Re-Fresh: Who Doesn’t Like A Story About Beer?

jelen_cropEvery day in the early ’90s, I drove through Apatin in the province of Vojvodina, Serbia.  Apatin is the home of the Apatinska Pivara where the beer Jelen Pivo is made. This is a small town on the Danube river with a beer industry that began under the Hapsburg Empire in the late 1700s.

The brown half litre bottle with its white and gold label and the deer head motif became my favourite beer—not by choice, but by necessity. Then, with Yugoslavia under sanctions because of the Balkan wars, importing goods was tough, although most people found ways around it.

Producing goods was also tough and Jelen Pivo had its share of difficulties and the beer was not always consistent. Caps that did not fit properly, full crates of beer left outside to suffer extremes of temperature, and other beery misadventures made opening every bottle a little trip into the unknown. Not that that mattered too much when it was pretty much the only beer you could get.

churchIt was a beer that went with everything from pizza to a street roasted chicken where the man with the grill would ask if you wanted a “Tudjman, Milosevic or Izetbegovic”. If you asked what the difference was between the chickens, you were told that “they are all the same, so you might as well eat all three”.

This cynicism never got old. In the 90s conflict raged in Yugoslavia and its people were deeply disillusioned with these leaders of the Croatians, Serbs and Bosniaks whom many felt had led them into war. Jelen Pivo brings memories of “interesting times” which were sometimes good and sometimes not so good. Memories brought back by beer rather than, as is so often the case, erased by beer.

Whenever I am back in the Balkans, I will order a Jelen Pivo, often to the amusement of my better-heeled friends. It may not be the most favoured beer in the world, but nothing tastes as good as Jelen Pivo and pork served in its many forms whether at a road side restaurant, among the restaurants of Belgrade, or on a boat on the Danube.

In New York, I travel to Astoria, Queens to buy Jelen Pivo. It has gone from being the only beer available to a beer that requires a special journey.  It still refreshes.

Posted in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Fresh