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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.

One of the main issues was route to market. “After the Velvet Revolution, all the big boys flooded into the country and threw money at bar owners and multiple bar operators,” recalls Jamie Hawksworth, who runs the Tap chain of boutique beer bars and Pivovar, specialist importers of several Czech beers. “These bar owners, who had known nothing but state rule and nothing of capitalism, were desperate for investment and happily signed exclusivity deals with the big brands – and typically these contracts were for 20 years”.

This, Hawksworth explains, is why you rarely see different Czech beers sat side-by-side on the bar tops of Czech bars and why, up until recently, the vast majority of new breweries were brewpubs. “It was a closed shop for so many years and the only way to get your beer in the hands of drinkers was through a brewpub.”

However, as anyone with an abacus will note, the contracts signed back in the early 1990s are now beginning to expire and a new generation of bar owners, bar owners who have travelled and experienced an array of international beer styles, are no longer willing to be tied to just one Czech beer.

Dovetailing neatly with this demand is a Czech beer scene more buoyant than a pair of cork armbands in the Dead Sea. While sales of beer in the Czech Republic are down 12% in the last year, an array of new Czech micros have emerged who, not content with crafting some superb traditional Czech beers, are also broadening their brewing horizons and incorporating other styles.

In 1989, there was just one speciality beer, by 2004 there were 130 but it’s only been in the last several years where there’s been a real boom in left-field liquids. By 2009 micro-breweries were producing 178 speciality and unusual beers while the bigger breweries – keen to clamber on the bandwagon – were brewing a further 90 or so. There are now a dozen microbreweries in Prague alone.

“I’ve just come back from the Czech Republic and I was drinking top-fermented stouts, amber beers, wheat-bocks brewed with the rare W38 yeast strain and Pilsners infused with honey,” adds Hawksworth. “I genuinely believe that what is happening over there is more exciting than anything America is doing.

“The Czech Republic is experiencing a delayed beer revolution that it should have experienced in 1990 when it was denied a free and open beer trade.”

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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