Previously we stopped at the National Museum of Contemporary History in Ljubljana.
I came stumbling into Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, in May of 1987. The previous two weeks had been spent in Italy, and unsurprisingly the Italian wine was ludicrously inexpensive. So was beer, but apart from the solid Birra Dreher in the north, the ones I tried were merely serviceable and didn’t impress me very much.
I’d been drinking wine regularly, and in retrospect, I was ready for a well-turned, old-school, full-flavored lager.
Well, maybe not THAT old-school.
Happily Yugoslavia proved to be stocked with a few honest lagers, some of them firmly hoppy lagers. After all, Slovenia grows hops.
Attempts to grow hops in Slovenia date back to 1844. Saaz hops and Bavarian hops were brought to the region but did not grow well. A British hop, mislabeled “Golding,” was imported instead, and it flourished. The resulting hops, now known as Styrian Golding, are probably a derivation of Fuggle, not English Golding. Still, they have become the cultivar that is most closely associated with Slovenia. Some Styrian Golding is also cultivated across the border from Slovenia in neighboring Austria. Another uniquely Slovenian cultivar is Bačka. It has a murky background, but is probably of central European origin. Bačka was one of the primary hops of the region through much of the 20th century. Today, Slovenia has a large variety of bitter and aroma hops to offer, most of which are produced from local breeding programs. See bačka (hop), fuggle (hop), and styrian golding (hop). Once a region of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia accounts for about 2% of the global hop production.
Union beer in Ljubljana was a malty, delicious example of Yugoslav’s beery wares. As I was to learn, so were Laško (Slovenia), Karlovačko (Croatia) and Nikšićko (Montenegro). In 1987 I readily found the Union brewery in Ljubljana while out walking. Here are then-and-now photos.
On both photos, the building on the left is the malthouse, which has been remodeled into a pub. 32 years ago I bought a couple of bottles at a shop, and had a draft with my meal at the Ljubljanski Dvor pizzeria. To my palate at the time Union was quite good, and as of our arrival in Ljubljana this past November, I hadn’t tasted a single one since 1987.
(As a side note, in present-day Slovenia craft beer culture is strong, and bottled IPAs were available at most of the establishments we patronized. As for the mass-market brewers, after a long history of competition between Union and Laško, they were merged under Heineken in 2016. In terms of character, I believe a Czech analogy is apt: Laško is Pilsner Urquell to Union’s Budvar … in Triple AAA ball.)
Our first round of beers on Tuesday evening at Slovenska hiša included an unfiltered golden lager from Union, which was Keller-like and center of the target. A broader range of beer styles now are being brewed at Union’s pivnica (pub), located at the former malthouse adjacent to the recently modernized brewery. Among these was a dark lager along schwarzbier lines. It was delicious.
Behind the beers, above the bar, you can see the video screen. It was endlessly looping the promotional video that leads this post. As we waited for the tour to begin, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, and now the “divining” dragon is certain to be an indelible memory of our 2019 vacation.
Diana and I were the only persons to take the Union brewery tour at 4:00 p.m., but our friendly and enthusiastic guide didn’t alter the usual 1.5 hour presentation in the least. We got the full Monty, and it was informative and exhaustive. I was not allowed to photograph inside the brewery (as though “proprietary” is a concept in brewing circles), and so the following photos were taken in the museum section.
This advertising poster of a mustachioed man hoisting a pint was explained to us as an example of upward mobility in the period between the wars. The man’s mustache, cigar, vest and rotund body type all were intended to attest to his status as a successful businessman with disposable income to spend on the good things in life. It remind me just a bit of the famous Birra Moretti logo in Italy.
Wednesday evening ended with meals at the above-average Hotel Park restaurant, which seemed to function as a community hangout as well as a tourist’s choice for a nightcap. That’s a rare combination.