The craft beer scene in Hungary was slow to develop, but once it began to take off, it changed the face of beer drinking in Budapest and beyond. Tamás Nyaras of Balkezes Sörfözde, one of our favorite Hungarian craft breweries, indulged us with a brief interview about the current local craft beer scene and what’s happening at their brewery.
Taste Hungary: How would you characterize the craft brew scene in Hungary right now?
Balkezes: Still in the late (extended?) teen-age stage, only now these kids are beginning to face the lust and pain of adulthood. The scene is stable, and now that it finally has an international beer festival (Beer Week in Budapest, BPBW), ready to be compared with most European countries. The core scene is solid, picking up the latest trends rapidly, and the crowd around it is growing larger and larger, which is good—but we are still a small country with all its pros and cons. Business-wise, it is not the playground of some bleeding and cutting edge enthusiasts and small ventures; it’s harder to break in, and is getting to reach the mature competitive capitalist stage. I need to add that this is the best and most fun capitalist game I’ve played to date, but still I’m happy to be a part-timer who is primarily here for the beer, with no necessity to provide for my family from this source alone.
Taste Hungary: The Grey Joy, your Earl-Grey tea infused IPA, has a strong following in Hungary. Where did this idea evolve from?
Balkezes: After the success of our Hopster IPA, we wanted to also have an imperial IPA based on the Hopster, but we were looking for a twist to make it unique in a market where most players already had a strong hopbomb. Non-standard beer ingredients were not that common back then, and as a fan of Earl Grey tea it seemed like an obvious choice to try. However, it was rather hard to keep the tea in balance and to also try to keep the bergamot favor detectable, which can be easily lost with a high amount of hops.
Taste Hungary: Have you had any serious misfires in terms of flavored beers or unique brews?
Balkezes: Nothing really serious to date, luckily. In the early days we had a small (in commercial terms, like 300 liter) batch where we had half of the base malt mistakenly substituted with melanoidin malts. A beer to remember, but not in a good way.
We also have the LD50 series where we try to find the upper limits of certain hops, and with some of these you can overdose quite quickly. Our Citra experiment is a good example how a hop can go over the top; it was like having too much Jägermeister one night and then you can not even look at the bottle for some years (so I’ve heard :).
Taste Hungary: Tell us about your labels.
Balkezes: From the very beginning we worked together with our creative friend Ákos Heltai. He is still our main partner to go to if any graphic or print work is needed. Over time we have involved external creative sources too, new designs mainly come out of a competition for local designers.
Taste Hungary: What are the particular challenges faced by a craft brewery in Budapest?
Balkezes: The size of the market and the limited workforce should be the factors to mention here. A good experienced brewer is worth their weight in… something expensive. But it’s also hard to find other staff members you can count on for the long term. This is not just in brewing, but what I see in general in Hungary.
Taste Hungary: What are some of your favorite spots to sample craft brew? Where would you direct a beer thirsty tourist?
Balkezes: Csakajósör and Hopaholic pub would be my first choices if you are going for beer only. The first is like the temple of Hungarian craft beer, and the second one you go to when the first one closes at 9pm! Hopaholic is a place to go to if you’d like to bump into faces from the local craft scene, be it a brewer or member of the local Beer Geek Maffia. If you’d also like to eat, my vote goes to Neked Csak Dezső!, Kandalló, and Bölcső Bar & Food for those who are located in Budapest. And also I should mention Kapca Kávézó-Bisztró in Szeged if you are in the neighborhood and like outstanding burgers.
Taste Hungary: How about beer snacks? Are there pairings your particularly like with your line of beers?
Balkezes: I believe that there is a place for beer in (high) gastro culture, but I also believe in simple snacks. When it comes to snacks, my first choice is a local cracker, the original one and only Nógrádi Ropi. This is a salty, pretzel-like stick that goes with almost anything. We can go into food pairings and special snacks for certain beer styles, but when it comes to simple snacks, I’m the nuts and cracker guy—maybe some quality scones (pogácsa) if you are a bit hungry.
Taste Hungary: Any news about the future of Balkezes you want to share?
Balkezes: We are working on a lot of stuff in parallel; alongside the beers maybe we’ll have a website soon—after five years of having the balkez.es domain it’s time to fill it with content. There is an aim to have an extended and refined base sortiment in place for 2019 and seasonal specials planned way ahead. Just like the one-offs, with which we intend to keep the flag of experimental brewing high. This year much random stuff was going on and our top sellers were squeezing our capacity—rather a fact to work on than something to complain about. We’d like to continue with many more experiments, which keeps us ticking; just playing the same hits and favorites is not for us.