As Czech beers are today, Pilsner Urquell has the name-recognition and go-to accessibility in every pub and bar around the country for it to claim the title as the most in-demand Czech beer. But this wasn’t always the case, and out of a crowded competition of pale lagers, milky stouts, and dazzling amber (granat) beers, the Prague-based Staropramen Brewery was once at the front of the pack.
The story of its rise to the top before being side-swiped off is one involving rampant competition, clever innovation, and ultimately, survival against all odds. And one key part of the brewery’s ability to persevere comes from it being built exactly where it is – over 150 years ago.
A short step back in time brings us to the mid-1800s, where Prague was reaching the peak of the industrial revolution. Those looking to capitalize off of new technology were eyeing the city’s land for the optimal lots to start building more factories. Smichov had been spotted as a potential area for establishing an industrial zone, and the brewery’s architects were given permission to start planning its construction by the end of the 1860s.
The location proved to be central, with easy routes for importing materials and exporting brews, and the brew masters were able to hop on new trends by incorporating technology that made brewing beer more cost-effective. The importance of having easy ways to ship out beer comes from the fact that the target demographic wasn’t the local city dwellers (at a time when Prague had a fraction of the population it has today) but rather the populace region of Ostrava.
With Staropramen beers first being sent out at the turn of the century, their rising popularity outside of the city helped cement themselves as the leader among the competition at that time. As breweries were expanding and popping up at an unprecedented rate, the chances of not being knocked out by competition were low. At that time, due to uncertainty for the brewery’s future, several different names for the brewery were bought – including “Pračep”, “Starosmíchovský”, and “Starozdroj” before continued success let the brewery settle on their original concept for the name.
And in the build-up to the World War II, Staropramen became the number one brewery in the country, touting a “premium lager” that was efficiently accessible to factory towns across the country. However, following the Communist accession to power and the nationalization of over 95% of Czechoslovak businesses, including Staropramen, a vision for continued success for the brewery was quickly lost over the horizon.
Through several cost-cutting practices, brewers were forced by government officials to follow strict recipes, limited to only two different kinds of beer (a light lager and a dark lager). These took advantage of weak ingredients, worsened in quality by the abuse of the faster, yet less careful brewing processes of certain industrial tools like artificial fermentation to prioritize quantity over quality. Following the end of the Communist area in 1989, Staropramen had to restructure and join partnerships in order to break out of the slump.
As the last remaining industrial brewery in the city, demand for new recipes and higher quality forced the brewery to adapt, which led to its increased popularity nationally and abroad. While it didn’t regain its position at the top following its privatization, today Staropramen continues to be one of the largest producers of beer in the country with the largest variety of non-seasonal beers available year-round (there are nine brews available directly at the brewery).
Featured image via Staropramen Brewery/website.