Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Beer War Over Budvar

The battle between Czech brewer Budejovicky Budvar and American mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch (which is now owned by European giant InBev) over the "Budweiser" trademark has extended to almost a century now, but last week saw the Czechs take a victory in the European Union's courts.

Last week, an EU court ruled that AB was not entitled to a blanket claim to the "Budweiser" trademark across the union. That was a victory for BB because it already has the right to the "Budweiser" trademark in a number of EU countries -- and can keep it in those places.

The battle over the Budweiser trademark has been waged in hand-to-hand fashion across numerous international market. (In the US, for instance, the Czech Budweiser is marketed as "Czechvar -- and, oddly enough, imported by AB/InBev.) The history between the two entities is complicated by a competing thicket of historical claims, but it's clear that when Adolphus Busch decided to name his American lager "Budweiser," he was seeking to trade off the reputation of Bavarian and Czech-style lagers -- which had been invented in the 1830s and 1840s.

The battle ramped up after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when AB attempted to muscle its way into position to buy the Czech thorn in its side. But the Czechs held firm and the battle continues. Beer drinkers can be thankful for that on balance, because the Czech Budweiser is an excellent lager -- a bit sweeter and smoother than the other great major beer of the Czech Republic: Pilsner Urquell.

Back in 1992, I had the privilege of going to the Budejovicky Budvar brewery to interview Jiri Bocek, who had just assumed the top post at the company, for a story that ran in the St. Louis alternative newspaper The Riverfront Times. (Alas, it predates the online archives of the paper, but this story from the Prague Post a few years later is a useful synopsis.)

Bocek asked that my girlfriend Katerina (who was translating) and I arrive at 7 a.m. We got a tour of the factory and then settled into Bocek's office. Coffee, tea or beer?, he asked.

The opportunity to taste a factory-fresh Budvar was not wasted. Bocek said that I was the first Americna journalist to opt for the beer at that hour. It was very productive interview.

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