40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 50: Papazian goes AWOL as we contest AB’s aggression against Budvar

40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 50: Papazian goes AWOL as we contest AB’s aggression against Budvar
40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 50: Papazian goes AWOL as we contest AB’s aggression against Budvar
Communist-era beer advertising in Prague, 1997.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 49: Bluegrass Brewing Co. — an ideal brewpub? Also, the Lite-Free Zone.

Beer was simpler in 1989, when my friend George’s uncle in Prague taught me a valuable phrase in Czech, one that even today isn’t found in the travel guidebooks (phonetically): “Chesko pivo je lepshi nezh Ameritsky pivo.”

I’d utterly mangle this passage, but delighted Czech onlookers would queue up to buy me beers, and why not? It was no lie. Czech beer was better than American beer.

Granted, nowadays we’d need to define our terms more narrowly (which style of beer is better, exactly?), but during the waning days of communism the comparison was strictly apples to apples and pilsners to pilsners, although “hop-accented golden lagers to hop-accented golden lagers” is more precise, especially given the Czech propensity to reserve the use of “pilsner” for Pilsner Urquell itself.

Pilsner Urquell is German for “pilsner (beer) from the source.” In Czech, that’s Plzeňský Prazdroj. In both languages the modifier derives from the city’s name: Pilsen in German, Plzeň in Czech. Accordingly, Budweiser means “from Budweis,” while Budějovický indicates the same in Czech. Budvar as a beer name is a portmanteau of Budějovice Pivovar, its brewer.

No matter the competing linguistics, because when it came to geopolitical beer-upmanship during my salad days spent wandering the East Bloc, there was no doubt whatever that Czech Budweiser (or Budvar) was a far advanced libation compared with American Budweiser, or for that matter, any other vaguely beer-flavored, mass-market, fizzy equine urine from the United States.

Relishing Budvar’s innate superiority made it all the more galling that Anheuser Busch’s battalions of elite lawyers were perpetually engaged in courtroom antics all across the planet, litigating Budvar in a century-long trademark war to determine which of two breweries, in St. Louis and České Budějovice, could refer to its beer as Budweiser in far-flung locales like Belgium, China or Uruguay.

(A third brewery, Samson, founded in 1795 by ethnic Germans in Budweis/České Budějovice, and older than both the other contenders, never sought to trademark its beer “Budweiser” in spite of being brewed there; crazily, since 2014 Samson itself has been owned lock, stock and hydrometer by AB InBev, the multinational successor to Anheuser-Busch, and most observers agree that Samson’s beer has benefited from the transaction. Is yet this another sophisticated Ab InBev trap? Time will tell, but I’d say yes, of course it is.)

To put it mildly, American Budweiser versus Czech Budweiser is quite the complicated tale.

České Budějovice was founded centuries ago by ethnic Czechs, the majority group in Bohemia, and it became the economic anchor of the region. Germans came to comprise a sizeable minority in the city, with financial clout and privileges outweighing their actual numbers, hence Samson’s 18th century starting date.

Only in 1895 did several small Czech-owned breweries in České Budějovice merge and modernize, creating Budvar as we know it today.

Concurrently, across the Atlantic Ocean in 1876, two enterprising German immigrants in America chose Budweiser as the name for their new flagship lager beer. Adolphus Busch and his father-in-law Eberhard Anheuser apparently felt that their target audience of German-Americans would associate the word Budweiser with the widespread legacy of Bohemian brewing prowess. “Budweiser” was registered in America; later, the acquisition of rights would proceed on a country by country basis.

It might be noted that in 1907, when the two breweries clashed in court for the first time, České Budějovice was situated in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which splintered into nation-states after its defeat in World War I. Among them was Czechoslovakia, a union of Czechs, Slovaks and a good many numerically smaller ethnic minorities. Their collective relationship with Germans and Hungarians, their former imperial overlords, was occasionally dicey.

After WWII, the Budvar brewery was nationalized by the communists, and state ownership carried over into the 1990s. Through it all, the Budweiser-Budvar legal battles continued, and by 1994, all the pieces were in place for a media battle royale: beer and brewing; Germans, Czechs, Americans and dozens of other countries; disputes about trademark and geographic origin rights; a century of litigiousness; investment opportunities afforded foreign companies by privatization in the wake of communism’s collapse; and a hardcore Europhile like me who loved to travel, regarded most aspects of American patriotism as pure humbug, and detested corporate entities like A-B down to the very tips of his toes.

Main square in České Budějovice, 1989.

