5 Mar 2009

The dark side of paradise

Ah! It is so nice to live in Prague! Whenever I fancy a beer all I have to do is find a good hospoda and I know I will find a good quality pint, tapped as it should be, and at the right temperature. If that wasn't enough, it will also be dirt cheap, about 30CZK in average, if not less.
It's paradise! Or not?

Being able to drink beers of a very high quality standard at such low prices is a blessing, no doubt, and it's something most foreign visitors deservedly rave about, but it has its dark side.

Everyone expects beer to be cheap. This has put serious obstacles to the industry. High costs prevent microbreweries from bottling their beers, and also put them, and the industrial breweries,  in a stituation where that makes it difficult to risks and come out with limited editions, bottled conditioned beers or beers to be aged. The low price of the very good domestic beers is also an obstacle for importers, at least for those who would like to bring beers other than the macroindustrial ones that are commonly found.
Sometimes I get envious when reading other European beer blogs and see the incredible variety of quality imported beers or domestic craft ones that writers can enjoy in their very own living rooms or kitchens. Other times I start thinking whether, in a way, those living in countries with not very strong beer cultures have it better than me. If you don't believe me, look at the examples of Argentina and Spain.

At a bar and specialised shop in Barcelona you will be able to find beers such as Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Morton's, Cooper's (together with some Czechs that have recently made their way there). When was the last time you saw any of these beers in Prague? That's right, never. And don't get me started with that beer that aims to get into the high end restaurant market, or this Christmas Special that comes in a very fancy box, both from an industrial brewer. When was the last time you saw something like that on the Czech market? That's right, never.
In the major cities of Argentina you can find bottled craft beer not only at a multitude of pubs, bars, restaurants and gourmet shops, but also at supermarket chains like Wal-Mart and Carrefour. In Argentina beer has always been a cheap drink, too. A 1l bottle of the (sadly) by far best selling local beer, Quilmes Cristal costs $3.17 (a bit less than 1USD) at a supermarket, while at the same outlet, a 330cl bottle of Antares, perhaps the most successful domestic craft brewer, will go for $6! That is, about eight times more by volume! And these beers also have to compete with the likes of Chimay, MaredSous, Jever Pils, etc.

Why can't we see something like that in Prague? Who is to blame?
A big, big part of the blame falls on the consumers. Everybody assumes that beer has to be cheap. You should see the looks I sometimes get when I tell people that I've spent 100CZK on a bottle of beer. It doesn't matter how much I explain how special the beer is. They just don't get it. The worst of it is that many of them will have no problem in blowing 150, 200 or more CZK on an, at best, Italian Merlot or Beaujolais Nouveau once est arrivé.

Businesses are not far behind, either. How can it be that the most british Marks & Spencer and Debenhams do not carry any of the very fine ales brewed in the UK. But Sout African, Australian and Spanish wines and Scottish mineral water are all fine.

Problem is that the peole running those business also react like average consumers when it comes to beer, though they shold no better. Evan Rail told in one of the lost posts in his blog about an incident at a shop specialised in top of the range wines, whiskies and other spirits. When he asked the owner why he didn't carry imported vintage beers, his answer was that nobody would buy such an expensive brew. It didn't matter that Evan showed him a bottle of, I think, Fuller's Vintage Ale 2005, with its numbered label, like many expensive wines have. The owner's answer kept on being something like "it's only beer".
It might seem incredible to some of you that in the country with the by far highest per capita consumption of beer in the world; where the drink is a source of national pride and a very important part of Czech popular culture and national identity someone can say dismissively "it's only beer". But it does happen. Then, who can blame the brewers when in this vicious circle environment they would barely bother to offer anything very much out of the usual.
However, it could be that the situation is slowly changing. There are several examples that make me have some hope:

Pivovarský Klub has always done a healthy business with their imported beer lists. It is true that their prices are a tad too high and that the list fails to inlcude many names that are almost taken for granted in several other countries, while including many more that most of us would not regret never to see again. But before them, I don't think there was any other place where you could drink some Svijany and then follow it with an Orval.
Zlý Časy's owner was telling me the other day how excited he is with how well some of the imported beers he now offers are selling. And I'm not speaking about cheap stuff, but Aventinus, Brew Dog y Nørrebro Bryghus (of this one, the one that has sold best was the most expensive, North Bridge Extreme, 10 bottles in one week, each at 195CZK, funny). The Belgian beers that he's been offering draught have also been pretty successful despite costing 59CZK for a 0.3l glass. So much so, that he has decided to bring them more often.
Filip Helán has been complementing his Pivoňka business importing German beers never before seen on this side of the border, and he is not doing too bad. The other day he told me that he has become Schlenkerla's official agent in the Czech Republic, and those famous Rauchbiers will soon start to be tapped in Prague.

