Now there are over 40 craft beer bars in Poland’s capital alone ‒ known locally as 'multi-taps', these bars offer beer made by small, independent breweries using traditional techniques. Every biannual Warsaw Beer Festival gathers more than 20,000 beer lovers, and around 1,000 new Polish craft beers premièred just last year. These numbers are strong evidence that the craft of beer brewing has been revived, becoming one of the most trending branches in both the culinary arts and in the business sector.
To get some first-hand experience of what it's all about I met with Paweł Leszczyński and went on a pub crawl around a few craft beer bars in Warsaw. He is the best-known expert on craft beers in Poland, a renowned beer judge, Chairman of the Masovian Polish Homebrewers' Association (Polskie Stowarzyszenie Piwowarów Domowych) and a partner of a new craft beer enterprise ‒ BeerLab. Paweł, who dropped his comfortable cubicle life to entirely devote himself to his interest in brewing and popularising craft beers, is a great representative of what drives the entire beer revolution – pure passion.
As we stroll around Warsaw's centre and pop into a few craft beer bars of his choice, I realise that there is much more to this phenomenon than just a love for nice flavours and good alcohol.
The roots of the beer revolution
Right after entering the very first bar, Kufle i Kapsle (Polish for 'Beer Mugs and Bottlecaps'), Paweł starts his narration on the roots of the beer revolution and takes us back to the late 1970s in America. At that time, American homebrewers grew tired of the beer market. They were disappointed by the fact that the beer available on supermarket shelves was of very poor quality and was becoming more and more flavourless and watery and less and less bitter. Moreover, selling home brewed beer was not allowed by law, but it still didn’t discourage them from beginning experiments of their own and trying to enter the public's consciousness, to make people realise that they were being manipulated by huge corporations.
The results of their experiments brought products which are the cornerstones of the beer revolution ‒ beers brewed from lesser known hops, such as the now popular American Pale Ale, and beers with hints of citrus, spices or resin. Their intrinsic striving for change led them to eventual victory. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter deregulated beer brewing and allowed microbrews to become a tangible alternative to huge beer companies’ products. Consumers soon began to appreciate craft beers, which in turn led to the opening of many new microbreweries, further experiments, and exporting the revolution to other continents.
These trends were adopted to varying degrees by European countries. Nations who had a pre-existing tradition of small-scale brewing obviously continued to favour their own products, but places like Poland, where mass-produced varieties had dominated the market for most of the twentieth century, enthusiastically jumped on the craft beer band-wagon. To check if the export was successful, I taste a few gulps of a selection of absolutely surprising beers (a stout with hints of coffee and chocolate as well as an Irish Pale Ale with a strong aroma of blackberries) and we head toward another craft beer pub – the stylish Jabeerwocky, located only a few metres away from Kufle i Kapsle.
The beer revolution comes to Poland
As we stop for several minutes at Jabeerwocky, my guide explains the cultural basis for the success the beer revolution enjoyed in Poland. He believes it is a result of a major change in the way people view themselves as consumers. Recently, we’ve all become much more interested in how things we buy are made, why they have their specific features, where were they produced, who capitalises on them, and whether were they made by a heartless corporation or a passionate manufacturer. Thus, it’s not only the final product that we care about but also the process, the philosophy behind it.
It’s also about saying ‘no’ to the brainwashing we’re subjected to by corporations. Paweł brings his most hated slogan ‘Be yourself, choose Pepsi’ as the epitome of the way huge companies are trying to beguile us. According to him, their only wish is that we stop making choices at all and accept the easiest option possible – their omnipresent products. He believes that the only way to oppose to it is to ‘vote’ with your own wallet, by choosing craft products. At the same time, it's a ‘vote’ for a certain way of living, for caring about quality, and to support passionate people who sign their products with their own names and do their best to deliver the most extraordinary things to their customers. Contrarily to overgrown corporations, microbreweries are often tiny companies, partnerships of two or three beer freaks who struggle to make a living out of their passion.
