The Croatian craft beer revolution is in full swing. Real beer is being brewed even on Hvar island. And so, when I last had the opportunity to spend a few days in Zagreb, I thought that checking up on the capital city’s beer scene might be interesting.
Zagreb is under four hours by car from Split, or you can travel by bus, train or plane. As it was recently nominated for best European Christmas destination, and it was late November now, I was really looking forward to the visit.
Ok, so how to check out the craft beer scene? Just wondering aimlessly from bar to bar did not attract me so much, however, there was an excellent solution. We’ve written before about the Taste of Croatia folks, and they have a spinoff in Zagreb called Zagreb Bites, offering bespoke, adaptable tours of Zagreb and surrounding area. I contacted Morana Zibar, explained what I was after, and the game was on!
A totally multi-faceted individual, Morana is a self employed writer/translator, a long-term participant in the Potjera quiz show on Croatian TV, at the same time working on the Taste of Croatia project, Zagreb Bites, and bringing up a young child. I have no clue where she finds the time to do all that, but I was very glad of it.
In true Zagreb tradition, we had to start with morning coffee to discuss our plan for the day. And not just any coffee, Morana led me to Mak na Konac.
Owner and patisseuse Petra Jelenić is a prize-winning patisserie artist! Her beautiful and tasty creations have quickly made Mak na Konac into Zagreb’s premier patisserie. At the same time Petra likes to connect to history and tradition and today’s special was rudarska grablica. This is a simple savoury-sweet cheese pie, traditionally taken down the mines by Zagorje miners as it was easy to stick into a pocket.
Our tour decided, greblica eaten, and coffee drunk, off we set. Our walk took us past the Meštrović Pavilion. Designed by the great sculptor himself, originally as an art gallery, it became in turn a mosque, the museum of the anti-fascist struggles, and finally again restored to its original function. This beautiful building is slightly off the beaten path, but well worth visiting for its own sake as well as its contents.
Our next stop was the Croatian Design Superstore. While not as huge as the name might suggest, the store is full of interesting items designed and made in Croatia. A great place for genuine souvenirs, useful items, and best of all- includes a cafe/bar pouring (amongst other things) Croatian craft beer! My kind of store.
The beers we tried here were all brewed by Zmajska Pivovara from Zagreb. Meaning Dragon Brewery in English, Zmajska placed in the top 10 craft breweries in the world on the ratebeer.com portal. As well as the American Pale Ale in the photo, they brew a porter and an IPA. Zmajska is the first of the new wave of craft breweries, producing its first commercial batch in October 2014.
Onto our next stop, walking west to Zagreb’s main square, named after Ban (Viceroy) Jelačić who led Croatia in the mid 1800s. The bronze statue of the Ban on his horse stands guard over the square. Originally placed there in 1848, he used to point his sword at Hungary. After the Communist takeover, the statue was removed and hidden for decades, but was brought back in the 1990s. More politically correct now, the Ban is pointing his sword southward.
No tour of Zagreb would be complete without even a short trip on the famous blue trams and so we hopped on board for the short ride along Ilica street.
The first tram line in Zagreb opened in September 1891 and trams have been running ever since. One stop later we hopped off again, and entered the doors of the Medvedgrad Brewery brewpub on Ilica Street. Medvedgrad (Bear Castle) refers to an old castle on one of the nearby hills. The name is a reminder of when bears roamed the hills and forests behind Zagreb.
The Medvedgrad Brewery is the grand-daddy of Croatian craft breweries. The oldest and biggest, it was started in 1994. We met with Marketing Manager Luka Jureško who led us through the tasting. The brewery keeps six different beers constantly in production, with seasonal and special occasion brews supplementing the range.
Their beers all have lovely evocative names, like the Black Queen, the Witch of Grič, Brown Bear and Golden Bear, either bear-related, or names taken from Zagreb history or myths. When we visited, they were soon to launch Black Jack black IPA, named after another Zagreb character from centuries ago.
After Medvedgrad,we wandered back up Ilica street to Jelačić Square, and paid a visit to Dolac Market. Just a few steps from the main square, the market has a huge open-air area, and a similarly-sized covered area below. Fresh produce, fish, meat, and all sorts of agricultural products predominate, though there are plenty of hand-crafted souvenirs on offer too. The market deserves a whole blog article in its own right, but for the moment we are on a different quest.
We stopped for a picture with the Kumica statue, immortalizing the traditional market women that would make the long trek from the surrounding villages with their produce. They are still working the market, though these days they tend to come by motorized transport.
The streets climb steeply towards the Upper Town. In medieval times it was called Gradec, while on the east side of the Medveščak creek was Kaptol, with the cathedral, monastery and bishop’s palace. At one time there was conflict between the free townsfolk and the churchmen who wanted to extract their tithes. Now the gap between is filled, though some of the old names recall those times – such as Krvavi Most or the Bloody Bridge.
