If Not Vodka, Then What?
small, If Not Vodka, Then What?, Still from "Zemsta", 1956, photo Studio Filmowe Kadr / photo Filmoteka Narodowa/www.fototeka.fn.org.pl, szlak_alkoholi_film.jpg
Every country has a national drink. Poland is associated with vodka, but if it wasn't for the suffocation of small, private breweries and distilleries by the communist regime, the country would have even more to offer. In the last couple of years, thanks to legislative reforms, local breweries, wineries, and small scale production of craft fruit liqueurs and ciders are returning after a long leave of absence.
There are around 1000 hectares of vineyards in Poland. Wine-making regions are Lubuskie (west Poland), Podkarpackie (south-east) and the geographical region of Małopolski Przełom Wisły (Lesser Poland Gorge of the Vistula, in the mid-east). Polish wine is becoming more and more popular in the country, and as a result, consumption is increasing. The best Polish wines are produced by only a handful of vineyards: Płochocki (city of Daromin in Sandomierski county), Srebrna Góra (town of Bielany near Kraków), Pałac Mierzęcin (Lubuskie region), Winnica nad Jarem (near the city of Sandomierz), Winnica Stara Winna Góra (Lubuskie region), Winnice Wzgórz Trzebnickich (Dolnośląskie region), Winnica Solaris (Lubuskie region), and Winnica Miłosz (Lubuskie region). Such wines can be ordered in some high-end restaurants, or bought in wine shops or over the internet through the manufacturers' websites.
Wine enthusiasts should watch out for wine-making events in Zielona Góra, Jasło and Janowiec. There, one can taste local wines and engage wine producers and oenologists in heated conversation. Zielona Góra has the country's biggest grape-picking festival called Święto Winobrania. This year it takes place between the 6th and 14th of September. Jasło in the Podkarpacie region hosts a wine-tasting event called Międzynarodowe Dni Wina. These local events are supported by the Kraków-based Polish Viticulture and Vine Institute, which also helps shape wine legislation. A convention of Polish wine-makers was first organised a couple of years ago. Furthermore, wine tourism is developing and there are now a couple of wine trails, but more on that later.
On the agenda of the Polish Slow Food movement is the revitalisation of young Polish wine called wino świętomarcińskie (St. Martin's). It is suggested as an alternative to the French Beaujolais Nouveau and pairs well with goose-meat. In 2013, the second-largest winery in Poland, Srebrna Góra in Kraków, brought out both white and red young wines created by leading Polish oenologist Agnieszka Wyrobek Rousseau. Srebrna Góra, a prime vineyard, is located near the city of Bielany, not far from Kraków, in the vicinity of the historical monastery of Camaldolese monks. Here, the wine-making tradition dates back to the 10th century. Grapevines were grown in Poland in the Middle Ages. Following the Christianisation of Poland in the 10th century, wine was produced in monasteries (the oldest Polish vineyard is considered to have been located near Wawel Castle).
But in the 16th century, beer and vodka took over the alcohol market and wineries started to disappear. The numerous long wars that Poland fought in the 17th century entirely destroyed its viticulture. It wasn't until the 18th century that attempts at growing grapevines were again made. Father Krzysztof Kluk left his name in the history books of Polish wine-making during the Renaissance. But the economic recession after the January Uprising in the 19th century, harsh winters and the difficult climate forced landowners to scrap their plans to grow grapevines. WW2 further impeded the industry's rebirth. After 1945 and the retracing of borders, the communist regime continued to develop vineyards in places like the Lubuskie region, but nationalised wineries were a flop.
Poland has a tradition of cider-making. Referred to today as cider (or Cydr in Polish) , it was once called jabłecznik, from the word jabłko (apple). Jabłecznik is used only for apple pie. Most old cider recipes date from the 19th century. In light of recent political events (a Russian embargo on foods produced in the EU – including Polish apples), cider could become a linchpin of the apple industry and a popular alcoholic beverage. Polish cuisine suits cider well – "in a place where it is too cold for good wine, cider is a good alternative," restaurateur Agnieszka Kręglicka comments, "cider is refreshing, thirst-quenching, pairs well with food, animates discussions and doesn't disarm like hard liqueurs". Poland has what it takes to become a cider El Dorado – apple production, the expertise and the facilities – but under communism, monopolisation and production of low quality cider-like alcohols (called jabole) wrecked cideries and wineries.
