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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Birthplace of Modern Beer

There are a number of very cool breweries in the world, and I have been fortunate to visit some of them--the foeders of Rodenbach, the koelschip of Cantillon.  I've stood under Crown street at the sprawling Greene King brewery, where beer is pumped to the packaging plant.  Uerige still uses a baudelot chiller; Schlenkerla smokes their own malt--and I got to see both.  But there is no brewery that has had a greater impact on brewing history than the one in Plzeň, České republice.  It's not even close, actually.  When the brewery we now call Pilsner Urquell first made a pale lager 172 years ago, it changed the course of brewing forever.

Pilsner is the world's most popular beer, by miles and miles.  It's made in every country where beer is allowed, and owns something like--just spitballing now--90%+ of the total world production.  It's almost never the case that we can trace some seismic event back to a single place and know the single moment, but with pilsner's birth, we can. No doubt everyone in blogland knows the story, but here's a few sentences to set the stage.

Back in the late 1830s, the beer in Pilsen (about sixty miles southwest of Prague) was bad.  So bad, in fact, that in 1838, local officials rounded up 36 barrels of the stuff and dumped it.  For the most part, Czechs made ales then, but they were aware of lagers and wanted some of their own. Local burghers--citizens with special rights to brew--decided to take action.  They hired a local architect and sent him off to Munich to learn about how lager breweries were built, because they aimed to step up their game and make it as well as the Bavarians.  To make sure the beer was properly made, they even hired a Bavarian brewer to make the beer.  As a final touch, they built a kiln at the brewery "equipped in the English manner" that could produce pale malts.

The rest is history.  That brewer, Josef Groll, brewed his beer on October 5, 1842, and it was released on November 11.  (We even know the date!)  The first truly pale lager was born, and the revolution was under way.

The brewery itself should be considered a world heritage site--at least to those of us who value such things--and is one of the prettiest breweries on the planet.  The last time I traveled through the Czech Republic, I didn't really blog about it.  (Budvar got a better account.)  So when Mark Dredge sent me an email about a month ago asking if I'd like to go tour it again--on Pilsner Urquell's dime--what do you think I told him?  It gave me another chance to give a proper account of it, one I wasn't going to miss.

The Beer
It sometimes happens that a beer has such dominion over a style that subsequent examples are a half-step back from the original.  Eventually, the original can start to seem slightly out of step with what is "typical."  It's the case with dark, spicy Schneider Weisse, and it's the case with Pilsner Urquell.

Compared to other světlý ležáks, Pilsner is an odd duck.  It's roughly a 12-degree beer, but comes in at just 4.4% alcohol.  Yet it's also quite hoppy, with IBUs in the upper 30s.  It's got a caramelly backdrop and comes, at least in Czech, with a two-inch pile of snowy foam.  The most curious thing, though, is that dollop of diacetyl in the middle that is key to the beer's character.  For contrast, Budvar is 5%, but only has 22 IBUs--and no diacetyl.  This odd balance point--lots of residual sugar, lots of hops--makes for a rich, full-flavored beer.  That diacetyl center adds a sensual creaminess that makes it such an easy drinker.  It's altogether an unusual beer, even for the Czech Republic.  As I sampled my way around, I found that dryness was by far more characteristic of the pale lagers there--indeed, I think of dryness as being a hallmark of that type.  But not for Pilsner Urquell.

The City
If you arrive in town by train, as I did on my first visit, you can be fooled into thinking Plzeň (let's go with Pilsen henceforth, shall we?) is a tiny town.  In fact, it sprawls out distantly beyond the town square and has 170,000 people.  But the inner core is compact and contained, and you can walk from the train station to downtown in ten minutes.  The two central landmarks are the spires of St. Bartholomew Cathedral, begun at the end of the 13th century, and the minaret-like water tower at Pilsner Urquell--and they seem to wave at each other from across the Radbuza river.  (I'm not totally up on my religious history--with the Prague twice serving as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and also the earliest Protestant rebellion, it's rich--but Pilsen is known as a Catholic town.  You see crucifixes in the brewhouse.) It's a great town for strolling, and beer geeks might find themselves drawn again and again from the town square back to the brewery.

