Although I believe in the importance of local ownership for breweries, I’m not totally convinced that that local owners are always better owners. Sometimes local owners can screw things up. Sometimes foreign owners can improve things. Look at what happened with Krušovice Černé, the legendary black lager from the brewery once owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II.
Pivovar Krušovice passed through many hands over the centuries, including foreigners like the Habsburg Emperor himself. Probably founded in 1517 when the local lords were granted brewing rights, it is first mentioned in print in 1581 as the property of Jiří Bírka z Násile, who had moved his brewery from Rakovník to a farm in nearby Krušovice, according to the history at Pivovary.info. In 1583 it was purchased from Jiří Bírka z Násile by Rudolph for 11,500 Meissner kopa, thus becoming the property of the Czech Crown, later falling into the hands of Bohemia’s Valdštejn and Fürstenberk noble families until after the war. It was nationalized by the Communists in 1948.
I’ve been told by brewers that, under Communism, Pivovar Krušovice produced pale lagers of such quality that they could — and probably did — pass for Pilsner Urquell on the export market. Krušovice Černé was certainly revered by people who know good beer. But something happened after the Velvet Revolution, while the brewery was under the ownership of Binding Brauerei group, part of the Dr. Oetker frozen-pizza and processed-food empire. As I put it in Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic, the beers sucked.
Part of that suck was the use of artificial ingredients, which, if I remember correctly, included both E150a, or caramel coloring, and E954, saccharine, in Krušovice Černé, which resulted in a medicinal, sickly sweet finish. So it was to my surprise when I tasted one recently for the first time in a while and found that I liked it plenty. The finish didn’t seem too sweet anymore. On draft at the Krušovická pivnice at Národní 7 in Prague, the beer had enough cola, coffee, spice and licorice notes that I stopped to pick up a bottle on the way home that night.
So Krušovice Černé is once again made without artificial colorings and sweeteners and seems better off for it. The big difference between now and then is yet another change of ownership: Pivovar Krušovice was purchased by Heineken in June of 2007. The Dutch giant might not be everyone’s favorite international brewing conglomerate (and really, which one is?), but to judge by just one dark lager and how it tastes, it’s a step up from the frozen-pizza guys.
Run out and buy it? If you like dark lagers, definitely. The beer’s 3.8% alcohol — this is a desítka, or 10° Plato brew — makes it a very manageable lunch beer. Ratebeer also lists a version with just 3.5% alcohol in Sweden. In fact, both the domestic and the Scandinavian brews are much weaker than Krušovice Černé once was: the beer is descended from a celebratory brew called Grand, originally brewed at 14° and with around 6% alcohol, first made sometime around 1900. (That’s not a lunch beer by any means, at least not for me.)
I think this shows that not all foreign owners are equal, or at least not equally bad. Nor are all local owners universally good for breweries and beer lovers. One Czech brewmaster I spoke with recently noted that his beers improved remarkably once his brewery was bought by foreigners, who then provided enough capital to invest in better ingredients. Now it’s all Žatecký poloraný červeňák and Haná barley, all the time. But in the bad old days when his brewery was still Czech-owned, he said, they used Chinese hops and malt from Slovakia.