For those countries emerging from communism, job one was reverting their economies to capitalism, which meant opening the door to foreign investment. Of course this is an over-simplification, but the tenor of the times was fast and furious privatization. Businesses seized first by the Nazis and later by the communists were subject to an initial process of restitution, and those created during the communist period were put on the block.

Got money? Come on down.

Some state-owned assets on display at the post-communist flea market had more value than others, and privatization could be a booby-trap when it came to “crown jewels,” especially those longstanding pre-WWII heritage companies.

The Carl Zeiss optics firm in the former East Germany springs to mind, along with Poland’s Max Factor, Škoda (cars and guns) in Czechoslovakia, and the latter nation’s two most renowned breweries, Budvar and Pilsner Urquell. The Czechoslovak government didn’t resist privatization of Urquell (whose most recent owner circa 2024 is Asahi) and took the money, probably because everyone knew from the start that Anheuser Busch’s coveting of Budvar would turn out to be privatization’s single toughest case.

Otherwise breweries were being privatized left and right in the former East Bloc during the early 1990s. For companies like Heineken, Carlsberg, South African Breweries and many others, amassing these breweries was like collecting baseball cards. Primarily they were entry points for the control of fresh new markets, whether by the introduction of their flagship brands, or “rationalizing” existing local brands and crowding out indigenous competitors, who after all did not possess the deep pockets of the bigger players.

“Rationalize” is one of those words that seems innocuous on the surface, but can draw blood with innumerable concealed barbs. Broadly in Czechoslovakia (and to a lesser extent Poland and East Germany), communism’s shortcomings in terms of investment had the unexpectedly conducive effect of preserving traditional brewing methods.

Budvar, 1997.

For instance, open fermentation is one of the least remarked upon features of traditional lager brewing in East-Central Europe, and it survived there for longer during communism because there was little incentive to reduce brewery sector employment by modernizing breweries, and not enough budgetary leeway to replace open fermenters with stainless steel.

In 2004, I experienced a wonderful example of this phenomenon while touring the late, lamented Eggenberg brewery in Český Krumlov, a short distance from České Budějovice.

Whether by aim or impoverishment, the people who owned this brewery persisted with the old methods, and our guide was strident about the benefits. After drinking a few of the beers, I was struck with a powerful aura of déjà vu; suddenly I was transported back to the late 1980s, when Czech lagers were wonderfully quirky and individualistic, and it occurred to me that “rationalization” after the fall of communism had the deleterious effect of eliminating distinctive house characters.

Clean is great. Tasty is better — and they’re not necessarily the same.

By the early 1990s, the Budweiser-Budvar standoff had become a global cause célèbre among the beer cognoscenti. As far back as 1991, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) had sent an open letter to President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia urging him to forbid Anheuser-Busch from buying an interest in Budvar brewery.

Consequently WTD #7 that same year began with my first ever shot at Anheuser-Busch over the issue of Budvar. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Bud Out!

Here is the text of a letter I’ve sent to Anheuser-Busch in protest regarding its interest in buying the Budvar brewery:

“We are appalled to learn the Anheuser-Busch seeks to buy the Budvar brewery in Ceske Budejovice, Czechoslovakia, home of one of the world’s finest pilsner beers—a status to which the rice-choked American version can only long for from afar. That means you! For your bloated company to interfere in the internal affairs of the heartland of European brewing constitutes blasphemy to a degree unfathomable to lovers of real beer, for almost certainly you will tamper with Budvar, no doubt inspired by the marketing wizards and advertising sleaze balls without whom American brewers would be powerless. We demand that you cease and desist. Leave the brewing to the experts in Europe; you’ll still sell billions of gallons to our impotent countrymen while permitting the world’s best beer to remain such.

R.A. Baylor, FOSSILS P-F-L

(If they dare to respond, I’ll publish the answer in a future WTD)

Marooned in the wilds of Southern Indiana, a stack of CAMRA newsletters tucked under my arm, I reasoned that if our nascent “movement” had any central authority — leadership or a guiding spirit, as it were — this had to be Charlie Papazian, revered author of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, who founded the American Homebrewers Association and the Association of Brewers (forerunner of today’s Brewers Association). F.O.S.S.I.L.S. maintained a membership in the AHA, the most tangible benefit of which was zymurgy, its bimonthly publication.

While primarily oriented toward homebrewing, zymurgy also ran a news section devoted to beer and brewing around the world, which was helpful in the pre-internet era. Not only that, but the AOB was an organization for professional brewers. To be sure, other beer publications existed, most prominently All About Beer, and the regional “brewspaper” age was dawning.

