Czech brewers see better times ahead

PLZEN, Czech Republic — With beer prices roughly the same as water, Czechs are the undisputed world leaders in beer drinking. So, it has been a hit to national pride that their phenomenal thirst has lessened over the last five years.

But, brewers insist things may be looking up in a country where packed bars and beer gardens — and loud foreigners getting their fill of the national drink — are as much a part of the Prague experience as the architecture and meandering Vltava River.

Early indications give hope the slip might be a hiccup: The beer industry association is forecasting an increase of one to three percent in consumption this year.

That would be plenty of beer. According to Credit Suisse's World Map of Beer for 2010, the Czechs drank per capita a belt-busting 161 liters; Germany was a distant second with 109 liters; the British managed 86 liters, and Americans, 79.

For Jiri Vesely, the Czech Beer and Malt Association executive director who recom mends a nutritious liter a day for men and two-thirds of that for women, any sign of more beers being downed is as good an economic indicator as any to prove that consumer sentiment is strong.

"People were afraid that they could perhaps lose their job," Vesely told AP, explaining away the drop in sales. "We reached the bottom last year and the first half of the year is quite optimistic."

He predicts a heady five percent jump in exports in addition to the encouraging increase at home. "The horrible weather in the best consumption months — July and August — scared me. But I'm sure from the point of the whole year that there will be a slight increase," he said.

At the Pilsner Urquell brewery an hour's drive from Prague, spokesman Jiri Mareck said the company now exports to 50 markets, with Germany, Slovakia, Britain and the United States the largest recipients.