Ouch!! This is a line that we had in this guide 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Most bars have caught onto the popularity of the craft bottled beer at this stage. For the best choice and most enjoyable experience look out for Amsterdam Bar, Flisak 76, Pułapka, Lawendowa 8, Polskie Kino and Absinthe in Gdansk.
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!
Up in Gdynia you have Kandelabry, Nonsens and the aforementioned AleBrowar each offering a selection of different bottled beers.