In Hungary, or in Budapest at least, there are few options if you are looking for a quality mid-priced beer. The large breweries, despite their efforts to mimic the flavors of craft brews, still basically offer mass-produced, inexpensive beer (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing ). The local craft breweries are still brewing beer in small enough batches that the price reflects the limited availability. For quite a while, if you wanted a quality mid-range beer, you had to go to one of the bars specializing in Czech beer, which, thankfully, have proliferated in Budapest.
Then, a few years back, you began to see the Hungarian brand Csíki Sör (Csíki Beer) about town. A light but flavorful lager, Csíki was the mid-range beer we had been waiting for, costing two to three euro in a bar, a tad more than the big-brand beers, but significantly cheaper than the craft-brew fare. And it was drinkable, with a lower alcohol content than the local IPAs, but also taking advantage of natural ingredients and strict brewing methods (observing German purity laws). Csíki was a great find at the corner store, and might have quietly become a part of the beer drinking landscape, given time.
But then the story got more complicated. Csíki, while Hungarian in name and spirit, is actually brewed in the town of Sansimion, in the formerly Hungarian territory of Transylvania, in present-day Romania. The Hungarian minority of the region is understandably proud of its heritage, so calling it a Hungarian beer is not exactly controversial, especially as much of Csíki’s product is sold in Hungary. But the name Csíki (pronounced Cheeky) was a bit too close to the now Heineken-owned, Romanian-identifying ‘Cuic’ brand. Indeed, Csíki Sör was the name regional Hungarian speakers called ‘Bere Ciuc,’ produced in nearby in Miercurea Ciuc (Csíkszereda in Hungarian). Due to the similar sounding names and origin, Heineken filed a breach of intellectual copyright complaint, requesting Csíki change its name.
None of this went over well in Hungary, foremost in Budapest, where the dispute was viewed as a multinational bullying a Hungarian brand, which was vulnerable because they are not on Hungarian soil, proper. In retaliation, the Hungarian government threatened to take action against Heineken red-star logo, as it has been illegal to display a red star since the end of the repressive Socialist era in Hungary. The suit was quietly withdrawn by Heineken, and Csíki was given a big boost in its ascension as Hungary’s premier artisanal beer. Csíki has capitalized on the publicity and quadrupled their production since the brewery’s founding.
All this means that it’s hard to enjoy a Csíki without the feeling that you are making a political statement. Depending on your politics, that may enhance or inhibit your enjoyment of the beer. But it shouldn’t. Despite the fact that the Csíki franchise bars in Budapest tend to be a bit staid, the highly quaffable beer itself is well worth the visit. Hopefully Csíki will be enjoyed by people who have no stake in local politics, because by and large it’s a delightful beer that has earned its place in Budapest and Hungarian pubs, and beyond.