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.