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Monday, August 25, 2014

The Budweiser Ironies

A couple weeks ago, Pete Brown posted a wonderfully nuanced piece about Budweiser--both of them--in London Loves Business.  He argued that the two Buds were about as well-made as any on the planet and that, while you may not enjoy the American Bud, you could not doubt its quality.  He's correct. As sensory experiences go, American Budweiser is not a particularly thrilling ride.  (When I visited the St. Louis plant, brewmaster Jim Bicklein took me to the cellars, where we had a zwickel from the huge conditioning tanks.  On every previous occasion when I've been offered a tank-fresh pour, I have found depths and delights in a beer I missed in the store-bought incarnation.  I held my breath and sipped the cool, sparkling lager through a skiff of snowy head and ... it was just Bud.  Very, very fresh Bud.)  But the brewing process is exacting and there are no shortcuts.  It is intentionally unthrilling.  (And millions of drinkers like it that way.)

But what really caught my eye was this paragraph:
One of the most famous battles in Beerworld is the epic David and Goliath tussle between the world’s biggest brewer – Anheuser-Busch Inbev – and the small, state-owned Czech brewer Budweiser Budvar. In 1876 Adolphus Busch stole the name Budweiser from the town of Ceske Budejovice – or ‘Budweis’ in German – and over the ensuing decades agreements were reached about who had the rights to the name in various parts of the world. When the Czech Republic disappeared behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War the American brewer tore up the arrangements it had agreed to and made American Budweiser the world’s biggest beer brand. 
There are a few stories about the Budweisers, and this is the one only a fraction of beer drinkers know.  It is not the one they tell in St. Louis.  However, even this version isn't exactly right.  The real story is much more interesting and filled with irony.

Jim Bicklein at the brewery in St. Louis
The town of České Budějovice [pronounced, roughly, ches kay bud ye-oh vit sa] is located in the south of Bohemia.  Bohemia being located in the Czech Republic, you will not be surprised to learn that the people there speak Czech.  But this also the crossroads of some very important empires, and in centuries gone past, the region was controlled by a German-speaking population, who called it Budweis. Beer brewed there, as it has been since the 13th century, was therefore either Budějovický or Budweiser—literally, beer of the town of Budějovice or Budweis.  Fast forward to the period following the success of Josef Groll’s 1842 pale lager in Pilsen.  Other Czech breweries began making pale lagers, too.  The Civic Brewery in the town then called Budweis was one of them.  A supplier to the court of King Wilhelm II, the lager earned the nickname “the beer of kings.”  Ring a bell?      

By the 1860s an enterprising American brewery, enchanted by the idea of Bohemian beer, decided Budweis’s were the best.  It was no easy task to make those kinds of beers in the United States, but Adolphus Busch of the Anheuser Brewery had managed to do it and in 1876 debuted his own Budweiser beer.  Busch was selling beer for twenty years under the Budweiser name before a new brewery opened back in Budweis as a rival to the older, German-owned company.  This new brewery, the Joint Stock Brewery, was one of a wave of new Czech-owned businesses to spring up as a part of the Czech National Movement of the late 19th century.  Eventually that brewery became known as Budějovický Budvar.    

The fascinating part of the history is that the claims and counter-claims the two companies hurl at each other are generally founded in fact.  As it happens, Adolphus Busch did find inspiration for his beers from Budweis and did spirit away both the type of beer and the name.  But it’s also true that he brewed his beer before Budweiser Budvar even existed.  He did also apparently appropriate “the beer of kings” and turn it into “the king of beers”—one of the most valuable corporate slogans in the world.  (Budvar disputes the history of “beer of kings.”)  But the brewery that inspired Busch is no longer in existence.  And in the most wry of ironies, neither company has a clear historical claim to the name Budweiser: Busch obviously borrowed and rebranded it with absolutely no connection to the town or people; on the other hand, except as a valuable trademark, why would the people of České Budějovice want the name?  Budvar remains state-owned and is an artifact of the Czech National Movement.  “Budweis” was the name the city has abandoned.      

