Beer focus: Czech Republic

So enamoured is Hawksworth with the emerging beer scene and breaking up of the old guard that he is expanding the Tap empire into Prague while, at the same time, importing an array of different beers from more than 20 Czech breweries into the UK – albeit in limited quantities. “The breweries are small and sought after so you’re grateful for what you can get hold of,” adds Hawksworth.

At the Great British Beer Festival in August, he is to host a “Revolution” beer bar consisting of 16 draught taps from which beers from 20 breweries will pour. “Up until this year, the only Czech beer present would have been Budweiser Budvar and while it is a great beer it doesn’t reflect the depth and breadth of what is happening over there.”

In addition to unpasteurised beers from the Bernard brewery, half-owned by Duvel Moortgat, Pivovar is bringing in brews from two of the country’s most revered microbreweries. Kocour, meaning Tomcat and pronounced “kokshaw”, was set-up in 2008 on the German border and has earned a rightly-revered reputation for its inspirational interpretations of international beer styles as well as Czech-style beers.

Yet the micro making the biggest buzz among British beer cognoscenti is Pivovar Matuska, a small Central Bohemian brewer founded by Martin Matuska and his son in 2009. In a marked departure from the traditional pale and dark lagers synonymous with Czech brewing, Matuska majors in American-influenced India Pale Ales, Weizenbocks, Weissbiers and Belgian Saisons. Martin also turns out traditional Czech styles with incredible aplomb – they really are worth checking out. Pun entirely intended. Sorry.

Pivovar is also due to bring in Bakalar beers from the Rakovnik Brewery, one of the Czech Republic’s oldest (1454), based in the eponymous town equidistant from Prague and Pilsen. Attracted by the brewery’s quite staggering brewing capacity, the brewery was bought by Russian investors last year and, according to Hawksworth, the new owners are compiling a dream team of Czech brewing brains. Watch this space.

Another importer of Czech beer is Reliable Restaurants, a 13-strong collection of London-based gastro-pubs. Owner Robert Thomas brings in Litovel brand brewed near the eastern town of Olomouc. The beer is kegged at Fuller’s in West London before Thomas distributes it throughout both his own estate and the south-east.

This new wave of lesser-known beers will supplement a well-established Czech presence in the UK. Žatec, owned by Rolf Munding and distributed by Matthew Clark, boasts a strong following among bars, especially in the Capital, while Kozel is part of the same Miller Brands portfolio as Pilsner Urquell, the original Pilsner.

Since SAB Miller bought the brewery back in 1999 it has gone from strength to strength.

Gary Corrin, head of beer at CASK Liquid Marketing, says: “In Žatec, we celebrate the harvest of the hops with the annual hop festival where over 30 Czech breweries pitch up with their wares for two days in September. Visitors can sample everything from beer brewed by the hop institute or the University of Brewing through to centuries old traditional breweries or the global Czech giants but it is no surprise that by far the busiest and best are the smaller craft brewers who strive to produce premium quality beer for its public.

“Žatec has been available in the UK for about four years now and has established itself in the trendy parts of London really well. Our plan is to build on this success and grow its availability around the rest of the UK and allow more consumers to experience what a traditionally and crafted Czech Pilsner really tastes like.

“Our experience with Žatec has shown us that consumers are much more interested in provenance and flavour than ever, and are willing to pay more for better quality and more flavoursome beers. The demand for Žatec outside of the UK continues to grow and Russia, the USA and most recently China are significant growth areas for the brewery.”

The state-owned Budweiser Budvar, meanwhile, strengthened its hand in the British market last year with the launch of a limited edition unpasteurised version of its flagship lager. The beer, which has fresh wort added to it prior to kegging, had hitherto only been available at the brewery cellars and a few restaurants and bars in the Czech Republic. It’s the nearest that lager gets to cask ale in that the beer has a shelf life of four weeks and must be stored upright in situ for at least six hours prior to tapping at a temperature of 3°C to 5°C.

The UK is Budweiser Budvar’s biggest export market (it represents 40% of its production) and, having introduced it back in 2001, Budweiser Budvar UK is currently serving its dark lager alongside Budweiser Budvar Original as a blend of two beers – a thinking drinker’s “half-and-half” – in select on-trade venues.

“There is a revolution underway in the UK beer business, granted it is still only gathering critical mass, but it is happening,” says Joe Laventure, sales director at Budvar UK. “The marketing machines of the international brewers, despite their bottomless budgets, are slowly but inexorably failing in their efforts to influence consumers in developed markets, like ours in the UK, as more and more educated drinkers make their own decisions about what they want to drink.

“One of the first results of this revolution is the rehabilitation of the lager conditioned style. Once again drinkers here are realising that this style, as long as craft brewed, is as much a pillar of the European beer tradition as say the British cask ale is. Unfortunately the style has been much abused and although distinctly passé the term “lager lout” still hangs around. What created the louts wasn’t real lager it was Euro-fizz, characterised by its bland taste, being made from the lowest cost internationally sourced materials (like hop extract from China) and as often as not brewed under licence.”

Laventure adds that craft lagers like Budvar are taking their place alongside British cask ales. “The newly recognised synergy between craft brewed lager and cask ale is reflected in the sales of draught Budvar Original – up 9% year on year in 2010 in a sector that has experienced a 5.6% decline in the same period.”

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