Are you being serbed?

I don’t often get to add a whole new country to the rather long list of countries from which I have sampled one or more beers, and it’s a similar story when it comes to countries I have visited. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when last week I got to add a country to each list – and not just any old country, but a relatively new one, namely Serbia.

Serbia, with its capital Belgrade, is one of the many countries in Europe with a rather unfortunate history. Dominated by either the Turks or the Austrians for centuries, the country was attacked, sacked, burnt down, rebuilt, reburnt and otherwise molested dozens of times all the way up until 1999, when (hopefully) the last bombs finally fell. Belgrade, meanwhile, went from being a Roman settlement through a fortified town and then on to become the capital of the rather substantial country I was used to seeing on the European maps of my childhood – Yugoslavia. Then bit after bit fell off, until today we’re left with a smallish landlocked country that roughly half the world think is about the size of Kosovo smaller than roughly the other half of the world.

Belgrade itself is a very interesting city, though you do get the feeling that it’s past its heyday – lots of buildings are crumbling and the pavement is anything but even. However, there’s also a vibe and a big bridge in the city that suggests it may be heading back towards former greatness, and what better place to start than to be the main topic of a blog post by the famous beer blogger? Which, incidentally, reminds me nicely that I need to move on to the main topic of this blog: beer.

Belgrade: interesting city, but more gritty than pretty.

I had, of course, done some homework on Belgrade before leaving, so I knew that it would be unwise to expect a huge variety of fantastic beers. However, being both an optimist and a strong believer that I am almost always lucky meant that I attacked the task of drinking my way through the Serbian beer selection with no small amount of enthusiasm. The first problem I encountered was actually buying the stuff – when I got to the supermarket, the selection was remarkably biased towards the big European brands you can buy almost everywhere – Staropramen, Carlsberg, Amstel and all the others you should always try to avoid. However, I managed to find a handful of beers that I thought looked sufficiently local, not least due to the label having cyrillic letters, and put them in the fridge in the small apartment we had rented.

The first two beers I tried were the “Niksicko Pivo” and the “Niksicko Tamno”, a pils and a dark beer, which I subsequently discovered were actually brewed in the Trebjesa brewery in…. Montenegro. Oh well, the beers weren’t that good and the brewery is, unsurprisingly, owned by one of the big bad guys, namely Molson Coors. So on went the quest for my first Serbian beer.

My first ever Serbian beer. It was crap.

Next up was a beer called “Lav”, which is a light industrial lager that made the unfortunate, but not uncommon mistake of insulting the beer blogger by tasting of next to nothing, though when I tried really hard I thought I detected a slightly unpleasant hint of metal. A quick look on the bottle confirmed my suspicion that the brand is owned by Carlsberg, but since it’s brewed in Serbia it was, and remains, the first beer I have ever tried from this country – sadly, it was rubbish.

Much better head and much more taste.

The next two beers were from a brewery in a small town called Valjevo. First down my throat was the “Bajbebcko Tufo”, which turned out to be the most interesting beer of the session – first and foremost it poured with a good head, and then it actually tasted of something. In fact, I thought I detected a hint of smoke on the palate, but it could just have been the cigarette smoke that was present all over Belgrade – not a city for people who can’t stand smokers, by the way. The second beer, called “Atlas Pils”, was therefore a huge disappointment – it tasted as if it was brewed with stuff that shouldn’t go into beer such as maize, rice or armchairs, though to be fair it was slightly better than Lav.

Could be worse - see above.

I didn’t find the final Serbian beer of the holiday until the next day – we had been walking around the very picturesque castle area, and stopped for refreshments at a café when I saw the brand “Jelen”. I wasted an infinitesimal amount of time before ordering a half litre, which duly arrived after a considerably longer waiting period. This draught beer was actually very pleasant - nice hops and a medium body complemented the sunshine and the rising temperatures perfectly. I later tried it in a bottle, where it wasn’t quite the same, and I also discovered that the brewery, called “Apatinska” and founded in 1756, is nowadays owned by – you guessed it – Molson Coors.

Sunshine and draft beer is seldom a bad combination.

Serbian beer was, in conclusion, a lot less interesting than the country itself. My advice is certainly to visit Belgrade some time, and if you fancy a half litre of your favourite tipple, then there are hundreds, if not thousands of bars that will happily take your order and charge you a remarkably small percentage of your holiday budget for the pleasure – roughly €1.50 seemed to be the going rate. So what Belgrade lacks in beer quality you could certainly make up for in quantity without necessarily breaking the bank, which incidentally was exactly what the river was doing as we visited, apparently due to four months’ worth of rain falling in two days just prior to our arrival.

So, go ahead and book your plane, train or bus ticket to Belgrade unless you happen to live there already, and spend a few days checking out this very lively and friendly place where old decommissioned Swiss trams still rumble around on rickety tracks and the floating bars on the river are heaving until the early hours. Most people are happy to speak English, but if you do fancy trying out the local language you could do worse than ordering a beer and shout “живели”, or “Ziveli”, which apparently means “let’s live long”, which surely is something worth drinking a non-fatal amount of beer to.