On the British side, not everything is lost. Prague's oddball Cider Club, according to what Velký Al told me, has been selling the Wychwood beers quite well. And the British expat favourite, Robertson's, has recently begun to offer something more than a couple of cans by expanding their offer with some bottled ales. I must confess I don't know any of them (something that I hope to change soon), and I'm aware that many of you out there will say that they are not the best that is brewed on the Isles, but it is certainly better than nothing.

I should also mention the Belgian Beer CLub in Vinohrady (which I still have to visit), or the choice of Belgian beers offered at the Cheesy specialised shops.

But perhaps the most interesting example is that of the supermarket chain Billa, who at least at one of their outlets now offers Belgian beers. Yeah, nothing very exotic there, but this is a supermarket chain we are talking about.

I don't think we are about to witness a revolution in the local beer market, but these examples do show that there is a growing interest in something other than ležáky. Perhaps someday someone, be it brewer or entrepreneur, will finally wake up and realise that there is good business to be made by offering something new and different, even in the almost reactionary Czech market. For the time being, we will have to make do with what we can get, which is not all that bad.
Na Zdraví!

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10 comments:

  1. Unfortunately mate it seems to be a case that those who drink the most, value the beer the least. The number of times I have heard some tired old mantra about Czech beer being the best in the world from some berk drinking Gamcrap is remarkable. Simply because a nation enjoys drinking, doesn't mean it likes beer.

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  2. The blame here is on the macros that have dumbed down their products to make them cheaper (for them), and then people allowing themselves to be brainwashed by the marketing. It happens everywhere. The best selling beer in Belgium, by far, is Jupiter, which is every bit as bad, if not worse than Stella. In fact, 80% of the Belgian beer market is owned by Eurolagers of that kind. The difference is that those who do want to drink something else, have a lot to choose from without having to bother to travel much. That is not the case here.

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  3. You could also argue that part of the blame lays very firmly with the consumers - they after all buy Gamcrap and Staropramen in sufficient numbers to make it worthwhile. In some ways, what we do my blogging and dragging people to good pubs is to take a John the Baptist role and being a voice crying in the wilderness, guiding people to the messianic delights of Kout, Chodovar and the rest - perhaps I shouldn't take this beerevanglism tack much further! ;)

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  4. Mind you, a lot of Czech consumers don't seem to know much different/ don't have access to decent beer anyway. When I first came to Prague I knew there were some interesting beers about - I was a regular at Pegas when going to summer school in Brno, and didn't mind Cerna Hora either - but just didn't make the effort to look them out. Same goes for football. Nowadays I make the effort, and have several beer-enthusiast friends, but still get strange looks from some Czech friends of mine when I object to going to a particular place purely on account of what they have on tap... :(

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  5. There are several issues here.
    First, there is the "herd mentatlity" of, I believe, most consumers. It is very well exploited by the marketing wizards, they know that people will buy a product not because it is good (or even because they actually do like such product), but because everyone else does. People want to belong to a group and there are only a few who are more "independently minded".
    When we are talking about beer, to this we have to add the perception many have: beer is a generic product. So they go the the supermarket, buy milk, bread, butter, beer, etc. Without looking too much at what else is around, they just pick what they know. And that is why many will buy Gambrinus when right next to it there is a cheaper and much better beer.
    There is also the factor of the regionality of beer, very important here in CZ. Might not seem so now, but IMO it still plays a part, albeit indirectly. People will identify a brand with someting, football team, home town, etc.
    The pub thing is another issue. There are many that choose a pub not based on what beer its tapped there (within certain limits), but based on the place itself. It does make a lot of sense. And that is why the big breweries spend so much money bribing publicans.
    But this is not really what I am talking about in the post. The question is whether there can ever be here space for, for instance, a Vintage Lager.