The Brewhouse
Pilsner Urquell rests on a plot of land that stretches for acres.  Bound by buildings and gates, it forms a cloistered, spacious campus, with different functions located distant enough from one another that the guides whisk tourists around on buses.  The brewhouse is at the center of the action, both physically and psychically.  Once, rail cars came right into the center of the campus, and you follow the tracks from the visitor's center toward the brewhouse building like it's a trail. 

If you take the public tour, they walk you through the process and ingredients before you arrive at the active brewhouse.  I'll skip most of that except for offering a couple notes.  One of the coolest things on the tour is the original kettle used by Josef Groll, which was twice hidden by burial during wars to protect it from pillaging.  In the photo of it, you may apprehend for the first time why it must have been so hard to make delicate, pale lagers.  Look at that thing.  Leaving aside the rivets and seams, look at how wide and flat it is.  If fire was underneath that whole thing, it must have gotten heavily caramelized.  (I don't doubt that some of the 19th century batches were probably sublime, but let's dispense with the romance of age: beer now has got to be miles better than it ever was when brewers had to work with such crude, imprecise equipment.)

Pilsner Urquell still decocts their beer three times and uses open flames to fire the kettle and mash cookers.  As I understand it, most Czech breweries now use single or double decoction.  And for good reason.  We know so much more about malting now that there's no reason to use such a laborious process.  It's expensive, time-consuming, and except for subtle effects on the beer, mostly unnecessary for most breweries.

Nevertheless, the brewery's Robert Lobovsky says triple decoction is still critical to the profile of Pilsner Urquell.  "We need to do triple decoction for two reasons.  One, to get the golden color out, and then to get the caramelization to take place."  He added this fascinating tidbit.  "They've got the copper chains inside--you saw them in the old brewhouse when you looked in--and they [scrape] them on the bottom, so when you're 700 degrees from your heat, you're scraping up the caramelization so you don't burn the sugar."  (If he means celsius--sorry, I didn't clarify!--that's 1300 degrees F.)

One of the more amazing things about the brewhouses is that there are actually two, side by side.  The old one is no longer in service, but the brewery keeps it polished and in perfect shape.  They currently produce about 2 million hectoliters, and could expand capacity up to three million if they brought the old brewhouse back on line (a real possibility).  Both are gorgeous, but the older one is, purely from aesthetics, the prettier of the two.  I've toured dozens of old breweries, and few have a brewhouse as beguiling as the old one at Pilsner Urquell.  

The new brewhouse.

The old brewhouse

The Cellars
Pilsner Urquell has a fully modern building for fermenting and conditioning their beer, but no one ever cares about seeing it.  The place to go is down, to the mostly-obsolete cellars that honeycomb the earth underneath the brewery.  A hundred years ago, Pilsner Urquell was brewing a million hectoliters of beer, and it all needed to sit for weeks in wooden casks to ripen.  At one time, there were over five miles of cellars devoted to the purpose.  It was an amazing operation, with coopers and cellarman rolling gigantic barrels in and out while other wooden giants sat silently, burping slowly as their worty bellies turned to rough beer and rough beer turned to liquid gold.

The cellars alone weren't cold enough to keep the beer at the right temperature, so the brewery used a form of crude refrigeration.  They filled up these enormous caves with ice, and circulated air over them and throughout the cellars.  (It's icy down there today, but they use modern cooling, not ice.)  When you visit now, you can still see the high-ceilinged rooms with apertures at the top where ice came in.  Elsewhere, walls are painted white in lime to retard the growth of mold (it works, too--the place doesn't smell musty), and everything is damp and moist.  The cellars are like a labyrinth, and it wouldn't take a lot to get lost if you wandered off in the wrong direction.

For most people, this is the pièce de résistance, not least because the tour ends with a sample of beer from the wood.  There are a number of ways in which that tipple delivers something different than the beer made 150 years ago.  Changes in agriculture have brought improvements to barley and hops, and the brewhouse enjoys the benefit of modern technology.  (The yeast, though, which was first tested by a lab in the 1870s, is the same.)  It's easy enough to fool yourself when you see that fresh, foamy beer cascade from the barrel, though.  Many people claim moments of transcendence when they taste that beer, but I think it's mostly due to the transporting experience they've just enjoyed.  (I prefer a fresh pint of unfiltered at a pub, personally.)  But I'm not going to argue with them.

