In 2002, I tried in vain to obtain a group tour of the venerable Okocim (oh-koh-cheem) brewery in southern Poland. My specific request was to be shown the method of making the world-renowned Porter, but they were evasive and essentially having none of it. A short time thereafter, Okocim Porter no longer was available, the brewery’s expansive overlords at Carlsberg apparently having deemed niche specialization a rogue concept.
We settled for a tour of another traditional Polish brewery near Krakow, Heineken-owned Zywiec (zhiv-yets), and duly enjoyed a marvelous walkabout followed by a gratis three-course local feast at the hospitality room accompanied by bottomless mugs of the various golden lagers produced by the brewery.
Ominously, what was omitted during our visit to Zywiec subsequently told a sad story about corporate priorities similar to that of Okocim’s.
My stated aim -- our preference to learn the methods used to brew the justifiably famous Zywiec Porter -- was completely ignored in favor of repeated explanations about modern industrial brewing techniques and the company's many golden lagers, and when I learned that Zywiec Porter (supposedly) was being brewed in the “old” brewhouse and asked if we could have a look, this, too, was brushed off as quite impossible.
Afterward in the lovely tap room, someone eventually found a couple of cases of bottled Porter, but only after prodding … and in the off-premise shop, there was none at all, although the shelves sagged with the weight of slickly contrived souvenir wearables and tall cans of Mocne.
That’s Polish for “malt liquor.”
Unsurprisingly, Zywiec Porter soon went the way of Okocim Porter. I can't determine if the brewery stopped making it entirely, although there was a period of at least two years when references to the Porter disappeared from the Zywiec website, and even if it were still being brewed, exports apparently ceased.
And so, at a time when elegant, world-class beers like these were being sought by free-spending aficionados worldwide, they became utterly invisible.
The answer lies in something that is revealed – often under duress – to people who hold their noses long enough to visit big brewing companies.
When the stated aim of a brewery is to supply mass quantities of marketable golden lager for the maximum profit, its brewing system can be used more efficiently by high-gravity brewing, which simply means brewing one batch of high-gravity beer and then diluting it with water into a volume two or three times that of the original.
Zywiec’s contemporary corporate pride in showing off its state-of-the-art, command deck of the Enterprise brewhouse is centered on the system’s ability to churn out huge quantities of diluted lager with the minimum of overheard, i.e., workers on the payroll. The money saved is spent on carefully researched, saturation advertising for the otherwise taste-alike products speeding away from the loading dock.
“Prestige” or “specialty” products like the two Baltic Porters I’ve mentioned are the prime casualties of this approach.
Why, then, has Okocim Porter returned?
I don’t know. The Chicago-based American importer of Okocim is the Stanley Stawski company, one with remarkably long ties to Polish beer and mead, and when I spoke with them two years ago, optimism was expressed that a deal could be arranged for export-only shipments of Porter.
Perhaps also a rapidly maturing Polish domestic market might prove to offer up-sale opportunities for niche beers.
My good friend “Big” Kim Andersen, a native of Copenhagen, has chronicled Carlsberg’s recent and much appreciated additions of unique, creative beers to its list of offerings in Denmark.
Any or all of these conjectures may be true, and what’s more, a quick web search has just revealed another importing company (Silesia) specializing in Eastern European products and announcing a “new and welcome” selection.
Available only in Arizona? That’s a start, at least.
Note: Blogger is being crazily unresponsive with photos today. When the photo is accepted, it will be posted.