Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Budweiser

While discussing Czech beer in the last post, I mentioned that Budvar beer is widely available in Slovakia, but did not touch upon probably the most interesting trademark dispute I know of, which is over the use of the world "Budweiser" to describe beer.

There are of course two Czech cities that have given their names to extremely well known beers. One is the city of Plzeň (Pilsen in German), which has given its name to Pilsener. This is a fairly straightforward instance of a place name that has become a generic name. The word pilsener today does not mean "Beer from Pilsen", but is simply used as the name for a particular style of beer. The EU in recent years has tried hard (often excessively, in my opinion) to reclaim European place names on the way to becoming generics names using laws about Protected Designation of Origin, but "pilsener" is too far gone for this. The word does not imply any particular beer, or any particular origin for the beer. Ask for a Pilsener in the Czech Republic or Slovakia and you will get a beer from Plzeň, but this will not likely happen anywhere else. Breweries in Plzeň do not have exclusive use of the word, but nobody is going to stop them using it, either.

The other city known for its beer is Budějovice (Budweis in German). The story here is more complex. A Brewery named Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis was founded by ethnic Germans in 1795, and was describing its beer as Budweiser ("Beer from Budweis", in German) since at least as early as 1805. This beer was later exported to the United States and was clearly being copied when Anheuser-Busch started brewing their "Budweiser" in the US in 1876.

A second brewery, now named Budvar, was founded in Budějovice in 1895. This company also called its beer "Budweiser" when it exported it, probably due to the face that this word was already famous. In Czech, it would have been described as "Budějovický", and this name was used domestically.

The three companies fairly early on got into arguments over the name, and in 1911 they came to an agreement that Anheuser-Busch would have the rights to the name in North America, and the two Czech brewers would have the rights in Europe.

However, in 1945, the Czech lands came under communist rule, ethnic Germans were expelled, both breweries were nationalised, and German names were seen as undesirable. Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis, the more German of the two breweries, was renamed "První budějovický pivovar Samson", and stopped using the "Budweiser" name. I think that Budvar continued using it, particularly for exports to Germany, but I am not 100% certain of this.

In any event, after the Cold War ended, Budvar started exporting again in a big way, and this coincided with Anheuser-Busch expanding too. The two breweries have been fighting each other over the trademark ever since. Beer lovers often express sympathy for Budvar in this dispute, on the basis that the trademark surely means "Beer from Budweis", and also Budvar makes better beer. I am personally not so sure about this, as Anheuser-Busch actually does have a prior claim to the name than that of Budvar, and their size is probably more responsible for the fame of the name than anything else. In addition, although Budweiser does mean "Beer from Budweis", Budweis is no longer the name of the town, which is Budějovice. The truth, though, is that we have a very unusual case in which two companies have very long standing, legitimate claims to the same trademark.

Courts in Europe have tended to favour Budvar's claim to the trademark, and courts in the US have tended to favour Anheuser-Busch. This is probably fair, given the 1911 agreement. In Britain, the courts have ruled that both companies may use the name, and that consumers are smart enough to tell the difference, which is a refreshingly grown-up verdict. In countries where Budvar does not have the rights to the name, they tend to call it Budějovický Budvar, which means the same thing in Czech. (In North America it is sold as "Czechvar", as even this is apparently too much for Anheuser-Busch), In countries where Anheuser-Busch does not have the rights to the name, they brand their Budweiser simply as "Bud".

But what about the Czech brewery that does have a prior claim to the name to that of Anheuser-Busch, the brewery originally known as Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis, which changed its name again after communism to "Budějovický měšťanský pivovar ", an exact translation of its original German name? Well, after communism, this company also sought to re-establish its traditional trademarks, and also started using "Budweiser" in the names of many of its beers. However, it only did this in markets where it had an unambiguous right to do so, and has largely stayed clear of mighty trademark disputes with Anheuser-Busch. The brewery still exports, though, under all kinds of names. ("Samson", "Crystal". "Boheme"). So funnily enough, the brewer which probably does have the strongest historical claim to the name is the least inclined to actually use it.

As is happens, my local Tesco stocks their beer, in this instance branded as "Boheme 1795". The fine print on the back of the bottle does mention that the beer was brewed in Budějovice, but the bottle also has "Pilsen" in much larger letters on the front. The beer may be approximately a pilsener in style, but I can't imagine this thrills the people in Budějovice that much. "Pilsen" is a word that anyone is free to use, however.

And yeah, it is good beer. Quite similar to Budvar, actually.

Friday, September 09, 2011

On beer

I am just back from an eastern European trip. In 19 days I visited Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova (including Turkic speaking Gagauzia and the largely Russian speaking city of Balti), western Ukraine, southern Poland, and then the Slovak and Czech republics. I consumed a reasonable amount of beer on this trip, because the weather was very hot and the beer was very cheap. (The price bottomed at about 30p for a half litre in the Ukraine). I always drink local beer when travelling, both to see what it is like and because it is usually much cheaper. (A basic beer from one place becomes a premium beer when sold in another country). The beer was all good. Mostly I was drinking national brands in Bulgaria and Romania. In Moldova, I was drinking Moldovan national brands in Romanian speaking parts, and Ukrainian national brands in the Gagauzia and the Russian speaking parts. In Chernovitsi in the Ukraine there were lots of interesting and local beers (including some excellent wheat beers) as well as the fairly bland Ukrainian national brands. It would seem that even after Stalin committed genocide and then relocated vast amounts of population, the beer making skills taught by the Austrians have survived.

In southern Poland, mostly Tyskie and Zywiec. National brands, but some regional variation. (Both those beers are Silesian. The third big national brand in Poland is Lech, which comes from Poznan, and you see it less in the south). Although this area of Poland was ruled at times by the Austrians and the Prussians, the Germanic style beers have not survived there to the extent that has happened in the western Ukraine.

None of this was bad beer - particularly not those lovely local Ukrainian beers - but a lot of it was large brewery lager. I was struck by how much better the beer was when I crossed the border into Slovakia and then into the Czech republic. Velvet divorce or not. the Czech beers are still much consumed in Slovakia. The two "national" beers one sees a lot are Pilsener Urquell and Budvar. There are always local Slovakian beers available too, usually somewhat cheaper than the Czech stuff. When I crossed the border into the Czech republic, there actually seemed to be an even greater focus on local beers, and less Pilsener and Budvar. Things were much more like what one sees in southern Germany. There will be a local brewer, who makes a number of different styles of beer (but all local brewers make the same styles). And in the territory of that brewer, that is what you will get.

Of course, the third Czech beer that one sees a lot outside the former Czechoslovakia is Staropramen. This was nowhere to be seen. This is perhaps like the way Australians don't drink Fosters or Danes don't drink Carlsberg. Ask a Czech for his opinion of Staropramen and he will tell you it tastes like cat's piss. I think this is a little hard on it, actually.

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