Words and photography: Richard Croasdale
Monday 28 May 2018
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Stu Mostów, in the south-western city of Wrocław, is one of the most established breweries in Poland’s young craft scene, with a slew of top-rated beers and a popular taproom in the north of town. It’s also a well-known name on the international collaboration circuit, renowned for its commitment to quality and consistency – in short, it’s come a long way in the few years since it opened its doors.
But the brewery’s background is also a love story, played out across continents between its husband-and-wife co-founders Greg and Arletta Ziemian. Childhood friends from the same town, Prudnik, the pair parted ways when Arletta went to study in Warsaw and Greg in the United States. After graduating, both found themselves working in financial services – Arletta in corporate banking and Greg in investment banking – for the same international bank.
They stayed in touch, but it wasn’t until 2009, when Arletta invited Greg to her brother’s wedding, that things really took off. Three months and one vacation in Sicily later, the pair were engaged.
“That was 2009, but we still had to figure out a way to be physically closer together, because I was still in the states and had my life there,” says Greg. “My first question was ‘would you like to come over?’ She didn’t. I was in Minnesota, so not the most exciting state. So I sold up, quit my job and signed up for a postgraduate two-year business degree in Barcelona."
They were married in July 2011 and, after joining Greg for a semester in Beijing as part of an exchange programme, Arletta decided to quit her job and move to Barcelona so they could be together full-time.
“When Greg had asked me which country I’d prefer for life together, I’d said Italy or Spain,” she recalls. “But leaving Poland was still a very difficult decision. I was in corporate banking, responsible for the biggest clients in all of Poland, which is a big thing to walk away from, but we were both ready for a change. In the corporate world, you give 100% but the return is often much less. And then one day you realise that money is not that important if you’re not happy and not fulfilled.”
After graduating, Greg wanted to return to Poland after 15 years overseas. Arletta, having thoroughly settled into her expatriate lifestyle, was less keen, and insisted that if they were going home it would need to be to start their own business. Greg agreed.
“One of the most striking things on moving back was that there was no craft beer,” he recalls. “This was 2012, and I was used to America, where you could pick up amazing craft beers from your local grocery store. Poland drinks a lot of beer, but it was still all industrial lager. This was about the time when Pinta was introducing its beer, but it was such a small quantity. So a lightbulb went on, this crazy idea to start a craft brewery, with no experience of brewing or production.”
Greg had made a few friends in the industry during his time in the US, so had access to good knowledge and advice. He began visiting breweries and trade shows, reading books and blogs, following forums; “we were essentially unemployed and totally devoted to this idea,” he says. After a few months, they started putting together the outline of a strong business plan, using Greg’s business school knowledge, and around a year later their vision was fully formed, complete with budget, targets and philosophy.
“The next steps were more about execution, finding a location, raising money. The banks all said we were crazy, which was a downer, so we started looking at equity financing. We had a pretty useful network, and in the end convinced five guys from our previous work to become partners. The budget was still tight so we had to be careful, but we didn’t want to cut corners. We wanted the best we possibly could in terms of team, equipment, resources.”
Once they started researching locations, Arletta says Wrocław was an obvious choice because of its eight-century connection with beer; prior to the second world war, there were over 70 breweries in the city, and the local university runs a world-class microbiology course. The beautiful red brick building which is now Stu Mostów’s home was originally a cinema, but had long ago fallen derelict, leaving only the walls and original balcony level.
“We saw the potential right away,” continues Arletta. “With the brewery on the ground floor, we could build a taproom on the balcony, so visitors could watch the beer being brewed like they would once have watched a film. The sights and sounds of the brewery would be like putting on a show for them.”
The final piece of the puzzle was finding a head brewer. While Greg and Arletta had accumulated a great understanding of the brewing process, they knew the day-to-day running of a modern craft-scale brewery required a different set of skills. Fortunately for everyone concerned, their online job ad received a quick response from Mateusz Gulej, a Polish brewer who at the time was working at a brewpub in Canada.
“Despite some problems with Skype and Canadian internet speeds, we got a great feeling about him in the interview and offered him the job,” says Greg. “He’s been with us ever since and has built a great production team, with three brewers working under him. He also played a key role in last year’s expansion, when we added a bunch of new tanks, new filling line and a centrifuge.”
In person, Mateusz is one of those people (more common in craft beer than other industries) whose wide-eyed belief in his work and colleagues is utterly infectious, and clearly energises those around him. Describing his processes and the beers he makes, you can feel his pride, balanced by his determination to keep on improving and pushing the boundaries of what the brewery can achieve.
“It’s a very hard job,” he admits. “We’re not in a big company, where we could turn up, go for eight hours and then go home and forget about it. We’re working as much as is needed. But I’m very happy that I can do that; it gives me a lot of fun, a lot of satisfaction, and after a hard day I can be at home and drink our beer and be proud of it, and I have a feeling we’re doing a good job. To be honest I can’t see myself ever doing anything else. Good beer, good food, doing something I really believe in… other jobs would just be boring!”
The high-end BrauKon brewhouse itself is extremely sophisticated for its size and has clearly been carefully specified for the space and the styles Stu Mostów is brewing, with a high degree of automation and linked sensors ensuring every aspect of the brew is tightly controlled for maximum consistency. It’s also been set up to allow flexibility and experimentation with different mash bills, exotic adjuncts and smaller fermentation vessels for pilot batches.
The beers themselves are testament to the thought that went into putting together Stu Mostów’s kit and brewing team (all of whom hold masters degrees in microbiology or food science). The range splits into three distinct lines: Black-labelled WRCLW – classic styles with no unnecessary adornments – yellow-labelled Salamander – modern, hop forward beers for the US-inspired craft crowd – and finally the ART collaboration line, created with visiting breweries from around the world. We certainly enjoyed exploring the range during our visit, but my stand-outs were Stu Mostów’s classic pilsner (its best-selling beer), its double dry-hopped DIPA and a double barrel-aged imperial porter that had only just been bottled.
Understandably, Stu Mostów has become an established part of the international collaboration scene, with top-tier breweries traveling across the world to work with the team on new beers.
“Collaboration is a bit like dating,” says Greg. “We want to brew with people we enjoy spending time with, who have similar philosophies and things in common. It takes us a while to get to know the other brewers before we brew together. We always want to learn from each other, and when they come here we open everything up for them and answer any questions they have.”
It comes as no surprise to learn that plans for the next stage of the brewery’s story are already well underway; Greg and Arletta don’t seem the kind of people who would be comfortable standing still. In addition to the rack of ex-bourbon and port barrels set to the side of the fermentation vessels, the brewery is looking to expand its barrel-ageing programme in a new separate warehouse, which will allow it to experiment with sours and wild fermentation. From what we’ve tasted today, this will take Stu Mostów’s output to another new level, and we can’t wait to see where it leads.
“In 20 years we’ll be the best brewery in the world,” concludes Mateusz. “If we weren’t dreaming that big, we wouldn’t be here!”
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