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Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Slovakians are big on beer. After all, Slovakia is right next door to the Czech Republic, one of the great hubs for brewing and beer drinking (the country, famously, has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world).
Still, in contrast to the Czech Republic, Slovakia only recently hit the map as a beer destination. In fact, it’s maybe a stretch to say it’s on the map. But if it isn’t, it should be.
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During a recent trip to the country’s small but lively capital, Bratislava, I discovered a downright hopping new craft beer scene that has come on as strong as a hop-forward Triple IPA.
In addition to such attractions as an impressive hilltop castle and a Gothic cathedral that saw the crowning of Hungarian kings, you’ll now find more than a dozen new brewpubs, microbrewery taprooms and beer halls peddling craft beers in and around Bratislava’s pedestrian-only, 18th-century Old Town. At least a dozen more such venues can be found farther out in the city and in neighboring towns.
Call it “research,” or just a creative excuse for a multiday romp through one of Central Europe’s lesser-known capitals, but I arrived in Bratislava this summer with my official beer taster (and wife) Nicole with the ambitious goal of trying every new spot in one long, three-day weekend.
It was an impossible task, of course. But as I’ve found over more than two decades of travel writing, one way to force yourself off-the-beaten-path when touring is to give yourself an offbeat challenge. And, indeed, this undertaking forced us to roam beyond the main tourist haunts of Bratislava into some of its quieter neighborhoods. It also forced us to interact more with the locals, who we found share our obsession with a good craft brew.
During our stay, we tried approximately 12 different beer pubs, halls and taprooms; ate every meal in a brewpub or beer hall; and tested more than 30 distinct, locally-brewed beers. (Before you chide us, remember that many of these were smaller-than-normal-size tasters.)
Even the choice of our slightly-out-of-the-way hotel, the industrial-chic LOFT Hotel Bratislava, was driven by our mission. It has its very own brewpub on its ground level.
After checking in to the LOFT Hotel, we started our beer adventure by traveling all of 20 feet to its on-premise brewpub, Fabrika, where we promptly ordered a flight of every beer made in house. Opened in 2014, Fabrika is one of the most stylish of Bratislava’s new brewpubs, complete with a gleaming row of stainless-steel brew tanks behind a glass wall, quality beers and a gastro-pubby menu with American-style burgers. It’s the kind of place you find all over US craft beer towns like Denver and Portland, Oregon.
Perhaps because it was tied to the LOFT Hotel, Fabrika always seemed to be busy — not just with out-of-towners staying at the hotel but locals, too. Located just behind the gardens of Slovakia’s Presidential Palace, with both indoor and outdoor seating, it had a diverse clientele ranging from groups of 20-somethings to older couples.
We also found a busy scene at Bratislava Meštiansky Pivovar, on nearby Drevena Street, which turned out to be our favorite Bratislava brewpub. Spread across three floors with a small outdoor seating area, it also served up a gastropub-inspired menu, albeit with more focus on traditional Slovakian dishes. A second, newer and even bigger branch of the same establishment, across town on Dunajska Street, serves a similar array of beers and food.
Fabrika and Bratislava Meštiansky Pivovar are just two of 10 brewpubs and microbrewery tap rooms within walking distance of Bratislava’s main square — nearly all new in just the last few years. In general, they seem to draw a young, lively crowd, including a number of Austrians who cross the border from Vienna for a night on the town as well as Brits, Germans and other Europeans on weekend getaways.
Bratislava, notably, is only 42 miles to the east of Vienna, and it’s become something of a hotspot for young travelers from the Austrian capital. In addition to brewpubs, the core of Bratislava’s pedestrian-only Old Town area is packed with beer halls, wine bars (Slovakia is known for its wines, too), traditional pubs and restaurants of all types that come to life in the late afternoon and evening.
The farther you venture from Bratislava’s pedestrian-only center, the more local (and less crowded) the brewpubs become. At Starosloviensky Pivovar, on Vysoká Street, we were the only English speakers as far as we could tell, and only about half a dozen tables were occupied on a summer evening. Founded in 2011, it has a rustic interior with the cozy feel of a wine cellar even though it’s on a first floor, with barrel-vaulted brick ceilings and wooden furniture.
Near Bratislava’s university area, about a mile from the main square, is Hostinec Richtár Jakub, which was also quiet during an evening visit. Established in 2009 and billed as the oldest microbrewery in Bratislava, it has a hole-in-the-wall feel with available beers scrawled in chalk on blackboards and empty beer barrels stacked up in the open-air courtyard. Far from highbrow, the décor of its two rooms included walls plastered with vintage beer advertising, with a few Playboy centerfolds thrown in for good measure. But the beers, and the beer snacks, were wonderful.
