On the beer trail in Poland

I mentioned at the start of the post just below this one that 2021 is the tenth anniversary of my first trip to Poland. I’ve drunk quite a lot of beer since then, both in and outside Poland, and, while Poland has always had a tradition of decent bottled beers (Baltic porters, chiefly), the beer scene is remarkably different now to then.

Back then beers whose attractiveness is best described as ‘cold and wet’ predominated (they still do, of course), but 2011 saw the arrival of the first hop forward beer – ‘Atak Chmielu’ (‘Hop Attack’), produced (under contract) by Silesia’s PINTA – thus getting the craft beer (piwo rzemieślnicze) revolution underway with a view to changing Polish beer drinkers’ tastebuds. Now, you can find interesting – and, indeed, experimental beers, if that’s your thing – right across the country and, while this might be naturally expected in the large towns and cities, even the smaller, more remote locations also have restaurants and outlets where you can find good, locally-produced, fresh beer – usually bottled, but also on draught in some places – which doesn’t taste like every. single. other. beer you tried before. Living in a small, more remote location where such a thing is difficult, I recognise that that’s no mean feat.

As this very recent article quite astutely points out, there are actually two revolutions underway in Poland – not only challenging people’s tastebuds, being the first and most obvious, but turning Poland from a vodka country to a beer country being the second, deeper, one which has major social as well as economic connotations. Both revolutions are, of course, connected.

Poland now produces more beer each year than the UK, despite having a population only 56 per cent of the size, and only Germany among European countries produces more. And, while 80 per cent of Polish beer consumption is from one of the ‘big three’ (owned respectively by Asahi, Heineken and Carlsberg), there are now more than 300 active breweries, many of them microbreweries and larger, but regionalised concerns. Naturally, this success has encouraged the big three to produce their own versions of craft beer in response, although (alongside other more sneaky big beer/business tactics, including the one of disguise) there are several issues here too. However, it seems that craft has been making some inroads: that 80 per cent figure (source: Wikipedia, dating from 2014) seems, on the basis of more recent market share figures, dating from 2017, to have fallen back a bit. Tastebuds are being changed – but progress is slow and likely to be beset by a range of issues of which the impact on social habits and customs of Covid-19 over the last eighteen months, and counting, is only one among many.

Wide availability of good product helps. In Wrocław I expected to find good beers aplenty, both as a result of the history (see post below) as well as a rich economy and a large, young population. Here, for instance, I had a pale ale brewed with New Zealand hops (actually, the first NZ beer I’ve tried) made by a local brewery but, crucially, available in an ordinary restaurant: I didn’t need to step into any of the brewery restaurants which are present even on the main square in the city, such as the rightly-renowned Golden Dog, or a taproom. But in lovely Świeradow-Zdrój – population 4,100 – craft beers were also easily available in bars and restaurants (albeit from another of the Wrocław craft breweries – a 150km distance is still pretty local); in Kudowa-Zdrój, where the local beers came from across the border in the Czech Republic; and in the Bieszczady Mountains, in the far south-east corner of the country and whose towns were largely deserted until the 1970s as a result of the aftermath of the establishment of modern-day Poland subsequent to the Second World War, where the bottled beers from one brewery, the nearest town to which has a population of 5,700, were ubiquitous in restaurants across the villages of the region.

Here’s an advert for that brewery in the market stalls clustered around the bus stop in Ustrzyki Górne – more a destination than a town, really – and, as you can see, not only an advert, too:

Ursa Maior ticks many of the right craft beer boxes – set up by a champion homebrewer in 2013, and a woman at that, it has a solid range of core beers, all of which are entirely vegan, cleverly branded and marketed, is firmly attached to and rooted within its community and proudly champions its environmental credentials. It is open to visitors for tours and for a taproom experience, is youthful, English-speaking, all over social media and with website design which has a modern, fresh appeal. Heck, to judge by the language on its 2021 recruitment advert, it could also have got to the stage, like many of its contemporaries internationally, where it could do with recognising a trade union. Hmm.

