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Kout na Šumavě - RIP

At the end of last year, Pivovar Kout na Šumavě was shut down. This was no surprise to anyone who follows Czech beer news, the problems that led to this had begun in 2017, if not earlier. Nonetheless, it is a sad ending for a brewery that for some time was considered one of the best.

When Koutské pivo appeared in Prague in 2007 or 8, the 10° and 12° pale lagers were better than anything anyone was doing at the time, and the two dark lagers, 14° and 18°, were equally superlative. When they opened U Slovanské Lípy, their flagship pub and also distribution point in Žižkov, and Koutland, in Pilsen, they seemed ready to take over the world; literally, because it was not only at home where they were gaining fans. Koutské pivo was also exported and, at some point or another, it made its way to Sweden, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, the UK, and even the US, among others. The brewery could barely meet the demand – domestic and foreign – and it didn’t take long before they had to start thinking about buying a new, and much bigger, brewhouse, which was ordered in 2012.

It was at about that time their momentum seems to have stalled, at least in Prague. Kouland shut down, U Slovanské Lípy closed down and reopened, twice; and the second time was a total shift, with Koutské pivo no longer being the only brand, but just another one among nine or ten. Eventually, the market for characterful classic lagers from smaller breweries would be filled by newcomers like Únětický pivovar and Kout na Šumavě was relegated in the beer discourse. Myself, I became less interested about their beers, too, especially by the middle of the decade, not only because my thirst for a good Desítka or Dvanáctka was already being satiated by someone else, but also because their quality had become hit-and-miss. What’s worse, though, when it was a hit, I was left saying: ‘to není vono’; it was no longer that amazing beer that had blown my mind a few years earlier, but one slightly above average, at best (at least the pale beers, the dark ones vanished from the market and I can’t remember the last time I had one). I thought (probably mistakenly) that this was due to growing pains after the manifold expansion in capacity and that the company was more interested in the more lucrative export market than the local one.

Things went definitely south in early 2017 with the passing of Jan Skala, the brewery owner. In 2002, he bought the ruins of Pivovar Kout na Šumavě and it took him five years to bring back to life the brewery that the Communist had closed in 1969. Five people inherited the company, among them Skala’s last two wives, who received at least one offer for the brewery, but they refused it, and things would get worse; or it’s possible that they were already pretty bad by then. An article in Euro.cz (now behind a paywall) mentions that the brewery had received a hefty fine from the environmental authorities for dumping untreated water in the nearby river. Whether that was before or after Skala’s death, I don’t know, in any case, this was not the only problem the company had, there where debts, too. But the knock out punch would arrive last year in August, when Jana Skalová, Skala’s second wife, filed a petition for insolvency against the brewing company on the account that they owed her more than 1.5 million CZK. In the end, Gabriela Hodečková, Skala’s third wife and majority shareholder, who was also running the brewery, decided to pull down the blinds and left the keys in Skalova’s mailbox.

The fate of the brewery is now in the Courts. An insolvency administrator has been appointed, who’s been authorised to sell the remaining stock of beer still in the tanks before all of it gets rotten, as the proceedings to liquidate the company won’t start until May. I don’t have much hope for a second resurrection and even if I happen to be wrong, I wonder whether it’ll be worth it.

The saddest thing about this is not so much the closure, but the circumnstances that led to it. The company was left to people either uninterested or incapable of running it, who likely had a personal feud on top of that. To some extent, this is the owner’s fault. I don’t know the circumnstances of his death, but he wasn’t a young kid. Perhaps he should have checked if the people around him were willing to carry on with the company once he was unable to run it, and find someone who would if they weren’t. To be fair, though, maybe he tried and couldn’t find anyone. The brewery was for him a passion project, I’m sure, and it is often hard to find someone to share our passion, or we don’t start looking until it’s too late.

This also makes me wonder what will happen with other successful and well regarded independent breweries once their founders and owners retire or kick the bucket. Who will take over their mantle? Isn’t it better perhaps for the brewery to fold instead of becoming a shadow of its former self? Or maybe we should congratulate the owners who choose to sell it to a bigger company when they are still relatively young and health and wish them wholesome retirement?

Na Zdraví!

PS: If you want to know more about Kout na Šumavě and Jan Skala, I can't recommend enough Evan Rail's "The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest" available for Amazon Kindle.

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