The Hungarian craft beer revolution began not long after a few friends spent a long night drinking and grumbling over the bad local beer. Almost eight years later, the revolution is going at full throttle. It’s been gaining international recognition, and is ready to jump to the next level.
Hungary is traditionally a lager beer country. This goes back to the 19th century when the first commercial breweries were founded and the owners and investors invited German and Czech brewmasters to lead the new factories. Of course, they brought along their familiar style and know-how. There was a lively beer scene—which had an interesting variety and also international recognition—until World War Two. After the war the whole industry took a step back and focused on the mass production of light lagers. That was still the scene by the time Hungary liberated itself, and then suddenly in the 1990s many small, family-owned breweries appeared. Most went bankrupt after a few years, but around 30 breweries were still hanging on.
And then came the first Főzdefeszt (“Brew Fest”) in May 2011—the result of that long night of drinking—in the pretty backstreets of the Palace District (Palotanegyed). The organizers had had enough of mass produced, tasteless beer, and organized this festival for themselves, with the help of the few small breweries which existed. Despite having no real marketing—just some flyers, stickers, and a few blog posts—the festival was a hit. Legend has it that about 10,000 people showed up over the three days of the festival, and the breweries ran out of beer on the first night. So they ran home, kegged everything they could overnight, sold out again, and did it again the next day. Of course, after that first festival, the scene kept pushing ahead.
This festival (and its later incarnations) was an eye opener for a generation of brewers. People become seriously interested in beer. Homebrew clubs and courses ignited a scene where everyone was willing to share knowledge, information, and material. At first everyone knew everyone, but the scene grew so big after a year that it was hard to keep up. However, the festival marked the beginning of several breweries which are still going strong. There were no big investors at this time, so most breweries just had to scrape up all their savings, mortgage their homes, and give it a go. A few of these pioneers are now the top Hungarian craft breweries, such as Monyo, Mad Scientist, and Horizont.
Once these breweries set themselves as benchmarks in Hungary, a new wave of breweries emerged, also looking for a share of the market. Budapest is full of breweries, and newcomers from the countryside—such as Brew Your Mind, Zentus, and Ugar—are also making great beer, as they push the boundaries of beer making even further. Of course, the classic breweries—like Rizmajer, Fóti, etc.—had to respond, and even the big guys started to take notice. Major Hungarian breweries, which are owned by multinational corporations, have started to experience with IPAs, pale ales, and fruity beers, as well as just all around upping their quality.
But it’s not all that easy. The success was sudden, driven by the urge to make something special and the apparent sexiness of the craft brewing industry. But the quality brewers cannot keep up with the growth of the beer market. Education for brewers is still not as available as it historically was for brewers, and the classic master/apprentice relationship is just getting started. Only a handful of Hungarian brewers have traveled abroad for work and educational experience, but those who have are very sought after. Over the next year a wave of EU funded breweries will open, and they’ll have to deal with inexperienced staff. But overall, the competition over the past four years has really shaken up the Hungarian market, and the consumers benefit the most.
You can now find craft beer in most shops and some supermarkets. And in stark contrast to the bleak 1990s, now you really cannot walk a block in downtown Budapest without running into a craft beer bar. A wide selection of local and international brews are available all over—though prices are often jacked up in the more touristed areas—with options suitable for all tastes and vibes. There are bars with outdoor terraces, shops for beer geeks, bars with panoramic views, and even a bar where you can sit in a former outdoor swimming pool.
Even though the demand for these beers and places are high, and newcomers are surprised by the quality and variety, the Budapest craft beer scene remains a hidden gem. For now. The breweries are working on bringing more Hungarian beers to international festivals and shops, making it available for a broader, more educated audience. They are laying down the reputation of the Hungarian craft beer industry. Earlier this year The Budapest Beer Week was held for the second time, and welcomed 45 breweries from all around the world and 15 from Hungary. It was a massive hit with the European craft beer community, and raised the expectations for the future of Hungarian craft beer in front of a new audience.