Forget the mega brands, Polish beer is being given a new lease of life by the backwater breweries: places like Browar Konstancin.
Past Warsaw city limits, and down a bumpy track of puddles and potholes, something truly wonderful is brewing – literally. Operating since 1993, Browar Konstancin have built on a tradition of local brewing that goes back centuries. Making use of classic techniques (no high gravity cheats here), natural components and water drawn from right underfoot, this small scale brewery has emerged as the perfect antidote to the faceless machine that is modern brewing. Looking ramshackle and rickety, this is no place for lab-coated nerds carrying clipboards. It is, however, a place of high pedigree beer, something the Polish public have finally started to realize. The Insider talks to Wiktor Sawoniaka, marketing manager of Browar Konstancin…
WI: Poland’s got some great beers, so why do the low-quality big sellers continue to dominate the market?
WS: There was a ‘revolution’ in Polish brewing in 1995, and that came with the birth of a company called EB. They were the first brewery with a strong marketing background. Polish customers at that stage were ‘pure’, innocent you could say. All of a sudden these guys came along with Western marketing tactics: branded umbrellas, pub furniture, ashtrays etc. While EB have since been bought out, their model and strategy was copied by people like Żywiec. Polish brewing became a marketing game with people concentrating on PR not taste. How the bottle looked was all of a sudden more important than how the actual stuff inside it tasted.
Things are changing though, right?
For the last few years there’s been three main players on the market: Heineken, Grupa Żywiec and Carlsberg. But after years of domination by The Big Three people have finally realized they want something new – something more authentic, something more original, and not just the same taste with a different label. For years all beers here were the same: there was no rye beer, no weizen, no porter, just lager. That’s where the little breweries stepped in, breweries like Konstancin, looking to appeal to more specific tastes.
What was the turning point?
Things really started to change after EU accession in 2004. All of a sudden Poles were working abroad and discovering new tastes. I mean, you’ve only got to walk in to a normal supermarket in Belgium and you’ll find 200 beers – probably more – from small little breweries. That made a difference.
How have ‘the Big Three’ reacted?
They’ve all started exploring these new avenues – for instance, we’ve seen Carlsberg introduce their own non-pasteurized beer: Kasztelan. Of course, it makes things harder for us, as they’ve got a whole marketing machine behind them, they’ve got the money, the managers… they’ve got everything. But at the same time, we don’t have the some constraints as them. We don’t need much money to introduce a new beer, and we don’t need to conduct market research. When we launch a new beer we just put it on the market and wait to see how people react.