Czech microbrew trend hits a quarter century

Craft beer accounts for only 2 percent but has changed the market

The first Czech microbrewery of the modern era is about the celebrate it 25th anniversary. Pivovarský dvůr Chýně began operation May 25, 1992.

The end of communism saw a big shakeup in beer brewing, with many smaller, inefficient breweries going out of business and others being bought up by larger firms so even if the name remained, it was just part of the range of a bigger label.

The big brewers were being bought up by international beverage concerns, and pubs were signing long-term exclusive contracts.

At the time, opening up a microbrewery seemed to be running against the trend of consolidation. A microbrewery produces up to 10,000 hectoliters per year. Large industrial brewers make millions of hectoliters per year.

In the Czech Republic there are now approximately 350 microbreweries and 44 industrial breweries. The largest concentrations of microbreweries is in Prague with 33, while Brno and Plzeň both have eight. The South Moravia region has 45 and Central Bohemia has 40, according website Pividky.cz.

New entrants are coming all the time, and some are in unusual locations. A brewery on a boat in the Vltava river called Loď pivovar recently opened in Prague. Minipivovar Luční Bouda opened in 2012 and brews beer at Pec pod Sněžkou, a town on the tallest mountain in the country, Sněžka in the Krkonoše Mountains. It is the highest brewery in the country.

Over the past quarter century some places that used to produce beer have gone back into production, trading on the past history. The new brew pub Pivovar U Supa on Prague's touristy Celetná Street claims to have roots going back to the 15th century making it the oldest brew pub in the city, if you ignore the several century gap.

They are not the only ones to do that. The municipal brewery in Kutná Hora re-opened this year, but sports the date 1573 on the label. The new microbrewery in Poděbrady has 1502 on the label.

Sometimes the dates refer do the start of a brewing tradition in a town, as the original brewery building isn't used.

The microbreweries are also benefiting from the new trend for “craft” foods and small production, a backlash against corporate chains, globalization and mass production.

Some 23 microbreweries have vanished from the list since 1989. Some grew into larger breweries, so are no longer counted a micro. Pivovar Únětice, just outside of Prague, now makes too much beer to be truly called a microbrewery anymore. Others, though, simple shut down for various reasons ranging from poor quality to bad business decisions.

Although microbreweries now account for just about 2 percent of Czech beer production, they have had a large impact, especially in recent years. While most large producers make variations on the Pilsner-style lagers, and perhaps a dark beer, microbreweries have expanded the Czech palate with India pale ales, wheat beers and many other varieties. This has forced the big brewers to reconsider their level of quality and also their range of flavors.

The microbreweries have also launched a new kind of tourism, as beer tourists are no longer satisfied with sampling the same potions they can now get as imports off of a supermarket shelf.

But while Pivovarský dvůr Chýně kicked off a new wave of microbreweries, there were some older ones that had lasted through history. Prague, for example, has U Fleků, which has been in operation since 1499. In a bit of a passing of the torch from one generation to another, a brewer from U Fleků named Ivan Chramosil made the first batch of beer at Pivovarský dvůr Chýně.

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