19 Jan 2015

An afternoon with Zemský Pivovar


When I first got to know something about Zemský Pivovar back in 2013, I was impressed by their ambition. New micro-breweries are a dime-a-dozen these days, and unless one is opening near where you live, they are hardly interesting news anymore, but 20,000 hl/year one? That's not something you see every day, in fact, it's something we haven't seen here since Chotěboř opened in 2009!

But by the beginning of 2014 (if I remember correctly), it seemed that some things were not going quite well. To begin with, the quality of the beers had dropped to the point that some of the pubs that had received Zemské Pivo with enthusiasm were now reluctant to stock it (it should be said that the same was happening at the same time with Chotěboř, where Zemské is brewed).

It was also about that time when I head the rumour that the future of the enterprise was uncertain. Apparently, the company was not able to raise the necessary capital, without which Prague 4, the owner of planned site of the brewery, would not sign the lease. Had these people bitten more than the could chew? Well, not quite.

The rumour was unfounded, but only to some extent. There was a moment last year when the project, at least in the shape and location Zemský Pivovar wanted to realise it, was in jeopardy, but money had nothing to do with that. It was more complicated.

The municipal authorities of Prague 4 had always liked the project, not only because it would bring brewing back to Braník, but also because the brewery would be in Dominikanský Dvůr, a heritage protected building that has been almost empty (and largely neglected) for half a century. However, and maybe because 2014 was an election year, or for other reasons, instead of signing a contract with Zemský Pivovar, they chose to let the municipal council decide on the matter. And that's when the problems started.

When the project was posted on the official bulletin board, as the law requires, and ad-hoc civil association came out of nowhere, declaring their total opposition to it, without giving any particular reason.

This prompted Zemský Pivovar to organise a series or community reach-out events, but in spite of their success and the positive feedback they got from the from them, this group of concerned citizens still refused to meet the brewing company, while they lobbied the council members.

In the end, the council voted “AYE”, and a letter of intent was signed. It was only then that the civil association agreed to a meeting with Zemský Pivovar to discuss the project. And that is when things got somewhat funny.

The meeting can't be said to have started amicably, but after steam had been released, the group of concerned citizens, much to the surprise of the representatives of Zemský Pivovar, said that they actually liked the project. Like the municipal authorities, they loved the idea of Dominikanský Dvůr being revitalised, and with a brewery to boot. The problem was that MČ Praha 4 is considered the most corrupt in the city, where competition isn't exactly lacking, and they had assumed that this was just another one of their dodgy dealings. But after studying the project in detail, and realising that ZP were kosher, they promised they would do anything they could to help. Funny how people can find common ground when they actually sit down to speak in a civilised manner.

All this and more was told to me by Max Munson and Pavel Prchál, two of the people behind Zemský Pivovar, last October right in Dominikanský Dvůr. They had invited me to show me the place and to meet Joshua West, the American brewer that designed the recipe for Zemský India Brown Ale (brewed in Louny), a pretty fine beer, I must say.

When I first saw Dominikanský Dvůr “in person” , it was clear to me that there was a lot of work to be done for it to become a brewery. However, from the outside, I would have never been able to fathom just how much!

As I mention above, the place has been mostly unused for half a century, and the last tenants were very frugal with the fucks they gave about this historical building complex—in some of the oldest parts, layers of concrete had been poured right on the original hardwood floors, and some parts of the roof, at least in October, were literally falling apart.

How long it will take to restore Dominikanský Dvůr, nobody knows yet. At the time of my visit, they had just started with the proceedings to get a building permit. Fortunately, the heritage preservation authorities, the hardest nut to crack, gave their thumbs up, but it can still take a couple of years until construction works can begin,

The plan is to get the brewery up running as soon as possible, and then gradually work on the rest. Once finished, besides the brewery, the site will have a pub, small shops, a spa, offices for the company, and the courtyard will be turned into some kind of public square. Eventually, and if everything goes well, a fifth building should be added, pretty much on the spot where the one that was demolished in the 1960s-70s once stood. Another thing they would love to get done, even if they are aware of how improbable it will be, is to get the street Jiskrová—where the once main entrance to the complex still stands—down to its original level.

As for the brewery itself.

I must confess to having had my doubts about Zemky's claims to “resurrecting” a brewery. Not because I didn't believe that Dominikanský Dvůr once housed a brewery, but I thought it'd be something like in Břevnov, where the brewery also shut down at the end of the 19th century, and now there's no physical trace of it left. (As far as I'm concerned, for a brewery to be considered resurrected, first of all, the building must still be there, and the new factory should occupy at least a substantial part of it, preferably, what once was the brewhouse.)

Well, I was wrong. The brewery, or rather, the buildings that once housed a brewery, is still there.

