Saturday, March 23, 2013

Grodziskie beer: Recovering an Important Chapter in European Beermaking History

Grodziskie: Recovering an Important Chapter in European Beermaking History - open letter

Dear International Brewers of Grodziskie Beer,

we are a group of Polish homebrewers and people connected to the town of Grodzisk Wielkopolski. While not all of us are from this region with a rich beermaking history, we are all brought together by a keen interest in keeping this extraordinary cultural legacy alive.

Hence, we are writing to you in the hopes of clarifying misleading information that we have found in many descriptions of Grodziskie beer -- the crucial one being the misnomer “Graetzer.” We hope that this letter begins a mutually beneficial dialogue about Polish beermaking traditions and their originality and independence of German beermaking. In this letter, we wish to provide a background that will shed light on the untrustworthiness of some of the German-language sources you may have used for your classification of Grodziskie, and to sketch out a broader context of German colonization of Greater Poland (Wielkopolska, the region where Grodzisk lies) and Polish national resistance during the Partitions that divided up our country between Germany, Russia, and Austria for the whole of the nineteenth century, as well as the later German occupation during World War II. These historical phenomena have had an obvious impact on beermaking in the region, yet one must keep in mind that Grodziskie originated in the Renaissance, and from the eighth century until the nineteenth century Wielkopolska was always Polish. The region is, in fact, the original heartland of Polish statehood, which was established in 966.

We recognize the lasting impact of the Cold War on knowledge production in the West. Education and knowledge production during the Cold War basically erased half of Europe not only from the map but from the Western knowledge base. As a consequence, the countries that appeared after the revolutionary year 1989, notably, Poland, which was the first one to overthrow the Communist regime, have come to figure in the Western imagination as completely new, history-less, and deprived of cultural heritage, which could not be further from the truth.

The reason why we are concerned about your misclassification and misnaming of Grodziskie is not simply a matter of national pride, it is also a matter of knowledge. The name Graetzer is fine as a secondary name for this beer style, since it was, indeed, used during the times Wielkopolska was colonized and occupied by Germany (and later, to keep the export version of the beer recognizable to foreign buyers). Yet the primary name for this beer style  must be Grodziskie. The common belief that the Polish language is “difficult” and “exotic” is a troublesome remnant of Prussian colonization policies that sought to eradicate our language and culture. These policies manifested in name changing (applied to place names -- hence, Grodzisk became Graetz -- and people’s names) and banning the use of Polish in education and in public spaces. If you choose to prioritize the German name of Grodziskie and classify it as a German beer style, you will be subscribing to the legacy of colonization and unwittingly re-enacting its symbolic violence in the twenty-first century. Therefore, we ask that you take into consideration the cultural role of this beer and of the Polish beermaking tradition in the context of Poland’s complicated history as well as Grodziskie’s role in sustaining dignity and keeping the spirit of celebration alive among the Polish population who brewed, drank, and loved it. The decisions of the American Beermaking Association set standards worldwide and so we hope that you help us keep the history of Grodziskie alive and accurate for the benefit of brewers and beer lovers worldwide.

Below, we offer a brief sketch of beermaking in Poland, which, albeit concurrent with German beermaking, was for the most part independent of it.

Polish statehood dates back to 966 and from the Polish historical perspective, Soviet domination during the Cold War, Nazi German occupation during World War II, or even the Partitions that eradicated Poland for the whole of the nineteenth century, are but episodes that sought to but did not nullify the Polish people, our language, customs, and our intellectual traditions. In other words, where the West sees a void, we see a history of resistance, survival, and endurance of our culture.

