Today is Baltic Porter Day, an event started by the Polish brewer and porter fan Marcin Chmielarz, and that gives me an excellent excuse to try to kill some Baltic Porter myths. A few facts:
● Baltic Porter, if you want to be historically accurate, should NOT be as strong as an Imperial Russian Stout. Baltic porter has its roots in the early 19th century, when Polish drinkers could not get hold of the strong porters imported from England that they had grown to love: but these were what would have been called a “double brown stout” in Britain, around 7 or 8 per cent alcohol by volume, heavy but rather weaker than the “imperial” stouts popular at the Russian court: a Polish publication from 1867 compares the strength of “piwo podwójne,” double beer, such as “porter angielski” to “Salvator or Bockbier from Munich,” which was an 8 per cent abv beer. (That’s not to say that you cannot, if you want to, brew an “Imperial Baltic Porter”. Nothing wrong with being ahistoric …)
● Baltic Porter does NOT mean – or should not mean – any porter/stout brewed in a country bordering the Baltic. Several other countries around the Baltic produce beers that are descended from the double brown stouts once shipped from London, and very fine beers many of them are, but these are, genetically still pretty close to those original DBSs. In Poland, however, many (not all) brewers developed their own twist on DBS. The expression Baltic Porter only dates from the 1990s (and there is some doubt as to who invented the term), but it has come to mean a strong black beer brewed with a typical porter/stout grain bill, at the same time using bottom-fermenting yeasts, a style specifically developed in Poland, and personally I don’t believe it should be used for any beer that doesn’t fit that description. Somewhat ironically, that means the brewery that, for a long time, was Poland’s biggest porter brewer did not brew a Baltic Porter, since its porter was top-fermented, English-style. In the beer world of Cloud-Cuckoo Land, the style of bottom-fermented porter developed in Poland is called, logically and without room for confusion, Polish Porter, but we don’t live in Cloud-Cuckoo land and thus we’re stuck with Baltic Porter as the accepted descriptor.
Anyway, for your amusement (I hope) and education (ditto), here are some extracts from the forthcoming Great Porter History Book (which may actually be finished shortly, after three years) on Baltic Porter:
By the end of the 18th century the porter brewers of London had built up a good trade with merchants in Danzig/Gdansk. The Danish Sound Toll Records, which listed the cargoes on board every ship passing through the Danish Straits, show that between 1790 and 1799 an average of nine ships a year with cargoes including “øll” [sic – the spelling at the time] or porter travelled from the Thames to what was then a Prussian-owned port. English beer was popular enough in Poland in the 1760s, during the reign of Augustus III, that a quart bottle cost four złoty when a whole barrel of locally brewed beer cost as little as six złoty. Polish brewers attempted to fight back: one, Karol Wilhelm Schmidt, spent two years in London learning all he could about English brewing, and came back around 1800 with innovations including the first wort cooler in Poland, installed in the brewery he ran in Grudziądz, 60 miles south of Gdansk.
A traveller to Poland in 1806 wrote that “English bottled porter … is to be had in all the large towns, and even at the best public-houses; at the high price, however, of about forty-five cents a bottle; and, from having passed the sea, it is commonly even of a superior flavour to bottled porter in England.” That same year, however, as part of the continuing war between Britain and France, Napoleon imposed the “Continental System” blockade on British exports. This brought a stop to shipments through the Sound of beer from London to Baltic ports such as Danzig, Königsberg and Riga from 1807 until the French Emperor’s fall in 1814. A brewer, distiller and miller in Warsaw called Michał Krembitz began brewing porter to replace the banned English imports, succeeding well enough that rival brewers accused him of illegally smuggling in genuine London-brewed beer. However, after Napoleon’s defeat and exile, trade between Britain and Poland picked up immediately: in 1815, 17 ships sailed from London to Danzig with beer among their cargoes, and Krembitz stopped brewing porter. In the three years from 1817 to 1819, 2,385,665 “kwarty” of porter were officially imported into Poland, around 16,600 Imperial barrels, plus “abundant” quantities smuggled in.
Then in 1824 imports of porter into the now Russian-owned Duchy of Poland, which covered Warsaw, were banned again, and Varsovian brewers, after a short discussion on whether the water of the Vistula could match that of the Thames, began making porter themselves in earnest. They were doubtless helped by the publication in Polish three years earlier, in 1821, of a book called Nowy Piwowar, or “The New Brewer,” by Jakub Sroczyński, subtitled “The theoretical-practical art of making various types of English beer and more famous malt liquors, as well as some new types of beer in large and small quantities,” which included descriptions of how to brew porter and “Brownstout”.
At least a dozen breweries in Warsaw turned to porter-making, including Schaefer and Glimpf in Krochmalna Street, which was started in 1826, and was “arranged in the manner of the most excellent English breweries,” and “exceeding all existing in the country”. Another concern made only English porter and ale, the Fabryka Porteru i Piwa Angielskiego (“English Porter and Beer Factory”), run by Wojciech Sommer, which opened in 1827.
