U.S. and Czech Budweisers do battle in taste test

September 10, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- It was the King of Beers vs. the Beer of Kings, and there was an ostentatious effort to appear fair about it. But you could tell as soon as you walked into the room where the hearts of most of the people at the tasting lay.

It was with the little brewery from Ceske Budejovice in Czechoslovakia, the source of that soulful beer sold here and elsewhere in Europe (but not in the United States) known as Budweiser Budvar. That's the other Budweiser, not the stuff that does so well in Baltimore, Chicago and most other parts of the planet.

The Czech Budweiser and Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis have been at war with each other for a long time over who has the right to market a brew under that name. "I've seen legal documents going all the way back to the 1930s related to this case," said Michael Jackson, a writer on beers.

Anheuser-Busch claims an earlier copyright on the name, going back to 1876. The Czechs can't claim that kind of antiquity for the name of their beer, but argue that their beer, known as the "beer of kings," has been brewed in the town of Ceske Budejovice for 500 years.

"Generations of lawyers have retired on the proceeds from the lawsuits of these two companies," said Iain Dobson, the chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, a British consumer group whose sole purpose is to encourage the production of traditional ales and beers anywhere they can.

It was CAMRA that put on the beer tasting at a London hotel yesterday. The group is afraid that Anheuser-Busch is going to buy out the Czech Budweiser and put it out of business despite promises to the contrary.

"On Sept. 18th the Czech Government decides on the privatization of Budvar," said the CAMRA invitation to the tasting. "One proposal is to sell 30 percent of the company to its American rival -- who would then have the option to acquire a majority shareholding.

"In other words, the world's biggest brewery would take out an annoying smaller rival, who brews a world-class product."

"That," said Jack MacDonough of Anheuser-Busch in London, "is the last thing in our mind."

CAMRA wants the world to know that Budvar exists and what delight the world would be missing should it vanish into oblivion. Budvar, you see, is a "traditional" beer by CAMRA's standards. Budweiser, by those same standards, is, well, deficient. It is to real beer what Wonderbread is to real bread.

At the tasting, Mr. Jackson was at the center of everyone's attention. He had a glass in each hand. He took a sip from one, then the other. Everybody else had a glass in each hand, and took a sip from this one, then a sip from the other.

The King of Beers is litigious, said Mr. Jackson. Mr. Jackson, who has traveled the world sampling beers and writing about them (Baltimore's two brew pubs, Sisson's and The Baltimore Brewery, are in his book), does not want to hear from the U.S. brewery's lawyers, so he gave a thoroughly objective and professional assessment of the two brews.

"Budvar is made wholly from barley malt. Budweiser has rice in it," he said. "In Budvar you get more hops, more time in maturing. It has a slightly sweet taste, a smoother, cleaner character." Smack, went his lips; his eyes lit up.

"Budweiser has a light flavor and is light on taste." Smack went his lips. But in his eyes, no ignition.

There wasn't much more to say.

All around there were nods of agreement. Somebody advanced an argument on behalf of U.S. Budweiser, praised it for its consistency of taste. Mr. Jackson, a bit puzzled, responded: "When was the last time you saw somebody go into a pub on a hot afternoon, take a long pull on a beer and exclaim, 'God, that's consistent!' "

Chuckles.

Right now there are entire countries where you can buy one of these beers but not the other, like Germany, where you can get Budvar, and the United States, where you can't.

A more felicitous situation prevails in Britain. Here a judge once decided, after hearing arguments from the two Budweisers, that both had very good claims to the name. So he ruled they could both sell here under the same name. He was a very wise judge.

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