Pete points out that the dispute hasn't exactly been terrible for Budvar.  Picking a fight with the world's most famous and popular brands has its upside.  But the real story is actually more interesting, and the clean lines of the narrative a bit more smudged. 


  1. Jeff, I remember Budweiser in the 1970's. It was much better than today with a lightly malty taste and characteristic, slightly apple-toffee note. It is nothing like that now, acidic and almost flavorless. Very disappointing.


  2. During my few years at AB, we tried to add a little flavor back into Bud to make it closer to the flavor profile of the 70s and 80s. We slowly upped the IBU a quarter of a unit at a time and tinkered with the grain ratio. Then the buyout happened and the hop bill was slashed. Analyzing extract loss became the top priority. That took a lot of the fun out of making beer.

    Nice to see that Bicklein is still there. So many people jumped ship over the past few years that it is hard to keep track of who stayed and who left.

  3. "the brewery that inspired Busch is no longer in existence"
    Actually, that's not quite right. The brewery you mention is Budějovický Měšťanský Pivovar or Budweiser Burgerbräu (est. in 1795), and it still exists, well, sort of.

    In 2011 the company was broken down in two: Pivovar Samson and Budějovický Měšťanský Pivovar. The former kept the brewery, recipes, know-how and everything else that makes a brewery a brewery, the latter was sold to, guess who? ABIB. It was basically the trademark, some token real estate with a well and not much else.

    But it doesn't end there. At the beginning the year, Pivovar Samson a.s. was again split in two. The new company was Beer Systems--like the previous ones, property of some shady company incorporated in Cyprus whose owner has been accused on tax fraud--the only purpose of which was to prepare everything to sell Samson, and guess who bought it. Right, ABIB.

    So now, Anheuser Busch has a brewrery in České Budějovice, but, by all accounts it might still mean fuck all in their trademark dispute.

  4. Whenever I read about Budvar laying claim to being the original Budweiser, I am reminded of a sign I saw at the Eggenburg Brewery in Cesky Krumlov:

  5. Gary and Brooke, I'm not particularly disturbed by the shift in recipe over the years. AB was following national trends. Taking shortcuts on the brewing process would be an entirely different matter. I never got to see pre-InBev Bud, but I asked Jim everything I could when I visited last year, and was satisfied that they were still putting a great deal of attention into the brewing process.

    As far as what it tastes like--that is a subjective judgment. Important, but different.

    Max, thanks. The correction you make is typical of breweries, and it's what makes these things so thorny. Seems like it would be easy enough, but we don't really have a good definition of "brewery." A good example is Weihenstephan, which claims to be the world's oldest brewery. But what they actually mean to say is that there was brewing happening at roughly the same area a long time ago. There is nothing about the modern brewery--the location, the facility, or the beer--that has any connection to the 11th century brewery.

    Likewise, Pabst is a brand, not a brewery, so how do you handle that? Is Boston Beer, once a contract brand, really 30 years old, or should we date it to the time production moved in-house?

    There are no answers to these questions, but they illustrate how difficult it is--even when you're not a PR flack trying to fluff the brand--to make these calls.

  6. It's always a grey area. There are a few breweries here that claim tradition dating back to the 14-15-16 centuries, but they are arguable at best. Yes, there was a brewery, that morphed into a series of companies that were later nationalised by the communist and ended up in what they are now. How much of a lineage you can trace, that is the question.

    The only one here that can claim such a long tradition and be honest about it is U Fleku, as far as I know at least.

    The case of BMP is quite legitimate. The brewery may not be in the same place (though I wouldn't be surprised if it was), but as far as I know, the company was originally established in 1795. Whether they are still making the same beer, in the same place or not, is, frankly, anecdotic--companies grow, trends change, technology evolves.