Wednesday 14th September 2016
Although Slovenia has a coast line on the Mediterranean sea it is most definitely a beer country as benefits its Slavic ethnology. That is not to say that wine is ignored here and there is plenty available. Also the cuisine is Southern European without a doubt. Yet its beer credentials are emphasised by the fact that the country is home to the Styrian Golding hop, notwithstanding that Styria is a province of Austria just over the Julian Alps to the north.
Slovenia emerged as a national entity from the rubble of the falling apart of Yugoslavia. Luckily it was spared from the subsequent civil wars that involved the other republics. Going back in time, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was created from the aftermath of the First World War as a way of grouping Slavic peoples with those who were ethnically and linguistically similar. It only ever worked in part. In 1929 it became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Most of the new countries that were created in 1990 were former provinces of Hungary before the Great War. However Slovenia was previously a part of Austria and another exception was Serbia which was a country in its own right before that conflict. So, the history of the Union Brewery begins in Austria.
It was founded in 1864 by the Kosler family. Maria, Peter, Johann (Jnr) and Josef, sons and daughters of Johann (Snr).
The site chosen was alongside the railway which was useful for receiving raw materials and despatching casks of beer. In fact, on the same day as this visit I passed it on a train and there were wagons inside the brewery’s perimeter fence. There is also a natural spring producing high quality water.
The first beers came out in 1867 and the company was naturally known as Brauerei Kosler. It traded well until the early 20th Century.
In 1909 it merged with fellow Austrian brewers Puntigamer and Reininghaus of Graz in Carinthia, also Göss of Leoben in Styria. The new name for all of the four breweries was Union.
In Austria beers of these breweries can still be consumed. Although they now trade under their original names, they come under the umbrella of Brau Union Österreich, now owned by Heineken. Since the Second World War, Reininghaus beers have been brewed on the Puntigamer plant.
Soon after the creation of Union the Ljubljana brewery took over a number of smaller breweries in the surrounding towns. These were Zimmermann of Lesce, Julius Stare of Mengeš, Šmid of Škofia Loka, Ferles of Kočevie, Fröhlich of Vrhnika and Mayr of Kranj. After the war and now in a new country the brewery began modernisation and in 1923 installed a cask filling machine and opened new maltings.
A sort of amalgamation with the Laško brewery occurred in 1924 and in 1926 the company of Thomas Götz of Maribor was taken over. After the Second World War the plant was more or less intact yet had ceased brewing earlier because of the lack of raw materials.
Following that conflict Marshall Tito’s communists had gained control of Yugoslavia and so it was that the brewery was nationalised in December 1946. Unlike most communist countries some investment was made.
By 1960 around 150,000 hl per annum were being produced. In 1968 modernisation meant that a pasteurisation plant was installed and thereafter all of their beer was presented in this manner. A keg filling machine was introduced in 1978; presumably this meant the end to the wooden and metal barrels.
The old open fermentation vessels were replaced in 1982 by conical versions. In a very commendable move whilst still under communist control, the brewery opened a museum in its old maltings building. In 1990, following the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, the Istria Brewery of Buzet was absorbed. Presumably it was offered alongside Union in the privatisation deal. Whatever, it ceased brewing then. So, in 1990 the brewery was to be found in its third country, without ever moving!
Soft drinks were added to the portfolio in 1993. The situation after de-nationalisation seems to be a little confused. If I have got this right, the other major brewery in Slovenia, Laško obtained a 25% stake in 2001.
They were partially owned by Interbrew, the Belgium-based multi-national, who later increased their stake to 95% in 2006. Laško had already taken 95% of Union in 2005.
It was then all change in 2008 when there was a public takeover. I have no idea how that works. However the two breweries became independent (for a period!). In April 2015 another multi-national came onto the scene when Heineken International put in a bid for the company. By 2016 they had 100% control and that’s the way it stays to this day.
Union Pivnica (Union Beerhall) opened on 10th November 2014. It is located in the former maltings, adjoining the existing museum. The maltings can be seen in lower parts of the two black and white illustrations above. These are reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. We walked to the entrance with the building on our left and the beer garden on the right. Being September in southern Europe meant this was quite busy. Turning left into the building we found a modern room with square central bar. The furniture is of light varnished wood.
On this pleasant evening I was accompanied by Steve and Russell and we were later joined by Vaughan. Although Union beer is found throughout Ljubljana and all over the county, the attraction of this pub is that they offer some limited edition versions of the usual stuff. We studied the beer menu and we were certainly offered an extensive choice.
From the brewery across the yard from where we were seated there was: Union Pivo (4.9%), their standard offering; Union Unfiltered (4.9%), a cloudy version that is exclusive to this pub, and Temno (Dark) (5.2%).
Then there were a further three draughts that are normally only available in bottle: Amber (5.4%), a Vienna-style lager; Bok (7.0%), a dark bock beer and Triglav (9.0%), a strong pale lager. These last three were only available in 0.3 cl glasses.
There were also two draught offerings from the sister brewery of Laško from the town of the same name: Laško Lager (4.9%) and Laško Unfiltered (4.9%), a version of the standard lager. In addition there were a number of limited edition bottled beers from Laško aimed at the “craft beer” market.
These were: Special Golding (5.4%), a premium lager; Special Striptis (8.3%), a doppelbock; Special Krpan (11.0%), another doppelbock; Special No 1 Citra (5.0%), using Citra hops; Special No 2 Sour Cherry & Chestnut (4.4%) and Special No 3 Buckwheat (5.8%), also self-explanatory. These all come in 0.33 cl bottles.
A full menu is offered and the brewery is close to the city centre.
Pivnica Union, Celovška 22, Ljubljana 1000. Tel: 00386 1471 7335
Open: Mon-Thu: 11.00-24.00; Fri-Sat: 11.00-01.00. Sun: Closed.
The Tivoli bus stop is almost outside the brewery. Buses 60 and 61 run from and to the railway station.
Routes 3, 3B and 110 operated from and to the city centre. It is about ten minutes walk from the station.