Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The spread of craft beers - not just central Warsaw

A big thanks to Tim and Andrzej at RSK for suggesting a visit to Mam Ochotę, a klubokawiarnia in Ochota (which sounds like a suburb of Tokyo but in fact is Warsaw's Kensington). Not the very epicentre of the city, but a few bus stops to the south-west. Ochota literally means 'willingness' or 'desire'; mam ochotę literally means 'I want' or 'I fancy'. (A trendy Warsaw bar these days has to have a name with a double meaning - like PiwPaw or Same Krafty)

So, fancying a craft beer, we popped by for an ale or two. The revolution has spread beyond the city centre; although there was no artisan brew on tap, there was a fair selection of bottled ales from small regional breweries around Poland, many various brewing styles.

We plumped for two beers (above), Serce Dębu (literally 'oak heart') from Perun, brewed by the Zodiak brewery in Piaseczno, an American brown ale, 5.5% abv, a complex and multi-layered beer, a good mouthful with lingering aftertaste. Not as hoppy as an IPA, but richly rewarding. The second, Kujawskie, by the Krajan brewery from the Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, was intriguing, not for any intrinsic reason other than its taste gave me an instant flashback to the Polish beers exported to the UK in the 1980s. Żywiec used to taste like this before Big Brewing got its corporate hands on the process. Malty rather than hoppy, strong too at 6.0% abv.

We debated whether the Polish word for malt, słód, formed the etymological origin of the adjective słodkie ('sweet') [Wiktionary suggests that this is indeed the case.] In the days before sugar (cane or beet) became readily available in Poland, malt - germinating cereal grains - for brewing would have been (besides honey and fruit) the sweetest taste commonly encountered.

I must say I prefer my beers bitter and hoppy than malty and sweet, but the latter style is more prevalent in Polish brewing. Andrzej, who hails from Lower Silesia, made the connection between beer-drinking and coal-mining; a miner who'd spent a whole shift underground extracting coal would emerge dehydrated; drinking a litre and half of beer would always be preferable to the same amount of water or to a smaller amount of wine or spirits.

It is good that beer is experiencing a renaissance in Poland. Back in the late 1980s, in the dying days of the communist system, you'd go into a bar and ask naively for a beer - the inevitable answer from the sarky waitress was "we didn't have any beer, we don't have any beer, we won't have any beer". As soon as democracy was re-established the Polish Beer-Lovers' Party won 16 seats in the first parliamentary elections held in 1991. Small local breweries took off, beer drinking took hold in Poland. But the big, multinational brewing conglomerates had an eye on emerging markets like Poland with a large population, rapidly rising GDP and a lot of coal miners. So within 20 years, the Big Three (SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg) had a virtual monopoly of the Polish beer market, turning out beers like Tyskie, Lech, Żywiec, Warka Strong and Okocim that all tasted and looked the same, lacked character or conviction.

The revolution started a few years back - the big brewers were (and are) losing market share as regional breweries and craft brewers bounded back with interesting tastes, different styles, made by people with a passion rather than a focus on the bottom line and quarterly profits.

But step outside the metropolis, and you'll be hard-pressed to find this variety in a bar. Yesterday Śródmieście, today Ochota, tomorrow Piaseczno? And who knows - Jeziorki?

This time last year:
The Holocaust and the banality of evil

This time two years ago:
Snow scene into the sun

This time three years ago:
More winter gorgeousness

This time four years ago:
New winter wear - my M65 Parka

This time five years ago:
Winter and broken-down trains

This time six years ago:
General Mud claims ul. Poloneza

This time seven years ago:
Just when I thought winter was over...


AndrzejK said...

There is a Fullers pub next door to the remains of the gas from coal plant and gasometer in Hayes in West London. In the days of the coking plant the workers were entitled to two pints of beer and the pub would line up ready poured pints on the window sills!

Incidentally Hayes is the home of a hardware shop which gave Ronnie Barker the idea for the "four candles/ fork handles" sketch, still one of the funniest ever!

AndrzejK said...


Interesting that the 3 big brewers left their Czech and Slovak acquisitions almost original whilst reduced their Polish acquired beers to Euro gnats piss. As you sow so shall you reap!

Sigismundo said...

The type of beer used for slaking the thirst of labouring men was "small beer", quite a different product from modern craft ales.

It was quite weak (2% – 3% iirc) but could be drunk in huge quantities. Again, if I recall correctly, a soldier or sailor would typically be issued 8 pints per day, and remember in those days working men were seldom more than 5' 7'' tall.

Interesting point on pre-sugar sweeteners.