PRAGUE (Reuters) - An economic downturn and a shift to healthier living has led to a small revolution for brewers in the country which gave the world Pilsner and the original Budweiser beer.
So-called “radlers” - beers mixed with drinks like Sprite, lemonade or fruit flavored beverages - are proving a saving grace for beer makers whose customers have cut back on the main Bohemian tipple during a European economic malaise, and as people steer away from heavy suds towards a healthier lifestyle.
Brewers are tailoring their products for a post-communist generation more at ease with sugary soft drinks than lager in order to cope with a drop in domestic consumption.
Domestic beer drinking has fallen to current per capita consumption of 144 liters a year from 160 liters in the mid 2000s, but still tops the world beer drinking rankings.
“This trend is irreversible,” said Jan Vesely, director of the Czech Beer and Malt Association, whose members account for 90 percent to the market. “If we want to keep (up production) we must go to other drinks or exports.”
After a slide of 8.6 percent in 2010 and 5.9 percent in 2009 in the wake of the global financial and economic crisis, domestic beer output rose 1.4 percent in the first half of 2012.
Vesely estimated the market share of radler - a word that means “cyclist” in German, referring to the preferred beverage of weekend trail bikers - to grow to 5 percent by 2014, from around 2 percent now and nearly zero in 2010.
“The production rise is all due to mixed (beer) drinks. It is booming and is an added dimension to the Czech beer culture,” he said.
Czech breweries tried a decade ago to introduce radler, known as shandy in British pubs, but received little enthusiasm. Many in the central European country of 10.5 million used to regard mixing beer with sugary drinks as close to blasphemy.
Often cheaper than most soft drinks, including water in restaurants, beer has a special place in Czech life and plays a prominent role in literature and film.
Pilsner Urquell, owned by SABMiller, was first brewed in 1842 in the city of Pilsen using a new bottom-fermentation method. The word “pilsner”, or “pils”, is now a generic word for the most common beer type in the world.
In the city of Budejovice, or Budweis in German, another brewery is locked in a decades-old trademark dispute with American brewer Anheuser-Busch’s over its “Budweiser” label.
Low-alcohol beer is still sometimes provided as a workplace beverage in Czech factories.
But times are changing. Now 20- and 30-somethings - who put more emphasis on sports and careers - are taking to the sweeter taste and lower alcohol content of radlers. About 70 percent of those drinking radler are non-beer drinkers, Vesely said.
After ordering three grapefruit-flavored beers for her and her friends, Vendula Konecna, a young mother who is studying while on maternity leave, said she wouldn’t normally drink beer.
“This is light, sweet and refreshing. For me it is a better choice than beer, and it tastes better,” she said outside a garden pub in Letna park, overlooking the Czech capital’s medieval centre.
Nobody expects sweet brews to end the beer culture that draws throngs of tourists to smoky Czech pubs where drinkers sit at communal tables and surly staff slam mugs down in front of patrons whether they are ordered or not.
At a pub called V Cipu in central Prague, David Kysela, a clerk in his 40s, said he liked radler, but said it was often not his first choice of drink.
“I’ll have it in afternoons, or as some refreshment while I‘m out in the countryside. In the evening in the pub, though, it is not a replacement for beer,” he said.
Radler’s rise goes along with a gradual shift by younger Czechs toward new tastes. The region has undergone an economic overhaul since the 1989 fall of communism, and they travel more, have more-demanding careers and face longer working hours than older generations.
The two percent alcohol content of a radler, about half that of regular beer, makes it a more moderate way to enjoy the pub.
“The biggest reason this product didn’t experience a ‘boom’ 10 years ago was that the market was unprepared,” said Zuzana Kosakova, a spokeswoman for Heineken, which owns the Krusovice brand which tried launching radlers a decade ago.
“Since then, there has been a new wave of drinkers.”
Half of the 55 top Cazech breweries have started making mixed beers since Staropramen, acquired by Molson Coors Brewing Co in June, first offered lemon-flavored beer in May 2011. Before that, bartenders would mix it upon request, but not disguise their contempt for customers who asked.
For traditional beer drinkers - who are already fuming over beer being sold in plastic bottles, which many say kills its taste - radler is just not the real thing.
“It’s a flash in the pan,” said Petr, sitting next to his colleague at V Cipu after ordering a Krusovice. “Beer is beer.”
Additional reporting by Robert Mueller and Petr Josek, editing by Paul Casciato