Monday, September 12, 2011

Polishing Off Some Lagers from Poland!

Poland is yet another country that gets lost in the very crowded company of great European brewing nations, but it is certainly no slouch in that regard.  Though brewing has long since been an integral part of Polish culture, the domestic Polish brewing industry really took off around the same time as in neighboring Bohemia, and was an active participant in the mid-19th century eastern European brewing renaissance.  Most major Polish cities at the time had a local brewery, which were usually named after some variation of the city in which they called home (Warka, Zywiec being two contemporary examples).   Like its Baltic neighbors, Poland has long been associated with the Baltic Porter style, which sadly is not represented whatsoever in the LCBO's shelves; for the most part, the brews of Poland available outside of its borders tend to be more of the pale lager and pilsner variety.  Prior to the Nazi-Soviet invasion of 1939, Poland was home to nearly 140 different breweries; the war's utter social devastation and 45 years of communist rule decimated the industry, leaving but a few state-run breweries in operation until the country's democratization in the early 1990s.  Though it might seem in poor taste to be at all concerned with the decline Polish brewing in the face of such great atrocities and social injustices that also occurred in the country from 1939-1989; clearly, in the grand scheme of things, brewing seems rather trivial.  However, it is important to remember that brewing is at its most basic form an industry, an industry upon which thousands of Polish workers' livelihoods depended.  The fact that brewing's decline was yet another example of the suppression of Polish culture in general during this time is also something to bear in mind.  Therefore I feel we should celebrate the return of Polish brewing as an example of the revival of Poland itself.  

Oh, and if you have any lingering doubts about Poland's love for brews, I should tell you that they actually had a Beer-Lover's party (Polska Partia Przyjaciół Piwa) in the 1991 Parliamentary elections, but they were just a novelty party, merely a silly reaction to the politics of the day, and a reaction against the social decay caused by excessive consumption of vodka.   And by that I mean they won sixteen fucking seats and commanded 3.5% of the popular vote

While most current Polish brewhouses are large-scale lager breweries, there has been a recent interest in craft brewing.  Of course, it is unlikely that any of those new brews will find their way across the pond, but the fact remains that the industry does exist, so if you happen to be in Poland, check'em out if you can!  Because of the limited number of Polish brews available on liquor store shelves, this little roundup will be focused on the major brands, all of which being pale lagers unfortunately.   So while it may seem that the brews won't receive great fanfare, I just wanted to make the point that there are more diverse options available in Poland that are well-worth exploring.

Let's get rolling! (Where applicable there is a poorly-attempted pronunciation key that is probably wrong - though I asked Polish-speaking friends how to say them, I'll still probably screw it up.  To paraphrase Tom Clancy in his acknowledgements: where I get it right, credit them; where I get it wrong, blame me!)

Beer: Zywiec (Zhe-veech)
Brewery: Zywiec (owned by Heineken, hence its availability!)
Type: Pale Lager
ABV: 5.7%

The beer of choice for many of my Polish friends.  Definitely gets top billing in the list from me, especially considering the name, which seems destined to occupy the coveted "last alphabetically" spot in my all-time beer list.  500ml bottle from the LCBO, sporting a temperature gauging "beermometer" on the back that I totally didn't notice until long after I poured it.   Digging the label; something about it really screams Poland for some reason.

Nice golden hue, clear and bright, with a reasonably tall head that descended into a fine ring.

Nose is sweet, sporting pale malts and just a touch of citrus/herbal hops. Not bad, but pretty faint.

Compared to most of the other Eastern European lagers I've had recently, this one wasn't bad. Fairly sweet, a bit of grain, and mild bitter herbal hop finish. Slight metallic twang which becomes more prevalent as it warms, so try not to let that happen. Thin, zippy carbonation.  Decent stuff, my favorite of the bunch.

Beer: Tatra
Brewery: Zywiec
Type: Pale Lager
ABV: 6%

Not really sure what the deal is here with two pale lagers from the same brewery; my reasoning is that this was probably purchased by Zywiec and sold under its original name, just in case there were some folks out there that still hold true to the Tatra name.

Single can picked up a the LCBO. I'm in the midst of doing a write-up on Polish beers, and have just finished Zywiec, Okocim, Zubr and Tyskie. 

Poured into a pilsner pint glass. Bright golden, thin head, some lacing specks, generally unimpressive even as far as pale lagers go.

