Czech cider courts world's greatest beer lovers

Starting a cider-making business in a country that guzzles the most beer per head in the world may seem risky, but the Czech Republic's first cider house has taken up the challenge.

In only three years since it started, the Mad Apple firm in Novy Saldorf, a village in a wine-making region about 200 kilometres (125 miles) southeast of Prague, is set to increase output a hundredfold, has won an industry medal and launched into the export market.

Its young owner, 29-year-old Vaclav Beran, started the business with his sister and a friend after a trip to England where apple cider has a devoted following.

"We got the idea in a friend's bar, where we used to drink cider most often," he said.

A wine aficionado who studied viticulture and oenology at university and also runs a wine shop, Beran readily admits he turned his nose up when he first tried cider in England.

"But I got over it overnight, and the next day I headed to the fridge with certainty," he told AFP. "I'm a beer drinker and a wine drinker, and the cider fitted neatly in between those two."

With the project in mind, "England helped us because we visited cider houses and listened to people who either produced or studied cider as scientists," he said.

"We started more or less in a garden, with a batch of a 1,000 litres (220 gallons), in 2008," he said.

They tried different methods and materials - including a variety of yeasts, finally settling on one from France - in small quantities. Encouraged by rising sales, they bottled their first big batch of 25,000 litres in February 2010, produced in a hall rented from a local winery which also supplies workers skilled in beverage-making.

Half a year later, the tipple - made the old-fashioned way of nothing but apple juice and yeast - won a bronze medal at the International Cider Challenge in London.

"The medal boosted interest as people saw Czechs could make good cider too," said Beran, who expects output to hit 100,000 litres this year.

The beverage is still a novelty in a country boasting the world's most devoted beer drinkers, who chugged down 144 litres of beer per head in 2010 even though it was a drop of eight percent against 2009.

Jan Vesely, head of the Czech Beer and Malt Association, conceded that Mad Apple has tapped into a growing demand for drinks that Czechs have enjoyed abroad.

"It's a logical development, we're not surprised. But we definitely don't think they are likely to rock the market anytime soon," he told AFP.

In 2010, Mad Apple had a turnover of about 3.5 million koruna (143,700 euros, 206,500 dollars) and sank earnings back into advertising and production.

Beran said his firm is now "more or less aiming at our own factory," and wants to try brewing a second product, perry or pear cider.

Mad Apple has exported to neighbouring Poland and Slovakia but sells most of its product - which has a six percent alcohol content - in big Czech cities where a typical consumer is "a younger person, 25-35 years old, and a traveller," Beran said.

One of these, Prague student Antonin Tesar, said cider has a solid future on the Czech market as he sipped a large one in the Zubaty pes (Fanged Dog), the first pub to sell Mad Apple cider on draught.

"Compared with the foreign stuff I've tried, this is definitely above-average" and "a great alternative to beer, especially in the summer," he said.

A mug of the sparkly golden drink sells for around 42 Czech koruna (1.72 euros, 2.47 dollars), slightly more than the country's world-renowned Pilsner Urquell beer but on par or less than specialty beers from Czech micro breweries.

Mike Cole, the English owner of Zubaty pes, discovered Mad Apple on the Internet while searching for a cheaper alternative to the British version.

"We imported some cider in bottles from the UK but it was too expensive," he said, "and I always wanted to have some cider on draught here." So he supplied Mad Apple with kegs and the filling technology to offer the cider on tap.

Cole also sees a market here for the beverage but he doesn't expect Czechs to abandon their beer. "I think here it will find a niche among female drinkers ... and cider is a nice alternative between beer and wine."

"But it won't be a mass market beverage. Not for the Czech culture anyway," he said.

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