Bottom Shelf Beer: Tyskie and Zywiec Polish Lagers

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor you don’t have to.


I don't like to brag here, but I need you to know that last Thursday I pulled off the underprecedented quadfecta of working a full six hours, breaking a recreational sweat, making a precisely gravied shepherd's pie, and going to see live music. I'm usually more of a two-task-max kind of guy, and given that "play Scrabble on my phone until noon" is the one constant on my task calendar, it's rare that I manage to make money and dinner on the same day, let alone go to the gym and listen to a crazy New Orleans trombone guy yell about melting my ass like butter until midnight.

Most of my friends in Boston are obsessed with New Orleans; I like the idea of New Orleans but I've never been, and since Bottom Shelf research coordinator Emily doesn't like humidity or watching me drink in the street before lunch, I'm not sure it's in my immediate future. But like I said, I'm quite supportive of the concept of a place like New Orleans existing, so when my friends' favorite New Orleans band swung through town I was happy to tag along, even though I tend to take my music a little less jammy and a lot less weeknighty.

The show was a great success because I liked the music more than I thought I would and also liked seeing so many of my friends gathered in one place on a day of such great personal triumph. I was happily high on pie and life when my friend Leah came over and said, "Congratulations!" so even though I was surprised news of dinner and the gym had already reached her, I just chalked it up to the wonders of modern technology and said, "Why thank you! Yes, I was tempted to do laundry today too, but I'd already accomplished so much that I thought it would be tacky to keep outperforming the rest of society by such a wide margin."

It turns out she was congratulating me on my recent engagement; I tried to change the subject, because I pride myself on being a thoughtful friend and oh my god how embarrassing for her to be that far off topic. But once the engagement cat was out of the bag again, the rest of my friends seized on the opportunity to demand a bachelor party in New Orleans.

There was a pretty good earthquake somewhere in the middle of the East coast last fall, and enough of it leaked into Boston to cause office buildings to wobble for a couple of seconds. It was freaky and awesome and then it was over and we all got on with our lives, which means we got on with the business of using every unusual event as an excuse to further our self-indulgence agenda.

The people who like to leave work early declared the building unsafe, the people who like to drink at inappropriate times ran out for midday whiskey to steady the nerves, the people who like to brag to the Internet wrote columns about withstanding the earth's attempt to swallow them whole. And a lot of my friends decided it was a sign that they were overdue for a trip to New Orleans on account of hey, all-day happy hour and no shaking buildings. So naturally my upcoming wedding means the same thing.

And I'm happy to provide them with a cover story for their next trip, but that doesn't mean I'm going to join them. I understand the concept of a bachelor party, but I don't think it's appropriate in my case. I have absolutely no reservations about leaving bachelorhood behind; I have led a pretty easy and Will-centric life, and it could be fairly argued that the last 12 years have been one long bachelor party. I'm done getting on airplanes without Emily.

The next trip I'm going to take will be my honeymoon, which it turns out is the most fun part of a wedding to plan because it's the part no one else gives a shit about, so you get to start the planning from scratch without worrying about friends and family and why it's so damn important that Grandma have a chair to sit in and silverware to eat with.

We want to go someplace neither of us has ever been, which leaves just about everyplace but New York and Maine and the Natick Mall. I've always been fascinated by Eastern and Central Europe, and one of the local liquor stores carries a wide range of beers from former Soviet satellites, so it only makes sense that we pick a honeymoon destination based on its beer.

We started our research with two of Poland's most prominent lagers, Zywiec and Tyskie. The were both about $2.50 per 500 mL bottle, which suggests a very favorable price on tap in Warsaw. Since they were cheap beers with cool names from a country I was looking for an excuse to visit, I went into the tasting with pretty low quality demands. If either of these beers was good enough to stomach for a long celebratory weekend, Poland would take an early lead in the honeymoon sweepstakes.

They're both fine, and maybe even better than fine on a hot enough afternoon. Zywiec has a quick, aggressive head that dissipates in a hurry and a nose dominated by malt with a little bit of grass and spice. The taste is less interesting than the smell, with a typically sweet-and-sour Euro lager profile but no hint of skunk and a very light finish.

I preferred Tyskie, which had a better head and a cleaner, drier flavor that was admittedly reminiscent of boring American macrolagers, but in a more interesting and rewarding way. My notes say it was "refreshing," which is an ominous sign, because isn't that a throwaway adjective people use when searching for an unwarranted compliment? Is it really only "more interesting and rewarding" than Miller High Life because it's cheap and Polish? Sure, maybe, but it made me happy all the same.