The nose is certainly among the better I've encountered - grain, apple, a touch of lemon and mild hops.

The first few sips were quite nice: sweet, flavorful, refreshing. But the sweetness of the brew - coupled with the lack of anything else interesting about it - becomes tiresome after a few sips. Really nothing much to say, other than I suppose it's a touch better than most Euro lagers in that the tinny-metallic-herbal character is minimal at best. But there's nothing different here.

Okay, okay, things aren't going well.   Maybe....this?

Beer: Tyskie Gronie
Brewery:  Tyskie
Type: European Pale Lager
ABV: 5.6%

The label sports a crown that looks a great deal like the king from a newspaper chess puzzle, along with some accolades from the "Brewing Industry Int'l Awards." Then again, there's another brewery who likes calling their beer "the king" that I could mention, so these statements don't impress me much. 

Poured into a Czechvar fluted plisner glass. A bright golden brew, lots of visible carbonation, with a thin white head that recedes into a tiny ring rather quickly. Looks like a Euro lager, but pleasant in the glass nevertheless.

The nose doesn't have much going on at all. Mild grain, a bit of apple and funk. Smells like a pale lager. I'm stretching here...

Thin, easy to chug, a Euro lager in its simplest form. Opens sweet, but finishes with a dry aftertaste that reminds me a great deal of cardboard. 

Thin bodied, with aggressive carbonation, this beer is making me burp a lot more than usual, and with no one around to appreciate my facial flatulence, this is not a good thing. 

Drink one if you want a beer from Poland. Drink one if you want a beer that's more difficult to pronounce than it lets on. But don't expect much beyond the bare minimum.

Okay, okay, okay...I realize I'm not really going a good job here at promoting the virtues of the Polish brewing industry.  I really want to, because I know there's great stuff from Poland out there.
It's just that it's Poland.  I'm working with what they send us here, people.  I'll try to be kind to our last entry.  Deal?

Beer: Dojlidy Zubr (no ideas how to say this one folks...)
Brewery: Browar Dojlidy (Bialystok)
Type:  Take a guess.
ABV: 6.2%

Poured into my Czechvar fluted pilsner glass, enjoyed on a cool summer's afternoon on the patio. 

As to be expected, this brew is that classic apple juice golden colour, with the pour producing a tall, yet fleeting head. A few scattered bubbles are the only survivors.

The nose is all Euro lager - sweet corn, not much else. Unremarkable, but not unpleasant.

The taste is the feeling of "meh", liquified and bottled. A resoundingly "snuh" experience punctuated with the occasional outburst of "it's okay I guess." I also detect subtle notes of exactly the same taste as every other mass-markete eastern European lager. Sweet, a bit of corn, mild mild hops to the finish, which is slightly dry. As the beer warms (do not let this happen). a funky grainy taste starts to emerge which is entirely unpleasant. 

Carbonation is light, but sufficient. Thin bodied.

Sorry, Zubr bottle label, despite your high hopes, I do not "imagine a place of pristine undisturbed nature" when I taste your beer, nor do I "feel how, with every sip I take...go into the depths of the forest." What I do feel is that same feeling I get every time I pick up a hard-to-pronounce Eastern European lager, and that's 'deja bu' - the feeling that somehow, somewhere, I've drank this exact same beer before.

Wow. I feel like a total ass.

After spending about five paragraphs extolling the history and resurgence of the Polish brewing tradition, the brews that I ended up reviewing ranged in the beer spectrum anywhere between "meh" and "suck." But am I really to blame here? It's not like I had any other choice here - the only beers I could find of Polish origin were these same interchangeable mass market lagers. It's a story I keep telling and telling on this blog, and frankly it's starting to piss me off. And it's not just Poland who is getting shortchanged. The only available brews of Estonia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Bosnia and Italy are of the same type and quality, and do nothing to celebrate the diversity of the European brewing industry. The LCBO claims that it is attempting to showcase the "beers of the world", but really, the only thing distinguishing most of these brews from one another is the number of diacritical marks and backwards letters on the labels.

So my apologies to my Polish friends. I really wanted to do better, I really did. But if I ended up painting a poor picture of the Polish brewing industry and its offerings, it's because the distributors and purchasers only gave me one colour to paint with. And that makes me sad. If only I could find something about Poland on the internet to cheer me up. If only...

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