Pals profit from “quality” trend with microbrewery

Vinohradský pivovar, photo: Ian Willoughby

Jan Korselt says he and his friends aimed to reinvent Czech lager with Vinohradský Pivovar – and that people are now willing to pay for better fare.

Vinohradský pivovar, photo: Ian Willoughby
Jan Korselt was at Reuters for over a decade before jacking in journalism for a different career entirely: running the Vinohradský Pivovar microbrewery in Prague’s Vinohrady district with a group of his buddies. When we spoke over a delicious 11-degree pivo, the conversation took in everything from the best kind of beer glass to the smoking ban imposed in May. But I first asked Korselt about the genesis of the brewery.

“This is actually a bunch of friends’ product, or business. Ten, maybe 15 years ago, when we first noticed there were microbreweries around, we travelled to Kacov, we travelled to Běleč u Hradce Králové and other places, and enjoyed their small beers.

“And we said, Let’s do something similar to that in Prague, because there were few places like that.

“These days you can find 20, maybe 30 microbreweries around Prague. Some of them are great.

“But at the time when we were thinking about our project there was almost nothing.

“Those places that existed were tourist-oriented and not very good.

“So we thought, Let’s do a place where we could reinvent the concept of Czech beer and Czech food.

“We were talking about this for five years maybe [laughs]. It was fun to discuss over a beer.

“And in the end we decided that we should actually do it – and we did it.

“It’s been almost three years since we opened up this place.”

“Our aim is not to create a new method of making beer – our goal is to get back to the roots and make beer the best way we can.”

Did you take the name from a previously existing Vinohradský Pivovar?

“Yes. The reason is we are actually renting this space from the Research Institute of Beer and Malt of the Czech Republic.

“They are very well-known all over the world. The institute is really respected.

“They own two buildings. One is on Lipova, down in the centre, and the other building is here.

“The rest of the brewery burned down back in 2000.”

So this place was a brewery before?

“This place was a fermentation cellar of the brewery. We are 20 times smaller than the brewery that was closed in 1946.

“We had the chance to rebuild, or continue, the tradition, even though none of the co-owners have anything in common with the former brewery.”

You yourself are a former journalist. Has it been a big learning curve getting into the beer business?

“Yes. Following politics or Czech business for 13 years makes you a bit exhausted, because you have a chance to get to know some of the shady stuff that people are doing, but you never know the truth.

Jan Korselt in the heart of his microbrewery, photo: Ian Willoughby
“Here you have a chance to actually create something, which is fun.

“You taste your beers and you say, This beer is a little too bitter or a little too sweet, so let’s do it different.

“So you have the chance to influence the business at the very moment…”

Well I wanted to ask you if you yourself played a role in creating your main 11-degree lager.

“Of course I did. Of course I did. Me and my friends, actually.

“We were sitting over a beer and thinking, What’s our main product?

“Our goal was to reinvent the best-known production method for Czech lager and the 11-degree beer was an easy target.

“We are not inventing anything new. Our aim is not to create a new method of making beer – our goal is to get back to the roots and make beer the best way we can.

“The beer should be easy-drinking, Czech-style beer. And that’s what we actually achieved, I strongly believe.

“Because people that we have seen in our pub, or that we have seen in the bars that we deliver beer to, are coming back every day.

“That’s actually what we wanted. Because at the time, coming back to the microbrewery business 10 years ago, everybody was trying to make their own beer.

“That’s fine, that’s good. We loved their beers. But you would not actually come back the next day, because the beers were too specific.”

So it’s kind of an experience [at such places] – you have some strong, interesting beer, but you don’t want to come back for more?

“Exactly. We supply pubs and their guests are regulars. So it’s not like they would go and taste the beer and then go elsewhere because they are full, or exhausted, with one type of beer.

“Czech lager is beer for drinking every day. And you should have at least three of them, every day [laughs]!”

“That’s the funny thing about Czech lager – it’s beer for drinking every day. And you should have at least three of them, every day [laughs]!”

Is your dedication to tradition why you have gone for these heavy glasses, with the dappled glass?

