Czechs defend beer

CAMRA calls some Czech brands 'shadow of their former selves'

Nov 29, 2004 - A British consumer group charges the quality of Czech beer has deteriorated, but Czech brewers aren't impressed.


"What can the Brits tell us Czechs about the quality of beer? It's as if we Czechs went to France and told them how to make champagne," said Jan Vesely, chairman of the Czech Brewing and Malthouse Association, describing them as "unfair, incompetent and insulting."

Britain's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) claims the increasing dominance of international brewers is ruining Czech beer's unique and traditional taste.

"The quality of Czech beer produced by some of these breweries has deteriorated. They are perhaps skimping on the quality with cheaper malt and hops and reduced lagering times. There is also less choice of brands for consumers," said Iain Low, CAMRA's research and information manager.

Loe also pointed out that some Czech beer brands were increasingly being brewed abroad under licence. "Consumers are being fooled into believing these are genuine Czech beers when they are a shadow of their former selves," he said.

Loe singled out Plzensky Prazdroj, owned by the SABMiller group, which controls 47% of the Czech market. Prazdroj, brewer of the world-famous Pilsner Urquell, brews its beer under licence in neighboring Poland, Slovakia and Russia.

"Pilsner Urquell now is nothing like the full-bodied beer it was three or four years ago. The brewing time has been cut while the company is increasingly brewing under licence," said Loe.

Plzensky Prazdroj insists its brewing methods and ingredients have not changed. "This criticism is unfair towards our very experienced brewmasters. There is no change in the quality of our beer -- if anything it is constantly improving," Prazdroj spokesman Alexej Bechtin said.

Bechtin said laboratory tests showed the beer was the same today as it was a century ago, and he defended the quality of its beer brewed under licence.

"The whole brewing process takes more than 40 days, which our experts are convinced is the optimal period. That has not changed since we installed cylindrical-conical tanks in 1992," he said.

Vesely said equipment changes were necessary. "In the early 1990s, beer was fermented in wooden vessels. The quality for sure could not be kept at that level, the equipment didn't allow that. They decided to jump from the 19th to the 21st century," he said. "The only aim was to keep the final quality the same - unchanged."

Jaroslava Lstiburka, deputy chairman of Czech brewing group Drinks Union, agreed that some brewers were under pressure to reduce their costs to improve their bottom line. "The quality of some labels is falling and they are becoming 'Eurobeers' thanks to the interests of shareholders," he said.

"But many Czech brewers continue to brew their beer in the traditional way and you can't say the quality of Czech beer in general is getting worse. It's up to consumers to choose and they would drink something they didn't like the taste of."

Mike Benner, executive director of CAMRA, said it was not his group's intention to insult anybody. "We're not trying to stick our noses in where it's not wanted. We realize we're British consumers. We're not trying to tell the Czechs what to do," he said.

"But we do think that there is a danger the Czech beer market could lose its reputation around the world as a quality product. And we'd like consumers to get involved in fighting back on that."

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