Papierosy – pronounced “papa rosky” – led to my first source of income. It saved me from drinking tea out of jam jars and signing up to the shoeless children fund.
Polish fishing boats would seek refuge in Blyth Harbour in the late 1950s, bringing with them very cheap cigarettes… papierosy. Fishing sessions were interrupted as we “tab runners” would take the contraband to various pubs – Burglars Dog, Star and Garter, Commercial – collect the money and return to the docks. It wasn’t exactly gun-running to fight Franco’s fascists, but at 12 years old, with 20% commission, it seemed like it.
So, when the Cheers editor, suffering from a rare and severe bout of Celtic generosity (“I’ll buy the first pint”) suggested a trip to Poland to review the piwo – beer – situation, how could I refuse? TransToon2.com Airways booked and I’m on my way.
Brewing in Poland stretches back to the Middle Ages, but it was in the 19th century when large-scale production began. Techniques and machines were borrowed from recently-industrialised Britain and top-fermenting porters were the first beers brewed. As Poland was under either German or Austrian rule, bottom-fermenting techniques soon followed, thus giving rise to paler lager beers.
There are currently more than 70 breweries now operating in the country, 27 of which are microbreweries. The majority operate on a small scale with an annual production of fewer than 100,000 hectolitres, but at the other end of the scale, there are four breweries producing over one million hectolitres – Tyskie, Zywiec, Okocim and Elbrewery.
Sadly, since denationalisation, the foreign multinationals have not only gobbled up the large breweries but also many of the small companies, with Heineken, SABMiller and Carlsberg being the major culprits.
“Sadly, the foreign multinationals have gobbled up many large and small breweries.”
Poland is Europe’s third-largest beer producer and consumer and is renowned for its beer culture with many varieties and strengths ranging from 2.5% to 9.5% abv, with those at the higher end most common. Lagers and beers range from pale to dark, and porters in the strong Baltic style are very popular. They pitch in at over 9% and have a brown-to-black colour and a delightful sweet, rich flavour. There is also a very wide range of fruit and wheat beers.
And, no Polish beer guide would be complete without mentioning piwo z sokiem and piwo grzane. The former is a mixture of beer and fruit juice sipped through a straw, whilst the latter is a winter beer that is warmed with honey, cloves and cinnamon.
Many things have changed in Poland since the late 1980s, especially the pubs. Previously, finding one was hard enough, but one with draught beer was nearly impossible. There are now many, with their trade based squarely on draught beer. One distinctive trait is that the majority are cellars shrouded in darkness – with no clear indication as to why. Necessity, convenience, atmosphere, cold winter refuge, or just sheer guilt?
After a long day sightseeing in Krakow, with its 200 churches, there’s nothing better than drinking a culturally relevant libation in one of more than 200 pubs. There’s a fine dividing line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, however.