The history of beer brewing in the Czech Republic is much older the country's current borders. Chronicled evidence reveals that hops from the region were exported as far back as 903 A.D., and that hop growing regions had been established by as early as 859 A.D.. Bohemian hops were so prized that at one point, the penalty for cutting and exporting the hops for cultivation elsewhere was punishable by death. The first Czech brewery was built in 1118, in bold disobedience of an order by the Bishop of Prague banning brewing (the violation of which carried excommunicative consequences). The order was annulled by Pope Innocent IV when King Wenceslas negotiated the repeal on behalf of his people. Bringing beer to the people! Certainly, he earned his title "Good King Wenceslas". How ironic that he was slain by his drunken brother.
Until the 16th century, brewing was not practiced in large breweries, but rather in the kitchens and pantries of town houses. Ultimately, the noble classes began to run various sorts of business at their estates, and this shifted brewing out of local homes and into palaces and castles, which typically possessed their own on-site breweries. The beer brewed in these breweries was sold in local public houses for the serfs to enjoy-and enjoy they did; brewing became huge business, adding to the fortunes of noble families through the centuries.
One of these once regal brewing facilities is located in a castle in the town of Breznice, located about 40 miles due south of the Czech capital, Prague. The ancient tradition of brewing in this town goes back to at least the 15th century and is chronicled in a 1454 document that names Mikes Vanek, a maltster (one who produces malted barley and/or wheat), as the Breznice village mayor. The castle at Breznice dates back to at least 1415 and the first documented reference to a brewery traces to the year 1506 (hence the date on the Herold beer labels). That makes this year their 500th anniversary, which is an astonishing milestone if you think about it! They are one of the oldest functioning breweries in the Czech Republic.
The small brewery of the castle, now called Pivovar Herold, lies in what was originally a Gothic structure that was ultimately expanded and redesigned in renaissance and baroque styles. The estate has been owned by numerous noble families, and under them, the brewery was in nearly constant use and revitalization, even with its tumultuous turnovers. Despite the various takeovers and new owners, beer brewing remained a critical tradition (even when taken over by a devout Catholic who added to the castle a new chapel and had a Jesuit seminary constructed nearby).
Sadly, subsequent political climates negatively affected the brewing industry. Under Communist rule, the brewery was seized yet again-taken over by the state, with very little capital invested into it or any of the nation's breweries during the period. As with so many other trades, the communists simply produced the product and squeezed as much money as possible out of the industry by minimizing self-investment. However on the upside, beer was very cheap-and legal. This helped establish beer drinking as perhaps the single most popular hobby among Czech men. One of the Czech Republic's most famous beer drinkers, the protagonist of Jaroslav Hasek's novel "The Good Soldier Svejk" proclaimed that the government that raises the price of beer is destined to fall within one year. In 1984 the Communists almost doubled the price of beer, and though off by four years, his prognostication was fulfilled.
Interestingly, there was a paradoxically positive consequence of Communist ownership: the lack of investment in the facility. Without major modernization over the years, the Herold Brewery still makes beer the old-fashioned way, using only traditional methods, equipment and ingredients. While subsequent owners have modernized certain components of the brewery, Pivovar Herold still makes most of its own malt, in the Pilsner style, from local barley-highly uncommon for most commercial breweries operating today.
When Communism collapsed, the state's properties were slowly permitted to return to private ownership, and the Herold Brewery again became a privately held entity. In 2004, the brewery's management was taken over by a new director, David Porteous, who set a new direction for Herold's development, driven by a desire to distance their business practices from those of the globalized market and return to the craft-brewing tradition of Breznice's roots. As he states "to be sure, the rationale behind the activities of the small breweries is to retain true love for their work." We'll raise a pint to that!