As in the Czech Republic, brewing and drinking beer in Slovakia has been part of the culture for hundreds of years. It’s a shared love that, no doubt, was reinforced by the fact the two countries were merged for a good chunk of the 20th century.
Still, the craft beer scene in Slovakia is relatively new and still in a developing phase. Driven by local demand, many of the brewpubs we tried are focusing their efforts on the Pilsner-style lagers that are a religion in this part of Europe (albeit with a crafty slant), while only taking baby steps into more adventuresome brews.
You won’t find a lot of the insanely hopped, super-high-alcohol concoctions that have become mainstays of American craft beer bars, or an inordinate amount of beers made with oddball ingredients like squid ink — let alone chocolate or apricot. The idea of cooking a beer with nearly 20% alcohol, like the 120 Minute IPA that comes out of the Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, not far from my home, clearly still seems downright insane to a Slovakian.
At Fabrika, the strongest of four house beers, which is billed as an American-style pale ale, is 5.6% alcohol. The brewpub’s main Pilsner-style lager is 4.6% alcohol. Fabrika also makes a wheat beer and a dark lager at 4.7% and 5% alcohol, respectively.
That said, what they are making at Bratislava’s craft breweries is often wonderful for its style. Hazy, hearty and hoppy, Bratislava Meštiansky Pivovar’s main house beer, a craft Pilsner with 5% alcohol, may be my new favorite Pilsner. Nicole and I also loved the brewpub’s malty dark lager.
A few Bratislava brewpubs are experimenting in a more American-style way. One of our favorite discoveries, Ružinov Brewery Komín, was serving a single-hop (Mosaic) India Pale Lager that, despite being relatively light at only 5.2% alcohol, had a bright, citrusy taste with nice bitterness. There was also a solid, piney and citrusy American-style India Pale Ale on tap. We basically had to fight to order it, as our server, clearly worried we would be put off by its “crazy” American hoppiness, kept trying to steer us to the basic Pilsner-style lager.
As the menu amusingly noted about the India Pale Ale, in a warning clearly aimed at the local crowd: “The conservative beer drinker may be surprised by its colorful fruity character acquired through foreign hop varieties.”
Note that Ružinov Brewery Komín isn’t right in the city center. It’s located at Bratislava’s Mileticova Market, which is about 1.6 miles from the main square. In theory you could walk there, but it’s also reachable via one of the ubiquitous trams that run through the city (the No. 9, to be specific). That’s how we got there, enjoying the views of less touristy parts of Bratislava as we rambled along.
Another venue taking a bolder approach is the Be Unorthodox Craft Beer Bar. Located in the heart of Old Town and only recently opened, it’s a tiny establishment with just a small indoor tasting room and a handful of outside tables along pedestrian-only Panska Street. But its nine taps offered a mix of unusual brews. These included the owner’s own American-style Unorthodox beers as well as Czech, Polish and Danish craft alternatives.
If you’re like me and you crave an occasional wallop from something big and bold, Be Unorthodox is your place. When we visited, one of its taps was running Swedish brewery Omnipollo’s Agamemnon, a spectacular imperial stout made with maple syrup and coconut. It clocks in at 12% alcohol. For fruit-beer fans, Be Unorthodox also had Danish brewer Mikkeller’s Oregon Series Spontan Blueberry (which, Holy Moly, is tart!) and Polish brewer Browar Stu Mostow’s Salamander Strawberry Milkshake IPA. You can order a nine-beer flight that gets you a taste of every beer on tap for 12 euros (about $13.50 at the current exchange rate). That’s a steal in our book.
One of the allures of a Bratislava brewpub crawl, for sure, is that the price of beer (as well as other drinks, food and lodging) is about half of what it would be in Vienna or other nearby beer destinations like Munich.
The basic craft Pilsner at Bratislava Meštiansky Pivovar costs 2.3 euros ($2.60) for a half-liter glass, which is the rough equivalent of a pint. The brewpub’s dark lager, which only comes in 0.4-liter glasses, costs just 2 euros ($2.25). Some of the other venues we tried, such as Starosloviensky Pivovar, had housemade beers starting as low as 1.65 euros ($1.85). Compare that to the 4- and 5-euro beers Nicole and I paid for in Vienna a few days later.
A quick note on beer labeling in Slovakia: As in the Czech Republic, you’ll see beers described in terms of degrees: 11 degrees, 12 degrees, etc. This is not a reference to the alcohol content of the beers, although it’s related. It’s a measurement of the concentration of dissolved solids in the beer when it is the “wort” stage before being fermented. In general, the higher the degree, the higher the final alcohol content.
Half of the fun of brew-pubbing your way around Bratislava, I must say, is trying out the local pub food. It’s as hearty and satisfying as anything you’ll find at an American beer joint.
