Bitter Days For Czech Brewers...And For The Pub Crawlers Of Prague

To be Czech, so the old song goes, you must drink Czech beer. And it's safe to say that as the nation with the highest annual beer consumption in the world (165 liters per person), the Czech Republic is in no danger of an identity crisis. But the beer, or pivo, being downed in local pubs these days may be. Some connoisseurs insist it tastes more American--such as from Idaho, a big producer of U.S. hops. In a cruel irony, the world-renowned Czech hops have become too costly for Czech brewers. With American, Japanese, and German demand driving up price, small and midsize Czech breweries are resorting to lesser-quality, low-cost U.S. hops.

Last year, 80% of the Czech hops crop was sold abroad. Anheuser-Busch Cos. bought 1,500 tons of the famed hops--as much as all Czech brewers combined, said Zdenek Sokol, who represents the largest hops exporter in the country. Under communism, Czech brewers were obliged to use only the local product. But today, some brewers use as little as 20% Czech hops.

Many Czech beer fanciers have tasted something amiss. This is a country that takes suds seriously. Pilsner beer originated in the Czech town of Plzen. President Vaclav Havel worked in a brewery during his dissident days. There's even a political party, The Friends of Beer, that pays homage to the golden gulp. Yet the secret behind the superlative Czech beers has been the Czech hops. People have tried to cultivate Bohemian hops elsewhere without success. It's a taste, experts say, that can't be duplicated.

The fate of the hops is only the latest development in the transformation of the Czech brewing industry from a state to a private affair. Of the Czech Republic's 71 breweries, 85% have been privatized. Industry analysts estimate as few as 40 breweries may be operating five years from now, including high-volume brands such as Budweiser Budvar and Pilsner Urquell, and low-volume traditional brewers. The casualties will most likely be the cash-strapped, midsize breweries. "There has to be a decision," insists Jiri Soukup, a food and beverage analyst with Wood & Co. in Prague, "to keep the high quality or lower the cost by using the new technology."

AFICIONADOS. International breweries eager to tap into the Czech market have been quick to rush to the aid of brewers opting for new technology. Bass Brewers bought a 34% share in Prazsky Pivovary, which produces Staropraven. Heineken is courting Pilsner Breweries, and Anheuser-Busch is trying to acquire its Czech namesake, Budweiser Budvar. Whether such partnerships lower the quality of Czech beer will depend on whether they respect the traditional recipes and brewing methods.

Still, some aficionados fear that the legendary Budweiser Budvar might someday taste like its U.S. namesake. Already many breweries have exchanged the aged oak barrels for stainless steel vats and altered processing to lengthen shelf life. "Many Czechs were willing to concede that we can't make cars right, and so they did not object to Volkswagen buying into Skoda," said Antonin Kratochvile, director of the Czech Beer & Malt Assn. "But the majority of people here believe we know how to make beer."

The beer in the mug is not the only thing undergoing a revolution in Czech pubs. In many of the newly privatized pubs, the traditional coasters you brandish to order a beer now bear German beer logos, glasses are being used instead of mugs, and modern refrigeration has replaced ancient cellars for cooling. Worse yet, a boom in tourism is forcing many regulars out of their favorite pubs.

"Every day for 24 years I used to go to U Kocoura [The Tomcat]," remembers Vojteck Halbick. "But things got bad there. People who had no idea about beer started coming. So I had to leave the pub." He is now one of the regulars frequenting famed U Zlateho Tygra [The Golden Tiger], the 13th century pub where President Bill Clinton and President Havel shared a beer a year ago. So far, Vojteck hasn't had a problem finding a seat. He has been going to his new pub every day for the past 20 years.

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