In Bohemian brewing, the shining star moments that distinguish the Czech Republic as a global trendsetter in beer were born during a time not so long ago.
The 19th century introduced new brewing techniques, refined tools, and the light lager. These combined to give us the products that built the Czech pride of beer that exists today. And for brewers and consumers alike, entering the 20th century seemed to be as promising as for a reader flipping the page to an exciting new chapter. Except, the story waiting on the other side doesn’t consist of a Fairytale, but rather a grim twist belonging to Game of Thrones that would plummet the heartline of brewing over the next 100 years on a rollercoaster-like trip that against all odds would resurface scattered, but intact.
Rise of Communism and nationalization of breweries
While World Wars I & II certainly tested the breweries in Czechoslovakia, there remained about 260 active breweries within the country. The final nail in the coffin would be brutally hammered by the beginning of Communism in 1948. The Communist Party effectively exiled the former government and began their procedure for nationalization across the country. Ownership of over 90% of private enterprises at this time meant that breweries around the country no longer answered to brewmasters, common grain & hops farmers, or copper-and-steel industrial manufacturers. The modern-day lager was thrust into the hands of bureaucrats and politicians that oversaw all businesses. And it was with them that the reformation of Czechoslovak beer began.
Breweries were closed across the country or merged, creating simpler areas for production that the government could cut costs at. Breweries like Kynsperksy Pivovar which had been open for hundreds of years but were only servicing small rural areas, were exactly the kind of breweries that the government wanted to tear apart. It was using certain parts of their facilities after closing them to help with producing beer for their merged or collectivized breweries. By the end of the communist era, just over 70 breweries were active in the entire country. 44 of them were collectivized.
New era for Czech beer
The breweries themselves changed immensely internally – certain new tools that had begun to spread from the west were thrown away and a ban on new brewing practices was informally put into place. One way to ensure that no unneeded risks were taken by the brewers was by forcing the use of only two recipes for beer – one light, one dark. This would help prioritize spending as little as possible on ingredients. It led to a resurgence amongst drinkers for mixing their beer at the pubs, with bartenders filling a glass with light and dark beer directly from the tap to make a DIY Granat mixture. Even following the lift of these enforced recipes, mixing beers remained highly popular in and outside of Prague. Even larger breweries such as Staropramen relying on bars that serve their beer to mix it themselves rather than send them an amber brew on tap.
But even as the list goes on, with the insulting attacks of the communist regime on the brewing world, some positives helped brewers and drinkers alike. One of those was strict price control, where across the country beers were set at a certain price no matter where you went. The prices were only changed for currency inflation over time. This lasted until 1984 when the government did finally raise prices just before the demise of the Soviet Union. Another positive byproduct of the communist attitude, no, fear towards change, was that unlike other Western nations that had refined tools for speeding up fermentation and ruined their rice-free malt recipes, Czechoslovakia maintained the same pure, time-tested process for brewing high-quality beer. Old school methods helped maintain the best versions of beer possible in our domestic production. Entering the 1990s, we hadn’t adopted nearly as many cheap practices as other Western nations in brewing our beer.
All of this meant that after the Velvet Revolution, the Czechoslovak brewing scene was ripe with curiosity for new, engaging flavors and brewing methods. With over 430 breweries running today, there is a massive diversity in size, recipe, and demographic, especially as we see a rise in craft breweries spread across the country. Are you a fan of local Czech Craft Beer? Share your favorite Czech microbrew in the comments below!