Seeking Beer in Slovenia
When considering a destination for vacation, most people do not think of Slovenia. In fact, it is often not even considered as a top five or ten choice! Then again, my friends and I are not most people. Though we didn’t know much about the country of our destination, we knew it had mountains with hiking and cities with history, and that was all we needed.
Our flight from Shanghai to Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana (pronounced “loo-blee-an-ya”) took about 13 hours, and included a stopover in Moscow. Having never been to Russia before, my traveling companion and I excitedly planned a quick trip from the airport to Red Square, ready to hedge our bets that our foreign country traveling skills could get us there and back in time for the final leg of our flight. With visions of Kremlins and furry hats dancing in our heads, we disembarked in Moscow, only to find that, contrary to all we’d been told before, it was not possible to obtain a transit visa on arrival, and we were instead stuck in the terminal for eight hours with nothing to do but wander aimlessly through an endless parade of duty free shops (all doused in heavy perfume scents) and stare longingly out the window at the most vindictively beautiful day ever. In answer to the taunting, unreachable blueness of sky and fluffiness of clouds, we repaired to a nearby restaurant and drowned our sorrows in a friendly pitcher of Hoegaarden. A light smooth taste, with the wheaty tones of summer, I thought to myself, glaring out at Russia, so close and yet so far.
Fortunately, even disappointment in Russia couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the trip ahead, and at last we arrived at our destination, the quaint city of Ljubljana. Like the region surrounding it, the city has a diverse and dynamic history, having been under the dominion of many a far-flung empire, including Roman, tribal German and Slovenian, Austrian, French, Italian, and more. It gained its more recent independence in 1991, when Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia. Yet despite a past full of war and upheavals, Ljubljana persists in a calm, unflappable manner. Currently, it thrives on the tourist trade, offering a fantastic Old Town, as well as seemingly endless cafes and restaurants along the canal, where tourists and locals alike can sit and enjoy coffee, beer or wine at any time during the day, and far into the evening.
One of the first things we did, after checking out important cultural sights such as the Ljubljana castle and Dragon Bridge, was, naturally, to investigate the beer situation. From perusals of quite a few menus, and chats with friendly and helpful waiters and locals, we found that Slovenia has two main national beers- Union and Laško- and the country is as split about them as a city with two sports teams, each brand boasting a hearty and loyal following. This loyalty continued even after 2005 when Laško acquired Union, with both camps remaining firmly entrenched. As one source put it, “coincidentally, the country’s aggregate level of irony increased noticeably around the same time.”
In Ljubljana, Union comes out ahead, as its brewery calls the capital city its home. You can find it on literally every menu, and spot it being drunk in every venue, including the train station. The beer itself is your basic pale lager, which looks great when poured, with a gold color and thick white head, but remains rather plain in taste- a light hoppiness can be detected, but mostly it’s a light generic beer, best mostly for accompanying food rather than being savored on its own.
Though Union may be king in Ljubljana, it seems that the majority of the rest of the country counts themselves on team Laško. The brewery itself resides in a town of the same name, in the eastern part of Slovenia, giving its half to the town’s nickname of “The Town of Beer and Flowers.”Adding to the town’s popularity is the annual summer Beer and Flowers Festival, which draws upwards of 100,000 visitors during its five day run, culminating at the end of the week with fireworks and (we assume) much beer guzzling appreciating.
It was too late for us for the festival, but not for tasting beer! We tried our first Laško in the beautiful northwestern ski town of Kranjska Gora. Sitting at a small mom-and-pop pub, with majestic snow-covered mountains soaring in the background, we watched as the waitress brought out two freshly poured glasses of Laško Dark. This went down smooth, with a slight hint of bitterness, and was thoroughly enjoyable (though most likely the landscape had a strong hand in the experience as well). Later, for comparison’s sake, we also tried Laško’s pale lager, known as Zlatorog. Aside from being a pretty great name for a band, Zlatorog means “Golden horn”, and refers to a Slovenian legend about a mountain goat with magical golden horns. In the legend, a poor hunter, hoping to gain riches to woo a beautiful girl, chases Zlatorog to the edge of a cliff, where the embattled and (understandably) angered creature then turned on him and, blinding him with the glorious sheen of his golden horns, butted the would-be hunter off the mountain and to his death in the river below. While this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with beer (other than that the Zlatorog probably required a stiff drink or two of his own label to get over the experience), the brand’s hat-tip to Slovenian culture and legend is certainly admirable.
While the Union/Laško debate wages eternal, a notable newcomer has arrived on the Slovenian beer scene- the Human Fish Brewery. Started in 2008 by Australian native Matthew Charlesworth, Human Fish is Slovenia’s first and foremost craft brewery. The name comes from a creature that dwells in the subterranean waters of Slovenia’s famous karst caves. It looks like a salamander with no eyes, and boasts an eerily human skin tone. After looking up pictures online, we found we definitely preferred the beer variety of Human Fish. This species comes in three different varieties: pale ale, red ale, and oatmeal stout. Rather than in caves, these Human Fish can be found at various pubs throughout Ljubljana, and what an enjoyable find they are. We were surprised to learn that for those wishing for a fun night in, Human Fish will even go so far as to deliver mini kegs of their product to your very door. (We wondered if that also included our hotel room door, but unfortunately ran out of time to find out.)
To say that our time in Slovenia was a success would be an incredible understatement. Though the variety of beer may not have been as large as we’d hoped, the passion and culture behind what we found is undeniable. Whether Union undying, Laško loyal, or Human Fish convert, fresh beer was also for the getting, and among the cultured, European streets of Ljubljana, and the breath-taking vistas of the Alps, one couldn’t ask for a better landscape in which to share it.
Article by Jessica Smith