Stubborn Hop-heads - Nova Runda
G oing to the frontline of one revolution is hard enough, yet this Croatian brewery went all out with pioneering craft ales as well as crowdfunding in their native land.
Nova Runda is a Zagreb based gipsy brewery, run by Miroslav Šuvak and Marko Filipin. Whoever I asked about Croatian beer they referred me to them as the pioneers of the local scene. After a brief research, I knew I had to talk to them since apparently they have a loyal and pretty hardcore following. One of their customers went as far as tattooing their pump clip design on their arm. I asked Miro how did they get here.
Let’s start from the beginning, how did you come up with the Idea for the brewery?
As is the case with many breweries we come from a homebrewing background. The homebrewing scene was relatively active in Croatia and a lot of people started to take notice of our beers on competitions. Based on their feedbacks we decided to go pro.
It’s on every homebrewer’s mind that one day they would like to open a brewery, however they abandon the idea usually. Did you find the transition difficult?
The main problem is usually the lack of funds to open a proper brewery. We started as gipsy brewers in the Kahli brewing facility in Varaždin as we didn’t have the money to start our own operation. This was three years ago, in a time when no one in Croatia knew what craft beer is. They didn’t even know what an ale is. I presume that was the case in many countries of the region as well because we’re all under a big influence of German and Czech brewing schools. That means lagers, lagers and lagers.
Lagers, lagers and lagers
Back when we started, you could only find euro lagers in Croatia. We were pissed off by the lack of choice. As big fans of British and American brewing, we wanted to make those kind of beers rather than bland lagers. Now producing American style ales is our core business. Our year round beers are the American Pale Ale and C4 but we also do seasonal brews - the Fireball red ale and Brale American brown ale.
We are true hop-heads. When we make new recipes other than American style brews we end up adding more and more American hops. It’s fair to say that we are crazy about American hops.
It was a risky business move to start brewing these styles three years ago. We didn’t know how the market would react to these new beers. We decided that that we shouldn’t dive in at the deep end with a bold beer like C4, instead we went with a less extreme recipe which was our APA. Now this beer is our best seller.
After leaving the original facility in Varaždin we moved our production to Jasztrebarszka, a small town about 30 minutes’ drive from Zagreb. The brewery there was closed for seven years by the time we found it and started to brew there. This is where brew all of our beer to this day. The only caveat is that it is a brewery set up for lager production predominantly. You can imagine we’re not that satisfied with that facility. However, at the moment that’s the only thing we have, so we must make it work.
What can we know about the people behind Nova Runda?
I recently read an article in the San Diego Times and they wrote about the craft beer bubble in the USA. There’ so many competing breweries If you want to succeed in the brewing business you should have three key staff. The people person, a great head brewer and a sales person. I’m the first and second Marko is the third.
On the serious note the brewery has now six full time employees. I take care of the business tasks. Everything financial, marketing and logistics related is on my table. Marko is our head brewer who is responsible for the production. We are a good collective. I think when starting a brewery, it’s important to have a trustworthy partner, a friend because it would be too much for one person.
You’ve mentioned C4, your flagship IPA is a bold concept. Can you talk a bit more about the beer?
It’s a hoppy and juicy IPA. That’s the style we are famous for now. We put a lot of hops in that beer. There’s about 20 grams per liter and that constitutes as a shitload of hops. The biggest difference between a lot of craft breweries and us is that we are brewing beer for ourselves that we really enjoy. I think that’s very important to enjoy your own beer.
We started out as gipsy brewers and because we are a bit stubborn, we didn’t want to adapt to the market. In the beginning a lot of people told us our beer is too aromatic and too bitter. We said it supposed to be like that! We believed in our product. And people slowly started to listen and understand our passion for our products.
How did you find the customers with such a niche product?
In the beginning, we didn’t have a lot of sales. The beauty of gipsy brewing is that you don’t have to quit your day job but it’s also taxing to do both. My friend and cofounder Marko is a mathematician by trade but he’s also our head brewer. I’m the self-proclaimed craft beer ambassador and my job is to make people aware of our offerings. We invested a lot in social networks. We are strong on twitter. It is our main communication channel. We don’t even have Instagram. Only twitter Facebook and a blog. I started writing a blog 4 years ago about the development of the brewery.
We decided 5 years ago that we wanted a brewery. That’s when I started to write a blog. We didn’t have a name back then. So, when we decided to name it Nova Runda (another round, next round of drinks) I’ve started to post about all stages of the progress. Everything from the administrative hurdles to the design of our logo was posted online. Then I started to write about beer and different beer styles as some sort of education program. The aim was to create the market and demand for the products we were about to sell.
You can have great score on RateBeer, you can have fabolous rates on Untappd, but when someone puts a tattoo of your beer, you can say you achieved something.
