In our new series, you can meet the most important players of the Hungarian brewery scene. Read our first article, written by Aaron Troye-White.
Norbi Merkl wants you to start brewing beer. Though as lover of home brewing and manager of BeerOdalom, one of the only brewing shops in the city center, he is a bit biased.
It is easy to see the appeal of the hobby. Hungary is not famous for its dizzying selection of great beers. That said, the country has not been untouched by the craft beer (kézműves) revolution. Because of the small output of many of the city’s artisanal producers, the price of craft brews can be steep, at least in a city where a euro can buy a liter of cheap wine or a mass market lager.
Norbi Merkl: At lot of people start brewing because it’s cheaper, then they realize it’s better as well, then they start looking up.” Merkl said, referring to the tendency of hobbyists to try their hand at professional production. “It’s a good thing.” Though Merkl won the Fifth Annual Hungarian Home brewing competition, he has no aspirations to open a brewy of his own.
He first fell in love with brewing in early-2012, during a brewing demo by Legenda founder and president of the Hungarian Home brewing Association, József “Olasz” (“The Italian”) Kovács. Despite being attended by about 20 eager newbies, many opened their own breweries, forming the core of Hungary’s craft movement.
It’s an addictive hobby for sure. According the American Home brewers Association, there are approximately 1.2 million home brewers in the USA alone, most of whom began brewing after 2005.
Home brewing became legal on January 1, 2012, after a tough fight by the then underground Hungarian Home brewing Association. Though few solid statistics exist today, Norbi Merkl guesses that home brewers in Hungary number at more than a thousand. This may not sound like a big number, but this is relatively rapid growth in the five years since Kovács’s demonstration. “Those twenty people, that was the home brewing community in Hungary.” – says Norbi.
Hungary is, of course, no stranger to DIY alcohol production.
Norbi Merkl: “Everybody’s making palinka, really bad ones.” Merkl said. “Maybe some good ones too. You have a little fruit tree and you make palinka out of it.”
Old palinka and wine making equipment can easily be used for brewing, a hobby less likely to blow up your house.
Getting started is easy. BeerOdalom has all you need to start brewing beer for about 20,000HUF (they do not sell kettles though) and Norbi Merkl can design a custom starting kit built around palinka/wine apparatuses pilfered from grandpa’s farm. The general process is easy. Simply add warm water to malt, wait an hour, take the grains out, boil the liquid in hops, cool it down, add yeast, then wait a week. It has never been easier to start brewing than now.
Norbi Merkl: “If you are really into something, you can definitely learn from the internet. It is easier now, because all the homebrewers can help you,” said Merkl, who is there to help with any questions visitors have.”
Now there is even a Hungarian-language brewing guide that was released in 2016, the result of a five-year project by the Hungarian Homebrew Association. Beer Odalom is tucked away on a side street off József körút, the type of unassuming store one would never find without a google search or a random eighth district wander. It’s small, the size of a bedroom, but uses every centimeter of its space.
Before the desk sits hefty, 50kg sacks of base malts, with specialty grains in plastic bins beneath the shelves. In the corner is a freezer full of hops, sitting in small jam jars. Those used to the pristine, home brewing emporiums of the United States may find it a bit grungy, even impossible to consider that such a nuanced hobby could be confined to such a cozy space. Yet, Beer Odalom has a charming punk-aesthetic, clearly steeped in a love for beer. It even found space to accommodate cheese-making as well. “We have everything, but the milk,” – says Merkl.
The whole left side of the store is a wall of craft brews and imports, with a clear focus on rare German lagers and local Hungarian specialties. Above these is a malt-dust covered collection of empty bottles (the malt grinder sits right next to the front door), many adorned with quirky homemade labels by the store’s customers. If one wants an immediate beer for some incognito sipping at nearby Kalvin Ter, they’ve got a cold selection as well. It is not uncommon for a beer hunter, armed with a list, to come in and raid bottles of specific rarities.
Norbi Merkl loves it “when a newbie comes and wants to brew a beer ‘like this!’ and…they point at some beer on the shelf. It’s a good thing that we sell both beer and brewing supplies.” This is an unique concept, illegal in many places. Opened in 2013 by Árpád Nagy and Bázis Brewery founder Péter Izsó. Beer Odalom is not the first homebrewing shop in Budapest, nor is it the biggest (that would be Legenda), but it doesn’t require a long trip out to the suburbs. Plus, being small has its advantages.
Norbi Merkl: “Smalls shops have this warm, friendly atmosphere where we can chit chat about brewing and home brewing and the craft scene.” says Merkl. This is no empty boast. He’s an easy guy to talk to, a skill he used for years while working on cruise ships. Running a homebrew supply shop came with a steep pay cut, but Merkl has no regrets. “This isn’t my job, it’s my love.”
1085 Budapest, Kis Salétrom utca 2.