Winter has come to Blonie, a small town just west of Warsaw, and the scene is bleak: gray sky, bare trees and frozen mud. The stark Communist era is a quarter-century gone, but to a Westerner who grew up during the Cold War—with a head full of stereotypes— those times seem palpable in a dim pedestrian tunnel beneath the railway station, where there is no sign pointing anyone toward anything.
But there is wood smoke in the air, which fires synapses reminding us of warmth and food. It turns out there are no signs to the Artezan brewery, either, but we find it by wandering around a small industrial park, sniffing for malt. Started by homebrewers five years ago, Artezan was one of the first breweries in a new wave that has become a flood. Inside the brewery, there is more smoke—in the beer itself.
We watch as co-owner Jacek Materski uses an electric drill to unscrew a bolt from one of two barrels sitting in the corner of this gleaming 25-barrel brewhouse. Whiffs of smoke and tart fruit reach our noses before we even hold a glass. This is Preparat, Artezan’s highly regarded, ambercolored smoked barleywine. This batch has extra depth from Jack Daniels barrels, and from steeping in suska sechlonska (smoked prunes—a specialty of the Krakow area).
It’s a remarkable beer, with restrained whiskey character neatly balanced by the smoke and gentle, plummy acidity. “The result is very nice, quite interesting,” Materski says. “It’s still sweet, we’re waiting for it to become drier.”
We ask about those smoked prunes, and brewer Dariusz Doroszkiewicz produces a large bag of them from the cooler to share. Tangy rather than sweet, they’re a rare treat and not that easy to find in Poland.
What’s even more rare is the other smoked prune beer we sample at Jabeerwocky, one of about 50 “multi-tap” beer bars that have popped up in Warsaw. This brew—a black, oily-looking, thick substance—is Kormoran’s Imperium Prunum, one of Poland’s most sought-after beers. Again, the smoked prunes provide a tangy acidity to balance the lush, smooth, roasty character of the underlying porter.
“It’s not for everyday,” says Rafal Kowalczyk, owner of Jabeerwocky, where 17 taps and exposed brick and beer-style map on the wall should have most geeks feeling at home. “You can have it once a year, like Christmas. Some beers should be like this. You are waiting a whole year to have Christmas.” He said that Kormoran only makes about 40 hectoliters of Imperium Prunum, “and people go crazy about this beer.” The aggregate scoring site Ratebeer ranks it 18th in the world.
The “craft beer revolution” in Poland is only about five years old, but it has matured into something distinctive. Estimates vary and it’s tricky to get an accurate count, since small breweries open at a rapid clip and there are many beer firms that are not breweries at all. But I count about 160 breweries in Poland today, up from 100 just two years ago. That does not include more than 100 brands that hire or rent but don’t yet have breweries of their own. There will be more by the time you read this sentence.
“In this five years, I think Poland did a lot,” says Artezan’s Materski. “Because if you go to the beer shop, every week they bring new beers, new brewers. Last year we had more than 1,000 new beers.”
Materski also organizes the Warsaw Beer Festival in October, so he has watched the field evolve rapidly. His opinion affirms my own, based only on sampling as many Polish beers as I could over several weeks: The quality is surprisingly high, considering the relative youth of the scene.
“There are about 30 breweries that are doing really interesting and really good beer,” he says, and the rest are improving. “I think that the craft beer sector in Poland is growing very, very fast. Maybe what you [Americans] did in 40 years, we will do in four years or in eight years,” Materski says.
Among the new Polish varieties are certain motifs. Beyond the assorted IPAs—popular everywhere—common themes include smoke, roasted malt, rye, wheat and salt. Stouts, porters and farmhouse beers are numerous. The flavors fit the Polish taste for hearty, rustic, comforting peasant food, like pierogies, bigos and sausage—and much of that is smoked, too, along with the cheese, fish and the occasional plum.
“We like smoke very much,” says Marcin Chmielarz, who manages Jabeerwocky and will be its brewer; he and Kowalczyk aim to open their Warsaw brewery sometime in 2017. “As a teenager we all sit down by the fire. If you have a garden, a lot of people have a smokehouse in it. … I have a theory that everything smoked is better.”
Even without all this new variety, Poland would be one of the world’s great beer-drinking countries. The per capita average is nearly 98 liters drank per year, enough to rank them fourth behind the Czechs, Austrians and Germans, and just ahead of the Irish and Lithuanians. The Poles are squarely within Europe’s beer belt, even if the vodka belt overlaps. The Poles still like their vodka, but in the past 25 years its popularity has fallen while beer’s has risen—one way that Poland has shrugged off its Communist past.
The fall of the Iron Curtain meant a renewed look at Polish traditions. In 1990, a real (if satirical) political party called the Polish Beer-Lovers Party was established. Their stated mission was to promote drinking beer instead of vodka in pubs. Their platform, in part: “With beer we can exchange views, with beer it is easier to reach an agreement, to get along.” The Beer-Lovers had brief success, winning 16 parliamentary seats in 1991 before splitting into factions and being absorbed by other parties. Their mission seemed to be a sign of the times.
By far, the most popular type of beer in Poland is pale lager, like elsewhere. After the Cold War, Heineken, Carlsberg and SABMiller swooped in to buy the country’s largest industrial breweries, which had been newly privatized. However, there are plenty of regional and smaller independents brewing lager, and often the lager tastes more Czech-like, with more residual sweetness and hop character than the lager of Germany.
While not popular, one notable oddity is grodziskie, an heirloom style revived not long ago by homebrewers. It’s a smoked, golden wheat beer that is light, lively, dry, bitter—challenging for most drinkers. But brewers like it, so several of them keep the tradition going. This group includes Browar w Grodzisku in the style’s original hometown of Grodzisk Wielkopolski. It had been defunct for 20 years before Fortuna Brewery revived it in 2015.
Yet what is arguably Polish beer’s greatest triumph is neither pale nor smoked. It is black, thick, rich and smooth. There are breweries in other countries near the Baltic Sea that brew Baltic porter, but in Poland it holds a regal place that few beer styles reach in any country. It’s called the “Polish brewing treasure.” There is even a Baltic Porter Day in January. As one blogger writes, “It is a style of beer of which we can and should be proud, that should be our calling card in the world.” Certainly the Poles are among the best at brewing it; five of the top 10 Baltic porters in the world according to Ratebeer come from Poland.
Poland’s Baltic porters pair beautifully with dessert. But in my view, they taste best of all with some nasty weather, thick socks, a warm radiator, a decent book and no distractions.