Czech beer is considered part of national heritage and has long been just as popular abroad as it has been at home. But over the last several years, beer consumption in the Czech Republic has been on a slow but steady decline which prompted all major breweries to look for new ways of attracting the pampered Czech beer drinker. In our beer special today, we examine a new hit on the market – low-alcohol fruit beers, or radlers, put out by three biggest beer producers – Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, and Heineken.
Our expert radler tasting jury includes Paul Backus, a Prague-based American beer enthusiast who has a history of home brewing; Alexandra Hradečná from the Czech Republic’s first Ladies’ Beer Club; Max Bahnson, Prague’s “beer philosopher” who has his own beer column in the English weekly the Prague Post;; and Radio Prague’s own Sarah Borufka who comes from Germany, the home of radler.
Sarah: Yes, it was born in Germany. Legend has it that in 1922, a very wise businessman and pub owner started offering radler to cyclists who should not be drinking that much, so he mixed lemonade beer. Radler of course in German means cyclist.
The rules are simple: samples are offered to the jury without disclosing what they are, and– each member of the jury rates the sample on the scale from zero to ten, ten being the highest mark.
We begin with Cool Grep by the Staropramen Brewery. Staropramen is the second largest beer producer in the country, and was recently acquired by the North American group Molson Coors. The firm pioneered radler on the Czech market when it last year introduced Cool Lemon. In March, Staropramen added the grapefruit version of drink called Cool Grep to its portfolio which is our sample number one.
Max: Hmm. I wonder how we should ever like these. Is it a fizzy drink or is it a beer?
Alexandra: I don’t taste beer in it.
Max: Yes, it doesn’t taste like beer at all. It’s really refreshing…
Paul: Yes, it is.
Alexandra: but tastes like a non-alcoholic beverage.
Alexandra: It does.
Sarah: With a bit of a bitter note but not enough to make you feel the beer. Mediocre.
Max: I don’t like it.
Alexandra: I don’t like it either.
Paul: I like it for what you were saying – if you think of it as not beer, it’s perfectly fine.
Max: I think if
Max: I think if I have to choose between Fanta and this, I probably choose this because I know it will get me drunk which is a plus. But I would not normally drink it…
Alexandra: … as beer.
RP: What do you think of the flavour? Is it nicely mixed in?
Max: This has to be grapefruit, and it’s too sweet for real grapefruit so it tastes like a sugary drink rather than beer.
Sarah: It tastes like orange lemonade, like Fanta… like you said.
Paul: Do we know the alcohol content?
RP: It’s 2 percent.
Alexandra: It tastes like a non-alcoholic beverage. I would probably drink it rather than Fanta.
Max: It has an artificial sugary finish.
Sarah: Nice carbonation though. Not too fizzy.
Paul: Yes, you saw the head just disappeared in no time.
Cool Grep does not seem to hit it off too well with our jury. Its predecessor, Staropramen’s Cool Lemon, became last May the first radler to enter the market, and has since become quite popular. The producer says dozens of thousands of hectolitres were sold each month throughout last summer. Its success prompted other breweries to come up with their products this year. The biggest Czech beer producer, Pislner Urquell, part of the SAB Miller, has come up with two radlers; its Gambrinus Lime and Elderberry was sample number two.
Sarah: Fruity indeed.
Paul: My first thought was toilet cleaner. It’s really strong.
Max: It does smell like toilet cleaner.
Sarah: It tastes like those fruity ice pops.
Max: It smells like toilet cleaner and it doesn’t taste much better.
Sarah: Zero points.
Paul: Well I think the smell was much worse than the flavour. And it has a beautiful head.
Sarah: Visually, I’m not against this kind of red-colour beverage.
Max: You get that with some fruit lambics; they look good, they smell good and they taste good but this tastes like someone has squeezed a bunch of chemicals into weak beer.
Sarah: You cannot even taste the fruit it supposed flavoured with.
RP: The taste is lime and elderberry.
Max: I’ve had elder flower beer, and it was really nice but this does not have much in common with elderberry.
Paul: That’s good point. I don’t know what happens in the industrial process but in home brewing, you can flavour things by either getting the flowers out in the field or you can add fruit extracts. But this has that chemical artificiality all over it.
RP: The can says it has lime and elderberry juice concentrate and natural aroma.
Sarah: Whatever than means.
“We brought these two flavours, citron and lime and bezinka simply because they have been chosen by our consumers as their favourites. We wanted to launch these brands on the market, these new types of low-alcohol refreshing beverages with flavours the consumers would enjoy.”
Mr Brodman says the new beverages’ target area is legal drinking age consumers to 25-year-olds.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Czechs love Czech lager. That’s never going to go away. But what we‘re finding is that new consumers and younger consumers want to try new things. And flavoured beverages along the lines of Gambrinus radlers are products we feel fulfil their needs.”
