A Real Brew-haha

Why can't Florida's Polish immigrants quaff their native beer? Because the state legislature won't let them, that's why.

Before the biggest party-night of the year, Jacek Tomasik has had one of those realizations that would make even the most staggering New Year's drunk stand up straight and come out of a near-midnight stupor: There's no more beer.

Well, technically speaking, there is beer. There's Michelob, Miller, Budweiser beer... but those are all watered- down American versions of what Tomasik calls real beer. By this he means Polish beer, like Okocim and Brok, darker brews with more robust flavor. That's what Tomasik, a Polish immigrant, and his compatriots want at this year's New Year's party, which will be held at the American Polish Club in Greenacres.

For scores of relatively recent immigrants from Poland attending the party, Miller Lite won't fill them up but does let them down, and the Budweiser Clydesdales are just a pack of shaggy-hoofed horses pulling a wagonload of tasteless beer through the snowy countryside. "When I first came to visit America ten years ago, I tried the 'King of Beers,'" Tomasik says with disdain. "It was a big disappointment. It's got the big name and big commercials, but the taste is just not the same."

Nonetheless, for the first time this year, Polish partygoers are going to have to make do with the watery suds. Last Saturday night, without fuss or fanfare, bar manager Ursula Dlugopolski sold for $2.50 what may have been Florida's last bottle of Polish beer, polishing off an era of choice in beverage for thousands of Polish Americans and foreign-beer aficionados. In what may be the first instance of Polish business interests conflicting with Florida State law, the four brands of Polish brew have been effectively outlawed because of an obscure 30-year-old state law that dictates that beer must come in containers of 8, 12, 16 or 32 ounces. Polish beer manufacturers have suddenly switched from 12-ounce bottles to 11.3-ounce bottles, making that nation's beer illegal for sale in Florida.

The change in the Polish beer industry is an event of relatively little historic consequence, yet it has had implications for at least one Florida liquor distributor. Victor Gebal, the owner of Suprema Ltd., formerly sold Polish beer exclusively and claims he has been forced out of the beer business. Fighting for Gebal's right to free enterprise and the liberty of all Florida beer-lovers is Larry Krysa, a man of Polish descent and a self-described "ball-buster" who has spent years researching the law that now forbids the sale of Polish beer. Krysa's name makes legislators cringe because of his abrasive manner of questioning and the zeal and singlemindedness with which he pursues his quest. "I want freedom," Krysa declares. "I want to go to a bar and buy what I want to buy, and I don't want any politician telling me what I should buy." For a fleeting moment back in May, Krysa thought he might soon be free from the shackles of government regulation. Ron Klein, a state senator from Boca Raton, sponsored a bill to repeal the law because he didn't understand its rationale. Purportedly, regulating container size makes it easier to collect sales tax. The bill died in committee. Krysa, meanwhile, has continued his struggle by notifying the state attorney's office of possible fund-raising violations between state senators and Anheuser-Busch.

Caught in the political brouhaha is this group of Polish American immigrants who want the freedom to dance the polka now and then, smoke some kielbasa, and toss back -- whenever they're thirsty -- a couple of Zywiec beers, an amber-colored pilsner with a hearty flavor and very little aftertaste.

Beer drinking is light one Sunday afternoon at the club as about 100 middle-aged and elderly Polish Americans eat pierogi and listen to a three-piece band croon country and western tunes offkey. The bartender looks through the cooler and rattles off a list of beers for sale. "Let's see we have Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob, Miller...." He is of Polish descent himself and one of the club's old-timers, but he can't see what the fuss is all about.

And neither can club president Jean Archer. "They're angry because they can't understand it, and they're angry with the club," explains Archer. She's sitting at the bar and the smell of cigarette smoke still lingers from the disco the evening before. "They say, 'This is a Polish club, and you can't get Polish beer?'"

There is, she notes, plenty of other Polish culture for the club's 275 members. The American Polish Club was founded in 1959 to provide a meeting place for Polish immigrants who had left difficult times in the Eastern European nation. But the emphasis was always on the American. The walls are adorned these days with pictures of Count Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciusko, two Polish immigrants and war heroes who fought in the American revolution. At the end of February, the club will host preeminent polka musician Jimmy Sturr, an American and a part-time Singer Island resident who has recorded 96 albums, including such favorites as "Polka Time at Your House," "Saturday Night Polka," and "Polka Your Troubles Away." The menu still offers kielbasa and pierogi and children learn Polish songs and dances, but most of the old-timers speak English and are proud American citizens. The Polish beer issue does not concern them. "Beer is beer to me, except for German beer," the bartender remarks with unintended historical irony. "It's too strong."

The younger immigrants who frequent Tomasik's weekly disco nights and his New Year's Eve party expect the American Polish Club to become a haven for Polish within America, some of the old-timers say. "They come here and don't speak the language, and they try and talk to you in Polish, and if you don't speak Polish they get annoyed," asserts club member Cecelia Notari, whose father emigrated from Poland in the Twenties. "You came to this country because you want to have a better life."

So learn English, she demands. Become citizens. Buy American. Drink Budweiser.

But on Saturday evenings, the dank club with mirrored walls, worn-out carpet, and a crystal ball hanging from the ceiling becomes a hip disco for the young Polish immigrant set. They want to speak their native tongue, and they want their Polish brew. "People are going to be disappointed," Tomasik says with dismay. "A lot of people like the national clubs -- the Italian clubs, the Polish clubs -- and they like drinking their own beers.

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