Last week I stopped by Belmont Station to pick up a couple hearty ales. The dark and the winter have put me in stout mood, but I found myself in front of the Baltic porters. Belmont has a nice selection. I chose, for reasons obscure to me even at the time, a version from Poland--Żywiec. I knew nothing about Żywiec, and yet a bottle seemed to just find its way into my hand.
(I do this with movies sometimes, going in with absolutely no information except for the title. One of the first times was with the Irish movie "The Snapper," an adaptation of Roddy Doyle's novel about an unexpected baby. The title was obscure but vaguely misleading; the movie was delightful. Thereafter I attempted to repeat it as often as possible. Not so easy with beer, but still I try.)
The label gives some info--the date of the recipe, and the alcohol percentage, which I missed. It also features a crown on the neck ring, which I learned later alludes to the brewery's founding by Hapsburg royalty back in 1856. But even then it was not the king of beers--rather, the archduke. (According to Wikipedia, it was actually called Żywiec Archducal Brewery--perhaps the only one that ever existed.)
I am used to understated European lagers. Europe's ancient breweries haven't lost flavor in the way American breweries did--still, decades tend to leave brands faded, as if they were sitting too long in the sun. Yet Żywiec poured out impressively--thick but quite effervescent, with a dense mocha head. The aroma coming off it was anything but understated--earthy and slightly sour, malty, molasses-y. The flavor followed vibrant suit, with a cascade of bitter, roasted malts that had the quality of coffee and very dark chocolate. Some beers are so bitter that they start to come back around toward sour. In this way it had the molasses of the nose. It is an amazingly pronounced, aggressive beer, and I loved it. About half-way through my half liter, I started to feel a bit loose. The alcohol doesn't come through--the body's too thick, the malts too black--until you feel it at the base of your skull. Then I checked the label: 9.5%. Hoy!
It's a strange beer, with flavors I'm unused to, and yet I really enjoyed it. Sometimes imports take you on a mini-vacation. I could imagine a cold place with lots of root vegetables and dark bread and this beer on the table, maybe with a fire burning cozily off to the side.
I know none of you are too coarse to concern yourselves with pricing, but the bottle was between two and three dollars, after having been shipped all the way from Krakow. Given its huge gravity and wondrous, rich flavor, this makes it one of the best deals in beer. You could do far worse and spend far more than picking up a bottle of Żywiec.
PHOTO: Flickr user bogomi_r