We don’t invest in traditional marketing. If you go to a Croatian craft beer festival and see the lousiest stand with nothing, That’s us. Once in a while I put up a T-shirt but that’s the maximum effort. We convince people with our beer and that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s not about posters. Maybe that’s why people call us punks. But for the record: I listen to stoner rock!
We are against marketing in a way because we are breaking rules. A company wrote a study about our sales strategy a while ago. We are apparently doing great social sales. The effort I put into educating people pays off. I don’t find the customers, they find us. In the last two years, I haven’t made a single cold call. Our products speak for themselves.
Bootstrapping is always a key step for any startups. How did you secure the startup capital?
Sometime in the beginning we decided to start a crowdfunding campaign. At that time, we were at a web conference where we met some other guys who started a crowdfunding campaign. Every backer in their campaign who invested a certain amount of money would get 1% of shares in the company. They gathered 500.000 Euros.
They laughed their asses off. They said crowd funding is a scam
This inspired us to run a crowd sourcing campaign with rewards. We went with the Indiegogo platform, because it’s straight forward to put a project on there and they are flexible about payment. At that time, we were not only pioneers in craft brewing but also pioneers in crowdfunding. During that time, a lot of Croatian people didn’t know what the fuck crowdfunding means, including our Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Craft.
When we were planning to build the brewery, we planned to buy the equipment we went to meet a key staffer at the ministry who simply laughed at me when I said a part of the investment would be covered by crowd funding. They laughed their asses off. They said crowd funding is a scam. Then I went on to write an article about it and that went viral. This kind of publicity helped us a lot and eventually help to run a successful campaign on Indiegogo.
Did people sympathies with you guys as you were fighting the bureaucracy?
Yeah, they saw these two regular guys fighting a behemoth. Both in terms of red tape and with macro breweries. We said no to filtered beer. We don’t like bottles. In bottles beer will oxidize, we didn’t want to compromise quality for longer shelf life.
We wanted to make draft beer. It is a painful path though. You can’t easily grow sales when you decide to take this path. When you have bottles you can go to retailers, you can go to distributors. To this day, we don’t have a distributor. We are doing everything ourselves.
Every keg goes directly to the pubs. A lot of distributors call that they want to stock our beer. I must tell them off especially when I ask them about if they have a cold room to keep our stock. They don’t understand that to preserve the quality of our beer it needs to be kept on 4 degrees Celsius, because it is unfiltered and unpasteurized. We are completely stubborn. This is how our beer should be handled from start to finish so the consumers have the experience we intended. Probably if we would have a corporate financial manager we would get scolded for using so much hops and being so picky with distribution.
This is a restriction but it seems to be working for you. As far as I can see this enthusiasm about your products rubbed off on your customers, do you agree?
Yes, the fruit of all that work was validated a month ago when we won the award from RateBeer for best Croatian brewer and on untappd we are the best brewer and C4 is the best beer on both sites. It is popular and there’s demand for it from abroad as well, however we are still restricted by our production choices. There’s a certain level of visibility that bottles and cans can provide but when you export a keg that’s not the same visually. It’s hard to notice that a new keg is on tap in your regular bar.
There’s new breweries popping up in the country more and more frequently. How is the competition in a rather small and new market?
We have only started brewing three years ago but already there are more than 25 craft breweries in Croatia. But I’m happy to say that the relationship between us is rather good.
Story time. A couple of years ago we were outsourcing our deliveries to a provider in Zagreb. They were delivering our kegs on Tuesdays and Fridays. On a Friday one of their vans broke down. The delivery guy called me to break the news. It was a complete fuckup and I was pissed because if kegs didn’t get to the pub that day punters would have to wait till next weekend for the beer. I called Andrej, the owner of Zmajska Brewery.
I described him the whole situation and ask him if I could borrow their van. He replied without any hesitation. “sure, no problem” I personally picked up their van with the huge dragon logo on the side and made the deliveries myself. There were some raised eyebrows when I showed up to customers in the Zmajska Pivovara van delivering C4.
So, we are really helping each other there’s absolutely no bad blood between us. Especially myself I’m doing a lot of effort to write about local beer, brewers and the beer scene in general. I take it as a personal responsibility as we were the first ones around to not just start a scene but to continue fostering it.
What are your plans for the brand?
We are now reviving the plans for our own brewery. The plan is to open a brewery here in Zagreb next year with a taproom and a canning line. We want to do cans, but do them properly.
Can you imagine what we will be doing with a proper setup?
We won’t filter our beers. That’s the only distribution friendly packaging that would work for us too. It’s superior to bottles, especially for American style ales. They are light, sustainable and the sunlight doesn’t penetrate them so they don’t oxidize. We’d like to follow the example of Moor Beer Company from UK. They made the first can conditioned beer.
Even with the limitation of our current setup we are doing “OK” beers. Can you imagine what we will be doing with a proper setup?