And beer is no small part of that culture: the oldest surviving Polish song ”Chmiel” (Hops) sings the praise of hops, which were cultivated by Slavic peoples in the region well before the establishment of Poland. In 1025, The German chronicler Thietmar of Marsenburg described the first king of Poland, Bolesław I the Brave as a “beer drinker.” Chrobry’s later successor, King Leszek I the White (1186-1227) was able to convince the Pope that he could not take part in the Fourth Crusade because there was no beer in the Holy Land, and he could not survive without the beverage.
The town of Grodzisk Wielkopolski was established in 1303 by King Przemysł II. The first mention of a malt house in Grodzisk is found in documents from 1426. In 1601, the nobleman Jan Ostroróg reformed and modernized the already existing Grodzisk Brewers Guild. Every batch of the beer prepared for shipment was personally inspected by the mayor of Grodzisk.

There is also a legend connected to Grodziskie beer. A monk by the name of Bernard (born as Blazej Pecharek) was said to have walked through the town in 1601. People complained to him about a dried-out well they had used for beer production. The holy man prayed and blessed the well and water started flowing again. In return, every year the people of Grodzisk would donate a barrel of Grodziskie to his monastery. This custom was observed until World War II with an interval of several years during the Prussian colonization when the policy of Kulturkampf targeted the connections between the Polish population and Catholic Church and its institutions. The Blessed Bernard’s well stands in Grodzisk until this day and functions as one of the town’s key landmarks.

From these beginnings, Grodzisk was always the only place Grodziskie was ever produced. There are some claims proffered by beer experts outside Poland that there were possibly other towns that made this kind of beer. There is no truth to those claims.  Although Grodzisk is a relatively small town, it quickly won fame for its amber beverage, as well as for its healthful water (you may see here the obvious link to the legend of the Blessed Bernard).

Bernard’s Well in the Old Market Square in Grodzisk Wielkopolski. The statue on the right represents the Blessed Bernard.

From the seventeenth century, Grodziskie’s popularity began transcending the Wielkopolska region and achieving ever-growing popularity in the whole of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (The Kingdom of Poland had a lasting union with Lithuania and together they were a major agricultural power in Central and Eastern Europe until the Partitions). In this period, the Grodzisk brewers started exporting their beer to the German countries of Brandenburg, Prussia, and Silesia, as well as to the Hanseatic free cities of Luebeck, Danzig (contemporary name: Gdansk), Bremen, and Koenigsberg (contemporary name: Kaliningrad).

It became an issue of status for every Polish nobleman to have Grodziskie at his estate. Otherwise, he would be called cheap or considered to be in financial difficulty.

There are a number of historical documents in Polish that contain descriptions of the local Grodzisk craft law connected to beermaking. These documents contain also names of brewmasters: these brewmasters had Polish names, not German.

Grodzisk only became Graetz during the Partitions of the nineteenth century, when Germany took over and sought to colonize western Poland (while Austria and Russia took the south and the east, respectively). Grodzisk became Graetz again when Nazi Germany attacked and occupied Poland in 1939. Apart from these painful historical episodes, the town was always Grodzisk, and its beer always Piwo Grodziskie.

The change of the town’s name to Graetz belonged to the broader plan of German colonization of Wielkopolska during the Partitions. These policies included forced resettlement of Poles to “thin out” the Polish population and “make room” for German colonists who were heavily subsidized by the German Colonization Fund, the banning of Polish language in education (to eradicate Polish intellectual traditions and gradually eradicate the language as well), re-naming of places and people (e.g. translatable Polish names were rewritten in German, untranslatable ones were changed to common German names), and, later, under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, these policies became solidified under the Kulturkampf, which ostensibly targeted Catholicism, but in reality targeted the church as one of the sites of Polish resistance.

Grodzisk lay at the heart of Polish resistance efforts in the region: it was one of the major sites of five local uprisings. In response to the First Partition of Poland in 1774, this small town mobilized several hundred soldiers to fight against German aggressors. During the revolutionary year 1848, guerrilla fighters from Grodzisk again stood up to the German occupants. The responses to the ban on Polish in schools was overwhelming across Wielkopolska, yet schoolchildren’s protests were met with incredible violence. In 1906, the Grodzisk schoolchildren -- as well as schoolchildren in several other Wielkopolska towns -- went on strike. This strike was brutally thwarted.

