It’s Hip to be Hops It’s Hip to be Hops

No more is Poland a wasteland of watery yellow fizz. Craft beer has swept the country, leaving the general public thirsting for more. The Insider speaks to Michał ‘Docent’ Maranda, one of the leading authorities on the national beer renaissance…

All meetings should be like this. It’s Monday afternoon, and rather than sitting in the office I’m outside Kufle i Kapsle enjoying the last of the wilting Warsaw summer with a pint of Artezan Pacific. Opposite me is Michał ‘Docent’ Maranda, a self-confessed beer geek who, for the last four years, has been running the acclaimed Polskie Minibrowary website (polskieminibrowary.pl), a catch-all platform with absolutely everything you need to know about craft beer in Poland.

“Actually,” announces Michał, “the name of the site is inappropriate. When I started it I really thought that it would be the microbreweries at the front end of Poland’s beer revolution, but I was wrong. Between 2003 and 2010 about fifty microbreweries – I mean restaurant breweries – opened across the country, but they didn’t revolutionize anything: they were brewing stuff from a packet. They were all making the same shitty trinity of dark lager, light lager and Weiss. I realized pretty quickly they weren’t going to change anything.” So who did, and just what did they change?

To understand that one must go back to the political earthquake of 1989. “We had lots of small to medium-sized breweries around that time,” says Michał, “but in the early 90s they were bought out and closed by the big foreign companies. What we saw was the disintegration of Polish brewing.” For years after brewing became homogenized and the art lost. “In terms of good beer,” says Michał, “Warsaw was a desert. Everywhere you went you’d get ‘Euro lager’: tasteless stuff, the brewing equivalent of McDonald’s.”

With the microbreweries failing to deliver, hope was fading for Polish brewing. Something special needed to happen, and fortunately it did: in May 2011, at the second edition of Wrocław’s Good Beer Festival, a contract brewery called Pinta made their debut. “We’d never seen anything like it before,” smiles Michał. “We were familiar with Czech and German beers, but these guys were using American hops. Their beer had everything: flavor, aroma, depth. People were amazed.”

The next year AleBrowar (whose creators had actually tapped Poland’s first Indian Pale Ale a couple of months before Pinta’s dramatic entry on the market), was launched. They were followed in June 2012 by Artezan, the country’s first craft, non-contract brewery. The floodgates had opened.

Today, it’s estimated that each month brings with it the launch of one new brewery, two contract breweries and thirty to forty new beers. Yet still, demand outstrips supply, with batches selling out before they’re even brewed. “Of course,” says Michał, “you do get crap, but that’s the nature of craft beer – nine out of ten batches will be outstanding but one will be rubbish – that’s what happens when beer is made by people, not machines. The people at the giant brands don’t have that problem, but then they’re not brewers, they’re software controllers.”

With craft beer now accounting for 1.7% of national beer sales (a rise of 1.4% from the previous year), all eyes are on what happens next. “The revolution began in America,” says Michał, “and while I wouldn’t say we’ve copied them, we’ve followed a similar path.” With sour beers and ‘new wave’ hops trending in the US, Michał expects Poland to soon follow suit, though not necessarily to the enjoyment of everyone: “for some IPA is too much, but it’s definitely got us beer nerds excited.” But will craft conquer all? “Mass production will always exist,” he says, “and the majority will always drink the commercial stuff, but people from the mainstream are coming into this niche and it’s my dream to see craft beer achieve 10% of the market share.” Brewers of Poland: it’s over to you.

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