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Names can be complicated

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There is, in this world, something called the Budweiser trademark dispute. The giant American brewery Anheuser-Busch produces a beer named Budweiser, an industrial mass produced lager that is not greatly revered by beer connoisseurs but which sells in large quantities, and a brewery called Budweiser Budvar Brewery in the Czech city of České Budějovice (Budweis in German) produces another beer called Budweiser, which is considered an excellent beer by most beer lovers. The two breweries have been fighting in courts throughout the world with respect who has the right to the name Budweiser ever since the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia. In some countries the Americans have won and the Czechs have had to find a different name, and in others the Czechs have won and the Americans have had to find a different name. In Britain the courts have made the eminently sensible ruling that both brewers can use the name and drinkers are smart enough to be able to tell the difference, but I don’t believe this has happened anywhere else.

Beer lovers are often sympathetic to the claims of Budvar, because the beer is better and because it actually come from Budweis, and this is therefore the “Original Budweiser”.

This is not really true, however. Anheuser-Busch started brewing the American Budweiser in 1876, due to the fact that the beers of Budweis were famous, including amongst German Americans. However, the Budvar brewery did not exist at that point. This brewery was not founded until 1895. At some point after that, they also started using the name Budweiser, possibly because the name had been given further fame by Anheuser-Busch. At least to some extent, the Czechs at Budvar may have started using the name because of the use of it by Anheuser-Busch, and not the other way round. Budvar was founded by ethnic Czechs, and the only reason they would have had for using a German name was that the German name had already been made famous by other brewers.

However, what of those earlier beers from Budweis, responsible for Anheuser-Busch starting to use the name? Well, there is another, much older, brewery in Budweis / Budějovický Budvar. This brewery, known as Budweiser Bürgerbräu until 1945, made beer in Budweis under the Budweiser name at least as early as 1802. It is almost certainly this company’s beers that Anheuser-Busch was copying when they started using the name “Budweiser”. This brewery was run by ethnic Germans from its founding until 1945, after which it was taken over by ethnic Czechs and de-germanised. The brewery is now called Budějovický měšťanský pivovar, which is a precise Czech translation of its original name. When de-germanisation took place, the brewery ceased using German words and names, including “Budweiser” (it regained some interest in using them post-1989). However, this brewery has by far the strongest claim that it produces the beer that is the original Budweiser.

That said, the trademark battles between the other two, larger companies have been so ferocious that Budějovický měšťanský pivovar has stayed clear of them, despite apparently having a stronger claim to the name than either of them. The brewery is quite a substantial one, and produces a significant quantity of (excellent) beer. It sells the beer under a variety of names including Crystal, Samson, B.B. Bürgerbräu, Boheme 1795, and more. It only uses the word “Budweiser” in places where trademark law is weak.

This is why I took the above photo, in Tbilisi in Georgia last month. It was certainly not the first time I had consumed beer from the brewery that actually gave us Budweiser, but it was the first time I had ever seen beers from that brewery actually using the word. It is not the most prominent word on the label, perhaps, but it is still prominently there.

37 comments to Names can be complicated

  • Mr Ed

    The British outcome is the most sensible one, the beers are different, the names both have genuine origins nd there is no element of passing off. It shows the silliness of IP law.

    But why not toss a coin for the name, and rename the loser ‘Sudetenbier’?

  • In my experience everyone calls the Czech one Budvar. This is essential, as under no circumstances do you want to be stuck with Budweiser.

    Surely our American cousins are welcome to the name Budweiser?

  • Andi Lucas

    Budvar was founded by ethnic Czechs, and the only reason they would have had for using a German name was that the German name had already been made famous by other brewers

    In 1896 the town’s official name would have been the German one, being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they would have naturally used that name unless they intended to make a radical Czech nationalist statement (a commercially unsound decision in Austria-Hungary)

  • Laird

    Fascinating article. I have no opinion on the trademark issue, but I appreciate the history lesson. Thanks!

  • I prefer the American Budweiser. One of the things I found most tedious when I lived back in the UK was people trying to sound sophisticated by unnecessarily bagging Budweiser and extolling the superiority of Budvar on every occasion. It’s a bit like knocking Kentucky bourbon and droning on about Scotch.

  • Fred Z

    There are no bad beers. Some are better than others.

    Oddly enough, as I drove home today the neighbourhood liquor store had a sign out for an 8-pack of Buds for $CDN11.55. Global cooling cold in these here Canajan parts today (+9 C), but even so the Bud was good. Better than I expected and better than the Tuborg I also had, at twice the price.

