Ivan Kovacevic

Primarius Craft Brewery – the story of beers, beards and poems

Primarius craft brewery

Hidden in a backyard somewhere in Zagreb’s business district, two mates are making craft beer in a setting that completely contradicts the area they are situated in. We were recently admitted into Primarius’ “doctor’s office” to help us learn what really makes them tick.   

Much like most brewers these days, Mario Žerjav has a huge beard on his face…only his beard is bigger, much bigger. He is recognized amongst brewers under the name “Primarius” which means  “expert”, in the brewing of course.

Before he ventured into brewing “Primarius” built a career in DTP (desktop publishing). He used to work in one of the biggest marketing agencies in Croatia. After that, he worked as a freelance designer and DTP guy.

Primarius craft brewery
Primarius’s “office” on the “other side” of Zagreb’s business district

Agency life

During his agency years, Mario used to have very strange allergies that would occur every three days or so. After completing various medical tests, he discovered that the reason for the allergic reaction was none other than beer, industrial beer to be specific. New discovery of this beer allergy led Mario to Pivarstvo.info, an online forum for homebrewing enthusiasts launched by Andrej Čapka of Zmajska brewery.  

Mario’s discovery of  Andrej’s online forum occurred in 2010, and for Mario, that was a moment of great revelation. He realized that by utilizing this online forum, he could brew beer all by himself and in a bathtub. “If that was the only way for me to enjoy beer so be it”, said Mario.

Primarius Craft Brewery
Mario Žerjav aka PriMarius in his natural habitat

He picked up a phone and called his brother in law to begin his homebrewing venture, again, in a bathtub. Mario completed his very first beer in 2011. It was called “Dead Guy Clone”. The second beer he completed was the legendary “Sierra Nevada” clone. While brewing the “Sierra Nevada” clone, Mario used the recipe from Ken Grossman, the great brewmaster and founder of Sierra Nevada himself. (Fun fact: Recipe was sent from Ken Grossman to a homebrewer in Japan following his complains that he cannot find any kind of craft beer in his homeland) 

Years of “the Dragon”

With more experience, Mario slowly began updating the gear he was working with and did so all by himself. Shortly after his first couple of homebrewing experiments, Mario won some very prestigious medals in Croatian and Hungarian homebrewing competitions.

The first winner was the previous version of Bijelo (White), Primarus’s famous Belgian wheat beer. “It was the moment I thought, holy shit, I could make a living from making beer. How great is that” – Mario recollects. This was also around the time when the great recession kicked in and, unfortunately, the future of his own DTP business did not look very bright at the time.

Primarius Craft Brewery
Bruno Blažićko, Ivan Kovačević and Mario Žerjav

“It was time for an important decision. I could work in some cubicle until retirement” laughs Mario “but I opted to join Andrej Čapka, who just founded Zmajska Brewery (“How Zmajska brewery kickstarted the Croatian craft beer scene?”), and his head brewer Bojan Pap”.

It proved to be a match made in heaven… for both parties. “I learned that running a brewery is not just bigger homebrew.  I was so hungry to learn everything I could. I was hanging around the brewery all the time. I’m thankful for the time I spent at Zmajska because it helped me launch my own gig.”. Mario stayed with Zmajska from 2015 to 2017, before finally deciding to live his dream of launching his very own brewery. 

The other brother-in-law

He might not have the beard as grand as his partner but Mario’s other brother-in-law Bruno Blažičko (who is not the one from the beginning of this story who he called in 2011), someone with other virtues that are essential to running a profitable business.

Prior to confounding Primarius, Bruno worked as executive director in a company that sold consumer electronics. After spending 20 years at the same place, he didn’t think twice when Mario presented him with his plan to launch a craft brewery.

Primarius Craft Brewery
Bruno and Mario, the posing stuff

“Mario was enthusiastic about beer recipes, equipment, and all other ‘hops and yeast-related’ stuff. My part was making sure that we could fund this thing in the long run, so I came up with a business plan. We decided to apply for funds at Hamag (a Croatian agency that funds entrepreneurs) and also chipped in some of our own money.

Finally, in the middle of 2017. we moved into this lot and started brewing. Primarius craft brewery was born” – recalls Bruno. Fermentors were purchased from domestic producers in Požega, while the rest of the gear they already had on hand from their previous home brewing ventures. The entire brewing operation was made possible by Mario who took care of every little detail”, says Bruno.

