Does it often happen to you that when you mention brandy in a society, you open an endless discussion?
Brandy is definitely a part of the Serbian national identity and that is exactly why, whether you are a fan, producer, consumer or none of the above, you certainly have something to say.
There are so many topics, questions, problems, doubts and satisfaction in the voice when it comes to brandy, and yet somehow it seems to us that every story about the Serbian national brand ends without a clear conclusion and plan for the future.
Inspired by that, we decided to scratch beneath the surface and look for concrete answers at the right address.
Dr. Ivan Urošević is one of the leading consultants in the production of brandy. He is the director of the Tok distillery and runs as many as six important distilleries in Serbia.
We asked him some of the most interesting brandy questions, and he successfully justified the nickname he wears – brandy doctor.
01. How would you describe the brandy scene in Serbia?
The brandy scene in Serbia is quite colorful. First of all, we have the appearance of small distilleries with very high quality products, we have a large number of distilleries that give an average or low level of quality, and we also have a very large number of unregistered producers who sell their products “on the black market”. In addition, I would add that there are a large number of very good but poorly packaged products on the market, and of course very well packaged products that are quite poor in terms of quality.
So, as I mentioned, a very colorful market picture that requires a good knowledge of the target group or consumer. Also, there are more and more people for whom the production of strong drinks is not their primary occupation, but they want to invest their money in the production of strong drinks. This is very good, because they are based on that, that is, they hire experts in all segments of work. The result of all this is the formation of higher quality products.
When we talk about brandy in Serbia, it is necessary to mention catering, because in that branch of industry there is a large amount of very bad brandies or alcoholic beverages called brandy. In contrast, there is an increasing number of top restaurants, with great cuisine, a very strict business policy and professional people, so the “brandy” portfolio is at the top level.
What is certainly visible is that the awareness and knowledge of consumers is at a higher level, and that raises the overall picture of brandy in Serbia to a higher level. It is interesting that in the last few years we have an increase in the number of distilleries that deal not only with the production of fruit brandies but also with the production of gin, vodka, bourbon…
All in all, in the last few years I have the impression that the general level of quality has risen, both because of better educated consumers and because of the emergence of new distilleries that invest in knowledge and equipment to offer quality products to the market.
02. What does the current number of registered producers tell us?
The current number of registered producers ranges between 600 and 650, at the time we are talking about this, in early September. This number is of course constantly changing due to constant deletions from the register and new entries. Producers in Serbia are registered for the production of all strong alcoholic beverages, although the primacy traditionally always belongs to the production of fruit brandies. However, there are producers who are also engaged in the production of other drinks such as gin, whiskey, liqueurs, etc.
If we compare this number with the number of over 2000 registered producers from 2010, we can see that the potential of Serbia is much greater. However, the structure of those who registered has changed drastically compared to the mentioned period.
Today, all registered producers are exclusively legal entities, because natural persons (unlike in 2009) are not allowed by law to produce and market brandy as a final product. In this sense, the seriousness, but also the volume of production are at a much higher level today.
I am sure that solving the problem of illegal trade in brandy will make a big step forward, because all those producers who now exist on the black market will either have to open legal productions and thus enter the food safety, control and supervision system, or they will disappear from the scene forever.
It is this currently unfair competition that is discouraging. I assume that many producers would register, but they are aware that as registered they have a big problem to market their products and they need the help of the state in that fight.
03. In which direction is the general quality of strong drinks in our country moving, and above all brandy?
The general quality of strong drinks, and of course brandy, is definitely on an upward trajectory. The main culprit is the growing number of new, small manufacturers who really pay attention to what and how they work, with the control system itself not allowing them to deviate significantly from the standard.
We are a relatively small market in which there is a slow but sure disappearance of low quality space, and this threshold of consumer tolerance is getting higher every year. Manufacturers are simply becoming aware that it is much more cost-effective to turn to quality than quantity.
Domestic consumers are increasingly ready to pay for more expensive, but better quality drinks, so realizing that, producers are slowly raising the scale of quality levels.
04. Tell us how you would rate the domestic Law on s.a.b. and its application? You participated in its compilation?
The Law on Strong Alcoholic Beverages, which came into force in 2016, is fully harmonized with European regulations, and I think it is the only law that is fully harmonized with European laws. As a member of the working group, I participated in its formation together with colleagues from the Serbian Brandy Association and the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce, and my personal position is that this law is very good when it comes to producers, but also when it comes to consumers.
