BierTalk English 19 – Talk with Jitka Ilčíková, Founder of Wild Creatures Brewery from Dolní Dunajovice, Czech Republic

Jitka Ilčíková belongs to the latest generation of innovative brewers from the Czech Republic. While her predecessors tended to try to make classic lagers in their garages, she put her focus on something completely different: lambic. Her husband, however, stayed true to the classics, so today there are two breweries in one: „Mammoth“ for the lagers and „Wild Creatures“ for their experimental spontaneously fermented specialties. Jitka expanded her horizons in Belgium and the USA and is now one of the most internationally known beer maniacs in the world…

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Markus Raupach: Hello and welcome to another episode of our podcast BierTalk. Today I’m sitting still in Krakow in Poland at a beer competition and of course there are lots of international beer judges. And I’m very happy to have Jitka Ilcikova from the Czech Republic. She has a very interesting brewing project called Wild Creatures and yes, it’s about Wild Creatures. But maybe she’s also a little bit of a wild creature. So let’s hear. Maybe you introduce yourself a bit to the listeners.

Jitka Ilcikova: Hello, everybody. Thank you for inviting. As you already heard, my name is Jitka. I’m coming from Czech Republic, and I’m a founder and also a brewer at Wild Creatures Brewery. We started in 2011, but only with the first trials of this spontaneously fermented beers. It was an idea of my husband not my own, to open a brewery and in 2011 we started with lagers, because it’s easy selling beer in Czech. So the Parallella line was the lambic-style beer for me. It was a big passion, but I was not sure on the beginning if there will be any proper result. So that’s why we started with the lagers. Until today, we are still brewing also lagers.

Markus Raupach: But the lagers are also called Wild Creatures?

Jitka Ilcikova: No, no. That time when we opened the brewery, we named it Mamut. It’s a word Mamut in English and because we live in a very special region with old historical roots. So it’s named after the historical part with the cultures. So after five years, in 2016, I realized that we already have something in our hand which is more or less what I wanted to have. And I decided to release it. And I realized it’s not possible to put it among the standard Mamut assortment because we already had a portfolio of customers, but they expected lagers, mainly lagers. And these lambic-style beers are completely different. So I decided to name it Wild Creatures.

Markus Raupach: Sounds interesting. And also, if you think in the Czech Republic there is, it’s a really beer-drinking country, a beer-loving country. And also in the last maybe 20 years a huge scene of home brewers and then small breweries developed there. And so when you started, there was already a quite huge scene of breweries? Or were you one of the first ones?

Jitka Ilcikova: This is hard to explain. But originally, I am not a brewer. I didn’t study these problems at the University. I am a financial analyst. And when we decided to have a brewery, I was on maternity leave, but still working for an international company. So it protected me good enough to be so crazy to start with this wild stuff. Because otherwise, really if I knew what to expect, I would probably never start. It was a fun on my maternity leave.

Markus Raupach: It’s good to have fun, especially in these circumstances. So but if we go a little bit back, so you say it was the idea of your husband?

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes.

Markus Raupach: So but maybe first yourself. So when you grew up, did you have a connection to beer somehow. Were you just a beer lover? Or was it (a friend of you that went) #00:04:09# for you? Or when did you come into beer?

Jitka Ilcikova: I had really almost zero experiences. My husband is the one who studied it, is a biochemist specialist. So he understands the processes very well. But I was the one who decided to have these lambics because I travelled a lot with the company and I also met a lambic in Belgium. So I was keen lambic lover but only as a consumer. And in our family, I live in winery region with vineyards all around and my family always produced wine. So the background is more coming from the wine more than from the beer. And when I met lambics, I realized that this spontaneously fermented beverages are not only in case of wine. So I saw a way that should be possible to go there. And that five years I invested to do it somehow. But as I said, really, I was not sure on the beginning if it will be a successful.

Markus Raupach: Also on the beginning of the Mamut brewery, so before this, do you have anything to do with beer?

Jitka Ilcikova: No, only sometimes as a home brewer. But really the full energy I put after we opened the brewery, because you need all the equipment. It’s not fun because you cannot do the trials with let’s say, 10 litres. You really need to do the trials with full barrels and you need a whole brewery kettle.