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  6. Interesting post and interesting comments, a lot of the same "battles" which need to take place if they are not already in the CZ have and continue to take place in countries where there is a vibrant craftbrewing community. Which has grown mostly due to the foundations of a vibrant homebrewing community.

    Even with access to amazing craft beers, the majority of the population still drink mindless pale imitations of euro lager. Marketing plays the top role in getting people to drink beer they identify with. If you don't have a marketing division to get your message across you have to go grassroots which is harder and slower.

    As a homebrewer its incredible difficult to give someone a fantastic beer with complex flavours and expect them to like it if they are a dedicated Coors Lite drinker. Most people are afraid of flavour because the bad lagers they drink are supposed to be served "ice" cold which reduces the flavour.

    But enough of my ramblings, I think in the CZ there is room for vintage beers and experimentation but there is a lot of consumer education that still needs to take place.

    As a side note, I would kill to have Gambrinus (not my favorite CZ lager by a longshot) on tap here in Calgary rather than Molson Canadian, Kokanee or Coors Lite. :-)

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  7. I have a tendency to agree with Jake from Canada. However, as a beer fan I sometimes feel overwhelmed with choice in the States. I mean, how many Imperial IPA's does a nation (even one with over 300 mil) need?
    Overall, I would think that 10-15% of any given nation would be in the "I like great beers" category. Don't most Germans like standard Pils? I have even heard of German drinkers lamenting the lack of variety there.

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  8. I agree that a grassroots movement, mostly fueled by home and microbrewers, is necessary if we expect some variety in the market.
    Homebrewing is still a very new thing here, but it is growing steadily. Some sort of "club" or assosiation has recently been established. The micro is another thing. It is also relatively new, but it has grown a lot in the last few years. But they are businesses, so many of them will not offer much more than a couple of mainstream beers. Though more and more are now brewing wheat beers and other stuff that is "out of the ordinary".
    The thing with the US and the IPA's I think has to do with the sheer size of the country. Most of those breweries I'm sure started a local thing that then grew. Then they simply kept on offering what they already knew how to brew well, and what the market demands.
    Interesting Jake's point about Gambrinus. And this shows how blessed we are that we can dismiss a beer like that. Yet, with all its shortcomings, if I paired it with all the other best selling beers around the world, it is still a bloody masterpiece!
    Geaux. If your estimat is right, that 10-15% of the people want, I wouldn't say "great", but yes different beers. Then, given that Czechs drink more than 16 million hl a year, means that there can be a market of several 100 thousand hl a year for this kind of beers. Interesting.

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  9. Being a tourist, I would say that some of the lure of Prague is the beer prices. Being able to drink quality lagers at 30-40 CZK (or even cheaper) in pubs and bars is just fantastic.

    I have learnt a lot from your blog about where to go in Prague if I want to find something else than Gambrinus, Staropramen or Pilsner Urquell. If I were just a first (or second) time visitor to Prague, I would not have been able to say so, as I probably would have only time to try a few of the polotmaves in between all the lezaks and vycepnis.

    Myself I feel that you have a good sortiment in various shops. Still, I undertand that you need more variation in the beer styles to be found. The Billas and Alberts of Prague are full of lagers!

    By the way: I agree with Jack. I would also like to find Gambrinus on tap in my hometown. Gambrinus is OK (and better than a lot of Norwegian lagers), but when I visit Prague I prefer something else.

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  10. I think it's important to keep in mind, especially when scoffing at statements about the Czech Republic having the best beer when the big brands own everything,is that the big brands own everything everywhere, and as much as they keep watering Staropramen down, it's still better than the most commercial crap beers in other countries. Go to the US and drink Budweiser, to Canada to drink Canadian, hop across the border to Berlin and try Berliner Pilsner. These beers are truly truly awful and I can vouch for Canadian having made me truly sick on occasion. While I welcome any expansion and diversification, it must be remembered that you can go into any pub in Prague and have a half-decent beer, which cannot be said for most countries.

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