Chris Baerwaldt: an American brewer in the Czech Republic

Among the small beer producers presenting their wares at the Czech Beer Festival currently on in Prague is the Zhůřák brewery, which is run by Chris Baerwaldt. The American produces wheat beers and ales at his home near the small west Bohemian town of Zhůř. When we met just before the Czech Beer Festival, I asked Baerwaldt what had brought him to this country in the first place.

“My wife brought me to the Czech Republic. My wife is Czech and I met her eight or nine years ago at a brew festival in the United States. I was working for a brewery in the US and she was working for a cousin who was importing beer from the Czech Republic.

“We happened to be in tents next to each other, and I think she took advantage of me, while we were having a few beers!”

Chris BaerwaldtChris Baerwaldt When you tell Czech people that you brew beer, what’s their reaction? Czechs are proud of their own beer making skills.

“Sometimes they’re a little surprised. But people I’ve talked to and worked with, from other breweries, have all been very supportive and very helpful, with trying to establish a brewery here, getting equipment, socialising with the right people to try to expand what I’m doing. So everybody’s been very helpful here.”

How does your business work, in terms of the scale of it…?

“Right now my quote-unquote brewery, which is officially Pivovar Zhůřák, is pretty much home-brewing. I’m brewing 60 litres at a time. It’s not a lot of beer. I’d say right now it’s kind of my grassroots movement to…get my beer out there and see how people like it and grow up from there.

“I have been able to produce enough quantity to take it into bars. It is a challenge to make enough for people to accept it, because usually they don’t want just one keg, they want enough kegs to go on for a few days.

“With one bar, Pivovarský Klub, I did four 60-litre kegs. Brewing 60 litres at a time, my brewing process takes almost a day. So it took a while to do that.

“I don’t have all the right facilities, but the idea is that I’m trying to keep it small right now…and see how it’s going to take off. Hopefully it’s going to be popular enough so that I can expand and get a larger brewing facility and be able to do this more efficiently.

Photo: Zhůřák brewery Facebook pagePhoto: Zhůřák brewery Facebook page Many Czechs, or maybe most Czechs, are proud of their beer. But the beers that the actually drink often are mass-produced and quite bland, like Staropramen or Gambrinus. What do you think is the general quality of Czech beer?

“When I taste Czech beers I compare them to US beers, and if you want to take about bland, bad beer, mass-produced bad beer, the US is the king of that, from Miller to Coors, all those guys, they’re actually mixing rice in when they brew, which dilutes the amount of barley. You can’t really taste the barley taste, and the rice actually takes away from the hop flavour, which is weak to start with.

“Coming from the US, the Czech beer is a quality beer and it’s something the Czechs should be proud of. As their mass-produced beer they make very good beer, compared to what I’m used to. They have all the right in the world to be proud of what they do.”

What hops do you use? I know that a lot of the best Czech hops are now sold abroad.

“Most of the beers are actually based on recipes that I am using are from the Hoppy Brewing Company, and most of the hops are US hops. For the most part, as I’ve made trips to the US and come back I’ve picked up hops and brought them back.

“Actually on my last trip I probably pushed my limit. I probably had about 25 kilogrammes of hops in my bag, which were a variety of Nugget, Liberty, Cascade and Columbus, things I like to brew with. When I do traditional beers, I like to use the local Saaz or the offshoots of the Saaz variety.”

I presume you’ve tried a lot of Czech beers. What for you is the best?

“You know I get harassed about one of my favourite beers. I like one of the mass-produced beers, Gambrinus. It’s a good mass-produced beer that I like to drink a lot.

“If I’m looking for something special…I like Primator, they have a lot of good variety. When I’m looking for something different besides a lager, Primator is what I like.”

What has been the reaction of Czech drinkers to your beer?

“It’s been very favourable. Even in the town where I live, Zhůř, where we’re out in the country and you might think they would want to keep more traditional with their beers, they seem…at least they’re nice enough to me to say they like it.

“When I brought the beer to the Pivovarský Klub I had the four kegs and they went through it about five or six days. I heard a lot of good comments back. I had people contact me directly about it to say, where else can I get this? Can I try other beer? So far the response has been very good.”

I’m not a connoisseur of beer. I’ll drink any beer, more or less. I presume most of the people interested in your beer are connoisseurs. Are there a lot of people like that here?

Photo: Zhůřák brewery Facebook pagePhoto: Zhůřák brewery Facebook page “Like in the US, where there’s a revolution with all the small brew pubs, I think that’s happening right now in the Czech Republic, where you’ve seen all these little brew pubs coming up. All these brew pubs that were breweries that shut down…people are coming in and buying them out and starting to produce unique local beers.

“A lot of people are gravitating towards that. That’s what I’m seeing. You go to these beer festivals and there are a lot of people who are looking for unique varieties beyond the traditional Czech lager.

“There’s definitely a buzz going on here, which I think is a good opportunity for me. If they’re looking for something unique, I think we can provide that.”

In ten years where would you like your career as a brewer to be?

“I would definitely hope at that point I’d be doing full-time brewing. I don’t want to get too large. I’d be maybe doing batches of 600 litres at a time…That’s kind of where I’d like to be.

“I don’t want to get too large and I’m not sure if I want to get into bottling. I’d just do the kegs for the pubs, and maybe have people come for on-site sales.”