Polish vodka, great, Polish beer, not so great. That’s not a rare opinion, and one frequently espoused by the staff of In Your Pocket.
...Ouch!! This is a line that we had in our city guides for many years...
When we first started publishing guides in Poland back in the 1990s, beer consumption had only recently begun to increase and was still rather unfashionable – vodka was still the tipple of choice. Then Poles preferred, for traditional and economic reasons, to socialise at home rather than in a bar and to do so with vodka.
The level of beer consumption had begun to climb during the nineties as the large international brewing groups snaffled up Polish breweries and invested heavily in capacity and equipment, but even by the end of the nineties, consumption per capita of beer stood at around 40 litres per person per year which, while markedly up on the 24 litres per head recorded in 1965, was still way behind the beer-guzzling levels of their German (approx. 120L) and Czech (approx. 150L) neighbours. Without wishing to do a disservice to the major brewers (we’ve donated heavily to the producers of beers like Zywiec and Tyskie over the years) the Polish beer market was still quite immature. The two main requirements for a beer, alongside being wet and cold, was that it was cheap and strong. Many a foreign stag party has fallen and continues to fall foul of the extra-strength Polish beer and this satisfied the demands of the bulk of the Polish beer-drinking public. Foreign brands slowly began to appear and those who wanted to drink something other than the standard lager could find some bars offering such exotic beers as Guinness stout or Paulaner wheat beer. But choice remained limited and quality varied hugely due in a large part to the lack of experience and training of most bar owners.
Where did the breweries go?
Being here in Gdańsk, the lack of good quality beer always struck us as a little ironic. Let's not forget the Germanic influence of old Danzig and the love of Beer that was imported from Poland's western neighbour! As far back as the early part of the 16th-century there is estimated to have been over 400 breweries in the city. The city had a rich brewing tradition with one of its most famous exponents over the centuries being the astronomer Johannes Hevelius. While he is most famous for his celestial discoveries, it must be remembered he paid the bills for many years by brewing, among others, the Jopen beer. Today’s ul. Piwna (Beer Street) was called Jopengasse for centuries and the Hevelius family were just one of hundreds of brewery families in the Gdansk area.
By the latter part of the 19th-century the numbers of breweries had dwindled to just a couple of dozen but the extension of the railway connected Gdansk (Danzig) with Berlin and markets in the west. This development prompted investors to build a modern brewery on the site of an old wooden brewery in the Kuźniczki (Kleinhammer) area of Gdansk-Wrzeszcz (Langfuhr) district close to the Strzyża river (Strießbach). The production process was industrialised and the modern brewery became the Danziger Aktien Bierbrauerei (Known locally as the 'Old Brewery') with a siding built directly into the brewery from the neighbouring Gdańsk-Wrzeszcz railway station. By the 20th-century, records show that there remained just 14 breweries in the city with much of the city’s beer, such as its most famous brand Artus, now coming from Danziger Aktien Bierbrauerei and by the time the First World War had ended, they had either taken over most of the surviving smaller breweries or driven them out of business. In the inter-war period the brewery dominated the landscape of Wrzeszcz and is mentioned by Gunter Grass in the third of the Danzig Trilogy, Dog Years.
That is why the icehouse is clearer in my memory than the buildings of the Aktien Brewery behind the chestnut trees.
Possibly the compound rose like a turreted castle behind the gloomy brick wall. Definitely, the high church windows of the machine house were framed in smooth Dutch brick. The chimney was squat but nevertheless, regardless of what direction you looked from, dominated the whole of Langfuhr. I could swear that the Aktien chimney wore a complicated helmet, a knight’s helmet.
Regulated by the wind, it gave off churning black smoke and had to be cleaned twice a year. New and dressed in bright brick-red, the administration building, when I screw up my eyes, looks at me over the glassspiked wall. Regularly, I assume, trucks drawn by two horses left the yard of the brewery. Stout short-tailed Belgians. Behind leather aprons, under leather caps, with rigid purple faces: the driver and his helper. The whip in the holder. Order book and money pouch under the apron. Wads of tobacco for the day’s work. Harness studded with metal buttons. The jolting and clanking of beer cases as front and hind wheels stumble over the iron threshold of the exit. Iron letters on the arch over the portal: D.A.B.
What was left of the area’s brewing industry was nationalised after WWII and with a new population came new brands. The pre-war stalwarts of Jopenbier, Caramel and Uhrbock were replaced although Artus lived on to be joined by Gdanskie, Hevelius and Kaper over the following decades when the plant was first rebuilt and then modernised. Beer carried on being produced right through the Communist-era but beer consumption never reached anything near pre-war levels and capacity of the Wrzeszcz brewery, by now called Gdańskie Zakłady Piwowarskie (Gdansk Beer Works), was a fraction of the D.A.B. brewery at the end of WWI.
