OK, I know this one’s not about craft beer. In fact, I suppose it’s pretty much the opposite! However, as beer lovers travelling through Silesia we couldn’t resist the chance to visit one of the region’s two big breweries, Tyskie and Żywiec. We opted for the latter as it was easily accessible by train from our base in Bielsko-Biała. We arrived and paid our 40zł (about £8) for the combined museum and brewery tour; we’d reserved two places in advance and I’d definitely recommend doing the same as it got pretty busy.
Unfortunately, there was only a Polish-speaking guide available on the day we visited (apparently they do sometimes offer English tours too). It didn’t matter much in the museum, though, as nearly all the exhibits had English translations. This meant we usually just wandered off and read our own things while the guide was talking! The first room in the museum was modern, with touch-screen exhibits and a scale replica of the huge brewery complex. Information boards explained the history of brewing in the region: from home brewing in medieval times, to the opening of the brewery in 1856 and on to their takeover by Heineken in 1994. The room was really nicely presented and set high hopes for the rest of the tour.
From here, things took a bit of a strange turn. Our guide shepherded the 30 of us into a tall, narrow room shaped like a malt kiln. In hindsight, the Polish-speaking visitors probably knew what was coming next but we were completely oblivious. Suddenly, red LED lights covered the walls and the floor beneath us began to vibrate. A mysterious voice began to count down from 10 (my Polish was good enough to understand this bit!), and then it dawned on us. The room was actually a time machine which had transported us back to 1856.
Here there was a mock-up of how the town of Żywiec might have looked 150 years ago, including an old horse-drawn dray cart used for delivering the beer barrels. Through the next door we found a bar room decorated in late 19th-century style with interesting objects lining the bar. Our guide explained what they all were, but unfortunately due to the language barrier we were left none the wiser! Luckily, most things had English translations, so we did learn a thing or two about how things used to work.
Eventually it was time to come back to the present day, but not before a stop in the 1930s. We were led to another mock bar, this time decorated with art deco furniture, neon lights and brewery posters from the period. However, it was something else that really piqued my interest: a small bowling alley! I couldn’t turn down the chance to have a throw, and I have to say it brought back fond memories of a misspent youth. Maybe when we’re back, I might get back into bowling properly…
All kinds of different beers are brewed at Żywiec, and the last room of the museum showcased the beers themselves. Bottles of all the brewery’s styles, from Belgian-style saison to 9% Baltic porter, were on show alongside the glassware designed to drink them from. There was also a great interactive exhibit in the centre of the room, explaining all the different styles and how they fit in to the wider world of beer.
At last, the time arrived to don our hi-viz waistcoats and head off to the brewery itself. We’ve both been to quite a few breweries in our time, so we had a pretty good idea what to expect, but it’s always intriguing to see how different places do things. We thought that the fact the tour was in Polish wouldn’t matter much in the brewery, as we’d be able to see everything that was going on. However, there was a lot of talking and actually not that much seeing, which was a bit of a shame. Also, the bits we did see weren’t necessarily the most interesting. For example, the tour included both the bottling and canning plants, although I think just one would have sufficed. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the operation was remarkable and it was hard not to be a little impressed.
Brewery tour done, it was time for the last hands-on section of the tour: tasting! All tickets to the brewery and museum include a beer (or juice) at the end, well needed after a couple of hours on our feet. After being shown all the different styles produced earlier, it was a tad disappointing that there wasn’t a choice of beer to try, just the brewery’s standard light lager. That said, as far as lagers go, I’ve definitely had worse; refreshing and crisp, it was much better straight from the source than when I’ve had it before. Our beers finished, we evaded the temptations of the gift shop and headed back to the station.
Would I recommend? I’d definitely say the museum was worth a visit, though I’m not so sure about the brewery. The museum was filled with interesting and informative exhibits, even though we couldn’t understand the guide. However, the brewery tour was mostly talking and not much seeing. It might have been better with an English-speaking guide, but if I hadn’t been to a brewery before, I don’t think I would have left this one much wiser about what goes on there.
How long do I need? We spent 3 hours at the site in total; 1 hour in the museum, about 1.5 on the brewery tour, and half an hour to enjoy the beer at the end.
How do I get there? The museum entrance is about 25 minutes’ walk from Żywiec railway station.