We ask what’s new for this Beer52 favourite
Photos: Tzrech Kumpli
Saturday 28 November 2020
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We first visited Trzech Kumpli in the halcyon days of early 2018, and were genuinely blown away by the beauty of its home town, the warmth of the welcome, and the quality and sheer volume of beer on offer. With a name that translates roughly as ‘Three Pals’, the brewery and the guys who run it are as friendly and passionate as ever, though perhaps even more ambitious.
The savvy edge that was on display the last time we met has definitely been honed, and Piotr is keen to give me his overview of the Polish scene before we get into an update about how he’s been doing.
“The single biggest change since the last time you were here has definitely been the importance of quality. Because the Polish market developed so quickly, there was a long time where everything was really a little hit-and-miss. That’s changed, and I’d say the top five breweries in Poland - which I’m told includes us - are really all on the same level in terms of the consistency and stability of their brewing.
“That’s opened a lot of doors for us, and brought a lot of new people into Polish craft beer, whether it’s through exports or the growing number of restaurants that are putting beers on their menu.”
2018 and ‘19 were particularly exciting for Trzech Kumpli, with expansion at its brewing partner (technically, it uses a contract brewer, but is also its only customer) and significant additions to its line-up of beers. It’s experimented with ice beer - currently holding the record for Poland’s strongest beer with a 20% abv beast - and at the other end has a range of highly-rated alcohol-free options.
“We also fell in love with New Zealand hops, like most brewers,” he laughs. “We’re also expanding our line of lagers, since our classic pilsner has become our third best-selling beer. That really reflects a trend we’ve seen across Poland, and the rest of the world I think. In 2016, it was real Russian roulette buying a craft lager, because a lot of the time you’d get a glass of sulphur and diacetyl.
“Now they’re great, and you’re seeing new profiles coming through with things like dry hopping and whirlpool hopping. It’s an interesting time; the brewing scene started because we were fed up with the quality of corporate lager, but we’ve come to realise that, brewed well, it’s a great way to reset your senses and a great go-to everyday beer.”
There’s a barrel-ageing programme too, which Piotr and the team have approached with their characteristic pragmatism. Rather than “dumping some strong beer into some barrels” for small-batch specials, Trzech Kumpli has jumped straight to adding barrel-aged beers to its permanent range, with a focus on total consistency between batches.
“We’re using our strong beers as a base,” Piotr explains. “For example we’re filling our imperial baltic porter, Ragnar, into bourbon and rum barrels to make sons and friends of Ragnar. So, Floki is bourbon barrel aged, Bjorn is rum barrel aged and so on.
“With barrel-aged beers though, you tend to find that one batch is fantastic and the next is not so good. The condition of the barrel is a huge factor; if a barrel is fresh it’s great, but if it’s been sat in a warehouse it can be a problem. So you have to accept that you’re going to create batches, where you mix great barrels with not so great, which as a brewer always breaks your heart, but you end up with something that’s still very good and is consistent. And that’s vital if a beer is going to be permanent. You can’t just tell a customer they can’t have a beer when they need it, because 9 out of 10 times you’ll lose that customer.”
This more mature approach to the business side of brewing has been reflected in Trzech Kumpli’s appointment of a new professional sales manager. It’s a move that Piotr admits sounds “very corporate, which is a dirty word in brewing” but he also makes the point that great brewers don’t have to be brilliant at running every aspect of a large business.
“When we started in 2014, we had no background in sales, so it was all based on instinct, and I think 90% of breweries start the same way. You brew the beer, you sell the beer, you brew more beer… then all of a sudden it’s scary amounts of money flying around and that becomes your job. So we appointed a professional sales manager, stopped selling directly on almost all our production and now go through distributors like in the US. It just allows us to focus more on brewing.”
But the steady rise of Trzech Kumpli and the entire Polish craft industry obviously hit a major bump in the form of Covid; perhaps more so here than in other countries, thanks to an unsympathetic and arguably bungled government response.
“We’ve been completely shut down since March, and it was done in a very brutal way,” explains Piotr. “It was announced in March, on a Friday afternoon, that all pubs would have to shut their doors that same evening. So those who had already delivered their beers were the lucky ones, but anyone who was going to deliver on Monday lost out hugely, because all those shipments went back to the breweries, so they lost out on the transportation too. It was devastating, but this second wave is worse because we have no support from the Government, and no idea how long it will last.”
Despite this, Piotr is generally upbeat about the future. Trzech Kumpli’s development of a ‘classic’ line of traditional styles, well brewed, gives it a broad base, while its growing export operation means it isn’t entirely at the mercy of Poland’s somewhat erratic policymakers.
As well as plans for a new small brewery and brewpub in its home town (production brewing will remain in its current location) there are plenty of exciting plans on the beer front. The barrel programme will be expanded further into sour and wild fermentation, including through the recent purchase of several foeders. Such projects are, as Piotr coyly describes them, “approached quite loosely from a cost perspective” but are clearly at the heart of his brewing.
For those really small batches, it's fun, they’re something you give to people to show them your craft
“In our deep soul, we’re still home-brewers,” he says. “For those really small batches, we love them, it’s fun, they’re something you give to people to show them your craft. And you need that element of craziness, because it moves you along and because that’s why you started.
“It’s so much fun; I’m never bored in the industry because it’s honestly just the best job. I talk a lot about professionalism, but we’ll still brew these absolutely insane beers that are drunk by one in a million people. But it’s like sport - you have to show all the time that you can still score, even if you’re just proving it to yourself. The trick is to find a balance between all these things.”
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