Porter, the Polish Way

Baltic porter survived the 20th century in Poland, and it stayed strong. Now a new generation of Polish brewers is pushing the envelope.

Joe Stange Feb 25 - 8 min read

Porter, the Polish Way Primary Image

If Poland has a national beer style, it is Baltic porter. The style’s history is rooted there, and many Polish breweries large and small produce one. Poland even has an annual Baltic Porter Day—usually the third Saturday in January—celebrated by a growing number of bars and breweries.

Go to Poland and visit any corner store, and you are likely to find high-gravity porters on the shelves right next to those pale lagers. They may or may not have the word “Baltic” (or Bałtycki) attached; Poland is a Baltic country, after all, so that part is obvious. (In fact it was well-traveled British beer writer Michael Jackson who first gave them the “Baltic” designation, to distinguish them from the porters he knew back home.)

Baltic porter in Poland tends to be bigger and thicker than American-brewed examples. Maybe it’s because our own brewers have emulated “lighter” examples from other countries in the region; or maybe it’s because they have emulated each other without really knowing the source material. Either way, Poland kept alive its tradition of the weightier beers that evolved from British-style strong porter and imperial stout. Notably, that tradition survived the Communist years; the classic Żywiec Porter, for example, is 9.5 percent ABV, brewed since 1881. Often the bottles proudly boast of their degrees Plato, similar to how American IPA brewers once boasted about IBUs. That gravity score is a way to communicate the beer’s body and richness to drinkers.

Today, Poland’s smaller independent breweries are thriving, and many of them brew strong porters. The ten top-rated Baltic porters on the site Ratebeer.com—if you put stock in these things—include five brewed in Poland. Three of those come from the brewery called Widawa, started in 2012 in a small-town restaurant east of Wrocław.

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Widawa Founder and Brewer Wojtek Frączyk is familiar with the style’s history. He noted Napoleon’s blockade against British goods in the early 19th century. “The effect of this was, among other things, that in our part of Europe, there were no more imported imperial stouts,” says Frączyk. “So the local breweries began brewing their own beer modeled like the imperial stouts, but using the bottom-fermenting yeast and raw materials available on site. The basis of knowledge to brew such strong beer was [from] brewing bock beers for a long time in our area.”

Frączyk says that part is important: “Baltic porter has been a lager since its inception. To this day, in countries such as Poland, where the Baltic porter has been brewed continuously since then, no one can imagine that you can use ale yeast. This is the basic difference, and I have no idea why BJCP allows the use of such yeast. Polish description of the style by PSPD [the Polish Homebrewers’ Association] does not allow this possibility.”

Porter’s heyday in Poland, Frączyk says, was before World War II. “It enjoyed great popularity and was even prescribed by doctors as a cure for anemia. Even in the 1990s, when the Polish beer market was dominated by large global concerns and many beers styles (such as Grodziskie) disappeared from the market, the Baltic porter was still brewed.

“The renaissance of the style began with the ‘beer revolution’ in Poland and the appearance of craft breweries. Of course, craft breweries, in addition to brewing the classic version, began to develop the style. As a result, new varieties of Baltic porter have appeared, including ‘imperial’ versions, which have 24° or more Plato, hopped with American hop varieties, aged in barrels, or with various additions such as smoked plums.”

Widawa’s porters are among its most sought-after beers. They include a hefty 24°P (1.101) version that often has smoked malt, and sometimes spends additional time in bourbon, rum, brandy, or sherry barrels. Frączyk wants to hit those higher gravities using only malt, no sugar. “Admittedly the style allows the addition of sugar,” he says, “but I don’t like porters with added sugar for fermentation; they are not very round in taste, and alcohol appears in the foreground.”

Double Mash

To get there, Frączyk uses what he says is an old Polish method of “double mash.” The process is elaborate and makes for a long day, but by using it, he says he is able to get a higher gravity at a higher efficiency than would otherwise be possible.

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Frączyk says he has tried doing the entire mash at once, and it works for beers of 22°P (1.092) or below. Beyond that, “then the efficiency decreases dramatically, and the lautering takes a lot of time, so I started looking for a good solution to this problem. The easiest way is just to brew twice, half a batch, but in this way your efficiency is also low.

“Then I found the old method of double mash, which gives us the opportunity to make good use of malt and achieve full flavor. This method also gives us the opportunity to achieve up to a 28°P full-grain beer.”

To do the double mash, Frączyk divides all his combined malt into two separate mashes; the first gets two-thirds of the malt, while the second will get the remaining one-third. From the first mash he collects the first wort to hit his desired gravity. Then, with the same grain bed, he collects additional runnings to get lighter wort of about 10°P (1.040).

That lighter wort is then used—after removing the first mash’s spent grains—in the second mash. He collects that first wort and adds it to the other, which he has kept at 176°F (80°C) to prevent infection. “Because the second mash and second filtration take about three to four hours, there’s a risk that the very sweet wort can be contaminated by Lactobacillus or Pediococcus, which can decrease the pH of the wort, so just in case…”

He also says that he uses hard water with “a rather high pH, to compensate for the acidity caused by dark malts.” He also brews a Pilsner the week before, so that he has plenty of fresh lager yeast ready for cropping.

Frączyk doesn’t keep any additional runnings from the second mash, only that rich first wort. “Yes, it’s possible to brew another beer after taking the first wort from second mash. but we don’t do it because of time and technical difficulties.” The brew day is long enough as it is.

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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