Way back in the spring of 2002, I organized a small group tour of selected beer heritage sites in Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic and Austria. We flew in and out of Budapest, and rented a mini-bus. A wonderful Los Angeles-based Hungarian expat named Jeno was our guide and master of ceremonies.
In the middle of the 10-day itinerary we spent an evening on the Slovak side of the Tatra Mountains. Some of us had a meal of locally harvested mountain oysters at a restaurant called Stary Mama’s (Grandma’s), and then the next day the minibus executed a flanking movement to the east and north, winding up in Krakow, Poland.
Our reasons for visiting Poland included mead and porter. We found both, although not without considerable effort.
The city of Żywiec (ZHIV-yets), roughly 65 miles to the southwest of Krakow, was our choice for a namesake brewery tour. We set off for what was billed as a journey of 90 minutes and arrived just shy of three hours later. Luckily I’d factored in some extra time for strolling, so we weren’t very late — and we didn’t have time to stroll, just drink beer.
By way of background, arguably Żywiec and Okocim were the best-known Polish breweries during the Communist period. Sporadically during the 1980s these beers and other ones like them from the East Bloc (for instance Krakus, which was a Żywiec label) were available in Indiana, which is nothing short of amazing even though they weren’t always in the best condition. I remember the rough cardboard cases and vintage throwback labels — still in everyday use in Poland at the time.
Most of them had the name of Stanley Stawski attached to them, and therein lies a story.
Stawski Imports’ market of beers, wines, cordials, and spirits started over 50 years ago by the man who’s name is over the company’s door: Stanley Stawski.
Born in Poland in 1924, Stawski survived the 1939 invasion of his country by the Germans. In 1944, he took part in the Warsaw Uprising as a member of the underground Home Army. Captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, Stawski headed to Italy after his camp was liberated, and joined the 2nd Polish Corps.
Two years after the war ended, the British sent his unit to England and when the British demobilized his unit in 1951, Stawski left for the United States. He had $20 in his pocket.
By 1954, Stawski was working as a liquor and wine salesman in Chicago. Six years later, he opened his own company, importing beers from Poland and Austria.
As with any new business, the beginning years were difficult, especially in dealing with countries that were, at the time, run by socialist governments who distrusted anything American. Sales were appropriate for a small operation.
Stawski credits its success to “hard work and perseverance.” This perseverance is now bearing fruit. Stawski Imports’ dealings with the state-run liquor monopolies of the Central European nations are successful because of its product-knowledge and personal contacts to bring over the best and newest products.
I’ve looked high and low, and there seems nothing reliable to indicate whether Stawski remains in business, although the company seemed to exist just a few years ago. It appears that the company’s founder is still alive, now in his nineties, and accordingly, I drink a toast to his health.
After Communism ended, many breweries in the East Bloc were snapped up by foreign interests. Okocim has long since been Carlsberg’s possession, and Żywiec has been a subsidiary of Heineken’s.
When we finally arrived at the brewery in Żywiec on that day in 2002, the tour was exhaustive and the hospitality bountiful. It was afternoon, and when the tour was over we were seated in a rustic tap room. Draft golden lager beers began appearing, along with platters of hot food, including soup and an entree.
However, I’d been having trouble all afternoon conveying to our marvelous hosts that my group was interested in Żywiec Porter far more than the brewery’s admittedly pleasant lagers. As we ate, one of the representatives disappeared, then returned with a single crate of 11.2 oz bottles, which we quickly dispatched.
It was the only case he could find of a beer we thought had been brewed a stone’s throw away from our tables, and this discrepancy confused me until I learned much later the rational explanation: Żywiec Porter wasn’t being brewed in Żywiec at all. So little of it was being brewed during this period that production had shifted a sister brewery in Cieszyn (CHESH-in).
In 2008, award-winning British beer writer Roger Protz described his visit to Cieszyn in search of the nectar: POLAND: LIVELY LAGERS AND THREATENED PORTERS (All About Beer Magazine).
… The opportunity to see Zywiec Porter brewed at source was therefore not to be missed.
But the source had moved. Since 1994, Zywiec has been owned by Heineken and the small volumes of porter did not suit the new plant the Dutch giant has built to churn out millions of hectolitres of pale lager. Porter has been transferred to Archduke Albrecht’s original brewery at Cieszyn.
On the map, Cieszyn looks a short drive from Krakow, but the highways are poor and under repair, causing endless delays. We drove for three hours on rutted roads that curved through dense woods at the foothills of the Tatras. At one point I was given the chilling information that I might catch a glimpse of the towers of the Auschwitz concentration camp through the trees. I couldn’t make out the towers but I needed a calming beer when at last we drove up the twisting road from the town of Cieszyn to the brewery with its mellow brick buildings, cobbled courtyard and a brewery cat on rat patrol.
Protz detailed the brewing process.
Zywiec Porter is now a cold-fermented black lager, but at 9.5% ABV it has all the richness and complexity of the warm-fermented original. It’s made with pilsner, caramalt, Munich and roasted grains, and hopped with Magnum, Nugget and Taurus varieties. As Poland grows hops of excellent quality in the Lublin area, I was surprised to find the brewery importing most of its supplies from Germany.
The porter has an astonishing four-hour boil in the kettle as a result of the high level of grain used. It then has 15 days primary fermentation in open square tanks before it’s transferred to the lager cellar, 15 meters below ground. The cold cellars, with the temperature held just above freezing, holds 100 small lager tanks with a total capacity of 20,000 hectos.
Porter is held in the tanks for a maximum of 60 days to ripen. The beer that emerges has a deep coffee color, with powerful hints of espresso, licorice, molasses and burnt grain on the palate. Dark fruit and hops build in the mouth and a long and intense finish is packed with rich fruit, burnt grain, silky coffee and bitter hops.
I hope this lengthy tale provides partial explanation for the expression on my face on October 31st when I realized the Żywiec Porter on the menu at the bar/restaurant in Gdansk was draft.
I’d never had it before, not even once. One and a half of them left me loopy, but feeling vindicated. I contend that irrespective of Żywiec Porter’s brewery of birth, it remains one of our planet’s finest beers. Unlike humble Krakus in 1985, we cannot get Żywiec Porter in Indiana.
Can someone book me a minibus to Cieszyn?