Budapest’s booming craft-beer industry has long gone seasonal, but this particular winter sees a rare crop of quite excellent brews. From Russian imperial stout to barley wine matured in Tokaji wine barrels, we sip and assess our favourites.
Thanks to the philosophy of perfectionist brewer Előd Varjú, every year Horizont slightly alters the recipe for its Russian imperial stout. The current result has been matured for ten months, a creamy, full-bodied, pleasantly sippable black beer of 10% strength, in which chocolate-coffee flavours dominate, with slight pruney overtones. In addition, some of the finished potion was matured for another five months in a Jack Daniel’s whiskey barrel, enhancing the vanilla-coconut tang, but also deepening the character of the beer. “The perfect ale accompaniment to a warming fireplace,” says Horizont, and who are we to argue?
Horizont Russian imperial stout. Strength: 9-10%. Price: 1,490-1,790 forints.
BÉKÉSSZENTANDRÁSI SZENT ANDRÁS: ESTHAJNAL ’18
For the sixth winter of asking, the St András Brewery is producing a special seasonal dessert beer. While last year’s bergamot orange earl grey porter divided opinion, this year’s vintage should be universally popular. Esthajnal ’18 (‘Dusk ’18’) is a smoked pruney Russian Imperial Stout, in which fruity flavours combine with characteristic coffee-caramel, and the strength of 10% plus isn’t too obvious. In addition, it is also available in a presentation box, with a logo’d glass by the two bottles.
Békésszentandrási Szent András imperial stout. Strength: 10.5%. Price: 900 forints, presentation box 3,000 forints.
HORIZONT & MAD SCIENTIST: RICE RICE BABY
Mad Scientist and Horizont are known for their mutual wish to test the boundaries of beer and together, they have now gone further than ever before: they have concocted a rice barley wine, with sake yeast, aged for six months in barrels which previously contained six puttonyos Soltész Cellar Tokaji aszú. And the end result is definitely for those who like to get deeper into a drink and enjoy it, as it gradually yields newer and newer flavours. In Rice Rice Baby, the raisin-grape sweetness of the barley wine dominates, slowly masking the sourness of the sake grain and distinctive aroma of Tokaji. There will definitely not be an everyday favourite, but you don’t want to be it: it’s really worth keeping for that special moment and savouring it slowly while it is still available.
Horizont-Mad Scientist barley wine matured in Tokaji aszú barrels. Strength: 9%. Price: 1,890 forints.
FEHÉR NYÚL: BARLEY WINE/LIEZON
If anything epitomised the advancement of small-scale brewing in Hungary in 2018, it was Fehér Nyúl. András Csepregi, Álmos Sajgó and Péter Meiszner expanded the brewery with exciting reinterpretations of already known styles: Berliner Weisse, stout and pils. This trend continued as Christmas approached. Not only did they bring back their barley wine (and in special 0.75-litre packs) but they also reworked it. First matured in Barrique barrels for nearly half a year, the final result was marketed in a very limited amount as Liezon. While the basic SMaSH, ie one kind of malt and hops, is a dessert beer in nature, a dense, creamy, fruity-yogurt flavour and gradual warming have emerged. It provides new layers to last year’s concoction, leaving Liezon’s tannin-woody-Tokaji-like aromas to tingle the taste buds.
Fehér Nyúl barley wine matured in Tokaji-like barrels. Strength: 10.5%. Price: 1,290 forints.
MONYO BREWING CO: BLÖFF SERIES
In 2015, MONYO launched its series Blöff, inspired by Guy Ritchie’s classic film Snatch – the beers are marketed in special 0.375-litre bottles as limited editions. This year, there are only a few thousand of them, with a unique number, year and changed design. Penge Borisz (‘Boris the Blade’), for example, is termed a Russian imperial stout, with a high alcohol content (11.8%), and strong, dense, coffee-caramel flavours. Franky Four Fingers will steal the hearts of those tempted by the promise of a complex, cherry, barrel-matured barley wine. But instead of barley, you can also choose wheat, its scent and taste dominated by apricot and melon – such as Cousin Avi. Silky, honey-ish, bready, malty in character, it’s a real speciality.
MONYO Brewing Co Russian imperial stout, barley wine, wheat. Strength: 11.2%-12.3%. Price: 1,990 forints.
HOPTOP BREWERY: TENNO
Economist turned brewer Ali Rawech Szami originally created an imperial stout for this year’s Budapest Beer Week, matured it for a year, and added sweet orange peel and candy sugar to the Challenger and Columbus hops. Accordingly, as you start to sip, a malty-liqueur sweetness dominates, gradually followed by earthy, roast coffee and a hint of chocolate, creating a nice balance. It’s a limited edition, so get your skates on.
HopTop Brewery imperial stout. Strength: 9%. Price: 990 forints.
MAD SCIENTIST: COOKIE MONSTER
By their own admission, with Cookie Monster Mad Scientist “wanted the kind of stout with no messing, no nonsense, just a glimpse of the style that characterises new wave, as we used to when following the example of a celebrity chef”. To judge if they’ve achieved this, Zoltán Reketye-Trifán, brewer at Reketye and head of the Jónás Craft Brewery reckons, “It perfectly meets the demands of style yet still shows something new”, while the boys at Horizont can only add, “Leather armchair, stove, crackling fire and a chalice-shaped glass”. Perhaps there can be no better letter of recommendation.
