It goes without saying that not all beers are created equal. Some are rich and malty, while others have floral notes that dance across the palate. Others are pale and undistinguished, hardly worthy of the water from which they’re made. When you drink a Polish beer, however, you’re tasting history as well as quality. In fact, some connoisseurs may be able to distinguish the region in which the beer is made just by taking a single sip.
Poland is Europe’s third-largest beer producer, trailing only Germany and the UK. As the craft beer movement has expanded, the Polish brewers have managed to ride the wave, turning out a plethora of fine quaffs worthy of recognition. Here’s our list of the current standouts.
A refreshing lager with an ABV of 6 percent, Zubr brings both history and novelty to the table. It hails from a brewery known as Dojildy, which has been around for more than a quarter of a millennium. Indeed, the beer itself once went by the name of Dojildy, until it was rechristened Zubr in 2003. For the uninitiated, the new moniker takes its cue from the bison that serves as a national symbol of Poland.
The flavor is crisp and light, with no trace of the offensive skunk-like residue that clings to inferior lagers. Because Zubr has broad international appeal, it’s easier to find than some of the more obscure brands listed here. Its mild profile makes it a excellent partner for grilled sausages and hearty steaks.
From the halls of Browar Zamkowy Cieszyn comes this robust, full-bodied porter, so strong it practically stands up without the aid of a glass. The brewing process for Zwiec’s porter has remained unchanged for nearly 150 years. Once you’ve tasted it, you’re sure to understand why the brewers are loath to make a change. After all, why mess with perfection?
The recipe is simple: pure water, aromatic hops, barley, and malt. Because the ABV sits at 9.5 percent, it’s best to enjoy this one slowly, as you would a fine cigar. Fortunately, the smooth mouthfeel makes it easy to linger over the glass. We recommend investing in special tulip-shaped glasses or snifters to allow for full distribution of the flavors, which carry hints of molasses and brown sugar.
Don’t be put off by the mediocre-sounding name–this beer is far, far better than just “OK,” though its popularity often surpasses its availability. If you’re lucky enough to find it, we would recommend buying as much as possible so you can share it with friends afterward.
Okocim is a subsidiary of Carlsberg, a brand that even casual beer fans are sure to recognize. The company has a broad fan base and a sterling reputation that’s well-earned, owing largely to the sheer drinkability of their product. Even before Carlsberg took over in 2004, however, Okocim brews were some of the most recognizable Polish exports on the market. In fact, the brewery was founded in 1845, and they were one of only two companies allowed to export their product during the Communist rule.
The O.K. label characterizes a European-style lager with great effervescence and a crisp, clean mouthfeel. The flavor is slightly floral, with grassy undertones that pair well with summer dishes like shrimp cocktail. The ABV sits at 5.6 percent, which is just potent enough to warm the blood without dulling the senses.
Tyskie takes its name from a Silesian village by the name of Tychy, and the brewery has been in operation at least since 1613, though it may be slightly older still. This has long been one of the most popular Polish beers, and many still name it as a favorite. Though Zubr offers a lower price tag, Tyskie’s pilsner is well worth the extra cost in our opinion.
The beer is characterized by its thick, foamy white head and pale golden hue, both of which promise refreshment before you’ve taken the first sip. A tantalizing aroma of delicate floral hops helps to enhance the earthy, slightly malty flavor. A relatively low ABV of 5 percent makes it easy to enjoy more than one at a time. Despite the head of foam that forms on top, the carbonation isn’t too overwhelming. We think Tyskie Pilzne a suitable partner for spicy foods like tandoori chicken, especially when enjoyed on a hot summer evening.
Tatra Jasne Pelne
The Tatra brand is owned by Zwiec, but this classic lager has nothing else in common from the porter we’ve chosen to profile here. With an ABV of 6 percent, it’s slightly stronger than most lagers, with a flavor profile that recalls the bitter tang of ripe green apples. The mouthfeel is clean, with a bright finish and full carbonation. This is a good option if you’ve never had a Polish beer before but are interested in giving it a try.
Tatra takes its name from a mountain region found in the Carpathian range, nestled snugly between Poland and Slovakia. While the name might promise adventure, Tatra Jasne Pelne is likely the most “inoffensive” brew listed here, with a flavor and mouthfeel that will appeal to drinkers of domestic American beers such as Budweiser. It’s easy to drink several, particularly in warm weather, but more sophisticated palates may want to seek out something that has a bit more oomph.
Pinta Atak Chmielu
Pinta is something of a revolutionary in the Polish beer-drinking arena, having launched what’s widely regarded as the first craft brew in the country’s history. That beer, Atak Chmielu, is an American-style IPA with all the characteristic hoppy flavor that the style implies–though fans of American IPAs might have difficulty pronouncing it.
Atak Chmielu is a full-bodied ale with a coppery red hue and a citrusy aroma that helps to make the first sip that much more intense. There’s plenty of citrus in the flavor, too, with enough resin and hops to keep it from becoming overly sweet. The ABV is 6.1, so we would recommend taking the first glass slowly. If you enjoy lingering over a full-flavored IPA, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Although Pinta is a small brewery, this brand is popular enough to be churned out regularly, which should make it easier to find. Because it’s a good partner for salted nuts and other savory snacks like beef jerky, we would recommend breaking out a rack on your next poker night. If the flavor is too intense for your guests to handle, then there’ll be that much more left over for you.
Perun Jasny Grom
Another small-craft beer, this one from a brewery that takes its name from the Slavic god of thunder and lightning. Perun’s offerings have proved so popular that the company is moving from its original modest headquarters to larger digs just outside Warsaw. Jasny Grom is modeled after an American pale ale. Along with the Tatra offering, it’s a great introductory beer for anyone who’s leery about Polish brews or small-batch offerings in general.
Jasny Grom has an ABV of 5.6 percent, putting it squarely in the “when you’re having more than one” category. You’ll want to take your time with the first one, though, to allow the notes of caramel and apricot to fully saturate your taste buds. The color is a rich amber, with just a slight haze and a lightly frothy head.
Locating a beer from Perun isn’t as simple as walking to the corner store. While you might not be able to find it in your neighborhood, the brewery makes it easy for you to order their product online.
The Ciechan name is well-known in Poland, but its popularity doesn’t extend too far beyond those borders. Even fans of the brewery’s deservedly renowned wheat beers aren’t necessarily familiar with this offering, which is a must-try for anyone who favors a sweeter flavor profile.
Miodowe is unique in that it lists natural honey as one of its key ingredients. Unlike some similar brews, which rely heavily on the brewing process itself to earn that flavor profile, this one’s sweetness is inherent from the beginning. Ciechen uses only unpasteurized and unfiltered honey in its recipe, giving the resulting beer a freshness and authenticity that sets it apart from other honey beers.
The 5.7 percent ABV isn’t overly strong, but it’s enough to bring a warm glow to your cheeks nevertheless. When poured into a glass, the beer has the light yellowish hue of fresh straw. The honey aroma is stronger than the flavor, which is well-balanced by floral hints and a touch of astringency. Be forewarned that Ciechen Miodowe has a relatively brief shelf life and must be consumed within 45 days.
While these beers are all recognizably Polish in quality and acclaim, they’re not carbon copies of one another. We would recommend trying them all to find out which one is best suited to your palate. Of course, if you should happen to have more than one favorite, that’s all to the good.