Brewers revive pride in local brands

Trend sees long-shuttered facilities transformed into microbreweries, brewpubs

Big breweries may have an economy-of-scale, but a growing number of microbrewers seems to say there is still hope for the little guy.

In a trend echoed in the United Kingdom, skilled brewers and entrepreneurs are returning to their hometowns to reopen breweries, many of which had been shuttered since the 1950s. For the beer-loving businessman, it’s about recreating the connection between town and beer, and capitalizing on the pride of residents in their local brand.

“With microbreweries, it’s not about competition,” says Daniel Louda, manager of the newly opened Pivovar Antoš in Slaný, a town 25 kilometers northwest of Prague. “We can’t compete with the big breweries, but we can offer something different.”

A century ago, the Czech Republic had nearly 400 breweries. As of 1948, there were 80 breweries and two microbreweries. By 1989, the number had dropped to 65. Three years ago, Tomáš Erlich, president of the Sdružení přátel piva (Friends of Beer Union), who says the trend of new microbreweries is “obvious and steady,” predicted that in five years’ time there would be 150 microbreweries.

“At present, there are 104 – which almost matches my estimates,” he says. “Two years from now, it shouldn’t be far from my prediction.”

He adds that 20 more microbreweries are currently in the works, and cites Slaný’s Antoš and Labuť pivovar Litoměřice, a husband-and-wife run brewpub that opened in February, as among those following a centuries-old tradition.

“Beer consumers sickened by the unified beers being churned out by the large-scale producers have finally started to realize the difference and want to pay more for quality and experience of taste,” Erlich says.

The country’s biggest breweries – Plzeňský prazdroj, Staropramen, Budějovický Budvar, Starobrno and Drinks Union – saw a collective 12 percent decline in volume sales last year, according to the Czech Beer and Malt Association (ČSPS), with some of that decline coming from small- and midsize breweries taking up more market share. A Euromonitor report last month noted a similar trend.

Plzeňský Prazdroj, owner of brands Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus and Kozel and controller of 48 percent of domestic sales, saw its total sales drop 6 percent in 2010. While the company’s exports grew 6 percent, to 840,000 hectoliters, domestic sales dropped 8 percent.

International breweries spend growing amounts on marketing their products, but local site-specific brands, like Antoš, benefit from the best marketing tool: word of mouth. Without spending a single crown on promotion, Antoš sold 15,000 liters of beer in its first three weeks. According to Louda, 90 percent of Antoš’s patrons are from Slaný, and the remaining 10 percent is made up of “beer tourists,” many from Prague corporate groups, like Czech Airlines and PwC, but some from as far away as Belgium.

Josef Paulík, owner of Pivovar Antoš, says “fate” assembled his team, including Louda and brewmaster David Máša.

Paulík lived in Prague in the 1990s, “in a time when Krušovice ruled,” and dreamed of opening a brewery. He moved to Slaný and fell in love with a dilapidated building near the town square – which happened to be a 16th-century brewery.

Under the watchful eyes of conservationists, Paulík financed its reconstruction with funding from the Culture Ministry, a loan and a big chunk of his own money.

A native of Slaný, Louda lived in Prague, working at five-star hotels and the Potrefená husa Staropramen gastropub in Anděl. When he heard what his friend Paulík was up to, he jumped at the chance to return to his hometown. Máša, likewise, had been hoping to settle back in his native Slaný, after spending several years abroad, brewing in Mexico, South Korea, Moldova and most recently Iceland (which he says has excellent beer).

So far, the brewery’s lineup includes, in addition to its light lager, an American-style ale, an amber ale and a range of seasonal specials.

“The number of microbreweries could easily double,” Máša says. “Every city with more than 20,000 residents could open one.”

Louda says they hope to cooperate with other microbreweries and brewpubs to create a sort of exchange program to boost brand awareness. At the moment, Antoš is hosting beer from Pivovarský dvůr Chýně, a brewery on Prague’s outskirts.

Chýně pioneered the brewpub concept in the Czech Republic, opening its microbrewery-restaurant in 1992, and in many ways acts as a godfather to fledgling breweries. Únětický pivovar, in the town of Únětice (10 kilometers north of Prague), even brewed its first batch of beer, made especially for Únětice residents celebrating Masopust, using Chýně’s facilities. Its own brewery won’t be fully operational until spring.

The original Únětický pivovar ended production in 1949, after communist nationalization. The building served as a dairy storage until it was bought by Štěpán Tkadlec, who previously worked for Staropramen along with his wife; both studied brewing at university.

Tkadlec says he noted the trend in reopening microbreweries and purchased the plot in November 2010.

He and his wife put all their own resources into reopening the brewery, which at the moment has only the inscription on the front and a cornerstone dating from 1710 that hints at its future.

The mayor of Únětice, Vladimír Vytiska, couldn’t be more excited about the brewery being rebuilt.

“A brewery is one of the most important buildings in a town, after the school and the cultural center,” he says.

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