I have known Zhoro Hristov for about 5 years now. He was one of the first characters in a column for entrepreneurship, which I was writing for a national daily newspaper. Zhoro is the creator of one of the first and most successful Bulgarian craft beers - Ailyak. Both then and now, I'm not a passionate fan of beer, but how can one not try the first Bulgarian craft beer, which is exported to Great Britain. The breakthrough is the result of more than 5 years of constant efforts, starting from home production on Zoro's terrace. Today, he produces Bulgarian beer in Greece, according to his own recipe, with ingredients from all over Europe.
Zhoro Hristov has two bachelor's degrees and one master's degree in Business Management from Sofia University and from the Lille University of Science and Technology, as well as in applied sciences from Lyon, France. He swapped the career of a financial analyst in an international company for the professional production of boutique beer, after he started to enjoy the beer production on his terrace. Two years after his girlfriend and he started to experiment with home-made beer on their balcony, he invested everything in the business with the Ailyak beer.
Zhoro is from Sofia, although he chose for his beer a typical name for Plovdiv. “We chose this name because it is closest to our sense of freedom,” he explains. The designer Gergana Staykova created the original labels for the frothy drink, which enjoys high ratings among the Bulgarian beers on the specialised craft beer sites.
“Surely, the road to the successful development of craft beer culture goes through home brewers, that is why, even today, I experiment with different brewings at our place. I think we have to help home brewers by any means. I knew nothing about beer except that it was a straw-yellow carbonated drink, and although, as a child, I didn’t make a difference between a beer house and a brewery, I succeeded by reading proven international books on brewing and by trying to make a beer at home that both our friends and I liked. I learned the hard way that no matter how well you manage to push things on sheer enthusiasm and heart, sometimes, there are obstacles that require resources,” he recalls.
Ailyak started with one kind of beer and is now available in 10 different styles. The most recognisable one is made with cryogenically frozen hops. The drink is still produced in Serres, Greece, although, for nearly two years now, Zhoro has been looking for a terrain for a micro-brewery in Bulgaria. The great achievement of the entrepreneur is that his beer is already available in some of the big chains that contacted him first. “I hope, on the one hand, that this was because of the quality product we offer and, on the other hand, that the taste of the Bulgarian people is changing little by little and is shifting from quantity to quality,” Zhoro says. He explains that wholesalers continue to be cautious about craft beers, but they are trying the market with small quantities because “consumers would buy quality beer if they could find it at convenient places.”
The entrepreneur cites data according to which the market share of the craft beer in Bulgaria is about 1% of the total consumption, which equals 5.6 million hectolitres. “On the one hand, this is good, because there is an opportunity to educate consumers, there is potential for growth, but on the other hand, at an underdeveloped market, the one that has to develop it is you yourself, and that requires considerable investments that are not always available”. He believes in the power of competition because this is how the level of Bulgarian boutique beer rises and more and more people start to look at the small bottles of beer not as something hipster and overrated, but as a quality beer with a different taste. Zhoro hopes that after a while, the craft beer shops will offer more Bulgarian brands.
Ailyak is easy to drink and probably this is one of the reasons why there is no lack of investor interest in the brand. Zhoro has rejected many offers and for now is moving forward thanks to his “enthusiasm” and credit. The result is impressive in financial terms: in 2018, the company recorded a 500% revenue growth for the past year. Craft beer breaks into markets where the frothy drink is looked at almost with admiration: Belgium and Great Britain.In both cases, foreign distributors discovered the craft beer. In Belgium, it is available for one month now. Several months before Brexit, the British tried the European beer Ailyak thanks to a craft beer distributor who offers a box of 8 different craft beers from all over the world every month. In the month when the focus was on Central and Eastern Europe, Ailyak was the only beer from Bulgaria with ratings from 3.5 to 4.5 on the scale from 0 to 5. Cheers!