Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Polish India Pale Ales - the taste of now

Back in 2009, I bemoaned the state of brewing in Poland. Totally dominated by the Big Three brewers (SAB Miller, Carlsberg and Heineken), Polish breweries produced samey products aimed at a focus-group defined market of young drinkers considered to like their beer sweet, strong and cheap. There was hardly anything else around. So I did not drink Polish beer.

But then, sometime around 2012, the Craft Brewing revolution began to take root in Poland. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a new breed of brewer emerged offering uncompromising products, not brewed down to a price, nor designed to appeal to everyone and no one. I remember my first glass of Polish craft ale - King of Hop by Ale Browar. And my second - Atak Chmielu by Pinta. Tastes that haunted me overnight and left me waking up the next morning wanting more of that taste.

By last year, Warsaw was full of excellent craft-beer bars.

The craft brewers are successfully going mainstream, making the leap from small hipster bars to the hypermarkets. At first it was regional brewers whose products were starting to appear on the big retailers' shelves. Novelty terms like 'unpasteurised', 'cold-filtered' or 'regional'  began to make their way onto beer bottle labels. Wheat beers, March beers, porters - and above all India Pale Ales (IPAs). Suddenly the days when 'choice' meant Żywiec, Okocim, Lech or Tyskie were mercifully over.

With Lent out of the way for another year, and warmer days ahead, it's beer time. I visited Auchan at the weekend, just after its internal reorganisation, to find the beer shelves extended yet again, and the 'premium domestic' section bigger than ever before. And here, the choice of India Pale Ales has grown yet again.

First there was Browar Witnica's IPA. Then came Kormoran's American IPA (not shown). Now, I find a further three, from Ale Browar, Perun and Browar Konstancin. These beers retail for between 6 and 8 złotys, so similar prices to the UK for a half-litre presentation. But more than double the price of regular beers.

"Honestly, I've only had a few ales..."
My favourite of these is Rowing Jack from Ale Browar; 6.0% ABV and 70 IBU (International Bitterness Units, the measure of that hoppiness that gives IPAs that satisfying flavour). The label is up-to-the-minute (compare how dated the Konstancin IPA label on the right looks), the taste existentially satisfying. Actually all four (and indeed the Kormoran ale) do it for me. These are all excellent beers, brewed in Poland, beers that can give the best of British craft brewing a run for its money.

A big thumbs-down, however, to Lidl - it's 'surprise and delight' strategy is just not working when it comes to beers. In the  UK, Hatherwood's Green Gecko No. 2 IPA (contract-brewed by Marston's) is generally available in Lidl stores. Here in Poland, Lidl's beer section is woeful - more like a museum of Polish beer-retailing from circa 2007. Left behind. Lidl's Argus own-brand beers in Poland come from south of the border the Czech Republic, though I suspect Poles are drinking what Lidl believes they like, namely the sweet, strong, cheap brews that the Big Three make here. I recently bought an Argus Porter (8% ABV); it was so sickly-sweet that only my penny-pinching miserliness prevented me from tipping the contents down the sink. Imagine a super-strong version of Mackeson's Milk Stout... Lidl might do well at selling reasonable red wines at an amazingly low price (I commend its South African Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon for example), but the beer selection is dire.

If you want choice in beer, Auchan's the supermarket to visit. If you want an even greater choice in beer, there are more and more specialist beer (and cider) shops opening up across Warsaw, including two on Ursynów's Al. KEN.

This time last year:
Lublin - pearl of Poland's East

This time three years ago:
70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

This time four years ago:
Tarkovsky's Stalker: a zone of my own

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's big billboards

This time seven years ago:
Pace of development falters

This time nine years ago:
Unusual formation of mammatus clouds over Jeziorki


Aidan.Warsaw said...

Michael, thanks for the recommendation of Rowing Jack, I will look for that one. I recently discovered Raciborski Pils which has a very refreshing taste more reminiscent of bitter than lager. Additional benefit for me is that it is one of the few beers which has a slightly lower alchohol percentage of 4.5% without losing any flavour.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Aidan,

Raciborski Pils I shall also look out for! 4.5% makes it a good choice for a session beer. Talking of which - time to meet up and quaff one or two!

Anonymous said...

You confused your first and second polish craft breweries :) King of Hop is made by AleBrowar whereas Atak Chmielu is made by Pinta.

Anonymous said...

And the Jasny Grom's manufacturer is Perun, not Perkun :)

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous

Thanks for setting me right in these - both have been duly corrected.