Craft beer pioneers of Moldova

The end of our trip was drawing near, but there was still time to fit in country number 11, Moldova. Now the quick way from Bucharest to Chișinău is to fly, which takes just over an hour. However, being as thrifty as ever, we opted instead for the 10-hour night bus. This was as fun as it sounds. Poppy has no trouble getting to sleep on public transport and was soon happily snoozing away. I, on the other hand, have never mastered the art of sleeping upright and it turns out 10 hours is a long time to sit doing nothing.

Being marched off the bus at the Moldovan border was almost a welcome break. That was until I, out of all the passengers on our double-decker, was stopped at customs and made to completely empty my backpack. Turns out the £3.20 in change from Manchester Airport six months ago had come back to haunt me; they thought I was an international money smuggler. After a worrying few minutes, they finally let me repack my bag and we got back on our way.

The calm of Chisinau at 7 on Sunday morning

Eventually we made it to Chișinău, a mere seven hours early for our hostel check-in. Luckily, they let us drop off our backpacks and we set off in search of some breakfast. Walking around Moldova is almost like stepping back in time 30 years or so. The Russian influence is still strong here, with grey concrete buildings and orthodox churches dominating the skyline. Some things never change though wherever you go, and as in many cities the only place we could find open for breakfast on a Sunday morning was good old McDonalds. Being outside the EU, their free Wi-Fi was much appreciated too!

Now Moldova isn’t exactly the first country to come into most beer drinkers’ heads. This is unashamedly a winemaking region. In fact, just a few kilometres outside the city is Milestii Mici, the world’s largest wine cellar with almost 2 million bottles (and well worth a visit!). Nevertheless, we were determined to find some beer worth writing about.

Our first port of call was Smokehouse, an American-style craft beer and BBQ joint

After catching up on some shut-eye in the afternoon, we headed out later on in search of refreshments. The hostel had given us a handy map of the city, with dozens of bars and restaurants marked on. We picked out the Smokehouse, an American-style BBQ joint also promising a range of local craft beer. It did not disappoint: on the extensive beer list were plenty of local breweries including Tenemu, Litra, Elvis and LaBREWtory. Poppy went for the Elvis Coffee Porter (7%), while I went for LaBREWtory Merge (4.2%), a delicious session IPA featuring juicy Mosaic hops not often seen in this part of the world. The food was alright as well!

Just next door to Smokehouse was one of the best-named bars we’d visited all trip: Taproom 27: A Hoppy Place. Actually, the two have the same owners and much the same beer range. However, the vibe is completely different and if it’s just beer you’re after, you can’t go far wrong at the Taproom. We decided to stay for a couple, my favourite being the fiery Tenemu Lemur Ginger Ale (4.6%).

Taproom 27 is owned by the same people as the Smokehouse and has the same beer range

It was getting late by now, but having slept all afternoon we weren’t ready for bed just yet. Chisinau on a Sunday night isn’t the busiest place in the world, but around the cathedral there were a handful of bars and restaurants still open for business. We opted for York Pub, supposedly a British-themed pub offering a small selection of craft beers. I’m not exaggerating when I say this was one of the strangest establishments I’ve ever visited.

The walls boasted bizarre, over-the-top British memorabilia; everything from abstract paintings of red pillar boxes to photographs of Pippa Middleton stroking a horse. The same three Johnny Cash songs played on repeat over and over. That said, they did indeed offer some decent beer; a few bottles from LaBREWtory as well as Hofbrau Oktoberfest lager on draught.

The LaBREWtory brewery is rather unassuming from the outside…

Anyone who’s read this blog will know how much I love a brewery visit. Learning that the LaBREWtory Brewery was just a short bus ride from town was therefore very welcome news. A visit there the next day was soon added to our diary. After a delightful trip to the Moldovan National History Museum in the morning, we hopped on the charming number 5 trolleybus – a true bargain at just 2 lei (around 10p!) per person – down to Șoseaua Muncești, just south of the railway station.

We arrived at the brewery, a fairly typical-looking building in a small industrial complex. It seemed strangely quiet, but we ventured inside the front door. We entered a small room with just a desk and a door; there was nobody in sight. We thought we must have got the wrong place and were just about to turn around and leave. Just then I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard an American voice proclaim: “You’re not from around here, are you?”.

…but indoors, there’s a bar, seating and a whole brewery setup

He led us through another door at the back of the room and all of a sudden we were in a warehouse with a bar and seating at one end of the room, and a full brewery setup at the other. Our American hosts introduced themselves as Bill and DeEva and guided us to the bar. There were 5 beers on offer; the Merge IPA I had enjoyed at the Smokehouse, alongside a pale, an amber ale and even a Belgian-style grisette. The best of the bunch though was the Brut IPA 3 (6.4%). It’s not usually my favourite style, but this was a really good example, pale and dry but still with the fruitiness you expect from an IPA.

We got chatting to the owners while enjoying a couple of cold beers; they told us how they had originally moved to this part of the world for Bill’s work. Bill, being a keen homebrewer, dreamt of starting his own brewery and in 2016 the couple found two locals to help them get started. While showing us around the brew-kit they told us of their trials and tribulations with the Moldovan authorities, especially getting their brewing vessels into the country from neighbouring Ukraine. All’s well that ends well though, and the pair are now regularly crafting beer styles never before seen in this corner of Eastern Europe.

There are several Kellers Beer Boutique shops dotted around Chisinau

There was still time to squeeze in one or two more venues before our night bus back to Romania. We hopped back on the trolleybus and headed to the Botanica district. We were looking for Craft Baza, recommended to us by Bill and DeEva. Just by the bus stop though we came across Kellers Beer Boutique. We’d seen a few of these dotted around Chișinău so decided to have a look in. Unfortunately it was just a bottle refill shop, so not having any empty plastic bottles on us, we weren’t able to try any. One to save for next time!

Just up the road we eventually found Craft Baza and wandered inside. This was more like it, a classic craft beer bar with bare brick walls and around 18 taps offering different local beers. Poppy, still loving the dark beers, went for the Elvis Porter, a traditional English-style ale. My beer was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum; Litra Smoozik Blackcurrant Sour (3.5%) wasn’t bad but could’ve been a bit sourer for my liking. An interesting introduction to the Moldovan beer scene without doubt, and hopefully we’ll be back one day to try some more.

We had one last Moldovan beer in Craft Baza

I’m in Chișinău for the day, where should I visit? If you’re in town, you absolutely have to visit the LaBREWtory brewhouse. The beers are some of the best in the country, plus Bill and DeEva are excellent hosts (and will probably let you look around the brewery if you ask nicely).

Brewery to look out for? Even if you can’t make it to the brewery, LaBREWtory’s beers are definitely the ones to look out for. Their pale beers are especially good (as you might expect from a couple of Americans!), but their other beers were all delicious too.

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