How Wrocław became a beer capital – again

The Polish city of Wrocław was once a great brewing city. Now, a group of craft brewers are making it the capital of Polish beer again – except, this time, the brewers are making their own rules

(First published in Wizz magazine, December 2017. With photography by Ben Quinton)

To the north of Wrocław’s pretty old centre, in a red-brick former water metre factory, something is brewing – literally. We’re at the mezzanine bar of the Stu Mostów (100 Bridges) Brewery, which was once a cinema for the factory workers, looking out over a collection of pipes and steel vats as the young brewers buzz around the brewery floor.

In those vats, and in the taps at the bar, is an almost bewildering selection of craft beers: think strawberry milkshake IPAs and chocolate mint extra stouts, alongside the brewery’s “redefined classics”, like the German-style WRCLW Pils or the darker Roggenbier with notes of banana and clove. All of them can be paired with a rotating menu of delicious bar snacks, like the signature beer pretzels with cheese sauce and red onion jam.  

When it opened in 2014, the Stu Mostów brewery was the opening salvo in what has been a rapid craft beer revolution in the southwestern city of Wrocław (pronounced “vrots-wav”). The famously liberal city, with its picturesque market square, parks and bridges, was the European Capital of Culture in 2016. Increasingly, it bills itself as Poland’s Capital of Good Beer too.

The city is now home to seven craft breweries, ten multi-tap bars serving mostly local beers, and the Wrocław Good Beer Festival, Poland’s largest beer festival. Craft ales (the term broadly refers to modern beers produced in small-scale breweries) have become such a part of the local identity that city officials are said to be working on a beer map of the city for tourists.      

“Poland was late to craft beer,” says Grzegorz Ziemian, the former investment banker who opened the the Stu Mostów brewery with his wife Arletta, who had also worked in finance. “Even five years ago, you struggled to get beer that wasn’t from the mass-produced brands like Tyskie, Żywiec and Okocim. But Polish people have always loved beer, especially in Wrocław, so the craft beer explosion was a natural evolution in many ways.”

That rapid rise was helped in no small part by the city’s history, which is as colourful as a Stu Mostów cranberry sour ale. The Silesian capital was part of the Kingdom of Bohemia from 1335, then Austria’s Habsburg Empire, before it was annexed by the Prussian Empire in 1741, with Breslau (as it was then known) remaining in German hands until the end of World War II.

Those Czech, Austrian and German influences helped create a rich beer culture, notably with the city’s Schöps beer, a malty wheat beer that became one of the most celebrated in Europe. In 1626, Czech humanist Václav Clemens noted that “a glass of Schöps makes it sweet to live and die”, while Silesian writer Friedrich Lucae noted in 1689 that the drink “nurtures the whole city”.    

“This really was Beer City,” says Ziemian, who says that reviving Wrocław’s lost beer culture was a major motivation. “A few centuries ago, you’d have hundreds of neighbourhood brewpubs across the city, all producing their own beer, even after Bavarian-style lager pushed the local Schöps out. Even in the 20th Century, under German rule, there were still 80 or so breweries here. Silesia was known as Little Bavaria.”  

A few centuries ago, you’d have hundreds of neighbourhood brewpubs across the city, all producing their own beer

But, when the Ziemians had the idea for the Stu Mostów Brewery, the city breweries had all died out except for Spiz, a traditional German-style microbrewery serving unfiltered beers on Wrocław’s medieval central square. The Pinta Brewery, in the small southern town of Żywiec, had become Poland’s first modern-style craft brewery in 2011 – but the trend was yet to catch fire in Wrocław.    

“I was missing my US craft beers,” says Ziemian, who grew up in Minnesota, where he’d got to know many craft brewers. “Arletta and I saw the lack of good beer here, but we knew how much people here appreciate beer. It was a lightbulb moment of sorts.”  

The couple decided to pursue their “crazy idea”, moving from Barcelona to Wrocław and spending more than two years raising EUR1.5 million to create a state-of-the-art facility, with German BrauKon vats, kilometres of piping and a special sloping floor for drainage. Since then they’ve added Concept Stu Mostów – a hip bakery, food and gift store across the courtyard – as the staff has grown from three to 36.

There have been more than 30 beers, including an Oatmeal Hoptart – a collaboration with Colorado’s Bristol Brewing Company – which won three gold medals at the 2016 Ratebeer.com awards, including best new beer. Now production is set to “double, maybe triple” from its current 400,000 litres a year, though Ziemian insists it’s important that two-thirds of the beer will still stay in Wrocław.       

