The distribution company which brought us Zywiec lagers is now considering importing its porter too. Is dark beer the new black?
A small piece of brewing history is on view in the small Cieszyn brewery that stands proud on a hilltop above the town of the same name. Cieszyn is in Poland but is just a step from the Czech border. The tasty golden lager it makes is testimony to the fact that the great brewing revolution that took place in Pilsen in the mid-19th century had an impact in the neighbouring countries of central and eastern Europe.
But I had made my way to Cieszyn to drink not Pilsner but an older style of beer that still survives in Russia and the Baltic States. Zywiec Porter is a stunning 9.5% abv and, strictly speaking, belongs to a class known as imperial Russian stout rather than porter.
Porter and its stronger brother stout had transformed brewing in England in the 18th century.
The demand for the dark and bitter beers was so enormous that large commercial breweries, such Whitbread in London's Barbican, replaced smaller brewhouses and pub-breweries that could not keep pace with the clamour.
A century later, new breweries in London began to produce special versions of porter and stout for export to the east.
The main brewer of the style was a company called Barclays — some members of the family were also involved in banking — which became Barclay Perkins and, finally, Courage. Its strong stout was carried to Russia by a Belgian called Albert Le Coq and when he gave supplies of the beer to Russian soldiers injured in the Crimean War a grateful Tsar awarded him with a royal warrant.
This enabled Barclays to call the beer imperial Russian stout. Along the perilous sea route to the east, brewers in Scandinavia, Finland and Poland began to follow the London brewers with their interpretations of what came to be known as Baltic porter as well as imperial stout.
The Cieszyn brewery was built by a member of the ruling Habsburg dynasty in 1841. He placed it high on a hill overlooking the town so that he could store wheat beer in cellars dug out of the rock. Wheat beer was soon replaced by cold-fermented golden lager, but then, in 1881, a man named Julius Wagner developed a recipe for a Baltic porter.
Cieszyn eventually became part of the large Zywiec ["Zhiv-y-etz"] brewery near Krakow and the porter adopted the name even though it is still brewed at Cieszyn.
The porter is brewed with Pilsner malt, caramalt, Munich malt and roasted grain and hopped with German and Polish varieties. After mashing, boiling and primary fermentation it is stored at 2°C for a minimum of 60 days in the cellars 15 metres below the brewery.
The beer that emerges from this long period of maturation is literally stunning: it's jet black, with an oily, tarry aroma of espresso coffee, liquorice, molasses, burnt grain and dark fruit. Hops, coffee and bitter chocolate dominate the mouth, followed by a long, dry finish with more coffee, liquorice, burnt fruit and grain.
Zywiec, now owned by Heineken, is not the only porter brewed in Poland. Okocim, part of Carlsberg, produces an excellent 8.3% abv porter with a good spicy hop and creamy malt character. In Russia, Carlsberg's Baltika group makes a 7% abv Baltika No 6, while the Stepan Razin brewery in St Petersburg, owned by Heineken, makes a fine 8% abv porter with a powerful roasted grain, coffee and hops character.
The style lives on in England. A few years ago, Harveys brewery in Lewes, Sussex, negotiated with Albert Le Coq's heirs to recreate a beer based on the recipe of the stout he had exported to Russia. The result is Harvey's Imperial Extra Double Stout (9% abv), a bottle-fermented beer with a cork stopper that is matured in the brewery for a year before it's released to trade. It's quite magnificent, packed with vinous fruits, fresh leather, peppery hops and smoky malt.
Brand Distribution & Development (www.bdd.net), the company that distributes Zywiec lagers in Britain, is now considering importing porter as well. Dark beers are back in fashion and Baltic porters and Russian stouts are part of the rich tradition of brewing in this country. Encourage BDD to bring Zywiec porter here: it may be hard to say but it's wonderfully easy to drink.