Fortunately, there are now a few Polish companies making quality craft ciders: Jabłecznik trzebnicki (Dolny Śląsk region), Cydr z Wielkopolski, Cydr Ignaców (Mazowsze region), Cydr Majątek Sławno (Łódzkie region), Jabcok Cydr Maurer (Małopolska region); Kwaśne Jabłko (olsztyńskie region), Cydr z psiej budy (Mazowsze region), Polski Cydr Hyliczki (Mazowsze region), Cydr Kalisja (lubelskie region), Jabłecznik Hieronima (kujawsko – pomorskie region), cydr Lorek (Małopolska region); cidre Gujus (Małopolska region). They can be tasted at high-end restaurants, wine bars, and select shops, or ordered online.
Fruit liqueurs (in Polish, nalewki), are considered a Polish speciality. It was King Henry III of France, the monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, that brought the recipe and taste for fruit alcohols to Poland. Every noble and bourgeois household produced its fruit liqueurs and precious recipes would be handed down from generation to generation, sometimes only revealed in one's last will. And the tradition withstood all wars and occupations and lives on today.
Fruit liqueurs are easy to make at home. But that variety will never reach the level of sophistication of some fruit liqueurs prepared by a handful of Polish producers whose beverages are served in the finest Polish restaurants. The best fruit liqueurs are those made through traditional methods. Fruits are picked from forest meadows, ecological plantations or countryside orchards. The finest of fruits are wild, often forgotten varieties of fruits such as the Ałycza (cherry plum), paradise apples, chaenomeles from Tuchola Forest, blackthorn from the Bieszczady and Gorce Mountains, plums from Łącko and wild blackberries from Białowieża Forest. Fruit liqueurs are left to mature for up to a couple of years.
Zbigniew Sierszuła is one of the makers of fruit liqueur who has earned himself a reputation. The art historian turned fruit liqueur producer makes alcohols in his estate near Warsaw. "The easiest to make are classical fruit liqueurs made of quince, cherry or blackcurrant. They are royal fruits because they contain as much sugar as acidity. When it comes to liqueurs made of flowers, what's very important is picking the flower on the day it blossoms, because without pollen, the flower has no taste" says the expert. The production of exquisite fruit liqueurs is a fine art that "cannot be precisely quantified, for the ideal fruit liqueur begins with the fruit and how nature made it – how much sun and rain and what temperature it was exposed to."
Another renowned name in the industry is Karol Majewski, whose business is located in his home in Łomianki in the vicinity of the Kampinos Forest. His company, Nalewki Staropolskie (Old Polish Fruit Liqueurs) is well known and his produce is exported to the U.S. under the name Prince Pułaski's Fruit Liqueurs. Finally, there's Hieronim Błażejak, a small scale fruit liqueur and cider manufacturer from Lesser Poland who has composed over 160 varieties of liqueurs. His alcohols have been praised at numerous industry competitions.
Fruit liqueurs by Majewski, Sierszuła and Błażejak are on the menus of high-end restaurants and industry festivals around Poland, and can also be found online.
In Poland, mead (honey wine) has a very long tradition. In recent years, its production has continued to grow. The honey alcohol is the result of the fermentation process of a mixture of honey and water (a liquid called "must"). There can be different kinds of mead: natural, with fruits, herbs, spices or hops. They mature anywhere between a couple of months and a couple of years. There are four main kinds of Polish mead: póltoraki, dwójniaki, trójniaki and czwórniaki. The differences between them concern the ratio of honey to water. Póltoraki and dwójniaki are sweeter than trójniaki and czwórniaki. The former two are served with deserts (yeast cakes, gingerbread cakes) and patés, while the latter are dry alcohols and make a fine apéritif or an accompaniment to fish or meat. A couple of years ago, all of them received the traditional specialities guaranteed (TSG) label from the European Union.
