The Czech love affair with beer

PRAGUE — It's almost a ritual for Czechs to walk to the corner pub or nearby restaurant — whose tables mushroom out onto the sidewalks — on hot summer days to drink beer.

Czechs and the millions of tourists who flock to Prague every year seemingly agree that there is something special about the local brews. The Czechs are the largest per capita beer consumers in the world, downing 1.58 billion liters last year. (That's 320 16-oz glasses of beer for every man, woman and child.)

“It's fresh, it's sparkling, it's refreshing,” said Lenka Fialova, while nursing a Pilsner Urquell, the most popular of all Czech lagers.

Given that it isn't just Czechs who like guzzling the national treasure, but visitors too, analysts at the Research Institute of Brewing and Malting are engaged in a comprehensive project to try to prove, once and for all, that Czech beer is the best — or at least the most "drinkable," according to Vera Honigova, the manager of R&D at the institute.

“We want to be the first who will set up a methodology to assess drinkability — how to recognize if one beer is more drinkable than the other,” she said.

Owned by the breweries but with additional financing from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Institute of Beer — as it is light-heartedly referred to sometimes — is pouring $780,000 into the research over the next five years.

“We believe that this phenomena, called drinkability, is a special phenomena for Czech beer,” she continued. “For instance, foreigners visiting the Czech Republic recognize this feature of Czech beer; that having one beer, they want to drink another one.”

They'll have “to be sure that applying this methodology we will be able to prove Czech beer is more drinkable than Euro beers,” she said.

Indeed, if the methodology proved that, say, Heineken or Stella Artois was more drinkable than the Czech brews, that wouldn't boost Czech beer exports. Despite the huge consumption at home — which outpaces other beer quaffing countries like Germany and Ireland, and is about two times the European Union average — Czech brewers hold just a sliver of the EU beer market.

The country's 47 industrialized breweries produced 4.1 billion pints of beer last year, according to Honigova. About 20 percent of that was exported to the free trade-zone of the EU, with its 500 million consumers, and beyond.

Clearly there is room for export growth. And while liquid amber consumption has declined in other prominent beer-drinking countries, Honigova says it has held steady here. But she worries that the country has reached a saturation point.

“We are the biggest drinkers, still,” she said. “We don't see any tendency towards decline. Beer consumption in the Czech Republic is stagnating because we cannot drink more, I guess.”

While she says their exports are growing there is a desire to accelerate that growth.

Beer is one thing, but beer culture is something else. And in considering why Czechs love their beer, it can't be overlooked.

In addition to running an engineering and consulting firm for breweries, Petr Janik is co-owner of a microbrewery/restaurant called Pivovarsky Dum. One of only a handful of microbreweries in and around Prague, Janik's brewery doesn't export abroad. It doen't even bottle the beer for domestic consumption.

One has to walk into the restaurant to get a fresh taste of one of the 600 pints per day that come out of the tap. That's just 211,000 pints per year, a fraction of the 422 million pints produced annually by Staropramen, one of the country's largest breweries.

For Czechs a local brewery is kind of like a local sports team — the community identifies itself with the proverbial home team.

“If I sell this beer in other pubs it has no contact with this brewery,” Janik said. “And they can buy beer from other breweries, so I think it's necessary to sell it here.”

Plus, bottling and transportation costs quickly become onerous for a microbrewery, especially in a country where most of the drinking is done in public.

“The historic culture is that we drink a lot of beer in pubs, not from bottles, and cans,” Janik said. “We drink a lot of draft beer with our friends. If I bring beer home in a bottle I drink one. If I'm out in a pub with friends I drink five or six.”

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