Czech Teens Learn to Brew in School

Think of this as any teenager’s dream class. Not only do you learn to brew beer, in school, and get credit for it, you get to drink the beer, too.

This could only happen in a country where brewing is part of the culture, where it’s considered an important craft. Where people take beer seriously. It happens in the Czech Republic.

“They can taste the beer up to a point,” Frantisek Svec, head craftsman at Mestan Brewery in Prague, says of his 15- to 17-year-old apprentices. Young apprentices are allotted about a liter a week, Svec says. The legal drinking age in the Czech Republic is 18.

On the other hand both Svec and head professor Jan Smid each get at least a free liter of beer a day. But can the instructors drink that much beer daily? “Well, one has friends,” Svec says, laughing as he helps himself to a second glass of student-made beer.

Smid is quick to add, however, that the Brewers’ Apprentice School “doesn’t have a party character.” Neither, unfortunately, does the school have a long future ahead.

The Brewers’ Apprentice School started at the Prague brewery in 1987, two years before Czech communist leaders stepped down and playwright Vaclav Havel took the presidential post. It’s one of four brewing apprentice schools in the country; the others are in Plzen, Ceske Budevice, and Moravia.

Daily classroom instruction, using brewing textbooks specific to the year of training, begins at 6:30 a.m., followed by hands-on learning on the brewery’s premises. Seven-hour days end back in the classroom at 1 p.m. with a half-hour summary of the day’s work.

For hundreds of years, apprentices have been learning the art of brewing in programs such as this one. Even Czech vocational schools and gymn ziums (grammar schools) include basic instruction about how this country’s best-loved drink is made. The fact that young Czechs study hands-on with professional brewers, after which they work in a brewery for a minimum of three years, shows just how integral beer is to this culture.

Apprentice Jan Lumbert, 16, wanted to be a chef, “but apprentice schools for cooks are private, and I didn’t have the money. So I came here.”

Sixteen-year-old Stepan Kabzer, a shy redhead in his second year at Mestan, has brewing in his blood. Stepan’s father was a brewer, but he recently left the trade to work in construction. This week Stepan, in a flannel shirt and blue jeans, is monitoring the boilers.

Besides their youthful appearance, apprentices are easy to spot. Unlike professional brewers in blue coveralls, they’re dressed in jeans and ratty
t-shirts. As Svec passes the boilers upstairs, he stops to pat a couple of apprentices on the shoulder. Basically, Svec is around to give pointers, answer questions, and take care of his

This year Svec, who has been training brewers for seven years in Prague, has 25 pupils, six of whom are girls. Although they don’t pay for their three years of study, graduates must work as a trade-off at Mestan (or another brewery with which Mestan cooperates) for an additional three years.

At the end of the day, Katka Souckova, 17, hangs her head over her notebook as Professor Smid lectures on kegs. Neither Souckova nor any of the students take notes as Smid talks about cleaning, assembling, and moving kegs.

For the brewing apprentice, however, school isn’t easy, according to both Smid and Svec. Apprentices do everything from sweeping the barley, which is lined up in 40- to 50-meter-long rows on a tiled floor to sprout, to stirring the wort. For the hands-on work students are divided into groups and sent to separate departments.

The apprentices take up three different rooms upstairs in the brewery: a typical classroom with desks and chairs, a locker room, and a miniature brewing room with the only pilot brewery in the country, according to Smid.

Manual bottling machines from the ’20s, refurbished by Smid, decorate the tables. Tools used for capping beer that, Svec says, “my father used to use” hang from the walls. This is the second largest brewery antique collection in the country (the largest is in Plzen). Many visitors have offered to buy these artifacts, but they’re not for sale, Smid says.

From below the apprentices’ rooms, a humid smell escapes. In one of the first brewing steps, apprentices boil barley in huge, white, 60-year-old tanks. Over the next 12 hours this boiling liquid slowly drips out of metal taps and winds its way to another tank, where the hops are added.

It’s here that the original gravity of the beer is decided. Original gravity, usually 10° or 12° Plato (1.040 or 1.048) in Czech beers, is the measure of malt sugar in the beer before it ferments.

The beer is then transferred to 150-hectoliter (3,960-gallon) tubs, where the production of carbon dioxide during fermentation forms layers of white foam like bubble bath. Here, the liquid is cooled and the yeast turns the sugars to alcohol. In one of the final steps of brewing, eight long, hippo-shaped conditioning tanks hold the foaming liquid for 20 to 42 days (depending on the gravity), where the CO2 is trapped, carbonating the beer.

Student-made beer at Mestan is placed in kegs, labeled, and graded, while the rest is put in bottles or kegs to be sold.

A Fading Legacy

Unfortunately, the Czech Republic’s brewing apprentice schools are closing their doors next year, Svec says.

“The school will be closed due to the lack of interest on the part of students,” Svec says. “Everyone wants to go to a secondary school (where they can earn high school degrees). Breweries believe they’ll be able to continue with unqualified workers. But they’ll see. Maybe in 10 years this school will open again.”

Due to the decreasing birth rate in the Czech Republic, many schools throughout the country – not just the brewing programs – will be closing in upcoming years, Smid says. Moreover, when the apprentice programs shut down next year, Svec and Smid will probably be out of work. This isn’t just because their teaching duties have been scratched, Svec says. England’s Bass brewery, which purchased shares in Mestan three years ago, will soon bring new brewing technology to replace manual workers.

So where will young Czech brewers-to-be learn? One secondary school in Prague will teach students everything about brewing — minus the hands-on work. From any secondary school they can enroll in the brewing course at Prague’s University of Chemical Technology.

The university’s Department of Fermentation Chemistry and Bioengineering has been churning out the country’s top brewers for more than 100 years. “In 1816 this was the first school in Europe to teach beer brewing,” says Gabriela Basarova, who heads this department and was the first woman to work at Plzensky Prazdroj in Plzen (the Czech Republic’s largest brewery, founded in 1842).

“We’re still the institute with the most intensive university course for beer brewing in the Czech Republic. Our beer industry continuously needs new, professional brewers,” says Basarova.

Students aged 18 to 22 study malting, brewing, and biotechnology here. Graduates of this fermentation department have gone on to become general managers of the country’s largest breweries, such as Plzensky Prazdroj, Budejovicky Budvar (Ceske Budejovice), and Staropramen (Prague). Unlike countries such as the US, where strict drinking laws keep the art of making beer somewhat taboo among youth, Basarova says that “all Czechs should know a little about brewing beer.”

Issue: June 1996