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.
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