Enjoying a Czech beer in London

The TV in the corner at the Czech and Slovak Club in the north London suburb of West Hampstead carries a Czech TV broadcast of an Extraliga ice hockey game. A few young men, Czechs and Slovaks, keep one eye on the early evening hockey game, have a chat and enjoy a pint of quality Czech beer.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
The Czech and Slovak Club is actually two separate establishments in one building, the bar I'm in and a restaurant which serves traditional Czech foods. Robert Tuma is the manager of the pub, and I asked him how long the club had been in existence.

"Since 1946. It was apparently purchased by President Benes and Czech pilots and Czech soldiers' organisations from somebody, some lord. It was purchased by Benes and quite a few Czech old-timers who lived in this country before the Second World War."

Do you know if Benes himself ever came here?

"I don't know, I don't think so...I don't think so because Martin Barancic was his bodyguard during the war and he never mentioned it."

The man Robert Tuma is referring to, President Benes's former bodyguard Martin Barancic, is now in his 90s and actually lives on the premises of what is officially titled the Czechoslovak National House. The evening I was there Mr Barancic was behind the bar and evidently in good health for his age. Mr Tuma himself isn't so old but he too has been a fixture at the pub for many a year.

"As a customer since 1969, as a manager since 1992 or 1993, but my wife has been working here since 1969 as well."

Who are your customers here?

"Mainly Czechs and Slovaks and English. Some Polish as well, some Italians...it's frequented by local people as well, people who live nearby. Some people take it as their local."

Next door you have Czech TV: is that an attraction for young Czech people say who are away from home?

"Yeah, it is. Not only for young for old ones as well..."

It's the only way they can see the news, or whatever?

"Yeah, see the news and ice hockey matches, and some football matches as well."

But Czech TV isn't the main attraction at the Czech and Slovak Club - that has to be the chance to meet people and of course the beer. Given the fact the club has been there for so long, I was curious how it was importing Czech beer in the past.

"It was impossible up to about 1992. When I took over they didn't have Czech beer, only in bottles. We're talking about draft...you could get it in bottles before but not in kegs."

What changed then?

"There was a company called BB, they were sort of pioneers, they started to import the Czech lagers, namely Budvar, Gambrinus and Pilsner Urquell. And then they started to import kegs, the draft stuff as well."

What do you drink yourself?

"Oh, I'm a Pilsner Urquell or Gambrinus man. I like it bitter, you know."

In the London suburb of Parson's Green, in a classic English pub called the White Horse, I met not a Pilsner man but a Staropramen woman, specifically the company's "brand ambassador" in the United Kingdom, Misa Schirmerova. The White Horse, she told me, sells more Staropramen than any other pub in the whole of Britain. The best-known Prague beer has become ever more widely available in the UK since it was launched there in the mid-1990s by its former owner, Bass. While in the Czech Republic Staropramen is just a regular beer, in Britain it is seen as quite up-market and I asked Ms Schirmerova if the lager was being sold as a premium beer in the UK.

"I'd say it's super premium beer, above the other popular premium lagers."

In what sense is it "super premium"?

"For the people it's worth paying more because they can't see it so often, it's fairly exclusive. And the other thing is that it's an authentic import. It's not brewed somewhere here, it's imported from the country of origin and the Czech Republic has got great credibility for brewing beer, so that's why, and all the Czech beers in general are super premium here."

Who is the ideal Staropramen drinker for you?

"We are targeting professionals and people who appreciate the finer things in life and discerning drinkers and people who have been drinking for a while and they've found the taste they like and they're a bit older."

I'm curious if Staropramen here is exactly the same as you would get in Prague, because I'm drinking one at the moment and to me it seems a little bit gassy...

"Well, it's exactly the same product but obviously in the Czech Republic the pub owners treat beer with better care than here. It's a different way of serving and everything."

Do you have to train the English barmen to pull properly?

"(laughs) They are hard to train."

But it's not only a question of training bar staff, Staropramen are also trying to encourage British drinkers to choose a proper Czech beer with a classic frothy head. And to make that idea more palatable, they have introduced special "extra-large" glasses with room for a head above the pint line. Staropramen's Misa Schirmerova again.

"We want to implement the authentic Czech way of serving, which is about a big, proper head on the beer and therefore we have oversized glassware, which basically means they pour it only to the pint line and the rest is head, but it means education of customers."

So people think they are being overcharged if they get too much head?

"(laughs) Yeah, in general yes, but it's about education and as the market is turning into more and more premium people like to have their beer properly served and they are much more in favour of it now."

What other Czech beers are on sale in this country?

"The main competitors, or the biggest brands are obviously Budvar and Pilsner Urquell, but somewhere in Glasgow or in other areas, in the centre of London, you can see other Czech brands, but it's really a minority."

What's the best selling?

"The best selling Czech beer in the UK in total is Budvar. Staropramen is the biggest Czech draught on the UK market, Urquell is well behind both."

Back at the Czech and Slovak Club in West Hampstead, bar manager Robert Tuma and I enjoy a decent pint of Pilsner Urquell. Given the fact that Czech beer was hard to come by a few years ago, I was curious if the new-found wide availability of Czech-made lagers on the UK market meant that he had lost customers - did he see English pubs carrying say Staropramen as competition?

"It's not because it's undrinkable how they do it. They use the wrong gas. They serve the sort of pipe beer - what remains in the pipelines. It's basically lousy beer, it's an abomination (laughs) to proper Czech beer, because they don't really know...before you start you have to pour out three pints - they don't. Plus I've got only two kinds of beer so it's flowing constantly, they've got 25 so basically one man every three hour gets a Czech beer, or something like that. It's basically stale goods, and wrong gas and wrong taps..."

If the Czech beers in English pubs are badly pulled why are they popular?

"I don't know...because you see the name sort makes up for the taste (laughs) do you understand?"

I've heard English people don't like a head on their beer - they think they are being robbed. Do you have a head here?

"Yes, plenty of head. If I didn't have a head the people wouldn't come here, actually even the English people demand it. They got used to it, they are basically Czechoslovacised English who are coming here (laughs)."