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A quick stroll around Kraków demonstrates the impressive extent of Poland’s brewing renaissance. From the recently-opened Craftownia, which offers 18 mostly domestic beers on tap, to Tea Time, where cask-conditioned ale is made and served on-site, there’s a richness and quality to what’s on offer. Not to mention variety: it would take weeks to try all the Polish-brewed ales and lagers you’ll find.
This vast array represents a remarkable turnaround. Not too long ago, Polish beer was in a bad way, having been ravaged by global conglomerates in ’90s, after the fall of communism. Polish breweries, most of which had previously been forbidden from selling outside their home regions, were woefully unprepared for the ferocity of global capitalism. Before they could adjust, 95 percent of the market came under the control of four international brewing conglomerates. Quality inevitably suffered.
But Polish drinkers and brewers are fighting back. The craft-beer revolution has brought a passion for hops to the land of pale lagers. Atak Chmielu (“Hop Attack”), the first commercial beer brewed in Poland with American hops, which celebrates its fifth birthday this year. But that’s not the only thing driving the renaissance. Polish brewers are increasingly looking to their own heritage, brewing styles like Grodziskie, a pale smoked beer that has its roots in 14th-century Poland, and, more commonly, Baltic Porter.
Few beer styles can match Baltic Porter in terms of romance. Its roots lie in the Russian royal court’s passion for strong dark British beers—what we’d now call Imperial Russian Stout—in the late 18th century. Shipped into the empire through a number of Baltic ports, it was drunk not only in Russia, but all across the empire as well.
Inspired by the British original, brewers around the Baltic began to make their own versions. Over time, this imitation evolved into its own style: unlike IRS, Baltic Porter is a lager made with cold-fermenting yeast. Porters like those made by Okocim (now owned by Carlsberg) and Zywiec (owned by Heineken) have their roots in this era.
The beer survived the Communist era and Poland’s tumultuous conversion to capitalism, and it’s now thriving. A host of craft brewers make excellent versions of the style, including such key players as Pinta (try some at Viva La Pinta, only a short walk from the Hotel Indigo Kraków), Kormoran, and Fortuna. These beers vary in colour from extremely dark to light brown and offer caramel, dark chocolate, and licorice flavours. They can be hugely complex, and strong too: Kormoran’s Imperium Prunum, made with smoked plums, is 11 percent ABV.
In short, the Baltic Porter is back. You can raise your glass to that! Pracownia Piwa’s taphouse is on the edge of the Old Town near Hotel Indigo. Try their Dwa Smoki, which is not a smoked beer, as the name suggests, but a smooth, aromatic combination of witbier and IPA.
Not a beer drinker? Try some coffee instead.