Mad Scientist imperial stout. Strength: 10.5%. Price: 1,490 forints.
FEHÉR NYÚL: RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT
“When I came by a bottle of Russian imperial stout, it ruffled my feathers a bit because it is one of my favourite varieties, and one of the hardest to get right.” And one of the most important milestones in brewing. A wonderful aroma surprises your sense of smell with its first waft, powerful characteristics that then diminish, of roasted Arabica coffee beans, cocoa and soft caramel. The palate is silky, soft but also intense, complex but well balanced, full of roasted malt, dark chocolate and caramel flavours. “Bewitching!” is how guerrilla brewer Botond Cserniczky remembers one of the most outstanding assortments created by Fehér Nyúl.
Fehér Nyúl Russian imperial stout. Strength: 8.2%. Price: 1,150 forints.
MONYO BREWING CO: HUNGARIAN TERROIR SERIES 2018 – BLAUFRÄNKISCH RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT
Breweries invited to this year’s tenth-anniversary Borefts Bier Festival had to create a special stout for the occasion, the organisers providing nine different raw materials, allowing the tenth to be chosen by participants. For MONYO, the choice was Kékfrankos, so the recipe was developed in co-operation with the Pfneiszl estate in Sopron, terroir for this variety of red wine. Its Premium Selection was added to the beer, then matured in wine barrels. The end result is a deep black, dense and silky dessert beer, in which the Kékfrankos acidity nicely counteracts the sweetness of the chocolate-liqueur stout.
MONYO Brewing Co Russian imperial stout with Pfneiszl Premium Selection Kékfrankos matured in red-wine barrels. Strength: 10.5%. Price: 2,990 forints.
MAD SCIENTIST: OLD KING CLANCY
Bringing sweet flavour to winter mornings, maple syrup not only goes with American pancakes and cappuccino, but also beer. Mad Scientist’s barley wine, with flavours of caramel and toasted brown sugar, have been supplemented by the sweet liqueurs of Canada’s national speciality. In addition, Old King Clancy has an earthy-bitter finish, which is why it can be recommended to those otherwise discouraged by this oft-exaggerated variety.
Mad Scientist maple barley wine. Strength: 13.2%. Price: 1,890 forints.
BÉKÉSSZENTANDRÁSI SZENT ANDRÁS: BLACK ROSE (2015-18)
While hops-dominated beers, such as IPAs, should be consumed as quickly as possible, others, such as double bocks, improve with age, completely different flavours emerging after several months, even years, of storage. To underline this, the Szent András Brewery has packaged its Black Rose 2015 and 2018 vintages together, and the difference between them is tangible. While the latter is typically creamy, sweet (slightly toasted), with a moderately bitter finish, the former is fuller, more decisive like, say, a nut liqueur, although that may be over-egging it. They can certainly be recommended to fans of dark beer – more patient aficionados may wish to experiment with how long they store the bottle stored in order to get the best results.
Békésszentandrási Szent András double bock. Strength: 9%. Presentation box: 3,500 forints.
MONYO BREWING CO: THE BOUNTY HUNTER KILLED MY BABY COCONUT
As MONYO Brewing has already issued A Beard Doesn’t Make You A Brewer, effectively creating a liquid Snickers bar, we shouldn’t be too surprised to now see them channelling the humble Bounty. Bounty Hunter Killed My Baby Coconut reminds you of all the classic vanilla-coconut sweets, even milky ones, and slightly roasted coffee-caramel flavours. In addition, this beer has been enriched with nitrogen, making its texture even more silky and creamy. So if there’s no coconut-flavoured chocolate in the house, just reach for a bottle of this.
MONYO Brewing Co milk stout. Strength: 6.1%. Price: 900 forints.
HORIZONT: PILOT SERIES #14
MONYO Brewing creates the Radical Series, Mad Scientist has Alpha Batches, so Horizont offers the Pilot Series, whose basic elements allow for any amount of invention thereafter. The main aim of this 14th variety was not to capture the atmosphere of winter with high alcohol content and a darker beer style. Instead, they created a red ale, almost an IPA, the hops added post-cooling, with plenty of rose hip as well as fragrant rooibos tea. It has a tart, fruity-bitter, tea-like aroma, and is comfortably warmed by nearly 7% alcohol content. A real winter treat.
Horizont Brewery rose hip and rooibos winter ale. Strength: 6.8%.
FIRST THE CRAFT BEER CO: CHOCOLATE VANILLA IMPERIAL STOUT
The expansion of FIRST The Craft Beer Co continued in 2018: more places have been opened in the city, and since the arrival of Máté Abraham from Horizont, they have raised the bar. So there was no question that its chocolate vanilla imperial stout should be among our recommendations. Made with strong, hand-crafted Indonesian and Ugandan vanilla, this black ale-type brew is a real speciality. Its creamy, chocolate-like character is a worthy accompaniment to the playful vanilla – and one those with a sweet tooth are bound to enjoy.
FIRST The Craft Beer Co imperial stout. Strength: 7.5%. Price 900 forints.
Where to find these winter beers
The following venues should stock most of what you might be looking for, but not all varieties will be available everywhere. Some special presentation boxes were created for the Christmas market and may no longer be available in early January. For further information, see Untapped (registration required):