Czech, please

There are scars down the copper kettles in the brewhouse at the Czech Republic’s Zatec brewery. The lines mark where the kettles were welded back together at the end of the Second World War, having been chopped up and stored in a nearby cellar to stop the metal falling into German hands and being recycled as guns or planes… If you’re looking for a brewery that reeks of history, then Zatec is just the place.

It’s situated on the site of the castle that looks from a rocky perch over the city of the same name, some 80km west of Prague.

The brewery’s ice-cold fermentation and lagering rooms are carved out of the rocks, shielded from the sunlight and dripping with condensation. After years of neglect during Communism, the brewery is operating at only a fifth of its capacity, leaving large areas of this huge plant dormant and ghostly.

The brewery was bought in 2002 for “very little money,” by Englishman Rolf Munding and two minority Czech shareholders: Martin Kec, who handles the brewery’s marketing and exports, and consultant brewmaster Tomas Lejsek. Munding also owns the Smith’s style bar operation in London’ Smithfield market and has recently bought the Wooden Head brewery in Cornwall.

At Zatec, Munding has spent in the region of e2million improving the parts of the brewery that are still in operation. The strategy has been to retain elements of Czech brewing tradition such as open fermentation tanks and upgrade the bits where modern technology was desperately needed.

“When we arrived it was full of rats,” says Kec, “and there was paint hanging off the walls and falling in the beer.”

Some of the dormant fermenters have been left in the state they were found as a reminder of where the brewery is going and where it’s come from.

Much of the brewery is a dimly-lit and dank-smelling warren of tunnels and rooms-off, with the echoing human activity from the brewery’s 46 workers seeming always to be somewhere in the gloomy distance. By contrast the brewhouse where those carved up kettles sit is clean and bright, with the fresh aroma of boiling wort and hops. But even here the reminders of more glorious times aren’t far away.

The brewhouse overlooks a deserted brewery yard that once thronged with wagons bringing cereals in and crates of beer out, but is now just rusted hatches and pock-marked cobbles.

At its height in the 1970s, the brewery was making 175,000 hectolitres of beer under state-ownership, but now it does just 30,000hl. But other parts of the brewery site are gradually being brought back to life. A malthouse that stands across the yard is earmarked for redevelopment as a brewpub, with derelict brewery-owned accommodation to be turned into a guest house, giving visitors the chance not just to take a brewery tour, but pretty much sleep in the brewery.

The gradual rebirth of Zatec is part of a wider regeneration in the region as an industrial zone, largely on the back of investment by Japanese electrical giants.

Article continues in Beers of the World magazine Issue 16

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