Beer we go again! Central Europe’s most prestigious craft beer festival slams down in Warsaw
Just two months after CNN named it as being one of the 10 most important cities in the world for craft beer, the eleventh bi-annual Warsaw Beer Festival has further underscored the capital’s rising enthusiasm for artisan beer.
Set to reach its climax later on Saturday evening, the event has grown from modest beginnings to be widely acknowledged as the most prestigious festival of its kind in Central Europe – as importantly, having assumed an almost ambassadorial role for Poland’s thriving craft scene, it has become a calling card for the copious talents of the country’s top brewers.
“You’ll find a very special selection of beers here,” says Michał ‘Docent’ Maranda, a beer blogger and critic commonly regarded as one the most influential voices on the nation’s craft map. “There are several beer festivals in Poland, but it is this one that has the highest standards – the selection process is tough, and that means visitors are only going to find the best of the best.”
“When we started this festival in 2014 we made it clear that it would be a showcase of Polish craft beer,” says co-founder Paweł Leszczyński, “so with the number of stands limited to around 50 we typically only invite two to four foreign breweries.
“We need to draw the line somewhere,” he continues, “so we’re only interested in people that are creating trends, rather than following them. If you’re doing something radical, then immediately you’ve got our attention – but of course, in the end, a lot of it comes down to our own intuition.”
It’s a far cry from the early days. The first festival was a chaotic affair during which, Paweł admits, scores of mistakes were made.
“I was too exhausted to think of anything at all,” he remembers, “but nearly everything has changed since – back then, we weren’t even able to get enough breweries to fill the room, but now we’re in a position to be only picking the best.”
With the confusion of the maiden festival a distant memory, the festival has developed into a well-oiled operation hosted in the slick confines of the VIP area of the Legia Warsaw football stadium, a venue perfectly suited to catering to large, unwieldy audiences.
The previous edition, held in spring, saw 51 exhibitors serve 540 types of beer (of which 85 were premiers) to 18,000 visitors over the course of the three-day event.
“The diversity, variety and authenticity of Poland’s craft sector is unique,” says Paweł, “and that’s reflected by the mood and flavours of this festival. The market has changed rapidly since the start of the so-called beer revolution in 2013 and it’s matured quickly. We’re learning fast. From America, the Nordic nations, Britain, Italy and others.”
That Poland’s beer culture was all but wiped out under communism and, later, by the big money corporate takeovers that came during the early days of wild capitalism, has ultimately benefited its craft segment. “You could look at Poland as being an orphan in terms of having its own beer culture,” states Paweł, “but that’s allowed our breweries to begin from scratch using their own set of rules.”
Ironically, that the country lacked the beer heritage of countries like Germany, the Czech Republic or Belgium has empowered its small brewers with the courage to innovate, a point that has helped fire the sector into unexpected directions.
“Oh yes, we love to experiment,” grins Paweł. “With smoked malts, traditional hops, spices, yeast, glitter, pickled cucumbers, you name it. Sometimes it’s stupid, sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it just works – we love to try new stuff, to experience new tastes, and every half year we’ll note new trends among craft breweries and beer drinkers. We’re masters in brewing smooth Baltic Porters and low-percentage, smoked Grodziskie beer. We create flavours that can’t be found anywhere else.”
“This year,” says Łukasz Kojro of Palatum, Warsaw’s original craft brewery, “we’ve seen two major trends – firstly, brewers have headed towards extreme late and dry hopping to maximize the hop flavor and aroma, and secondly, a lot are looking to add fruits, especially tropical ones such as mango, guava and passionfruit.”
Swamped with orders as we talk, Palatum’s presence at the festival is a testament to Kojro’s own skills as a brewer. An analyst by profession, his love affair with brewing began just 12-years ago after his brother gave him a home-brewing kit for his birthday.
Brewing in his free time from a customized garage, it was only a few years back that he took the next step of launching his beers on the commercial market – it was a good move to make. Hailed as one of the country’s top cult breweries, this year alone has seen Palatum debut 18 different types of beer.
“What I love about this festival,” says Paweł, “is that there’s a real person behind every beer and each of them has their own unique story. Craft beer is not the main attraction at the festival. Rather, it’s a social glue that brings all these different people together – I love being part of that, and of being able to promote workaholics who are driven by pure passion and devotion to what they do.”
Despite highlighting this social aspect of the festival, it is Paweł’s optimism for the future of craft brewing that proves the most infectious.
“Polish consumers are beginning to understand that they shouldn’t be humble about our beer,” he concludes. “The growth of breweries making world class beer is unrivalled anywhere else on the planet to this extent.
“The danger we face comes from big breweries that are trying to hijack this trend by introducing their own ‘craft’ lines and creating false stories about their products, so we really need to make a noise about the authentic craft sector. As a country, we’re brewing brilliant beer – now, it’s time to spread the word!”
Warsaw Beer Festival, Legia Warszawa (ul. Łazienkowska 3), warszawskifestiwalpiwa.pl