Polish beer – why isn’t it good? (Polish beer history part 1)

I’ve got a great fondness for Poland and the Poles, and starting this blog has finally motivated me to try and answer a long-standing question – Why isn’t Polish beer very good? Why are brewing traditions so strong in the Czech Republic and Germany but not (it seems) in Poland?

Zywiec

Zywiec – ubiquitous in Poland, now available in Wetherspoon’s pubs in the UK

Don’t get me wrong – Polish beer isn’t bad, it’s just that the big brands are not particularly impressive or original. I’ve tried most of the major Polish brews in my time (Zywiec, Lech, EB, Okocim, Tyskie to name a few) and have barely been able to tell the difference.

I thought this might have been my unsophisticated tastebuds, but a quick bit of internet research confirms that the vast majority of Polish brands are owned by 3 breweries, who are in turn owned by foreign multinationals who tend to specialise in bland lager;

  • SABMiller own Kompania Piwowarska, who make Lech and Tyskie (also Zubr and Debowe Mocne, which seem ubiquitous in London cornershops)
  • The Zywiec group is owned by Heineken, who also own Elbrewery (EB) and Warka
  • Carlsberg produce Okocim

Following the fall of communism, state-owned breweries were rapidly privatised and were a good target for merger activity, a process which is described in an academic paper by Michal Gorzynski – which accounts for the current position.

But were the breweries any good before this? I would love to find out more about this, but it would seem that the old state-owned breweries were even worse. Michal Gorzynski states that breweries in the early 90s started to produce beer of better quality. There has certainly been a huge growth in the beer market in Poland since privatisation (according to Rafal Tarnowski, “Industrial Relations in the Brewing Industry” beer sales rose 135% in the 1990s. Is this down to a triumph of marketing (check out the Zywiec link to see their award winning campaigns) or a better product?

Beer is certainly a young person’s drink in Poland – the over 30s tend to prefer vodka. Is the lack of excellent Polish brews down to the fantastic range and quality of the vodka?

An even more interesting question – given that a lot of modern day Poland was part of Germany, what happened to all the breweries?

More research to come on this (if anyone has some good sources of information, please let me know!).

In the meantime, here’s a link to a very informative site (in English) about the types of Polish beer, including a fascinating piece on the one “native” Polish beer, “grodziskie” or “Gratzer”, a top-fermented smoked wheatbeer. It also includes a list of Polish breweries, including some of the new exciting brew pubs. European beer guide – Polish breweries

Boak

1918 anti-brewing tract

I can’t find out much about Adolph Keitel, but in 1918, he wrote “Government by the Brewers?”. It was published in Chicago, and is an anti-brewery/anti-beer tract. It’s available from Project Gutenberg, the free etext archive.

His argument is a bit odd – he’s not anti-prohibition, but he’s annoyed that brewers were trying to convince people beer was less harmful than whisky. He says that beer is a habit forming drug (“It’s not a drug – it’s a drink” – Chris Morris) and not fit to be in the home. Brewers, he argues, are a sinister force for evil.

This point re: the quality of American beer is particularly amusing:

WHAT IS BEER?

In the well known European beer drinking countries nothing but hops and malt are permitted in brewing.

Here beer is a concoction of corn, rice, hops, malt, glucose,preservatives and other drugs–and, in most cases, it has nothing in common with real beer other than its artificial foam and color.

A leader of public opinion made the statement in the United States Senate that “Beer that is brewed in this country is slop. They say it is ‘good for the health.’ I never saw a man who drank it who was not a candidate for Bright’s disease or paralysis.”

Curry and beer

The British Guild of Beer Writers reports on a recent “tasting event” at the Bombay Brasserie in London. Eminent beer experts got together for a curry and tried to work out which beers went best with spicy foods. Their recommendations are here.

Rupert Ponsonby, co-founder of the Beer Academy comments:
What this tasting hopefully shows is the potential for Britain’s 8,500 curry restaurants to look seriously at developing beer lists to inspire their customers and to match with their cuisine. This is a fantastic commercial and marketing opportunity for them. Top Michelin-starred restaurants such as Le Gavroche, Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons and Aubergine have already taken the lead in creating inspired beer lists, and it will be wonderful to see top Indian restaurants doing the same.

On a visit to the Cinnamon Club last year, I was appalled to find that the only beer they had available was Cobra lager. Cobra’s OK – nicer than you’d expect, is what I mean, for a mass-produced lager made in Bedford – but surely not anywhere near as posh as the food, the wine or the waiters? Ms. Boak visited one of Gary Rhodes’ restaurants in the City of London last year, too, and was similarly disappointed by the lack of any beer, never mind a beer list.

Of course, my local curryhouse, which is very cheap and cheerful, is run by Sri Lankans, and they sell wonderful Lion Stout. It’s not a perfect beer to drink with a curry, but it’s a great one to have as a dessert. So, posher isn’t always better for beer lovers.