The Bratislava equivalent of hot wings with blue cheese sauce — the dish you’ll find nearly everywhere — is bryndzové halušky, a cheesy, gnocchi-like Slovakian dish made with mini potato dumplings and a local soft sheep’s cheese call bryndza. It’s usually sprinkled with cooked bits of smoked pork fat and typically runs about 7 to 8 euros per plate.
You’ll also find round potato dumplings served with smoked pork, stewed Sauerkraut, cream and fried onion. There’s a particularly tasty version of this dish at Bratislava Meštiansky Pivovar. Meat and cheese plates are common, too.
At Starosloviensky Pivovar, the specialty of the house is a homemade “pate” of herb-infused bryndza cheese served with rustic bread. It’ll set you back less than 4 euros.
Fat in all its wonderful forms also seems to be big at Bratislava brewpubs. At Hostinec Richtár Jakub, we ordered a special of the night called Nase Oskvarky v Masti that turned out to be a jar full of fried pork rind bits encased in lard that could be spread onto bread like butter. It was stupendous — at least for the first few bites. Then it just became too much.
We also ordered what turned out to be a jar of fat at Ružinov Brewery Komín.
Not all brewpubs and beer halls in Bratislava serve food. Be Unorthodox is one such place, and so is Výčap u Ernőho, a taproom for a local microbrewer called Shenk in the Old Town area that also made our list of favorites.
In such cases, you sometimes can grab street food to pair with your beers. That’s what we did at Výčap u Ernőho, which overlooks a tree-shaded square with plenty of outdoor seating where you can sip your beers and nosh on take-out at the same time. Výčap u Ernőho encourages this by letting you take its beer cups outside for a 2-euro deposit. You get that back when you return the cup.
Where to Stay
As I mentioned, we booked the 111-room LOFT Hotel for the sole reason that it had its very own brewpub on site, and we weren’t disappointed. In addition to being the perfect place for a “last call” brew before bed, it was modern, clean and affordable (we paid $116.65 per night including all taxes and fees for an upgraded Comfort Room with breakfast included; basic Standard Rooms were under $100 a night). And, fittingly, breakfast at the LOFT Hotel is served in its brewpub, which is how we accomplished the task of having every single meal during our visit inside a beer venue.
There’s a second property near the city center with its own brewpub, too: the 19-room Botel Dunajsky Pivovar. Opened in 2014, it’s a combination floating hotel (it’s built onto a boat docked along the Danube), restaurant and brewery with an outdoor terrace overlooking the water.
Travelers paying for a Bratislava brewpub trip with points and miles will be happy to know several big brands are represented in town, including the Category 4 Sheraton Bratislava (from 25,000 points per night) and Crowne Plaza Bratislava (available from 20,000 points per night). But there aren’t a ton of international hotels. Bratislava is one of Europe’s smallest capitals, with a population barely over 400,000, and its name-brand hotel stock is relatively limited.
Getting There and Around
Bratislava has a small airport, MR Štefánik Airport or Bratislava Airport (BTS), primarily served by low-cost carriers such as RyanAir, which uses it as a base for flights to more than two dozen destinations that are mostly in Europe. Wizz Air, SmartWings and FlyDubai are among other carriers flying there.
From the US, you’ll probably want to look at flights into nearby Vienna International (VIE). Despite being in another country, it’s just 40 miles away and served by all three major alliances. Note that Austrian Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance, is the only airline that offers nonstop service to Vienna from the US.
From Vienna International, it’s easy to grab an Uber straight to your hotel in Bratislava for a relatively affordable price, given the distance. We paid 71.84 euro, or about $80, for a door-to-door trip to the LOFT Hotel that took about an hour. If you’re traveling on a budget, there also are three bus companies — FlixBus, Slovak Lines and RegioJet — that will get you from the airport as far as Bratislava’s bus station for far less (fares start around 5 euros per person, or about $5.50). Just be prepared to wait a bit for the next available departure.
The same bus companies also are a good choice if you’re traveling between Bratislava and other nearby destinations as part of a multicity tour. We chose FlixBus for transport from Bratislava to Budapest, Hungary (the next stop on our trip), and couldn’t have been happier with the experience. The bus that took us on the 124-mile, 2.5-hour journey was modern and clean with comfortable seats, free Wi-Fi access and electric outlets, all for less than $20 per person.
While in Bratislava, you’ll probably use your own foot power to get around. It’s a compact, walkable city. But there’s also the very functional, inexpensive and easy-to-understand tram system mentioned earlier. We also had no problem ordering Ubers for quick trips and, at times, laughably low fares. We paid less than 3 euros for one 9-minute ride across town.
Feature photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy.
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