A busy weekend in Poland for a friend’s wedding offered ample opportunity to imbibe the country’s national spirit and a few of its better-known beers. Regrettably, lack of time and a huge storm during our brief stop over in Warsaw on the first night, restricted chances to delve far into Poland’s alcoholic culture and especially recent innovations. But I still came away with something worthwhile drinkwise.
Polish brews such as Tyskie, Żywiec and Lech aren’t difficult to find in the UK these days. The large number of Polish nationals currently living and working in the UK have encouraged our supermarkets to stock all manner of Polish goods over the past few years, although I’ve largely ignored the beers as rather mainstream. (Polish smoked sausages, especially Kabanos, have not escaped my notice however.)
In Poland they’re almost ubiquitous so I’m now well acquainted with two of them, Żywiec and Tyskie. Żywiec – now majority owned by Heineken – is my pick of the two, offering a fresh, if perhaps slightly industrial, take on the international Pilsner style. The very pale Tyskie, on the other hand, is conspicuously under-hopped in an almost mass-market American kind of way (think a slightly bolder than usual Budweiser) and is consequently hard to swallow after the first couple of pints. The fact that it’s owned by SAB Miller feels like no coincidence.
Of the limited samples during the trip my preference was perhaps for the Warka beer sold as “Highlander” at the Highlander Whisky Cafe, a pubby place in Olsztyn, the old walled town where the wedding itself took place. The golden lager was perhaps just that bit fresher and better balanced than its more common rivals. The German-style 1.5 litre glass may also have helped sway my choice though, as once again the beer and the Warka brewery – like its parent Żywiec – are majority owned by Heineken.
Sadly, beers from Olsztyn’s own breweries (Browary Warmińsko-Mazurskie Jurand and Browar Kormoran) seem not to be able to break the pub and restaurant distribution lock in of the bigger breweries (at least not in prime positions) but, I’m told, could easily have been found in the off trade, had I had time to investigate. With some 70 breweries in the country, including 20-odd micros, there’s clearly plenty more to try, given a longer stay. Regardless, all Polish beers remain relatively inexpensive by UK standards, typically coming in around the £1.30-£1.80 per half litre mark and much cheaper still in supermarkets and off licences.
The wedding itself offered a chance to sample some more interesting brews, although oddly from neighbouring Lithuania rather than Poland (I was told the hotel where the reception took place had a Lithuanian connection). On offer was an eclectic selection including Švyturus White Baltas (5%, an apparently unfiltered, definitely cloudy and somewhat Belgian-style wheat/wit beer), Švyturus Baltijos Dark Red (5.8%, something of a Märzen-style red lager with that classic “juicy fruits” flavour, as Michael Jackson put it so accurately) and Utenos Porter (6.8%, more of a dunkel bock than an authentic strong Baltic porter). All were worth trying and indeed, kept the British wedding guests well lubricated during the long evening of partying.
The Polish contingent, meanwhile, naturally focused most of their drinking efforts on vodka, with the Brits joining them during toasts. I enjoy a good Polish vodka and the brand selected for the event was very much to my taste. Żubrówka Biala was new to me but clearly a line extension from a brand justly famous for the bison-grass infused, green-tinged, original Żubrówka, which is now widely available the world over. As such I had high hopes as that original product is probably also my favourite vodka from anywhere, its almond/marzipan and vanilla nose and subtle herby flavour working well either on their own or mixed with apple juice.
As a rule, Polish distillers tend to leave more flavour in their vodkas than most of their international rivals as a result of a lower degree of rectification and their use of more highly flavoured base ingredients. These typically lean towards rye and potatoes, rather than the wheat and barley favoured elsewhere (let’s not talk about “vodka” made from molasses!).
The rye-based Żubrówka Biala, which appears to have been launched earlier this year, is no exception. Drunk neat and chilled (certainly not ice cold) it offered a creamy, aromatic and very smooth dram well able to cut through the cold cuts and other rich Polish foods on offer. Very decent and a vodka I hope to see in these parts before too long. It would certainly offer strong competition to the excellent Wyborowa among UK-domiciled lovers of unflavoured Polish vodkas.
Polmos Bialystock, the owner of the Żubrówka brand today, may well be relying its clear vodka to become an international success as it faces increased competition in an expanding bison-grass category from rival Polish distillers. Whereas in communist times most vodka brands belonged to the state rather than specific distilleries, and could be made at several plants, that’s no longer the case. So while Polmos Bialystock now owns the Żubrówka brand it does not own the style.
My wait at Warsaw airport saw me pick up another bison-grass infused vodka, and another brand new to me, in the shape of Sobieski Vodka Herbe Bison. As a fan of the style I’m looking forward to trying this – its sister clear vodka has been rated one of the best (and best value) premium Polish vodkas, although this new expression only launched a few months back. The Sobieski brand has also attracted Bruce Willis as a spokesperson and shareholder but I won’t let that put me off.
With the promise of a spare bottle of Żubrówka Biala hopefully finding its way to me after the wedding and the £1 bottle of 9.7% Zywiec Porter I also unexpectedly acquired at the airport thrown in for luck and my Polish adventure looks set to continue for a while yet.