This time around, rather than descend into a reverie about what the beer might have been like, my mind turned to the remarkable way it has more or less stayed the same.  There are older breweries in the world, and perhaps a few older beers.  But Pilsner Urquell has been making just one beer at that site since it was ruled by the Austrian empire.  Over 17 decades, it has continued to make just a single beer, the same beer (more or less), as world events have crashed across the country like a wrecking ball.  The Czech lands became independent, then suffered under the oppression of two terrible empires, but all the while, Pilsner Urquell continued to make that beer.

It's a remarkable tale of continuity and even more remarkable to experience first-hand.  Beer lovers should put the Czech Republic at or near the top of their wish list (it's as cool as Belgium, honestly), and if you have the good fortune to go, definitely stop in and see this brewery.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Nature of Indigenous

Boak, Bailey, and Stan have been considering the nature of indigenous beers--what and whether they are, and how that is distinct from "local" beer.  I know Stan has been mulling a high-concept book related to this subject, so I hope the discussion will continue on for years.  In one way, it couldn't matter less--beer is beer and almost no styles exist sui generis, separate from the influences of all others.  On the other hand, it's a critical question in a world in which information, education, and raw materials are unmoored from place.  The great thing about the 21st century is that we can pretty much access anything in the world, so our daily lives are enriched by multinational, multicultural influences.  But it also means that the local and weird may be trampled under the homogenization of international preference.  By spreading each other's materials and cultures, we may endanger them.

As it happens, I've been thinking about this for a long time.  Seven years ago, I wrote a post about this very topic.  A lot of my seven-year-old posts don't bear re-reading, but I may have been onto something when I wrote that one.  You can read the whole thing, but the piece I want to repost (and actually, rewrite a bit--it's not free of mistakes and miscues) involves the elements of indigenous beer:
  • Ingredients. People have made beer for thousands of years, and the grains they used were those that grew in nearby fields: wheat in Egypt, rice in India, sorghum and millet in Africa, barley in Europe.  Many indigenous styles include local additives, from the dates of Egypt to the gruit of Europe, to the cherries in kriek.
  • Method. Some breweries have funky ways of brewing, and these help define style. The slate squares employed in Yorkshire breweries; the spontaneous fermentation of Pajottenland; the smoked lagers of Bamberg; or the lagers fermented warm to create steam beers in San Francisco.
  • Yeast. Many of the world's classic beers emerged from the decades- or centuries-old strains of yeast. In many (most?) cases, yeast strains are connected to locations where they originated and consequently are one of the chief elements that define styles.
  • New Variations. Sometimes styles emerge by remixing the ingredients, methods, or yeasts to produce a beer recognizably different.  Stan mentions American pilsner as a possible indigenous style, and it would fit under this clause.  It was a style that couldn't be adapted to the US, with its harsh barley, without the addition of local corn.
  • "Localness." What has guided many brewers through time wasn't necessarily a desire to be innovative, but restraints of locality. They used what they had. In the age before industrialization, hops, grains, adjuncts, and water all had to be local. The character of the beer has historically been a reflection of the place it was brewed. The physical imperative is gone in the age of globalization, yet artisanal beers are still predominantly local products.
 Stan's got a nice discussion going on, so check out the comments if you visit his post.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Brief Primer on Czech Lagers

Sometimes I skip posting information that I know exists elsewhere on the internet, as if the mere existence of information somewhere means people everywhere are consuming it.  You can find descriptions of Czech lagers from people far more versed on the subject than I--Evan Rail and Max Bahnson (the Pivní Filosof) are your English-language starting points.  (Unfortunately, Evan's old blog, a mighty archive of great data, is now offline.)  Nevertheless, it is sometimes useful for a person to gather together and repeat some information for those who are coming later to the party.  In that spirit, here's a brief primer on Czech lagers.

