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Would you beer-lieve it! CNN names Warsaw as one of the top cities in the world for craft beer
ALEX WEBBER | AUGUST 11, 2019
CNN Travel have named Warsaw as one of the Top 15 cities in the world for craft beer, placing the Polish capital in the same bracket as big hitters such as Berlin, Brussels, Portland and Melbourne.
Published earlier in August, the American news network’s countdown of the world’s most “brew-centric cities” has caused much online furore, with critics quick to point out the perplexing exclusion of market leading cities such as Copenhagen, London and Denver in favour of wildcard entries like Shanghai and Tallinn.
Warsaw, however, has largely escaped the puzzled sneers, a fact rooted in the city’s burgeoning reputation among foreign ‘beer experts’.
“Warsaw was the right choice to make,” says Rafał Kowalczyk, a prominent beer judge and the owner of the Jabeerwocky brewery and pub. “It’s increasingly obvious to those who follow craft trends that something special is happening in Poland, and that’s especially true in Warsaw.”
Kowalczyk, who began his own beer journey 15-years ago, has risen to become, by his own admission, “Poland’s oldest and most active beer judge.”
His credentials are difficult to dispute. “Originally, I began by home brewing,” he says, “and basically took a few courses, entered some competitions and won a few prizes.”
This modesty, however, masks the reality. One of the most respected figures on Poland’s craft beer circuit, Kowalczyk’s Jabeerwocky project has seen the birth of one of Warsaw’s most stellar pubs (which itself, has in the past been named as one of the Top 50 best craft beer bars on the planet), as well as off-shoot ventures in the Warsaw suburb of Ursynów and the centre of Poznań.
Privately, Kowalczyk hopes that Wrocław will be added to his portfolio in the future, and possibly even Berlin.
But international ambitions aside, Kowalczyk’s gaze is locked on Poland – as too are those of many others.
“People are now looking towards this country,” says Kowalczyk, “practically all of the beer judges I meet from places like England, Denmark and Sweden know what’s going on.”
The point is affirmed by Paweł Leszczyński, the co-founder of the Warsaw Beer Festival. “We had Steve Dresler (editorial note: the beer guru that evolved Sierra Nevada into one of the world’s top breweries) at last year’s event,” he says, “and he noted that while Poles are taking inspiration from the States, that it wouldn’t be long till the situation was reversed.”
“And yes,” Leszczyński adds, “things are happening here. Polish brewers are learning, inventing and creating their own ways of brewing. At the same time, they’re also involving and evolving a lot of traditional techniques which other countries aren’t.”
“We’re different to, say, Brussels,” says Kowalczyk. “There, brewing is an art and its beer culture has been recognized by UNESCO. Naturally, therefore, they’re focused more on traditional styles.”
“Those are great,” he continues, “but here in Poland, we have no tradition really – that was all killed off by decades of bar beer production. In many ways, you could compare it to the Prohibition period in the States.”
This, in the long-run, has proved beneficial to Poland’s craft scene.
“Like the Americans, we had to take the same path with our craft scene,” laughs Kowalczyk, “but we’ve done it quicker – we copied them well!”
Lacking the outright tradition of neighbouring countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic, Poland has been able to use this to its advantage says Kowalczyk. “Because of this,” he says, “we’re more open to other styles, we don’t have that same ongoing battle between the old way of doing things and the new. We’re a great template for other nations new to craft.”
It is Warsaw, though, that has become the buzzword – both at home and abroad.
This point resounds the loudest on the capital’s Nowogrodzka street, the de facto capital of the local craft scene. Here, inside atmospheric pre-war interiors, bars such as Jabberwocky, Drugie Dno and Kufle i Kapsle conduct a roaring trade that’s often blurred by a multinational babble of tongues.
Within a stone’s throw, other craft pubs can report much the same scene: the pioneering Cuda Na Kiju, traditionalist Gorączka Złota, neighbourly Cześć, contemporary Hoppiness and the acclaimed Artezan (run by the leading-edge brewery of the very same name).
And there are more. From modest beginnings in 2013, the capital’s craft scene has exploded to number little under 50 specialist pubs on the last headcount.
“We hired a company to study our potential client base,” says Kowalczyk, “and they reported back that we had a potential 300,000 customers within a five kilometre radius – in Poznań, that figure was only 30,000.”
But why the difference? “It helps that Warsaw people can spend a little more on beer,” says Kowalczyk, “but there’s other factors at work as well.”
“As a capital city,” he says, “people are naturally more tolerant; there’s more diversity. You have people of different orientations and other scopes of interest. People are more open-minded and the success of craft products is a reflection of that.”
Kowalczyk is, however, quick to extend credit to cover other areas of Poland.
“Warsaw is special, but when you look across the rest of the country, you can see that the Polish people in general have been very open to the philosophy of ‘slow food’ and such like. Craft beer is an extension of that. It’s on the same shelf as ‘slow food’ in that it’s been crafted with passion. We like that!”
Whilst the wild years of near-daily beer premiers might have come to an end, the beer revolution that brewed several years ago has not by any means waned and died.
Defining the domestic market as “stable but growing”, Kowalczyk interprets the current climate as having the tell-tale signs of a maturing sector.
“People are more familiar with what they want nowadays,” he says, “they expect good quality and as bar owners we need to be more careful about what we stock – that means great beers from reputable breweries, and while we do have several international beers, we remain 70% Polish in our offer. We want to support our friends.”
Furthermore, although new bar launches have become a little rarer, there still appears to be enough space on the market for more to enter.
“The crucial thing you have to remember about the craft beer industry,” conclude Kowalczyk, “is that by in large, once someone tries craft, they don’t go back to the Big Brother, mainstream beers.”
By no means is this an idle speculation – let Warsaw, and it’s blooming craft scene, be the evidence of that.