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.
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
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
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.
"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
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