Only One Pilsner
You do not order a "pilsner" in Prague (or anywhere else in Czech).  You could order a Pilsner, though.  In the Czech Republic, the word pilsner is a proper name reserved for Pilsner Urquell.  All other pale lagers are referred to by either their proper name or by category (see below).  I have gotten several different answers for why this is the case, but my sense is that it has mainly to do with tradition.  Josef Groll invented pilsner at the old burghers' brewery in 1842, and other breweries show great deference to this brewery (now called Plzensky Prazdroj, or Pilsner Urquell).  That beer is the ur-Pilsner, the one that begat the rest.  It is also the beer from Pilsen--not the only one, but obviously the big one--and so for these reasons it is the only one people call pilsner.

The Categories of Beer
The Czech system for grouping beer runs along two axes--strength and color.  If you imagine a table in your mind, on the one side you would have beers of different strength categories based on the Plato scale, and on the other a continuum of color running from pale to black.  So you might have a 10° pale beer or a 12° amber or a 14° dark.  But you might also have a 12° dark. (On our tour, Evan Rail mentioned that while there are no hard and fast rules, if you see a brewery list that includes a 10, 12, 14, and 18, the average Czech would assume the two smaller beers are light, the two bigger ones dark.)   

Let's start with the legal designations, which refer to Plato categories.  These changed a bit in 2011, so if you find lehké on an old list, note the change.  Also, those are my best-guess pronunciations you find.  Fluent Czech speakers may offer corrections or denunciations in comments.

Update: Indeed, the wisdom of hive mind is speaking loudly in comments, with corrections, questions, and clarifications.  Definitely have a look.
  • Stolní pivo, table beer up to 6° P.  (I've never seen one of these in the wild.)  The pronunciation is roughly stole nyee Pee voh. 
  • Výčepní pivo, from 7° to 10°.  Strangely, výčepní comes from the word for taproom and the term literally means “draft beer.”  It is applied to all beer in this range, irrespective of package.  Pronounced vee chep nyee Pee voh.
  • Ležák, from 11° to 12°.  Again, to add to the confusion, ležák literally means lager—and again, it applies to all beer in this range whether lager or ale.  Pronounced leh zhak.
  • Speciál, strong beers above 13°.  Pronounced spet zee-al.  
The colors are more straightforward--pale, amber, and dark, though for etymological reasons, I'm going to list them out of order (you'll see why):
  • Světlé, or pale-colored.  Pronounced svet lee.
  • Tmavé, or dark.  Pronounced t’ma veh.
  • Polotmavé, which literally means semi-dark or half-dark, referring to a color in the amber band.  Pronounced polo t’ma veh.
  • Černé, or black.  Pronounced cher neh.
When you're ordering these, you would mix and match.  That 12° amber would be a polotmavý ležák.  A 10° pale would be světlý výčepní.  Of course, you could also just order the beer based on its gravity, which is the easiest for Americans in whose mouths these words gurgle like giant balls of peanut butter.

Bright, Unfiltered, or Yeasted?
So far, so good, yes?  Now comes the more tricky part of the whole thing.  Not only do you have this taxonomical tangle, but you have an additional stratum of information regarding how the beer was prepared.  In addition to just regular old beer like you might find in a bottle, the beer might be unfiltered or served kräusened.
  • Kvasnicové, literally yeast beer.  It is a specific preparation that involves adding yeast or fermenting wort to fully-lagered beer right before kegging.  It brings a liveliness to the beer that has Czech beer geeks in a swoon.  Pronounced kvass nitso veh Pee voh.  
  • Nefiltrované or unfiltered beer.  Slightly confusing because both kvasnicové and nefiltrované will appear less than perfectly clear in the glass, and both may enjoy the benefits of richer, brighter flavors.  Unfiltered beer is not kräusened.  Pronounced ne filtro vanay Pee vo.   
  • Tanková, or tank beer.  Just means it's served from a large, 5- or 10-hectoliter tank underneath the bar.  What's significant is that this beer is unpasteurized, which means the flavors are sharper and more vivid.  Pronounced tank o va.
All right, are you ready to head out to the pubs?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Ease of Misunderstanding Czech Beer

This photo, captured on my camera, was actually taken
by Max Bahnson--a better photographer than I.
The golden lagers of the Czech Republic are at once the easiest and most elusive beers in the world.  They are easy because, unlike goses and gueuzes, they are imprinted on our brains as the most basic form of "beer."  Frothy, sparkling, pale--no instruction manual required.  We even have two of the most important and tasty examples at hand in Budvar and Pilsner Urquell, which means we don't have to put our brains through a remote intellectual exercise to appreciate them.  A quick visit to a decent grocery store or any bottle shop, and we can be drinking some of the world's best Czech lagers in a half hour.

