Poland has a cruel nickname: “The country on wheels.” For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was ruled by Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany, and then became a satrapy of the Soviet Union for 50 grim years. Its modern borders bear little relation to the ones it enjoyed a century and a half ago. Is it any wonder that its brewing traditions have been fashioned more by foreign intervention than by indigenous styles?
Just as golden lager began to transform brewing practice in central and eastern Europe, a beer that broke all the new rules by using warm fermentation and dark, roasted malts also put down deep roots in those countries.
Germanic wheat beers were once widespread and survive today. But the greatest influence from the mid-19th century came not from an invader but from neighboring Bohemia, now the modern Czech Republic. The brewing revolution that started in Pilsen and produced the first golden lager beer was soon manifest in Poland. Breweries that had been built on hills in the mountainous Tatra region were found to be ideal for digging deep, cold cellars in which the new-style pilsner beer could be stored or lagered for several months.
But Poland also had a Monty Python moment. At the same time as pilsner beer was changing the methods of brewing, something completely different was making an appearance in the Baltic states. The British were no slouches where empire was concerned, but their only involvement in the east was to export substantial quantities of a potent black beer called Baltic porter. It is a wonderful irony of brewing history that, just as golden lager began to transform brewing practice in central and eastern Europe, a beer that broke all the new rules by using warm fermentation and dark, roasted malts also put down deep roots in those countries.
A Brewing Aristocrat
For centuries, brewing in Poland had been a small-scale operation run either by farmers or town councils and strictly controlled by the church or local dukes. In the 19th century, a definable commercial brewing industry began to develop due in the main to the enormous power of the ruling Habsburg dynasty that ran the Austro-Hungarian empire.
One of the key participants in the new brewing industry of that period was Archduke Albrecht Friedrich von Habsburg. He inherited vast swathes of land in Galicia and Silesia and was encouraged by his father to go into brewing on the grounds that “if you own land and make beer, my son, you can’t go wrong.” The archduke’s first brewery was built in 1846 high above the small town of Cieszyn in the Silesia region, a stone’s throw from the Czech border. It was a fortuitous choice. for Cieszyn had a steelworks and there were many thirsty throats to refresh.
In the manner of aristocrats in the German-speaking countries of Bavaria and Austria, the archduke at first made wheat beer at Cieszyn, but he switched to cold fermentation when pilsen burst on the brewing scene in the 1840s. As a result of the brewery’s dominant position above the town, it was a comparatively simple matter to dig deep lager cellars for cold-fermented beer.
The archduke’s brewery prospered and within five years he summoned the best engineers and water experts to join him for an expedition into the forests of the Zywiec [zhiv-y-etz] region of Galicia to find a spring that could supply pure water for a bigger brewery than Cieszyn. A suitable site was found and a local priest blessed the plot. Within weeks, the plant was under construction and in 1856 the new Archducal Brewery of Zywiec was registered with the Austrian authorities. It used all the new technologies of the industrial age, with lager beer stored for between three and eight months in deep cellars cooled by rooms above that were packed with ice cut from rivers and lakes in winter.
A New Beer Intrudes
The German influence can be seen in the beers first brewed at Zywiec: lagerbier, Märzenbier (March beer) and Winterlager. But in 1881 the brewery had to accommodate a quite different type of beer, when an employee developed a recipe for porter, which was warm-fermented. He was called Julius Wagner and Zywiec claims he was a Pole, which seems fanciful. Whatever his ethnicity, he was sufficiently impressed by the impact of English Baltic porter to encourage Zywiec to brew its own version of the style.
In the 19th century, several London brewers who dominated the production of porter and stout started to export strong versions of the dark beer to Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltic states. Just as Arthur Guinness in Dublin switched to porter and stout production in a bid to break the English stranglehold over the Irish market, brewers in Scandinavia and eastern Europe also fashioned their interpretations of the London style.
The archduke and his managers were sufficiently impressed with Wagner’s plans to install a separate production line for his porter. The beer was fermented in large open vessels and then matured in smaller wooden barrels. For a time, Zywiec even brewed a warm-fermented ale when English pale ale made a brief appearance in Poland.
Baltic porter and its stronger brother Imperial Russian stout are an endangered species. Carlsberg’s Baltika, the biggest brewing group by far in Russia, has phased out its imperial stout and there were unconfirmed rumors in the summer of 2008 that Okocim, one of Poland’s big three brewing groups, might be planning to axe its porter. The opportunity to see Zywiec Porter brewed at source was therefore not to be missed.
But the source had moved. Since1994, Zywiec has been owned by Heineken and the small volumes of porter did not suit the new plant the Dutch giant has built to churn out millions of hectolitres of pale lager. Porter has been transferred to Archduke Albrecht’s original brewery at Cieszyn.
On the map, Cieszyn looks a short drive from Krakow, but the highways are poor and under repair, causing endless delays. We drove for three hours on rutted roads that curved through dense woods at the foothills of the Tatras. At one point I was given the chilling information that I might catch a glimpse of the towers of the Auschwitz concentration camp through the trees. I couldn’t make out the towers but I needed a calming beer when at last we drove up the twisting road from the town of Cieszyn to the brewery with its mellow brick buildings, cobbled courtyard and a brewery cat on rat patrol.
