Czech Beer: Big name brewers see sales drop, but small brands cite growth

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The numbers aren’t official, but it appears 2010 was a big year for the small brewer – even as total beer sales took a significant hit throughout the country.
Various sources estimate that while beer sales as a whole declined between 10 percent and 12 percent, small- to midsize breweries saw an increase in the amount of beer sold, making a small dent in the market share held by big brewers such as Plze?sk? Prazdroj and Staropramen.
The Czech Beer and Malt Association (?SPS) estimates a 12 percent total drop in sales from 2009 to 2010, though final numbers will not be released until March. A ?SPS-commissioned analysis conducted in June by PwC showed sales had been down 10 percent in the first quarter of 2010. At the time, the decline was largely attributed to an increased excise tax and VAT rate that went into effect at the beginning of the year.
K Brewery, which owns six midsize breweries in the country, including Protiv?nsk? Platan, Je?ek and Lobkowicz, reports a 13 percent increase in sales in 2010. Similarly, Humpolec-based Bernard Brewery claims to have almost doubled its 2009 beer production with 204,000 hectoliters in 2010.
Bernard spokesman Zden?k Mikul??ek said consumers are growing frustrated with the high costs and mass production of premium beers and are starting to look elsewhere for their beer.
“The large breweries are trying to produce the largest amount of beer for the least amount of money,” he said. “And their costs for marketing, PR and logistics are influencing their prices. The customer feels this. They’re looking for something special, different or interesting.”
?SPS Director Jan Vesel? agreed that consumers are suffering from big brewery fatigue, which has caused their eyes to wander to the smaller beer makers over the past few years. But he stopped short of saying that the success of K and Bernard breweries signifies an overall move away from the bigger brands.
“It’s true that you have a few small breweries announcing their successes, but you have more than 30 small breweries in this country. You’re not hearing anything from them,” Vesel? said. “When you’re successful, you shout. When you’re not, you’re silent.”
Plze?sk? Prazdroj, which produces Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus and Kozel and controls nearly half of the domestic market, has acknowledged it is starting to feel the heat from consumers searching for cheaper beer.
“We’re seeing a shift away from pub beer to beer from supermarkets, and that’s having an impact on our sales, no doubt,” said Ji?? Mare?ek, a spokesman for Plze?sk? Prazdroj. “You take the increased excise tax and combine it with consumers who have less disposable income, and that results in lower output. But the Czech beer market is very competitive, and there are a lot of good brands out there, small and large. We have to compete with all of them.”
Vesel? said consumers’ interest in the smaller breweries may be as much about variety as it is about dollars and cents. Consumers are becoming more interested in tasting different types of beers, and if it happens to save them money, all the better.
“You have two different groups of consumers,” he said. “You have those who are struggling economically, and they’re shifting from beer bought in pubs to beer bought over the counter, which is half the price. But you also have the group that wants to try something new. For generations, people drank Pilsner beers. In many pubs, you could only get one kind of beer, but now people are traveling more; they’re looking for new things. These smaller breweries are taking notice of that. They know they can’t compete with the big brewers, so they have to produce something different. In some cases, it’s working.”
K Brewery offers 50 different types of beers across their six brands, hoping to tap into the growing market of experimental beer connoisseurs. Spokeswoman Barbora Bure?ov? said her company’s brands have benefited from their participation in “Cesta pivn?ch znalc?,” a club for beer lovers who gather every two weeks at different restaurants around Prague to taste new Bohemian- and Moravian-brewed beers. More than 350 establishments have participated in the program, offering tastes of beers uncommon to the region, including semi-dark, red and wheat beers.
“People are no longer satisfied with the typical light … beers and lagers,” Bure?ov? said. “The small breweries are making a larger selection of products because consumers are interested in tasting beers they wouldn’t normally try.”
The larger breweries, Vesel? said, are starting to notice. The country’s biggest beer makers are starting to branch out to create different variations in response to the growing sophistication among their consumers.
“You see companies like Budvar that never used to produce, for instance, 11 [degree] beer. Now they have to,” he said. “Plze?sk? Prazdroj has an 11 [degree] beer and offers even dark and semi-dark varieties. When those companies are forced into trying new things, they’re following the tide. They must. It’s the new reality.”

Border beer
Although Plze?sk? Prazdroj’s recent announcement that its signature brand, Pilsner Urquell, outsold all other foreign beers in Germany in 2010, the company finds itself taking measures to curb at least some of its sales in that country.
In response to rising domestic beer prices, some Czech store owners – many of them Vietnamese – have begun crossing the border to buy mass amounts of Pilsner at cheaper prices to resell on their own shelves. The company has launched distinct crates for beer sold in Germany and Austria that will not be accepted as returns in the Czech Republic. With no law in place to stop the resale of beers bought abroad, the company is seeking to decrease the price advantage of “imported” Czech beer.
“We can’t change the law, so we’re making changes with the crates,” said Ji?? Mare?ek, spokesman for Plze?sk? Prazdroj.
?SPS Director Jan Vesel? said Pilsner’s problem illustrates how the year-old tax on alcohol has damaged the domestic market. The tax, enacted by Parliament in January 2010, raised the tax on beer 33 percent.
“This tax increase is killing the hand that has always given golden eggs to this country,” he said.
The company sent notices to retail partners about the new packaging. A special notice was sent out in Vietnamese.
The new crates will feature a picture of five green Pilsner bottles, whereas domestic crates display the Pilsner logo.
– Jack Buehrer