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Sofia Talks | Rostislav Bakalov on Bulgarian Craft Beer Culture

Craft beer culture is about discovering and enjoying new, original tastes and building a community of like-minded beer enthusiasts

A decade ago the expression “Craft beer” was a fully untapped topic on the Bulgarian beer market. Today, a growing number of people are using Untappd not to describe unknown beers but to rate their favourite local and global craft brands while they are getting a liquid infusion of their favourite Vitamin B(eer).

One of the people who has played a major role in this transition is Rostislav Bakalov. He’s the (c0)founder and driving force behind 100 Beers: the first Bulgarian online store, which began regular authorized import of rare, non-mainstream and craft beer brands. The site now has a brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Sofia and the growing interest in this culture has inspired another project which Rostislav is running along with fellow beer enthusiasts: the craft beer bar Vitamin B.

He is also an editor in chief of Hardcore Spirit, does cycling and running marathons and spreads his energy across a wide range of activities so it takes a fair share of rescheduling until we find the right time to meet. My first quesiton is inevitably:

So…which soothes the soul better: hardcore or craft beer? 🙂

(laughs) I would say it’s beer. Especially when you have a quick “sprint beer” after a hard day of work or running errands. I just finished unloading new products and had a couple of quick beers. Feels great.

You can always count on beer to get you in a chill mood. But let’s start from the beginning: How did you get into craft beer? I’m guessing that it wasn’t here because I remember that when I tasted my first beer in a microbrewery sometime in 2007 I had never even heard the expression “craft beer” at Bulgaria at the time?

Yes. I tried it for the first time abroad. I think it was in the Netherlands and even beers which are relatively mainstream like Leffe made a huge impression on me because they were quite different from the standard lager beers available hear in Bulgaria.

Then I tried Mikkeller and Flying Dog and got totally hooked. I had been spending time with different bands on tour in other countries and this allowed me to get exposed to the craft beer culture abroad.

I was impressed by the sheer ability to have a choice between completely different flavours which wasn’t possible in Bulgaria at the time. I mean: as you mentioned we did not even have a word for “craft beer”.

And the decision to create 100beers?  Were people already looking for an option to find different types of beer or did you help in shaping their taste by creating the website and the online store? In other words: What was first- the chicken or the egg?

It was both the egg and the chicken. I know people who were interested in trying new things but there was no supply here. So I thought: if these beers are offered in other countries why not bring them to Bulgaria as well?

Starting 100 Beers was actually super easy. I would spend a short time working on the website every day after I was done with my other activities. I ordered a few crates with interesting beers, put them in my garage and had help from Vesko (note from the author: Vestimir Markov).

There was some rising interest: it started with more “conservative” varieties like Weiss beer and Belgian Trappist beers but people slowly started experimenting with more interesting things. I would get 10 bottles of more conventional beers and 1 more experimental one for those who were truly keen on trying something different.

People would buy straight from the garage, or I would deliver them the stuff they requested from the website.  Although most orders focused on more or less basic stuff, there was an increasing interest in trying new and unconventional things…

And now there are people who consider it lame to drink anything less than really obscure craft beer brands…

There are people who truly enjoy original and different flavours: fans which have now turned into geeks in the best sense of the word: they know what they like and have a taste for quality.

But it is true that there are also some parvenus* who act like they are allergic to normal beers and wouldn’t touch anything which isn’t created by a reknown craft brand. If you look at their UNTAPPED profiles you will never see regular beers there. But I think they are an exception in Bulgaria. We are nowhere near the real craft beer snobbism in the West, where both the variety and the supply of beers are incomparable to our market.

*Side note: as I was checking for an English translation I realized that the word parvenu (exactly as it is spelled here) is yet another 100% French expression which has become part of the Bulgarian language like “merci”, “cretin”, etc. 

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And it also depends on what else you are having, doesn’t it? A beer with a strong flavor must be enjoyed either on its own or in combination with something which doesn’t mask all the taste. You probably wouldn’t have it to quench your thirst while you are having a quick lunch with meatballs and lyutenitza…

Sure. It wouldn’t make sense and also we must keep in mind the higher percentages of alcohol. If it is OK to share 2 litres of Pirinsko with friends in the evening I wouldn’t imagine gulping on 2 litre bottless of craft beer, though.

Also: no matter how much you like it. You cannot have craft beer all the time: once in a while I enjoy a regular brand like Amstel with my dinner.

There used to be a time when finding famous brands like Chimay or other Trappist beers was like treasure hunting in the centre of Sofia. Now you can find rare beers from around the world not only online but also in small local grocery stores and neihbourhood supermarkets…Does this mean that there is increasing competition or is the market far from saturated?

I don’t really think about the craft beer culture as a field of commercial competition. If there are more places promoting a taste for different and high quality beers then this is great for the clients who have more choice and learn to appreciate different flavours.

All kinds of people are interested in craft beer: it is a misconception that it is something suitable only for high income and high status cllients. There are people who enjoy it from all over the country and from smaller neighbourhoods: it is not necessarily something only for downtown venues.

As for the local stores such things usually happen thanks to people within the community. There are about 50 guys here who are crazy about this culture and I see them at all major craft beer events. They proactively advocate and promote these beers not only to other people but also to their local businesses. So it is a bit of a grassroots trend in how people try to promote and expand the craft beer scene.

Yes, we have a friend with a small local grocery store just off of the Zaimov Park who always has a surprisingly interesting variety of rare beers…

Is it Pavkata?

Yes.

Yes, he always chooses good things: more Weiss and Czech brands but also some really good IPAs and Bulgarian craft beers.

