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A day with Heineken/Starobrno

I must confess that when they first called me I wasn't all that sure if I should accept Heineken's invitation to a press trip to Brno last Wednesday, partly because I was afraid I'd have to put up with more marketing and PR empty words than most people should be forced to put up with. But then I said, fuck it, they hadn't done any of that at either of the the other two PR events, why should it be any different this time ? (besides, and let's be honest, I fancied that enjoying some corporate largesse wouldn’t be too bad). I'm glad I accepted the invitation, not only because the marketinisms and PRisms were kept at acceptable and reasonable levels, but also, and mainly, because I had a great day, and a fairly educational one, too.

The day would be really packed, so we had to leave awfully early. I travelled with three other journalists and two people from the agency that handles Heineken's PR, who would be our guides.

We were offered beer and snacks shortly after the car had got on the road. I love living in a country were having a beer at 7 in the morning isn't frowned upon, though, Starobrno Medium from a can isn't the one of the best beers around, that said, any beer is better than no beer, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it, at least a little.

Once in Brno, we only stopped briefly to meet the local journos and some people from the company that would join us in the day's activities, and we headed straight to the first one of them, a visit to Soufflet, the country's biggest maltsters, at their plant in Prostějov.

I'd been to a couple of maltings before, so I wasn't expecting to see anything new. What was really interesting, though, was we were told there, which made me see beer and brewing from a whole different perspective.

We were explained in great detail about the quality control processes. Barley samples are taken right at the gate from every lorry that arrives to the plant, and they are analysed on the spot to determine if the grain meets the company's strict quality standards. Only then they are allowed to offload their cargo. As I had seen in Benešov, the different cultivars of barley are kept separated throughout the whole production process and they are blended only when it's needed to meet the specific parameters of different clients.

The most interesting part of the talk was, perhaps, the relationship in figures between the production of barley and beer. According to the calculations of the company's director, 85 grams of malt are needed to make a pint of 12º beer, and that wasn't the most fascinating bit. Based on that figure, and on how much barley is needed in average to make a kg of malt, and the average yield per hectare of barley, this man estimated that 1 m2 of a field of barley will produce 10 pints of dvanáctka. Think about that next time you decide to walk through a field.

After an OK buffet lunch at the maltings, we got back in the car for the next visit, a Farmers Cooperative that supplies barley to Soufflet.

It's incredible how much we take this raw material for granted, and yet, a lot of attention to detail goes into its production, too, after all, without good quality barley, you can't make good quality malts, and without good quality malts, it's very hard to make good quality beer. Growing barley, then, isn't just about throwing seeds on a field and then harvest the results a few months later. The right moment must be chosen to sow the right cultivar in the right place. Each cultivar has different characteristics that, needless to say, are affected by soil and weather conditions. During the months between sowing and reaping, the health of the crop must be watched carefully and then, the right time for harvest must be chosen in order to get the right quality, but they can't actually do that if, once harvested, the grain isn't properly cleaned, sorted and stored.

What all this tells is you is that beer making is a long chain of processes that starts already in the fields and ends in the glass, where each link will have an effect on the quality.

Another stop awaited us at Březovské vodovody, in Březové nad Svitavou, a rather long, bumpy, and very scenic ride in small roads that cut through hills, forests and picturesque villages, where we would be shown the source of water for almost the whole city of Brno, brewery included.

The tour was pretty interesting from the historical and technical point of view, but didn't have much to add as far as brewing is concerned, as Starobrno still has to treat the water to make it more suitable for the sort of beers they make. Anyway, the location of the well was impressive in its beauty.

We went back to the South Moravian capital to check into the hotel and freshen ourselves a little (by the way, the hotel, Holiday Inn, was really, really cool, the sort of corporate largess I was expecting). We were then taken to the brewery for the highlight of the day, the opening of the brewery's pivnice after renovations.

Rather than a pivnice, the place is a proper pub that serves proper food, and not just snacks. It's been done in the focus group approved, First Republic-chic style that will be familiar to anyone who's visited any of the Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurants in the country. Not bad, but a bit too chainpubby for my taste. The beer garden, on the other hand, is gorgeous and was packed.

The opening ceremony was adorned with three or four members of the local ice hockey team, who had their pictures taken tapping beers and all that usual stuff that I guess is common at events of that kind. It's stuff I can frankly do without, but I stopped caring once I had a pint in hand, and cared even less once a second one was procured, which didn't take any time or effort, as the service would no allow anyone to be empty glassed for more than a few seconds. Snacks, very good snacks, were also provided to help us drink even more.

As for the beer, I was given at first the new 12º, that is called dvouchmelněné, or something like this. It's a hoppier version of Starobrno's Světlý Ležák that I found uncannily similar to some batches of Pilsner Urquell, though that might be utter bollocks on my part. I had a go at Krušovice Pšeničné, also on tap, and it was really good, with a fuller flavour than the bottled version I'd had recently. For most of the evening, though, and whenever a fresh půl litr didn't materialise in front of me, I stuck to Nefiltrované, which I found most agreeable (sorry, I just wanted to use that phrase at least once in my life).

But drinking, eating and talking wasn't all we did there, we also saw stuff, cool stuff. First we were shown the, how can I call it?, training pub they have there. Basically, it's a fully functional taproom with a few modifications. They mostly use it to train pub owners and tapsters to give beer the best care, from storing and tapping kegs, to the different ways to dispense the beer, including line maintenance, how to properly wash glasses and even some basic sensory analysis; in my opinion a most important aspect of beer culture, and one that many brewers, big and small don't pay enough attention to.

We went back to the pub to have a couple more pints before the brewery tour. Our guide would be the head brewer (can't remember his name, if anyone knows it, please let me know) a fantastic guy who, like pretty much every brewer I have met, loves his job and loves talking about it. He showed us around the whole place, answered all of our questions, he even took us all the way to the top of the cylindroconical tanks, where we had a wonderful view of the city at night. We all wished we had a tap up there to enjoy the view with a pint. A visit to a brewery wouldn't be a visit to a brewery without a stop at the lagering cellars to have a beer straight from the tank, the same neflitrované that I was drinking at the pub, which tasted remarkably different.

After the tour, we stayed at the pub for some more eating and drinking (or rather, some more eating and a lot more drinking), all formalities had long vanished, we talked and laughed almost like old friends until quite late; one of those wonderful wheres and whens where the beer you are drinking isn't all that important, another element that makes that where and when wonderful, which is the true nature of beer, really. The next morning we were all nursing mild hangovers and experiencing that unique bond that only strangers who've been on the piss the evening before can feel.

It was a great day in many ways, and I want to thank Heineken CZ for inviting me.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Heineken is still far from my favourite company around here, I can understand that their decision to shut down four breweries, but I don't like that they've made sure nobody will use them again, ending, in some cases, centuries of brewing traditions. That said, of all the three multinationals operating in the Czech market (the other two being SAB-Miller and Molson-Coors), and gimmicky products notwithstanding, the Dutch are the ones who seem to care the most about beer.

Disclaimer: All the food and beers we had at the brewery were on the house.