Czech Budweiser brewery foams over American beer

June 18, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

CESKE BUDEJOVICE, Czechoslovakia -- The brew master surveys his domain with a critical eye and a twitching nose. He's looking at and smelling Budweiser Budvar beer fermenting in a dozen huge tile tubs.

The young beer is covered with creamy sand-colored foam like toasted meringue on a vast juicy pie. The low-ceilinged, cave-like cellar is heady with a smell of hops and malt as aromatic as a newly mowed field.

"As soon as I smell this, I would like a glass of beer," says Milos Heide, the brewmaster emeritus here, a big, solid-looking man built along the lines of a tall beer keg.

So would his latest visitor. But this fresh young beer will be ready to drink only after four months of aging in cool underground lagers.

Then it will be a beer of great character, strength and flavor, as rich and complex as the Czech landscape, Czech literature, or Czech politics.

It will be Budweiser Budvar. And Budweiser Budvar is decidedly not the Budweiser made by Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis.

For Mr. Heide, Budweiser is only made in Ceske Budejovice.

"I usually say to visitors we produce Budweiser Budvar," he says. "They produce Budweiser. They produce only half a beer."

Ceske Budejovice translates, roughly, to Czech Budwiese in German. The beer is Budweiser, as beer made in Plzen is Pilsner.

However, Pilsen long ago became generic and most pilsners are made somewhere else, Mr. Heide says regretfully. Still made in Plzen, of course, is the superb Pilsner Urquell, which means something like Pilsner from the source.

Budvar is a Czech variant on Budweiser, so Budweiser Budvar is, in effect, Budweiser Budweiser.

Mr. Heide is not very complimentary about St. Louis Budweiser.

"Many years ago I did drink some," he says. "It's empty water saturated with carbon dioxide and a little bit bitter. They say they produce it according to our recipe, but that's not true."

He's correct about the recipe. For about 450 years in Czechoslovakia and Germany, by fiat and law, beer has been made only of water, barley malt, hops and yeast. In St. Louis they add rice.

Mr. Heide does some serious finger-pointing with some pretty thick fingers.

"The American breweries have a big advantage," he says. "Their beer is drunk very cold.

"Five degrees," he says, with considerable disapproval. "At that temperature beer has no taste."

Five degrees centigrade, he means, perhaps 41 degrees Fahrenheit in St. Louis.

As a matter of fact, Anheuser-Busch recommends that you drink their beer at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about the temperature Budweiser Budvar is drunk: cool, not cold.

The Budweiser of St. Louis would dearly love to own part of this brewery. They've made a serious offer to buy 30 percent.

Budweiser Budvar, state-owned under the communist regime that ruled here until 1989, is now being privatized.

The brewery is part of the "family silver," as the Czechs call enterprises and products they consider national treasures. Family silver is to remain owned by Czechs.

And out of at least 20 proposals, a management stock plan probably has the inside track with the country's privatization commission. Anheuser-Busch's bid is on hold.

Budweiser has been brewed in Ceske Budejovice at least since 1265, when the clearly enlightened King Premysl Otakar II awarded the town the right to make beer.

The present Budweiser Budvar brewery opened in 1895. The lager tanks where the beer is aged are in the cellars of the old brewery.

"My grandfather walked the paving stones there," Mr. Heide says. "I like that very much."

Anheuser-Busch began brewing their beer in St. Louis in 1876. They appropriated the name Budweiser because no one was using it in America and it sounded European.

They also copyrighted it first. A dispute soon started that's been going on more or less ever since. So you can't buy Budweiser Budvar in the United States, except perhaps from smugglers. But then you can't buy Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser in Czechoslovakia either.

St. Louis Budweiser sells vigorously in much of Europe labeled only "Bud." Anheuser-Busch is the biggest brewer in the world. It sold 86 million barrels last year. Budvar sold about half a million.

"My grandfather was the first brew master here," Mr. Heide says. "I was the eighth."

Retired from active beer-making, he now guides visitors through the brewery and through the intricacies of brewing beer.

The process starts in the brew house in great gleaming copper vats where malted barley and hops are infused and boiled with water drawn from artesian wells a thousand feet deep.

"The brew house is the heart of the brewery," Mr. Heide says. And the wort, the liquid that goes from here to the fermenting tanks, is the heart of beer.

He says Budweiser Budvar uses the best barley from Moravia in the center of Czechoslovakia.

Ceske Budejovice, by the way, is about 60 miles south of Prague, the capital.

"I could make a choice," he says. "I decided on the town of Olomouc where the soil is most fertile. They prepare malt according to our wishes. It's optimal for this time."

The finest hops come from Zatec, a small farm town in Bohemia near the border with Germany.

"We buy the best hops, the most expensive hops, the so-called green gold," Mr. Heide says.

He explains that the quality of hops depends on taste and smell. He flakes off some from a burlap-wrapped bale, crushes it between his fingers and offers a sniff.

The hops has a crisp, green country smell, a little cheesy. The best aroma will remain with the beer, Mr. Heide says.

The barley extract flows through open fountains to the vat where it will be mixed with hops. Mr. Heide scoops out a sample with a long-handled measuring cup.

"When I was a child and I was sick with a cold," he says, "my mother did not give me milk. My father brought us up here and we had this liquid. It was the best remedy."

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