One of the best Polish meads is made in the village of Łaziska near the city of Tomaszów Mazowiecki, in an apiary owned by Maciej Jaros. He produces eight different kinds of mead through an entirely ecological manufacturing process, using spring water and no colouring agents or preservatives. On top of a selection of Polish awards he has received for his alcohol, Mr Jaros won an award in Turin, Italy at the Salone del Gusto 2004. Another big name for Polish meads is the APIS apiarian cooperative in Lublin. It's one of the biggest Polish mead producers and has existed since 1932. The cooperative brings out a dozen or so meads, their most famous one being Trójniak Staropolski Tradycyjny. In 2010, a mead created by Michał Saks called the Sambuci Flos (black elderflower) won the Mazer Cup international festival in Boulder, Colorado.
Under communism, beer wasn't very popular and the low-quality alcoholic beverage was consumed in so-called kioski piwne (beer kiosks). Thankfully, the infamous stalls quickly disappeared, and instead we have witnessed a revival in Polish brewing. A long time ago, beer was one of the most popular alcohols in Poland. In one of his books, the well-known chronicler Jan Długosz wrote that in "the northern cold there is no wine and olive oil; instead, there is beer made of rye, wheat, barley or spelt". Beer remained the most common alcoholic beverage in modern times. Until the 17th century it was mainly made of wheat, later on, the primary ingredient was barley. With time, beer began to be seen as a beverage for the lower classes and it competed with and lost against vodka. It wasn't until the early 20th century that Polish breweries began to compete with foreign producers. Sadly, only half of them survived the bombings of WW2.
Interest in craft beers has been growing over the last couple of years. They come in all sorts and sizes: blond or dark, unpasteurised, honey or otherwise flavoured beer, porter, stout, Kozlak Bock beer, wheat beer. A well-known and large brewery, Browar Amber, brews a series of specialist beers: the unpasteurised and additive-free Piwo Żywe from pale barley malt, with bitter and aromatic hops from the Lublin region, as well as their Grand Imperial Porter. Another company, Mazurski Browar Kormoran, produces a wide selection of regional beers. Other noteworthy brands are: Browar Zamkowy in Radom, Browar Zamkowy in Raciborz and Browar Haust – a microbrewery in Zielona Góra. On top of the better-known brands, there are dozens of small breweries which sell their products in bars, restaurants, grocery shops and over the internet.
Slivovitz or slivovitsa is a distilled beverage made from plums with 70 percent alcohol in volume. Poland's best-known slivovitz is made in the south of Poland in the Dunajec valley, near the city of Łącko. The liquor is produced by the fermentation and distillation of plums, and the resulting beverage is pale yellow, smells of plums and has a characteristic taste. Although slivovitsa is more popular in the Balkans than in Poland, slivovitsa from Łącko is considered part of Poland's national heritage. The beverage has received awards at international festivals and the municipality of Łącko celebrates it with a festival every year. Due to EU regulations, it is still produced illegally. Only 10% of the slivovitsas available in stores are authentic, the rest is counterfeit.
Another reason to go to Łącko is the fruit processing plant which uses traditional methods of juice extraction, and the Maurer Manufactory, which produces traditional fruit spirits. They are naturally fermented, distilled and left to mature. Maurer-made fruit spirits can be bought over the internet or at regional festivals.
The alcoholic offerings of Poland's regions are growing and tourism is flourishing. Enthusiasts of craft alcohols are advised to follow a trail of small breweries and distilleries. There are tourist agencies which organise such tours. Apart from drinking quality alcohol, the trails are an occasion to taste local produce, visit lesser-known tourist attractions and learn about local production techniques.
Oenotourism is also on the rise, and wine trails are getting longer. The Lubuski Szlak Wina i Miodu (Lubuski Wine and Honey Trail) is almost 200km long and leads along a couple dozen vineyards on hills of the Odra valley: Winnica Kinga, Miłosz, Na Leśnej Polanie and Julia. Also along the trail is the Ochla Ethnographic Museum and the Wine Museum in Zielona Góra. At the end of the trail yet another one starts - the Vineyard Trail of the Podkarpacie region with 150 small vineyards along its path. Lastly, the Małopolska Wine Trail has a dozen or so vineyards, among others: Srebrna Góra, Zadora, Comte and Smykań. Don't miss out on their Open Doors events.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk – Chevriaux, translator: MJ 09/09/2014