If you appreciate fine beer and you plan to tour Europe, then the Czech Republic will be high on your list of places to visit. You had better hurry, though, for the entire European brewing tradition is under threat at the hands of global brewers.
The renowned Czech brewery Budweiser Budvar is so concerned about developments in its own country that it has launched a consumer campaign based on what it calls the Ten Commandments of good brewing practice. Budvar ages its premium beer for 90 days, while a new bock-style Bud Super enjoys a remarkable 120 days in the lager cellar.
Budvar warns beer drinkers that the dedicated craftsmanship that created the first pale lager beer in Pilsen in the 1840s and transformed brewing worldwide is under concerted attack. It cites the case of Pilsner Urquell—the original pilsner—where aging has been reduced from 60 days to 27. SABMiller, a merger of South African Breweries and Miller of Milwaukee, now owns Pilsner Urquell.
The group dominates Czech brewing: it also owns Gambrinus, Radegast and Velke Popovice. The other major force is Interbrew, which owns Prague Breweries, where Staropramen is the leading brand.
SABMiller claims that after 30 days in the lager cellar the yeast has no more work to do. Aging beer for more than 30 days, the group says, results in liquid lying in tanks that could be used more profitably for fresh brews. Josef Tolar, brew master at Budweiser Budvar, vigorously contests this view. He believes that long aging produces beer with greater finesse, aroma and flavor.
Budvar’s concern is not restricted to aging. It criticizes other Czech brewers for tampering with fermentation temperatures to speed up production and introducing cheaper ingredients, such as malt and hop extracts.
Budvar’s campaign is not entirely altruistic. While its overseas sales continue to grow—it’s sold as Czechvar in the United States—the brewery has lost market share at home as a result of the well-heeled onslaught of Interbrew and SABMiller. Budvar hopes its insistence on using only the finest ingredients and a long aging process will appeal to a younger “green generation” concerned about fast food and over-reliance on chemicals, fat and sugar.
But a few glasses of Budvar in the bars of Ceske Budejovice should convince skeptics that the brewery is also fighting for the soul of beer.
Dramatic Change at Burton
Interbrew outraged British beer lovers in September when it announced it planned to close Boddingtons Brewery in Manchester and move production of Bass ales to Marston’s plant in Burton-on-Trent.
Interbrew bought both the Bass and Boddingtons brands in 2000. The British government told Interbrew to off-load some of its interests, as the group’s market share broke competition guidelines. Coors arrived on the British brewing scene, bought the former Bass breweries in Burton, and continued to brew Bass ales for Interbrew.
Interbrew was anxious to break its links with Coors but was aware that Bass is synonymous with Burton and the beers would lose credibility if they left the town. It has now struck a deal with Marston’s to move Bass to the town’s other major plant.
At the same time, Interbrew said it would axe Boddingtons and transfer production to plants in North-west England and South Wales. Boddingtons Bitter was once a superb pale ale, straw-colored, rich in malt, fruit and hops, and sold only in cask-conditioned form. Today, cask Boddingtons accounts for only ten percent of total production. Bass has followed a similar tragic decline; this world-renowned brand is so reduced that it can be brewed by Marston’s, its arch rival in Burton-on-Trent.
A different attitude exists among regional brewers. Fuller’s of West London is committed to cask beer production and its London Pride brand is now the biggest-selling premium ale in the country. It has also been doing some in-depth work on its famous strong pale ale, Extra Special Bitter.
Sales of ESB have faltered in recent years. It seems some drinkers are deterred by the strength of the beer. Fuller’s brewers have responded by maintaining both the recipe and the strength of the beer but allowing it to lie in conditioning tanks after fermentation for 21 days on a bed of Goldings hops. The beer has a spicy and peppery hop aroma and palate that balances the renowned rich, orange fruitiness.
ESB drinkers are now presented with a beer that doesn’t overwhelm the tastebuds with sheer alcohol and fruit but also offers a solid hop presence. It speaks volumes for Fuller’s commitment to its brands that it has sensitively improved ESB’s appeal instead of panicking, reducing the strength and destroying its rich heritage.
Roger Protz is a respected beer authority and author of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, as well as many other books on good beer, including The Ale Trail and the Real Ale Almanac.