Kosovo, a Thirst for Progress, and Beer too
By ADAM H. GRAHAM
On weekends, Kosovo’s millennials dance to Smiths and New Order songs from the 1980s as if they were hearing them for the first time at the new Irish pub Miqt (facebook.com/MIQT.NET) in Pristina. The bar is by turns trendy and louche and hidden down one of the many bumpy, half-paved roads in Kosovo’s capital.
One night last fall, three men in fluorescent-piped Nikes and expensive Japanese jeans gyrated around a table. A woman wearing a trench coat and choppy blond bangs slithered through the room like a Fritz Lang femme fatale. Outside, a painfully cool clique smoked American Spirit cigarettes and exchanged jokes about Serbian soldiers, injecting some dark humor about the war that ripped apart this small country.
This pocket of the Balkans where Muslims are in the majority has long been defined by war and by a heritage of hardship that stretches back to Illyria in ancient times. But instead of being mired by the tragic past, Pristina’s new generation seems to look to the future.
They are also drinking beer. Though Islam prohibits the drinking of alcohol, a beer culture is emerging in the city.
“Beer consumption does clash with our Muslim history,” said Bekim Shala, the manager of Birra Prishtina, a brewery that opened last year. “But we are a secular society and alcohol has always been consumed here.”
The Kosovo War of 1998 and 1999 left this region, once part of Yugoslavia, divided between Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians. As the war ended, NATO intervention forced Serbian troops out and Kosovo became a protectorate of the United Nations; that ended in 2012.
The international presence gave Kosovo its first taste of global consumerism, including new restaurants, indie music, a soccer team and its first microbrewery, which opened in late 2013. Since then, interest in beer has grown steadily.
Ramshackle Pristina (the name is sometimes rendered Prishtina) was one stop in my six-country Balkans tour last September, but it easily was the most exciting city on the two-week trip. Pristina teems with abandoned buildings, construction sites and streets that go from paved to rubble-strewn at the turn of a corner. But its free-spirited night life recalls 1990s Berlin, Belfast and Prague, and its new restaurants, stretching from Boulevard Bill Clinton to the 15th-century Carshi Mosque, serve everything from coconut curry to Kosovo locavore fare.
Locals claim Pristina makes Europe’s best macchiatos, but its beer impressed me most. Its first microbrewery, Sabaja (birrasabaja.com) — named after the Illyrian word for beer — opened Sabaja Dr’s Beer House, an American-style restaurant, in 2013. There, in an alley behind the Brutalist Gradski Stadium and the “Newborn” monument (a typographical sculpture of the word that captures the country’s scrappy spirit), the beer house serves rich smoked porters, zesty summer wheats and Belgian ales alongside American mainstays like wings and Caesar salads. A sign inside reads, “Beer will change the world.”
“The beer scene in Kosovo is as limited as you might expect from a former Yugoslavian country,” said Alex Butler, Sabaja’s American brewer, who moved from Rochester with his Kosovar-Albanian fiancée, Etida Zeka. “But Pristina’s younger generation are willing to try styles of beer their elders wouldn’t. Many of them have traveled abroad and are vocal about the world beyond lager.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, Kosovo was home to Europe’s youngest population, with explosive fertility and population growth rates on par with Haiti, according to the Kosovo Agency of Statistics. That generation grew up with international brands and has reached drinking age now. Like their contemporaries in London and San Francisco, those young people want products inspired by cosmopolitan ideas such as “slow food” and “small batch” but made with local ingredients.
Traditionally, lagers like Birra Peja, brewed in Kosovo; Skopsko, a Macedonian beer under the Heineken umbrella; and Lasko from Slovenia dominated Kosovo’s market. But the last five years brought a flood of imports, including wheat, black, porter, stout and dunkel.
Birra Prishtina (birraprishtina.com) makes pilsner. Grembeer (grembeer.com) opened this year, producing small-batch, additive-free German pils made with water from the Gremnik Mountains.
Pristina’s Beerfest (beerfestkosova.com) is now four years old and credited with widening tastes and popularizing home-brewing. Last month, the three-day event attracted 40,000 visitors, an uptick from last year’s 25,000. Of the 15 Balkan beer brands represented, four were Kosovan.
This spring, Sabaja started a home-brewer’s club and introduced beer cocktails on its brunch menu. Its libations are available in 25 bars citywide and exported to Croatia and Slovenia.
As Mr. Shala of Birra Prishtina sees it, the future of beer in Kosovo could not be brighter.
“We have Europe’s youngest population, and every day more youngsters are coming of drinking age,” he said.