Czechs discover a new taste for speciality beers

For a country that boasts the highest beer consumption per person in the world, drinkers in the Czech Republic have been oddly slow in expanding their palate from the ubiquitous lager.

Blame communism. Pale, bottom-fermented lagers were virtually all that was on offer back then, when central planners stifled small breweries in favour of cheap, mass-produced lager that kept the workers happy and tasted the same.

The rush is on now, however, to offer a different taste, with the number of micro-breweries offering speciality beers nearly doubling over the past five years to forge a niche in the market.

"The communists homogenised everything. They left pale lagers and from time to time someone made dark beer - and that was it," Martin Matuska, the owner of a micro-brewery, told AFP.

"Communist Czechoslovakia had no market for speciality beers," added Karel Kosar, head of the Czech Research Institute of Brewing and Malting.

Some breweries would supply the traditional Christmas market with stronger premium beers, but it was really only after the collapse of communism in 1989 that the speciality sector developed.

Kosar said that was partly thanks to an influx of tourists with more varied tastes, and partly thanks to Czechs returning from abroad having sampled what was on offer elsewhere.

Still, it's taken time.

From one speciality beer in 1989 there were 130 by 2004, but the real boom has been in the past half decade.

By 2009 micro-breweries were producing 178 speciality and unusual beers and industrial breweries - keen to cash in on the trend - another 83.

The average Czech consumes about 150 litres (quarts) of beer a year, by some way the highest in the world.

Lagers still overwhelm the market, making up more than 99.5 percent of the Czech Republic's total beer output, and in pubs usually cost less than a euro (1.33 dollars).

"Czechs are said to be a nation of beer drinkers, but this basically means that they guzzle the cheapest stuff," said Martin Matuska's son Adam, a master brewer in Broumy, west of Prague.

Technically speaking, the category of "special and unusual beers" refers to any beer other than pale lager with about 3-5 percent of alcohol volume.

The prospect of offering speciality beers has led pubs in and outside the capital to gradually expand their supply, prompting increased production from brewers.

Riding the wave, Martin Matuska - a master brewer himself with experience abroad - last year turned an outbuilding at his country home in Broumy into a brewery with a projected annual output of 800 hectolitres (17,000 gallons).

It now supplies local pubs as well as about 20 restaurants in Prague.

Whereas drinkers previously would wash down their 10 lagers with six shots of peppermint brandy, now they would finish off with two of Matuska's stronger speciality beers, Adam Matuska, 20, told AFP as he sat in the garden of their country house, wood stacked tidily along the walls.

"Now they are beginning to realise that beer can taste good, that it can be better," he said, "like this wheat beer we make, which people aren't familiar with although it has a long tradition."

The Matuska brewery, relying strictly on natural ingredients used by the ancient Czech brewers, produces lager as well as catering for other tastes - pale, dark, wheat, strong wheat, India Pale Ale and so on.

"When I decided to make these types of world beers, people said: 'No one's going to drink this, the Czechs are conservative.' But they are conservative only because they never had anything else," Martin Matuska told AFP.

Looking ahead the family would like to export beer - and even build a new brewery as a greenfield project.

Jan Vesely, head of the Czech Beer and Malt Association, predicted a bright future as living standards rise and demand grows for more exclusive products.

"Micro-breweries, which now make up three percent of the market, are like flowers on the lawn that make it livelier and nicer and that we all like," he added enthusiastically.

"Thank God we have them."