Markus Raupach: Yes, and as you have your name in the brewery, it’s Wild Creatures. So normally, if you ask any lager brewer in the world, what about making lambic, they will all cry and say not in my brewery.

Jitka Ilcikova: That’s true.

Markus Raupach: So what was the reaction of your husband when you said okay, it’s nice that you do lagers, but now I want to do something like lambic.

Jitka Ilcikova: I went crazy on maternity leave. He explained me all the time that this is really a crazy idea. That probably we will not be successful. But he saw that I am so patient and I am so keen that he helped me. He helped me because he explained me what’s wrong. So I tried and tried and tried, and thanks to them, I received as much as information as possible. And it is not true that we don’t know these facts according the lambics. Because all the analytic work was done in US, also in Asia, in Australia. It’s possible to gather a big amount of data. So that was the first work I did not only that I brew these trial beers, but I also gathered this information and analyzed them. So I saw some possibilities and then it was necessary to confirm if it will be valid or not.

Markus Raupach: And if we look into a Belgium lambic brewery, you have a huge cellar with hundreds of wooden barrels, and they age this beer for one to three years. Afterwards, they blend it. So if I come to your brewery, how does it look like it? Is it more of the same?

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes, it is the same. I wanted to add maybe a very good information. I’m speaking about lagers. It is very clean beer and also lambics. We didn’t do it on the same place. That would not be a clever thing. And above the barrels, we have it all together we have about 200 barrels. So it’s a big quantity.

Markus Raupach: And you have barrels from your family and other vineyards? Or from all over the world?

Jitka Ilcikova: Some of them are from France, from wineries, and a lot of them from wineries from Czech. Because the winery region in Czech is very small. It’s really only our region. It’s not comparable with France, for example. The region is very, very small. So most of them I know, it’s not about, maybe six to eight wineries or something like that. So you can be in touch directly with them. I can go to the winery and taste the wine. And because the fact the barrels needs to be healthy. Most of all, they need to be healthy. I do not care if there is a red wine or white wine, and if they do not use it, I buy it from them. And they already know so they usually right now they contact me if I want or not a new barrel.

Markus Raupach: So it’s always used barrels?

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes.

Markus Raupach: And always barrels that have been in use for quite a time so that you don’t have a lot of wood impact in terms of tannins and aroma? It’s more about the Wild Creatures in the barrel which are then working in the beers.

Jitka Ilcikova: It’s about, what is it called, micro-oxygenation capability of the barrel. Because a lot of processes inside when the beer is developing are aerobic and they need to breathe to replicate. That’s why I use these barrels. I also tried a lot of beers, especially this year in Belgium, that they aged the beer in a cognac barrel or a whiskey, rum and something like that. It was interesting. I understand that to why the portfolio, it’s necessary to do also these things. But I am not there. It is necessary also to get to know these flavours, and I am still not on that position. So I prefer the clean taste.

Markus Raupach: I think it’s also a big difference in what is the idea. So if you have like the imperial stout in the rum barrel, it’s about the rum aroma and the imperial stout aroma, and about the harmony and whatever. But if you have, as far as I understood, like the lambics, or also the flanders red, and these things, you have the micro oxidation, so that it’s just a little bit which comes through the wood. And this little bit is just making slowly process and also this little bit allows bacterias, like brettanomyces to do its process. But also in a more or less controlled way, which then brings this special aroma. So that is what you prefer.

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes. A lot of people think that you just add the aroma of the wood to the flavour. But you can use a stainless steel and add wood chips to adjust the flavour. It’s different. When you use the glass or stainless steel as in our materials, they never give you what you really want. It’s a living process and it really needs the oxygen, but not too much.

Markus Raupach: And it also needs time. So as far as the Belgian people tell me the real process starts maybe after one and a half, two years in the barrel. So yes, it’s really a lot of waiting until it’s as you want it.

Jitka Ilcikova: That’s the core why I love these beers, the philosophy. Because spontaneous fermentation and everything around, it’s really a natural way of production. And the product is according to that and the fact that you cannot influence every single step is like a miracle. You can influence a lot of things. It’s not necessary to brew it during summer because it would be spoiled by bacterias and it’s too aggressive generally. So you need to gather all these facts and brew it somehow. It’s fantastic.