  • Alsadius

    Tim: Bourbon and Scotch are actually reasonably different drinks. It’s not just snootiness, though that is certainly part of it.

  • Alsadius: true, but I’m inclined to think Budweiser and Budvar are reasonably different drinks. I’ve always got the impression that were Budwesier not American, and it’s 19th century pedigree better known, Europeans would drink it with far less criticism.

  • Paul Marks

    I strongly suspect the American beer was not as it is today back in 1876.

    When did the quality of the product collapse?

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Paul Marks: Budweiser was not produced between 1920 and 1933 due to prohibition. If the product changed, that would be a good guess as to when. That’s only a guess, though.

    Paul Stott: Everyone does call it Budvar, I agree. I think, though, that the “Original Budweiser” idea has been crucial to its marketing. The beer was obscure in the west (except perhaps in Germany?) prior to 1989. Budweiser was a well known brand, and when Budvar appeared there was a meme of “Those Americans call named their beer after ours because ours was good: they messed it up but why don’t you try the original?”, which encouraged people to try it and also encouraged the sort of snobbery that Tim Newman describes. This certainly helped Budvar become an established brand, and a premium brand. As a brand, it largely stands on its merits today and the Budweiser connection does not matter much, sure. It did help, though. The third and oldest Budweiser (Budějovický měšťanský pivovar) that I referred to in the article has never established a brand in such a way. Its beer is readily available in the UK and many other places if you know how to identify it and IMAO it is in no way inferior to Budvar’s, but it doesn’t have the premium branding. The only places it does, anyway, are places like Georgia where they are actually using the word “Budweiser”. If Anheuser-Busch think that Budvar was using their brand as leverage, I think they were probably right.

    Tim: Budweiser is a mass produced lager that gets the job done. If I am at a barbecue on a hot day and the only beer is a supply of cold Budweiser, I will certainly be happy enough. I do prefer Budvar, and Czech beer in general. I wouldn’t say Budvar is my favourite Czech beer – give me a choice of Budvar and Pilsener and I will take Pilsener, and there are of course also many fine local beers from smaller breweries in the country – but it is certainly good. (There is a dark version that is nice, too). Regardless of the quality of the beer, the 19th century pedigree makes the trademark dispute interesting. Here you have two (or three) claims to a name, both of which have solid, very long standing grounds to legitimacy. In such cases trademark protection is often lost and a name can become generic – “Pilsener” can mean beer from the Pilsener Urquell brewery in Plzeň (and usually does if you use the word in the Czech or Slovak republics), but that brewery does not control use of the word, and more generally “Pilsener” is just generally used to refer to any beer or that style. That hasn’t happened here, though, possibly because one of the principal claimants is a large American corporation that developed a strong trademark in the US when politics meant that the other brewers using the name could not compete with it.

    Andi: Yes, but the beer did not have to be named after the town at all. There are many local breweries in the Czech republic, and although naming the beer after the town in which it was brewed is a common practice, it is by no means a universal one. I don’t know exactly what happened when Budvar was founded in 1895. All we can say is that they started using the word “Budweiser” on their label at some point after that. That they did that at least partly because it was already a famous word for describing beer seems likely.

  • Alan Little

    Quite apart from the American beer aspect, I’m sure the German-Czech thing in Bohemia is mind-bogglingly complex. The whole of central Europe is a multiply-overlaid patchwork of Goths and Slavs conquering and re-conquering each other every few decades for a millennium and an half.

    Throw in Ottomans, Magyar-speaking Hungarians, significant Jewish & Romany minorities, Romanians who for some bizarre reason speak Latin despite having been part of the Roman Empire for about ten minutes … and it all gets a little complex for somebody who grew up in England to even begin to grasp.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Alan: Yes, I spent a few years visiting the region and wandering around and trying to figure it out. Lately, though, I have been visiting the Balkans and now the Caucasus, which are if anything worse.

    Beer was sectarian in the Australia of my childhood. In Sydney there was a brewer owned by Protestants (Tooheys) and another owned by Catholics (Tooths). Protestants drank Tooheys beer and Catholics drank Tooths beer. With all the major breweries in Australia having been subsequently bought by larger conglomerates, this has now gone away. It might have been a good primer for visiting central Europe though.

  • Alan Little

    > 19th century … very long standing grounds to legitimacy

    Ha!

    Here in the next province over of the Holy Roman Empire (Bavaria) a brewery to have any credibility at all has to be either (a) Mediaeval or (b) a vey recently founded microbrewery

  • Andrew Duffin

    I’m sure the legal arguments will make many lawyers rich (should I say even richer?) for many years, but as far as the beer is concerned one of them is a fine traditional lager of high quality whereas the other is mass-produced fizzy pop which contains – I believe – maize (why? to make a weak brew taste “fuller” is the answer) then I know which one I regard as the real thing…

  • llamas

    Oh, great. Beer bores. I thought I’d left them behind in Blighty. I was a member of CAMRA, back in the day, but now you’ve all become insufferable trendy foodies.