But overall, Papazian’s organizational creations stood atop the “new” beer and brewing heap, and they were the closest thing to CAMRA we had. Surely Charlie would step forward and take the lead in drawing attention to Anheuser Busch’s aggression.

Had “LOL” existed in the early 90s, I’d affix a few of them here. In assuming Papazian’s interest, I was being naive at a Beverly Hillbillies-provincial-rube level, an unknown novice living in nowhere land, while Papazian’s self-made sinecures already were secure and landing him on magazine covers.

Charlie’s mantra was “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” as befitting his Boulder, Colorado archbishopric; obviously, his milieu mirrored singer John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.”

And here I was, in fly-over Midwestern isolation, grappling with an embryonic formulation similar to “think globally, act locally,” wading in where I wasn’t wanted to intrude on Papazian’s hazy area buzz of disingenuousness.

Am I a tad bitter three decades later? Yep, sure am. You have no idea of the extent to which this clash of perspectives motivated me during the years to come, but in the spring of 1994, it made for entertaining reading in Walking the Dog.

“ _______________________________________________ ”

Sounds of silence from Charlie Papazian, President of the Association of Brewers, who has not responded to a letter from FOSSILS urging him to publicly address the issue of Anheuser-Busch’s pursuit of a stake in Czech Budvar.

Barrie and Susan worked for pints.

Brewing Barbarians at the Gate

(Walking the Dog #43 … April, 1994)

Fossils Mailing Spotlights Anheuser-Busch’s Cultural & Aesthetic Imperialism

Beginning on March 19, FOSSILS conducted its first-ever mass mailing as a means of addressing the issue of Anheuser Busch’s cultural and aesthetic imperialism in its pursuit of the Czech Budvar brewery.

In a two-page statement of principle, which features the lead editorial from the March, 1994 issue of CAMRA’s What’s Brewing, readers are asked to circulate petitions, contact media outlets in their areas, and protest directly to Anheuser-Busch.

The petitions are to be returned to FOSSILS, from where they will be forwarded to the Czech Prime Minister and to Anheuser-Busch.

Owing to the necessity of mailing the letters as quickly as possible, I funded the project myself. At the April 10 meeting, remuneration will be discussed.

Thanks go out to all club members (and some civilians) who helped with the mailing.

The envelopes were addressed on March 19 by those attending the Ottersbach/Bjornson Brew-In: Barrie and Beth Ottersbach, Chris and Laura Bjornson, David Wells, Leon Woolridge, Eddie and Kira Tash, Ken Brown and Syd Lewison.

The envelopes were stuffed on the 22nd by Barrie, Susan House and Amy Baylor.

On the 23rd, stamps and return address labels were affixed by Amy, Kate O’Connell and Kristin Fiedler. At a crucial juncture, Jon Faith went to Kroger for more stamps.

I mailed the letters on the 24th.

Final tally: 415 letters mailed, 365 of which were addressed to our fellow homebrewing and beer appreciation clubs. The remainder went to related organizations, brewing publications and individuals.

There are those who will scoff at our protest. How can a handful of beer enthusiast hope to have any influence over the activities of a huge corporation, one that spends more money each day on self-congratulatory public relations propaganda than many Third World nations earn in a year?

What can we possibly hope to achieve?

In my view, if we can be tiny gnats buzzing around the corpulent, corrupt and contemptible figure of Anheuser Busch, occasionally forcing the cancer is giant to take notice and lift one of its gangrenous paws to swat us away, then we will have accomplished a great deal, because we will have succeeded in demonstrating that there is more to the concept of quality than that implied by the successful and consistent repetition of mass production, saturation advertising and wholesale public relations propaganda.

Eventually, there must be a turning point and it might as well be here. For our entire drinking lives, corporate brewing entities like Anheuser Busch have been allowed to define themselves, and to define beer, for successive generations without any significant opposition from people who drink beer.

To be sure, these monolithic corporate structures have been forced to fend off criticism from “hostile” sources: neo-prohibitionists, angry mothers, health fascists and minority activists.

(Incidentally, much of this criticism is justified insofar as it relates to conditions brought about by the marketing strategies of the mega brewers themselves. To cite just one example, there is nothing intrinsically evil about a lager beer with a high alcohol content, but there is plenty to question when such a beer is cheaply made and shamelessly targeted toward inner-city minority groups. In the case of malt liquor, America’s megabrewers have consistently shot themselves in the foot.)

