Of Mad Scientists and Liquid Cocaine — Modern Beer Finds a Way in Budapest
Yes, it’s a bar called Keg. In Budapest, close to the Danube, on the Buda side of the city, down a side street and into the shady depths of a cellar. It is neat and stark, shadowy and silent. Mind you, the silence is only to be expected, as it’s 1pm and the sun is shining like a million-dollar smile outside.
As soon as I enter I decide I love Keg. But why so suddenly?
Maybe it’s the familiarity. With its bare brick aesthetics you could be drinking in Hackney, Leeds or Manchester. There are Edison lights hanging from the ceiling like teardrops. The tap list is on a trio of screens, where white words flitter like bats at twilight against a navy blue background. The screens are bolted into the arched brick wall above a mustard-coloured tiled assembly of keg taps. There are 32 of these thin-nozzled beasts, dispensing beers from Hungarian breweries such as Fóti Kézműves Sörfőzde and Fehér Nyúl, as well as guests from Estonian superstars Põhjala and—without any great deal of surprise—BrewDog. Keg’s ambience is the lingua franca of craft beer.
I fancy some Liquid Cocaine, which is actually a superb DIPA coming from a Budapest brewing outfit called Mad Scientist. At 9% ABV it’s packed with hop synergy and a resiny dry finish. It is delicious.
I still haven’t answered my own question; Yes, it is the familiarity, but also the well-made beers.
It might look like the sort of place I go to in the UK, but the beer and the food was also an extension of the gustatory spirit of Budapest, which has surprised and took me to its heart ever since my arrival.
When I got off the train from Munich feeling that I could devour a horse, I expected central European stodge on a Czech scale, but didn’t want to feel as if I had an unexploded bomb in my stomach.
I fancied something lighter. So, the first meal I had was a spritely chicken ramen at a noodle bar called Flour Style Wok, not far from the Liberty Bridge on the Pest side. I galloped through it in the airy surroundings of the place, while other ramen seekers came and went, slurped their noodles and left, satisfied.
Eating my ramen, I experienced a faint tremor of alarm; I wasn’t being true to Budapest and its food. Every time I visit somewhere, like a lot of people I want to eat authentic, I want to eat and drink as the locals do. I want to be my very own Anthony Bourdain. [Who doesn’t—ed.]
In Budapest that might have meant either a goulash or langos, the latter being puffed up dough smothered in sour cream and cheese, I bought from a street food truck. It was horrible, and I made sure that I didn’t go too close to the Danube later, concerned that I would sink straight to the bottom if I fell in. I also tried for authenticity with the country’s best selling lager, Dreher Classic, because I was thirsty and wanted to drink what others drunk. It was grim. So I had ramen. And Liquid Cocaine. Sometimes what we have to say to authenticity is: not today.
Even though I visited several modern beer bars and brewpubs and enjoyed the rough and ready nature of the “ruin pub” Élesztő, I also did the tourist thing. Budapest is a handsome city, my kind of central European place. It has the Danube, steel blue and implacable, urgent in its spirited movement through the city; you can walk up the Gellért Hill and stand beneath the statue of Liberty with Pest spread in front of you, a palette of greys, blues, terracotta reds and whites (there was even a stall selling “craft beer” up there). Take the shuddering, bell-clanging tram along the river, and be moved by the harrowing and moving memorial of the Shoes on the Danube Bank, which remembers the massacre of Jews by Hungarian fascists towards the end of the war.
Then there is the 19th century Market Hall, at whose entrance Roma sold bunches of lavender giving the air a floral, warm calmness. Inside this railway terminus-like building, I finally went all traditional and devoured a plate of homemade sausage, cabbage and bacon with a pint of Dreher. It was stunning. Then it was time to return to Keg, just across the river. And take—I mean drink—some more Liquid Cocaine. I’d had enough of authenticity for now.
Illustration by Tida Bradshaw