Saturday, August 27, 2011
In beer stakes, nobody keeps up with Czechs
PLZEN, Czech Republic — With beer prices roughly the same as water, Czechs are the undisputed world leaders in beer drinking. So, it has been a hit to national pride that their phenomenal thirst has lessened over the last five years.
But, brewers insist things may be looking up in a country where packed bars and beer gardens — and loud foreigners getting their fill of the national drink — are as much a part of the Prague experience as the architecture and meandering Vltava River.
Early indications give hope the slip might be a hiccup: The beer industry association is forecasting an increase of one to three percent in consumption this year.
That would be plenty of beer. According to Credit Suisse's World Map of Beer for 2010, the Czechs drank per capita a belt-busting 161 liters; Germany was a distant second with 109 liters; the British managed 86 liters, and Americans, 79.
For Jiri Vesely, the Czech Beer and Malt Association executive director who recommends a nutritious liter a day for men and two-thirds of that for women, any sign of more beers being downed is as good an economic indicator as any to prove that consumer sentiment is strong.
"People were afraid that they could perhaps lose their job," Vesely told AP, explaining away the drop in sales. "We reached the bottom last year and the first half of the year is quite optimistic."
He predicts a heady five percent jump in exports in addition to the encouraging increase at home. "The horrible weather in the best consumption months — July and August — scared me. But I'm sure from the point of the whole year that there will be a slight increase," he said.
Czech statistics are a little more modest than Credit Suisse's, with preliminary figures pointing to 144 liters drunk per capita for 2010, down from 163.5 liters in 2005 and 150.7 in 2009. That is worrying to brewers and world-renowned brands such as Pilsner Urquell and Budvar.
Production also dipped — and exports fell 10.4 percent year-on-year in 2009 for the first time since the country was created after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
At the Pilsner Urquell brewery an hour's drive from Prague, spokesman Jiri Mareck said the company now exports to 50 markets, with Germany, Slovakia, Britain and the United States the largest recipients.
"We can leverage more to other countries when the European economy is slowing down," he said Friday as visitors toured the grounds and drank the product. Underground, amid huge kegs of beer, water dripped from cold ceilings as a worker held up a candle to check on the color and quality of the fermenting pilsner.
Vesely said a 33 percent increase in excise tax rates since January 2010 has been partly to blame for declining consumption. But wine is also being drunk more these days — much of it made in the Czech Republic.
Vesely argues wine can't compete, going so far as saying that beer is "one of the most healthy beverages that people invented."
"But you have to drink it every evening or every day," he said. "It's no use to leave everything for Friday night."
He believes Czech beer — costing little more than a euro ($1.40) in a bar — is superior that from other countries because of a certain "drinkability."
There "something that's difficult to explain and impossible to measure," he said. It's a "characteristic of beer that makes you drink — even if you're not thirsty."
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