What I call the Montenegro Brewery Round was a multi-day trip in the southwestern part of the country to visit as many breweries and try as many of their beers as I could. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you read the first installment of this series of stories about my time in Montenegro that provides an introduction to this small and charming country in the western Balkans. Several other installments will speak to my beer hikes in the rugged mountains of the northeast.
Montenegro is not exactly known as a beer mecca — it is more noted for its wine culture and its rajika traditions. But it is home to a big brewery that is more than one hundred years old and an emerging and enthusiastic craft beer scene. The breweries that I found were located in three areas — in the capital city of Podgorica, in the small city of Nikšić, and in the Kotor Bay region near the Adriatic coast.
Beer culture in Montenegro dates back to the late 1800’s when King (then a Prince) Nikola purportedly became interested in introducing beer to the country. King Nikola was well educated and had spent considerable time in western Europe and was said to have developed an appreciation of a variety of aspects of those cultures. An enterprising character named Vuko Krivokapić received the blessing and approval of the King to build the first brewery in Montenegro in Nikšić. The brewery was called “Onogošt” which I understand was the historical name for Nikšić. The King also granted Vuko exemptions on taxes for the equipment and materials that needed to be imported and on the sales of the beer. Vuko had experience working in breweries abroad. With his family’s support, he built a brewery on his father’s estate in Nikšić and employed a Croat brewer named Fabjan Segovic who had learned his trade in Vienna. Nikšić was known for its numerous high-quality water wells and that no doubt factored into the location of the brewery.
One thing led to another in the early years and Vuko’s initiative eventually became the impetus for the founding and building (in 1908) of the Trebjesa Brewery which exists to this day.
More recently, several microbreweries and brewpubs have taken root in the country — I was able to identify and visit eight of these. I experienced welcoming and enthusiastic people and every beer I tried I found to be quite drinkable – some were excellent.
Beer in Montenegro is inexpensive by American standards. A half-liter draft of Nicksicko lager would typically be EUR 1.50 ($1.67) at a cafe or restaurant while a craft beer might go for up to EUR 3 ($3.34). I found it uncommon though to find craft beer in cafes or restaurants. Trebjesa products were the dominate offerings and a smattering of macro lagers from other European countries was common. A common theme in my discussions with craft brewers was that distribution can be difficult. Outlets for their beers were often the result of one-on-one relationships with cafe and restaurant owners. A couple had their own pub or taproom and several want to add a taproom or beer garden. It is not yet an expectation in the market that there will be craft alternatives on the menu.
Historically, beer seems to have been more a commodity product than a specialty matched to varying tastes. Several of the brewers told me that beer festivals are playing an important role in introducing the idea that beers don’t all have to be the same. They reported over and over that once they could get a beer skeptic to try their product, they would find that person coming back around to try more. The Association of Kraft Brewers of Montenegro (Udruženje Kraft Pivara Crne Gore) is a forum for cooperation among the brewers and I noted a good bit of helpful collaboration between breweries is happening.
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The Trebjesa Brewery in Nikšić is the big guy on the block – their lager called Nikšićko Pivo is a pervasive brand throughout and is likely what you will be served if you ask for a beer. Unfortunately, they were not interested in my project when we contacted them for a visit so what I know about them (other than drinking many of their beers) is second-hand. Although their beers are “industrial beers” from the world of big beer (Trebjesa was bought by Interbrew in 1997 and subsequently, Molson-Coors in 2012), I thought their flagship lager was better than the average macro lager and that their Tamno (dark) and their Nefiltrirano (unfiltered lager) were even better. They are even marketing an IPA that I tasted but didn’t care for. Trebjesa is small by macro-brewer standards producing about 450,000 barrels annually.
I was warmly received during my visit to the other brewery in Nikšić — Mammut Pivo. Lead technologist and brewmaster Bojan Belkas gave us a great tour and patiently answered a lot of questions. Mammut is a sparkling microbrewery housed in the basement of the modern Hotel Onogost near the city center. It was opened in 2017 and as I understood it, it benefits from a unique distribution model – their parent company distributes their beers in a variety of pubs and restaurants around the country. They also sell small kegs direct to consumers via their internet site. Mammut utilizes an 8 Bbl brewing system built by Hungarian-based ZIP Technologies. There is a 70m water well right on the Hotel Onogost property that uses some of that famous Niksik well water to feed the brewing process. There are six beers in their standard range – Prime (Kolsch-style), Pilsner, Mozaic (a hoppy pilsener), IPA, APA, and Stout. Hoppy lagers like the Mozaic were a recurring theme that I like – the hops are more about flavoring than bittering. There is plenty of expansion space there if they need it and they showed me space where they hope to place a taproom at some point in the future.
Podgorica Area Breweries
Podgorica is a bigger city so it isn’t surprising that there are more breweries there.
