Jan Vesely - Czech beer better, not worse thanks to foreign investment
Rob Cameron's guest in One on One is Jan Vesely, chairman of the Czech Beer and Malt Association. Czech beer has been very much in the news recently, after a British group called the Campaign for Real Ale or CAMRA warned that the world-famous Czech brew could be in danger of losing its taste. CAMRA says the modern production methods used by the big multinational brewers that control much of the Czech beer industry are threatening the unique quality of this country's beers - charges that have infuriated Czech brewers and Czech beer lovers.
Jan, Czech beer has been called the best in the world. Does it still deserve that title?
"Sure, it truly has that title and that ranking."
Czechs still have the highest per capita beer consumption in the world, with each person consuming around 160 litres a year. What about your own personal contribution to that statistic. How much do you drink a week?
"Well, that's quite a simple question, difficult to answer! I would say I keep to about two beers a day. I mean two half litre glasses a day, in the evening, because of driving and everything. I must say I drink a lot of non-alcoholic beer just to help me survive during working hours."
And of the alcoholic beers, what's your favourite?
"You know it's difficult. I've been the president of the Czech Brewing Association for twelve years and president of the European Brewery Convention for the last two years, so it's difficult to make any ranking and give any privileges. But to be honest, speaking from the bottom of my soul, I must say I prefer Pilsner Urquell. Which for instance my wife doesn't like that much because it's too strong in taste, too bitter, too bready, and so on. But when I'm at the cottage, in the Krkonose Mountains, we very frequently buy a local beer - Svijany - and we also visit the brewery and meet our friends there, because I've got friends everywhere. And we buy that Svijany beer for our cottage in crates."
What about CAMRA's claims, that big multinationals that control such brands as Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen are using imported hops and malt, they've cut the ageing time by up to one half in places, they've even started brewing Czech beers under licence in other countries - and all this, says CAMRA, means that Czech beer will soon taste like any other beer. They've got a point haven't they?
"You know I don't want to evaluate the activities of CAMRA. To be honest I personally take it as arrogant behaviour. As arrogant as if we made a delegation and came to Paris and tried to advise French wine-makers how to produce wine. But OK, in a democratic society everybody has the right to express his own opinion. But to answer your question. When our modern history of Czech brewing started, in 1990, the technical level of equipment was extremely poor. During the forty years of Communism, practically no investment went into brewing and malting, mainly brewing. In 1990, fifteen years ago, some beers were produced in wooden vessels. Open vessels in main fermentation and maturation in wooden casts."
You say there's been some progress in technology, but is Czech beer made with Vietnamese hops, brewed in Poland still Czech beer?
"Czech beer was always produced with raw materials based largely on domestic production, but not exclusively. Saaz hops weren't used purely for Czech beer, even back in history. And just as the situation with investment was difficult, so was the situation with access to hard currency. There was no possibility to buy high-quality hops from Germany for instance, the only possibility [during Communist times] was to buy them from Vietnam, China, North Korea. So this is nothing new in our history, and now the raw materials are better."
"The trend is totally opposite. The quality of Czech beer increased incredibly over the last 15 years. There's no comparison with the majority of beers fifteen years ago. Not only shelf life, but also all the hygiene and sanitary conditions. Yes, it's true, that sometime in history every beer from every brewery had a specific sensory profile - or taste and smell, to be more human in my expressions. But I must say this trend of losing this specific sensory value is very positive. Because the reason for the specific taste and smells was different contamination of specific breweries. Breweries were contaminated by bacteria. There were some high-level breweries, but the majority were suffering. And no-one could help themselves because there was no money for substantial improvement. Now, in the new conditions, it's true that beer is more standardised and perhaps one beer is closer to another. But for me it's very positive, because at least now we can be sure that it's just beer yeast that's found in beer as a final product!"
What about the fate of small breweries and lesser known beers? The smaller Czech breweries are being pushed out of business because they can't reproduce the kind of profit margins of the big ones. CAMRA are right to point that out aren't they?
"You know, usually the breweries that leave the market are small, because they have lost a substantial part of their volume. But originally they were not small, but middle-sized. The main threat in Czech breweries is not being faced by the small breweries, but by the middle-sized ones. Because they are too large to enjoy that local patriotism, and too small to build national brands and have advertising everywhere. So they are in the gap in-between. They lose volume, and when it falls below critical mass, they die financially. At the moment of dying they are small, but originally - in practically three-quarters of cases - they were middle-sized breweries. It's a process that's happened everywhere."
Beer has played a defining role in the cultural history of the Czech nation. Do you think it will continue to play an important role in the future?
"Yes, I think so. I hope so. I'm sure it will happen, because I've been in brewing for 27 years, and it's a substantial part of my life."