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Dublin: 24 °C Friday 25 July, 2014

Czech’s historic breweries trying to get back on tap

The country drinks the most beer in the world per head of population but its indigenous brewing industry is having to innovate.

This is a restaurant at the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic - but other, smaller, breweries are fighting back to stay in the market too.
This is a restaurant at the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic - but other, smaller, breweries are fighting back to stay in the market too.
Image: AP Photo/Petr David Josek

RISING FROM THE ashes after closure or near-collapse, historic Czech breweries are getting back on tap with new owners seeking to tickle the taste buds of the world’s greatest beer lovers with exotic new flavours.

Along with a wave of new micro-breweries, these revamped elders – many with several hundred years of beer-making under their belts – are offering an alternative to the Czech Republic’s world-famous trademark bottom-fermented lagers in a market cornered by the multinationals.

With beer drinking harking back more than 2,000 years and with their oldest brewery dating from 993, Czechs are proud of their national tipple which in most pubs is cheaper than bottled water.

They rank as the world’s keenest beer drinkers, having guzzled 145 litres of the tipple per head in 2011, according to industry statistics.

First opened in 1710, the Unetice brewery just north of the capital Prague spent six decades mothballed after it was closed in 1951, three years after the Communists took over.

Now, thanks to a husband and wife team, who are using their experience gained from working in a large brewery, the suds are back.

“We took a walk through the village and saw the building with a sign saying ‘brewery’,” said Lucie Tkadlecova, who runs the brewery with her partner.

Speciality beer

They snapped up the vast facility tucked away in a valley with the help of investors, equipped it with cutting-edge technology and expect to turn a profit next year.

Unetice turned out almost 6,000 hectolitres of beer in 2012. Tkadlecova said the brewery, currently employing just six people, should ultimately produce 10,000 hectolitres of non-filtered and specialty beer annually.

“With the expansion, we will probably have to hire two people, which is a dramatic increase percentage wise,” she chuckled.

The former Czechoslovakia, which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, inherited about 150 large industrial breweries after World War II.

The number fell to about 90 during the command-economy era under Communist rule between 1948-89, then slid to under 50 after the switch to the market economy when Communism was toppled and foreign giants deluged the market.

Two decades on, some of those shuttered breweries are reopening their doors, despite the overwhelming dominance of giants Pilsner Urquell owned by SABMiller and Molson Coors’ Pivovary Staropramen.

47 industrial breweries and 150 microbreweries

“We have 47 industrial breweries and about 150 microbreweries” in the Czech Republic, said Jan Vesely, head of the Czech Beer and Malt Association.

“None has gone under recently – on the contrary, some have re-emerged, which is a good sign,” he added.

Pulled back from the edge of collapse in 2011, the Pivovar Vyskov brewery is betting its future on the wide array of beers – including stouts and ales – it exports to Germany, Russia, the Baltic states, Hungary and Slovakia.

“The brewery was built in 1680, so it would be a terrible shame if it went under,” said marketing director Roman Holoubek of the brewery, located some 230 kilometres (144 miles) southeast of Prague.

“When we took it over, it was totally down in terms of business and marketing,” Holoubek said, adding the brewery was then producing only a sliver of its installed capacity of 100,000 hectolitres.

India pale ale, wheat beer and stout

Last year the business posted a slight loss after raising output by 47 percent against 2011 to 22,000 hectolitres of lager as well as India pale ale, wheat beer and stout.

The brewery has won regional awards as well as medals in Japan since its last-gasp recovery and expects to turn a profit this year, Holoubek said.

But despite the current thirst for novelty beers, small breweries still make up only one percent of total Czech beer output and consumption, and experts say they are unlikely to pose serious competition in a market dominated by multinationals.

“They make the market interesting, they spice it up, but they have no impact on the market as a whole,” Vesely said.

“It’s nice, but it can’t affect the way the world has turned,” he added.

© AFP 2013

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