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It was late evening in the Krakow district of Kazimierz, and the Strefy Piwa (Beer Zone) pub was in full swing with midweek revellers. A group of friends were sharing jokes over a round of drinks and a couple of young men in white work shirts sat at one of the few tables scattered around the sparse brick interior.

While Strefy Piwa has mainly Polish and Czech beers on tap -- including an India Pale Ale (IPA) made by Artezan, a small craft brewery near Warsaw -- the bar also offers a wide range of bottled brews from countries such as the US, Netherlands and Belgium. One wall of the pub was covered with different coloured bottle tops from around the world, and a globe sat by the bar, presumably to help patrons locate the many countries from which the brews originate. Sitting comfortably with a pint in hand, I listened as the owner engaged in a lively debate with a local brewer about the quality of the latest beer on offer.

Beer is a serious topic in Krakow, where a growing band of enthusiasts are developing a vibrant brewing scene. New microbreweries are opening across Poland every month, and Krakow is becoming one of the best places in Europe to sample Polish beers made by producers driven more by their passion for quality than by building a lucrative large-scale business.

There was a time not so long ago when going to a typical bar in Poland was an altogether different experience.  The small Polish breweries that existed before World War II were liquidated in the post-war years, and the larger breweries were nationalised. The bars that remained, hidden away from public view, were dingy dens of sorrow frequented by hardcore drinkers eager to escape the troubles of everyday life with little care for their surroundings.

But times have changed. In the early 1990s with the advent of a free market in Poland, the large national breweries began selling off their unprofitable assets, which typically included brewing equipment that could not produce beer on a sufficiently large scale. These tools of the trade were then bought up by small entrepreneurs who saw the microbrewery model of the United States as a blueprint for success. At that time, more than 700,000 people in the US had started making their own beer, leading to the formation of the 1,600 independent breweries that now operate across the country. Soon a number of young Poles set up their own operations, travelling around Europe and to the US in order to learn from those who had recently taken the same steps.

Poland now has around 100 microbreweries run by a small core of dedicated enthusiasts who are collaborating to build a growing demand for craft beers. The Polish Association of Home Brewers, established in 2010, now has more than 200 members, and the group organises 15 annual brewing contests around the country and produces a quarterly newspaper called The Brewer to encourage brewing as a hobby. In a culture where alcohol was once taken primarily for its “medicinal” properties, it is no small accomplishment to now see people sniffing, sipping and vigorously debating the merits of their carefully produced beers.

At the hugely popular House of Beer pub in Krakow’s Old Town, the lines at the bar were three deep and the din of the crowd drowned out the sport games that were playing on TV. Over a bottle of citrus-flavoured Rowing Jack IPA made by Poland’s Ale Browar near Gdansk, Tomasz Rogaczewski, founder of the Four Sides of Beer website and a judge at beer festivals across Europe, talked about how the beer scene in Krakow has evolved. “A few years ago the people who were producing Polish beer had little knowledge or interest in brewing,” he said. “They were in it purely for the money. But now we have genuine enthusiasts, willing to help each other as part of a community dedicated to creating the best quality beers.”

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