Key Moments in History

Miles of cellars still honeycomb the ground underneath Pilsner Urquell.

In 1948, after three years of drifting politics, Czechoslovakia adopted a new government following what became known as the Ninth of May Constitution. It was a triumph of this newish experiment of Communism, and one of its signature features was nationalizing all commercial and industrial enterprises. Breweries were taken over by the state and run by the government for the next 42 years. It was, by all accounts, a pretty dismal time. The famous dissident, playwright, and future first president of the modern Czech Republic Vaclav Havel wrote about it, both in plays and essays. One of his most famous plays, "Audience," is a conversation between a playwright and a brewmaster who drinks heavily on the job, passing out between conversations.

In "The Power and the Powerless," he speaks from actual experience, describing what it was like when he worked at the Krakonoš Brewery.

In 1974, when I was employed in a brewery, my immediate superior was a certain Š, a person well versed in the art of making beer. He was proud of his profession and he wanted our brewery to brew good beer. He spent almost all his time at work, continually thinking up improvements, and he frequently made the rest of us feel uncomfortable because he assumed that we loved brewing as much as he did. In the midst of the slovenly indifference to work that socialism encourages, a more constructive worker would be difficult to imagine.

The brewery itself was managed by people who understood their work less and were less fond of it, but who were politically more influential. They were bringing the brewery to ruin and not only did they fail to react to any of Š's suggestions, but they actually became increasingly hostile toward him and tried in every way to thwart his efforts to do a good job.

Unsurprisingly, the story has an unhappy ending. Š writes a letter to a superior, whereupon his "analysis was described as a 'defamatory document' and Š himself was labeled a 'political saboteur.'" He was shipped off to a menial job at a different brewery where he would cause party apparatchiks no more trouble. For Havel, this anecdote is an indictment of the Communist state and only incidentally a brewery story.

It's a contemporaneous account of this important epoch in Czech brewing. Amid all the things that went sideways, there was one glorious, entirely unintentional consequence of this nearly half-century of darkness. As Havel documents, it led to a kind of a calcification of the old ways at just the moment the rest of the west was modernizing. While countries of the west upgraded their breweries and applied new technology, in the Czech Republic breweries remained unchanged.

All of this is preamble to an absolutely marvelous article I stumbled across that was written in that interregnum following the Velvet Revolution but before a new government had been formed (it is dated May 16, 1990).  Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times visited Pilsen to see the old brewery that invented pilsner. There was some anxiety about jobs (warranted, as we'll see) but some excitement about growth potential (not particularly warranted, as it happened). It captures perfectly the moment following that stasis, and Greenhouse takes us inside a brewery that hadn't changed in a half-century and more:

With its ancient copper mash vats, ponderous oak barrels and age-old beer-making techniques, this city's famed Pilsner Urquell brewery long took a back seat to other enterprises as Communist central planners invested massively in favored industries like machinery and steel.  But now that Czechoslovakia has thrown off Communist rule, workers and managers here are eager to transform their 158-year-old brewery into a dynamic, modern operation....

There is widespread agreement that an injection of foreign capital could be used to help finance a more modern, less labor-intensive pumping system to transfer the beer between mash vats, barrels and bottling plant.

''There is more pride here than at other Czechoslovak companies,'' said Josef Krysl, a talkative 35-year-old who manages the dank, dimly lit beer cellars, where the beer ages slowly in large oak barrels. ''There are not many Czechoslovak products that command such respect and can be sold so easily on Western markets.''

The brewery does still do open fermentation on wood--but just for visitors taking the brewery tour.

There are some passages about the workers that make you really marvel. The Communists, having nationalized industry, were on the hook for the jobs of its citizens. It appears that the way they achieved full employment was bloat:

For the 2,000 managers and workers here at the nation's largest brewery, 55 miles southwest of Prague, the dawn of capitalism means a series of needed reforms...

Later in the article, it mentions that the brewery was making 40m gallons a year--or about 1.3m barrels. You may be scratching your head wondering, "wait, how many people work at a brewery?" Keeping in mind that it was then about the size of Sierra Nevada, consider this:

For the workers, there is reluctant recognition that the advent of capitalism will probably mean tougher management, less slacking off and perhaps some layoffs, especially among the 400 administrative workers who spend much of their time doing paperwork for Prague's central planners. At the same time, despite all the talk nowadays about learning how to survive in the more competitive capitalist era, brewery workers seem supremely confident that their famed beer will withstand the heat.

Four hundred administrators? That would seem ... excessive.

The old brewhouse.

The overall tenor of the article is unique, powered by the uncertainty of moment in history. Anxiety and excitement are offered in equal doses, leavened by complete ignorance about what the future might hold. It is contrasted with what Greenhouse considered to be an old, creaky brewery desperately in need of renewal. That's not really how it went, though. Pilsner Urquell did "modernize"--but added new equipment that closely resembled the old. (A switch to stainless lagering tanks was the one major change). The Czech Republic, looking through Capitalist eyes at their brewing industry, decided to codify old ways as emblems of national tradition.

When I give talks about the development of beer, I often point to law as one of the most formative, yet unnoticed, forces that guide it. The Czech Republic was a case in point (you can fatten the story by throwing in East Germany), and reading the article, tethered as it was to that moment in time, captures the force of history and government perfectly. Things did change, but thanks to that long period of Communism, not like they did elsewhere.