British beer consumers' campaign leaves Czech brewers with a bitter aftertaste

Fiercely proud of their centuries-old brewing tradition, Czech beermeisters have reacted angrily to claims by the world's largest consumer advocacy group, the U.K.-based 'Campaign for Real Ale,' that the quality of Czech beer is going down the tubes.

Two weeks ago, a small but thirsty Camra delegation was flown over from the U.K. to Prague for a taste test. Among them were Mike Benner, who heads the 75,000-member strong Campaign for Real Ale, and beer expert Roger Protz, the author of many books on the subject.

There's something rotten in the state of Czech brewing, Camra proclaimed. Several flagship Czech brands, the delegation said, are less tasty than they once were, due to drastic cuts in fermenting times, the use of cheaper raw materials, and even imported hops.

The pronouncement wasn't the result of a single visit or tasting, as Camra research and information manager Iain Loe explains.

"Really it's an amalgam of experiences of our members over the last 10 to 15 years of visiting the Czech Republic. We've seen smaller breweries close down, we've seen the loss of local beer brands; we've seen certain brewers cutting the lagering (maturing) times from 60 days to 40 days, to less than 30 days. And although, perhaps, chemical analysis might say there is no difference in the beers produced in these shorter lagering periods, certainly the taste buds of many of our Camra members think there has been a change."

Camra, which was established in 1971 to fight to preserve quality and diversity in beer production, largely put the blame on the foreign multinationals that have taken over nearly every major Czech brewery since the collapse of communism.

"What international brewers who are trying to promote a global brand try and do is 'dumb down' the extremes in the tastes, so they become very bland, so the tastes don't offend anyone. They [become] beers that aren't bad but which aren't particularly good."

Budejovicky Budvar, which remains in state hands and invited the Camra delegation over to Prague, has launched a campaign to preserve quality production and recently set down "Ten commandments of bona fide Czech beer," whose tenents include: "Thou shalt use only Czech hops" and "Thou shalt not sacrifice quality for faster fermentation".

Camra's Iain Loe again.

"That trip on the 18th of November was taken by our chief executive, Mike Benner, and the editor of The Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz. And they'd been invited across, actually, by Budweiser [Budejovicky] Budvar, who were launching this campaign to highlight quality Czech beer and perhaps point out that some brewers were not producing as authentic, traditional Czech beer as may appear in some of their promotions."

But some member of the Czech beer industry say the makers of a competing brand, Pilsner Urquell, now owned by South Africa's SAB Miller, was unfairly singled out by Camra, whose executive director, Mike Benner, described it as a shadow of its former self — a watered down and more bitter brew.

Several Czech brewers this week even angrily suggested that Camra was somehow in the service of Budvar, a charge that Iain Loe roundly rejects.

"On occasions, beer writers from this country and other parts of Europe are invited across by brewers, whether they be Budweiser Budvar or Pilsner Urquell, who have invited people like Roger Protz over in the past. So it's nothing unusual. We see the campaign as not being a campaign for Budejovicky Budvar, but as a campaign for all those Czech brewers who are producing quality Czech beer."

The head of the Czech Beer and Malt Association, Jan Vesely, who once worked for Pilsner Urquell, acknowledges that the many brewers have changed the fermentation process since the early 1990s, but insists new technology has only served to improve the overall quality of Czech brews.

"Beer was fermented in wooden vessels — the main fermentation and even the barrels for maturation. The quality, for sure, could not be kept on that level because the equipment didn't allow that. And then, far before any strategic partner entered the gate of Pilsner Urquell — in '92 or '93, when it was a state enterprise — they decided to jump from 19th to 21st Century techniques and started to build cylindrical, conical tanks. The whole process adopted was changing, for sure. The only aim was to keep the final quality the same: unchanged."

Mr Vesely, who has worked in the Czech brewing industry for nearly three decades, says his association will probably not officially react to Camra's charges. Why bother? Domestic beer consumption — at 160 litres per person per year, or nearly a pint a day for every man, woman and child — is the highest in the world.

This year, Czech beer exports look set to reach a record 2.4 millions hectoliters and, Mr Vesely says, the United Kingdom — home to Camra — is the fastest-growing export market for Czech beers.

"Just imagine; every weekend dozens of EasyJets [budget flights] landing in Prague's airport with hundreds and hundreds of beer-drinkers, who are going back to the U.K. telling stories of fantastic [Czech] beer. I think this is the best marketing — and free of charge, you know!"