Advice from Soldier Svejk: Don't mess with our beer

European Times: HUMPOLEC, CZECH REPUBLIC

THE RICH smell of fermenting hops and malt fills the air at the 16th-century Bernard brewery in the west Bohemian town of Humpolec. Inside the giant copper boiling tanks, a thick cloudy soup is brewing. In a few weeks it will be one of Bernard's prize-winning beers.

Bernard's beers have won two awards at the national beer competition, no mean achievement in this nation of beer connoisseurs. The brewery's products are organic and unpasteurised.

"We want our beer to be different and natural. It has a balanced bitterness and a full-bodied taste. It's like the difference between fresh fruit and tinned fruit," said Stanislav Bernard, the brewery chief.

From the Good Soldier Svejk, who was never without a beer mug in hand, to President Vaclav Havel, beer has been a symbol, if not the very heart, of Czech culture.

But now the diversity of the nation's most famous product is under threat, after the government's Anti-Monopoly Office allowed a merger between Prazdroj and Radegast, the country's two biggest breweries. This super-brewery will command 45 per cent of the domestic beer market: within a few years that could rise to 60 or 70 per cent, forcing breweries such as Bernard out of business.

"It is not our job to protect small breweries," Luduk Svoboda, of the Anti-Monopoly Office, told the English- language Prague Post.

The merger approval was opposed by Britain's ambassador to Prague and by Bass plc, which has invested heavily in the Czech beer industry. Even Jan Kavan, the Czech Foreign Minister, seemed worried by the decision. "In view of the international reaction the decision has caused I think we really need to proceed very carefully before confirming this," he said.

Stanislav Bernard agrees. At 43, he is one of the new generation of Czech entrepreneurs, borrowing heavily to transform a formerly moribund enterprise into a modern business run on Western lines. The brewery even has its own site on the World Wide Web (www.bernard.humpolec.cz).

But his enthusiasm for capitalism has gone flat and the merger decision has left him with an economic hangover. "When we bought the brewery in 1989 it was filthy, the brewing equipment was at death's door, the buildings were dilapidated and the beer was spoilt. Now there will be one player who is very strong, has all the advantage on his side, and no limits on his behaviour," Mr Bernard said.

The merger controversy is about more than the latest machinations of international capital. Beer is perhaps the centrepiece of Czech culture.A threat to the diversity of the Czech brewing industry means that the country's very identity is being menaced.

Beer has been brewed in Czech lands for a millennium. In the 13th century, Bohemian hops were so prized that King Wenceslas ordered the death penalty for anyone caught exporting cuttings. He also persuaded the Pope to revoke an order banning the brewing of beer. And there was a reawakening for Czech beer in the 19th century, part of a general renaissance in Czech culture.

Beer's best advocate is now President Havel. One of his plays is based on the time he spent working in a brewery. "Drinking beer in pubs has a good influence on the behaviour of Czech society, because beer contains less alcohol than for example wine, vodka or whisky, and so people's political chat in pubs is less crazy," he believes.

And history shows that those who tamper with Czech beer do so at their peril. The Good Soldier Svejk proved a political seer when he proclaimed that the government that raises the price of beer will fall.

The former Communist regime almost doubled the price of beer in 1984, and five years later was consigned to the slops tray of history.

Adam LeBor

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