I notice that Jabeerwocky is worth a visit even for non-drinkers: the bar is adorned with a splendid portable brewing vat, which was designed and assembled by the owner himself. However, it is time to be on our way to Cuda na Kiju (a Polish proverb ostensibly meaning ‘the moon on a stick’). As we approach, Paweł asks me:
Do you think that the CEOs of those beer corporations drink the beer they produce?
We just smile conspiratorially…
Grodziskie – a trending beer from Poland
At the beautifully designed Cuda na Kiju, located in the former headquarters of the Communist Party, we discuss the Polish element of the beer revolution.
The tradition of beer brewing has a long and convoluted history, mainly because of the turbulence of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many renowned beers were brewed on Polish territory and yet it’s very hard to attribute them unequivocally to Poland. The reason for this is that often these were people of different nationalities working on Polish, ex-Polish or Polish-to-be lands who created some extremely successful beer styles. One of the all-time greats was Hanseatic Jopenbier (jopejskie in Polish) brewed in Gdańsk (Danzig at that time). Similarly, in the 19th century, magnificent breweries in the Polish cities of Cieszyn and Żywiec dominated the region of Galicia, at that time occupied by Austria-Hungary.
Nevertheless, Paweł mentions a beer style not only undeniably Polish but also very intriguing and already remarkably successful abroad. The style is called Grodziskie (Gro-gee-sk-yeah). Legend has it that it was first brewed in 1301 and enjoyed the peak of its popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, having been known for its high quality (as well as its high price) and very distinctive aroma. The style disappeared in the late 20th century but its recipe and method of brewing was recently restored, thanks to the efforts of PSPD, amongst others. In the final step of its restoration, a medium-sized Polish beer company revitalised the old breweries in Grodzisk and now we can easily enjoy a beer with a 700-year-long tradition.
This beer style was often called the Polish champagne, due to its high carbonation and quality. Reportedly, no matter how carefully it was tapped, around 5% of bottles exploded during transport or storage. It is a very refreshing light wheat beer, with a dominating smoked wheat malt aroma and a very surprising taste for consumers used to drinking macrobrews. The style is now trending and Grodziskie beer is brewed in many corners of the world such as the Americas, Portugal, Italy (where it is called Polska Light and is extremely expensive), Sweden, Spain, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
According to Paweł, however, the best is yet to come. Polish brewing has experienced incredibly rapid growth in recent years, becoming vocal among leaders of the beer revolution. Polish brewers are eager to experiment, fuse the most distant flavours and styles, mature beers in different barrels, and mix them with other alcohols, and, first and foremost, they don't hesitate to invest their time and money in starting new beer ventures. Beer with a hint of herring? Beer matured in a whisky barrel? Who wouldn’t want to taste that?
Beer tourism in Poland
Finally, we head to BrewDog Warszawa, located on Widok Street. It is the very first craft beer pub in Poland opened by a big chain from abroad, a sign that the big players in the craft beer industry have their eye on the Polish market.
Its opening was possible partly thanks to Poland being a trending destination for beer tourists. Paweł says that every day he meets lots of people who come to Warsaw mostly for the purpose of discovering our beer culture, tasting local beers, and meeting other beer enthusiasts. What they find here is a very open community of beer lovers, eager to present its discoveries and achievements as well as very willing to share experiences and learn from others. Plus, the majority of craft beer pubs are located in the very city centre so it won’t take long for a visitor to visit several of them. Apart from the places we visited – Kufle i Kapsle, Cuda na Kiju, Jabeerwocky and BrewDog – he recommends paying a visit to Gorączka Złota (Polish for Gold Rush, a bar with a 20-year-long tradition), PiwPaw - Beer Heaven, with its attractive bars with respectively 50 and 100 taps at one place and Hoopiness, a bar which serves not only great beers but also dishes based on craft beers and its ingredients.
Only a temporary fashion?
As we say goodbye, I express my concern that the fashion for craft beers is just temporary, that it may fade away like many other culinary fashions which were once ousted by a new trend. His answer, however, eases me entirely as he asks the very last rhetorical question of our meeting:
Do you think that a person who's tasted at least a few craft beers will ever go back to drinking macro ones?
I truly believe not.
Interview conducted by Wojciech Oleksiak, 24 August 2016