In terms fo GENERIC MEANING OF BEER, the Czech Republic is supposed to be in the centre of the universe, at least according to the people here, which based their unrefutable opinion on the very scientific fact of Czech having the greatest per capita consumption of the beer in the world (i.e. 160 litres annually, or about 281 UK pints) and the number of brands with tradition. Such has been fact in nearly last hundred years.
However, to the surprise and astonishment of the local majority, the reality here is somewhat different if some details are taken into consideration. The amount of beer consumed is not directly related to the state of the country´s Beer Culture, although in this respect, much has improved in recent years. Beer Culture is no longer an abstract term if the quantity is adjusted to the quality, variety and sofistication. So the Czechs are slowly starting to discover the world of top-fermented and spontaneously fermented beers, an entire world of beer that has been unknown to them, one with beers other than pale lagers.
Nonetheless, nearly 97 per cent of the Czech beers production consists of light, bottom-fermented beers in the Pilsner style. That indicates the sealed-off nature of the Czech market, where imports account for just 1 per cent of consumption and are generally scorned. That means, generally speaking that Czechs drinks (and love) Czech beers only. This is true, in part, also for economic reasons because Czech beer is also cheap beer on the top of the quality offered.
Unfortunately, in so doing, they do themselves harm. Czechs disdain foreign beers, especially different types of beers, but on the other hand they allow the “taste” of the uniform Euro-beer and licensed beers to be pushed down their throats in the name of the globalisation. Then the important aspects for many Czechs remain the price (beer, in contrast to wine, must be cheap) and the place of brewing (in the Czech Republic). How it is brewed and what ingredients are used for the brewing “their” beer does not interests them.
The basic question today is: who still keep brewing Czech beer? The production processes of the breweries owned by international concerns nearly completely destroyed the traditional production techniques of Czech brewing such as the double or triple decoction mash, long maturation, no pasteurisation, brewing to original gravity, usage of domestic hops, malts and yeast of high quality, fermentation in aok casks, etc.
Instead of that, multinational brewers are disregarding traditional Czech know-how and replacing Czech ingredients with low-grade malt and Chinese hop extract, creating a beer served with huge portion of advertising and intrusive marketing , one which is brewed in the same way anywhere in the world (using cylindro-conical tanks, HGB high-gravity brewing, and so forth).
A note of hope in a situation of despair: In 2008 the Union of Czech Brewers and Malt Houses, headed by multinationals interested in exports, pushed through the geographic trademark of “Czech Beer”, which would introduce „clear and strict rules about where, how and from what the Czech beer must be brewed“. When the Union of Friends of Beer learned the details, it was strictly against it. Indeed, the final text describing technologies was not describing Czech traditional beer and at the end hardly any Czech brewery producing the real Czech beer was interested to bear that trademark. Now we propose to substitute it by regional trademaks of tradition.
The only possibility how to defend traditional Czech beers against the macdonaldised Euro-beer is obvious – to drink them. It is an encouraging news to see that there has been happening something in the soul of the Czech consumer: that there is a growing community of people with a bias to a beer of balanced taste and a lasting feel on the palate. Thus it is the quality and not the quantity at a discount price which matters. There is another positive outlook – the rising number of minibreweries where one can find not only the “Czech” lagers but many other honestly produced and professionally treated beers, such as ale, weissbier, bock, porter, stout and most amazing other experimental brands. Such a boom in the beer culture is bound to last.
Just a remark: there was only one single minibrewery that survived the era of communist mass production – that of the tourist-besieged U Fleku – which is also the oldest Czech brewery with a continuous commercial history since 1499. At present there are approximately 80 small breweries and family-operated microbreweries (if we deduct for subcontractors and educational beer facilities), which surpass in number the 48 industrially operated big breweries that have been on a downslide due to competition. Is it a comeback to the previous style of beer brewing when at the beginning of the 20th century there were in Bohemia and Moravia nearly 400 breweries?
The market power exercised by four giant multinational corporations (Anheuser-Bush InBev, SABMiller, Heinken and Carlsberg – with the world´s 50% market share) allows them to impose standards and procedures on the beer production and consumption that discriminate small independent producers. However, their accelerated continuous fermentation and marketing tricks are not the only enemies of the genuine Czech beer. We should mention bureaucrats of the European Union, too. Bewitched by their office, eurocrats device regulatory schemes and laws that serve hardly anyone else than themselves. Let us mention as an example the idea of energy limits in the production of beer. Once such norms are derived from the technological standards of substandard large-scale production, it is obvious that traditional small-scale art of brewing cannot comply. Would anything like that be proposed fot the wine production? Should it not be the consumer alone who will decide about the optimal use of technologies and standards? Cui bono?
Let us cut our prelude to good beer practices short and conclude in a more positive resume. Notwithstanding all impediments to its quality the Czech beer keeps standing out as a sovereign even though in a single category which is the most prevalent one world- wide the Pilsner style lagers. The recipes for malt, yeast and fermentation developed by Czech maltsters and brewers combined with Czech hops and barley – that is a key for success for many beers all around the globe. Beer as the Czech national drink and the culture of local al-houses has got a tradition that needs a lot of self confidence to beat. Actually the brewing of beer in the Czech Lands dates to Celtic times – well before the Slavonic tribes arrived in the 6th century. The Slavs came with one crucial innovation: they used hops as an additive. Originally it was due to their preservative and medicinal properties. Only much later, after lasting fierce disputes about which herbs should be used as beer spices the hops have taken over the dominant role.
The Czech obsession with hops can be traced to the marking of hop standards that begun in Bohemia in the 16th century. It led to cross-breeding that culminated with Žatecký Chmel (Saaz hops) that became an international standard for hops of the highest quality. It was the Czech brewery in Pilsen that has given the world the brandname of Pils in 1842 (even though we should thank for that to the hired Bavarian brewer). We should also mention the path-breaking achievements of the brewer Frantisek Ondrej Poupe who published a book entitled “The Art of Beerbrewing” in 1794. His recipes were based on the studies of chemistry, physics and biology, and he subjected the brewing to technology controls that used termometer and densimetrics.
The profession of maltsters and brewers is hereditable by tradition in the Czech Lands, as it is also in Bavaria. Thus no wonder why the present Czech brewers are renowned in the world and they keep important positions in professional associations related to beer. In addition, good beer requires a special storing and serving. This is the second art of good beer which is worth while observing in practice. To make the art of beer complete you should not miss the beer culture that makes the beer consumption a love affair. All loves should be enjoyed at full and we would be most glad to bring them a bit closer to you.
Remark: We have drawn a lot from the introduction of Mr. Tomas Erlich, the chairman of SPP (Sdruzeni Pratel Piva / Union of the Friends of Beer), to the book of Evan Rail “Good Beer Guide – Prague & Czech Republic”, which was published in 2007 by British good beer promotion organisation CAMRA.