12 Jan 2009

Both faces and the future

Whether is a passing trend or not, time will tell, but as things are today, there is not doubt that the Brewpub as a business model in the Czech lands is very successful. Only since the publishing of Evan Rail's book "The Good Beer Guide - Prague and The Czech Republic" in mid 2007, nearly 20 new brewpubs must have opened in the whole country.

The reasons for this success are several. They reclaim the old tradition of a brewery in each town. Many of them are located nearby or right next to tourist attractions such as castles, while others are by cycling paths, and cycling is a very popular pastime among Czechs of all ages. Many others are also attached to hotels of relatively good quality. It is also said that some of them are supported by state or municipal funds as they are considered an important tourist attraction. The great majority offer beer at similar or even lower prices than those of the mass produced brands. About the quality, it can vary, but most of the most interesting lagers and top fermented wheat beers I've drunk recently came from brewpubs. With all this, failing is almost impossible.

But the coin has two faces. At times, some brewpubs seem to become victims of their own success. The quality problems that Pivovar Bašta had last summer are not an exception. Going to U Medvídku during the Christmas holidays, either Catholic or Ortodox, to have a pint of Oldgott is almost like flushing your money down the toilet. The problem is capacity, or lack thereof. Josef Voltr, owner and brewmaster of Minipivovar U Hušku told me that summer demand will allow his lovely CAR to lager only for 25 days, while the one we were drinking during my visit last December had been lagering for already three months.

If I'm not wrong, all brewpubs make lagers, some complement them with some top fermented varieties, usually wheat, but what sells the most by far and without exception are ležáky. This kind of beers needs at least a month to be ready. Unfortunately, many brewpubs don't have any other choice but to tap them before their time, with the quality, thus suffering. Increasing capacity is not easy. Setting up a proper restaurant and brewery requires an investment of several million Czech Crowns that can take years to recover. After that, nobody could blame the owner that is reluctant to take another important financial risk. Besides, there aren't few the brewpubs where the main problem is not so much financial, but of space. They simply don't have where to increase their capacity.

That's why bottled Czech craft beer is so rarely seen (there are other issues here as well). Whereas in many other countries craft beers can be bought at specialty shops, delis or even supermarkets, here we usually have only two alternatives, either go to the beer's source or wait until someone like Pivovarský Klub or Zlý Časy brings them over.

Call me an optimist, but things seem to be wanting to change. There are three examples that fill me with hope. The first is that of Martin Matuška, brewmaster of Pivovar Strahov, who has set up a microbrewery at his holiday home. The word on the street is that he plans to start brewing commercially there. The second and somewhat more advanced is that of Pivovar Kozlíček Horní Dubenky. Owner and brewmaster Milan Kozlíček started as a home brewer. Its first commercial incursion consited in brewing 200l a week, half for a pub near Jihlava, the other half for whoever is fast enough to buy it, while reinvesting all the revenues back on the brewery. His beers, at least the ones that I've tasted, are all excellent, and I've heard that Mr. Kozlíček was seriously considering giving up his day job and start brewing commercially full time. So far, the beers have been only available in kegs, but, who knows, maybe some of the reinvestment can go to a bottling system? The third example, and by far the most professional, is that of Kocour Vandorf, perhaps the most innovative Czech micro brewery. Its owner, Honza Kočka, has secured deals with several pubs near Vandorf (in the North of CZ) and his great beers are already on permanent rotation at one place in Prague, with maybe, and I hope, more to come. All of them, together with other similar cases, if successful, should not have so much trouble with expanding their capacity. It might be that in them lies the future of Czech Craft beers. Time will tell.

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2 comments:

  1. It is interesting to note that a Danish brewpub I visited recently brews ales instead of lagers to be able to cut down on the maturing time. Cheating? Perhaps, but it's a way around the problem.

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  2. I don't think you can call that cheating. It is just a way around the problem as you say. It must be also considered that some top fermenting beers need as much time, if not longer, to mature than many lagers.
    I read somewhere, I think on Ron Pattison's blog, that German monks in the 14th century, or somewhere around then, used to brew top fermenting during spring/summer and then switched to bottom fermenting in autumn/winter. Maybe that would be a solution...

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