How Zmajska brewery kick started the Croatian craft beer scene?
Zmajska Brewery is the first “genuine” Craft brewery in Croatia. It was founded by Andrej Čapka, a former web developer who launched the first online forum for homebrewing enthusiasts in Croatia back in 2007. Andrej showed us how his wheels of the craft brewing machine turned from the early homebrewing days, and more recently on a larger scale with what is now Zmajska brewery, one of the forerunners and biggest players in the Croatian craft beer market. This is the story of how Andrej followed his dream and, with a little help from his friends, helped define the Croatian Craft beer scene.
Andrej Capka is not your average brewery owner. We sat down in his “house” in the industrial region of Zagreb where he took us on a trip down the memory lane. “When I ventured into the world of craft brewing I was quite naive. I thought craft beer would be all about brewing new and exciting beers….and it was, until a certain point. But then excel sheets, buyers and planning took over (most of the time)” – says Andrej Čapka of Zmajska brewery with a laugh. Despite the fact he’s not cooking as much as he used to, he still finds passion and inspiration in every beer that emerges from his brewery in the western part of Croatia’s capital.
Coding and beer
For Andrej, the first stop on his now 18- year long craft beer journey took place in 2002. That’s when he brewed his first beer. Andrej was a student of the ‘Faculty of Food Technology and Biotechnology’ in Zagreb. The faculty had their very own brewery where Andrej could get his hands on some hops, yeast and malts for his recipes.
These were no Yakima Chief hops, just basic hops. Andrej started with all-grain brewing and never looked back. Fast forward 5 years later, and Andrej quit from university and has begun working as a front-end developer. He combined his professional skills and passion for craft beer to launch pivarstvo.info in 2007., the first online community/forum in Croatian language where everyone who wanted to brew beer in Croatia and the surrounding countries gathered.
“I launched the forum and prayed there was someone out there, besides me and a few of my friends”, said Andrej, “Apparently there were some people who googled homebrewing, and they landed on my forum”. It was a true revelation for Andrej. “Little by little the forum enabled us to make quantum leaps in terms of knowledge, to exchange experiences and drastically improve our beer brewing skills”, recollected Andrej.
Magic Beer Room
The next big thing happening on the scene was the First Croatian homebrew championship in the legendary setting of Magic Beer room in Zagreb in 2010. “I remember judging 35 Belgian beers. We limited beers to Belgian styles to honor our host Ludo”, said Andrej. According to the photos from that session, it was not the best experience but it was the birth of a competition that was the starting point for most of today’s homebrewers and craft brewery owners such as Miroslav Šuvak from Nova Runda (who’s almost a regular guest blogger for Wine&more), Daniel Babić from Zeppelin (whose’s story you can read here) and, Mario Žerjav of Primarius (story coming soon), who were all active members of pivarstvo.info online forum at the time as well. Among them was American comic book artist and craft beer enthusiast Matt Hollingsworth who had moved to Croatia.
Andrej could make a living with off of his day job and still make beer, but in the spring of 2012. he decided to pursue his dream to the fullest. After years of preparation, Zmajska brewery was finally founded in spring Spring of 2013. Andrej’s partner in this bold venture was his friend Hrvoje Čirjak.”Hrvoje is a friend of mine with great knowledge and experience in finance. He was quite concerned about what beers we will brew and sell. What kept me up at night was the question “how are we going to pay for all the equipment we need, recollects Andrej, “ We had to trust each other that each will hold his end of this venture.” It was, as time will tell, a match made in heaven.
Dragons and beers
“My wife came up with the name. I used to brew Majsko (May beer) for years, for camping with friends. One particular batch was quite hoppy and everyone loved it despite the bitterness. She suggested it should be called Zmajsko as it rimmed and had dragon-like bite. Since that day all my friends used to call all my homebrew beers Zmajska no matter the style. We liked it a lot and decided that brewery should be named the same”, Andrej remembers.
It was a pioneering journey into the unknown in a time when getting a loan for starting a craft brewery was unheard of. Zmajska was the first genuine craft brewery founded in Croatia, Nova Runda launched their first beer at about the same time. Seven years later they are growing stronger than ever with a vast majority of domestic craft brewers aspiring to follow in their footsteps.
Foreign hops, Local partners
As was the case with his online forum, where he tried to gather and educate the homebrewers in Croatia, Andrej tried to find the best way to keep his investment local. When his HBOR loan was approved he contacted Letina, a renowned domestic producer of winery equipment. Zmajska was the first brewery that was equipped by Letina, a company from Čakovec, Croatia that up to that point, had almost no experience in beer brewing equipment.
“I remember I was contacted by a Letina guy on my forum. He wanted to buy yeast because they were building a small brewery. We contacted them immediately and went to meet the owner. We showed him a PowerPoint presentation of the brewery we were planning. He decided they are going to build it for us. And that was it. They built our equipment and we had a brewery. Now they are building breweries all over the world, 4 are in Croatia (Garden Brewery, Nova Runda, Varionica and Zmajska) and approximately 25 more around the world”, says Andrej.
What’s this Craft thing?
Zmajska Porter and Pale ale were the first two beers that Zmajska launched. Those two beers are still the core selection of the brewery. It is a less known fact that the first batch of beer was never actually distributed. The reason was the fact that the beer bottling machine arrived late, very late.
