The promised land
Marching to the beat of its own drum, Ziemia Obiecana has become one of Poland’s most revered breweries by championing slow growth and fresh beer
Saturday 18 November 2023
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It’s cold, and still dark when Łukasz Kierski joins the call. At 6am in Leeds, it’s 1pm in Kuala Lumpar, where Ziemia Obiecana’s founder has been based for the last two years. Malaysia is an unlikely place to find the driving force behind one of Poland’s most revered craft breweries, but so little about Ziemia Obiecana’s story was likely to have happened the way it did.
In the beginning, stumbling blocks to success were many, often, and sometimes of the brewery’s own making, that Łukasz seems as surprised as he is relieved that “seven years later, we’re still here”. From choosing to be a bricks-and-mortar brewery instead of a contract brand, to excluding itself from supermarket listings by refusing to pasteurise its beers, Ziemia Obiecana – translating as The Promised Land – seems to have survived by stubbornness, and sheer force of will.
Łukasz started homebrewing because buying Belgian beer in Poland was proving expensive. He was working for a Belgium-based company at the time, and while he could bring beers home from his regular visits there, tiding himself over with locally bought beer between trips only highlighted the compromised quality that comes with time spent in an unrefrigerated lorry, at customs, in warehouses, and eventually, on ambient supermarket shelves.
As this hobby steadily absorbed more of Łukasz’s free time, his fiancée Juśka suggested he think ahead, and consider a commercial facility. It’s perhaps because of the condition Łukasz found Belgian beer in, when he first began buying it in Poland, that he decided to take the road less travelled and champion freshness and flavour at all costs.
In the UK, setting up a bricks-and-mortar brewery to brew fresh, unpasteurised beer is a pretty standard practice for a brand finding its feet, but seven years ago in Poland, opening a facility of your own was nothing short of a nightmare. The paperwork was vast, and the regulations extensive. Łukasz says that back then, authorities saw micro and macro breweries through the same lens, forcing both to comply with the same rules, and pay the same tax, in spite of each producing radically different products.
Perhaps this is why contract brewing is so popular in Poland; running a brewing facility and running a beer brand each seem like jobs in their own right. Running parallel with this challenge was the fact that supermarkets – which are a major sales channel for a lot of Polish craft brands – require beers to be pasteurised, so they have a shelf life of about a year. Łukasz says that generally speaking, this is the expectation of Polish customers.
He’s also quick to add that today, for a lot of established Polish craft brands, pasteurisation isn’t a problem; you can’t taste the difference between pre and post pasteurisation thanks to the technology used. He speaks highly of craft brands that do choose to pasteurise, even though he chose to go down a different route.
“We’re just not following that path,” he says. “Besides, once we had the brewery, it wasn’t possible to pasteurise, we’re too small, and while we’ve upgraded parts of our kit, and improved our technique over the years, our processes are still ultimately simple. We’re in a very lucky position that we don’t have to keep stock. We sell the beer we produce on a weekly basis but I need to emphasise that we’re not a big brewery, so it's not a big achievement.” In case you missed it, Łukasz is exceedingly humble, so for the record, it is a big achievement.
I suspect Łukasz weighs the current success of the brewery against the torturous struggle of its early days. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone do what I did at the start,” he says. “I didn’t know how to brew on a commercial scale, and I didn’t have anyone experienced around to show me how to do things, so I think the first brew took me something like 27 hours, it was a total disaster. It’s a funny story now, but back then, it was definitely not funny at all.”
That said, Łukasz learned a lot very quickly. He made friends, sought advice, quit his day job to spend 100% of his time at the brewery, and hired a more experienced brewer as soon as he could, which was after two years of running the brewery single-handed.
“Now we have five people working in the brewery,” Łukasz continues.“It's not much, we’re still very tiny, but for me comparing it to six years ago, it's a huge step ahead. We’re growing in our way. Most craft breweries are focusing on increasing and expanding in other parts of Europe, but we’d prefer to stay on the small scale and just grow organically.”
The biggest upcoming adjustment to life at Ziemia Obiecana is that after two years of commuting from Malaysia to Poland on a monthly basis, Łukasz will be permanently returning to Poland at the end of this year. “The guys from the airline know me well know,” he chuckles, finding humour in an utterly exhausting set-up. He says that for the most part – with the beer and brewery safe in the hands of the wider team – when he returns to the brewery now, it’s to keep on top of admin, and meet with officials.
As difficult as the early days of Ziemia Obiecana were, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s pose their own kind of challenge. “I miss most festivals and events,” he says. “In craft beer, the best part of brewing the beer is not the beer but being a part of the brewing community. We can meet loads of people from different countries, and there’s a lot of friendliness among people, and I think that adds huge value to this kind of work.”
With Ziemia Obiecana not tending to do a lot of international collabs, Łukasz hopes its collaboration with Leeds-based North Brewing will be the first of many more. Łukasz says he bizarrely first encountered North in Malaysia, with the brand not exporting to Poland at all. Łukasz is quick to point out that a lot of Asian distributors work exclusively with cold freight distribution, a service Europe is shockingly behind on. As a result, it’s not in the interest of many European breweries to send their beer much further afield than neighbouring countries.
With the majority of Ziemia Obiecana’s volume going into keg, it would like the 20% it puts into can to reach drinkers in the best possible condition. The take away from this? If you spy a Ziemia Obiecana beer, buy it. It’s a rare, well-kept commodity. If you can’t get your hands on a can, let's hope your local brewery has the good sense to brew a collab beer with them.
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