“At the time when we were applying for the building permit, and waiting for the project actually to happen, we had time to experiment.

“And, for example, we experimented with glasses. We found out that this glass is absolutely the best for Czech lager.

“This glass conserves foam the longest. It makes beer last longer in the quality that you actually want it.”

It looks cool, also.

“And it looks cool, as well. But it’s the most expensive glass on the market.”

After three years of running a brewery and a restaurant, do you still enjoy drinking beer as much as you did before?

“Of course I do. I still adore many microbreweries.

“I love to go to Hostivar. I love to go to Unětický pivovar. I love to go to Malešický pivovar. Their beers are great.

“The only problem I have is that it’s hard for me to go to the local supermarket, because there’s no beer for me. For me as a consumer it has become a little more difficult, but…”

Downstairs at Vinohradský pivovar, photo: Ian Willoughby
You’ll survive.

“Yes, I have my own beer [laughs].

“It’s fun. It’s fun. And it pays back, in a way. Not in money, but people come back to you and they say that your beer is one of the best that they have ever tasted.

“So it’s fantastic.”

Other pubs and bars in Prague also sell your beer. Do you target a particular kind of business to sell your beer to? I haven’t noticed it in kind of old school places. I see it more in newer, hipster-style places. Is that a deliberate strategy? Or is it simply because new places don’t have longstanding relationships with older breweries?

“There is a story behind this. Our beer is not the cheapest on the market, so you wouldn’t find it in the cheap pub next door.

“Because our brewmaster makes it basically with his own hands. He controls all the production process, from the very beginning to the end.

“He does the brewing process. And then he controls the fermentation process. And then he watches over the beer when it’s in the lager cellar.

“Obviously it’s a little more expensive than beers made in an industrial style.

“You mentioned the hipster community. You’re right in a way.

“Our best clients are places where people know what they’re eating and what they’re drinking.

“For example, we have unbelievable success in a place which is called Mr. HotDog, at Letná. They’re selling hotdogs, well-made…”

“These days, people care about quality, about diversity. And they have more money.”

It’s a kind of high-end hotdog, not a párek v rohlíku.

“Yes, it’s a 100-crown product. And it goes naturally with our beer.”

So your beer is for people who are prepared to spend a bit more for quality?

“Yes. Exactly.”

How has the smoking ban impacted your business, if it has?

“We lost our competitive advantage, because we opened up as a non-smoking place a few years ago.

“We were one of the few at the time. And since then people found out that actually non-smoking bars are a great business plan.

“So when the smoking ban was introduced we actually lost a competitive advantage against our competitors.

“Because it’s so easy, you know. You just ban smoking and suddenly you see families, you see women, you see civilised people [laughs].

“Some of them are smokers. They would go outside and smoke their cigarette, or two, but they are not crazy to smoke one after another.

“And there are so many people of this kind.”

I wanted to ask you a quite general question. Obviously, beer is still a big part of Czech culture, but have there been visible changes in the kind of Czech drinking culture, say in the last 20 or 25 years, do you feel?

“You should probably ask somebody else. Because I’m not an expert in beer-making and I’m not an expert on beer in general. I’m a fan.

“But, one thing is very simple. Twenty-five years ago opening a small brewery would basically be a way to bankruptcy.

The upper level at Vinohradský pivovar, photo: Ian Willoughby
“Because at that time people were much more interested in cheapness and volume.

“These days, people care about quality, about diversity. And also people have more money, and obviously they want to spend it on better products.

“For example, some of our important clients are selling farm-produced foods and they manage to sell organic stuff for twice the price of what you would spend on stuff from Agrofert.

“And it works. It’s similar with beer.

“The trend is people want volume, but it’s not their priority, and they appreciate quality more.

“Twenty-five years ago there were few breweries and most of them were industrialised and big.

“There was not much space for businesses like ours. Because there is no way to avoid it: We produce more expensive, so we sell more expensive.

“People appreciate it, because we deliver something that is a little different and something that they want.

“Twenty-five years ago, we would probably go bankrupt.”