You’ve probably never heard of the Romanian town of Timisoara. There was a Roma girl I knew there once on one of my first trips to the Balkans just after the fall of the Soviet Union. I’m recalling an evening in a friend’s flat in Belgrade. The friend rented out the front room to a Roma family that was selling odds and ends at a local flea market. I had a room off the kitchen to myself. The girl leaned at the door as I wrote in a journal, her mother and grandmother at the stove, filling the apartment with the wonderous scents of grilling meats, sautéing vegetables and a ubiquitous mix of aromatic Balkan spices.
The girl was 18, with aspirations of attending dental school one day. Those aspirations were plagued by the tragedy of the Balkans in the wake of the collapse of communism and her Roma heritage, a heritage which evoked acute discrimination across much of Europe, leaving the Roma segregated in a cruel sort of apartheid. Lifting a mug of Timisoarana Beer, a clean and perfectly balanced pale lager, the golden color reminded me of the gold in the girl’s auburn eyes. She’d offered me a bottle of the beer from her home town, part of a stash her father and uncle in the next room had carried as they skirted Serbian customs over small country roads on the frontier between the two nations. Now and then her grandmother would intrude, drawing our hands together with her flour covered frail fingers and e3licit uncomfortable blushes from the girl and I with over-eager talk of marriage.
The city of Timisoara itself is a roadmap of the last five centuries of European history, falling to the Ottoman Turks for almost two centuries, became part of the Hapsburg Empire and was all but destroyed during the Second World War. The Timisoarana brewery itself opened in 1718, just two years after Prince Eugene of Savoy forced the Turks to abandon the town, making it among some of the oldest beers in Europe. I like to think the supreme and precise balance of the beer reflects that history, and the ethnic and national influences that washed across southern Europe like successive floods, each laying their own character.
The beer takes me back to that night, a chill autumn breeze off the Danube River just across the road, the rattle and bell of the last tram for the night, exotic foods, the beer and her. I was learning, those days. There were too many stories about the Roma in Europe, which carelessly could be affirmed through naïve observation of Roma pickpockets, beggars on trains and upon street corners. Thieves! Criminals! Those were the refrains often heard. I endeavored to fight those misconceptions at every turn, and this good family was the perfect place to begin.
And so I am raising this glass of Timisoarana, which is purely and simply crafted and would adhere precisely to the German purity law, the Reinheitsgebot of 1516. In that law, only water, barely and hops were to be used-they didn’t know about yeast in 1516, though they used it. 5%ABV, it poured to a full white head with simple lacing. I like to think that first beer back in 1993 helped to open my mind a bit. I never saw her or the family again, but I sometimes recall those evening’s building bridges of friendship and understanding over a fine bottle of Timisoarana beer.