Markus Raupach: So you also do the blending?

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes.

Markus Raupach: Is that a process you have also to learn to get experience?

Jitka Ilcikova: It was the hardest work, the blending itself. We started with more fluid versions on the beginning. I was more sure in that. And after a few years we also released a (fuel) #00:13:05# style beer. When I’m speaking about these terms, I need to say that we do not use on the bottles these words like lambic and this. I respect it. It’s used in Belgium in a special region. That’s completely okay. But when I am speaking to someone, I usually use these words for better understanding. Otherwise, I would need a half an hour to explain what it is. So that’s just to be fair.

Markus Raupach: How do you explain it to a Czech customer?

Jitka Ilcikova: That’s hard work, hard, hard work. That was my topic yesterday of the speech, how to compete with an unorthodox beer on a traditional market. And I said on the beginning I do not fail, I compete lagers, because it’s simply not possible and it’s not my target. I see the target as to introduce new flavours and Czech market, especially Czech market and I think your market is very much the same, is focused on the lagers, on the tradition. So the only way what I can do is just to introduce really to enlighten the people that it is not only about lager, that you can have also an ale. I am the only one on the market. So everyone can be a competitor or a friend, but the better possibility is when we all do the same work to explain the people that it is not necessary to drink only lager. Because we win all of us when they realize they can have a glass of lager with a meet at the dinner. And when they meet friends in the evening, they can decide maybe for a lambic to share a glass with all of them, or they can have an ale and they can switch and that’s it. That’s my personal target.

Markus Raupach: Yes, and I think also, especially in the Czech market and also in my home market in Franconia, it is so different because lager drinking means not only lager drinking, it means also lager drinking in terms of a lot. So and in terms of the occasion. So we would normally never go to like a football match and have a bottle of lambic, or something like that. And also, normally we would not have maybe for New Year’s Eve, a big barrel of lager. Then we will have like a champagne or something like that. So I think for this market, it’s more likely to be like on the wine or like champagne side, because these are the customers who are targeting maybe more.

Jitka Ilcikova: I can confirm when you mentioned champagne, I usually say also to journalists, when they are asking who is drinking and for whom it is generally, that it’s like when you imagine a wine. In my region it’s common. You have a glass of wine on the table. But champagne, it’s not every day. And that’s the same with lambic. You can have a beer every day, but you probably do not drink the lambic every day. It’s for a special occasion, as you said. There are people who are drinking it every day. Why not? It’s not so rare a beer. We’re but to understand the Czech people, to understand what is it, because it’s also about the way of consuming. It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality, because you need to allow yourself to have a proper time for it to enjoy it.

Markus Raupach: And also the right glassware and all these things.

Jitka Ilcikova: And the target customers you asked about, generally more natural, the lovers of natural wine. More than the standard because the standard by the production is that reductive way of fermentation and everything. So the wine is very clean, it’s more comparable to lagers. But the natural winemakers they have similar flavours in the wine and they usually like also lambics. A lot of these winemakers are my friends, because we share the experiences with barrels and all this. So yes, yes, there is a match on the market.

Markus Raupach: So when you started with it, and when you had the first bottles, what did maybe your parents, your friends, your husband say when you presented them first this new product?

Jitka Ilcikova: They didn’t like it. They didn’t like it really. My parents, especially my parents, they didn’t understand why I am doing this beer. Because I am living on the countryside. One thing is the wine. And when winemakers are drinking beer, they usually drink beer because they are not interested in other beers. They just know the lager. That’s typical. Also, it comes much later maybe in Prague because there is a lot of tourists and more money also. It’s good to say that lambic is not a cheap beer. It’s one of the most expensive beer and it also plays a role. So on the countryside, it was something extraordinary. And now it changed. It changed. My father helped me a lot also in the brewery when we are bottling and when he has a free time, so I am happy. And he told me Jitka, you solved a lot of problems and it is not necessary to drink the leftovers and I am missing it.

Markus Raupach: Okay.

Jitka Ilcikova: And I realized it’s a good change.

Markus Raupach: Yes. So now after five years they also changed their personal view on it.

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes, yes.

Marku Raupach: And also the Czech market? So I think when you introduced it maybe like the magazines and journalists they also maybe didn’t understand, but for them maybe it was an interesting topic to have you as a person and this special beer. So this also has changed now? You’re part of it?

