Monday, March 3, 2008

What's in a, just whose Bud (or Burger) is this anyway?:

Many of us are familiar with the decades long legal smack-down going on globally between the American brewing giant Budweiser and its smaller Czech competitor Budvar. At the heart of this battle, is the fact that A-B (Anheuser-Bush) and Budvar share the brand name related to the same small town known today as České Budějovice and formerly known as Budweis.

Now comes along, to the U.S. market at least, a beer with the moniker B.B. Bürgerbräu which also gives prominent reference to Budweis(er) in its branding and labeling. Confused? Today, simply ordering a Budweiser, from a well stocked purveyor, has become a form of 'lager-roulette'. For the non-discriminating beer drinker this is not a problem, for, as Lewis Carroll said, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there".

For the rest of us, getting the 'right' Budweiser is a bit more challenging. Especially considering that both Budvar, known in North American beer markets as Czechvar, and Bürgerbräu are truly great beers, excellent beers in fact. Throw in that one of the three Budweisers is a product of Anheuser-Busch, the largest brewer in the world, and this becomes a knot worth untangling.

So why so much confusion? Part of it is historical in the sense of Central Europe's shifting boundaries, ethnicities and languages that are a result of the twentieth century's two world wars and their aftermath. Part of it is the utilization of the same term to designate a place name, a beer style, and a brand name. And lastly, is a marketing-driven desire to establish sole ownership over brand nomenclature considered to evoke the historical roots and rich history of a beer-related name – Budweiser - which has a surfeit of both.

So, let's start with some history and geography. Budweiser is a German term so let's start there. Germany is a relatively young country in that did not coalesce as a single nation state until after the American Civil War. Prior to this time, central Europe was a patchwork of small and medium sized states, city-states and principalities. Through the countless alliances, wars, and leadership changes, the underlying culture and language of the inhabitants within this part of the world stayed relatively stable As a result, geographic areas like Bohemia, Franconia, Schwabia, Moravia, and the Tyrol, etc. exist today across the countries of Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Slovakia, but do not have the status of a legal entity. These distinct regions persist as recognized geograhic entities however because they have retained unique cultures as evidenced by their architecture, dress, language or dialect as well as food and drink (beer) preferences.

Now for the beer aficionado, the result of this regional diversity, and its survival to the present day, has been a Godsend. Where would we be if we didn't have, for example, the unique taste of a Munich Lager as distinct from that of a Bohemian Lager and both being quite different from a Pilsner (Pils in German) or most certainly a Franconian Rauchbier? Differing water, the unique characteristics of the local barley and hops, regionally specific brewing styles and technologies as well as a measure of serendipity created a veritable Galapagos Island level of diversity in beer styles and tastes emanating from this particular part of the world.

The town today known as České Budějovice lies about 100 miles (160 km) due south of Prague in the Czech Republic. This area is considered to be part of Bohemia and prior to the forced expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Germans following WWII, had been something of a historical boundary zone between the German and Czech languages, culture and peoples. Bohemia has alternated between Teutonic and Slovakian spheres of influence throughout the last several hundred years. Prior to the creation of the nation of Czechoslovakia as a result of the settlement of national boundaries post WWI, the town was known by its German name of Budweis and was part of the German-speaking portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The brand name Budweiser reflects the addition of an 'er' to the place name of Budweis. German grammar utilizes this technique to, in this case, communicate that Budweiser designates someone or something originating in or from Budweis – hence Budweiser is a beer from Budweis. The post-1918 name of České Budějovice is the Czech equivalent of Budweis with a leading České thrown in to firmly designate the town as being part of the then new nation of Czechoslovakia.

By whatever name, this particular town has a rich and deep historical relationship to beer. Like its sister town of Plzen (known prior to 1918 by its German name of Pils), Budweis or České Budějovice gave birth to a unique brewing style and beer type. Where the city of Plzen is famous for developing the Pilsner style of beer, Budweis is famous for giving birth to the style known as Bohemian Lager.

However, Budweiser as a term also came into usage as a style-name alternative for Bohemian Lager just as Pilsner is a style name for the crisp lager developed originally in the town now known as Plzen. Such was the popularity of the Bohemian Lagers brewed by the brewers located in the city of Budweis, that it became common parlance to refer to this beer generically as a Budweiser-style beer of more simply just Budweiser.

This is equivalent to what one may experience in many parts of rural Texas where a cola of any brand is referred to simply as a Coke. Recently, and as a by-product of the Czech Republic's admission to the European Community, this location-specific designation has been formalized by the EU and Budejovicke Pivo (beer of Budějovice) is an official EU-protected geographical indication.

České Budějovice was and is home to multiple breweries and this further contributes to brand and name confusion. The largest and most famous brewery in town is Budweiser Budvar, National Corporation. This is the state-owned brewer of Budvar/Czechvar which has been in a near century long global legal battle with Anheuser-Busch over the rights to the name Budweiser. Interestingly, and as an aside, while this legal battle goes on, the two breweries have come to terms on a joint distribution deal for the North American market. Good news for the American beer drinker in that access to these beers is not affected by petty squabbling over naming rights! The legal battles over the name continue, but generally speaking, Czechvar is used by the Czech brewer in North America and Bud is used by the American brewer in many European markets. Everywhere else, both brewers prefer to brand their product as Budweiser.

