I have been discussing early, pre-craft ale in Poland. I do not mean Grodziskie aka Grätzer, Kotbuss, or other ancestral top-fermentation beers of wheat malt or mixed grains, sometimes with honey or molasses.
Rather I mean English-style, relatively strong, barley malt ale, the type exported to Baltic ports even before the 1800s, as of course porter whose story is better-known.
These exports stimulated local manufacture, initially to circumvent tariff barriers.
Early Polish Ales
In 1844 John Macgregor in his Commercial Statistics. A Digest of the Productive Resources, etc. stated under “Manufactures of Poland“:
Beer of all descriptions is a favourite beverage of the middle and higher classes in Poland, and a preference for English porter and ale appears to have existed for many years back.
He goes on to describe a keen attempt to implant English-style brewing:
See also the chapter on porter by Martyn Cornell in The Geography of Beer: Culture and Economics, ed. Nancy Hoalst-Pullen and Mark Patterson (2020).
As is well-known, porter endured in the Baltic countries and appurtenant lands – to my mind Poland is not “Baltic” as such – although bottom-fermentation became almost invariable.
But what happened to the ales? From my canvassing of historic labels and other sources, the type withered. Bottom-fermentation beer took over: the clear lagers, exports, bocks, Bawarskies (dark Munich-style), and more.
Strewn through the label catalogues are wheat beers, yes, but many fewer than lagers, and they seem mainly Bavarian, or Berliner-style.
Documented Early Polish Ales
A few ales, or beer branded as ale, nonetheless continued as shown in the historical site Polish Beer Labels, but I counted only four in ca. 1000 labels. The period covered is mostly interwar, but this tells a tale right there.
I discussed a 1930s-era, “à la English ale” from Koscierzyna Brewery in East Pomeriana, and a pale ale of similar period from Wielkopolski Brewery in Bydgoszcz. Both were in the same region, broadly.
In a different region of Poland, in the Zywiec valley south-west of Krakow, a brewery was established on an industrial footing in 1856 by Archduke Friedrich Habsburg. Today, Zywiec is part of a Polish grouping with links to Dutch-based Heineken.
Zywiec has long been known for its bottom-fermentation range including the eponymous pale lager.
I have not been able to ascertain what it brewed upon founding, but would think lager was made, given the scale of investment and construction. Perhaps this followed somewhat later, but anyway lager-brewing became identified with Zywiec.
Nonetheless, a beer called “ale” (the English word) was also made. In the website of Zywiec Beer Museum, this label appears:
(Source: Zywiec website)
What type of beer was this, exactly? The label does not say pale ale. It does state March (Marcowe). The other Polish words mean Zywiec spring, a general allusion to water quality, but not more.
In its earliest period, the 1820s and ’30s, English-style ale in Poland predated the widespread popularity of pale ale, even in Britain. Perhaps March was an allusion to the English March brewing tradition. But this March beer was not (or little) promoted in England by this period vs. some trade billing still given October brewing.
Tizard’s manual in 1850 still refers to March beer, but the term really was a throwback to the previous century.
Still, a time lag or mere physical distance can often explain the survival of terms or methods in places distant from where they originated. Maybe March beer was a term once current in Poland, in the heyday of English imports.
Or, maybe the March ale of Zywiec was a Vienna lager, a style made famous by Anton Dreher from about 1840, with Bavaria’s Gabriel Sedlmayer in aid. But why the “ale”, then? Did the tan (Vienna) colour remind people of English ale sold in Poland earlier in the century?
Perhaps, yet further, the Zywiec ale was a strong Burton ale, with March here referring to a period of aging. Strong or Burton ales often were aged, although not always.
The label seems late-1800s, but the brand was also made between the wars, 1920s-30s. In Polish Beer Labels, click on Zywiec in bottom-left, a round label for Zywiec ale appears, three in fact. See in lower-third of the collection.
A couple of generic “Ale” signs or labels appear further up in the page, seemingly of later date, one is stamped “pivo mocne” (strong beer).
“March” is not stated on any of these mid-1900s labels, while it does appear (Marcowe) on other labels reproduced in the page, from seemingly the same period.
How the interwar Zywiec ale was brewed is hard to say. The quotation marks placed on the term ale suggest perhaps it was really a lager. It seems probable the beer at least tasted English, via the malts and (especially) hops used, but quite possibly it was bottom-fermented.
Possibly other Polish breweries marketed an ale in this period, however brewed. Given porter itself was a declining category, it seems unlikely there were many such beers.
It has not been absent from my mind that Polish legislation from the late 1800s through to 1939 may have impacted use of these terms. Maybe “March” meant simply, exceeds 4.5% alcohol, a common strength on interwar beer labels. (The other was 2.5%).
I have not been able, or as yet, to investigate this level of detail.
The Modern “Polish Ale”
The well-known Okocim brewery today has a “Polskie ale”, see here. The description suggests a contemporary approach, not meant to evoke the historical. Yet, the term ale used alone – Polskie just means Polish – seems to reflect older usage in the country.
(Source: company website)
Lomza, another well-known Polish brand, also has a Polskie ale, described as a red ale. Like Okocim, nothing seems meant historically except perhaps for terminology.
Some Polish craft brewers market a “piwa ale” or similar, but again not meant historically, by my reading.
There are craft IPAs, some prefixed “English”. In most cases such brewing also is not intended to recall earlier tradition.
These notes continue in Part II.
Note re images: all intellectual property in images shown belongs to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images are identified and linked to original source in the text. Used for educational and research purposes.
*Relatively uncommon in brewing today. There is the Canadian Molson Export Ale (or is “export” the modifier?), Liberty Ale in San Francisco, and a few others, but most modern ales state whether pale, India, bitter, red, etc.