In 2015, Borisav Radojkovic, a native of Belgrade’s Dorcol district, was working in London after finishing his studies in the UK. A few years into his career as a data analyst in the bustling metropolis, he found he needed a new challenge.
“It was either creating a start-up in London or opening a craft brewery in Belgrade. I think I chose the easier option. When you’re starting up, you expect to take a hit financially, and Belgrade’s a much better place to take that hit than London,” he says.
As often happens with “repats”, many of those he met back in Serbia, including his parents, were initially worried that he was giving up his life in Britain for a new venture.
“People in Serbia normally think you are crazy when you decide to go back. Everybody thinks that life is so much better abroad, and also many people want to flee Serbia. Nevertheless, most of the people are also supportive when they see that you want to make this country better… or at least drunker!”
“In any case, my friends were supportive. I am not sure whether it was because they were looking forward to having me around or because they just wanted free beer.”
The decision to start a brewery was long in the making as Radojkovic’s passion for beer and home brewing developed over the years.
“The idea really started some ten years ago, when my best friend and I were sitting on a bench in a park and drinking. Rather than opening a bar we wanted to have our own beer.”
Studies and life in the UK, where home brewing and more styles of beer are common, honed Radojkovic’s taste for more than run-of-the-mill Serbian lagers. Throughout those years he enjoyed experimenting and reading up on the subject with his friends, and made home brewing his hobby.
By the time he decided to turn his home brewing into a real business, Serbian craft beer started coming out of basements and into the markets and bars of Belgrade, most famously with Kabinet Brewery, who launched their first beer in 2014.
“When I decided to do it, there were about seven serious craft breweries. When we actually launched our first beer there were 10 more. Now there are 37. We were lucky to get in at the right time.”
Radojkovic did not fear the competition, as he found Serbia’s craft beer scene at the time was still very limited.
“Everybody was making very hoppy stuff – APAs and IPAs. I wanted something different.”
Dorcol Brewery was founded in February 2016 and launched its first and still most popular beer, the orange-flavoured wheat-based Paklena Pomorandza (the Serbian name for Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange) in September that year.
Rather than building on his cosmopolitan life before, Radojkovic and his team decided to go hyper-local. Dorcol Brewery’s logo depicts two of the Belgrade neighbourhood’s most striking landmarks: the 1930s Snaga i svetlost (Power and light) power plant, and the humongous red-white chimney of the Dorcol heating plant.
Although the beer is produced farther afield in the suburbs of Zemun in the west of Belgrade, all of the distribution is to Dorcol’s many cafes and pubs.
The names of subsequent beers were also drawn from local lore: their Zmaj of Nocaja (Dragon of Nocaj) porter got its name from one of the most poetically named streets in the neighbourhood, while the monkey logo on their tropical IPA Begunac (“Fugitive”) recalls the local story of Sami, a chimpanzee that escaped the neighbouring Belgrade Zoo for a stroll around the streets of Dorcol in 1988.
The local focus is not surprising given that Dorcol natives, affectionately called “dor-ch-ooo-lci” for their specific drawn-out accent, rarely fail to boast about their neighbourhood, which from its founding in Ottoman times was one of the liveliest and most cosmopolitan in the city, populated by Ottoman, Jewish and Dubrovnik merchants who brought wares from the whole world to Belgrade.
“Besides local patriotism, it was also good business. Distribution is cheaper this way. Also given that every batch is a like a child to me, I want to make sure everybody is happy with what we are making, so this way I can address any problems more easily.
“Although many people told me that I should distribute more widely, it is a fact that people like Dorcol. Furthermore, many of the people in Belgrade who like craft beer either live nearby or go out here. Finally, it also means that I can visit bars that serve our beer and make sure everything is alright.”
With three employees in total, including a professionally trained brewmaster and a designer, Dorcol Brewery is still a small operation but Radojkovic is ambitious. They are planning to start brewing in Dorcol itself, and maybe open a brew bar at some point in the future.
Although they are using industrial scale brewing equipment and their brand is expanding, Radojkovic still keeps his home brewing kit for new seasonal concoctions to complement their best-sellers.
Two years in, he is happy with his decision to ditch London life for Dorcol.
“I am surprised by how nice the craft community is here in Serbia. We really support each other. There are a lot of fantastic breweries now who are experimenting and making great things. And of course, it is great to make your hobby your work.”
You can listen to the full version of the interview with Borisav (in Serbian) below
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight and is available on Balkan Insight portal. Here is where to find a copy.