Well, let’s have a look how Pilsner Urquell’s other flavoured low-alcohol beer, Gambrinus Tangy Lemon, fared with Radio Prague’s jury. In our tasting, it was sample number four.
Max: This looks like Hoegaarden.
Alexandra: Like wheat beer.
Max: But it does not smell like Hoegaarden. Again, it smells like toilet cleaner. The previous one smelled like the cleaner we use upstairs and this one like the cleaner we use downstairs.
Alexandra: It tastes like beer lemonade.
Paul: Like the lemon drops.
Max: At least it’s not sweet. I like that it’s sour. I really appreciate its sourness.
Paul: You can taste the alcohol a little bit, more so than with the first one.
RP: This is in fact the other radler by Gambrinus. Pislner Urquell, the owner of the Gambrinus brand, aims at achieving some 50 percent of the market share. How do you think they will do?
Max: Well, they have the marketing muscle to sell it, and in a week or so, I’m sure we’ll see a huge advertising campaign. Whether people will buy it or not, well, Staropramen Cool Lemon was a huge success so I don’t see why this shouldn’t be either.
Alexandra: I can imagine this is a good drink for the beach in the summer, and I’m sure there are people who will love it. I just don’t think any of these are good drinks for someone who likes beer.
RP: So who do you think the people will be, if not those who like beer?
Alexandra: I don’t know. Maybe wine people during the day?
Max: Let’s see who the typical consumer of Staropramen Cool Lemon last year was. I think it did quite well at lunch time.
Paul: Something light where you don’t feel the alcohol so much.
Max: I tell you what. Add some vodka or gin to this one and we are talking!
Alexandra: I agree. Gin would do it.
Sarah: It just needs a little kick in the butt.
At about the same time, the third biggest Czech beer producer, Heineken, entered the market with its own radlers. I sat down with Jiří Rákosník, the marketing manager for Heineken Czech Republic, to discuss their strategy.
“We have seen the trend in other countries where people are looking for alternatives to regular beer because some people think beer is too bitter. So people are trying to come up with something that is more accessible, something sweeter. We have seen this happening across different markets and last year, we also saw an example here, from Staropramen, and that made us also come to the market.”
As for the target consumers, Heineken’s Jiří Rákosník explains they are planning to expand beyond the regular beer drinker.
“We’ve seen that there are regular beer drinkers who pick up beer mixes but there is a certain percentage which is not small which also comes from carbonated soft drinks and non-alcoholic beer drinkers.
The Czech beer market has been described as very conservative. Do you think you can get into the segment of regular beer drinkers?
“You absolutely can. The potential of the segment can be 5 to 6 percent, looking at the other countries. It will need several years to develop but if that’s the case, we are looking at some 600,000 or 700,000 hectoliters which is interesting for every beer producer in this country.”
Heineken’s carrier for its products in the radler segment is the brand Zlatopramen which leads the market in 11 degree beer. Our jury first tasted the lemon-flavoured Zlatopramen Radler citron, sample number five.
Max: This smells like beer.
Max: You can smell beer in this one.
Alexandra: It taste a bit like beer, too.
Sarah: It has more bitterness, less citrus.
Paul: And no unpleasant finish.
Max: Yes, this one is not bad, for this range of products that is, but I would have it. It’s decent, it does smell like beer.
Sarah: I would also say that this is the closest I felt to what you would find at a German pub where they produce these by purring lemonade and draught beer into one glass. Just a bit more of a beer taste and you’d be there.
Max: Yes, you’re right, it reminds me of that radler we had in Germany those years ago.
Heineken’s flavours include lemon, which the jury appreciated, and which is an obvious choice according to its head of marketing Jiří Rákosník who says lemon-based radlers are the best-selling ones on a number of markets. The other flavour – orange and ginger, is a little more adventurous.
“In the other flavour, we wanted something original and popular at the same time. From the numbers that we saw and from the taste tests, we chose orange because that’s the second best selling flavour but we spiced it up with ginger because orange itself was too sweet. So we used the ginger to balanced it out and make it spicier, especially for men.”
So how did the Zlatopramen Radler Orange and Ginger do with our jury? Let’s find out what the experts had to say about sample number six.
Max: Wow, look at that colour!
Sarah: Looks like a certain by-product the body might produce.
Max: It looks again like a toilet cleaner.
Max: No, it smells like Fanta.
Alexandra: Lemon Fanta.
Max: It reminds me of this product we had in Argentina; it’s tonic water called Paso de los Toros. At some point, they launched two more versions, orange and grapefruit. And this smells just like that tonic water mixed with orange.
RP: Can you compare it with the lemon radler from Zlatopramen?
Max: This one is awfully sweet.
