Hello. I write to you from bright, classy Warsaw Chopin Airport, where I have ingested a smoked goose sandwich, bought a variety box of dried, smoked sausages for later sampling, and ruminated on things seen and enjoyed here in Warsaw over the past few days.
I’ll save the quotes and deeper insights for an upcoming article in the magazine on the blossoming Polish beer scene. In the meantime, here are five great things from my time in Warsaw:
Smoked plums. It was disappointing not to find these in any of the airport shops peddling local delicacies. Maybe they’re better known among beer geeks than the people at large, since the suska sechlonska feature prominently in the Kormoran Imperium Prunum—a lush, weighty imperial Baltic Porter that sits atop the Polish rankings on Ratebeer. We were lucky enough to share a bottle at the excellent Jabeerwocky beer bar, so we could marvel at the acidity and lingering smoke brought by the fruit. Later we snacked on them at the Artezan brewery in the rural outskirts west of Warsaw. The brewer produced a bag of these special prunes after we tasted their Jack Daniels barrel-aged Preparat smoked barley wine; the acidity of the plums brought the sweetness and whiskey into balance before leaving a pleasant, long-lingering smoky aftertaste. A specialty of southeast Poland, the local plums go through a traditional drying process over slow-burning wood fire.
- Smoked everything else too. Sausages, plums, geese, mackerel, cheese, grodziskies, porters, bocks, and even smoked IPAs. Poles seem to have a thing for smoke—or at least their brewers do. When we arrived in Blonie—a bleak landscape unhelped by cold, wet weather—to visit Artezan, it was fitting to smell woodsmoke in the air. There is something about smoke flavor that reaches the deepest comfort centers of our DNA, perhaps recalling times spent round warm, life-giving fires. Or maybe it just reminds us of camping, barbecues and firesides. Poland’s most distinctive traditional beer style is grodziskie — light, dry, bitter and sparkling with an ashy campfire smoke character. Once extinct, it has made a comeback but appears to divide local opinion. Challenging and austere, I found versions from the Nepomucen, Artezan and Grodzisku breweries to be as refreshing as they were reassuringly odd.
- More Polish comfort foods. Winter brings the primal habit of packing on calories, and Polish winters are long enough. Go on then, it’s for survival. Want some sour cream on those fried pierogies, stuffed with cabbage and smoked bacon? How about a hot mug of zur (sour rye soup) or barszcz (red beetroot soup)? Or a skillet of bigos, a savory stew of sauerkraut and various chopped meats. Meanwhile, it would appear that no Polish coffee shop worthy of the name is complete without an elaborate spread of shiny, colorful, sweet and savory pastries and pies. Also: kabanos, thin smoky dried sausages that go down like a treat with any number of smoky beers, like the dark, sweetish rauchbock Jak w Dym, brewed at Browar na Jurze for the Pinta beer firm.
- Beer prices. Possibly my favorite beer of the visit was another from Kormoran, the Warminskie Revolucje, a beautifully aromatic pale lager; it has a Czech-ish residual malt sweetness and a compelling nose of mint, herbs and chamomile from the Polish hops Sybilla and Marynka. A 33 cl bottle of it cost the equivalent of about $1 from the corner shop. That’s pricey by Polish standards. In the popular Pijalnia Wodki i Piwa bar, with its bright lights, bow-tied bar staff and rambunctious karaoke, a small glass of typical pale lager also costs about $1. (For $2 there you can get a local dish like white borscht or beef tartare.) But even in the “multitap” craft beer bars like PiwPaw, Same Krafty or Kufle i Kapsle—there are about 40 multitaps in Warsaw—a half-liter of Polish craft beer will usually run you just $3 or $4. In some bars you can get smaller glasses of beer for less money; in others, a half-liter is the smallest size available.
Last but not least, the fifth great thing about Warsaw:
- Nobody asked us about the election. Not even once.