First of all, when it comes to producers, the new law has significantly facilitated the opening of legal production because it has removed the administrative and financial conditions that were a problem for us before. So today’s law, unlike the previous one, allows even a producer who produces 500 liters of brandy a year to enter legal channels with ease because it does not oblige him to own strong equipment, premises and even an expert. What is important is that the volume of production and the existing equipment are harmonized and the product is healthy.
The law also clearly defined the categories of strong alcoholic beverages, so today we know exactly what is what, what is allowed and what is not, and most importantly – what is fruit brandy.
What may be missing are bylaws that would more closely define, above all, fruit brandy as a traditional Serbian product. I say this primarily in terms of analysis and control systems, which in my opinion is absolutely in the national interest.
As for the application of the law, that is definitely the most critical field because the application of the law itself is definitely not done adequately. There are many reasons for that, and one of them is the lack of staff (agricultural inspectors) who perform controls. For now, controls are performed only upon application, while earlier inspectors took products from the market and checked primarily the origin of ethanol. It is this lack of control that leaves room for unfair producers to break the law.
05. What is it like to be a brandy producer in Serbia? What is their biggest problem?
Being a brandy producer in Serbia is not easy at all. First of all, the job we are dealing with is food production, and in addition we produce an excise product, so we are entering the segment of special control of the Ministry of Finance. On the other hand, the financial strength of producers is very small, primarily due to long-term unfair and illegal competition. Investments in raising the quality and everything that accompanies one production are also at a low level and all this results in the development of the industry going quite slowly.
However, being a legal producer of brandy in Serbia today is a great pride. Surviving the market as it is is very difficult. The market is very small and closed and you can hardly do anything serious in terms of financial gain without exports. On the other hand, you are producing a national product and you have a serious task to present it in an adequate way.
So great pride and responsibility and a very difficult and ungrateful role at the same time.
If we make a comparison with wine, brandy is produced by every house in Serbia, it is drunk differently and less. Wine is a global story and winemakers are on a global train that goes, and brandy is a local product of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. All this tells us that it takes a lot of work and effort to present fruit brandy as a category of drinks on a global level. In this whole situation, I see a chance to present brandy as a totally new product to a world that is saturated with various products. I am sure that Serbian brandy (which is really unique due to the quality of raw materials) can raise this economic branch and bring benefits to everyone.
06. What do you see as the solution to these problems?
I see the solution to all these problems primarily in the fact that the state must, through its institutions, protect brandy as a product, and protect brandy producers as part of the industry of exceptional importance.
Also, I see a good part of the solution in the help of the state through the participation of domestic producers in international fairs and through financial incentives, which will significantly affect the quality of the product itself. We are all forced to build the road to new markets through some personal contacts, and I am sure that help through embassies and our representations abroad would make a significant difference.
The third, and no less important thing is education. So educated consumers are a crucial factor that will force producers to raise the quality, and they will get rid of the idea of some kind of “making” brandy forever. Simply, when you have a man in front of you who knows well what a quality fruit brandy is, selling a wrongly declared strong drink simply becomes unprofitable.
For now, certain producers, as much as they can, are working on consumer education on their own, but considering that brandy is a strategic product, this and other problems must be approached in a planned way, at the state level.
Apart from educating consumers, there is no necessary professional and educated staff, who would acquire their knowledge at faculties, with the obligatory introduction of field practice. I might cite this as a key precondition for the survival of brandy as a strategic product.
07. And finally, where do you see the brandy scene in the next 5 years?
In 5 years, I think that the brandy scene in Serbia will look completely different. The presence of a larger amount of money is already felt than people for whom brandy is not their primary occupation. They invest in equipment and staff, which significantly affects the overall image of brandy in Serbia.
However, if we do not work on product placement, these distilleries can easily suffocate because sales will not be at a satisfactory level. In that case, many will disappear, which unfortunately happened in many branches of industry.
Certainly, I am an optimist and I believe that the state and the producers will find a common language in the foreseeable future.
Complete interview taken from: https://www.gust.rs/destilati/dr-ivan-urosevic-biti-proizvodjac-rakije-u-srbiji-je-veliki-ponos/