Primarius did not have beer bottling capabilities for the first 15 months, but they soon realized that the draft craft beer market was too small, and the competition for taps in craft beer bars was not to be underestimated. Therefore, their decision to bottle beer, which came about in early 2019, proved to be a great one, especially in the rough times brought upon us by COVID-19.  

From blessing to tweet

Primarius has a selection of 9 bottled beers – a Session IPA named Ringišpil (merry go round), Zornjak (morning sex) Red Ale, Katapult IPA (catapult), Belgian Wit beer Bijelo (white), Cvrkut (bird tweet) Blonde ale, Taman Taman (just dark enough) Porter, Blagoslov (blessing) Pale Ale, Krampus  Barely wine and Đe-Sme je-Bo (where have you f***ed… me and slang for brown colour) brown ale.

They’ve even come up with a placebo lager called Cjepivo (vaccine), that Primarius claims will help with the COVID-19crisis. By far,  Primarius’ most popular beer is their Ringispil (light) session IPA, which has all the benefits of a hoppy beer, but with less intensity. 

In the middle of the interview, which took place in Primarius “laboratory” in the edgy area of Zagreb’s business center, an American couple walked in searching for “the beer with a beard”. They were fascinated by the artwork on the bottles and were amazed at how difficult it was to find the place. However, COVID did not stop this amazing couple from a faraway land in pursuing their passion for travel and craft beer. 

Pirmarius Craft Brewery
Unexpected visitors from Colorado, USA visited “the doctor”. They’ve found “vaccine” in the most unusual place

Beards and poetry 

Not only does each beer at Primarius have a story of its own, but also each beer consists of unique artwork – Mario’s silhouette and signature beard logo that changes color based on beer temperature in a glass. If it’s cold it’s green, if not it’s white.

Some may say it is this artwork on the packaging that stands out the most when you pick up the bottle. It should be noted, that this is where Mario’s history from graphic design and DTP really shines. Another important aspect of the artwork on the packaging are poems inscribed on the bottles

Primarius beer bottles
Primarius Barely wine aged beneath the seal level, a regular one and White

Mario explained the design and thought process in detail for us, “First we come up with a beer style that we are going to make. Then we think of the name that resonates with it.

As for the story on the bottle, we don’t put your regular stuff about what you should taste. This is because most people just won’t taste the same thing. We don’t like to put it in our customer’s face” says Mario. “That’s why we have these short poems used to tell the story of a beer in a different way. This is what we are all about”.

Most of the signature poems are made by Mario and Bruno, and their wives who are also able to have their say in things. “For us, it’s really a thrill to be able to make these poems and have some serious fun of it”, explains Mario. 

The beer vaccine

“We currently produce approximately 8,000 – 10,000 liters of beer per month, 50% of which are bottled beers”. – says Bruno.

We are currently at 100% capacity, so hopefully we’ll add some more fermentors in order to meet demand”. Apart from expansion, they have plans to launch their very own taproom in Zagreb’s Radnička street.

Among other things, they’ve sunk a fair number of bottles of their Krampus barely wine beneath the sea level and pulled them out 6 months later. “This process of ‘laying down’ the wines is common in Croatia, so we and five other breweries wanted to find out how it will affect beer. The results were very positive, our Krampus turned out even better! More rounded, a bit sourish but still delicious.  It will soon be available to beer drinkers across the country”

Primarius Craft Brewery
In the office

During our interview with Mario, the American beer fans that showed up wanted to buy some beer glasses with Mario’s famous beard printed on them at the end of their mini-tour. Mario and Bruno didn’t charge them for the glasses, but insisted we be allowed to use pictures of them in our photoshoot; everyone involved agreed it was a fair deal. The couple went back to the states thrilled they were able to meet the guys behind the beers…  and, of course, the guy behind the beard. 

We all have to pay our bills, but it’s quite clear Mario and Bruno are not in this business for the money. They still do almost everything by themselves (with a little help from students (and aspiring brewers) every now and then). Add to their long list of accomplishments and pride in their product, the duo has recently come up with a COVID-19 themed ‘vaccine beer’ (CjePivo). It might not cure Covid-19 but it makes hanging around the house a lot more enjoyable. 

Ivan Kovacevic, partner @ wine&more

Primarius craft brewery

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