It’s a sunny morning in the Czech town of Náchod, close to the Polish border. The blue skies above the old castle make you feel glad to be alive but they’re deceptive. There’s an autumnal chill in the air. As I’m led through the streets to the local brewery, we stroll past shops selling woolly hats and furlined anoraks that bear witness to the changing seasons.

Leaving behind the cobbles of the splendid old town square, we cross over the railway line and the river. I know the brewery is near because I hear the distinctive rattle and chink of a bottling line at full throttle. This comes from a grey, block-like building that, like other areas of the town, has seen better days.

Náchod used to be a spa resort, and has elements of the grandeur of such places, but the functional, industrial focus of the Communist years has also left its mark. My host, Romana Jansová, apologises for this unwelcoming introduction to her workplace.

Romana is export manager of Pivovar Náchod, a brewery better known by the name of its beer brand, Primátor. It’s been standing here since 1873, when it was built to serve thirsty workers in the expanding local textile industry. The ownership of the brewery at that time was the town itself. So it is today, albeit with 45 years of Communist control in the meantime.

In 1993, following the Velvet Revolution that released the Czechs from their hard-line rulers, the brewery was given back to the town for no fee. The idea was that this would ensure money was available to refurbish the site, and the plan has worked. The unprepossessing first sight of the brewery is thankfully just an unfortunate façade.

Within there have been major changes, all unquestionably for the better.

Proud brewmaster Pavel Korinek takes me on a tour of his modern, stainless steel brewhouse. It’s a conventional lager brewery, using local Moravian malt and Saaz hops, plus water from a pure underground lake which – I am assured more than once – has been approved for infants to drink. The mashing system is traditional double decoction. A portion of the mash is pumped from the mash tun into a second vessel where the temperature is raised to help extract the best brewing sugars.

It is then returned to the original vessel and the exercise repeated with other portions of the mash. It all takes four hours.

In the fermenting rooms there are no rocket-ship cylindro-conical vessels to hasten the process. Pavel doesn’t believe in them.

They stress the yeast, he says. Open tanks create the best beer. He encourages me to dip in a finger and taste some dark brown flecks on the bulging foam of yeast. It’s horrendously bitter. “That doesn’t belong in Czech beer,” he says. “We can skim that off, which you can’t do inside a closed conical fermenter.” A staircase leads down to the brewery’s cellars.

These are bitterly cold, as you’d expect, and filled with rows of enormous horizontal lagering tanks – 120 of them in all – that take the beer from the fermenters above. The beer sits here for up to 90 days, to allow its rougher edges to be smoothed away by the slow, nagging action of the yeast. Again, no shortcuts here. After this the beer is filtered and packed into kegs. Only the bottled beer is pasteurised, the draught beer for local consumption being free of unnecessary heat treatment.

Upstairs, in the new visitor centre, I delve into the beers – quite a variety, from an everyday quaffing lager through to a mighty dark double at 10% ABV. I’m more than impressed with everything and particularly fall in love with the Polotmavá, or Semi-Dark, with its rich, malty character. This is a brewery that is clearly out to make a name for itself.

Winning awards helps, which is why the team is quick to point to the Czech Brewery of the Year title it secured in both 2005 and 2007, and the 30-plus international brewing gongs it has claimed since 1993. One of the most recent is for its 7.5% ABV Exklusiv – the World’s Best Lager in the 2008 World Beer Awards. These greatly please Romana and her boss, Josef Hlavaty, the enterprising MD who has overseen the transformation of Náchod from a struggling provincial brewery to a modern business with global ambitions. While domestic sales have fallen in recent times, the export market for Primátor brands has grown considerably, with beers on sale now in more than 20 countries.

In a sense, the brewery has had to take the international tack. The way in which the biggest Czech brewers have begun to dominate the domestic market means it needed to look to new horizons or die. The marketing muscle of SABMiller-owned Pilsner Urquell, InBev-owned Staropramen and stateowned Budvar has seen national brands spreading ever thicker across the country, at the expense of local beers and breweries.

Whereas Náchod could once rely upon almost total domination of the local trade, it now has to compete with breweries that can turn a publican’s head with various inducements to stock their beers. It may be the 12th largest brewery in the country, but Náchod only corners less than one per cent of the national beer market.

Apart from modernising and sharpening up their act internationally, Pavel and the other brewers at Náchod have responded also by diversifying.

Rather than just taking on the giants with premium blond lagers, they’ve fought back by becoming the Czech market leader in speciality beers, hoping to win new customers by offering something different. That’s why the range now extends to a surprising 12 products and even includes some top-fermenting beers that give Czech locals the taste of other European brewing cultures.

To brew these beers, they turn off the decoction part of the brewhouse and use the mash tun as an infusion vessel.

The beers are then fermented with the appropriate top-fermenting strains of yeast and kept well away from the lager beers in a separate room.

First, a weizenbier was developed after the brewmaster spent time in Germany, closely monitoring how such beers were brewed there. Joining this is a beer called English Pale Ale, seasoned with Challenger hops, that would hold its own in any British pub, and the most recent addition to the range, an Irish-style, dry stout, which was launched last October with a great flourish in a pub in Prague.

This was a big day for the Náchod guys, who made the threehour journey into the capital to make sure the national press could hear all about the new brew. I’m not quite sure they needed the local actor to dress up as a leprechaun for the event, or the diddly jig music on the sound system, but the bowls of Irish stew (with a Czech accent – added pork) went down well with all concerned, as did the impressive beer itself, full of bitter chocolate flavours.

There was a degree of nervousness among the Náchod staff on duty that day – Pavel, Josef and Romana among them – but not because there was ever any doubt that the beer would be well received. Much depends on the success of the specialist beer strategy in keeping the brewery in the public eye in the Czech Republic, so they wanted to make sure the message was effectively explained.

There were also concerns that the press may have asked some awkward questions about the future of the brewery. It’s no secret that the town of Náchod has been looking for an outside partner to bring new money to the business, to enable it to continue to fight its corner. There are no plans for an outright sale of the business, it keeps being stressed, but this doesn’t stop some observers from speculating otherwise.

I hope Josef and his team are allowed to carry on their great work. Having been to the brewery, seen the enthusiasm and innovation with which it is run, and not least tasted the excellent beers, I’m firmly of the opinion that Náchod is facing a bright future. The climate may have been decidedly autumnal during my visit, but inside the brewery spring is definitely in the air.

Categories: International