I recall my very first sip of Sarajevo beer, or Sarajevsko Pivo. It was amid the siege of the city. I stumbled into the city aboard a United Nations APC and hitched a ride to the center of the city with a Canadian cowboy war photographer. Read my memoir for the full story, but I eventually ended up in a small apartment overlooking Sarajevo’s notorious sniper alley. It was a gloomy and chilly march evening. A single oily candle flickered across the pale and shrapnel pocked walls of an Austro-Hungarian era building. My would-be hosts were Nadja and Hasan Haljevac, both local artists. Sniper fire crackled along the boulevard. Hasan produced a single bottle of Pivo he’d been saving. He graciously opened in as my welcome to the city. Their audacious 10 year old son Sulejman was curled for warmth against his mother.
I’m drinking one now. Each time I crack a bottle of this southern European-style lager, with an ABV of a modest 5%, a flood of memories from dozens of trips to the region revisit me. How many times I have sat and pondered politics, humanity and fate over a glass or bottle, musing over the fine champagne carbonation, which the beer and its inch deep white head holds nicely. I can’t fault Beeradvocate for a meager 3 1/2 stars. One must know the history to properly appreciate the beer. There is a history in this beer, perhaps like no other beer on the planet.
This is a truly regional variant. Don’t make the mistake of comparing it to other brews. Take a look at a map. Sarajevo is an island in the wilderness. The bitterness that finishes to a watery plum note, and a buttery-warm aroma is a product of history and individual character not found elsewhere. With a brewery, or Pivara, founded in 1864 over a rich and deep natural mineral spring-whose local character attracted Romans more than two millennia ago, this beer is historic. The Pivara witnessed Napoleon, two World Wars, forty years of Communism, the fall of two empires and a civil war. Within its oriental style architecture, and the beer hall within, Austrian, Turkish, French, German and NATO soldiers have toasted. I come to it with all of my memories, layered upon that auspicious one, including Sarajevsko Pivo as an excellent elixir for the worst sunburn I have ever suffered.
Pairing the flavors, this beer might be enjoyed with any number of foods. I recommend going local on this one. Many times I’ve enjoyed this over a local Bosnian dished called Chevapi, grilled meat, fresh diced onion and a brick over baked bread called somun. Try a bit of red-pepper spread called Ajvar as a side. Or try with a Turkish-inspired meat, potato, cheese, spinach or pumpkin-filled pastry called Pita.
But always I will recall that first glass during the war. I did not speak much Bosnian, and neither Nadja nor Hasan spoke English. Sulejman spoke some English. I spoke some French. Nadja new a bit as well. For the next week we enjoyed this wild round house of three different languages, and somehow managed to make it all work. And so began my history with Sarajevo beer.
And that’s the key, as I finished the glass, and before I go for another one. Sometimes we can over think a beer. Brian and I love exploring and critiquing beers, pulling apart the flavors and layers, and even going after ill conceived or executed brews. But in the end, it is about memories and loved ones and that perfect moment. It is about the history, the one that is, the one we bring to it and the history we make.
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