28th of February 2020
Author: Roger Aitken
Prague, Czech Republic – It’s official. The Germans – not unknown for some great beers of their own with their Rheinheitsgebot purity laws in brewing – have come out and labelled the Czech Republic a “Bier-Paradies”. And frankly, who would argue to the contrary if you’ve sampled the goods… or is that taken the pils?
Well, that was the headline that ran this January in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, published in Munich, and one of the largest daily newspapers in Germany with over a million readers. I went on a ‘Beer Mission’ last year in the Czech Republic to test that claim.
A boom in breweries across Czechia was also been noted by Suddeutsche Zeitung in the Bavarian city that hosts the annual Oktoberfest, with the number of microbreweries increasing dramatically over recent years.
Indeed, as a country it is way ahead of Germany in terms of number of breweries on a per capita basis. Let’s just put matters in perspective: While Germany has one brewery per 50,000 inhabitants on average, the Czech Republic has one per 20,000 inhabitants. Some have even cited Czech beer as being the best in the world, albeit with some caveats.
Jan Šuráň, President of the Czech-Moravian Union of Microbreweries, recently confirmed in London at a ‘Beer Workshop’ at the Czech Embassy that there were around 450 microbreweries across the Czech Republic at the close of 2018.
However, Mr Šuráň estimated that there is a market place for around a thousand small breweries, although their development might be held back by “the unfavourable economic situation” in the country together with “excessive restrictions” imposed on alcoholic beverages by the state.
Today the market is dominated by several of the leading brewing groups, with the largest being the renowned Pilsner Urquell Brewery (Plzeňský Prazdroj) founded in 1842 and headquartered in Plzeň, which produced the world’s first ‘golden’ pilsner or lager.
As well as the eponymous Pilsner beer, which has been owned by Japan’s Asahi since March 2017 (excluding certain geographical areas), the brewery also produces lagers like Gambrinus, one of the most popular beers in the Czech Republic.
Brewery tours here can be arranged at a cost of 250 Kc (10€ per person). During a visit one can learn how to pour a glass of Pilsner Urquell or Gambrinus in the ‘Hladinka’ style under the guidance of a brewery expert and follow it by checking out the massive basement restaurant that can accommodate around 500 people.
For its part, this historic brewery (with shiny new bottling plant) produces some 11 million hectolitres of beer annually and sees thousands of filled bottles fly off its state-of-the-art production line at a rate of knots in Pilsen. Production here in just one hour can equate to the entire output from some Czech micro-breweries in one year.
Now, while a million hectoliters of beer will be exported by Czech brewers to Germany, just 40,000 hectolitres go in the opposite direction. No doubt the price – with a pint of Czech lager typically selling in pubs for around the /1,50€-2€ – being a key factor.
Last year I was fortunate enough be invited to visit a number of breweries across the country – large, medium as well as smaller micro breweries – in a ‘Beer Mission’ organised over four days by Czech Trade (UK) and Czech Tourism. This was just days before the famous Oktoberfest that typical grabs all the media coverage.
This booze tour, however, covered almost 2,000 km and started in the Czech capital where we overnighted at the U Medvídků hotel and restaurant at a brewery originally founded in 1466 by Jan Medvídek (John Littlebear).
In more recent years the building, which is a few minutes’ walk from both the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, has been refurbished to restore it to its former glory. The venue has been patronized by generations of Prague natives and foreign visitors due to its renowned Czech cuisine and excellent Budvar – as well as more special craft ales brewed on the premises.
Anyone who samples a beer or two will be captivated by the beer halls, one of the largest and oldest in Prague. It also claims to brew the strongest beer in the world in terms of wort density, ‘XBEER 33’ (33 degrees Plato (°P)/or c.12.6% alcohol).
One can tuck into a Brewer’s Tasting menu, available for €29. This includes a welcome drink (0.3 litre of Samp – Champagne beer – that mixes wine and beer making techniques), a starter with whipped beer cheese, a neck of pork marinated in dark beer (Old Gott, 5.6% alcohol), plus beer ice cream and XBEER-33.
The place is famous too as it was here that Czech composer of the ‘New World’ symphony, Antonín Dvořák, brought one visiting Piotr Tchaikovsky in 1888. Following their meeting, the Russian composer wrote in his diary: “These Czechs, how immensely likeable they are!”
The next day we took some lunch at the rather funky Kofein restaurant, a bistro in the Vinohrady district of the capital, and met up with brewer and director Viktor Tkadlec at Cvikov, one of the Czech Beer Alliance’s stable of beers that they are seeking to sell and distribute more widely across Britain and Ireland.
Located on the northern-Bohemian border with Germany, Pivovar Cvikov had brewed beers uninterrupted between 1874 and 1968, when the communist regime halted and discontinued production. On a wall in the facility, a disgruntled former employee vented his anger by penning an explicit note: ‘Vojta, that arsehole, closed the brewery on 1 January 1968’. It reopened in 2013 through the efforts of some switched on brewers and investors.