The last sample for our special radler jury was the original Czech radler, Staropramen’s Cool Lemon whose success opened up the market for all the new additions. This is sample number seven.
RP: Let’s see. This is the best selling radler, Staropramen, who now has a 98 percent share in the segment.
Max: It will go down this year. They will cannibalize each other. I don’t think there is much more market for this kind product.
Paul: There is this faint toilet cleaner smell again, plasticky smell, but it’s not the cup because it didn’t affect the other ones.
Sarah: Very carbonated, very fizzy.
Max: It is very much like the other one.
Max, Alexandra: They are very sweet.
Sarah: It affects the hangover too. If you consume three or four of these, the amount of sugar you take in is too big. The way it’s marketed as a light alternative for ladies to imbibe on and not regret it the next day is not actually the case, I don’t think.
Alexandra: Probably not.
Max: Enough with the chemicals. But I don’t think this is a kind of drink you will drink too much of. You will not drink five or six. You will drink one with lunch. You don’t see people having ten Fantas.
All: Good point.
Paul: You are not going to sit all day at the barbecue and drink these.
For the sake of context, the jury also tasted two of the most popular non-alcoholic fruit flavoured beers – Plum and Sour Cherry by Bernard. They are a different category in both the way they are produced and their position on the market. Here is what the jury had to say about Bernard Sour Cherry which came as sample number three.
Sarah: The smell is like…
Paul: Cough syrup?
Sarah: Yes. It’s supposed to be cherry I’m sure. But it tastes surprisingly sour.
Alexandra: It’s a little more beery than the previous ones.
Max: I can tell this is Bernard Sour Cherry. Frankly, I know these flavours, and they taste more like beer.
Alexandra: I drink them when I have to drive if they have them.
Paul: It does have a strong kind of cough syrup smell at first but as far as drinkability goes, it is much more like beer and I could see having a few at the barbecue.
Max: This is a much better option that the previous ones, for a beer drinker that is.
Sarah: This is a bit like what they have in central Germany, and call it ‘Duck Pond’. It’s dark beer with raspberry lemonade. But this has no alcohol and I would argue it’s technically not a radler.
To complete the run, the jury was also offered Bernard Plum, as the final sample number eight.
Max: That’s the one my wife loves. Švestka.
Alexandra: Is it plum?
Sarah: It smells like marmalade.
Alexandra: It’s kind of sour.
Sarah: They certainly get points for getting close to the plum flavour.
Max: That’s exactly what I like about both these Bernard beers. They are not sweet. They have a bitter, sour edge.
Paul: Yes, not a soda pop of any kind.
Max: That puts them a step ahead of these concoctions.
Paul: It’s more of an adult drink.
With all the sampling done, I asked members of the jury to count the points and share their view of the radlers to determine the winner of Radio Prague’s radler tasting special. We began with Radio Prague reporter Sarah Borufka.
Sarah: I have as winner number three – Bernard Sour Cherry with six points – tied with number five – Zlatopramen Radler Lemon. My loser is number two – Gambrinus Lime and Elderberry with zero points.
Max: My winner is Bernard Plum with six points followed by number three – Bernard Sour Cherry – with five. Then I have a couple with five points. Zero points for number two – Gambrinus Lime and Elderberry – and I wish I could give negative points.
Alexandra: I have seven points for number three – alcohol-free Bernard Sour Cherry – and I have six points for number five – Zlatopramen Lemon. Zero for number two – Gambrinus Lime and Elderberry.
Paul: Actually I chose number five – Zlatopramen citron as the winner from what we were drinking here, and number eight – Bernard Plum – and number four – Gambrinus Tangy Lemon – tied at seven points. And because it was wet, I gave number two Gambrinus Lime and Elderberry – two points.
RP: Well, Bernard is in a league of its own, and it’s not a competition for these radlers.
Max: What is remarkable is that Bernard is alcohol free and still tastes better…
Alexandra: than the alcoholic ones.
So how does what we had today compare to what is available in the home of Radler, Germany?
Sarah: Well, it’s nothing like what we have. Frankly, there are some bottled and canned radlers but I would say that the majority of radler drinking takes place in the pub and mixed fresh on site. I would say that’s a nice I would say that’s nice way of having a beer on a hot day when you don’t want to get drunk. This here… you can’t improve on perfection. Czech beer is very good and I think it’s sacrilegious to come up with these flavoured drinks.
The clear winner of Radio Prague’s radler tasting special – after disqualifying the non-alcohol Bernard beers – is Zlatopramen Radler Lemon. Meanwhile, Gambrinus Lime and Elderberry by Pilsner Urquell finished last. But given the attention Czech beer makers now pay to radlers, it will be certainly interesting to follow the developments in this particular field which, after a modest beginning, might in the future bring new treats for the fans of Czech beer.