News

Why People Are Calling for a Tyskie Beer Boycott

Polish owners Kompania Piwowarska sponsored an event that crowned homophobic politician Jarosław Kaczyński its "man of the year".
21 July 2020, 8:30am
Tyskie beer crates in a supermarket​.
Tyskie beer crates in a supermarket. Photo: René van den Berg / Alamy Stock Photo

Poland’s LGBTQ community has plenty of sorrows to drown right now, and while Andrzej Duda’s reelection means another deep sip from a cup already overflowing with sadness, fear and anger, many feel there’s good reason to give some of their country’s most popular beer brands a hard swerve.

Tyskie, Lech and Żubr premium lagers have become a common sight in British supermarkets, arriving with the wave of Polish immigration from the mid 2000s. They’re standard fare along with the sauerkraut and hunter’s sausages in delis catering to east European expats, and you’ll find them on Tesco and Asda’s websites.

These days, the three companies who make them – who together represent five centuries of brewing history – are merged under one beer-making giant, Kompania Piwowarska (KP). It commands 36 percent of the Polish beer market, and also distributes some of the household names – Grolsch and Pilsner Urquell, for example – made by its parent company, Japan’s Asahi Breweries.

KP doesn’t shy away from some of society’s most pressing issues, and is happy to roll up its sleeves and open its wallet in the name of endangered species, the environment, poverty and terminal illness.

In the last year, it’s donated one million zloty (about £200,000) to protect wolves and pygmy owls. It’s touted responsible drinking at student events and festivals, helped renovate a hospice, given Christmas presents to needy families and won gongs for sustainable development. It even bagged a Super Ethical Company award for, among other things, “social responsibility and respect towards others”.

But to the plight of a community suffering some of the worst homophobia in Europe, KP seemed to turn a blind eye when politicians, captains of industry and leading lights of the arts world gathered at Warsaw’s National Philharmonic for an annual media knees-up hosted by Poland’s right-wing magazine Gazeta Polska.

KP was one of the event sponsors, and guest of honour on the night was a man who thinks being gay represents a threat to the Polish state. That man was Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

After spewing a vile torrent of Islamophobia in 2015 to help PiS sweep to the biggest victory Poland has seen since the fall of communism, Kaczyński has turned his spite on LGBTQ rights.

In Kaczyński’s myopic world view, Muslim refugees are disease carriers who use churches as toilets, and Pride marches are a “harmful” travelling theatre, part of an infectious “rainbow plague” seeping in from the West.

For all this, and more, Kaczyński was honoured with Gazeta Polska’s Man of the Year Award in February. One previous recipient is David Cameron, which speaks volumes about the special calibre of human being that this award celebrates.

Stepping up to the podium to receive his accolade, Kaczyński was clearly thinking ahead to last week’s election.

“It is our confidence that sooner or later this fight for Poland and the fight for values, for European civilization, of which we are a very important part, will be won,” he told the audience. “Good must finally overcome evil.”

Kaczyński was in fine company. Gazeta Polska is a government-aligned weekly. Last year it was halted by the courts from giving away “LGBTQ-Free Zone” stickers which drew terrifying comparison with Nazi Germany’s Judenfrei (“Free of Jews”) policies.

The mag pressed ahead with revised “LGBT Ideology-Free Zone” stickers regardless. As of April this year, about a third of Poland has adopted “anti-LGBT” or “pro family” measures. Pride marches are pelted with stones, bottles and fireworks, and the ILGA Rainbow Map ranks Poland the least LGBTQ-friendly in the whole of the EU.

Activist Krzysztof Tyczyński took to Facebook to call for a boycott of KP’s beers back in February. While his plea gained traction in Polish liberal titles like Wyborcza , he told VICE the boycott “was more media than real”.

“The topic quickly died down, which is why Kompania Piwowarska was not too concerned about this fact,” he said.

But Duda’s reelection has had some unexpected consequences over the border in Germany, galvanising support for a boycott revival in Berlin.

Guitarist and composer Patricia Bateira posted a rallying cry to her Facebook page for NATürlich, her queer music project.

“The response has been overwhelming,” she said. “People have expressed outrage and sadness. It seems people don’t really like to find out their favourite drink tastes slightly different. They are willing to change consuming habits, make personal sacrifices, for a common, diverse future.”

The story was picked up last week by German media, including Queer Pride and Noizz. KP responded to Patricia with an apology.

“It was a nice and important gesture,” she commented. But people are not naive. Words are void of meaning without visible measures. KP is a market leader in the Polish brewing industry - such companies have a responsibility to set a positive example.”

The firm is no stranger to controversy, although its previous headline-grabbing stunt was a billboard advertising _Zimny Lech – "_Cold Lech" – outside a cemetery where the body of president Lech Kaczynski had been buried after his death in a plane crash. Lech was Jarosław’s twin brother and another massive homophobe who banned Pride marches in Warsaw, refusing to meet organisers and branding them “perverts”.

KP played down its role in Gazeta Polska’s rally and issued a contrite apology distancing itself from the magazine’s politics, telling Poland’s Wirtualnemedia its commitment was “exclusively product”.

In a statement to VICE, KP’s Corporate Affairs Director Iwona Jacaszek-Pruś said: “We believe that all people are equal, have the same rights regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation, and we are strongly opposed to the exclusion of any groups of people.

“Diversity is an integral part of our culture and we want people to thrive regardless of differences. We regret if supplying our products to the gala event ‘The Man of the Year 2019’ in February 2020 made an impression of supporting the anti-LGBT movement. This was absolutely not our intention and we sincerely apologize for this misunderstanding.

“We believe that beer is for everybody and should connect Poles, rather than divide them. We would like to strongly emphasize that we have always been, are and will be promoting equality and diversity. We apologize to anyone who felt that supplying beer to the gala implied some different views.”

As anyone who has lost friends and alienated family through pissed-ranting over Brexit will testify, beer makes a poor bedfellow for politics – but as beer writer and author Pete Brown points out, we do expect brands to take a stance. And if we’re giving them our cash, we rightly want it to be the one we support. His new book Craft: An Argument argues that there is an expectation of progressive politics in the discerning beer world.

“Certainly in the west, there’s a consensus of expectation that brands will have some kind of commitment to sustainability, that they will make statements condemning racism and support LGBT rights. Increasingly, we expect them to demonstrate this rather than simply say it,” Brown says.

And in what might serve as a warning to other beer brands who think getting the beers in for right wing homophobes is a good look, he adds: “There are examples of breweries that have basically gone out of business as a result of brewers or other key individuals behaving like dicks.”

@robin_eveleigh