28 Jul 2011

At least they are trying

Many people have told me that in the past, the beers from Krušovice were considered among the best in the Czech Rep., comparable even with what Pilsner Urquell brewed at the time.

Things started to change in the 1990's, and not for the better. Like most of the breweries in the country (that had not been given back to the owners of the pre-Comunist years) Krušovice was privatised and from then on its production increased tremendously, trebling its volume in only three years. By the middle of the decade, and after a few comings and goings, the German company Binding Brauerei, itself part of the Radeberger Gruppe, itself property of the multinational Dr. Oetker (people who I'm sure care about beer as much as Budvar care about frozen pizza), became the majority shareholder. This all resulted in, well, when I moved here in 2002 the once admired brand was now considered among the worst, a bit like Staropramen today. And that's not it, it is said that the Germans would mix some of their Radeberger Pils with Krušovice in order to increase volume, great...

In 2007, the Dutch giant Heineken became the new owner of the brewery and decided that Krušovice would be the flagship brand of their Czech portfolio, so they were left with no other choice but to start repairing the brand's image.

The most significant step in this process has been the relaunching of Krušovice Světlý (výčepní) and Krušovice Imperial (ležák) as "Pořadná 10° y 12°" (proper 10º y 12º - Balling). This is not only about a rebranding, but also about an interesting rhetoric touch. If we are speaking about the products of the macros (including Heineken), and not few regionals like Bernard or Primátor, what people usually call desítka (10) or dvanáctka (12) are actually výčepní o ležák, which are legal categories defined by respective ranges of Balling graduation, 8-10.99 for the former, 11-12.99 for the latter. This is important because many of those beers are brewed with a lower graduation than many people believe or in some cases, like for example Gambrinus, the High Gravity Brewing system is used. So, what Heineken is telling us with this is that they make these beers the proper way (regardless that they never mention how much time they are given to ferment and lager).

That's all very nice, yeah, but the most important thing is the beer, and if I like it (or not) I really don't give much of a toss about what the label and the rest of their marketing say.

I had already tasted the 10º when it was launched and I didn't like it that much. The 12º was launched this year and as soon as I came across a bottle I bought it to taste it in the comfort of my home (in the picture, together with what would soon be a pivní sýr).
I could say about it exactly the same I said about the 10º over a year ago, "this is a pretty good looking beer. Unfortunately, that is the best it's got to offer. It's not that it's bad, it's just tasteless and lacking any character whatsoever."

But I like being fair, to really be able to appreciate a desítka and dvanáctka you have to drink it draught. The bottled version can give you an idea, but it is from a well tapped půl litr that beers like this express themselves best. With that goal I went to what I believe is the best place in Prague to drink Krušovice, Krušovická Pivnice Šalanda, in Nardoní.

The 10º improves, it's got a nice malty base and a mild, but pleasant bitterness. If they had it in my village I would happily drink it. The 12º starts well enough, the first sip surprised me, well built and quite "Urquell", very tasty indeed, but halfway down the glass it runs out of steam, it's as if all the taste and character were packed in the head. Disappointing.

But back to the marketing thing. After both beers had been relaunched, Heineken took the streets to carry out the Krušovice Referendum, aiming to confirm the beers' new slogan "Chutná jako tenkrát" (It tastes like back then). The campaign consisted of a small tank lorry going around different towns offering both beers on tap and asking the people if they were as good as they used to be.

The result can't surprise anyone, 97% of those "polled" said that yes, the beers are like 15-20 years ago. Regardless of the fact that many of the blokes that appear in the TV ad don't look old enough to have been beer drinkers two decades ago (although...) or that it isn't known how many of the rest where actually regular consumers of Krušovice back in the good days, how many people can are really able to remember what a beer they drank so long ago tasted like?

But well, the important thing here is that we have a multinational that is trying to do at least something well, or better than before. Time will tell whether this drive will be successful or not. And honestly, I hope they will. Not because I have any kind of sympathies for Heineken, but because, if this works out it might result in other big brewers giving more emphasis to quality, which in the end is good for everyone.

Na Zdraví!

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14 comments:

  1. I think this is solely marketing activity (although sort of creative) without any real effort to improve the beer quality so no admiration from me.