Needless to say, World War II, during which the region was forcibly incorporated into the Third Reich, brought back these genocidal measures in a more violent, absolute, and organized manner.

We hope that this brief sketch can shed some light on the kind of symbolic violence enacted by the preference for German names of Polish place names and Polish cultural heritage. The supposed “easiness” that German names carry over the Polish ones is an echo of anti-Polish propaganda, which was never examined in the West after World War II. Indeed, Polish language may appear strange and difficult to some, yet it is important to recognize the harm in the claim that such difficulties are somehow “universal” or “natural” and to learn about the history of such thinking and the continued harm it brings.

Polish artists and thinkers continue to be censored in their Polishness in the West. The most famous examples include Nicolaus Copernicus who, though he may have been a speaker of German, was nonetheless a subject of the Polish king (the modern sense of national identity by which we live today did not apply in the Renaissance); the composer Fryderyk Chopin, who was Polish-French and heavily involved with the Polish emigrant elite in Paris; Maria Sklodowska-Curie -- commonly referred to in the West solely by the French version of her name, Marie Curie, who was a Polish scientist living and working in France; Joseph Conrad, who left partitioned Poland for Great Britain; Bronislaw Malinowski -- Polish anthropologist writing in English, and many others.

It is also important to note, in the American context, that for Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kazimierz Pulaski, the fight for American independence was tied to the freedom struggle in which they engaged in their native Poland.

Returning to the history of beermaking in Grodzisk: in 1919, Grodzisk went back to the newly established II Republic of Poland, and the Grodzisk breweries consolidated into a joint-stock company under the name Zjednoczone Browary Grodziskie (United Grodzisk Breweries). The National Union of Beermakers took Grodzisk as its center of operations, which included training and certifying beermaking professionals.

In 1939, Adolf Hitler authorized the attack on Poland with a command that stated: “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.” The Nazis changed the name of Grodzisk to Greatz and took over all businesses, including the breweries (needless to add, this was done without any kind of compensation to the Polish and Jewish-Polish owners of the businesses). Polish was then banned in public spaces, many Poles faced again resettlement west to “make room” for colonizers from Germany, others were forced into slave labor on farms and and businesses taken over by the Nazis. In order to reinforce the ideology fed to German society as justification for the genocide of Poles, the Nazis sought to “prove” that Poles (and other Slavic peoples) were intellectually inferior and fit for servitude and physical labor by mass murders of Polish intellectuals.

To further illustrate the point we have been elaborating throughout this letter, we would like to present the two bottle stickers under which Grodziskie was exported.

The sticker used right after World War I, which uses the German name in order to capitalize on the recognizability of this name (this was right after the 123 years of Partitions, during which time Polish names could not be used for any official or business purposes):

After World War II, exported Grodziskie returned with a more genuine sticker.



  1. Well said.

    I'm going to be more careful in future about my use of Grodziskie and Graetzer.

    I've been really irritated by the dreadful definitions of Grodziskie in the USA, and the inauthentic versions produced there.

    I'm not sure I agree about all German sources about Grodziskie being inaccurate. I believe they describe the beer itself quite well. The cultural context is another matter. Schoenfeld's description of Grodziskie from the 1930's includes some pretty dodgy stuff about German influence on the development of the style.

    I think inaccurate English-language sources - Michael Jackson in particular - are more to blame for getting the character of the beer wrong.

    If you've any good 19-century Polish sources on Grodziskie I'd be really interested in seeing them. My Polish isn't great, but with the help of Google translate I can make reasonable sense out of it.



  2. I am a US homebrewer (Chicago) and I am about to brew my first batch of grodziskie - I will be using the Weyermann oak smoked wheat malt with a kolsch yeast since the resurrected grodziskie yeast is not available commercially (at least that I know of). I will also use Hopefully this turns out well.

    I would like to reply to Ron - your dedication to authentic beer history and styles is amazing - but dude take a chill pill. Look me up the next time you are in Chicago. Also Kristen England says categorically that this is not a sour beer.


    Jeff Sobczynski