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes, a lot of publicity was done. That helped a lot. But to change the opinion of the people, it will take much more time, much more time. But the time is changing. I can feel it. For example, it was not common when I started with the beer, there was zero possibility for the sale. That’s why we sold almost everything abroad. That was the only one possibility to earn some money. Right now, we are able to sell it in restaurants, for example, and also in the specialized craft beer shops. So the situation is much better. And also I see a lot of companies, for example, is ordering beer tasting. I always do what I can to explain what they can expect. And it was common that when I explained what the beer is, they cancelled it. It was fair, it was fair because really they said, okay, we are used to drink the standard beer. Probably it will not be good for us. And now they are willing to try. They say it will be a pleasure to have this tasting and then we will go on with the standard beer. But we would like to pay this tasting because it is really interesting for us. And it’s a big change.

Markus Raupach: And you can also offer the Mamut beers afterwards, something like that.

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes.

Marku Raupach: And just because you mentioned it, if someone may be from Germany or from the US wants to try your beers, what is the best way to get them? Is there an online shop?

Jitka Ilcikova:  We have an online shop. But we have also a lot of distributors on every market, or on a lot of markets also in the US, for example. But generally speaking, I don’t know for example, in US on what states we have, because it’s not up to me. It’s more up to the importer or distributor. But when someone writes me, I’m able to give him a contact on the distributor.

Markus Raupach: Okay, so we will put the information in the show notes. Okay. And when we first met, it was a virtual meeting because it was during the pandemic. We were on the stage on the Virtual Brewers Forum. So how was the pandemic for you? And also maybe for the Mamut brewery? Or generally for the Czech market? So if you now look back, it’s more or less after the pandemic however you call it. But yes, what was happening? How did you survive? What is about the market?

Jitka Ilcikova: It was a tough time. I am just an ordinary person and I was nervous how it will develop the markets. We did a decision right before the pandemic that we moved Wild Creatures to a new facility. So it was necessary to postpone it because the decision was done really a few months before the pandemic start. And it was a huge investment. So I was not sure. And we invested our own money into the brewery. So it’s not a big company with shareholders and something like that. And I waited. I have a friend who invested because of the move of the company to the new facility. They made an investment. So I am sharing the company right now. But still, you are the face of the brewery. So you need to, I am responsible for the production all the time. And it was really a hard time for me.

Markus Raupach: But now you did the move?

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes, yes, we finished it. We did it through the pandemic. So because I realized if we will not do it, we lose the time and it will be even worse. So it was a risk. But I hope.

Markus Raupach: Especially for you it’s about time, because you brew and you still have to wait years until you can sell the beers. It’s really long. And how is it to move something like that? Because you have barrels filled and whatever, and also it does something with the beer.

Jitka Ilcikova: We finished moving this year. It took years step by step because of the microflora and I didn’t want to interrupt the developing of the beer to be sure that we will be okay. But it was the best way for the production. The worst way for the paperwork and for the custom officers, because they hate it. In case you are moving the vessel where you have the beer, you need to do a special paperwork to announce that you are doing this. And it was hell work. All the time on the phone, and they wanted to check everything. So I am really happy that we finished it this year. And I am sure they are also happy. When they see my name on the phone, I’m sure they are laying under the table.

Markus Raupach: But I think they also had to understand what you are doing. So maybe in general, how do you, if you say you don’t call the beers lambics or creeks or something like that, how are they called in Czech?

Jitka Ilcikova: Don’t ask me. Don’t ask me because it is very sad reply. A few years ago, they changed the legislative and spontaneously fermented beers were decided not to be a beer anymore. And I am fighting till today that it’s not fair that the / it is not harmonized with the EU rules. But as I said, it’s a heavily protected market for the lagers and the big players are definitely against it.

Markus Raupach: And what is then written on your labels?

Jitka Ilcikova: It’s a beverage made from beer. Big troubles for me, because when I do the selling to the other markets via Europe, I solve it very often because the distributors or especially the custom officers, they are calling that I made a mistake because it’s not written on the papers, a beer. That there is a written, this something. And I’m explaining all the time that I’m sorry, I know. It’s a big problem, but not my fault. And sometimes it happened that they refuse to finish it, to release it to the market. So they stop the work and it’s a mess over.

