Czech brewery bounces back to life

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Brewery Beer Bass

Protz: "It would be poetic justice to find lagers from Konrad on shelves in Britain"
Protz: "It would be poetic justice to find lagers from Konrad on shelves in Britain"
Thanks to one man an historic Czech brewery has been revived and is thriving, writes Roger Protz.

In the history of Czech brewing, 25 May 1998 was a black day.

The large Liberec-Vratislavice brewery near the border with Germany, which had survived the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and then 50 years of state ownership under communism, was summarily closed down and its 300 workers sacked.

The closure had nothing to do with lack of success. The brewery was one of the biggest in the Czech Republic. It was once larger than Pilsner Urquell and in 1989, when communism collapsed, it was producing 400,000 hectolitres a year (244,000 barrels). But Liberec-Vratislavice had become a shareholders’ company and Bass of Britain bought up all the shares. It merged the brewery with its major Czech acquisition, Prague Breweries, which included the Staropramen brewing plant.

The Liberec brewery had been selling large amounts of beer to Tesco under the Vratislav trademark, but Bass withdrew the beer and replaced it with Staropramen. Bass even removed Vratislav beer from outlets in the Czech Republic and substituted it with beer from Prague.

Then on the fateful day of 25 May 1998 Bass closed the Liberec plant and workers arriving for their shift were told to go home and not come back. Some of them had worked at the brewery for many years, including brewmaster Peter Hostas.

Anything metal that could easily be removed was thrown out by Bass. The brewing vessels were sold to a local scrap metal dealer, but fortunately they were still in place when a local businessman, Jaroslav Martinec, arrived on the scene with a plan to revive the brewery.

Martinec owns a manufacturing company called Hols. He had no experience of brewing but loved beer, Vratislav beer in particular. He was able to mortgage the brewery buildings from Bass and bought the brewing equipment from the scrap merchant. He hired a small workforce and brought back brewmaster Hostas, who had been working in the local glass industry.

The brewery reopened in 2000. Martinec deliberately chose the date of 25 May, when Bass had closed the site, and renamed the company Konrad after the brewery’s first brewmaster in the 19th century. He was not allowed to use the Vratislav trademark, which was owned by Bass and later transferred to AB InBev when the global giant bought the Czech breweries owned by the British group.

New style
The brewery was founded in 1872 by businessmen in Liberec who had made their fortunes from the textile, glass and jewellery industries in the town. The site included maltings, still in use today, and the emphasis was on the new style of golden lager that had been introduced in Pilsen. Before refrigeration was available, ice was cut from nearby ponds to keep the lager cellar cold. Water from brewing was sourced from a spring on the site.

In 1908, when the Liberec brewery merged with another beer maker in Jablonec, it became the biggest brewery in a region that was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was so highly regarded that it was visited by Emperor Franz Joseph.

The region was then called the Sudetenland and in 1938 the Nazis invaded to absorb the German-speaking population into the Third Reich.  Liberec was renamed Reichenberg and the brewery was controlled by the occupiers and brewed beer for the German army, the Wehrmacht.

Following World War Two and the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, the brewery was nationalised. Production grew to 200,000 hectolitres a year and in 1972 the government invested heavily in the plant, building a new brewhouse with copper vessels. From 1989, with the return of a market economy, the brewery was able to sell beer to the west for the first time in 50 years and production was boosted to 400,000 hectolitres a year.

The beer range includes 11, 12, 14 and 16 degree beers, ranging from 4.8% to 7% ABV. The 11 degree beer comes in both golden and dark versions, while an 11 degree beer, Konrad Ace, is a semi-dark. Dark lagers are still popular with Czech drinkers. According to strength, the beers are lagered — cold conditioned — for between 40 and 90 days.

Konrad is once again a shareholders’ company. When I asked Jaroslav Martinec how much money had been invested in the brewery since he bought it back, he merely said “lots”, but added that all the profits are ploughed back. He spends much of his time on the road, building sales in neighbouring countries. He currently produces 100,000 hectolitres a year and has the capacity to expand.

The beers are sold in Germany, Poland, France, Finland, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and Lithuania. Konrad has just got its first orders from the US and Australia. Martinec is keen to find outlets in Britain and his daughter Eva Martincova is running a London office (

It would be poetic justice to find lagers from Konrad on shelves in Britain that once held beers from Bass.

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