I lived for about six and a half years on the outskirts of Greenpoint, Brooklyn (New York City’s Little Poland), and for the last two and a half years I’ve lived in Ridgewood, Queens (NYC’s other Little Poland). In that time, I’ve become devoted to Polish beers, which you can find in almost any bodega or deli around these parts, regardless of the ethnic background of the store’s owners. Most frequently, you’ll see the brands Żywiec, Tyskie, Lech, Okocim, Tatra, Żubr, Hevelius, Warka, Łomża, and Boss. According to the counter guy at the Polish deli near my place, they all come from the same distributor: “All from the same guy,” he said grimly, “and he can do what he wants, because he controls everything. Everything.”
I’m not complaining — they’re all fine by me, and they’re all cheap. Can’t go wrong with a 500mL bottle (1 pt., 0.9 fl. oz.) that goes for around $2 a pop. You’ve got your pale lagers, around 5-6% ABV, and also your assorted porters with around 9% ABV, and sometimes the stronger beers cost less than the weaker beers. It’s a good neighborhood perk, I think.
I was introduced to Polish beers years before I lived around here. On a trip through Poland and the Czech Republic, when I was 23, I realized something about so many of these Central European lagers: “Oh. This is what those American macrobrews are trying to be, except this actually tastes like lager, and it has a head, kind of.” There really is a more robust flavor and body in these lagers than in their milder American cousins — you can taste the malt or the wheat more clearly, and pair well with food (all varieties).
Żywiec (pronounced ZHIV-yets) is my favorite of the bunch, for reasons I can’t quite explain, aside from the fact that it was the first Polish beer I ever tried and set a certain standard in my mind. So when I started seeing Żywiec Session IPAs around the neighborhood, I was curious. The Polish brewing tradition is an old one, and brewing styles are points of regional pride in Central Europe. IPAs are not part of that tradition. I noticed the Żywiec Session IPA label showed the date 2018 — the year the brewery launched an IPA — and the brewery’s own 1856 founding date was way off in the corner and on the neck, in tiny print. Interesting choice, to trumpet the fact that they’ve been brewing IPAs for less time than my laptop has existed. Also an interesting choice to brew this as a session IPA at 5% ABV, a perfectly normal level for a session IPA, but a lower ABV than Żywiec’s normal lager (and almost half that of their porter — 9.5% — but I’d recommend that one less for the summer season, more for a blizzard).
I had a lot of questions. And now that I’ve had a few of these IPAs over the course of the last couple summers, I think I can answer them:
Does it taste like an IPA? … Nnnnno. IPAs usually taste pretty hoppy. That’s the point. That’s in the recipe. That’s the appeal. The hoppiness here tastes more like someone had a tincture, like “Essence of Hops” or something, and put a couple drops into the bottle. IPAs also usually taste kind of sweet, because the sweetness helps the hops go down more smoothly. This IPA definitely has some sweetness to it, which is more noticeable when the hops quotient doesn’t need to be tamed. There is admittedly a cloying flavor to it. Something tastes mildly synthetic. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Like, you know those gummi bears that are marketed as having “real fruit juice” in them? Yeah, that’s a nice gesture, but I don’t think it’s necessary, and gummi bears that are totally synthetic are just as good, or better.
Is it any good? That’s a really interesting question. I’m not sure how to answer it. What is “good?” What makes a thing “good,” in the broadest and most general sense? How do you quantifiably measure a “good IPA?” Is it right to consider the goodness of a Żywiec IPA in the context of other IPAs, or should it be evaluated purely by its own characteristics? The Żywiec Session IPA seems to float in the beerosphere, unmoored from any strict category — merely casting its shadow upon the categories of “Żywiec” and “IPA” as it breezes past. As Pope Francis once said — in reference to a different issue with which he probably has no direct, personal, lived experience — “Who am I to judge?” Maybe a more appropriate question would be…
Does it accomplish what it sets out to accomplish? All right, look, I admit it; I’m stalling. I don’t know what this beer is trying to accomplish, either. I’m not sure who it’s… for. I’ve been to Poland only once, and I don’t think I drank a single IPA while I was there, so I’m not sure what passes as a solid IPA in Poland. I don’t think this particular beer is meant for a US audience. If it is… well, if that’s the case, frankly it doesn’t get to where it needs to be. It gets somewhere. I kinda like where it goes.
I took note of the overall experience as it played out over the course of a single bottle. Some observations:
First sip: Hits the palate firmly, but not aggressively. The crispness I’d expect from a Żywiec is right there. It leaves you with that vaguely sweet-ish aftertaste, though, unlike a Żywiec lager, which goes down clean with very little aftertaste.
Third of the way in: I’m actually sensing more of the body that I recognize from a Żywiec. I pour a little into a glass and can see a bit of a head developing. I’m definitely tasting and feeling more Żywiec and less IPA. I feel like the malts and the hops have been arm-wrestling, and the malts are bringing the hops’ fist closer and closer to the table.
Two-thirds in: All right, now this beer is starting to feel a bit lived-in. The arm-wrestling match… I think it’s at a stalemate. The hops, or whatever, are asserting themselves again, and the sweetness is less noticeable. It’s been an interesting journey.
In the end, how does a Żywiec Session IPA rate against its lager counterpart? Well, on the one hand, it’s less good. On the other hand, it’s lower in ABV. On the other other hand, it costs more. (I’m seeing the IPAs going for $2.25, versus the lager’s $2.) But if you’re into Polish beers, and you have opinions about the various brands, and you’re in an area where Polish beers are plentiful and cheap, and especially in warm weather — I realize this is a pretty specific recommendation — it’s worth a shot, for sure.
This post is in no way endorsed by Żywiec or any other brand of anything, which I hope should be obvious, and it is also not in any way intended to court the attention of any brand that produces anything at all, because I don’t do that and I have no desire whatsoever to do that, full stop.