Revolution: 20 years on

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Pilsner urquell, Hops, Beer

Protz: Czech history
Protz: Czech history
Czech history was made two decades ago with the Velvet Revolution, and the loss of the old regime had a big impact on the nation's beer, says Roger Protz.

The 20th anniversary cele­brations to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall have tended to mask the fact that the first country to kick out an Eastern Bloc dictatorship was Czechoslovakia.

It was called the Velvet Revolution and the speed of the change-over was remarkable.

In the summer of 1989 I was sitting in the Black Ox bar in Prague with two fellow British journalists, Graham Lees and Barrie Pepper.

They were stalwart members of CAMRA — Lees was one of the founders of the campaign — but they were not averse to drinking genuine Czech lager. As we supped glasses of Kozel beer, a man sitting next to us said quietly, so quietly that we strained to hear him, "You are English? May I talk to you because I also speak some English."

That made him unusual, for in the days of the old regime Russian was the second language and English was not encouraged. He told us his name was Vaclav. He laughed because around 50% of males in the country have the same name: it's the Czech for Wenceslas, a king who not only features in a Christmas carol, but encouraged the spread of brewing in the Czech lands many centuries ago.

With my famous ability to open my mouth and plant my foot firmly in it, I said: "We know one Vaclav — Havel." He is the Czech playwright who was regularly imprisoned for his anti-totalitarian views. Our new friend hastily put his finger to his lips. "Speak quietly," he hissed. "The secret police will be here in the bar listening to us."

What sort of country is it, we wondered, when the cops spy in a pub? Vaclav said his brother had managed to get out and was now living in Australia but he doubted he could follow him. "The place is a prison," he said sadly. "It will never change." Yet just six months later it changed utterly.

After several nights of peaceful mass protests in Wenceslas Square in central Prague, the Government leaders quietly packed their bags and went off to their numbered Swiss bank accounts. Vaclav Havel, whose name could now be spoken openly, became president and moved to the palace 100 yards or so from the Black Ox.

One of President Havel's first pronouncements was that the new republic had to carve a new path between communism and capitalism. It was wishful thinking. If capitalism spots a new market, it will move with enormous speed and rapaciousness. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Czech brewing industry, where change has been awesome.

The Czechs are great beer drinkers. Beer is locked into their history and culture. Most famously in the city of Pilsen they produced the first golden lager in the middle of the 19th century that transformed brewing on a world scale and gave a new name to beer — Pilsner, or Pils for short.

The old regime had sensibly left brewing alone. True, Czech breweries were nationalised but they were allowed to run their affairs without too much interference. They had access to the best ingredients: malt from Moravia and renowned Saaz hops. The result was magnificent beer, beer so wonderful it made your hair stand on end.

When I first went to Czechoslovakia in the 1980s there was little branding of beer, with the exception of Pilsner Urquell — the original Pilsner. It was the jewel in Czech beer's crown. Tours of the brewery were encouraged and I marvelled at a system that embraced beautiful copper vessels followed by fermentation in small oak vessels and then lagering — cold maturation — in cellars deep below the brewery in giant wooden casks. The beer was a joy — rich, complex, with deep layers of malt and hop character.

Following the Velvet Revolution, the global brewers came rushing in. AB InBev owns Prague Breweries, whose best-known product is Staropramen. The group may put the breweries up for sale to help pay the cost of the merger between Anheuser Busch and InBev. The Kozel beer I supped back in 1989 is now owned by SABMiller, which also controls Pilsner Urquell and the neighbouring Gambrinus Brewery in Pilsen. Heineken is building a portfolio of breweries in the country.

The changes at Pilsner Urquell have been nothing short of tragic. The wooden fermenting and lagering vessels are now in a museum. The beer is produced in stainless steel conical fermenters, lagering time has been cut and the beer has lost much of its complexity as a result.

The one major brewery that has stayed free of the globals is Budweiser Budvar. It's still owned by the Government as the Czechs are horrified at the thought of it ending up in the arms of its bitter rival, American Budweiser. Brewing traditions have been retained: beer slowly crafted in copper brewing vessels, then lagered for 90 days. It's a beer of infinite joy.

How long Budvar can keep its independence is anyone's guess. Everything will depend on whether a right-wing coalition or a left-wing one wins the next election. I, for one, can only hope and pray that what is now a rare example of a true European lager beer can hang on to its brewing traditions and sublime taste.

Twenty years later, I wonder if Vaclav from the Black Ox managed to join his brother in Australia. He was frightened of the secret police listening to us. Today in England the Government is thinking of installing CCTV cameras in pubs. Who has lost and who has gained their freedom?

Related topics: Other operators, Beer

Property of the week

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more