Trouble brews with modernism Harder to swallow: As time-honored brewing practices are abandoned for newer methods, Czechs are finding their national drink is becoming paler and less potent.

SUN JOURNAL

April 08, 1996|By David Rocks | David Rocks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Across this nation of inveterate bTC beer drinkers, panels of experts convene daily to discuss politics, the meaning of life and, perhaps above all else, the current status of Czech brewing. Their conclusions are grim.

Time-honored brewing practices are being abandoned for newer methods. Independent breweries are being bought out by consortiums that now control more than half the market. Recipes are being altered to allow cheaper production. And the traditional epicenter of social life for men -- the corner pub -- is being pushed aside by commercial development.

In short, the centuries-old beer culture of the Czechs is under assault on nearly every front. The national drink is becoming paler, less potent, a less nearly essential part of life.

The scene

The classic background for a beer is thick smoke and small tables. The men -- and they will be men, not women -- will be standing, not sitting. They will be quaffing half-liters of draft. They will stay in place for hours at a time, as at the Sklipek pub in Prague's Vinohrady district, where Jiric Strejc, head waiter, leaves little doubt about the progress of Czech brewing: "It's definitely true that beer has changed for the worse."

Ever since the inhabitants of Bohemia began brewing it more than 2,000 years ago, beer has stood as a pillar of the national diet. It is no coincidence that Sladek -- "brew master" -- is among the most common Czech names. Or that Pilsner -- the varietal name used by a large majority of the world's brewers -- has its roots in the city of Plzen, 50 miles west of here.

Czech kings built breweries in their castles and palaces. Monks, who handed down recipes over the centuries, brewed for their own consumption. Small-time nobility and burghers in medieval towns coveted brewing rights granted by the king. By the 16th century, Bohemia had more than 3,000 breweries.

The average Czech drinks about 42 gallons of beer a year, roughly double the consumption rate in the United States. The country's president, Vaclav Havel, often invites foreign dignitaries to step out for a pint or two. Some local pubs do the majority of their business before noon on workdays. Medical students on their lunch breaks wash down pork cutlets with cans of brew in the hospital canteen.

'Liquid bread'

"Beer is like liquid bread for us," says Michal Voldrich, head brewer at Staropramen Brewery. "It's our historical drink." The nature of the drink, however, is changing with the historical shift six years ago from communism to capitalism.

There is, for example, the case of the behemoth Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzen, the grandparent of modern Czech brewing. The older corridors are lined with cobblestone. Miles of rails for carts that once carried kegs in and out of the cellars have rusted with disuse. The wood casks are still there, and you can almost see the damp and musty air lying low between the long, winding rows.

A new lager house was built upstairs two years ago, where stainless steel tanks stand at attention in perfect rows. The floors are well scrubbed, and a bank of computers behind a glass wall oversees the weeks-long process of turning a sweet, sticky mash into beer.

Company officials insist that the technological change has not affected the quality of the drink. But they decided this year to age part of the production once again in the wood casks in the cellar, instead of the stainless steel. Those tanks are the industry standard but also sometimes held responsible for the homogenization of beers around the world.

'Under reconstruction'

"The whole beer industry in the Czech Republic is under reconstruction," says Mario Junek, Pilsner Urquell's financial director. "We've changed from production-centered factories to trade-oriented companies."

A different approach is being tried by Stanislav Bernard.

He and two friends bought a state-owned brewery at auction in 1991 in the small town of Humpolec. The Bernard Brewery, as it is called, has invested in stainless steel kegs like Pilsner Urquell's, a new bottling plant, and better heating and cooling systems. But Mr. Bernard says he draws the line with the brewing process itself:

Methods

The beer still undergoes its primary fermentation of about seven days in open vats, and then is transferred to smaller tanks for the lagering phase, lasting about three weeks.

"Traditional brewing has a strong influence on the character of the beer, on the taste, the bouquet," Mr. Bernard says. "Large breweries are for the most part moving toward cylindro-conical tanks. The advantages are economic: you save energy, you get more capacity. But it's got one very large disadvantage. Beers made this way all start to taste the same."

Mr. Bernard is part of a shrinking minority. The four largest brewing groups already control about 55 percent of the Czech market, leaving Mr. Bernard and 30 other small brewers fighting for the rest. By 2000, the share belonging to the major firms is expected to rise to at least 70 percent.

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