The best of friends

Trzech Kumpli (which translates roughly as ‘three pals’) was one of the breweries that made the biggest impression during our visit to the Beer Geek Madness festival.
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Trzech Kumpli (which translates roughly as ‘three pals’) was one of the breweries that made the biggest impression during our visit to the Beer Geek Madness festival. So when its founder Piotr Sosin offered to pick us up from Kraków, drive us 90 minutes out into the Polish countryside and serve us some beers fresh from the tank, it would have been unforgivable to turn the opportunity down.

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The journey itself is beautiful, and I am grateful to see the lush, rolling hills of Poland’s south for the first time in nearly 20 years. It also gives us a chance to hear some of the brewery’s back-story; about how Piotr, an avid home brewer, joined forces with a gang of his old primary school pals from the town of Tarnów – Irmina, Tymek, and Maciek – to take his hobby to a professional level.

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Unfortunately, my tendency for motion sickness hasn’t lessened over the past two decades, and we are forced to disturb the rural idyll several times on the way, so I can noisily paint the roadside. Sorry Poland. The destination is well worth a little discomfort though. Trzech Kumpli’s brewing arrangement is, if not unique, then at least very unusual. Although technically brewed under contract by Browar Zapanbrat, Piotr is the brewery’s only client and keeps its tanks full 365 days a year. Zapanbrat itself is owned and run by two brothers, Przemek and Michał who convinced their father, a local entrepreneur, to turn over a former garage that he owned for them to pursue their brewing dreams.

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Having tried working with several contract breweries before, Piotr says Przemek and Michał clearly understood what he was trying to build and approached the project more like a partnership.

“They’ve felt like part of the team rather than just my supplier,” he says. “They called me one day two years ago, to say ‘we like your beers and are building a brewery. It’s going to be like this’. We started meeting, I paid them a visit and it became more real. They told me how big they wanted to make the brewery, and I said okay well we’ll eventually want to reach that point. We now have every one of their tanks filled with our beers.”

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“This is exactly the setup I would have if I were to invest in my own brewery. So it’s the perfect synergy: they have 100% of their capacity covered and sold once the tank is empty, and I have a fantastic supplier with a dedicated team. I don’t think about the pipelines and the pumps. I just think about developing my product and new beers.”

As well as having a top-of-the line setup with plenty of space to grow, the location couldn’t be more perfect. The town of Żywiec has long been famed for the quality and softness of its water, with Archduke Albert of Austria notably choosing it as the home for his brewery in 1852 (the brewery bears the town’s name, and is now owned by Heineken).

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“The water here is perfect for lagers and pilsners,” explains Piotr. “People have been brewing here for centuries because of the taste of the water. Now we can test it chemically – it’s very soft, very low mineral. Brewers come over from the US and tell us how much they’ve spent on reverse osmosis and water treatment, just to get the water profile that comes out of the ground naturally in Żywiec.”

As you might expect with such a geographical pedigree, Trzech Kumpli’s pilsners are excellent, and come in several varieties, from a beautifully balanced traditional pint to a US-style, aggressively hopped lip-smacker. Indeed, creative use of American hop varieties are one of the signatures of Trzech Kumpli’s style, and even its traditional European beers most often bear a fruity, high-alpha twist.

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There seem to be very few styles the team won’t tackle, and our tour of the tanks is wonderfully eclectic, with black IPAs, saisons and even a big, unctuous Russian imperial stout waiting to be bottled. Our highlight though is definitely the super-fresh Misty NEIPA (named, we later learn, after the classic Johnny Mathis crooner).

Piotr clearly loves recipe creation, having started out as a home brewer making a mess in his kitchen. Although he now works on a much larger scale with his colleagues at Zapanbrat, he admits to missing the hobby, and recently decided to get back into homebrewing on his downtime, especially as he can now afford “all the cool US homebrew kit I always wanted”. Fortunately for his wife – who is not a fan of the smell of boiling hops – Piotr is converting another room in the house for his domestic brewing project.

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The fact that Piotr is still driven by a love of experimentation is likely to stand him in good stead. Like any other national craft beer scene with a bit of momentum behind it, there is pressure on brewers to keep their fans well supplied with the latest and greatest styles.

“I’m not sure people’s tastes are getting more sophisticated, but they’re definitely getting more demanding. Three years ago, if you’d released to the market a Russian Imperial Stout or Baltic porter, people would have been blown away. But now it’s just like ‘meh - it’s a very standard, basic Russian Imperial stout. 2.5 on Ratebeer!’ People are expecting all sorts of crazy stuff – coffee, vanilla, maple syrup – to make it stand out.”

Like the other breweries we speak to here, Piotr has experienced some frustration as the sales side of the industry has failed to keep pace with the beers being produced. Trzech Kumpli does sell to supermarkets, but only locally and on a very small scale, making up less than 5% of its total sales.

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“Being on the supermarket shelf is useful for expanding our market, but we also try to keep them at bay to an extent,” he says. “They’re very focused on constant availability at a very good price – there’s not much interest in our story or quality. Here in Poland, people are used to getting very cheap beer, so it’s hard to make any kind of margin on craft beers if you doing it right. That’s particularly true with the big, dark beers that might sit in the tank for five months; we love brewing them, and they raise our profile, but we could definitely use that space for more profitable beers if that’s what we were out to do.”

The drive back to Kraków is far less eventful, and I’m able to enjoy the view (though I avoid the petrol station pastries, just in case). On our return, Piotr is kind enough to take us for some truly amazing sandwiches and a pint (I go for the classic pilsner) and the very friendly Miejscówka riverside bar, where we sit in the sunshine chatting about life and watching the world go by. Getting amongst the fermentation vessels is certainly great fun, but for me, this is what craft beer is all about.

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