Following the fall of the Communist government, the brewery in Wrzeszcz was privatised and it was still possible to buy Hevelius and Gdanskie right up until 2001, when after being bought by the Zywiec Group, themselves part of Heineken, it was closed. With its closure, not only did Gdansk lose its last working brewery but also a favourite beer of ours, Hevelius, went with it.
It all got a bit staid for a few years after that. Tyskie, Zywiec and Lech dominated the market along with the fashionable foreign brands like Heineken and Carlsberg. Things only started to look up for beer aficionados with the launch of the city’s first microbrewery at Brovarnia in 2008.
A new era in local brewing!
At last there was a choice of light and dark beers and the novelty of the in-house brewing process and the quality of the beers were a bit of a landmark moment. Economics dictated that this didn’t signal the start of a microbrewery boom but things did begin to change.
Over the next few years previously unheard of bottled beers began appearing in bars around the city from all over Poland. Hats off to those, such as Degustornia, Poczekalnia and Amsterdam bar who began the task of introducing new tastes and types of beer with a mix of international beers and small Polish craft brews. What started with a trickle soon turned into a flood and the choice was further widened with the arrival of bottled beers from the Browar Amber (Amber Brewery) in nearby Bielkówko. Built on the site of a former Communist state farm, Amber had been going since 1994, but around 2010 we discovered their Zywe non-pasteurised beer, which remains a favourite to this day. Later Złote Lwy (Golden Lions), named after the two lions in the Gdansk Coat of Arms appeared and then Amber teamed up with the Gdansk History Museum to produce a limited range of beers (named Johannes) in 2011 to mark Hevelius Year, the 400th anniversary of the astronomer’s birth. Despite the increased choice in beers now, you’ll still be onto a sure thing if you buy us one of these three.
Piwnica Rajców, the 14th-century beer cellar of the Town Hall that had, in fact, burrowed itself into the basement of Artus Court, was re-imagined around this time by a family brewery from nearby Warmia.
Still they kept coming; new microbreweries such as Browar Piwna and Browar Lubrow opened their doors while other local breweries began to find their way into the market – Rycerz and Rybak appeared from a small family brewery near Kwidzyn (Browar Gościszewo) and another brewery from Puck, north of Gdynia also began to find outlets for its beers.
Back in Günter Grass' old hood, the old brewery site in Wrzeszcz would be revitalised as Nowy Browary Gdański, and its target capacity of 12,000 hectoliters makes it currently the largest restaurant brewery in Poland! Over in the Garnizon end of the district, Gdańsk's popular live music venue, Stary Maneż, has a partner-in-crime - Browar Vrest!
Then along came a completely different looking and tasting crop of beers with smartly designed labels but with contents to match. AleBrowar beers quickly became firm favourites with us. It was only later that we found out that the brewer who had helped get the ball rolling at Brovarnia in 2008 had struck out on his own and teamed up with a local small brewery to produce his own beers. The man, a Sopot native called Michał Saks, has since taken helped take the whole business a step further with the opening of one of just a few, currently, multi-tap pubs in the city. The Tri-city may still have a way to go to match the 91 taps on offer at Warsaw’s Piw Paw, but with AleBrowar now selling both their own brews as well as guest brews direct to customers and Browar Spółdzielczy from Puck trying to do the same in Gdansk-Wrzeszcz, the choice in terms of quality and quantity hasn’t been as good since, dare we say, the time of Hevelius himself.
While that’s probably a slight exaggeration, it can’t be argued that the choice for the beer lover has improved immensely in the last decade and Gdansk, and the region, is once again developing a name for itself as a beer producing region. Long may that continue.
So where should you go to sample the various beers mentioned?
After Sopot lost one of its best bars, Czarna Wolga, its former owners opened the Konsulat Dobrego Piwa (The Good Beer Consulate) in what was previously the old Keybell Pub set in a former public toilet on ul. Gen. Sikorskiego ('Keybell' is a play on Kibel means 'small toilet' in Polish). Dwie Zmiany on the main street features Warmińskie Rewolucje on tap which is another brew from nearby Warmia!
Brovarnia was the first and is still, without question the best, helped by the fact that its beer is tasty, fresh and there’s a great food menu to go with it. The beers at Browar Piwna, Browar Lubrow and newcomers Browar Port Gdynia and Browar PG4 are not bad but room for improvement. That said, this is not about what’s ‘the best’ rather what we like ourselves, so give them a go and let us know what you think!
The new kids on the block, offering at least 15-20 different beers each, on tap. Prices are higher than you’d pay for a typical Polish beer but, in our extensive research, we found the extra investment worth it. For the moment, you have a few to choose from: Browar Spółdzielczy is set in the basement of a modernised army garrison building in Gdańsk Wrzeszcz. Local heroes AleBrowar have alot of their eccentric characters AKA beers on tap - Check out their bars in Gdynia and Sopot. If you want to combine beer with a pleasant view, swing by Cathead Multitap on the Motława canal in Gdańsk Old Town.
Where to Drink Craft Beer in Gdańsk & the Tri-city