As it stands now, Dominikanský Dvůr is a complex of four buildings laid out in a “U” shape. If you're standing in the courtyard, the one on the right is the oldest part of the complex (and the one in worst shape), dating from the 17th century. The building right in front of you used to be the maltings. The “humna” (the floor maltings) is still fairly recognisable regardless of the refurbishings someone did at some point that make it look like a black prison, but knock down those walls, add light, and you'll have a space that would look somehow like a smaller version of the restaurant at Únětický Pivovar—in fact, that is where the restaurant will be. Next to it, on the left, is the tallest structure of the complex, the kiln—surprisingly, the furnace still down there, next to the humna—while the structure on your left is where the brewery proper used to be. Closer to the kiln were the fermenters. Upstairs, under the roof was likely either the storage for grain, or the coolship, if not both. The brewhouse was most likely located in the space with higher ceilings, closest to the outer walls of the complex.

It is not known what layout the brewhouse had, or what sort of beers were brewed there (likely, not lagers, or at least that is what the lack of a cellar suggests), and actually, they are still not sure what will the layout of the future brewery be. The ceilings might be too low accommodate the modern technology necessary to brew 20,000 hl/year, which is quite a lot more than the 13,000 hl/year Dominikánský pivovar Braník, as it was known at the time, was brewing at its peak in 1870s, according to pivovary.info.

That brewery, by the way, was was shut down in 1899, when Společenský pivovar pražských sládků a hostinských, akciová společnost, later known as Pivovar Braník, was established as a response to the the onslaught of lager, the history of which ended a bit over a century later in a rather tragically ironic fashion.

Several times I've heard the people of Zemský Pivovar saying that the production of Dominikanský Pivovar was just shifted to the new, much bigger, and modern brewery down the road. I doubt that it's true. At most, their owners became shareholders of the new brewery, and only shut down the one they already had, because keeping it going wouldn't have made any sense; just as the owners of U Medvídků did in 1898 when they became shareholders of První pražský měšťanský pivovar, in Holešovice, curiously, also shut down by Staropramen. History aside, it'll be interesting to see how they sort out the space issue without getting in trouble with the heritage preservation authorities.

Anyway, although Zemské Pivo in it's current manifestation is not among my favourite brands—it's one of those that I don't actively look for, but don't mind finding—this is the sort of project I can get a bit excited with. I love seeing breweries being resurrected, even if they haven't brewed for well over a century. I wish them success.

Na Zdraví!

PS: There's one thing I don't quite understand, the name change, from Zemský Akciový Pivovar to Zemský Řemeselný Pivovar. They have a cool story and a great location, and “Akciový”, besides sounding nice and needing no explanation, makes sense from a historical point of view. Why then shoehorning an imported, tired and worn out term like “Řemeselný” (craft)?

Disclaimer: After the very thorough tour of Dominikanský Dvůr, I was treated to a few beers while I chatted with Joshua West at a nearby restaurant. A few weeks later I was also invited to the official presentation of Zemský India Brown Ale at Jáma-The Hollow, where I was treated with several butt-plug shaped glasses of the beer and a bottle to take home. Thanks Max and both Pavels.

3 comments:

  1. Another Good Posting. When in Praha. Spend Most of My Time in Praha 4. Will Follow with Interest.

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  2. Hi Terry, when in Prague, swing by - hopefully by Spring we'll have offices there.

    @ Pivní Filosof - our view is that with beer production (Pivní výroba for non-CZ speakers) being a řemeslo, or craft, we think it is important to differentiate from mass production and, that this is an important point to drive home in this market. We are of course running with our akcionářský or share program for publicans.

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    Replies
    1. You see what you've done there?

      You've put yourself in a position where you have to explain a word that is in your brand name, and it's a word with a meaning that you've picked out of thin air.

      If beer production is a craft, then all of the beer produced is "craft", from Braník to Zemský. The difference is in the scales of production, technologies used and the policies of the different breweries that determine which variations of the same basic production process will be applied, but at the end of the day, you've got beer, and in blind tasting you won't be able to tell whether is mass produced or not.

      But even if we didn't take that into account, this word (a marketing invention that even in its country of origin is loosing credibility, means not much at all. On the one hand, because there is a fair share of corner cutting in small breweries, together with ineptitude and notgivingafuckness on the part of some owners. And on the other hand, because there are "mass produced" beers like Pilsner Urquell, Budvar and even bloody Krušovice lately that are very good by any standards.

      On top of it, breweries like Kácov, Kout, Únětice, Tambor and a number of others do not feel they need to shoehorn that word because their being small, independent, traditional, if you want, breweries makes what they quite clear.

      Anyway, I'm not the one who has to explain those things to anyone, so who am I to complain? If the beer is good, you can call it what you want.

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