Poland’s cider revolution is quietly gaining traction
Fifty miles south of Warsaw on the route to Krakow, lie Europe's largest orchards, a huge maze of roads and dirt paths winding their way through a jungle of apples.
Buried deep in the bush, Tomasz Porowski and Marcin Hermanowicz are helping transform Poland's relationship with cider.
"It was never a big drink in Poland," says Tomasz. "There was no cider in communist times, there was apple wine of poor quality,” he says.
But this changed after new legislation a decade ago and then the 2014 Russian embargo on Polish apples that drove many Poles to consume Polish apples, he says. The popularly called' Wine Act' from 2011 allowed apple growers, rather than cider makers, to produce up to 10,000 litres of cider and perry a year.
There are now about 20 craft cider mills in Poland, says Rita Krawczyk, a cider expert based in south-west England.
Consumption of cider in 2014 soared to 10 million litres, compared to 2 million in 2013. The industrial cider market collapsed in 2016 but has been decreasing every year since 2017, Tomasz adds.
The Ambra group, one of the major industrial scale cider makers in Poland, believes the market will be worth 250 million euros within the next decade.
Sales of commercial cider increased sharply from 2014 due to the Russian embargo and stopped in 2016. “In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the industry began to experience significant, regular declines. In 2019, cider sales in Poland amounted to only PLN 59 million, a decrease of 15 percent,” says Krawczyk.
For comparison: the beer market is worth nearly PLN 17 bln (EUR 3.8 bln) a year, and every statistical Pole drinks almost 100 litres of beer a year. In 2019, only about 6 million litres of commercial cider were produced in the country, so the average Pole drank about 150 ml.
Ignacow – a small village about 20 km from Grójec, the most important Polish region of apple cultivation – is the home of Cydr Ignacow.
"We took advantage of law changes introduced in Poland in 2011,”says Tomasz at the premiere of Ignacow Cydr's new cider POM at the Zrodlo restaurant next to the Russian Orthodox church in Praga on Warsaw's east side.
"I was a lawyer and needed a change. I did some research at the SGGW (agriculture facility at Warsaw University) and made contact with Marcin.
"We make a much more subtle cider than the big industrial makers.
"We produce cider using the classic or artisanal method, very similar to wine production, where the fruit varieties are important and which takes time. This is how dry ciders are made, very different from industrial sweet ciders made in two weeks."
"In Europe cider has often been seen as wine's poor cousin, but that is changing. In Poland we had some rudimentary but also very old apple fermenting traditions.
“People tended to associate cider with cheap wine. Cider has to build its identity in Poland, a culture and this takes time.”
The Cydr Ignaców brand now has a loyal group of fans, critical acclaim and sells to restaurants and bars in major Polish cities.
Marcin's 12-hectare farm is set deep in orchard country near Grojec. Living with his wife, 12-year daughter and 6-year old son in a beautifully designed modern house on the farm, he says that fruit production goes back three generations in his family.
“We sit in the large grass garden surrounded by rows of apples, a 'natural swimming pool,' glistening in the sun, we talk and drink cider.
The majority of apples grown are cooking apples, "dessert apples," while the new apple vines have recently been imported and planted from Normandy. "We will see what comes of this crop," Marcin says, adding that October and November will see these apples pressed and fermented. "We are still learning," he says.
"Our ciders are not sweet, we are looking for bitterness to enrich the texture of our ciders, not to balance the sweetness,” Tomasz says.
Solutus is the mill's latest product. At 12% volume it is double most of the other products. "This is ice cider, and is more expensive to make, freezing the fermented apples and using the top, dense layers that produce a sweet tank and aromatic almost brandy-like taste," he says.
Currently they offer Cydr Ignaców and during the World Cider Day weekend in early June they introduced a new cider, Sicero, an unfiltered, mature cider.
Tomasz and Marcin gained their knowledge about the production of cider in England's West Country, where they met Tom Oliver, Mike Johnson, Keith Orchard and Julian Temperley, who shared their knowledge and experience.
Tomasz had also the opportunity, he says, to taste ciders in Normandy and their cider also appeared in Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw's book "World's Best Ciders.”
The Lublin Association of Cider Lovers says the Polish market is able to absorb about 70 million liters of cider annually, 2% of the total value of the beer market.
Tomasz Solis, the vice-director of the Association, says the Lubelskie region, located in the eastern part of Poland, has a centuries-old fruit-growing tradition and currently produces the second most apples in the country, with 22,000 hectares of apple orchards and 500,000 tons of fruit produced every year.
The Lublin Association of Cider Lovers launched a cider mill open to the public and established scenic cycle routes encompassing the cider breweries of the Lubelskie region.
Małgorzata and Tomasz Solis from Mikołajówka (Lublin Province), whose ancestors ran an orchard in the 19th century, decided to continue this practice and today they grow organic apples, pears, plums, cherries, cherries and apricots on 16 ha.
In order to diversify the source of income, they reached for EU aid and set up an agritourism farm.
Guests are offered culinary workshops, an educational farm, advice on tree cultivation and relaxation in the Russian bathhouse and graduation tower. But the real hit is the cider mill, which was the first in the Lublin region to start producing craft cider.
The first cider at the Solis family was made, by accident, in 2008, from apple juice. Not everything was sold to stores and what was left fermented into alcohol. "It was a pity to pour it away, so we tried what this fermented juice tastes like and to our surprise it turned out that it came out quite well," Tomasz Solis says.
Cider writer Rita Krawczyk adds: “We cannot compete with the UK or France but the good thing is that Polish consumers are more aware of craft cider and are willing to pay more for high-quality products that are locally sourced, organic and made by passionate people.
“I once heard a definition of our ciders: Polish cider tastes like a forest, meadow, lake, wildflowers, just like our countryside. And I think it defines Polish cider very well.”