    Look, you can buy virtually any beer you like in the US, including virtually anything that’s available to any sort of mass market in Europe. Anything. And for every oddball local brewery that you can name in Europe, I’ll name you 10 just as local, and just as ‘craft’, in the US. The US is actually becoming the new global center of craft brewing.

    And still Budweiser is the most popular beer sold in the US. For why? Because on a hot, sunny day, most drinkers don’t want a top-fermented ale with interesting sub-notes of oak and cinammon, or some only-sold-in-three-villages barley wine – they want something cold and light that they can drink quite a lot of, for not too much money, without getting too wasted. Most US beer drinkers don’t see their beer as some sort of hipster fashion statement – well, except the PBR drinkers, I guess.

    I loved me some ‘real’ English beer, back in the day (I don’t drink anymore), but there’s no denying that it is not especially refreshing, and it’s not a good choice during or after heavy manual labour. It’s for drinking in a warm bar on a cold night. If I’ve been working, make mine a Bud.

    It so happens that tonight is bar night down at the town tap – all the old-timers get together and swap stories. And the town tap has all sorts of them fancy Yurropeen beers – but they bring you canned and bottled beers in a brown-paper sack, so nobody can see how cool you are.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Not keen on US Bud at all. I prefer something that is not “light that can be drunk in vast quantities” (i.e. beer that is a bit like sex in a canoe). I much prefer beer flavoured beer… but mostly I drink grappa :D

  • [...] Names can be complicated (samizdata.net) [...]

  • Rich Rostrom

    Comment #1: the Czech beer sells in the U.S. as Czechvar.

    Comment #2: The most interesting thing in that picture was the left and right taps, which dispense 12% alcohol beers.

  • Alan Little

    >And for every oddball local brewery that you can name in Europe, I’ll name you 10 just as local, and just as ‘craft’, in the US. The US is actually becoming the new global center of craft brewing.

    Maybe one day, but not yet. At least not 15 years ago, which was the last time I tried significant quantities of US micro-brews. Bless their socks for trying, but everything I tried tasted somewhat amateurish / home-brewed. For sure they’ll improve with experience – maybe already have for all I know – but you don’t completely destroy your country’s brewing tradition and then rebuild it in ten minutes to a point where you’re on a level with people who have centuries of unbroken accumulated knowledge behind them.

  • Alas, no. The alcohol content of Czech beers is usually quoted (at home, anyway) using something called the Plato scale. Conversion from degrees plato to ABV is nonlinear, but a 12° beer is about 5% ABV. Czech breweries often offer several different beers that have the same name except for the alcohol content, so it is quite common (say) to go into a bar in Prague and see (say) all three of Budvar 8° Budvar 10° and Budvar 12° on sale. The degree sign usually denotes the Plato scale, but the percentage sign is also sometimes used, as on the left beer in the photo.

  • Dave Ihnat

    One thing that’s been ignored in this discussion is the fact that Budmilloors all use adjuncts–corn and rice, mostly–in their beers. This practice actually became heavily used in the US during WWII due to grain rationing; after the war, people had gotten used to–in many cases preferred–the lighter body (to the eternal embarrassment of anyone from the US traveling overseas).

    And there are other perversities perpetrated on Bud. That “famous beechwood aging”? Used to be beechwood casks. In this day of stainless steel, they “beechwood age” it by dunking perforated baskets of beechwood chips in the multi-thousand-gallon batches.

    I, personally, can’t touch Bud–even one gives me a headache. I started brewing back around 1978 or so because the landscape in the US was so bleak; either a domestic lager (brand didn’t matter much) with all sorts of adjuncts, or green-bottle imports. I’ve pretty much given up today–I have other interests, and can get literally hundreds of micro-brews that are both superb and adjunct-free.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Many Asian beers use at least some rice. Most Japanese beers do, and I like Japanese beer a lot. Beer Lao does, too, and it’s a terrific beer.

    (The American microbrewery movement produces many of the best beers in the world. By now this statement is pretty uncontroversial, I think).

  • mose jefferson

    English beers on a rainy day, German doppels when it’s cold, and a nice cold American clear beer when it’s hot. You may disagree with market forces, but they don’t lie.

    Here in Southern Oregon it’s pushin’ 90 today, and soon’s I get home I’m grabbin a tallboy of Miller Highlife with a good squirt from the plastic lime for good measure. Mouth’s already watering.