Cvikov’s beer, produced in the town of the same name in the Liberec region, was a real eye opener for me in terms of its taste and flavour. Visitors to facility can enjoy an on-site restaurant and hotel, which has a minimalist, contemporary style. The brewing area houses big copper kettles around which is a pristine marble floor and the malting area.
It featured too at last summer’s annual ‘Beer Day’ on the premises of the Czech and Slovak embassies in London’s Notting Hill alongside others in the CBA’s portfolio. We tasted a range of what Cvikov – available in restaurants and bars around Prague – has to offer from the light and refreshing Sklár 8° to Luž 10° and Hvozd 11° as well as the darker and fuller bodied Sváteční 13°.
In terms of alcoholic strength, it is worth noting that in the Czech Republic it is still customary to refer to how strong a beer, ale or lager is by the plato gravity scale – i.e. by ° or °P – as opposed to alcohol by volume (ABV) as is typical in other countries.
The numbering ranges from 8° to 14°, which reflects the concentration of sugars in the wort (liquid extracted from mashing process during brewing) before fermentation. The rule of thumb convert to ABV is divided by two and add 1.
Our tour bus got back on the road that afternoon and headed to České Budějovice, the capital city of South Bohemia. This is where Budweiser (dubbed ‘The Original’) has been produced and brewing dates back to 1265, when Ottokar II, King of Bohemia, granted the city brewing rights.
Recently preparations have been in the works to expand production. Around 1.5 million hectoliters of Budweiser are brewed annually here.
Petr Samec, a spokesman for the brewery founded in 1895 by citizens as a public limited company (remaining a state-owned company after 1989), guided a group of us including a beer sommelier, plus Martyn Railton of EuroBoozer, a leading UK importer of fine specialty craft brewed beers, Darius Burrows from Trilogy Beverage Brands, and Martin Macourek and Eva Provot from Czech Trade (UK).
We were shown the current bottling line that generates ear piercing noise (headphones helped blank it out) and the process critical to beer production itself. Water used in the process is sourced from artesian wells descending hundreds of meters. To expand its production capacity, Budweiser has invested heavily on a new packaging and bottling line.
Other breweries we visited included Bohemia Regent in Třeboň, Southern Bohemia, which has a totally unique and outstanding heritage having established back to 1379 (and uninterrupted brewing ever since). The town, which was established in the mid-12th century, became an area famous for its fish pond farming that is overlooked by the brewery.
We drove around 100 km east of Prague to the old medieval town of Kutná Hora and Měšťanský Pivovar. It has a stone built ‘space cooling’ cellar, which is highly typical for Czech brewers, although not seen elsewhere in the rest of Europe. Their pilsner and American pale varieties cannot be faulted and Kutná Hora 12° is now considered one of the best pilsner type Real Bohemian lager on the market today.
Original ingredients, double mashing (or double concoction), open fermentation and traditional cellars are all parts of the heritage. Unsurprisingly, their beers are now enjoyed not only at the local level, but also in Prague and in many other European markets. Some has even been exported to China.
Then not be forgotten – there was Hubertus Brewery at Kácov in the central Bohemian region and where brewing dates from 1457. The proprietor explained the double-concoction method that takes place between huge copper kettles originally made in Austria.
We walked around the facility, stood inside a 400-year old brick ice cooler and were led to a room filled from floor to ceiling with brewing memorabilia and beer advertising signs from Austro-Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Germany.
As a finale, before flying back home, we popped in for a look around the quaint microbrewery in Slavkov u Brna (aka Austerlitz in German), a town east of Brno, near where Napoleon claimed one of his most famous victories in 1895. Following his victory, he gave a speech to his troops from the baroque Slavkov Castle, with its impressive gardens in the French style and designed by Italian architect Domenico Martinelli.
The brewery, Slavkovský Pivovar, that was previously owned by Heineken before being mothballed a few years ago, uses special bottle sizes as used in days gone by and still applies labels by hand to them. Here they use local ingredients – even when making their fine German pilsners – with malt and hops sourced from Germany.
Now with the Czech Beer Alliance rumoured to be on the verge of opening a pub in the U.K. capital as a core reference point for real Bohemian craft ales with its partner EuroBoozer, beer paradise could soon be in London before long.
But if Londoners can’t wait a moment longer they can always pop along to West Hampstead and the refurbished Czechoslovak House, now rebranded Bohemia House and under the helm of new manager Zdenek Kudr, former CEO/founder of Bohem Brewery, run by Czech expats in the capital. Besides the dumplings and schnitzel, make mine a Budweiser. Na zdraví!
For more information on the Czech Beer Alliance’s activities see: www.czechbeeralliance.co.uk. This beer mission was organised by Czech Trade (UK) in conjunction with Czech Tourism.
Written by Roger Aitken
A freelance financial journalist based in London and a former Financial Times staff writer covering stock exchanges, transaction services and trading technology, Roger has written for a number of publications including FTfm, Financial News, Investors Chronicle, The Guardian, The Independent and worked as a Forbes contributor for 5 years. He received a press prize from the Czech Republic on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution at the World Travel Market (WTM).