Anyone paying attention over the past few years has seen big changes in the Czech beer industry. Many smaller, local microbreweries have muscled their way into the market once dominated by a handful of giant beer producers. One of those local breweries, located in the town of Únětice, has definitely made its mark. While many of you are probably familiar with Únětické pivo, you may not know how it came to be so popular. Its tale reveals a lot about Czech history in general.
I originally met the brewmaster of Únětické beer at the cozy and comfortable Bar No. 7 in Nové Město. As part of their desire to connect with their customers, brewmaster Vladimír Černohorský and trade assistant Miroslav Papík gave a presentation and spoke with customers about their product. While I was already familiar with their beer, I learned a lot about what goes into building a successful Czech microbrewery. During our chat, they invited me to visit the brewery to get to know Únětice a bit better.
Easily accessible from Prague by bus or bicycle, the town of Únětice (population 480 according to their website) doesn’t contain much more than a main road, a handful of buildings and an old, historical brewery. Built in 1710, this brewery has a long history which follows the path of the Czech Republic as a whole.
Czech beer has long been known for its quality, but there were many more local breweries in operation during the First Republic (1918-1938). According to Mr. Papík, the quality of beer was typically higher, because the smaller, local breweries which were the norm at that time tend to make a superior product. However, following the Communist takeover many breweries and other businesses were forced to close as part of the policy on economic centralization. As a result, the brewery in Únětice shut its doors in 1948 and would remain closed for over sixty years.
After undergoing some major renovations, the brewery sprung back to life in 2011. New owners Štěpán and Lucie Tkadlecovi chose the location because it already had a storied history in the region. They hoped to pick that story up where it left off. But entering the competitive Czech beer market presents many challenges.
Although the original building remains, it was necessary to replace the old, outdated brewing equipment with modern technology. The Tkadlecs also made the wise decision to hire the experienced Mr. Černohorský to oversee the brewing process. Disappointed with the somewhat flavorless commercial beer that had become so common after the revolution, their goal was to recreate the taste and quality of Czech beer from the First Republic, which was often more bitter and flavorful, and usually unfiltered. They especially felt that the market lacked a high-quality 10-degree beer.
However, Mr. Papík said the biggest challenge for a new brewery is persuading customers that the product represents quality and service at the highest level. They achieve this by not only producing a superior product, but also by forming close relationships with customers and clients. Instead of using traditional marketing to promote their product, Únětické beer prefers to organize meet and greets for customers, hold public events at their brewery, and stay in close contact with pubs who serve their beer.
Whatever they are doing at Únětice, it seems to be working. When the brewery re-opened, they were producing about 300 hectoliters of beer per month, a number which has risen to approximately 800 hl/month, still only a tiny fraction what the largest beer companies produce. Únětické beer can now be enjoyed in approximately ninety Prague-area pubs. But with only fourteen full-time employees, the brewery remains a fairly small operation.
I asked Mr. Papík what has made Úněticke beer so successful. By using high-quality, local ingredients and a somewhat secret recipe from Mr. Černohorský, they have created (in this humble writer’s opinion) one of the finest Czech lagers on the market today. While it may not appeal to every beer drinker, I appreciate the fresh and bitter taste, which “stays on the end of your tongue” according to Mr. Papík. However, upholding their reputation remains their top priority. The brewery monitors how pubs serve their beer and occasionally ends cooperation with those that do not maintain their high standards of service and quality.
While many successful breweries would be tempted to expand, Únětice is quite satisfied with its current position. There are no plans to increase production or open another facility, as they don’t want to compromise the quality of the beer. They very much want to retain their place as a local brewery, and every pub which serves Únětické beer is located within 30 km of Únětice.
In addition to their unfiltered 10-degree and unfiltered, unpasteurized 12-degree lagers, the Únětický brewery produces four seasonal beers throughout the year: a wheat beer in early summer, a rye lager in mid August, a spiced half-dark Christmas lager and a dark 13-degree beer around Easter. Due to its proximity, the brewery makes for a good day trip from Prague, where visitors can enjoy a Czech meal washed down with Únětické beer straight from the tank. Brewery tours are offered on weekends and holidays at noon, or they can be arranged individually. So don’t take my word for it, come find out what makes this beer so great for yourself!
What’s your favorite Czech microbrew?