  • Paul Marks

    The Romanians – they really do seem to be colonists from the Roman Empire who came into the area and were not driven out or exterminated when the area fell to various barbarian invasions.

    This shows the Romanians do have some cultural strength. They kept their language and so on.

  • Paul Marks

    Prohibition and World War II (indeed the anti Geman attitudes of World War One) and basic market forces (“market forces are human choices” as a friend of mine has said for many years).

    I have my answer.

    Many thanks.

  • Paul: Bucharest has a metropolitan city / cultural capital feel to it that is shared by no other city in that part of Europe. Go there, and that the Romanians have cultural strength is obvious.

  • I may be biased, because I prefer dark beers to begin with, but Bud is awful. Just awful. Not being snobbish, honest.

  • James Waterton

    US Budweiser – ugh. Terrible stuff. I’ll follow Australian etiquette* and drink it when it’s offered, but I’d certainly never buy it at a pub or bar.

    Of course, I don’t think Australians can be too disparaging about mass-produced American beer, as our brewing history isn’t really all that impressive. For most of the 20th century, there were usually two or three breweries in each state which churned out three or four different beers in significant volume, the overwhelming majority of which being very very similar to each other – simple lagers in varying degrees of bitterness. In the 1950s, a “premium” lager – Carlton Crown – in a fancier looking bottle than others. It was also significantly more expensive than the beer rabble, but it tasted pretty much the same as the rest. It still tastes the same and still continues to sell well, and continues to be disparaged by more discerning beer drinkers. In the 60s, the same simple lagers which were somewhat lower in alcohol appeared, and of course now mid-strength and light beers are a huge segment of the market.

    About two decades ago, “chill filtered” lagers appeared – this was a major departure from the more bitter lagers that dominated Australian brewing, in that the chill-filtered beers were almost flavourless – rather like Budweiser in fact. Later on, it became more fashionable to refer to these watery, gassy “chill filtered” beers as “dry”. Tooheys Extra Dry, Carlton Dry and Hahn Dry are some of the most popular beers on the market these days. Young guys often drink them – when I was in my early 20s, Tooheys Extra Dry was particularly fashionable. My conclusion at the time was that these chill filtered/dry beers are for people who don’t like the taste of beer, and I still think this is correct. To my taste, Budweiser, Millers, Coors and the other mass-produced American labels taste pretty much the same as the “chill filtered”, “dry” beers in Australia. Watery, gassy, flavourless brews.

    Of course, there are some notable exceptions like Coopers which has produced fine, bottle-fermented, distinctive ales since the 19th century, but most of the beer story in Australia – certainly in the 20th century – isn’t anything to be proud of. So I am hesitant to sneer too much at Budweiser and its ilk.

    Of course, the microbrewing era has seen a whole range of quality, interesting beers released onto the market in Australia (moreso in the US), and with the current strength of the Australian dollar, we’re seeing a whole range of obscure European beers finding their way over here, too. I’m glad to see the back of the days when a punter walking into a liquor store coolroom had 40 different Australian lagers to choose from, which, for all intents and purposes, were the bloody same.

    *it is considered exceedingly poor form to complain about, disparage or mock the kind of beer a mate serves you, however if it is served too warm then you have absolute carte blanche to bitch about the temperature for as long as you like.

  • I sense some beer snobbery here… just a whiff, perhaps. That’s ok. I’m a snob when my mission is to appreciate a good beer. But when I just want a couple cheap beers after some physical exertion, I will pick a Bud out of a cooler in preference to anything else.

    Interestingly, in my home state of Colorado, right now one of the easiest ways to get financing to start a small business, is to create a craft brewery or distillery. Despite the competition, and high quality of existing craft offerings, the consuming public seems to have a bottomless thirst for new varieties of drink. Of the dozen or so companies I have seen start up in the last 5 years, none of them have gone out of business, and in fact all have been expanding operations.

  • Richard Thomas

    Alan, 15 years has been a very long time in terms of US craft brewing. When I first moved here (admittedly not a major metropolitan area) 13 years ago, it was pretty much Bud or Miller unless you went out of your way. I drank it for a while, partly to fit in but one day had the epiphany that what I was drinking was absolute swill and just not worth it. I’ll still drink it if it’s all there is and beer is required but not when it can possibly be avoided. Fortunately, the market has started to step up and it’s now unusual to be unable to find a beer that’s not pleasurable to drink except in the diveiest bars and dinkiest gas stations. Yeungling, American’s oldest brewery (well worth a trip if you happen to be in PA) is having a huge resurgence with some great beers (including the only lager I have ever found palatable). Shiner, out of Texas, New Belgium (Colorado), Magic Hat (Vermont), all produce some nice beers. Yazoo (local to TN) is doing great (though not so much to my taste but nice to walk by, the smell brings back memories of cycling past Gales every day) and expanding.