    BTW, Max, I bought your Prague pub guide recently and I love it. It's full of great content which will be very useful even to Prague-born beer fan as me. However, I think you made huge mistake in part where you claim that czechs do not tip. This is just not true in my experience - 10% may not be standard yet, but people are very often tiping more than just rounding up. I know same mistake is in Lonely Planet guide and it really bothers me a lot as I think good service should be appreciated.

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  2. the megabrewers will have to work a lot harder then simply rebranding to win me over, i'll stick with matuska & kocour thank you very much.

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  3. I believe there's been an improvement in the beers, this doesn't mean that they've won me over, only that I won't mind drinking them.

    Bludr, thanks for the comment! I think there's a different understanding of the concept of tip. In many countries it is expected that patrons will tip 10% of the total of the bill, unless the service has been really bad. I agree with you that the 10% thing is becoming more common, but mostly at restaurants, and specially so when you pay by card, but not at pubs, at least not the old school ones. Of course, the more satisfied with the service (or pissed) you are the more generous the rounding up can be...

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  4. krusovice has never been one of the best 4 me, but it sure beats staropramen or zlatopramen, looking forward to try it on this pub you mentioned... and czech people dont usually tip, no matter how offended a czech might feel by this, is oust a fact! saludos

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  5. The main problem with the referendum is that the taste memory of an average consumer lasts only a half a year or so. Therefore if someone says "it tastes like 20 years ago" it just can't be true or at least accurate.

    But I cannot tell personally not only cos I'm too young to remember the old Krušovice days but also because I haven't tried the new ones yet. There's always some better beer to drink so I'm a bit avoiding it :)

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  6. Javier I don't know where your experience is coming from but Czechs really do tip, and the amount has grown as well. Another thing entirely is whether they are allowed to keep them, I unfortunately know a number of places where they are not.

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  7. I think there's different understanding of the concept of tipping. Here it's fine to round up 10CZK on a 290CZK tab, in other places you'll be expected to leave around 30CZK. I never leave a tip when I pay by card, because I don't think the staff will get any of it, I rather leave a few coins on the plate they bring me the bill instead.

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  8. The concept is different, but that's different than saying they don't at all..

    As for breweries trying, you tasted the new Staropramen Nefiltrovany yet? I've got a bottle chilling in the fridge, kind of curious though obviously expectations are low. It certainly is cloudy though.

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  9. Bottled Staropramen nefiltrované? I haven't seen that one yet. I remember that at the brewery's restaurant they served unfiltered ležák, it was quite good, but that was before Staropramen was turned into a Brazilian beer. What I did try a sample of was Lemon, and I was surprised at how un-awful it was.

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  10. Yep, picked it up at Tesco, wasn't so bad, though it was interesting how the fuller flavour of the unfiltered beer just emphasised how there wasn't really any flavour to fill out..

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  11. Much like Gambrinus nefiltrované, I guess. One question, is it pasteurised?

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  12. Wow, thanks for asking, as you made me read the label and I discovered many things I would never have guessed! Yes, it is pasteurised. And while on the main parts of the bottle it is labelled only NEFILTROVANÝ, the legally required fine print description reveals it is "Pivo ležák nefiltrovaný pšeničný ochucený světlý". The wheat part surprised me a bit (explains the appearance though), but flavoured too?! According to the ingredients it also contains apple and coriander extract. For all that effort then, the taste is even more surprisingly mild (though pleasant enough. I'd be interested to try it on tap some time... Assuming my other option was regular staropramen). But even more surprising is that all that is buried beneath a label that doesn't even differ all that much from the standard one...

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  13. They've made a white beer kind of thing and they are so timid about it? What are they, ashamed? hehe... I must try this thing, I'm curious now.

    PS: Have you tried Staropramen Lemon? I was given a sample and I have to admit that it's surprisingly not-awful...

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  14. I haven't yet, though I admit I was tempted when the summer was still summery, but then things cooled off and they stopped pushing it so much and I kind of lost interest... At Tesco (Eden at least) they've now expanded their special beer section, they've got Opat chocolate, which was so horrible that I've never been able to bring myself to buy the cherry and ginger flavoured beers they have there (can't quite recall, think the latter two are from Nova Paka - the brand's not shouted but the bottles are attractive)

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