A Visit to Cieszyn
Cieszyn is a fascinating example of a traditional 19th century lager brewery. It uses a double decoction mashing regime, followed by filtration in a lauter tun and then a brew kettle for the boil with hops. Porter accounts for half the annual modest production of 100,000 hectos/60,000 barrels and shares the brewhouse and lager cellars with a pilsner-style beer called Brackie and a lighter lager.
Zywiec Porter is now a cold-fermented black lager, but at 9.5% ABV it has all the richness and complexity of the warm-fermented original. It’s made with pilsner, caramalt, Munich and roasted grains, and hopped with Magnum, Nugget and Taurus varieties. As Poland grows hops of excellent quality in the Lublin area, I was surprised to find the brewery importing most of its supplies from Germany.
The porter has an astonishing four-hour boil in the kettle as a result of the high level of grain used. It then has 15 days primary fermentation in open square tanks before it’s transferred to the lager cellar, 15 meters below ground. The cold cellars, with the temperature held just above freezing, holds 100 small lager tanks with a total capacity of 20,000 hectos.
Porter is held in the tanks for a maximum of 60 days to ripen. The beer that emerges has a deep coffee color, with powerful hints of espresso, licorice, molasses and burnt grain on the palate. Dark fruit and hops build in the mouth and a long and intense finish is packed with rich fruit, burnt grain, silky coffee and bitter hops.
Big Brewers, Little Beers
As a result of its split personality, you will have to trace the history of Zywiec Porter at its place of origin in Zywiec, a two-hour drive from Cieszyn. The large brewery complex houses an impressive museum that was built to mark the 150th anniversary of the brewery. It has many artifacts about Porter and other Zywiec products.
Outside, the grounds of the brewery are dotted with old wooden lagering vessels, but they must seem quaint to visitors who tour the vast new brewhouse built by Heineken. Each brew produces 1,000 hectos and total annual production is in excess of six million hectos. The brewery is fed with pure water from the Tatras mountains that loom in the distance. The bulk of production is accounted for by Zywiec, a 5.6% pale lager. The other main product is Heineken’s ubiquitous 5% beer. The beers have a rapid 21-day production cycle, with an infusion mash system, 10 days primary fermentation and just 10 days lagering.
With the stress on speed and volumes, there are fears Heineken may at some stage move production from Cieszyn to its main facility, which could spell the end for the porter.
Does Polish Porter Have a Future?
The Poles are used to change and uncertainty. The commercial brewing industry of the late 19th century was smashed to pieces in World War One. It was painfully rebuilt by Poles following the departure of the Habsburgs but was buffeted by the Great Depression of the 1930s and then takeover by Germans during the Nazi invasion of World War Two.
When the Nazis retreated they took much valuable brewing equipment with them. As a result, the breweries that emerged blinking nervously into the new era of state-owned communism were in desperate need of investment. Unlike neighboring Czechoslovakia, where the communists left most of the country’s breweries to quietly molder in 19th-century faded glory, the Polish regime had to invest massively.
Zywiec, in particular, received large amounts of government largesse as its beers were earmarked for export in order to earn much-needed hard currency from the west. For a period in the 1960s and 70s, using the brand name Krakus, Zywiec beers were widely available on both sides of the “Iron Curtain.”
Porter survived, but in general the nationalized Polish breweries concentrated on unremarkable pale lagers, the occasional pilsner type and malty beers known as “mocny,” high in alcohol but decidedly under-hopped. Following the fall of communism, Poland has followed the same course as most former Eastern bloc countries: privatization has been followed by a rush by global groups to snap up breweries and dominate the industry.
The big three in Poland today are Zywiec, Carlsberg’s Okocim, and Kompania Piwowarska (Brewing Company), owned by SABMiller.
Okocim has similarly elevated origins to Zywiec’s. It was founded in 1846 in Brzesko in south-east Poland by Johann Evangelist Gotz whose son Jan married an aristocrat and changed his name to Goetz-Okocimski, a neat merger of German and Polish interests. Its brands include two of the best-selling lagers, Lech and Tyskie, and the under-threat Okocim Porter.
The 8.3% porter is matured for five months and has a satin-smooth aroma and palate, with creamy malt, coffee, chocolate and light hop notes. Carlsberg has invested heavily in the breweries in the group, which produces around 2.5 million hectolitres a year.
SABMiller’s Tyskie brewery in Tychy is close to Krakow and has a fine museum that includes some of old copper brewing vessels from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Tyskie dates from 1629 and has grown from a minute agricultural brewery to a large conglomerate producing some of the biggest-selling lager beers in the country. Its Doljidy subsidiary produces a 9.5 % porter, which is hard to find. Tyskie’s main claim to fame is that it brews Pilsner Urquell, the iconic, original Czech golden lager under license.
There is a remarkable synergy between the methods of communism and global capitalism where brewing is concerned. The communists focused on pale lagers and the western giants have followed suit. Their commitment to darker beers, porter in particular, is very much in doubt. The open market has encouraged a number of small craft breweries to spring up. But, in general, they offer little alternative to the mass-produced brands and tend to disappear like the snows of winter, unable to compete with the big three with their power to undercut the opposition.
Baltic porter clings on by its fingertips in Poland and other eastern Europe countries. It’s a style that is an important part of our brewing heritage and it deserves to survive. Only beer lovers can ensure it doesn’t fall off the cliff.