Balkezes Brewery: Living the Dream by Aaron Troye-White

It’s an old stereotype that every homebrewer dreams of getting paid for their hobby. This often comes at the end of Saturday brew session, sitting with friends after the fermenter cap is locked, sharing some earlier creation. At this moment, no job seems greater than surrounding oneself with the bready smell of mashing malt or that floral, fruity aroma of freshly-opened hop pellets.

This romanticized view of brewing quickly dies when one finally sets foot in brewery. Instead of dealing with a 5kg of grain, it’s multiple 50kg sacks at a time. The simplest of problems, a stuck mash, a clogged tube, mere trifles at home, are a disaster on a larger scale. Infected homebrew means thirty gushing bottles one needs to open over the sink. Yet on a commercial scale, such a thing can ruin a brand if released, or spell financial disaster if dumped. The off-the-cuff experimentation of home, is impossible when the demands of the market forces one to make the same beer again and again and again. And the cleaning. So much cleaning. The stark realities of a brewer’s life can quickly kill a beer lover’s dreams, but two Budapest men have found a balance between both worlds. They still get those blissful weekends of tinkering recipes in their garage, yet they get to see their great beer on the store shelves. Sometime they don’t even need to step foot in a brewery. Attila Deres and Tamás Nyaras own Balkezes, among the highest rated beer brands in the country. They are guerrilla brewers.

Their business plan is simple. About once or twice a month, they ask a local brewery to produce a recipe for them. They invade the business, train the staff to make their recipe, and once they feel confident in the competence at completing their conceptions, they are free to escape to their garage to formulate their next big hit. If the breweries can’t deliver, produce an infected or inferior product, it doesn’t get released. Fortunately, this has never happened.

This method may not result in big profits, but it is lower risk than owning their own brewery, where they might be forced to brew every day. With such a small production, they don’t have to worry about their beer sitting on the shelves for long. This also helps them maintain a consistent quality. Plus, it allows them to produce beers that may be too costly for full-time brewers to make.

“We don’t really care how much of an ingredient goes into the beer. Taste first, then everything else…and if it is not stable on the market, then we have to take it away(sic)…If you are buying it from us, then a high percent is ingredients. We don’t even count our own work in to.” Nyaras says. The fortune of their situation is not lost on them. “This is our hobby. This is not our living.” He adds, “the money just has to be in a better place than it was in the bank.”

Like many of the nation’s brewers, they began at home in 2012 upon the legalization. Their beers were popular gifts among their friends and they slowly started scaling up more and more. After their Dusseldorf Altbier placed second in its category at the 2013 Házisörfőzők Nemzetközi Versenyén, they began producing 400-500L batches at local breweries, selling their alt as Der Fehler. It was popular enough, but due to the steep price of production, they felt that they couldn’t compete with similar, cheaper beers from Germany, many of which have been around for hundreds of years. So they switched directions.

“Hops are hip,” says Nyaras. “They’re way different from what people are used to…and it’s something that excites the senses.” Now Balkezes produces three of the most popular hop-forward beers in Hungary, one of which, GreyJoy, is the nation’s top rated beer on Untappd. And rightfully so. Greyjoy is an experimental double IPA, with Earl Grey tea and bergamot, that sits at “only” 9% alcohol-per-volume. It pours with a beautiful orange color. It’s a rich, hoppy beer, full of juicy, citrus and tropical fruit tones, yet the bitterness is in control. The beer has a strong, but balanced sweetness, with some notes of caramel (they actually make their own caramel for the beer). Other tea beers can have strong tannins, but Greyjoys’s tea and bergamot flavors are smooth, an impression after swallowing that sits at the tip of the tongue. It especially comes out as the beer warms. The whole thing evolves in the glass, tasting a bit different with every sip.

Nyaras agrees. “I don’t know if you ever have that thing at home, drinking your last beer…and you fall asleep. GreyJoy is a beer you want then. You wake up and the tea is coming out and it’s way different. It’s still good warm or without bubbles. Most beers taste like piss in this form.” It’s been a huge hit for the company, but success has not gone to the brewers’ heads. “It’s a bit pressure, you know, everyone wants to beat it, but this is good…I don’t want GreyJoy to be at the top all the time. There are people who are putting all their effort to making really nice beers…So, just go ahead beat it. If this can be an inspirational thing, we are more than happy. We don’t need to be at the top all the time, just inspire.” GreyJoy should inspire people. Balkezes took a tired style and gave it a new twist. It would be tempting to call them experimenters, but their success comes more from their perfectionism. “We are homebrewers by default. Until we have the perfect recipe, we’re not going to scale it up,” say Nyaras.            Both GreyJoy and Hopster, their version of the quintessential IPA, went through nearly 10 iterations in the garage before they scaled up.

Occasional, they’ll release their more experimental creations as “White Labels”, which are simply numbered with a flavor wheel. They refuse to mark these with a style. Since these are basically a trial run, they want customers to give honest opinions about the product, uninfluenced by labels. Hopster had its roots in #2.

Their current offering is #4.1. They’d prefer to leave it undefined, but I’d call it an India Brown Ale. It has all the hallmarks of a great brown ale: aromas of chocolate, toffee, and a nutty, malty flavor, but with an intense spicy hop kick and a touch of smoke.

#5 has already been planned, but they are keeping mum about the details. They had another beer in the works. Nyaras didn’t say much, but he revealed that they’ve been tinkering in their garage brewery, building upon the ideas of New England IPAs to best enhance hop flavor. The new beer, LD50, was released at the 2nd Kraft Festival. Nyaras was right, it was a beautiful celebration of hops, but not bitterness. It focused on a single variety, Amarillo. If all goes according to planned, it will be the first in a series, each dedicated to a singular hop. This won’t be their first foray into single-hop beers. Peeping Tom is an American Pale Ale with only Simcoe hops. Even though their name is derived from Hungarian slang for “bumbling” (“Kétbalkazes” or literally “two-left hands”), there is nothing clumsy about their skills, a perfect marriage of two minds. Though they develop most recipes together, Tamás describes himself as more of a theoretical guy, whereas Attila focuses on the practicalities, especially scaling up. Making a commercial-sized batch from a home recipe is never just simple multiplication.

Their creative process has its fair share of arguments, even fights, but nothing that has ever threatened their twenty years of friendship. Ultimately, they understand that development of great beers involves a lot of time, work, and emotions. It would be impossible for them dedicate so much effort modifying recipes had they a different business model. This is not to say that full-time brewers can’t experiment or refine their beers, but Balkezes has both the time and freedom to perfect their recipes before they get released into the market. “We won’t deal with something we don’t have faith in,” Nyaras says. This attention gives them a lot of confidence in their products. Nyaras adds, “there were a couple beer with which I wasn’t so confident in. They were small batches, and I wasn’t able to sell them.” Now their beers sell themselves. Balkezes seems content with this. Their marketing is minimal. At the Kraft festival, where every brewery had their own logo-printed glasses, Balkezes instead sold plain glasses, which the brewer’s autographed. They’ve avoid official competitions, except for the national homebrewing contest. Honestly, it really doesn’t seem as if they care at all what people think. They just want to do what they do and “be in places where people are interested in beer itself, not where it’s only some side thing.” They care only about making good beer, and as homebrewers and guerrillas, that’s about as close to those Saturday afternoon dreams as one can get.

Nyaras says it perfectly: “If anybody’s doing this as profession: full respect.”