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Climbing up Poles to sniff the first hops

In Poland, passionate enthusiasm for Lublin and Marynka

Since Britain's hop-growers realised, in the last year or two, that they should publicise their fine product, they have been rightly praised for their efforts.

Even as an established hophead, I have been reminded to spend more time sniffing the magic blossom, both here and abroad: the soft Fuggles of Hereford and Worcester, the earthy Goldings of Kent, the rounded Record hop of Belgium, the delicate Hallertau hop of Germany or Saazer of the Czech Republic, the orangey Styrian of Slovenia and the spicy Lublin of Poland.

Only in Belgium, where brewers are typically eclectic in their use of the hop, have I frequently encountered the Lublin. It is, for example, one of the varieties used in the fruity and drily appetising Ginder Ale.

The Lublin hop is also employed in a Belgian ale called DAS, a name recently revived by the Hoegaarden brewery.

The original, perhaps intended to suggest something similar to Bass, was made by a brewery in the town between the wars. The new incarnation is an amber, bottle-conditioned ale spiced with coriander and Curacao orange peels. It is a light refresher, very aromatic, with juicy, fruity flavours.

Why are these beers hopped with Lublins? As is often the case, the brewers find their reasons for their choice hard to put in to words. Recently, I had an opportunity to visit the Lublin region of Poland and sniff at source.

Having flown into Warsaw, I was driven south-east for the best part of 100 miles, with a rather taciturn representative of Agros, a state-owned company trading in farm products.

Orchard fruits and hops are neighbours in Poland as they are in Kent, Hereford and Worcester.

We were roughly following the river Vistula: first across heathland, then past fields with haystacks, and men scything by hand, then into countryside with apple orchards. When I saw the apples, I knew the hops were not far away. Orchard fruits and hops are neighbours in Poland as they are in Kent, Hereford and Worcester. I was also reminded that, even in Communist times, Poland retained small, family-owned farms.

Near Deblin, we had to swerve to avoid a drunken man on a bicycle. Much more often, despite being on a main road, we were slowed by horses or tractors pulling carts shaped like shallow baths. One carried a pile of potatoes, another a lone pig, a third an entire family, followed by a panting dog. On another occasion, our progress was severely retarded by a lady escorting a flock of geese.

Our destination was Pulawy, a county town about 30 miles from the historic city of Lublin.

On arriving, I was immediately struck by the amount of lush, well-kept parkland, with decorative trees and pavilions.

This turned out to be the former estate of the Czartoryskis, a powerful family of noblemen. I was driven to their 18th-century palace, a Georgian-looking building, painted cream, forming a gated square round a stand of lime trees. The palace now houses the Agricultural Institute of Poland, with a department specialising in hops.

In his modest office, the director told me Poland had 2,500 hectares of hops, farmed by 1,600 growers, 80 per cent of them in the Pulawy-Lublin area. He showed me several new and experimental varieties in the Pulawy-Lublin hop families, originally bred from the Czech Saaz.

Emphasis was given to a variety called Marynka, with a good bitterness and a powerful bouquet. The Polish hops overall character was cedary, rooty, almost licoricelike, and very aromatic.

As I rubbed and sniffed each variety, another would be proffered by Mieczyslaw Stasiak, who designs equipment for the picking, kilning and packing of hops. One of his machines picks the fashionable new dwarf varieties.

No Slavic melancholy here: Mr Stasiak has a passionate enthusiasm for hops. He drove me over the fields to see gardens in a nearby broad valley dotted with rowan trees.

The hops looked none the worse for it: plump, green, resinous and freshly aromatic.

The hops were still being harvested in early September. The delay was due to conditions like a rice paddy, caused by the same heavy rain that flooded the opposite corner of Poland. The hops looked none the worse for it: plump, green, resinous and freshly aromatic.

From Pulawy, we headed another 100 miles southwest, criss-crossing the Vistula, to taste the finished product: to Brzesko, a hillside town near Poland's old capital, Cracow, in the province of Galicia. Down the hill from Brzeskos town centre, in a loop in the Uswica river, is the district of Okocim.

In 1845, when Galicia was a province in the Austrian Empire, a Viennese called Jan Gotz built the Okocim brewery at the foot of the hill.

That was only three years after Pilsner Urquell (in Bohemia. then also an Austrian province) set the pace for industrial-scale brewing in Central Europe.

The sprawl of the Okocim brewery fills the valley and cuts into the hillside. It still has its original maltings, and its 1845 chimney.

With a locomotive shunting in the yard, one building looking like an engine shed, another like a woollen mill, a third like a city hall. With corners like a public park, the odd flower bed or set of iron railings, it reminded me very much of Pilsner Urquell.

The "Austrian" breweries of this period are classic sites in the modern history of beer-making.

At Okocim, a newer, 1950s maltings block, topped with a sign in Art Deco type adds its own flourish. By then the brewery was state owned the last member of the founding family died in Africa in the 1960s and Okocim is today a public company one third owned by Carlsberg.

The fermenters are open squares in Gothic arched cellars.

Here there are three brewhouses, all still in use, spanning the history of Okocim. Two are in copper, with vessels in the traditional shape. The third, dating from the early days, has curiously bevelled vessels, painted green. The fermenters are open squares in Gothic arched cellars.

The lagering vessels are a mixture of traditional horizontal and modern cylindroconicals.

I first tasted the basic lager, called simply Browar ("Brewer"). It has a soft head and good lace, a firm, smooth, lightly malty body a lingering hop bitterness and 4.4 per cent alcohol or more.

Then came the hoppier Pilsner-style, Zagloba, at more than 30 units of bitterness and 5 per cent-plus ABV and an aromatic, perfumy, well-rounded Strong Beer, at 6.0 per cent. All bear higher figures on the label, because Polish law demands the highest margin of error is shown.

A curiosity of the brewery is a product similar to a German Malzbier. This style of brew, less of a beer than a malt extract, is served to nursing mothers or as an energy drink.

Okocims example, sweet, toffeeish. and claret-coloured, has an original gravity of 1040-42, but an alcohol content of only 1.2 per cent. It is called Karmi, a name from the epoch of the Pharaohs.

The high spot of the tasting was Okocim Porter, bottom-fermenting, but in the vein of a Baltic or "Imperial" Stout.

This has a pillowy head, a purply black colour, a sweetly hoppy, almost minty. menthol-like aroma a firm, smooth, lightly oily body, a medicinal start, devel-oping cinnamon and raisin notes, and a balance of woody dryness.

It has a gravity of 1088; is brewed from pale, Munich, crystal and dark malts; and emerges with an ABV of 8.1.

Its bitterness is in the range of 34-45... and the hops? Ah, yes - they are regular Lublin and Marynka.

Published Online: APR 27, 2000
Published in Print: JAN 1, 1998
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Brewery Review

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