České Budějovice other brewery is also its original and this brewery is known today as Budejovicky Mestansky Pivovar. Say that three times fast (drink the Budweiser of your choice and then do it again)! 'Pivo' is the Slavic term for beer so a 'Pivovar' is a brewery. Since 1990, it has emerged from the fog of communist control and has re-introduced its flagship brand which is a Budweiser (or Bohemian Lager) style of beer. The genesis of this beer goes back to 1795 when a brewing cooperative of the city's Czech and German brewers established the Burgerliches Brauhaus Budweis for the purposes of volume production and distribution first within Bohemia, then central Europe and later pre-Prohibition North America.

This brand has recently been re-introduced into the U.S. market under the brand B.B. Bürgerbräu and is commonly referred to as Bürgerbräu Budweiser. So now we are dealing with three beers that can be, and frequently are, called Budweiser. From a brand name perspective, things begin to get a bit hairy! Coincidentally and confusingly, like Budweiser, the Bürgerbräu brand has also been utilized by more than one brewery in Germany and North America. In fact, the two words making up the moniker Bürgerbräu Budweiser overlap with the branding of at least a half-dozen other breweries around the world. As we have just discussed the breweries utilizing the term Budweiser, let's now take a close look at those sharing Bürgerbräu as a brand name. "A rose by any other name..."

But first, a bit more vocabulary, starting with a translation of Bürgerbräu from German. A Bürger is a citizen. So, think of it this way, Bürgerbräu is to beer as Volkswagen is to car. As VW literally means, “the peoples' car”, Bürgerbräu literally means “the peoples' (or citizens') beer”. It is important to note however, that Bürgerbräu represents far, far more than just a brand name. Historically , it represented an entirely new way to manage the production and distribution of beer and was, in its own way, quite revolutionary for its time. The purpose of the Burgerliches Brauhaus Budweis (Citizen's Brewhouse of Budweis), formed in 1795, was to assemble the necessary production capacity and business assets to make a beer on a sufficient scale for the masses – the Burgers.

Keep in mind that this was a time when large scale production was a novel business concept. Production was generally controlled locally by guilds or religious orders and at a national level by the sovereign of the realm. The net effect of this multi-level system of controls was that production volumes were typically limited as a price protection to the guild or order and to ensure tax collection by the sovereign. As witness, Bavarian beer law during this era stipulated that brewing could only be done under royal license. And even with a license, brewers were further limited in terms of production capacity. For example, one set of Bavarian laws forbade brewers from shipping product over a distance longer than a horse-pulled beer wagon could cover in three days.

The Burgerliches Brauhaus Budweis venture amounted to a paradigm shift in terms of the brewing practices of the day. It sought to create a beer with mass appeal and, by pooling resources and capital, to gain the efficiency and scale to reduce production costs and therefore price. Stated simply – make a great beer and do so efficiently so that it can be sold less expensively than its competitors...this beer was a smash hit! So much of a hit that the concept of a quality, volume-brewed “citizens' beer” was widely adopted across central-Europe. The historical evidence of this is that, even today, there are multiple beer makers retaining the use of the Bürgerbräu brand, including:
> Berliner Bürgerbräu GmbH–Berlin Germany
> Privatbrauerei Bürgerbräu–Bad Reichenhall Germany
> Wolznacher Bürgerbräu, AG–Wolznach Germany

Historically, additional breweries utilzied this brand: Munich had its own Bürgerbräu brewery and beer hall which was destroyed in a bomb blast intended to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Munich's sister city of Cincinnati Ohio, coincidentally, was also home to brewery with a familiar sounding name - Burger Beer (an Americanization of Bürgerbräu). Burger was brewed in the Queen City until 1973. The brand was bought by Hudepohl, also of Cincinnati, which in turn merged with another Cincinnati brewer Schoenling in 1986. The merged brewery clung to life until sold to the Boston Beer Company in 1997 when production of all non-Sam Adams brands was discontinued.

So, what's in a name? In this case quite a lot. Geographic location, the history of changing borders within central Europe, a unique brewing style and even a revolution in the economics of beer production and distribution are all intertwined within the terms Budweiser and Bürgerbräu. All that we, the beer drinkers, are asked to do is to provide an additional increment of precision in our beer orders especially in those markets where the branding of Budweiser has not been entirely sorted out.

And sometimes this is not even enough. For the American in Europe, ordering a Budweiser, even when the Anheuser Busch product is clearly designated as Bud, will more times than not, have the server returning to your table with a Bud when what you really wanted was that delicious malted beverage from České Budějovice.

Many European servers, more often the wait staff than the bar staff, will see an American and immediately assume a preference for Anheuser Bush products. My only counsel, and request, is to avoid playing the part of the ugly American, smile grimly and drink the Bud but make it gently, yet abundantly, clear to the waiter that the next Budweiser must be from Budweis!

the Bier Kaiser


Anonymous said...

Okay, Bier Kaiser, great article ! You must love beer the same way I do. Go ahead .....

Jason said...

Kaiser.....Great post. Too bad you won't be around at work when we go to Germany. I'll make sure I'll call you when we do so you come join me when i spend my company's money on a franconia beer trip!! By the way, the weather in florida is 85 and sunny! Ahhh, prime drinking weather!!

As a good friend once said..."Onwards" ;-) HA