Beer focus: Czech Republic

Nearly 22 years after the Velvet Revolution called time on Communism, in the most muted of manners, the Czech Republic is in the midst of another quiet revolution – but this time it’s all about the beer. Ben McFarland reports.

While there’s a big buzz on what’s happening in the States and some ferocious thigh-rubbing enthusiasm for all that’s blossoming in British microbrewing, there is a lot of excitement amount the burgeoning beer scene in the Czech Republic – arguably the world’s greatest beer-drinking nation.

The Czechs love their beer. In fact, since the wine-sipping Slovakians sloped off to form their own country, the Czechs have usurped Irish as the most rapacious beer drinkers in the world. Every citizen, on average, polishes off a staggering 350 litres of beer a year and that includes women, children and those who don’t drink.

Such a voracious thirst is unsurprising given the wealth of natural brewing resources within its borders. To the west of Czech, in Bohemia, the world’s most sought-after hop, Saaz, grows while, further east, the Hana plateau in Moravia is blessed with some seriously succulent barley. And then there’s the water – softer than a mattress full of sheep.

Rivalling this richness of raw ingredients is a prolific brewing past – the region now known as the Czech Republic boasts some of the world’s oldest breweries on the planet. The Czechs gave us Pilsner, they gave us Budweiser long before it was purloined by the Americans and it was the Bohemians that cultivated the first hop farms and scribbled the world’s first brewing manuals. And, lest we forget, the Czechs are also responsible for introducing the thermometer into brewing.

The Czech Republic’s rich brewing heritage has, somewhat strangely, benefited from the commercial rigidity of the Communist regime. On the one hand, it stifled growth and starved breweries of investment yet, on the other hand, it inadvertently froze traditional, time-honoured brewing techniques in aspic and kept the creep of Western commercial conglomeration at bay.

Or, it at least did so until 1989 when, following the Velvet Revolution, big international brewers came in and began kicking the tyres of some illustrious yet seriously under-nourished breweries.

In the years that followed, a number of Czech breweries were snapped up for a song, dusted down and dragged into the 21st century and then, throughout the 1990s, breweries swapped hands more often than a bored teenager with access to the internet. While many breweries’ futures were secured, more than a dozen breweries couldn’t cope with the capitalist pace and closed down.

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