Our next goal was Opatovina, once a street of small houses for folk working at Kaptol, it has now become Zagreb’s and Croatia’s best-known beer street! Tables from the bars, restaurants and cafes spill out into the street, even in November. We headed towards the Craft Room, only opened a month earlier, and prides itself in offering craft beers from all over the world, including every Croatian craft beer. No industrial brands to be seen anywhere. At any one time they offer between nine and eleven beers on tap, and over a hundred are available in bottles. Co-owner Ivana Stanišić says that the only constant for the beer selection will be uncompromising commitment to quality craft beer. Excellent! Nice bar food too.
I had already paid an evening visit a few days earlier, and Craft Room was buzzing. Seemed like every young person in Zagreb was there. They had just received a shipment of some special Belgian ale and were offering a special combined with some bar snacks. Great lively atmosphere. I had a chance to taste the lovely Pale Ale from Varionica brewery. This time we arrived rather earlier in the day, not quite lunchtime. Just a few patrons enjoying their morning “liquid bread” and staff preparing for the lunchtime rush. We climbed the spiral staircase to the roof terrace with its great view over the roofs of old Zagreb, and ordered Vunetovo from Hvar – a rare find, hopefully soon to be more widely available. Saison Dekot, a light Belgian-style seasonal ale, and Hvarska Medicina, a pale ale with Mediterranean herbs from Hvar island.
After our taste of the Adriatic, time to have a little late lunch ourselves. We crossed the Medveščak creek and climbed up the other side. The hillside is too steep for ordinary streets, and so we made our way up the several flights of steps, emerging huffing and puffing onto the streets of Gornji Grad (Upper Town). On the first corner, is the oldest pharmacy in Zagreb and indeed this part of Europe. Ljekarna K Crnom Orlu (At the Black Eagle). It’s not clear precisely when it was founded, but it was mentioned in a document from 1355. Curiously, the great-grandson of the famous Italian writer Dante Alighieri ran it for a while. Nicolo Alighieri came to work in Zagreb in 1399. While the present building dates from the 18th century, the pharmacy has been in continuous operation for more than 660 years. Impressive!
This city has been around for a while. There was a settlement here before the Roman times. Just about every building and street has layers and layers of history. We passed the site of the first radio station in Southern Europe (1926). Right next door is the oldest known independent mint going back to the 13th century. Zagreb was granted the status of a Free Royal City by King Bela IV in 1242, in gratitude for the citizens saving the king from the invading Mongols. So it was granted the privilege of minting its own money, and not having to pay tithes to the church or local nobles.
St Mark’s Square is dominated by the Church of the eponymous saint. Around the sides of the square are government buildings, including the Croatian Sabor (Parliament). We wended our way along narrow medieval streets, emerging on the southern edge of Gradec, next to the Kula (Tower) Lotrščak. The tower is named after campana latrunculorum, Latin for “Thieves Bell”, which was rung from the tower in medieval times to mark the closing of city gates. The bell is no longer there, but a canon is fired every day exactly at noon to let the good citizens of Zagreb set their watches. The tower now functions as an art gallery.
Our next target was the Bistro Fajn. ‘Fajn‘ is the Croatian spelling of English ‘Fine’, and indeed this tiny eatery produces some of Zagreb’s finest food. It was previously the Restaurant Prasac (Piglet), and I could not get Herself (a vegetarian) in there. Maybe now? In any case, Morana and I settled ourselves at a table and selected our lunch.
After a most enjoyable break, no beer this time, we set off towards our next beer destination, all the way back to Opatovina. We needed to burn off the calories anyway, and the day was fajn! We walked past Klovicevi Dvori art gallery, named after the 16th century Croatian-born artist Juraj Julije Klović considered to be one of the greatest manuscript illuminators of the Italian Renaissance. In front of the building a statue of the man himself. As I write this, the gallery is showing a major retrospective of well known Croatian artist Menci Clement Crnčić.
Back on Opatovina, a.k.a. the Beer Street, the very last building is Tolkien’s House Pub. Cool atmosphere, especially if you are a Lord of the Rings fan. The clientele is a mixture of young and old, the beer selection excellent and includes every local brew.
Tolkien’s House is the oldest real beer pub in Zagreb. We tried Red Baron red ale by Aircraft Brewery, founded by two local pilots, and definitely worthy of your support. A classic red ale, light on the hops and malt, very refreshing. After that we had had at least one beer from every Zagreb craft brewery, so the next taste was the ABA by 5th Element from Daruvar. American Blonde Ale, rather like a Belgian Blond, with more citrusy hoppiness from the American hops.
What a wonderful way to spend a few (or more than a few) hours. You too can have a bespoke tour created for you, simply by contacting Zagreb Bites.
And to top it all, on way home the unmistakable smell from my childhood led me to stop off for a roll of chestnuts roasted in the street. Just like old days…