Story
Back to the (mass Bulgarian) beer story, There are thirteen big corporate breweries throughout the country – one in almost every major town and city. In the first part of the Beer Guide to Bulgaria, I discussed the three big Bulgarian beer brands, and the cities they are produced in. So after Kamenitsa, Zagorka and Shumensko in Plovdiv, Stara Zagora and Shumen, it’s time to go on with the beer tour of Bulgaria.
Bolyarka in Veliko Turnovo
A place in Bulgaria you shouldn’t miss is Veliko Turnovo. I reviewed my interesting experiences there on my last trip there. I found that the Bolyarka in Veliko Turnovo seemed particularly refreshing. This may have been the holiday halo effect, but I am not sure. The town has some nice hotels and is perfect for a two or three day city break.
If you prefer village tourism, you can stay at nearby Arbanasi – a historical village 4km away from Veliko Turnovo, in which all old houses are preserved – and many of them are hotels nowadays. Located in Northern Bulgaria, after you cross Stara Planina mountain (check out the paragliding at Sopot) on the way to the northern seaside coast (2.5 hours’ drive from Sofia), Veliko Tarnovo is famous as the historical capital of the country. The Tsarevets castle, where the Bulgarian emperors and patriarchs used to live, is perched on a hill. The town is situated on serpentine river Yantra. The old part of the town is preserved as it was in the Revival period and provides for a pleasant walk. Small workshops have been restored where you can see and try the work of craftsmen.
If you’re lucky, you can witness the spectacular sound and light show of Tsarevets. The atmosphere of the whole town is pretty unique and relaxed. It is full of nice cafes and restaurants, many of them with nice views over the river. Prices are really reasonable and you can try some very good local beers. The local brewery is called Bolyarka and dates back to 1891. Its own beer, Bolyarka is a very light lager suitable for the hot summer there. Other brands produced by the brewery are King’s, Schweik and Kaltenberg. Bolyarka is also a licensed importer of German beer Warsteiner.
The brewery offers tours of the so called “House of beer” where you can see how beer is made and taste it. http://boliarka.com/dom-na-birata.html Bolyarka supplies beer to a pleasant beer venue in Sofia called The Ale house where you can pour your own beer at your table. Don’t be fooled though. The real looking beer making equipment at the entrance is just for show; this is not a real brew pub. http://www.alehouse.bg/index.html Once near Veliko Tarnovo, it’s worth visiting the otherwise remote northeast part of Bulgaria. You can choose between a city break in Varna or a whole vacation in its nearby resorts.
Varna The Place And The Beer That Is No More
Varna is situated on the Black Sea coast — often also known as the summer capital of Bulgaria. It is the third largest city after Sofia and Plovdiv. It’s a modern city with business centres and merchant maritime activities, and, at the same time, there is plenty of entertainment for its visitors. I have only passed through Varna briefly and hope to visit Varna which is, for many, their favourite city in Bulgaria.
I am told that Varna has a beautiful sea garden and its waterfront of restaurants, bars and discos along with a pedestrian shopping street and two big malls are also big attractions. If you are with children, don’t miss the Varna Dolphinarium. For day trips check out the nearby Euxinograd Palace, the medieval cave monastery Aldazha and the Pobiti Kamani rock phenomenon. The town of Balchik, with its beautiful palace and botanical garden also come recommended.
Varna and its vicinity offer a good choice of eating out experiences. So what beer goes with it? Of course, Shumen with its Shumensko beer is near here. Varna used to have a large local brewery producing Varna beer and MM beer, but it was closed down. However Varna now has a microbrewery by the Ventura hotel producing a live beer called Gallagher. As I get more details on this one, this page will be updated.
My wish is that we’ll see more microbreweries come on stream. There is money in beer, a product that is almost all made up of water. In the same way that banks in the UK are changing attitudes and are now taking seriously self build property and providing self build mortgages, I can envisage a time when the economics of brewing ventures makes a lot of sense. We’ll see, just like we saw in the UK and in the US, a large niche developing for fine flavoured beers — beers that become much more mainstream. Beer has complex flavour and the right beer can complement food in a very special way. The Bulgarian beer drinker is about to become much more adventurous.
Once credibility is established, just like we have seen from Bulgarian wine producers, more people will accept brewing and that the individual quality product can appeal to many more than it does currently. Yes, there are pressures and incentives for bars to sell big brewery beers. But these are very similar to those in the US and the UK.
The objective of putting the customer first, providing a memorable experience — and doing this time, and time again, almost always pays off. For beer, for restaurants and bars these sentiments have never been truer. The Bulgarian beer market is ripe for more beer diversity. A local CAMRA type campaign? In the UK, CAMRA (CaMpaign For Real Ale) was one of the most successful consumer movements ever. I look forward to be reviewing many more microbreweries, their beers and the bars and restaurants that sell in the coming years.
What is your favourite Bulgarian beer? What do you think of microbreweries? Let us know below
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