Eastern promise

11 July, 2008

With the prospects for Polish beer looking good, Jeff Evans checks out the major breweries

Down in the south of Poland there's a striking contrast between the old

eastern Europe and the new. It comes in the form of two breweries belonging to Grupa Zywiec, Poland's second-largest brewing group.

At Cieszyn, close to the Czech border, stands the fiercely traditional Brackie brewery. It brews a beer of the same name only for local consumption. Like most Polish beers

it is strong (5.5% abv), flavoursome

and falls broadly into the pilsner bracket.

The brewery also produces Zywiec Porter, a 9.3%, super-smooth, near-black beer in the imperial Russian stout vein, that enjoys limited exposure in the export market but has beer connoisseurs and some specialist retailers licking their lips in anticipation of more.

Both beers here benefit from

patience. The equipment is old, much of the labour is manual and the brewers are quite happy to allow the beers to reach perfection at their leisure. Porter is given 60 days or more to lager in the deep, vaulted cellars.

Less than an hour's drive away is a rather different brewing experience. Here, in the town of the same name, is Zywiec brewery. It is of roughly

the same vintage as the one at Cieszyn (mid-19th century), but it's all changed since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The

beer is brewed in a

stainless steel brewhouse , fermentation takes place in rocket-sized conical vessels and the main beer, Zywiec itself, is whizzed out of the door after a mere 10 days of lagering. It's a tale of an international brand efficiently produced, and this is where the new money in Polish brewing is being poured.

Majority shareholding

The story of Zywiec is one of massive recent investment . The brewery, like Brackie, was founded by a member of the Habsburg family, but was brought under state control in the Communist years. It was returned to the private sector in 1991

and Heineken picked up a majority shareholding in 1994. It's a move that has not only shored up the brand's position as the number one domestic beer, but also taken it strongly into the global market.

Polish beers are no longer strangers on British shelves. The

influx of

workers following Poland's entry into the EU in 2004 has seen specialist shops open to cater for the ex-pat community. Alongside this, the wider licensed trade has


there is

interest among British drinkers in

eastern European brands.

New-found confidence in Polish beer stems not only from modern

production and an injection of money, but

from the remarkable resurgence of beer as a drink on its home turf, primarily at the expense of vodka. In 1997, per capita consumption of beer in Poland stood at 49 litres. The forecast for 2008 is 97 litres - a near doubling in just over a decade.

Grupa Zywiec has some 33% of the Polish beer market

with exported brands including Warka, Tatra and Lezajsk. But Heineken is not alone among the multi-national brewers to plough money into Polish beer. SABMiller is owner of the largest group, Kompania Piwowarska, which has about


of national output and is known for

Tyskie and Lech , while Carlsberg runs the third

largest in Carlsberg Polska, producer of Okocim, which has 13% of the domestic market.

UK distributors of Polish beer inevitably target the

immigrant audience, says Laurence McCarthy, chairman of importer BDD.

But interest has grown from other sectors. "There is a crossover element to our customer base, which comprises young people of all races

and more seasoned, more affluent beer drinkers.

"Our entry offering was EB Specjal Pils, a new beer from Gdansk," McCarthy

says. "As Polish migrants started to arrive we were able to react by introducing Zywiec

and by beginning to work with Carlsberg and Kompania on other mainstream Polish brands. We also work on a small scale with Polish independents. However, now the market is being driven more by brands and the smaller players are very niche opportunities, where higher costs and lower volumes make them much more difficult to develop."

This is echoed by Jim Helsby of the York Beer

& Wine Shop. "With the influx of migrant Poles, availability has plainly increased, but it's much more difficult to get hold of more interesting varieties,

such as dark beers and porters.

Polish grocers

"Initially I listed Zywiec, Lech, Tyskie, Okocim and Okocim Mocne, and I contacted one or two importers about other lines. Minimum quantities for delivery were a little daunting for a small shop, and by the time I'd got round to giving it any serious thought, three or four Polish grocers had opened up.

"The Poles themselves comprised the bulk of my customers for those lines, and they decamped to the comfort of their own market, leaving me with just Tyskie as a regular."

While availability of more intriguing brands remains restricted, the prospects for Polish beer as a whole remain good, concludes

McCarthy. He expects positive growth of 15% by volume during the current year from the core Zywiec brands.

"There is some evidence of Poles returning home but we are gaining non-Polish consumers," he says. "There is always a place for well-made, well-positioned beers and there is a growing interest in

eastern Europe."

Key UK distributors

BDD (020 8955 6878, bdd.net): EB Specjal, Lech, Lezajsk, Lomza, Okocim, Perla, Specjal, Tatra, Tyskie, Warka, Zywiec, Zywiec Porter

Poltom (020 8579 6952, poltom.co.uk): Lech, Okocim, Tatra, Tyskie, Warka, Zubr, Zywiec, Zywiec Porter

The Polish Beer & Vodka Company (0161 443 3001, laniquevodka.com): Brok, Lech, Okocim, Tyskie, Warka, Zywiec, Zywiec Porter

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