And to really cement that local connection, head brewer Mateusz Gulej has worked with local historians to recreate, as closely as possible, the original Wrocław Schöps. “That link to the past is really important to us,” says Ziemian.

The Ziemians weren’t the only people in Wrocław who had a lightbulb moment. Friends and beer lovers Karol Sadłowski and Jakub Szydłowski also came up with the idea of a new craft brewery in Wrocław in 2012. By late 2014, not long after the Stu Mostów Brewery opened, the Profesja (Occupation) brewery had moved into a former Nazi parachute factory on the northeastern edge of town.  

The brewery has since produced 37 different beer styles, many of them strikingly experimental, each named after a profession (the branding features Wrocław’s famous dwarves, which are ubiquitous in the form of tiny statues around the city): The Alchemist features a combination of American IPA and Belgian wild yeasts; the Butcher is an American sour red ale; and the Beekeeper is a terrifyingly potent 14-per cent braggot mead made with honey and barley malt.  

Like Stu Mostów, the Profesja brewery produces around 400,000 liters of beer a year; but while Stu Mostów imported the best equipment, Profesja’s ethos is “very DIY”, according to head brewer Przemek Leszczyński. Not only do his team build the steel brewing vats themselves, in a work room next to the main brewery, but he even breeds his own yeast strains. Leszczyński, who also works as a lab scientist and teacher at the Wrocław Medical University, has his own biobank of more than 50 unique types of yeast, including one he extracted from a local brewery which closed in 2002.         

But despite keeping local yeast traditions alive, Leszczyński says that Profesja’s beers are “about looking forwards, not backwards. While the Germans and Czechs are defined by their history, we don’t have those limitations. Here, it’s okay to put tonka beans, coffee, lemongrass or whatever in your beers. We’re very free.”

While the Germans and Czechs are defined by their history, we don’t have those limitations. Here, it’s okay to put tonka beans, coffee, lemongrass or whatever in your beers. We’re very free   

Wrocław is said to have more home brewers than anywhere else in Poland, which is how Leszczyński started in 2009, having studied biotechnology and medical lab analysis. Of his early forays, which won him a national award, Leszczyński says: “I’d brew bigger batches than anyone else, because I had lots of friends. Even now, I have a beer tap at home with my own beer, both home brewed and Profesja’s, even though my wife doesn’t love it.”

Leszczyński’s background hints at a third major reason why Wrocław is a beer city: education. The city is said to be home to more than 130,000 students – and the focus on education includes brewing. The centre of it all is the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Sciences at the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, which has long been the leader in Poland when it comes to studying fermentation, a crucial part of the brewing process. The faculty has taught brewing since 1990, and last year became the first faculty in Poland to offer a postgraduate brewing course.

“We’ve seen the craft beer revolution and we’ve tried to adapt to that,” says Joanna Kawa-Rygielska, the professor behind the course, who local brewers generally talk about in reverential terms. “We try to have as much practical contact as possible with the real industry, and a lot of brewers come here to teach the students,” she says. The brewing courses involve everything from malt technology to beer tasting and the design and organisation of microbreweries.    

Of course, the breweries are happy to help. Most of the brewers in Wrocław have studied at the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, including all the brewers at the Stu Mostów Brewery, which takes seven students a year as interns, and the beer makers at Prost, another new brewery, which opened in 2015.

To prove the point, we meet the Wojtek Sulikowski, 26, who is the second brewer at the Złoty Pies (Golden Dog) Brewery, a large modern microbrewery and restaurant, which opened in late 2015 just off the central Market Square. “I’ve got a Masters in fermentation, and the head brewer has a PhD, specialising in malts,” says Sulikowski, while giving us a sip of his new Imperial bitter with bread, fruit and biscuit notes, made in a series of tiny rooms off a nearby car park and pumped into the restaurant via pipes.

Luckily, beer drinkers don’t need any qualifications, and there are many ways to get drunk on quality beer in Wrocław. Aside from drinking house beers at the likes of the Stu Mostów or Złoty Pies breweries, there are ten multi-tap bars across the city, where you can try a selection of mostly Polish and mostly experimental brews. We drink at Kontynuacja, a Scandinavian-style craft beer bar with 18 taps offering Espresso lagers and sour beers; and Targowa, a craft beer and food bar next to the iconic food hall of the same name, where we have pork knuckle with a flight of mostly hoppy local ales.  

There’s an eventual irony to doing so much “research” into Wrocław craft beer. At the Stu Mostów bar, after some serious generosity from the staff at the brewery, we can barely remember where we are, let alone why there’s so much good beer here. But, this craft beer revolution thing… it feels good. And for the brewers here, there doesn’t seem to be a hangover on the way. Na zdrowie!

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