There’s a burgeoning beer scene in Slovenia and some wonderful scenery too. Nick sees if something can successfully be organised in a brewery.
The men in the ‘pub’ of the Union Brewery in Ljubljana are in fine voice tonight. As a woman cranks rousing tunes out of an accordion that’s almost as big as she is, they roar out the choruses whilst waving mugs of beer to the beat.
It’s all sung in Slovenian of course, so I have no idea what the words mean, but I’m happy to raise my own glass and cheer loudly at the end of each song. The conviviality meter has gone off the scale here in this packed bar/restaurant.
Also off the scale is the platter of meat in front of me featuring slabs of pork, tangles of spicy sausages, juicy spare ribs and more all piled onto sauerkraut and baked potatoes.
I try glass after glass of the excellent range of Union beers from the passing waitresses, all dressed in traditional costume, the brews certainly wash down the meat a treat.
A few hours earlier I’d taken the Union Experience, a tour of the ancient parts of this massive brewery that was founded in 1864, exploring areas full of original beer-making machinery, viewing the state of the art modern production section and trying some beers.
Yes, the Slovenians love the stuff, there’s no denying it. And alongside the massive Union Brewery, a whole host of small craft beer breweries have sprung up in recent years. Lagers, wheat beers and ales and malty porters and stouts in many styles and guises.
Some are becoming very famous, like the ones from Loo-blah-nah Brewery, the phonetic pronunciation of the capital city Ljubljana. Their label proudly carries a picture of a dragon, the symbol of the city and they already brew a classic English Pale Ale that puts many of our own to shame.
Tektonic is another name that you’ll find on many bottles in the bars in town, they make brews called Magda, Sir Williams, Pop’s Place, Slovenska hiša, TOZD, and Cutty Sark. All delicious.
In fact, craft breweries are generally springing up like mushrooms in Slovenia which are, ironically, another delight in this country that is 60% green space. The main market in town is a treasure trove of fungi at this time of year with small pickers selling superb examples from trestle tables.
It’s a very pretty city – attractive bars and cafes line both sides of the Ljubljanica River that divides the city’s old town. It’s easy and stress free to easy to walk around as a few years ago they took the radical step of pedestrianising the centre.
Now the only traffic to avoid is bicycles, and the sole intrusive sound is that of the soft whirr of the electric Kavalirs (Gentle Helpers) the free public transport option for the elderly, mobility-impaired and visitors. Just hail one and it’ll stop for you, too.
Walking however best reveals the true beauty of the marvellous baroque buildings while tourist boats putter under the many bridges.
The all wood ‘Ljubljanica’, which you can pick up from the pier on the Breg embankment, is the most romantic boat option. I happily sat up front, drinking in the sites as we headed up and down stream.
And while all the bars and restaurants offer tempting food, the Strelec Restaurant in the imposing 900 year old Ljubljana Castle that looms over the city, is perhaps the finest choice.
Take the funicular railway to the castle and up in the old Archers’ Tower and you’ll enjoy a well-priced but very fine-dining version of Slovenian cuisine.
A platter of beef tartar and smoked goose liver with pickled Jerusalem artichoke and a hazelnut mayonnaise was followed by venison, goose liver, smoked parsnip puree and Krško-polje bacon, named after the pig of the region.
And surprisingly vegetarians are well-catered for too, there was a roasted cauliflower and hazelnut dish as well as a rich soup flavoured with local truffles.
All the dishes were presented to MasterChef standard and the Slovenian wines – a Doppler Sauvignon 2017 and a Kristancic Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 – both very good examples of the quality Slovenian wine can achieve.
The loveliest place in the world?
Slovenia has more lakes and forest than it has inhabited regions. Leave Ljubljana and you’re almost instantly in countryside, the high mountains visible in almost every direction you look.
And at Lake Bled almost everywhere you look is also a Japanese or Chinese tourist armed with selfie stick. This is one of the must-see attractions on their grand coach trips around Europe and it’s easy to see why.
The 12th Century castle has a stunning position on a high cliff over the lake, totally unassailable on most of one side owing to the sheer drop. But beautiful as the castle is, the view looking down from it is even better.
In the middle of Lake Bled is a small island where the Assumption of Mary Church stands. A typical flat-bottomed boat, a pletna, rowed by a man who stands at the back, takes you the foot of the 99 steps up to the church. I had to stop three times to get my breath climbing up but it was worth it.
The incessant sound bell ringing from the tower that drifts across the lake is not the fault of a deranged campanologist, but of an old tradition that says if you ring the bell your wish will come true. Perhaps many locals have come to the church to wish the bell to stop.
Back on dry land, in the village by the lake once dominated by Tito’s holiday home, there’s a small, old-fashioned, but good restaurant – the Restaurant Sova.
Try the slow cooked veal cheek baked in prosciutto with the local cheese, kajmak, with a mustard cream and mashed potato. It’s a rib sticker of the best kind.
But back to the beer. A visit to Carniola Brewery in Žirovnica on my way home to the Four Points Hotel in Ljubljana finds a manically impassioned owner/brewer presiding over a compact brewery in an industrial park. He’s also squeezed in an on-site bar that’s open on Thursday and Friday afternoons, and all-day Saturday, with draft and bottled beers on sale.
He’s been producing many interesting beers since 2012 and doing well enough, he tells me, to be now awaiting delivery of much larger equipment so he can step up production to meet demand.
After a quick tour and several beers, I can see why his beers are popular, really fine quality and interesting flavours.
Craft beer is so big across Europe these days that the Four Points group of hotels have cleverly decided to make it a feature of their own bars. Every Four Points hotel has a signature pub where guests and locals can enjoy the brand’s Best Brews and BBQ™ programme.
Best Brews offers guests the chance to sample craft beers and enjoy authentic local flavours at every hotel pub across the brand’s 200+ property portfolio, with each brew strategically chosen for its unique flavour, popularity, and quality ingredients.
That night my Four Points restaurant put on a superb meal featuring matched local beers to show the kitchen’s skills. Smoked local hams, marinated trout and beetroot with goats cheese all went down well with a bottle of Tektonik Hercule Wheatbeer and Buckwheat porridge with porcini and sour cream and a dish of polenta and cheese was brilliant with Hopsbrew Juicy IPA
And the Loo- Blah-Nah Porter was excellent with dishes of cheese, pumpkin and truffles, and a miniburger with Kranjska sausage.
It was a very impressive meal at this very smart hotel handily located just on the outskirts of the city and close to the airport.
I got the impression Four Points genuinely care about giving guests a real local experience and the staff very knowledgeable about the beer and food being served.
The next day, slightly the worse for wear, I savaged the hotel breakfast – so much good stuff to choose from with a chap cooking eggs, proper crispy bacon and actual, real, sausages and not those peculiar sausages that you only ever find in hotels.
Just a short flight away, Ljubljana offers a short-break experience that satisfies body and soul. The body can tuck away all the beers and the soul can soar with the breathataking scenery. Na zdravje! Or cheers as we say back here.
This article first appeared on www.foodepedia.co.uk
StayAt Four Points Ljubljana