Despite a lengthy beer heritage – including being the birthplace of pilsner lager – Eastern European brewers are currently suffering something of an identity crisis. Is it all down to the dumplings, wonders Nigel Huddlestone?
Few countries have had such a massive impact on the global beer landscape as the Czech Republic. When the beer style we now know as pilsner lager was first released into the world in the mid-19th century there could have been little inkling that 150 years later it would become the dominant force in beer that it is today.
Yet despite their influence, Czech beers – and those from neighbouring Eastern European countries – are arguably going through a confused time in their history. Fuelled by the craft brewing movements in the UK and US, ale is incredibly fashionable, and although lager still accounts for six out of 10 pints sunk in the on-trade, it’s a cluttered market dominated by multinational brands and a plethora of so-called ‘world beers’ all clamouring for a piece of the action.
Beers from Eastern Europe have been left jostling for a position with beers from Southern Europe, the Far East and the Americas, when arguably they should have a niche of their own.
Sometimes it seems even the guardians of the beers don’t know what to do with them – two major brewers who market between them a big Czech beer and a niche Russian one in the UK – declined to comment for this article because there just wasn’t much going on.
Perhaps it’s the lack of easy marketing hooks for Eastern European countries that makes them a hard sell. You can flog an Italian beer on style, a Spanish or Mexican one on sun and partying, an Indian one with a curry, an American one on wackiness and a Far Eastern one on mystery and exploration.
Handy gimmicks don’t come so easily to hand for the Czech Republic, Poland or Estonia.
The trick might be to look a bit more closely at the beer itself, because as well as a rich brewing heritage, the region also has some of the best-tasting lagers around, plus an interesting side order of niche dark beers that are equally worthy of exploration.
Some Czech beers, in particular, are arguably the brewing industry’s equivalent of royalty, and the robust, grassily-hopped, bitter likes of Bernard, Pilsner Urquell or Budvar are a world away from some of the wishy-washy, hot sunny day lagers that come from further afield.
Indeed, Budvar isn’t the only lager officially-endorsed by the Campaign for Real Ale for nothing.
‘They are very different,’ says Lucy Jordan, marketing manager at Pilsner Urquell supplier Miller Brands (UK). ‘Czech lagers are about high quality and distinctive flavour. They come from a country that has the highest per capita consumption on the planet, so they’re obviously very passionate about beer. Consumers are buying into them for their heritage, authenticity and provenance.’
Jordan says the product is at the heart of its promotional work, a large chunk of which revolves around an international bartender competition, backed up by training for on-trade accounts.
‘We focus on outlets with the right kind of quality,’ Jordan says. ‘It’s not so much about being top-end or mainstream but it needs to be an outlet that cares about beer, and knows how to serve the brand, with an authentic head size.
‘At least half a million Brits go to the Czech Republic a year, so they do see it served in the right way with the right glassware and have a bit of knowledge about the brand. They’re beer-savvy customers who are interested to know a little bit about what they’re drinking.’
Urquell’s strapline – ‘the original pilsner from Pilzen’ – assumes that their customers will find this provenance important. ‘It’s motivating for the consumer, people become quite passionate about the link,’ says Jordan.
Pils and Thrills
Meanwhile, Budvar UK sales director, Joe Laventure, says there has been a trend from bottled to draught for Czech beer in more recent times.
‘At one time, ourselves and one or two other brands were focused very much on bottles because at that time the draught option wasn’t a quality thing,’ he says. ‘It’s now come on leaps and bounds and there’s been a big change. Arguably, the bottle’s pasteurisation means a little bit of the taste will have been bleached out.
‘As well as the quality, there’s some value there for the consumer because they might pay £4.20 for a pint on draught but as much as £3.20 for a 33cl bottle.’
The British restaurant scene is obsessed with the idea that a country’s beer can only be drunk with its native cuisine – a restriction that’s curiously never imposed on wine – and there’s no doubt that the absence of a significant Eastern European restaurant scene doesn’t help the development of the region’s beers in the UK market.
‘Traditional Czech food is goulashes and hearty wintery food,’ says Laventure, ‘and we have the odd success where people have incorporated it into the back of the menu with a food suggestion.’
