The biannual summit of Europe's beer consumer organisations took place in Poland last month, hosted by Bractwo Piwne which was celebrating 20 years of campaigning. The venue was Bractwo's mother city of Łódź, a place which grew large and wealthy in the textile trade but is now more famous for its universities and the imaginative uses it has found for grand nineteenth-century industrial buildings. The beer scene is healthy and thriving, much like most other Polish cities, it seems. Reuben and I managed to squeeze a bit of pub-hopping around the busy business schedule over our three days there.
Most of the venues are just off the long straight spine of Piotrkowska, the main commercial street. Our first port of call was Rademenes, where we followed a sign advertising regional beers through an archway and into a diner-style pub, all tiled floors and vinyl banquettes. The pub's mascot is a black cat who likes to drape herself across the patron's shoulders as he goes about his duties. The taps are few and unmarked so we opted for pointing at bottles from the sizeable collection on display. Funnily enough the first one I noticed was Lublin to Dublin, brewed by Carlow Brewing as a collaboration with Pinta, a brewing company down south near Katowice. Next to it, some other Pinta beers, so that's where I started.
Atak Chmielu ("Hop Attack" - chmielu is about the only word of Polish I learned all trip) is a 6.1% ABV IPA. Quite a sweet one too, despite the name: I got lots of brown sugar in the aroma and caramel in the flavour. There's a very slight herbal citrus element and an acrid bitterness, both of which put me in mind of hop-forward beers that are past their best. I'm not sure if that's the case here, but it's certainly one that didn't live up to the promise of its name. You can read more about the iconic status of Atak Chmielu on Zythophile here. Reuben chose Hopus Pokus, also by Pinta. This black IPA is 6.3% ABV and big on hop bitters and stout-like roast. Smooth, drinkable, but maybe shading a little towards bland, especially given the strength.
The next stop was rather more geek-focused. Piwoteka is a long narrow sequence of rooms on the ground floor of a grand building, with a short bar up at one end. A blackboard lists a dozen or so draught options, including several on cask. And it was to the handpumps I turned first, choosing Black Hope by AleBrowar, a contract brand from up near Gdańsk. This was altogether more complex than Pinta's effort, with lots more roast up front, giving way to crunchy green vegetal depths. So far so stout-like but then there's this odd floral flourish in the finish indicating some generous late hopping. The low carbonation makes it a very gulpable beer, though I wonder if the hops might be more pronounced in a keg version. I enjoyed it, though. Reuben's choice was Reden's Zabobon. Thankfully the descriptions were in English because I don't know how long it would have taken us to decipher that this is designated a smoked imperial India brown ale. Chestnut red, it opens with a lovely freshly-grilled kipper aroma and the smoke really dominates the flavour to begin. Underneath there's a smooth and sweet red ale given just an edge by assertive bittering. But you only get a glimpse before the smoke clouds cloak the palate once again. I'm normally quite sceptical about the place of smoke in heavy sweet ales like this, but it really works well here.
On the next round I wanted the black saison by Kraftwerk (another contract operation) but it was just about out so I had to content myself with the small sample in the middle of the photo there. Południca is advertised as merely containing "spices" but that's not the half of it. It smells strongly, we agreed, of stuffing and gravy, all dark meat and oily sage. That sage is so strong in the flavour it made my tongue numb and totally destroyed any other flavours present. Even the signature dry saison bite was barely detectable. An unsettling beer, and I'm slightly glad there wasn't a full measure left.
As a substitute, Reuben chose a different saison, Niezłe Ziółko brewed especially for the pub by local brewer Jan Olbracht. This is herb infused as well, but a little more subtly. It's a hazy gold colour and offers an enticing crispness in its aroma. It tastes quite gruit-like and there's a complex mix of basil, parsley and pepper, resulting in a strange but pleasant sausage flavour. It's another one that may disappoint saison purists, but I liked it.
And on the left of the picture, So Far So Dark, another one from AleBrowar. Fresh coffee and beefy autolysis are the aroma but on tasting it's much less weird, being mainly quite dry with some very pleasant lavender and chocolate. The texture is one of its best features, heavy and filling, and I was surprised to find it's a mere 6.2% ABV.
Off the other side of Piotrkowska from Piwoteka is probably my favourite bar in the city, Z Innej Becki. This rambles through the large vaulted basement of a grand villa and is reached via a spacious beer garden below street level. Like Piwoteka, draught beer selection is done via a numbered blackboard but the range is even bigger here.
First up for me was a Mosaic IPA by a Wrocław-based contract brand which operates under the trustworthy name of Doctor Brew. And it does everything you'd want from something calling itself by that name: an aroma of fresh and tinglingly spicy mandarins and a zippy, zesty fruit flavour, all nectarine and mango, just shading into dense herbal dank in the finish. One of those beers to give a ticker pause when choosing what to have next. Not me though, obviously.
Reuben didn't have such good fortune with his choice of AleBrowar's Crazy Mike double IPA. This is a dense amber beer and smells as much of caramel as citric hops. There are lots of heavy resins and heavier toffee in the flavour, and a big bitter bite, so I guess it meets the specification for the style, but there's no real fruit flavour present to make it stand out.
The final pub on the first evening was The Eclipse Inn: a dark, cosy, vaguely English-style basement watering hole. The first beer was on the house, and was the only non-Polish one I drank all trip: Rohozec Skalák Tmavé from the Czech Republic. It's a bang-on Czech dark lager, weighty and wholesome, with all the liquorice and coffee appropriate to the style. I followed it with Reden's Zniwa Chmielarzy on cask. The name (there's that word again!) means "Hop Harvest" as it's brewed with a variety of Polish hops. It's 6% ABV and arrived a murky dark red. There's lots of fake-fruit candy in the flavour, which I quite liked, and traces of mandarin too. A dash of coffee is as grown up as it gets. It could have stood to be colder and became a little cloying as it warmed, but not at all bad if consumed quickly.
Also on the bar of the Eclipse was Birbant White AIPA, a beautifully mellow and mild beer with all the juicy fruits and invigorating spices typically found in white IPAs, but none of the jarring harshness they sometimes show. Spicebomb of the night was Deep Love, a rye IPA with Amarillo, Mosaic, Simcoe and Chinook hops fermented with a saison yeast, the creation of AleBrowar in collaboration with international saison fiends Nøgne Ø. Resins loom large here, and there's an almost burning incense quality to the flavour. It prickles the palate, like popping candy. A very interesting combination of ingredients, even if I wouldn't be on for drinking lots of this.
A return to Pinta for the last beer of the evening: Rai z Rais, one of the brewery's monthly experimental series, and a 7.9% ABV "double rice Galaxy IPA" . Well OK then. It's surprisingly easy drinking, given the strength, and the masses of tongue-coating hop oils. There are some gentler floral qualities too, helping cool the alcohol heat and take the edge off any harshness. No idea what the rice is doing there, but no harm done.
We decided that was probably enough beer for the first evening. More pub action next, and maybe a beer festival too.
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