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Microbrewery aims to add new flavors to Kosovo beer scene one bottle at a time

Nov 19, 2020

PRISTINA – Kosovo’s first microbrewery Sabaja, located just outside the city in Gracanica continues to find growing success as they enter their fourth year of business. Working with local restaurants, supermarkets and festivals, such as Beer Fest Kosova. Sabaja founder Alex Butler has made a name for himself and his partners in the Kosovo beer scene.

“We founded Sabaja is 2012, with our first brew in June 2013.”said owner and United States native Alex Butler, “My partners are both Kosovars, my wife Etida and her brother Genc Zeka.”

He met Etida back in 2009 in his hometown Rochester, New York. They were both studying for their master’s degree in business at the Rochester Institute of technology. They dated the year she was in Rochester and he and his roommate picked up home brewing at about the same time.

“Etida moved back to Pristina after graduation and I moved to Brooklyn to work in the music industry, but continued brewing. She visited me while I was there, and I had her taste a Russian Imperial Stout that I had brewed. It was a good beer, lots of chocolate and caramel notes with a little bitterness coming through.”

She told him they didn’t have beer like this in Kosovo. On the plane ride home, she decided she wanted to start brewing craft beer in Pristina, to bring something new to the market.

“The next day Etida called me on Skype and asked if I would teach her how to brew. I told her I wouldn’t teach her – that I would rather move to Kosovo and brew with her. That recipe for the first beer became our winter seasonal drink, The Winter King.” continued Butler.

He says that in Illyrian times, ‘Sabaja’ was the word for beer. More recently, the Turkish word ‘sabah’, meaning ‘morning’, has been incorporated into the Albanian language.

“It is only fitting that we consider our hand-crafted ales a new dawn for beer in Kosovo.” said Butler.

Since then, it’s been four years that Butler offers craft beers to Kosovars.

“We are the first raft brewery in the country and also the first to produce ales” said Butler.

Located near the Gracanica Monastery outside of Pristina, the small brewery offers a cozy atmosphere where all the beers are hand brewed and bottled on site.

He continued “We have three year-round beers, our flagship IPA (Imported Pale Ale), a Smoked Porter and a Session Pale Ale. We have also produced a number of limited edition beers, including the Imperial Stout, a Belgian Saison, English Ale, and Amber Ale.”

He adds that they chose to start with an IPA because it was different – something completely new, from the product itself, through the branding, and ultimately through the way they presented it.

“We then expanded to Porter to show the market that black beers could be so much more than the rare dark lagers you might find locally. We finally introduced the Session to have a low-alcohol counterpart to the Pilsners – something people could drink during a football/soccer game.”

Sabaja is available in bars and restaurants around Pristina, including Baba Ghanoush, SOMA, Dit e Nat and MIQT Pub as well as restaurants in Prizren, Gjakova and Gjilan. Sabaja is also distributed in select grocery stores around Kosovo. Butler and his wife opened a restaurant to serve their beers in as well as some traditional bar in the city center near the football stadium. The couple soon hopes to open a second location in the next year.

“The beer industry in Kosovo, and the Balkans in general, is dominated by European lagers, pilsners in particular. Our market research when we opened indicated that only 5% of the market was interested in non-lager beers,” said Butler.

Sabaja is one of three microbreweries in Kosovo, along with Grembeer and ELNOR Prishtina Brewery as well as the larger corporations, Birra Peja and Birra Prishtina.

While that number seems small, he was confident that it was enough to get them started, and to draw more people in as the brewery progressed.

Their goal is to build an industry around craft beer, the way the craft industry holds around 20% of the American market. He believes that their biggest challenge was to introduce people to a beer that defies their expectations.

Butler continued, “When all the beer you’ve ever had has been Pilsner (such as Birra Peja), the first time you sip an IPA it feels wrong. We’ve converted a lot of people over the past four years. We have customers now that tell us now that they could never go back to drinking lagers. That’s a great feeling – to have had an impact on people’s taste like that – but there’s a lot of work left to do.”

When asked of future plans for the beer and the brewery, Butler said they hope to get more Kosovars involved.

“We do have interested young people; those who know what the variety is like in the rest of the world, and especially those interested in home brewing for themselves, but it’s not exclusive to young people. A big part of our current market is also internationals in Pristina, but it’s starting to shift to a wider market and we are working to make that shift happen.”

Many Kosovars still prefer drinking Birra Peja to other alternatives. Peja is the largest brewery in Kosovo, producing their famous pilsner, a type of pale lager, which the brewery has produced since the 1970s for distribution around the Balkans.

The company also produces a premium beer and an alcohol free beer. Currently they are looking at expanding into more international markets, particularly in Western Europe and the United States, according to Board of Directors member Valon Basha.

“There hasn’t been any competition in the craft sector of the beer industry in Kosovo since we began brewing, but we are starting to see that change as new brewers are beginning to open shop.” said Butler, “While we have been carving out our little niche among the big players, like Peja, it’s hard to call it competing. They are extremely good at what they do, and we respect them for it. There’s no real way for us to go head-to-head with them, though.”

The goal of Sabaja and other microbrewers isn’t to take market share away from the major players, but instead to get more people interested in beer by offering a greater variety of really great styles. They claim they want to grow the industry as a whole, which should ultimately be good for all the competitors here, so they’re always excited to see the new brewers getting started. According to them, It means that things are moving the right direction.

“We’ve had slow, but steady growth since we started.” said Butler. “We have seen a bigger change this year in particular however and we are making our own moves to get a little more aggressive about growth. We’ll be launching a few new products this fall, geared at people that are a little more reluctant to get out of their comfort zones. Gateway beers that can introduce more people to the quality of craft beer and eventually get them experimenting with the more unexpected styles that might be a little too bold for them to start with.”

Aside from Kosovo, Sabaja also exports their beers to Croatia and hopes to expand their market into other Balkan countries.

He continued, “We’re very excited for the next few months. Hopefully we’ll be getting some more export going next year and growing our volumes, but we do aim for the stability of organic growth overall.”

Sabaja was one of eighteen beers offered at Beer Festival Kosova in July, along with top local brands such as  Birra Peja, Birra Prishtina and Grand Birra.  Imported brands such as Corona and Heineken also had busy booths.

“The big brands can be difficult to compete with, but Sabaja does amazing drafting and we’re always happy to work with them.” said festival organizer Leart Zega.

The festival had more than 10,000 attendees for a weekend of beer, live music and even fireworks according to Zega. Cost of entry was a euro and beers ran about the same price.

One festival goer, 20-year-old Leo Zogiani stuck to drinking Peja the first night, but said he was open to trying new beers throughout the festival.

“I like Peja, it’s a good beer, its cheap and they have it everywhere.” said Zogiani, “it’s what we’ve always drank here.”

Another attendee, Adem Musa said that after spending time abroad he was excited the festival offered different beers, both local and imported.

“I was in Germany for two years, for school.” said Musa, “It was great, the beer scene there is great, one of the things I missed most coming back to Pristina!” he laughed, “I’m glad that they have festivals like this here now, it’s not Oktoberfest, but it’s a chance for people to try new things, something they wouldn’t try at the bar or a restaurant.”

Zega added that they like to support small local businesses and develop a changing mindset for beer in Kosovo.

 “We want to encourage people to try new things and create their own story,” he said.

(Elise St. Esprit was a reporting intern at KosovaLive this summer, in cooperation with Miami University in the United States.)