Socially therefore, we might well be getting to the point where Polish people might well be asking ‘Is a beer at the wedding a good idea?’, going by the title of this interview with Agnieszka Łopata, the founder of Ursa Maior (a title whose philosophical properties justify a deeper analysis than simply a piece on a wedding planner website, I think) – the point being that Poland is indeed moving away from spirits-based celebrations centred on vodka: still the national drink, but being caught up by beer. There are many factors in this, chief among them being the nation’s alcohol advertising laws (only beer among alcoholic drinks can be advertised and only then when health warnings covering 20 per cent of the surface area of the advert are in place). All this does, however, mean that the ‘alkohole’ shops of yore – grim places in which you’re more than likely to encounter a certain type of clientele shuffling apologetically around (hence the reason for the advertising laws – alcoholism has been a problem in Poland) and often featuring bars over small windows placed high up on walls – are being slowly replaced by modern bottle shops, like one where we stayed in Cisna (population, outside the tourist season, less than 500), well-stocked with an increasingly wide range of regional beers from many different breweries like Ursa Maior lined up on bare, or barely painted, wood shelves which are attractively lit. Sadly, I have no photographs of this one. Busy it was, too, the midweek night I was in.

Alongside a network of good bottle shops which increases people’s opportunities to buy – some 89 per cent of sales in Poland is off-trade, i.e. for the home, according to the factsheet produced by the industry association in Poland – changing people’s tastebuds is evidently the key. Or, alternatively, that there can be more to ‘lager’ than cold and wet, which also has its place in hot countries; or that, alternatively, ale doesn’t have to be ‘dank’; or that good beer doesn’t have to involve a lot of faff around choice, styles, tastes and food matching options; and worrying that you might have got the wrong one. Asking for ‘a beer’ should be simple and, moreover, good beer should always be what arrives.

It’s actually pretty easy to sell a craft product – including beer – to tourists who want to experience something authentic and local to where they are as a key part of their holiday; it’s another thing entirely to be able to do more than just engage in deep cleaning-oriented shutdowns in those parts of the year when tourists are thin on the ground and when the requirement for freshness means getting your product not only out, but sold, in a reasonable time after it emerges from fermentation. The Bieszczady has its off-season too, when winter snows lead to Cisna being covered by 3m of snow, as one hotelier reported to us, albeit that snow brings winter sports enthusiasts alongside walkers looking for a different sort of challenge than you find in the mountains in the summer (and including those presented by hungry, and capable, wild animals).

Being able to sell beer year-round in remote areas means either, or more probably both, of having a good website presence and a clear online sales facility (to which you can also respond in timely fashion) and of selling to locals. In the latter case, this often means overcoming people’s desire just to ‘be like everyone else’ and, completely conversely to the tourist experience, precisely to get away from where they are. In Poland, this might well mean preferring to buy a Tyskie, a Żywiec or an Okocim (or, in the Western Isles, a Tennent’s, a McEwan’s or, ahem, a Punk IPA, Aberdeen’s Brewdog already being the largest independent in the UK). The investment in alternative beer in the spa towns of the west and in the Bieszczady seems to indicate that this key problem of selling outside the main tourist season can be overcome, although a look at the street maps produced by one online giant or another indicates just how recent a lot of this investment is – and, therefore, how vulnerable, too – and an out-of-season re-visit would probably be a good idea, too. An emphasis on the local, the rooted and the community which goes hand-in-hand with being part of a remote area; while an emphasis on fewer food miles, not least in these times of both climate change as well as supply chain bottlenecks, has a lot to commend itself and it may be part of an appeal which is possible to replicate elsewhere. In our corner of Europe, in contrast, getting stock into the major retail outlets does seem to be a problem and that may, in turn, reflect a lack of discretion to local managers as regards purchases, perhaps combined with a large degree of central purchasing.

So, some signs of good progress in Poland these last ten years; but, like anywhere else, the road is both rocky and long, and full of potholes and other bumpy bits. Do support your local producers, wherever you find them: Covid-19 and extended shutdowns has meant that many are barely surviving as it is. In the meantime, it’s good to know that local brewers in the UK can learn the success factors in selling craft beer just as much from the Polish experience, and possibly more, as Polish brewers can from us. That’s also progress.