“As we wanted to launch our brewery with the best beer possible, we dumped the first batch (although there was nothing wrong with it but freshness) and kegged fresh one that was in prime time. The big launch took place on 05.09.14. in the famous beer bar Tolkien’s house in the very center of Zagreb”, said Andrej.
Zmajska Pale Ale and Porter were one of the first local, Croatian craft beers. And Croatians were thirsty for it. Very very thirsty. After the core selection of Pale Ale and Porter came an IPA named Pozoj (a dragon name from north of Croatia). They were barely able to keep up with the demand in the first two years. It was only when they moved from their original location in Baštijanova in Zagreb to their current location in the much more spacious industrial zone, that they were really able to experiment and launch several new and exciting beers.
“Despite the fact the Croatians were thirsty for craft beer we could not produce new stuff with current capacity. It was too early for new beers. We were trying to meet the demand”, says Andrej. “We couldn’t just go out and make new beers just for the fun of doing it, we had customers (bars) that we had to respect and supply and they mostly had just one tap in their establishments (for Zmajska Pale Ale). Our utmost priority was to provide regular supply and prove we are a good partner”.
Zmajska brewery was always focused on the domestic market. “My main goal was to brew the beer that I would drink and present it to Croatian people. It was always Croatia first, we didn’t want to export beer and neglect our domestic market” says Andrej. That doesn’t mean that “dragon’s roar” was not heard outside of domestic borders, quite the contrary.
In 2014. Zmajska brewery was among the top 10. (9th overall) newly opened breweries in the fierce competition of 3600 new breweries worldwide. In 2014. Their porter was rated no.14 in the world according to RateBeer. Many domestic accolades followed (e.g. best Croatian beer in various categories). “Despite the international acclaim we were 90% focused on the Croatian market. We just couldn’t satisfy domestic demand”. According to Andrej, they didn’t capitalize on the recognition from abroad.
It was not only Andrej driving the Zmajska story, but also a few of the other renowned Croatian brewers that were more than just “supporting characters” in this story. The first head brewer of Zmajska was Bojan Pap who went on to found Beckers craft brewery close to his hometown of Vukovar. Another ex Head Brewer at Zmajska was Mario Žerjav, who was known as “doctor” Primarius and went on to launch his own successful craft brewery – Primarius, of course. Current Head brewer Nenad Lalić and his colleagues Ugo and Drago have taken the lead and are among the best in the business. With that said, There is no shortage of talent in Zmajska.
Let there be (good) beer
“Our mission was always the same – let people in Croatia have great beer. Give people a choice. Let them decide if they want to try something else (that’s not just two domestic industry lagers). No more crappy beers.”, that’s Andrej’s philosophy.
What started with pale Pale Ale and a porter Porter, continued with Pozoj IPA and a Russian Imperial Stout that was named one of the best in the world.
The line of beers continued with probably one of the best kettle sours in the region – Zmajska Bunny Passion. Recently they ventured into larger territory with their first Pilsner – simply Zmajska Pils. By brewing a pilsner, Zmajska wanted to complete the circle in the craft beer market, and they have high hopes for it. “It might not be the most attractive craft beer style, but it’s still one of the most well-received styles out there. You might drink two Zmajska Pozoj IPA’s, but you can just as easily drink 5 Pilses.”, says Andrej with a smile on his face.
“I really think Croatia has one of the most interesting and vibrant craft beer scenes in Europe. From day one craft beer was made quite widespread and available through supermarket chains and bars. Prices in line with local economy standards made craft beer an option for many beer enthusiasts. This opened the road for many breweries to show what they are able to brew. The quality is very high and don’t just take my word for it, take a look at Untappd and Ratebeer.”, says Andrej.
I’ve followed Andrej’s work and the work of his head brewers since day one. Although their mission might not be written on the wall of the brewery their philosophy has always been clear from day one and they stuck to it (unlike the BrewDog’s of the craft beer world). Their mission: give people great beer for a fair price. It’s fair to say they’ve succeeded in doing just that.
Creating trends, and Pils
Andrej is not fond of hyper-production of new beers. “Most of the new trends in the industry die as fast as they come. We will try our hands with some of them, some we will skip. I prefer to make less new beers but those that we do, we try to make memorable. Making new beer just so people have something new to check-in was never appealing to me”, Andrej says to us with a smirk.
Do not be mistaken, however. It’s not that Zmajska is not making trends. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. They launched the first barrel-aging program, first wild beers and introduced many styles for the first time in Croatia.
You name it, Zmajska has done it. Andrej’s brewers are able to use their creativity to the full, but he serves as their anchor. At the end of the day Andrej has the final say in the recipe because he is the one who has to keep in mind how will it sell. The goal is not to over-complicate things, but rather keep it simple.
It might sound pretentious to some, but it’s fair to say that Andrej and his friends from the homebrewers forum were the true pioneers of craft brewing in Croatia. This small group of people were not in it for the money, and it shows in their product and in their core values. Apart from founding and managing their own breweries, and taking great care of the people they employ, they have helped many of their colleagues who have chosen to follow in their footsteps. Some may even say they are the reason you can now even get a loan for starting a brewery in Croatia. Cheers to that.…and to more Zmajska beer!
Ivan Kovacevic, partner @ wine&more