Don’t Hold Your Breath on that Polish Grodziskie Revival


I just completed four of the most pleasant days of travel in my life here in the cultural center of Poland. What a glorious city! Kraków has one of those amazing old towns that oozes character and history, but even outside that area it is a gracious, lovely town with plenty of parks and green spaces, and historic buildings; the number of crazy cool old churches, cathedrals, and basilicas is staggering. But it’s also a young city full of life and creativity. You can get vodka and pierogi of course, but also sushi, locally-roasted coffee, and of course craft beer. Everyone seems to eat ice cream and buy freshly-cut flowers. It looks like a museum but lives like a culturally-rich, forward-looking and vibrant city.

I came to Poland to see what was happening in a country that enjoys beer but where the local market has been given over entirely to bland mass market lagers. (And, unlike in Austria, they are bland here.) Poland has the fourth-highest consumption of beer—ahead of Great Britain, Ireland, and Belgium. What kind of revival are new breweries bringing to a place like this?

The news is positive. By local accounts, new breweries have found an audience. Craft beer places I visited were full of young people enjoying and (I think) discussing the beer. The taplists looked quite a bit like they would in America, though possibly tilted a bit more toward low-strength sessionable beers. It’s not immediately obvious because there’s an old tradition of strong beer in Poland, so those exist as well. More on that below.

Beers pouring at Ursa Maior, a brewery in the Jewish quarter.

Of course, Poland has an old tradition of brewing, including homegrown styles. One is grodziskie, a remnant of a very old lineage that was severed in Poland in the 1990s before a revival in recent years. (Stan Hieronymus is your English-language source here and I don’t need to repeat his histories.) A a smoky, hoppy wheat beer, it is decidedly out of the juicy fashion of the moment.

That probably accounts for its absence here in Kraków (which is, admittedly, 200 miles from the region of origin). The only grodziskie I saw in the city were bottles from Brower Grodzisk you see at the top of the post. These are exported, so you may have tried this version of the revived style. (I had, but only old bottles and it wasn’t very interesting.)

Fresh, it is a remarkable beer. The smokiness is restrained and tastes of neutral wood smoke. Where it gets interesting is the way the smoke and hop bitterness harmonize, bridging through a similar astringent note in each. A light acidity helps create that bridge. The hopping is insistent but of a clean, spicy variety. It’s a pale beer with high effervescence, which I think is also important in keeping the stronger flavors from dominating. Despite the curious melange of flavors, it’s instantly sessionable, and I was left wanting another when I finished it. Like so many well-made beers that seem unusual upon first sip, by the end of the bottle it tasted totally familiar.

Traditional pubs in Kraków seemed to be dark, atmospheric places. I was drawn to them, but had a hard time finding interesting beers inside.

But yeah, unfashionable. I asked about it the first place I went and the server—who knew a lot about craft beer—had no idea what I was talking about. Like everyone, she was into new-world hops and their zingy delights. I don’t know where Poland is ultimately headed, but I don’t think it’s to a beer that was popular hundreds of years ago.

For those who hope to see a local expression develop, however, all may not be lost. The one surviving extant style of the region is Baltic porter—one that has by all accounts been relatively healthy among the country’s big breweries. Baltic porters as they’re made here are big, burly lagers, sometimes made with so much roast malt that they seem almost acidic. I suspect they are a welcome mug on a dark winter night.

It’s still warm and autumnal here (nearly 70 degrees yesterday, or 21 C), and the pubs are pouring summery beers. I may have seen one Baltic porter on draft, but no more. In the bottle, they’re a lot more common. I stuck my head into several grocery stores to check out the beer selection, and always saw a few of these. I grabbed and drank one (plus, I confess, Żywiec, which I’ve always loved and can’t find stateside anymore), though I failed to take notes or a picture of it. Whoops! It was more imperial stout than Baltic porter, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find this is true with many craft breweries—ales are easier to handle than lagers, especially with the extended aging time.

In general, I’d characterize Poland (refracted through Kraków’s scene) as healthy and growing. The beers are already good, and I assume they will only improve. At the moment, they’re mostly American-style, but my spidey senses tell me this will change as the scene matures. That said, I wouldn’t expect to see grodziskies make a roaring comeback anytime soon.