4 Sep 2009

Shades of grey

If there is something most good beer lovers will agree is that nothing good usually comes out of foreign ownership. Examples that prove that are plentiful, AB-InBev with Staropramen just to mention one that is closer to me.

But is it always so bad?

Much can be said about the changes for the worse that have taken place at Pilsner Urquell since it was privatised last decade. But I remember what a friend once told me: "The best that could have happened to PU was being bought by SAB-Miller". He points out that if it had been bought by some other multinational, Pilsner Urquell would have become a "provincial" brand. SAB-Miller, though, turned it into their premium brand at a global level. Yes, it's true that the beer isn't what it used to be, but how many doors have been opened to "Czech Beer" thanks to the mighty marketing power of this brewing giant?

I think that a more clear example is Heineken. Starobrno, the first brewery they bought in the Czech Republic didn't have much of a good reputation, people would call it "Staroblato" (blato is Czech for mud). Now, though they are nothing to write home about, the beers from Starobrno are quite decent. Also, recently Evan Rail wrote about the considerable improvements he noticed in Krušovice Černé (Heineken bought the brewery in 2007).

Last year, the Dutch based multinational bought Drinks Union, a Czech company that owned, among other things, four breweries. From the very moment the transaction was announced people started to speculate on which of the breweries would be shut down. The odds were not favourable for both Kutná Hora and Veklé Březno (Březňák). The former because it was the smallest and the facilities didn't even belong to Drinks Union, but to the city (DU owned the brand and rented the facilities to brew it). And the latter because it's basically next door to the better known and bigger Zlatopramen, so shifting production wouldn't be such a problem (in fact, even the meaning of the brand's name wouldn't suffer much since Zlatopramen is located in Krasné Březno).

Everyone was spot on with Kutná Hora. Heineken shut it down a couple of months ago because it was not profitable enough, something that garnered the ire of many beer lovers. However, it all seems that we all were wrong about Březňák. Not only Heineken don't have any plans to shut it down, but they have also announced investments for a total of 25 mill CZK (about 1 mill. EU) to be made between this and next year. The money will be used to modernise the bottling line (some of the work has already been done) and the boilers, and to expand the fermenters and lagering tanks. Veklé Březno is one of the breweries that still use open fermenters and still give their beers the necessary time for lagering. The report doesn't mention whether the expansion of the fermenters means bringing in the much unloved Cilindroconical tanks, though. It doesn't look like that. According to the head brewer Petr Hauskrecht, one of the goals is to put together a "classical brewery", with would mean that the open fermenters are here to stay.

So here we have a huge multinational like Heineken that, as expected, closes down a brewery, Kutná Hora (and sooner or later will also close down Louny). but at the same time improves the quality of some of their products and puts quite a bit of money to modernise another brewery while at the same time keeping it traditional.

Quite a few shades of grey there.

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2 comments:

  1. I must admit that, while the closure of Kutna Hora was disappointing (if not unexpected), I'm heartened by developments with Breznak, one of my favourite lagers. Here's hoping they don't ruin the actual beer.

    I'll always have a special affection for Starobrno, no matter what (even if it didn't make a great impression on my last visit to the city) - it was the very first Czech beer I ever experienced (with Cerna Hora and Pegas being 2nd and 3rd).

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  2. Love the Breznak, my suspicion it was tradionally made, being reinforced. Cant wait to go U Pizducha for a pint.

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