Photohraphy and text: Marina Nikolic
Beeraj contains the English word beer but when it is read in Serbian: “biraj” it means choose. Beeraj is the name of the little but posh craft beer, cider and wine shop hidden in the old town of Novi Sad.
Its founder, Oliver Haugham, is in his early 30s, doesn't speak Serbian, but still seems to be everybody's pal. Novi Sad, second biggest city in Serbia, founded in Austria - Hungary times, has more to offer than a cosy old town and the Exit Music festival. This part of Serbia is well known for the mix of the cultures living there and the diversity in crafts and agriculture. But still, to Serbians, people from this area are all well known for being laid back and friendlier than the rest.
Oliver arrived for the first time in the Balkans, Serbia in 2006. He drove down with a truck full of wood with his father. They wanted to restore it into furniture. But it wasn't the first time for his father. He came around in 1992 when he took refugees from Sarajevo and taught them how to work with wood. They took this trade and settled in LJubovija, Drina. So there he was in 2006, travelling to Balkans with his father through Europe where Oliver “instantly fell in love with Drina” as he says, the river that flows beside LJubovija. Serbia was a crude surprise to him.
But not only nature and landscapes made an impression on the young Scottish manbut something that occurred already on the border that Saturday in 2006. He and his father waited for many hours to cross the border, so he ended up jumping the fence and playing football with local boys. People offered him and his father food and a place to stay and didn't want anything in return. After this 2-week trip in the spring 2006, he went back and spent 6 months travelling through the country and then discovered Novi Sad, where he lives for 4 years now.
Although Oliver doesn't speak the Serbian language well, he seems to be fully integrated in his environment. Beeraj`s customers are mostly young people under the age of 30 and almost every evening the store is full, in summer Oliver and Olja organize music events in the front end. His girlfriend Olja, an artist, made the logoand the design of the bottles which are filled when purchasing liquids. The business seem to be going well and they even expanded the shop this autumn. It seems Oliver wants to stay in Novi Sad.
WEAST: How did you come up with the Cider and Beer Shop idea?
O.H: After a few years between 2006 and 2008 it dawned to me that I really want to gain agriculture experience and to take some of the natural produce of Serbia and produce it into something. And the most logical thing at that time was cider as we were a family of more sorts of wine and we had experience with cider. In 2008 we bought a “salas”, which is a small farm, about 2 acres. So we purchased the farm and transformed what used to be an animal shed to a production space and fermentation room. In 2008 we started making small batches of cider, taking local produce, local apples from the area as well as some more interesting apples from the southern of Serbia, which are wild, organic apples. So we started this production and slowly but surely we built the cider production to an extent where we can go commercial. We started exporting to Croatia where we were selling cider at the festivals. We did this for two or three years and then in 2012 and 2013 we started trying the domestic market which was maybe a little bit too early but we started then and it led to this 2016 when in May we opened Beeraj which is not only specialized for cider but also the craft beer scene. We are particularly interested in this scene as Serbia had only imported beers for the last 10 years or only domestic beers which were bought up by big international companies. After 2 years we have seen 14 micro-breweries open in Serbia and producing some fantastic beers. Beeraj has basically got right behind that whole movement and its trying to push and promote local craft beers.
WEAST: So there is a whole movement suddenly in the industry?
O.H: Yes and it really feels good to witness how they already come out to the markets. Already 15 pubs in Belgrade and 13 in Novi Sad are selling craft beer and the distribution is growing. The styles, the forms, we can see more and more pigs, more pale ale. I think it is so interesting that younger people, like people in their 20s and their early 30s have this opportunity where they can produce an agricultural produce and especially that they are ambassadors of Backi Petrovac, hops which in 2011 completely collapsed. They went from 1400 hectare acres, 60 years ago and a global distribution to a production of 0. I have a Serbian friend called Nikola who also works with Brewdog in Scotland, he moved from Novi Sad to Aberdeen, my hometown, exactly at the same tame when I moved here, so we kept in touch and we talked a lot about this things. Nikola positively encourages the renewed interest in hops production in Backi Petrovac and the most inspiring day of this summer and this whole campaign and the industry, I think, was to go to Petrovac and see that they got 6 hectare acres of hops back in the production, which is just phenomenal.
WEAST: Are you planning to stay in the Region?
O.H: Business is growing and I like living here. On top of that, the weather, the four seasons, a beautiful spring, a yellow beautiful autumn with all the produce that comes at the end of the summer. A combination of all that made me decide that it is a beautiful little heaven that hasn't been explored yet and that's why probably people have a wrong opinion of it. Geographically we are so close to Croatia for the summer for the sea coast, and as well to the mountains, Italy, Budapest, Vienna is only 3,5 hours away. And we have opportunities as entrepreneurs to take this local produce and try to work with it. So all in all, it's a full package and I still look forward to many more years in Serbia.