Every year, we drive to a few homebrew competitions around the region to deliver Croatian entries. We collect entries from local brewers and drive them to the competition location, sometimes quite a far drive, and make sure they are checked in and judged. We help with judging the competitions and hang out and have some fun. Part of this is networking with our brewing comrades from around the region, part of it is representing Croatian brewers and part of it is simply fun.
“Beer, it’s the best damn drink in the world.”Jack Nicholson
This year, we visited Sofia, Bulgaria for their competition for the second time. Last year, I had to work so we skipped the competition, unfortunately. This time around I resolved to work crazy hours to make sure I could take that weekend off and attend the competition. Four of us went. Damir Ban, who is well known amongst the local beer scene offered to do a lot of the driving and provided the use of his car for the drive, which is great as my car is starting to get old and unreliable for such a long drive. Andrej Čapka, the chief dragon at Zmajska Pivovara joined us as well. For the three of us, this was our second time to Sofia. And for our fourth partner in crime, Matija Mrazek of Varionica Craft Brewery joined us.
We hit the road early on the 31st of March, a Friday, so we could deliver the entries in the afternoon. Judging took place starting the next morning, so they wanted to have time to check in the beers and get them into the refrigerator to chill.
Andrej had traveled to Beograd for the opening of the Dogma Brewery taproom on Wednesday, then drove back to Ljubljana for an event Thursday night and joined us for the drive all the way over to Sofia on Friday, so he had some heavy driving in that three day period. Matija stayed in Beograd after the Dogma opening, so we picked him up there and he brought us a nice lunch of meat, pljeskavica and ćevapi. Serbs are renowned for their meat dishes even for something as simple as ćevapi, so it was a much better lunch than the usual gas station fare which is what is eaten when you’re trying to make good time on these drives. The drive from Zagreb to Sofia is an all day affair, about 9 hours if you count the stops and pauses.
My favorite part of the drive is in Southern Serbia when you get maybe 100 km from the border. The terrain changes into a canyon area with a river to the side and has some nice visuals. We’ve done the drive before, so it seemed to somehow pass faster this time around. On our last drive this way, the mine on the side of that canyon was using dynamite and explosions rocked the ravine as traffic was stopped to prevent debris from hitting passing cars. No dynamite this year, however.
Corruption and thieves seem to be a problem in this region. At the border, a sign in multiple languages warns you not to bribe police and also warns to only stop for police if they have a white Opel Astra and are wearing a reflective vest. Evidently there are robbers dressed as cops who pull people over and con them out of bribes or something, a modern Balkan iteration of the highwayman.
We arrived to the drop off point, a pub called Vitamin B, around 17:30 and dropped off our beers, which consisted of 30 entries from Croatian brewers, a keg from Zmajska, a keg from Varionica and a keg of my beer, a basic Saison. The kegs were for them to tap at the competition party, which would take place across the street from the judging at a night club called Terminal 1.
Our AirBNB apartment was just one street over. We parked Damir’s car in a parking garage on that same street, walked to the apartment, dropped our bags and went to eat dinner at a “brewpub” called Halbite. We had intended to visit them last time we were in Sofia but that didn’t work out, so this time we did visit them. The maître d’ was pretty rude. Well, actually, an asshole if you want me to be politically correct, but we managed to find a table and ordered some beers and food.
The house beer, Наш’то Пиво or Nash’to Pivo in Croatian, was quite nice, a drinkable red ale, clean and quaffable with a nice bitter edge to it. It was good enough to order another so we did. And as it turns out, this supposed brewpub is in fact no brewpub. The beer is brewed by our friends at Rhombus Craft Brewery in Pazardzhik, a great little brewery. We didn’t know this at the time, however. The food was basic Bulgarian pub grub. Not bad but nothing special. An acceptable start to our weekend.
After that we returned to Vitamin B to drink more beer from Rhombus and some other beers they had on tap from Mikkeller and others. It’s a nice little pub. At the end of the night we took a few cans of beer back to the AirBNB and hung out a little more and called it a night before 1AM.
In the morning, we arose before 8 to try to find some food to eat before judging started at 9. Walking down the street towards our eventual destination of a little bakery where we could get burek, we ended up getting harrassed by the cops.
They pulled up in their car and stopped and the cop in the passenger’s seat aggressively jumped out of the car and rushed over to Andrej and Matija and started questioning them. The driver was next to me so questioned me from inside the car. “Where are you from? What are you doing? Do you have any drugs or weapons? Are you sure you don’t have any drugs?” and so on. The cop questioning me was reasonable for the most part. The one questioning Andrej and Matija seemed a bit more aggressive. It was the kind of thing you might expect if you were walking around at 4AM, but it was 8 or 8:30 and people were awake and starting their days, so it was a bit strange.
A friend later told us a story from the same neighborhood, which is quite an active and lively part of town. He saw a couple of guys come out of a club and get into a taxi. A cop car pulled up next to the taxi and as the cops got out, one guy jumped out of the taxi and threw his drugs and needles under the taxi. The cops saw this, made him collect his drug paraphernalia and arrested him.
I guess they thought we had been out all night clubbing or something. I walk a bit strange and the guys pointed out that maybe they thought I was drunk. As it was, we were not yet drinking so had no real trouble. After that we went on our way and got our burek and delivered that back to the apartment and ate with Damir. Then we headed over for judging. A good day of drinking lie ahead of us. Our stomachs full, we were prepared for the judging to come.
End of part one. Part two will be published soon.
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