Porter imports appeared to have returned by 1831, when a guide for merchants said that “large quantities” of the beer were imported through Danzig and shipped off to Warsaw and other parts of Poland, and “that brewed by Messers Barclay is the favourite.” The porter “generally arrives in casks, and is afterwards drawn off into French bottles, which contain less than the English ones; and the whole is often poured into one high tumbler glass and drank mixed with a little sugar.”
The return of imports did not stop Polish porter production. Even as “Bawarskie“, Bavarian-style dark bottom-fermented lager beer, had began to find an increasing market in Poland, porter remained popular: in 1873 at least three breweries sent examples of porter to an international exhibition in Vienna: Leon Trzetrzewński at the Steam Brewery in Tenczynek, Western Galicia; the Pawlawa Brewery near Żywiec; and Lutosławski Franciszek from Drozdów, in the north-east. Porter from Britain continued to be imported into Poland (“porter angielski” was advertised in Izraelita, a Jewish paper published in Warsaw, in 1899, for example), and to differentiate their product, Polish brewers such as Okocim called it “porter krajowy,” “domestic porter.” (The expression porter krajowy dates from at least 1866.) But as Polish brewers turned increasingly to bottom-fermentation beers with the growing popularity of lighter Bavarian and Bohemian styles, while dark beers such as porter continued to be made using top-fermentation methods for many decades, eventually much of the porter made in Poland became a bottom-fermented beer as well.
One of the longest-lasting porter brewers in Poland—albeit with gaps—was based in Warsaw. Konstanty Schiele, the Warsaw-born grandson of a grenadier from Saxony who had arrived in the guard of Augustus Wettin, Elector of Saxony and ruler of Poland from 1733 to 1763, had been working at the brewery run by Schaefer and Glimpf in Krochmalna Street, Warsaw when it fell into the hands of the Bank of Poland. In 1846 he and another Schaefer and Glimpf employee, the head brewer, Błażej Haberbusch, who had come to Warsaw from Germany to brew Bavarian-style lager beer, bought the brewery from the bank for 24,000 złoty. Despite Haberbusch’s lager-brewing background, porter continued to be part of the brewery’s line-up, with, at one point, both “zwyczajny” (ordinary) and “Extra-double” versions being brewed.
Amalgamations with four other local firms after the First World War left Haberbusch and Schiele, operating as Zjednoczone Browary Warszawskie (United Warsaw Breweries) the only brewing firm in the Polish capital, producing 10 per cent of all Polish beer. Its products at this time included Sphinx Stout, a bottled stout named for the brewery’s sphinx trademark.
In 1936 the Polish brewing historian Marjan Kiwerski indicated that unlike brewers elsewhere in Poland, who were using “German methods,” that is, bottom fermentation and lager yeasts, to make their “porter krajowi”. Haberbusch and Schiele made a “true English” beer, that is, with warm, top-fermentation methods, for a drink that was “not inferior to the original English porter.”
The brewery was used to store and distribute food during the Second World War, and as a base for the underground Armia Krajowa (Home Army), and after the Warsaw Uprising the Nazis stole all the brewing equipment. Nationalisation under the Communist Party in 1949 followed, albeit with Aleksander Schiele, born 1890, grandson of Konstanty, as director of administration. However, the brewery remained in ruins until rebuilding started in 1951, with the first beer flowing again only in 1954, under the name “Browar Warszawski,” though still using the old Haberbusch and Schiele sphinx trademark. Brewing of porter did not restart until 1960, but production of the revived beer ran through for more than four decades until 2003, the year before the brewery (by then part of the Heineken Group, after a series of takeovers) was shut for ever. However, even in 1980 production of porter was just 0.6 per cent of the brewery’s output, at 1,770 hectoliters, under 1,500 US barrels.
Porter continued to be brewed elsewhere in Poland as a bottom-fermented, strong (8 per cent abv), heavily flavored beer throughout the 20th century, though the style suffered a slump in the 1950s, as brewers in cities such as Krakow and Szczecin dropped the beer from their lists, leaving only a few examples surviving, such as the one produced by the brewery in Żywiec, in what had been Austrian Galicia. That concern had been founded by a branch of the Hapsburgs in 1852, and was exporting its porter to Hungary in 1903 under the name “Archduke Charles Stephen’s Saybusch brewery,” Saybusch being the German for Żywiec.
The English beer writer Michael Jackson brought the attention of the world to the existence of porter brewing in Poland in his World Guide to Beer, published 1977, and he is credited with inventing the expression “Baltic porter”, the name by which the style is now known, even in Poland. However, while the expression Baltic Porter seems to first appear in Jackson’s work only in 1998, in a book called, unimaginatively, Beer, the earliest use of the term in print looks to be in Bill Yenne’s Beers of the World, published in 1994, talking about the porter made by Sinebrychoff of Finland – which, as a top-fermented beer, is not a “Baltic porter” in sensu stricto (or in MY sensu stricto, anyway). Today “Porter Bałtycki” has seen a revival in Poland, with established brewers bringing it back and new-wave Polish craft brewers making sure they have a strong porter in their repertoire.
(Hat tip to Marek Kamiński for correcting my Polish grammar)