Markus Raupach: So we all cross your fingers that it will be solved in the future. Maybe you are traveling also a lot?

Jitka Ilcikova:  Yes.

Markus Raupach: And maybe you brought some of your beers also to Belgium. So what did the people there say about your beers?

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes, we are also in Belgium market. I was more than happy that this year we participated. So it was like when your dream comes true, it was very, very lovely feeling. We were sharing beers with my heroes, Gert for example, from Oud Beersel, or Pierre from Tilquin. It’s something you always wanted to be honest. But I know that the way is really very long. You cannot jump the generations of experiences, but you simply need to compare it all the time not with the feeling to be the winner. But when you are targeting on some special product with special flavours, you need to compare it with you like the best. And I like these beers. So I cannot compare it with some Czech breweries, especially when they are not producing it. So to be there is very important for me.

Markus Raupach: And what was the feedback of the Belgium brewers and people?

Jitka Ilcikova: It was very nice. It was very nice. So I am happy. But you need to ask them.

Markus Raupach: Okay, I will. So but great. So and last question maybe. You also are a mother.

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes.

Markus Raupach: So maybe one side okay. Maybe it’s also hard, but that’s for every mother I think if you are working and you have children. But also maybe for your children in school when they are asked what is your mother doing and then they say okay, she makes this crazy stuff in barrels and sour and whatever. So how is that being a mother in the business with that very special products?

Jitka Ilcikova: I think they do not think about it so much. Sometimes when I am on TV or in some magazines, they realize it. But I did what I could to protect them from everything. And I don’t think I am so well-known person, so it was not so big. They have their own lives and I wanted them to have just a normal life. So this is not a problem. As I said, we are living on the countryside, so everything, what’s happening abroad, it’s so far that. The only one thing what is really a problem is that I am not at home quite often. So I miss them, of course. But right now they are 12 and 10. So they are big enough to have fun also without me and when I am at home, I am with them, usually. So my colleagues know that I am not good in a party time. So drinking beer too much is not my hobby. I really enjoy the time with family because you need to have enough energy also for the business and this so that’s perfect for me to calm down.

Markus Raupach: Yes, that’s also something I realized in general also in the competitions like we have here. So of course there’s a part of the people who also, after the competition, go and drink like hell. But there’s also more and more a part of let’s say more reasonable people, which know okay, this is competition and we have to try the beers. And afterwards maybe we have one or two, but that it’s good. So I think a more reasonable way of coping with the alcohol thing. So do you also think there’s a change in working with it?

Jitka Ilcikova: I don’t know. Because I had never, this tempting to be a party girl. So really, honestly I don’t know. But I think it can be a problem quite easily. As I said, I’m living in a winery region. We just delight really a lot because we have a lot of fruits. It’s a fact of our region. It’s natural way how to, can keep, you can keep the fruit. And I love it. I love it. Why not? But only a small amount and that’s enough. And when I am drinking the beer the whole day, I’m not able to drink it the whole night also. I am not able. And if I do it every day, I would be afraid I can be in trouble very often or very soon.

Markus Raupach: Yes and I think the borderline can be quite thin.

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes, yes. You did not realize and you are solving all those troubles.

Markus Raupach: Okay, really last question. If you look ten years in the future, how will Wild Creatures look like?

Jitka Ilcikova: I would like to stabilize the markets with the selling. Because we usually solve the biggest problem. We do not have enough on stock. So that I would like to solve. And when the company is (ingrazing?) #00:33:10#, you cannot hire enough employees to everything. So simply you need to cover it by yourself and that’s this time. So I would like to solve it to be able to spend more time with the family and to be able to pay more people instead of me. That’s my main target.

Markus Raupach: And that’s something, always exchange time and money. That’s how it is. Yes, so thanks a lot for your time. It’s very great to have you here and I think the listeners now know what to do. So try the Wild Creatures beers and maybe visit you. Is it possible?

Jitka Ilcikova: Yes, it is possible. But I just explain it that it is not so easy. Better to let me know in advance.

Markus Raupach: Okay, my people have the contact data. So perfect. So thanks and have a nice day today.

Jitka Ilcikova: Thank you.

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