Beer Revolution (Toto)

Piwna Rewolucja




’Beer revolution’ Polish-style by toto
April 2013


Even a few years ago the Polish Beer market lacked breweries, flavours and beer styles (not to be confused with beer brands, of which there were more than enough). What is currently starting to happen is sometimes termed a ‘beer revolution’.


The term itself is, of course, a marketing trick. It became more widespread thanks to the Scottish Brewdog brewery, itself famous for making good beers as well as performing unconventional, media-friendly ad campaigns. On Polish turf their actions have been imitated by the crew from (for now) contract brewery AleBrowar.


Yet, a real beer revolution obviously isn’t about marketing campaigns. The beer revolution took place several dozen years ago in the USA, where home brewing flourished, hundreds of craft breweries were created, the large-company monopoly was broken, new styles emerged, old, traditional hops varieties were revived and dozens of new ones, with new characteristics, were grown. The phenomena spread onto many countries, providing variety and enriching the beer market.


Beer revolution in this sense met with a determination to guard traditional beer styles, especially in the UK (CAMRA). It could also be called counter-revolution, aiming to restore Anglo-Saxon brewing, serving and drinking traditions. Both those trends had a common root, however. It was the opposition against unification and mass production of bland-tasting beers. They both complement each other, too, leading to a wider beer range, which every consumer seeking interesting flavours will enjoy.


What, in turn, does ‘beer revolution’ mean in Poland?


Let’s start at the beginning, taking things from a historic perspective and the political changes of 1989. Poland entered the free market with 80 breweries. They were mostly medium-sized, producing mainly for the local market. In terms of production capacity and range it all resembled the Czech model, albeit with beer quality and culture on a much lower level. Many breweries were obsolete, and beer in many cases was of shoddy quality. Almost all production consisted of pale lagers of different strengths, with just a scant few dark lagers and Baltic Porters. The market was highly partitioned, and lots of brands belonged to local bottling plants. From 1991, in the wake of the political changes, over 40 small or medium private breweries were created. Thus, between 1993 and 1995 over 100 commercial breweries operated in Poland!


Currently there are merely 45 (excluding brewpubs). That said, with only a few exceptions (such as Regina and Drozdowo) the small breweries produced the same beers as the big ones at the time. Next to follow was industry consolidation. International companies quickly set about buying out bigger breweries, sometimes even whole groups of breweries, and closing those least profitable, instead focusing on the largest plants. Some of the smaller breweries – those lacking fresh ideas for interesting beers, places which could only compete with others on price – died a natural death. As a result of all that, out of the 80 ‘old’ breweries that existed before 1989 only 27 (33.75%) are left today. Out of 40 ‘new’ breweries – those opened no later than 2005 – only 18 (45%) still operate.


The early 21st century was thus a period with a dramatic drop in the number of breweries together with a critically low level of beer variety. The market was inundated with pale, uncharacteristic lagers, often tasting very similar despite being branded differently. The trademark product of Polish beer-making – Baltic Porter – was taken to the brink of extinction. At the same time, however, production and consumption of beer in Poland was rising sharply, a result of advertising campaigns run by the largest companies. Beer’s reputation improved.


In more recent years we have seen significant changes in the beer market. The position of the big companies obviously remains unchallenged, but the trend for closing down breweries has now been halted. Some 30 brewery restaurants have been founded, some of which sell their surplus production in specialist off-license shops. Some of them have cooperated with home brewers. Since 2011 several contract breweries have been created (Pinta, AleBrowar), which brew interesting, unusual and diversified beers in rented-out plants. Beer enthusiasts as well as home brewers have been setting up small breweries, often based on their own equipment. The first such example is Artezan from the Warsaw region, but a few more have already been announced to debut in 2013.


There’s been a significant increase in diversification on the beer market. Admittedly it is also a consequence of globalisation (English, American and Belgian styles are all now produced), but how enjoyable a consequence it is for the consumer. Demand has risen for ales, wheat and abbey beers. We are even witnessing such niche products as Finnish sahti emerge (Koniec Świata from Pinta).


What one can call ‘beer revolution’ in Poland, then, is a significant increase in the number of beer styles produced, together with an increase in the number of breweries as well as higher competition between them. As such, this is a desired circumstance for all consumers. Regrettably, ‘beer revolution’ in Poland has already developed a few serious taints on its image.


One of the root causes of the anomalies on the Polish beer market is a very complicated and lengthy procedure for setting up a brewery, which stems from the poor condition that our legal system finds itself in. Demand for good Polish beer had appeared long before the first contract and craft breweries started to emerge, founded by connoisseurs or aficionados (not before 2 years ago). As a result, the first people producing niche beers were ones whose knowledge and skills stretched no further than a simple lager.


The first ‘face’ of the still-teething beer revolution were consequently flavoured lagers, with there being no easier solution than spicing up a mass-produced lager with a dose of ‘nature-identical’ flavouring to get a whole new range of beers. Production included (and still does) grapefruit, raspberry, berry and even pomelo and garlic beers. One particular kind that took the market by storm were the disgusting ‘honey beers’, produced by adding artificial honey during racking. With a few exceptions, it has nothing to do with the real art of beer-making.


The other myth that emerged at the dawn of the ‘revolution’ is the story of ‘unpasteurised beers’. They first came into fashion thanks to Ciechan Brewery. Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with producing and selling fresh beers with a short shelf life (although you don’t necessarily have to make a fetish out of it). After Ciechan Wyborne’s success the segment of unpasteurised beers was soon pounced on by everyone, including the big fish.


And what followed was regular malpractice, with pasteurised beers sold as unpasteurised. After some time it turned out that many ‘unpasteurised’ beers wouldn’t go bad for many months due to microfiltration, which is even better than pasteurisation at ridding beer of some of its valuable contents and prolonging its shelf life. So again, it was supposed to be so good, but ended up as usual.


Adding artificial flavourings and cheating with (un-)pasteurisation are not the only sins committed by the breweries, though. Deserving of its place on the list is also the conscious selling of beers that have gone bad (sour), coupled with arguing that’s how fresh beers taste. It’s common practice especially in two small breweries producing mainly for local festivals and food fairs. A similar procedure is selling botched batches of beer at very high prices, taking advantage of the high demand for good beer in specialist shops and pubs.


Then there are those who tend to overuse the terms ‘contract brewery’ or ‘craft brewery’, selling ordinary, sometimes weak products. In the same vein, in their advertisements some big producers make themselves out to be small breweries. Also worthy of note is the creation of pseudo-breweries, which don’t produce anything, instead ordering beers from another producer to stick their own label on and sell under their own brand as ‘traditional’ or ‘craft’. The more insolent ones will even add a few medals from some made-up contests.


Enough with complaining though. We should hope that a fast growth of competition will force the above practices out of the market, allowing us to treat them as mere teething problems for the budding market of beers for connoisseurs and enthusiasts. Perhaps beer revolution is simply a difficult way to normality?



About the author: toto is a regular contributor to popular beer blogs and has for many years been interested in beer and the beer market in Poland.


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