Jordan at Urquell adds: ‘All Bar One and the Czech & Slovak Bar & Restaurant in West Hampstead have done recipe matching. But even where we do match with food, we tend to focus on the beer quality. Pilsner Urquell has a robust flavour for a lager and would go especially well with hearty types of food.’
She suggests this could mean Brit favourites bangers and mash or pies, as much as authentic Czech stews.
But there’s no reason why Czech lagers shouldn’t have a wider food-matching role. The Molson Coors-distributed Zatec recently played a blinder at a beer tasting dinner at The White Horse in west London, where it was matched with tiger prawns with chilli, lime and lemongrass. The malty sweetness of the beer worked with the fleshiness of the prawns and the spicy hops stood up to the power of the chilli and lime dressing.
| In a glass darkly
While the Czech Republic is the home of golden beers, it also has a fine history of dark beers. Budvar Dark has shown signs of becoming a significant niche player in the UK market, buoyed by a surge of interest in black beers generally.
The beer is the classic tale of an ancient recipe retrieved from the vaults.
‘We first aired it at the Great British Beer Festival a couple of years ago and it’s grown steadily since,’ says the UK arm’s Joe Laventure. ‘It’s got quite a cross-section of followers.
‘We got a call the other day from Claridge’s, where they’d been stocking Budvar for some time, and they’re selling it quite happily at £7.50 a bottle. We agreed to do staff training to get them enthused about beer. Staff in top-end bars might need that if they’re more used to talking about fine wine.’
If Czech beers are struggling for an identity, where does that leave the rest of Eastern Europe?
Poland has little historical presence on the UK market, but a clutch of brands have started to establish themselves in the wake of the migration of labour from the country over the past decade.
For the most part, the country’s multinational brewers have seized the opportunity for a bit of extra international distribution for selected brands from their vast portfolios. There’s little talk about the beers, which have a similarly-hoppy style to the Czech lagers, but often with a sweeter, malty edge.
‘You do have people from the UK buying into Polish brands like Tyskie but they’ve clearly benefited from having an ex-pat workforce in the UK,’ says Lucy Jordan of the brand’s supplier Miller Brands (UK).
Jason Wills, senior brand manager for the high Scrabble-scoring Zywiec at Heineken UK, concedes that ‘the Czech Republic clearly is the home of East European beer’.
He also adds that ‘we don’t have a great marketing strategy to introduce Zywiec from the UK consumer point-of-view, but there are a significant number of Poles who live in the UK and that means there’s demand for the brand.’
Wills goes on to highlight the received wisdom in some UK brewery circles that for an international brand to work it needs back-up imagery.
‘Poland as a country doesn’t have a lot of interest for UK consumers and it’s probably not the next big thing.’
But he adds: ‘They do look for Polish brands from home rather than UK brands. Poles are everywhere and are just as likely to go out for a beer after work as anyone else.’
However Stuart Ekins, sales and marketing director at Inspirit Brands, says provenance hardly plays a part in marketing the Estonian beer Viru, which it distributes in the UK.
‘It’s more about the art deco style of the bottle and the product itself than its Estonian heritage. ‘It’s about tapping into the 18 to 30 market drinking in top-end bars, like Callooh Callay in Shoreditch. It doesn’t have much heritage other than that it looks good and tastes good.’
Czech this out: views from a bar owner
Jamie Hawksworth is owner of the Sheffield Tap in Sheffield and the Pivni bar in York. He’s also a business partner in the Czech brewer Bernard, so it’s no surprise that each of his on-trade outlets has four of its beers on tap.
They include the dark lager Cerne and an unfiltered version of its pilsner lager.
All the beers are imported direct and are unpasteurised, something that gives them
‘You certainly wouldn’t take a bottle of wine and put it through a super-heating process, and beer shouldn’t be any different,’ explains Hawksworth. ‘It has to have had effect on the flavour.
‘We have to be a lot more careful with it, but compared to real ale, which has never got more than a two-month shelf-life, we’ve got around six months to play with.’
Hawksworth adds: ‘It’s a very tough market to compete in because there are no really bad Czech beers out there – only good ones and great ones. With our 3.8% abv Svetle (meaning light) we can compete on price with Carling and Carlsberg and it is a far superior beer.