The beer scene in Hungary is more exciting than ever because of the ongoing excitement of the Hungarian craft beer revolution. But the history of beer brewing in Hungary goes back to the nomadic Magyars, who likely learned how to use hops, barley, and malt to brew beer from the Slavs. A will from 1152 requesting a beer burial feast is the earliest Hungarian document mentioning beer. In ancient times beer wasn’t drunk for its taste or alcohol content. It was (supposedly) drunk for its health benefits and healing properties. Until the 14th century beer was only made at home, but then monasteries began seriously producing it and breweries with attached beer halls opened. Guilds were developed around this time in Hungary. But until the 16th century, when brewers organized their own guilds, everyone still had the right to brew their own beer at home. of
The beer industry in Hungary really started to develop in the 1840s when a law made it possible again for anyone to brew, sell, and import beer. In 1845 the first commercial brewery was built in Pest by a brewer named Peter Schmidt and he stored his beer in the Kőbánya neighborhood in Budapest’s tenth district. Historically, Kőbánya was a vast limestone quarry (which is what its name means) that supplied the stone used to build many of Budapest’s buildings. “The heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the expansion of Budapest, set the scene for the growth of lager brewing,” wrote beer journalist Michael Jackson. “In Kőbánya, six breweries rose.” It turned out that the massive underground caverns in the neighborhood were ideal for fermenting and storing beer because of their steady cool temperatures. Brewers also discovered high-quality water under the old quarries, and Kőbánya soon became known as “beer city”.
These days, the ‘craft beer revolution‘ has shaken things up in Hungary, and many small breweries (and now some larger ones) have created a craft beer community and a craft beer scene that is becoming known internationally. There’s hardly a block in downtown Budapest which doesn’t have at least one pub with a great craft beer selection.
The First Family of Hungarian Beer
The Dreher family had been making beer for generations in Germany before Franz Anton Dreher was born in 1735. Dreher moved to Vienna where he married a fellow brewer. They rented a brewery, brewed brown beer, and in 1796 they bought the Klein-Schwechat Brewery. After Dreher died, his son (also named Anton, which is Antal in Hungarian) later took over the business and further developed it. He grew his own hops and barley, was one of the first brewers to use mechanization, and built the first Viennese beer hall. Dreher’s biggest achievement, however, was switching from top-fermented beer to bottom-fermented beer. Legend has it that he traveled around Britain using a specially devised walking stick to steal beer samples. Dreher is credited with creating the Viennese lager-style beer (bottom-fermented at low temperatures) in 1841, and for this he was called “the beer king”. Meanwhile, in 1848 another important Hungarian brewery was founded by Lipót Hirschfeld, the Pécsi Brewery in Pécs, which today is one of the four big breweries in Hungary.
In 1862 Dreher bought the brewery in Kőbánya, but didn’t live to see any beer brewed there. His son (yet another Anton) continued the family business, which now included breweries in Michelob (a town in Bohemia) and Trieste (which is now in Italy). Under him, Kőbánya became the largest brewery in Hungary and was producing 1.2 million hectoliters of beer by 1890. Around this time, another important brewery was founded in Sopron by Gyula Lenck and the Brünn Brewery. Back then it was called the First Sopron Brewery and Malt Factory, but today it’s called Heineken Hungaria Breweries and remains one of the country’s largest. One of Anton’s sons, Eugen Dreher (who became known as Jenő in Hungarian), managed the Kőbánya Brewery and it became a separate Hungarian corporation in 1907.
Jenő enlarged the company and the Kőbánya facilities, but eventually sold all of his other breweries. After World War Two Jenő had restarted production and had more or less restored the company when it was nationalized in 1948. He died the following year and the long line of Drehers in the beer business came to an end. The Dreher Brewery in Kőbánya then merged with several other breweries which became collectively known as the Kőbányai Sörgyár and supplied Hungary with 90 percent of its beer during the Communist era. Hungary’s other big brewery, the Borsodi Sörgyár, began brewing in 1973 in Bőcs, a town in northern Hungary. In 1993 the Dreher breweries were acquired by the South African Breweries (SAB) group (then SABMiller), and since in 2017 it has been owned by Asahi, Japan’s largest beer producer. Of course the brewery has been significantly modernized, but its art nouveau style has remained.
You can taste Dreher beer at most pubs in Hungary, and you can tour the brewery yourself to learn about Hungarian brewing history and Dreher’s big contribution to it. The Dreher Brewery covers an area of some 30 acres in Kőbánya, about a half an hour tram ride from Blaha Lujza tér. There’s a little beer museum, and you can sign up for a brewery tour (booking in advance is usually required). The brewery itself was built between 1910 and 1920 in eclectic style. It has a 30-kilometer-long cellar system. With its art nouveau Zsolnay tiles, fancy plaster molding, and big copper-topped tanks, it claims to be one of Europe’s most beautiful breweries.