Tastings School - Ales from the riverbank

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Ales from the riverbank

John Westlake embarks on a beer journey in Belgrade.

Wandering around the bustling centre of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city and this year’s host to the Eurovision Song Contest, it is difficult to believe that less than a decade ago the Royal Air Force, as part of NATO, were dropping smart bombs on nearby strategic targets. In a few places, the twisted steel and concrete shells of government buildings still stand as a salutary reminder of those dark days, but times have certainly changed, the Milosevic regime is long gone and in high summer the trendy shops and pavement cafés are doing a roaring trade.

Serbian beers are not well known outside their homeland, as local brewers have tended to concentrate their efforts on the domestic market.

But the multinationals are already sniffing around (Apartin, founded in 1756, has already fallen into InBev’s clutches whilst Carlsberg now owns Pivara Celarevo) and things are beginning to change, not necessarily for the better.

Some of the most popular brands are Jelen, a 5% ABV pale lager with a malty finish brewed by Apatia, MB, a similar strength pilsner with a little more hop character from Novi Sad and Niksicko who also produce an impressive, 6.2% dark beer (tamo pivo) with a degree of sweetness reminiscent of Mackeson.

Bursting with dried fruit flavours and hints of caramel, it culminates in a bittersweet finish well balanced by a developing hop dryness. Definitely one to not be missed.

BG Pivo, another 5% brew with an astringently dry finish, has been brewed locally by BIP (Beogradska Industrija Piva) since 1839 but sadly, it is not all that easy to find. The buffet alongside platform one at the main railways station is, however, a good bet. The malty and slightly weaker Atlas Pils from Valjevo is also a bit hard to track down in the capital but no such problems arise with the unfortunately titled Lav Premium from the Celaravo Brewery, weighing in at 5.2%. At first taste it is an unremarkable and overly fizzy beer, but take the trouble to agitate away some of the gas and a rewarding, floral hop character really starts to shine through.

Look out, too, for beers from Zarjecarska Pivara, acquired by the Efes Beer Group in 2004. Weifert and Pils Plus are both 5% with a similarly malty palate – so similar in fact that they could easily be the same brew!

However, for a drop of something with real distinction and character, there is one Belgrade venue no self-respecting beer drinker will want to overlook. The Kasina Hotel, right in the centre on Terazije, 500 metres from Republic Square, is one of Belgrade’s oldest hotels, which proudly boasts its own brewery on the ground floor.

Entering from behind the attractive pavement terrace, a high-ceilinged saloon, supported by six substantial columns, incorporates a compact brewhouse behind dark wood and glass panelling where I meet Filimonovic Dragon, the man in charge. Built approximately 20 years ago, this is Belgrade’s first and only microbrewery producing just one beer, a refreshingly dry and hoppy, slightly hazy, straw coloured brew served in ribbed glass tankards and sold at a price to raise the enjoyment factor ever higher.

“We use locally grown and Hungarian whole cone hops,” Filimonovic tells me, whilst the Serbian malting barley is actually milled on the premises. The result is a 4.4% beer brewed to Reinheitsgebot (the German beer purity laws) standards with a floral, slightly spicy nose and a tight, foamy head. The palate is full of resiny hop notes balanced by hints of butterscotch and leading to a satisfyingly dry and very moreish finish. It is tempting to linger here all evening but if you can drag yourself away, there are a few other watering holes worthy of the effort.

Cobbled, traffic-free Skadarska has been likened to Montmartre in Paris, which might be a bit over the top but it is, nevertheless, a great place for a stroll with plenty of bars and restaurants, as has nearby Strahinjica Bana, known locally as Silicon Valley by virtue of the number of surgically enhanced young ladies to be found frequenting the nightspots.

Alternatively, head for Kalemegdan, dominated by the Belgrade Fortress overlooking the city. Within the citadel itself, the Castle Terrace is a good place to relax and enjoy a few beers whilst taking in the views across the Danube and Sava rivers.

Back in the centre of town, Rezime, at Kralja Petra 41, is a classy, stylish bolthole full of dark polished woodwork and green leather armchairs, located on the ground floor of a splendid, art nouveau building whilst, in complete contrast, Exclusive Pivnica at Knez Mihailova 45 is a simple, basement beer cellar with plain wooden seating and noisy, Serbian music.

But no visit to Belgrade during the summer months would be complete without a crawl along the dozens of barges lining the Danube and Sava rivers, which serve as floating bars, nightclubs and restaurants. Hop on a bus to the Hotel Jugoslavia in Novi Beograd for the greatest concentration of these and just walk over the rise between the riverbank and the road to get stuck in. But remember, if you think you can feel the floor moving, it probably is!

From bombing to booming, Belgrade has certainly transformed itself during the last 10 years. Recent elections have reaffirmed Serbia’s desire to move closer towards European union and there are now direct flights again from the United Kingdom and many other European countries. Furthermore, with the euro scaling new heights, a short break in the Balkans will do much less damage to the bank balance. Throw in a clutch of interesting beers to sample as well and you really do have something to sing about.