In large measure, the megabrewers have succeeded in dodging criticism by spending vast sums of money to position themselves as responsible, patriotic, altruistic building blocks of a mythical ask no questions, nostalgic Americana, and by dispatching their sycophantic lapdog, Beer Drinkers of America, to defend megabrewing on socio-economic class grounds (the “rich folks” want to tax your beer, while all you want to do is watch sports on television).

Lost in all of this big-bucks image building and demagoguery has been the megabrewers’ systematic demolition of the qualities that really do define beer. If this were not the case, would there even be a beer renaissance today? Would anyone have bothered to brew their own beer, or to undertake the risk of building and operating brewpubs and microbreweries, if there remained anything in mass-market beer that was worthy of note?

The ongoing beer renaissance in America is sufficient proof of the megabrewers’ decadence, and it isn’t enough that we now relax, declare victory and retreat into the comfort zone that we’ve created. Rather, it’s time to make America’s megabrewing charlatans answer for their crimes against the essence of beer as beer was meant to be, and to do whatever we can to thwart projects like Anheuser-Busch’s grab for Budvar.

Susan and Barrie prepare the mailers.

I added two sidebars. The first was a quote lifted from Anheuser Busch’s propagandistic full-page newspaper ads in the Czech Republic (the source? I don’t remember), which included a comical photo of August A. Busch III that probably reminded Czechs of a time only a few years before when similar images of their gray communist leader Gustáv Husák were standard issue, expected to be framed and glowering from the walls in every workplace.

IT’S THE RICE … “Anheuser-Busch’s beer brands do not (and never will) compete with Budejovicky Budvar’s beers because of the wide difference in taste between our products. Budejovicky Budvar’s brands appeal to traditional European beer tastes, while ours appeals to youth-oriented, American style cultures.”

I’m sure the photo helped.

The capitalist Busch to the left, the communist Husák to the right, but curiously, the effect is exactly the same.

The second sidebar was my own, gently ramming a few more pins into our handy Three Sticks (August A. Busch III) voodoo doll. It was tantamount to shooting fish in a barrel of Michelob Light.

Wanted for questioning: August A. Bush III, Chairman of the Board and President, Anheuser Busch.

We are seeking this man in connection with well-documented aesthetic crimes against the nature and essence of beer. He is skilled in the ways of adjuncts, particularly rice, and is currently presiding over brazen cultural imperialism and bribery in connection with A-B’s showering of the Czech nation with dollars in preparation for the dismantling of Budvar. He is considered to be armed (with a Beer Drinkers of America preferred member card *) and poses a threat to all smaller breweries that make far better beer than his.

But the biggest question: would anyone answer our call? To my amazement, Papazian actually did — and said absolutely nothing. More importantly, our efforts were recognized in a very special place across the pond.

Next: Charlie Papazian stirs, and predictably demurs. Meanwhile, CAMRA reads its mail! 

* The dear, departed Beer Drinkers of America (BDA) was a classic example of a corporate front group, posing as an autonomous and uninterested party and billing itself as a “grassroots” lobby, while emphasizing populist positions in opposition to tax increases on beer (and government regulation in general).

BDA happily defended the beer and brewing industry’s flank against charges of encouraging drunken mayhem with its “Party Smart” initiative.

As it pertained specifically to the topic at hand, in 1994 I found someone who was willing to answer my poison pen letters: BDA’s president Bill Schreiber, a former public relations man and legislative assistant, who during a previous joust referred to me as a “snobbocrat.”

Now, at last, here was someone who appreciated the ol’ give and take. I snail-mailed him to ask, “Will you join the campaign against Anheuser-Busch’s cultural imperialism in the Czech Republic?”

Among his replies (all direct quotes):

  • Beer Drinkers of America is not now, nor ever likely to be, interested in involvement with any organization or movement that zealously promotes an elitist, separatist mentality.
  • Your overt exclusion of tens of millions of responsible beer consumers based simply on the kind of beer they enjoy drinking is bigotry, pure and simple.
  • Your knee-jerk rejection of reasonable counterpoint renders futile any further exchange of ideas.
  • It is both counter-productive and a waste both of my time and the organization’s to engage in interplay with a group that not only has pigeonholed Beer Drinkers of America but also summarily dismissed us as a mere shill for American brewers.

Flattery aside, and as we all guessed correctly at the time, BDA was being funded in large measure by Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Company. But in retrospect, credit Bill Schreiber for being completely right when he included this thought:

“The real threat to all beer drinkers — both your snobbocracy and the rest of us out here — is the dedicated, well-funded global alcohol movement and its growing impact on public policy both here and abroad.”

Yes, Bill … touché, shill.