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Speaking of Bulgarian craft beers: it seems that there are more and more local brands which have been appearing in the past years…

Actually, compared to other Balkan countries we are still lagging behind. For example, Greece is way ahead of us. There are so many local brands. Serbia is doing great too: I recently went to a Craft beer fest in Belgrade and there were dozens of local craft beers: as it should be. There are many great things happening there.

Here there is still room for development. It looks like there is more competition today than before, but as unmodest as it sounds: 100 beers is still one of a kind. There is this place called Beer Shop/The World of beer which springs up in all kinds of Malls around Sofia and initially when you enter it loos like they offer a lot. But for someone who knows beers: their range consists mostly of German, Czech and Belgian beers which are not popular here but in their country of origin, they are quite traditional, even mainstream.

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They are for another target group and cannot really appeal to clients who are truly interested in experimental craft beers. At 100 beers we have become the unique distributors for the core craft beer brands in Europe and some global brands. Only places like Kanaal offer something similar but I do not consider them a competition- I see them as friends. I still drop by to have a drink there and I love it: it has been around long before we started the website and it is a great place to meet other people interested in good quality beer.

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We actually help each other a lot: small stores and bars. The most important thing is to push the scene forward and offer a variety of good beers. The community itself is very important.

If a person working at a regular store sees clients as just walking cash-machines with whom they have a limited interaction for me the people who get beer from the website or the physical store are beer buddies which I enjoy to meet and develop relationships with. I still love delivering orders on my bike: I get to talk to them, chill out, meet interesting new people. I recently made a bike tour around Vitosha with a client who is into cycling and it was great.

It’s really great that you are so personally engaged and truly enjoy what you do and have fun with it. But what about the other side of the communication? I’ve seen many people come to the bar at Vitamin B and ask something like “Which beer is a good one?” or “Which one should I get?” and I can see the face of the bartender going numb…

Oh, my God, yes…It’s like going to a restaurant and asking “What would I like to eat?”. Such choices are very personal: depending on your preferences, your mood at the moment, etc. And as a person who selects the beers for the bar I must say that I chose all of them because they are good, they won’t be behind the bar if they weren’t.

ther favourite questions of mine are: “Have you tried them all?” and “Why don’t you have a beer belly?”. No, I don’t have a beer belly: I ride a bike all the time, I lead an active life. I’m on a Cycling team and I’m a Captain of a running club we have with other beer lovers. It’s great: once a motnh we go for a run and then go for beers after that (sometimes before that, as well).

Beer doesn’t get in the way of sport

We drop the question “Which beer would you recommend?” but what about flavours? Which are the most unusual and appealing combinations you have tried? Sometimes the description and the idea turn out to be better than the end result…

For me, when it comes to Bulgarian brands I would say that Blek Pine are the right people. They are directly following the American craft brewery spirit: they started with IPAs, then they did some more experimental batches.They had their first collaboration with Divo Pivo (limited edition of beer with plums) and will soon have a coconut stout. They constantly innovate and try to get inspiration by what is happening around the world. Also (unlike most Bulgarian craft beer brands) they collaborate with others in the name of creating something interesting and original, as they should be doing: people in this community are first and foremost fans of good beer, not cutthroat business  competitors.

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As for foreign beers, perhaps the craziest flavor I’ve tried was beer made with yeast from the beard of the master brewer. That was in Rogue, Oregon. It sounds extreme, but it was interesting.

They are becoming a bit mainstream now, but I truly love the taste of porters with chili peppers and stouts with coconut/coffee. Basil is also a great flavor. I mean so many things are being done: there is now even the “perfect beer breakfast” with the flavor of bacon, coffee and peanut butter…

For me the best thing is to have a core range and to periodically experiment on the sideline with special editions: like the Blek Pine Pumpking Ale for example.

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I’ve seen for the first time in Seattle how some local microbreweries offer this great option to order a small tray with mini pints of all flavours and do some beer tasting. Have you considered doing something like this at Vitamin B?

Well, that works perfect for microbeweries because they showcase their unique flavours.  If we could offer our own brews, it would make sense but in the bar we are more or less selling things which have already been commercially available for a while. So in my experience: people who know their craft beer won’t need to taste different types to choose the right one for them and people who don’t know how these beers taste are usually those who are less willing to experiment.

Usually when somebody comes at the bar and has no idea which flavor to choose, they usually end up buying  either the cheapest option or the most commercially popular one.

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In the past few years, there is a major trend for popularizing craft beer. Some brands like Blue moon got acquired by major commercial breweries and this turns some beer drinkers away. Do you think breweries should stay small to keep the good taste and is it about scale of production or about the pleasure to discover obscure beers?

Big companies are looking for profit and this often results in looking for ways how to produce the product for less money. If this cost reduction is at the expense of product quality: of course that’s a bad thing. But if the mother brand allows the craft product to keep its initial production process and to innovate, then I don’t see  a problem. Then the beer will get to more people which is great.

Like Glarus which started appearing in big retail chains like Billa…

Yes, it’s in the supermarkets now, but it is still good and it creates interest in the craft beer scene among people who might otherwise get no exposure to such options. It is also becoming more affordable which is good for the people who buy it.

Whether a brand remains a “craft beer” when it becomes commercially successful is debatable. There is a very blurry line which depends on personal interpretations.

The important thing is to enjoy what you do, interact with the other people who love good beer and keep offering new and interesting types of beer with high quality and good taste.

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Pick your beer at 100 beers

Where to find Vitamin B

 

1 comment on “Sofia Talks | Rostislav Bakalov on Bulgarian Craft Beer Culture

  1. Pingback: С Ростислав Бакалов от 100 beers търсим рецептата за щастие - Тук сме

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