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Prague: The rise of the microbreweries

It’s a sign I’ve been told to look out for, but it’s in the most unlikely place. Yet the suburban locals’ pub, full of gruff men chugging away on cigarettes, displays the magic words: Tankove Pivo.

Prague: The rise of the microbreweries
Image: By cloudz679 (U Fleku, Prague), via Wikimedia Commons

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My heart sinks. On tap, it’s Gambrinus, arguably the worst of the main Czech lager brands. But it only takes a couple of sips to realise something is different — it’s wonderfully fresh, tasting free of hangover-causing nasties.

The tanked beer is special, partly because it’s unpasteurised. It comes straight from the breweries in temperature-controlled trucks and has to be consumed fairly quickly after brewing. But a special storage system involving plastic bags inside pressurised steel tanks prevents the beer becoming oxygenated or exposed to light until it’s in the glass.

The embrace of tanked beer can, in some ways, be seen as the big Czech breweries fighting back. The cost of the technology means it’s only really viable for pubs and restaurants that get through an awful lot of beer in a week.

It’s an innovation in Czech brewing that comes alongside the rise of the microbreweries. The number of breweries in the country was dramatically concentrated during the communist era, and while quality has remained fairly high, until recently Prague pub-goers have faced a fairly uninspiring lack of choice. The general rule of thumb is that each pub or restaurant will be supplied by one brewer, and you get a choice between either their light or their dark beer. But increasing numbers are breaking free of the shackles, to either brew their own concoctions or stock beers from one of the country’s rapidly-growing band of microbreweries.

Jan Šuráň, chairman of the Czech Microbrewers’ Association, says there are now around 170 microbreweries in the country, a figure that grows by about 10% a year.

He believes this is partly following a global trend, and partly due to economic realities. “In the 1990s, the price of beer was low and the price of equipment was high. People would pay 12 crowns for a half litre of beer, but now the average is around 44 crowns.

“Over the same time, the price of buying and installing brewing equipment has gone down.”

Šuráň co-owns Pivovarský dům, which was something of a trailblazer when it opened 15 years ago. Efforts brewed on the premises include a banana beer (“It should be a horrible combination,” says Šuráň, “but it works.”) and a nettle beer.

“People are getting to know different styles and tastes from around the world. Now, if I brew an IPA, so many fans will come here to compare it to those from America they’ve tasted.”

There’s also a willingness to experiment with new ingredients. Traditionally, Czech brewers won’t look beyond Czech or German hops. But the new breed of microbrewers are prepared to import from the US, UK and New Zealand to get styles such as pale ales and stouts right.

The result is an increasing number of pubs like the Prague Beer Museum, which proudly brags of having 30 different microbrewery beers on tap. Forget your bog-standard Gambrinus — tasting platters featuring the likes of Kocour cherry beer, Ferdinand amber lager and Opat chocolate dark beer are changing Czech drinking habits. The Czechs still drink far more beer per capita than anyone else in the world, but there’s a growing shift towards quality rather than quantity.

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