It was in the great borough of Queens in New York City that I first discovered both beer and birding, two great loves of my life that happily intersect with great regularity here at Birds and Booze. I wouldn’t discover serious birding until I’d been living in Queens for over a decade, only after making a fateful visit to Jamaica Bay out of sheer curiosity. But I learned the joys of beer much earlier during my time in the borough, while I was still in college, in fact – though this interest didn’t necessarily follow the well-worn path of collegiate drinking familiar to so many American university students.
Instead, my earliest drinking experiences in Queens centered around imported beer, a fitting circumstance in this borough of immigrants, now that I think about it. My good college friend Luke was originally from Poland and our friendship was fueled greatly by a shared interest in whatever esoteric music we fancied ourselves connoisseurs of at the time: Krautrock, obscure psychedelia, dub reggae, free jazz, etcetera. Much of our time outside the classroom was spent listening to any records we could get our hands on with our limited student means – while drinking beer, of course. We were fans of the Dominican lager El Presidente (mostly on account of the cool name) and Guinness was always a favorite. But our real drink of choice was Zywiec, the best-known brand of Polish beer, which was readily available in many New York City neighborhoods.
I loved Zywiec, with its label featuring a colorful couple folkloric costume, dancing the Krakowiak. I especially loved its cool, consonant-heavy name – and being privy to its proper pronunciation thanks to my Polish-speaking friends certain helped.* But eventually I moved on to other beers, becoming more interested in obsessively seeking out obscure offerings crafted in Belgian monasteries, or witnessing the startling evolution of IPA in the hops “arms race” that continues to this day.
Today, I can’t even recall the last time I had a Zywiec. But I did have what comes close to qualifying as a Proustian moment in finding this week’s featured beer: 313 Polish Lager from Grand River Brewery of Detroit, Michigan. According to an explanation by Grand River brewer John Hebda-Burtka printed on the can, 313 Polish Lager is “an homage” to his “hard-working [Polish] ancestors that powered the [Detroit] 313 area code.” I may not be able to remember exactly what Zywiec tastes like, but the mere sight of 313 Polish Lager, with its proudly Polonian red-and-white can, instantly brought back those happy memories of drinking Polish beer back in college. And more importantly for us, unlike Zywiec, 313 Polish Lager features a bird: the orzel bialy, the white eagle that adorns the national coat of arms of Poland.
Poland, of course, is just one of many lands that claims an eagle for its national avian symbol. The white eagle makes its appearance in Polish myth at the very beginning of the nation, when – according to the origin story recounted in the 14th-century Wielkopolska Chronicle – Lech, the legendary founder of Poland, was out hunting and came upon a white eagle on its nest. The eagle’s silvery feathers shone against the red backdrop of the setting sun, which Lech took as a good omen. He founded a settlement in that very spot called Gniezno (from the Polish gniazdo, meaning “nest”), and ever since, the white eagle has remained a symbol of the Polish people.
The white eagle’s nest and the founding of Poland by Lech, as depicted by Polish painter Walery Eljasz-Radzikowski (1841-1905).
I generally avoid featuring heraldic birds here at Booze and Birds because of the general ornithological ambiguity with which they’re sometimes depicted. And while this week’s “white eagle” is no exception to this, it has been suggested that the national eagle of Poland is likely a White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), a very large and imposing raptor that sometimes acquires a nearly-white appearance when its feathers become worn or bleached. At the very least, we can eliminate the Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) from consideration based on range, despite the golden tiara that adorns the head of the orzel bialy.
An eagle (a White-tailed?) as drawn by Walery Eljasz-Radzikowski.
Earlier this week, November 11th was Polish Independence Day, so I had a glass of 313 Polish Lager to celebrate and remember old Polish beers I once knew. And though this beer was brewed in America’s Motor City, it boasts a true Eastern European pedigree in its hops, Lublin and Saaz, two varieties that respectively hail from the Polish and Czech cities of the same name (though Saaz is more properly known these days by its Czech name Žatec). 313 is a brilliantly clear, pale golden beer that – visually, at least – could pass for any number of uninspired American or European “macro lagers”, were it not for the intense, sunny hop aroma it exudes from the glass. This alluring floral bouquet, which is so often absent from stale imported Pilsners, gives 313 Polish Lager a gorgeous fragrance of marigolds and bergamot over a clean and crisp flavor of honey-sweet malt, with a hint of wintergreen in its dry, hoppy finish.
After decades of mostly distancing themselves from lagers that were the strict domain of large-scale corporate breweries, craft brewers have been reclaiming this clean, smooth-drinking style of bottom-fermenting brews. 313 Polish Lager is a superb example of this welcome trend, with a bit of Polish-American pride thrown in for good measure.
Good birding, happy drinking – and na zdrowie!
*If you’re curious, the correct pronunciation can be found here. And to any Polish-speaking people reading this, I apologize – the text editor at 10,000 Birds doesn’t seem to want to produce the “L” with stroke and the “Z” with overdot that should be in some of the Polish words used in this article. Przepraszam!
Grand River Brewery: 313 Polish Lager
Four out of five feathers (Excellent).