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The History of Beer in the Czech Lands
The Czechs have been drinking beer since time immemorial. The
secret of Czech beer is that agricultural conditions are ideal for
growing hops, and chronicles establish their cultivation in
Bohemia as early as 859 A.D., while the first evidence of their
export dates back to 903. Bohemian hops were so prized that King
Wenceslas ordered the death penalty for anyone caught exporting
the cuttings, from which new plants could be grown.The first
mention of brewing in the Czech territories is in the foundation
charter for the Vysehrad church, dating from 1088. In this
document, the first Czech king, Vratislav II, decreed that his
estates should pay a hop tithe to the church. The U Fleku
microbrewery in Prague has been in operation since 1499 and is
still going strong.
The first Czech brewery was built at Cerhenice in 1118. In earlier
days, only citizens in the Czech lands had the right to brew beer
- and that for their own consumption - so most citizens had a
microbrewery in their home. It wasn't long before some of these
citizens banded together to form a cooperative central brewery,
from which they would take beer extract home and finish the
brewing process there, in a medieval equivalent to the "home brew"
kits which are so popular today. In the 13th century, King
Wenceslas convinced the Pope to revoke an order banning the
brewing of beer, which may explain why he's called Good King
Wenceslas. It was a small step up from there for breweries to
start hawking their wares to the general public as well, and so
the Czech beer industry was spawned.
The art of brewing beer came along gradually, with help along the
way. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, for instace, was a friend
of the beer industry even though he ordered that Burgundy grape
vines be cultivated in Bohemia. Emperor Rudolf II's personal
physician held that beer was an incredibly healthy beverage and
wrote a treatise to that effect. The Czech beer industry's
worldwide fame dates from the Renaissance, as does the Bohemian
tavern which is famous throughout Europe. A popular rhyme of the
time goes "Unus papa Romae, una cerevesia Raconae"("one pope in
Rome, one beer in Rakovnik." Beer is still brewed in Rakovnik
today. In the early 16th century, the Czech
contributed as much as 87% of total municipal income to city
coffers. Czech hops were being shipped up the Elbe to the special
Hamburg hops market from 1101, and the Germans still prize
Bohemian Saaz hops from Zatec today. The Czechs were even
exporting their beer at this time, most notably the beer they
brewed in the town of Ceske Budejovice in south Bohemia. The
Bavarians who were importing this beer understandably had a hard
time pronouncing the name of the town, and so they referred to it
as "Budweis," a place name that is still associated with great
beer today - as is Pilsner, which is derived from the place name
of the west Bohemian town of Plzen.
Actually, no. This 16th-century beer heaven was not to last.
Feudal lords discovered that forcing their laborers to drink the
manor brew was a clever way to line their pockets.The Thirty
Years' War, which devastated much of northern Europe, devastated
the Czech beer industry as well. At one point, beer was used to
pay off a Swedish army to prevent the plunder of Kutna Hora. After
that, what fame the Czech beer industry managed to attain was
under the auspices of the Emperor in Vienna. He even sent a Czech
brewmaster to Mexico to teach the Mexicans how to brew beer.
Bohemia beer from Mexico was named for the Czech contribution. The
Czech nation - and its beer - did not begin to recover until the
"national awakening" movement of the 19th century, when the Czech
language, Czech culture, and Czech beer were reinvented after
centuries of Germanization and decline.
Under the Communists, beer was very cheap - and it was legal. This
helped establish beer drinking as perhaps the single most popular
hobby among Czech men. Unfortunately, as with so many other
industries, the Communists failed to invest anything into the
breweries. They simply produced the beer and squeezed as much
money as possible out of the industry. One of the Czech Republic's
most famous beer drinkers, the protagonist of Jaroslav Hasek's
novel "The Good Soldier Svejk" said that the government that
raises the price of beer is destined to fall within one year. The
Communists almost doubled the price of beer in 1984 (from 1.70 to
2.50 crowns per half-liter), so it took 5 years instead of one
for the prophecy
to come to pass.
President Vaclav Havel may be the best spokesman beer has ever had in the Czech Republic, at least in public office. Havel loves to take visiting politicians to pubs. He once skipped a function in the U.S. to go drink beer and watch John Cale. In fact, one of Havel's plays is based on the time he spent working in a brewery before the Revolution.
"I suppose that drinking beer in pubs has got a good influence on the behaviour of Czech society, because beer contains less alcohol than for example wine, vodka or whisky and therefore people's polical chat in pubs is less crazy."
Vaclav Havel, October 1995
Although a decrease in beer consumption was predicted, the numbers
did not go down much even after price controls were lifted in
1991. Beer prices have gone up as the price of everything has gone
up, but are still low. Breweries have such a small profit margin
at home that they try to make up for it in exports, where Czech
beer commands premium prices. Shares in breweries, most of which
have been privatized, trade at the top of the stock market even
though many of them are deeply in debt due to payment problems.
It's expected that there will soon be only a few giant breweries
and a smattering of small local microbreweries in the Czech Republic. Mid-sized
breweries, which face the biggest problems with marketing,
transport, and taxes, are probably on the way out. Perhaps with
the prophecy of Svejk in mind, Premier Klaus' government made
special tax breaks for the Association of Small Brewers.
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