    This is also becoming true of cheese, thank goodness. Though bread has yet to catch up, sadly. Though they are trying.

    WRT to the Czechs, I agree that they would probably be best off just moving away from “Budweiser”. I don’t think it really brings them anything and it’s become a synonym for “shit beer” to many.

  • Michael Jennings

    James: I think one issue is that Australians like to drink beer so cold that you can barely taste it anyway. Several people (including a sell side stock market analyst who covered the company) have assured me that Crown Lager is simply Foster’s Lager in a fancier bottle. In any event, it’s the sort of thing that old people drink at weddings. It was a significant product in the sense that concept of a premium beer pretty much did not exist in Australia prior to its introduction in the 1950s, and it was not the last.

    As for Foster’s in general, it was actually considered one of the more upmarket beers in Australia until the early 1980s – I am just about old enough to remember this . Not exactly premium, but catering to a slightly more upmarket demographic than VB, anyway. Mergers in the Australian brewing industry led to most of the breweries in Australia being owned by two large companies. One of these retained its local brands (Tooheys, XXXX, Swan, etc) and the other (CUB) decided to sell national brands, which meant traditionally Victorian brands nationally. A great deal of marketing effort went into selling Foster’s nationally, and at about the same time a big effort to sell the brand internationally started. Australians responded to this by almost completely ceasing to drink the beer. I am not sure exactly why this was – but if foreigners were going to be told the brand was “Australian for beer”, the Australians were going to insist that it wasn’t. I think that Carlton had been trying to use Fosters to push aside local brands in places other than Melbourne was not received well, either, although Carlton did end up doing this with its other brands.

    The history of 18th and 19th century Australian brewing is more interesting than what came later. Like with many industries, brewing was founded by people in Australia who initially tried to do it the English way, but possibly were not very skilled or knowledgeable about what the English way was, given that the country was initially populated by career criminals and the dregs of the British military. In any event, British style cask ales were not practical in Australia due to the climate, as the beer did not keep long enough in the heat. In addition to that, such beers were not suited to being consumed really cold, which Australians also wanted to do given the heat. So beer in Australia evolved into something less British and more continental in style, often resembling some of the darker beers you might find in Germany or Bohemia.

    In any event, the Foster brothers (who were American) introduced lager making to Australia in 1887. Lighter, bottom fermented lager style beers were easy to make and kept well, and so largely supplanted the older beers, and left us with the world of boring lager that you described. (The Foster brothers then moved back to the US, leaving only their name behind on a beer). Relatively few relics of the previous age of Australian beer survived. One is the dark ale known as “Tooheys Old” in Sydney. Tooheys New is the brewery’s boring lager – the most popular beer in Sydney – and Old is a dark ale resembling a German alt or something similar. (More generally, “old style” beer meant a dark ale and “new style” beer a lager). In my recollection it has never been particularly fashionable, but has always had its dedicated drinkers. It’s actually pretty good. Foreign beer fanciers often come to Australia, express vague disappointment with the mass produced lagers, try an Old and conclude that it is a nice beer. The Coopers brewery (who have, as you say, been producing a large range of high quality ales for 150 years) are another relic of the earlier age. There’s not much else, though. As in a lot of places, there is a thriving microbrewery scene now, but this is new.

  • Errolwi

    So, various new types/flavours of cider have become popular in New Zealand over the past couple of years. Has this happened elsewhere?

  • Aah… beer bores. I love reading / listening to conversations like this, since the history of beer is the History Of Man, it bbeing endowed on him, unalienable, by his Creator.
    The Budweiser/Budweiser thing is SO last century, by the way. Every pub in Kent serves Budweiser in bottles, some Budvar on tap. But neither is to be found in the off-licence where Polish beer reigns supreme. Its lovely.

  • Paul Marks

    Michael – if I was wealthy and (just as important) had youthful energy and confidence, I would visit the city you mention.

    A am glad that the late Marxist dictator did not succeed in destroying the culture of the city.

  • No need to be wealthy, Paul, although the energy and confidence is probably helpful. Bucharest is not an expensive place. This is part of what makes it fun. You can go out, have a really good evening, and in the morning you will check your money and realise you spent £20.

  • Paul Marks

    Indeed Michael.

  • So VB is beer. Now I understand that lyric in this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2q4B5JI61c