Czech beer - Commodity or Craft?
Last Updated : 10/11/10
hankfully, these days this isn’t a depressing a question as it was a mere ten years ago when the brewing scene in the Czech Republic was going the same way as that of the UK had before it. The country’s breweries were being bought up by multinational companies for, it seemed, whatever derisory offer they put in from a government obsessed with divesting itself of any legacy of the Soviet past and, ominously, the traditional state-owned breweries were one such thing it especially wanted rid of.
To those of us who watched with disbelief it seemed as if matters there were aping, almost exactly, what had happened back home and the future of gloriously malty, under-attenuated yet spicy, zesty and refreshingly hoppy beers would be elsewhere as, one after another, the old guard fell and their beers were “reformulated” into bastardised parodies of their former selves (Plzeňský Prazdroj, Staropramen, Kozel, Krušovice…) becoming, in the process, indistinguishable from industrial lager. The main reason for this wanton destruction of the Czech Republic’s liquid heritage was, obviously, money with Czech beer’s full-malt / whole hop recipes, 7-day fermentation and six weeks conditioning not stacking up economically for their new masters who, elsewhere in the world, made identikit swill in a quarter of the time and it still sold so, surely, they could pull off the same thing in Czech? After all, what ordinary drinker could argue with cheap beer with a household name, wall-to-wall advertising and a flashy bottle…whatever it tasted like?
Many beer-loving Czechs, thankfully! In my opinion a traditional Czech Pilsener, when brewed properly and well, should taste nothing like an industrial lager with the two as distinct as apples and oranges; it’s only when the traditional beer becomes industrially made that the orange becomes an apple and the two become indistinguishable and equally bad. Czech beer, with it’s sweet maltiness and spicy, complex hopping, is also a million miles from thin, dry, under-hopped German pilsners which claim to be pure; pure they may be in law, but not in taste! A German Pilsner and a Czech Pilsener (note the spelling) are, in general, poles apart and I know which style I prefer!
For a while it was touch and go whether the country’s glorious legacy to the world, golden Pilsener beer (the name comes from the city where the style was invented, Plzeň), would be wrecked by multinational companies but, thankfully, salvation began to appear – as it had in the UK – in the form of micro-brewers and brewpubs who were more suited, being small and local, to provide what the discerning people wanted to drink and these spawned a “real beer” groundswell of opinion to champion and support them.
At first these small brewers suffered a high rate of casualties for a variety of reasons including poor beer quality, people having been brainwashed in a very short time into thinking industrial beer was how beer should be and charging relatively higher prices than mass-produced industrial swill, but the rate of openings gradually exceeded that of closures and now it seems as if one micro-brewer a week is opening in the Czech Republic; put it this way, in 1991 there was one brewpub in Praha whereas now there are a dozen and areas such as industrial Ostrava in the seldom-visited east of the country, now rich in micro-brewers, were then beer deserts irrigated only by huge beer factories (predictably owned by multinational brewers) churning out cheap and very un-Czech eurolager.
Of course, some people will say the same things as they said in the UK namely that these small brewers can never replace the volumes lost from the larger brewers and that they are catering to a small, niche clientele rather than the mass market and that they are aligning themselves to a price bracket which takes them out of the range of the “common man”. All these are true to a certain extent but what would we rather have, a country where all beer is made at a few immense beer factories by multinationals based in another country or even continent, or dozens of small, local brewpubs and micro-brewers who make quality beer whose price reflects it’s quality?
I know which I’d rather have and, judging by the exponential rise in smaller brewers and the proliferation of unpasteurised kvasnicové beer onto bars all over the land, it seems as if the discerning Czech drinkers know which they want too. Okay, they may have to pay a bit more for their beer these days if they want quality, but at least they’ll be drinking natural, locally-made and healthy beer rather than factory-made swill and it seems as if that’s increasingly what the people want.
So, although the majority of Czech beer is still commodity swill made in huge factories, an increasing amount is being produced by craft beer makers to the obvious pleasure of the local drinkers who ram the brewpubs solid every night. The only downside, to us foreigners at least, is that none of this craft beer is exported and instead ends up down the throats of thirsty Czechs, but then again what better excuse do you need for a trip to central Europe and the homeland of Pilsener beer?
Prague has become one of the most interesting epicentres of brewing in Europe and now is a perfect time to visit and explore it’s beery charms; if you’ve never drunk unpasteurised, unfiltered Czech beer fresh from the tap in a traditional bar with the only sound the murmur of conversation (in Czech, naturally, if it’s English you’re either in the wrong bar or very unlucky!) then you’re in for a treat and, if you leave any negative preconceptions about keg beer on the runway in Britain, it might just be the start of a new beery love affair which will show you just how good lager can be… and believe me, it can be very good indeed!
Put it this way: I’d rather drink either of Pivovarský Dům’s standard brews than 99% of UK cask ale any day of the week… visit the Czech Republic now, drink some real Czech lager at source and you too may feel the lagery love!
Read more of my Czech gen here...