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The Beer Brewer Who Works for a Better Bulgaria

Today, many associate Ailyak with the finest craft beer in Bulgaria. It’s also a Bulgarian colloquialism: an “ailyak” is a “free man, unencumbered by existential problems.” Georgi Hristov’s life embodies the feel-good ailyak lifestyle—at least in his photos on Facebook, which capture beautiful views, colors enhanced by the blazing sun, and an all-pervasive sense of timelessness. In real life, however, the maker of Ailyak is constantly on the move, traveling for business, pleasure, or both.

His two states are in complete harmony with each other, he says with a smile. He decided to brew beer because this occupation allows him to earn a livelihood from something he enjoys doing and gives him the freedom to travel and get to know interesting new people.

We met him in the village of Mirkovo, where he talked about prices and pricing to aspiring entrepreneurs from the Srednogorie region. His pricing lecture was one of several sessions in the three-month-long BASE program, run by Industrial Cluster Srednogorie with support from the America for Bulgaria Foundation. BASE—Business Achievements for Social Entrepreneurship—helps small-town communities by stimulating individual initiative and entrepreneurship and encouraging cooperation between community members. Georgi volunteered to become a mentor in the program and spent several Thursdays this spring sharing with program participants his experience of starting Ailyak Craft Beer.

Ailyak has come a long way. The beer is now sold at specialized bars and shops nationwide, but its beginnings are quite humble. Georgi acquired a taste for good beer while studying in France and traveling around Europe. During a stint in the corporate world (as an auditor at Ernst & Young), and after reading all the brewing literature he could find, he started experimenting with stove-top brewing at home. Eventually, he invested in some home brewery equipment and enlisted the help of friends to sample and critique the first brews. It took Georgi a while before he got to the right balance between fragrance, bitterness, and density—and the first sales and, with them, his exit from the corporate world. Today, Georgi is still an itinerant brewer—Ailyak is brewed in Serres, Greece—but his goal is to bring production home and build his own brewery near Sofia, a project for which he's looking for investors.

The one-hour drive to Mirkovo charges Georgi's batteries; after all, being constantly on the move is a part of his way of life. He enjoys meeting “people who are motivated to learn new things, use this knowledge to advance their existing businesses, and hear about the lecturers' successes and failures. Quite a few of the current participants have had their own businesses. Some of them have experienced failure but want to try again, having learned from their mistakes and having been exposed to new approaches through the program. I was impressed to see some really young people in the program who have promising jobs at companies in the region but who are ready to venture out on their own.”

Georgi says Ailyak still isn't as profitable as a corporate career, but he's sure this will change. He thinks the most important thing for entrepreneurial success is to knock on every door and never give up. “You should believe in your idea and be assertive. Every day you make an effort to take your business a step further, you learn something new. This knowledge stays with you, even if your current business isn't successful financially,” he says. It is this philosophy and his desire to help that motivated Georgi to volunteer in the BASE program. This spring, he was also a judge in a PwC essay competition on the topic “My 25 Reasons to Choose Bulgaria.” His reason? “The love of the place I was born and grew up in, a place that has some serious problems but also potential for growth. I want to focus my energy on making Bulgaria a better place to live—for me, for my family, and for my friends.”

Photo by Tsvetelina Belutova, Capital Weekly

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