Akademija Piva (“Beer Academy”) is a brewpub in the newer part of the downtown. It is a large, attractive pub with good food. The Akademija range includes five mainstays – Profesor Doktor (IPA), Brat Dekan (Oktoberfest), Čista Desetka (Weissbeer), Vrhunski Magistar (Pale Lager), and Vječiti Apsolvent (Dark Lager) and they have a seasonal or specialty on tap at any given time. I ordered a flight of all six of their beers and was brought an array of very large samples (maybe 12 oz. each). The seasonal was a summer beer that incorporated grapes to interesting effect. IPA’s in Montenegro are generally much less hoppy than would be found in the USA – several brewers explained that this is an accommodation to local tastes. It suited me just fine as I am one of those people who think that many IPA’s are home are severely over-hopped. Academija was the only of the craft beers that I found (canned) in markets or bodegas, although infrequently.
Montenegro Brewing was the smallest and newest micro (nano) brewery I visited in Montenegro but their partners do not lack energy, positivity, or enthusiasm about craft beer and brewing. The partners, Vasilije Prelevic, Marko Kuveljić, Jovan Grubač, and Momir Todorović, are four friends who all are moonlighting in the brewery business at this point. They are located in a rural area near the town of Spuž, just west of the city. They have refurbished a former smokehouse in a farm field near a bend in Zeta River to be their brewery and they bring their brewing water from a spring 15 km away. Their beer is organic and we talked about their interest in the possibility of an all-Montenegrin ingredient beer as a special someday. I had a great time hanging out with these guys while they brewed into the wee hours one night – talking beer and drinking their Zora ale. Zora is an American Pale Ale (APA) but I think they should dub it an MPA (Montenegrin Pale Ale). Zora means sunrise and we almost made it to then.
Paun Pivo is a family business that started with a desire to build a sustainable business in Montenegro. The family involved include a father, son, and cousin at the brewery and an uncle in Sweden who was involved in the financing. Paun means “peacock” and I have to say I got a good laugh out of some hidden symbolism in the Paun logo (you’ll have to ask the Paun folks about that yourself). The son (and lead brewer), Koča Paunović is an easy-going guy who I enjoyed spending a bit of time with. The Paun range is a hoppy lager and a red lager — both of which I enjoyed. Koča told me that he learned brewing by apprenticing at Dogma Brewery in Belgrade, Serbia. In addition to being a brewery, Paun imports and distributes Dogma products in Montenegro. Koča told me that he figures craft beer culture in Serbia is 7-8 years ahead of Montenegro. He sees the Montenegrin market as slow to change, but it is changing. He foresees the day when there could be a market for beers like New England IPA, but a key for them is to understand the current market and respond to it. Paun is along a highway in the countryside west of Podgorica and has a space set aside where they plan to create a destination beer garden.
Budva Craft is a gypsy brewer that brews in the Podgorica area (at Paun) but whose outlets are at Budva, a resort town on the Adriatic coast. I visited with their founder Robert Vadjon and his associate at their restaurant and beer bar in Budva called the Garden Cafe. They produce one beer so far — a pale ale called Beerhouse Barba Niko. Barba Niko was a local fisherman and pub owner in the old days of Budva before it became a big tourist draw and now days evokes nostalgia for those times. Like many of the other brewers, Robert started as a homebrewer. He sees an IPA and maybe a lager in his brewing future and if things work out his own brewery. He was the most knowledgeable person I met about the other brewers in Montenegro and he helped me with several leads.
Pivo Podgorica, also west of the city on the road to Niksik is a brewery I became aware of late during my visit and I was really pleased to be able to fit it in on my way to the airport to fly away. The founder, Alexander “Sasha” Durović established a successful printing business that he has largely turned over to son to pursue his love of and interest in brewing. The brewery is co-located with printing business and has space earmarked for expansion. They make a classic lager that I was glad to have found the previous night at a pub in the old town area. I could tell that Sasha puts his all into his brewing and it shows up in the result — a nice, clean, balanced lager.
Kotor Bay Breweries
Mala Novska Pivara is located in a small industrial area close to the bayfront in Herceg Novi. Herceg Novi is a famous spa and health place at the place where Kotor Bay connects to the Adriatic. Sinisa Kostic, one of the partners in the brewery was hard at work on a brew when we arrived — we picked up the pleasant scent of the brew well before we entered. Sinisa told me that he had learned the craft at Downtown Brewing in Knoxville, TN in the USA. Mala Novska currently brews its ales twice per week, a schedule limited by fermenter capacity. All of their beer is sold in kegs to customers in the Herceg Novi area. I tried two of their beers — Blonda is a Kolsch-style brew and I thought their porter was excellent. Looking ahead, Sinisa is hoping to increase fermenter capacity and to figure out how to establish a captive pub or taproom. He is also hoping for government action to decrease the excise tax burden on craft beers.
Fabrika Craft Brewery is located in an ancient house on a hillside above the bayfront town of Risan — they have just completed the relocation of the brewery from a nearby spot. This is a tidy facility that uses an Italian-made brew kit. Fabrika produces four beers in their range — Smilin’ Goat IPA, Hoptimus Prime APA,
Portun Stout, and Bocca Pale Ale. Fabrika partner Krsto Ćuković was a friendly, gracious host. They operate their own taproom/beer bar in nearby Kotor that serves not only their beers but also beers from several other of the Montenegro craft brewers as they can get them. This struck me as a pretty good idea as the craft scene develops in Montenegro – I could envision a beer bar in each of the major towns that serve beers from all of the Montenegrin breweries.