But the ways in which they elude us are much more important and, after four days of intense remedial study in the Czech Republic, where I found the true story lies.  From a great distance, all Czech pilsners--světlé pivo, "pale lagers" in Czech--look alike.  If pressed, you might admit that hoppy Pilsner Urquell, with its very round body and dollop of diacetyl, isn't actually all that like the drier Budvar, with its subtle kiss of bitterness.  But, eh, really, they're yellow and fizzy and mostly all the same.

An analogy will due to dispel this poor reasoning.  Put your mind on hoppy American ales, which from a great distance also appear a lot alike.  Now, imagine the perspective of a foreign beer drinker--a Czech, say--who believes he understands the style well enough because he has ready access to Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and New Belgium Ranger.  Would you say he has an adequate understanding of hoppy American ales?

Given a simple template, it's possible to make beers that are startlingly different. That's as true with pilsners as IPAs.  I spent last week in Prague and Pilsen on a mini odyssey of discovery (on, full disclosure, a junket financed entirely by Pilsner Urquell), where I reacquainted myself with favorites like Únětické 12° (possibly the best pale lager in the world) and Pilsner Urquell (the unfiltered version is a revelation), and discovered new delights like Kout na Šumavě, Pivovar na Rychtě, and U Tří růží.  If you don't have access to the range of these beers, you can't appreciate how diverse they really are.  Once you start adding the different presentations--served with live yeast, unfiltered, from the "tank"--the dimensions grow like new galaxies. 

Over the next couple weeks, I'll try to unpack what I learned on the trip, which ranged from the pubs to the hop fields to a the top of the old water tower at Pilsner Urquell.  I may even make a comment or two about Czech dumplings, which were a minor feature of our travels.  It is a world that can't be fully accessed with the mind--you need your tongue and nose--but perhaps it will inspire a trip to the Czech lands or two.  Half liters only cost a buck and a half!

More to come--

Friday, September 05, 2014

In Czech

I have had an incredibly full schedule on my blitz through Czech. (Hmmm, that may not be the best wording.)  There's too much to discuss briefly, so here are a few pics instead. 

We spent a day in Prague before arriving in Plzen, site of a significant brewery. 

At Pilsner Urquell, we got to see two of the seven staff coopers in action. 

Then we ascended the old, now disused water tower. It was a rare treat. 

And the view from the top. 

And then to assorted other sites at the brewery. 

The old brewhouse. 

In the cellars ...

Where they still do a bit of open wood fermentation. 

Much more to come...

Monday, September 01, 2014

To Czech

No more than a couple weeks ago, I got an offer for perhaps the greatest junket imaginable.  Mark Dredge at Pencil and Spoon does work for Pilsner Urquell.  They thought it would be nice to have some writers come and check out the Saaz crop in nearby Zatec, and asked him to put together a list of folks.  When the invite came down I was relieved to see the schedule was open, and tomorrow I'm off.  I'll also see the brewery (again) and some other cool stuff.  I'll try to blog and post pics on Facebook, but it's going to be a blitz.  I'll be home Sunday. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Steady Morphing of "Craft"

I have a sense that an emerging theme of blurring lines is going to play a major part of my blogging over the next few years.  It's the slow mutation of what we would have formerly called "craft" beer into something that looks a lot like mass market lager--if not in type, then certainly in branding approach.  The latest example is Austin Beerworks and the 99-pack they released to great attention this week. 

Have a look:

This isn't identical to the kind of ad you'd see during a random Seahawks game, but notice how closely it sidles up to that form:
  1. Pitched at a mass audience ("light, balanced, refreshing," "a beer for anyone")?  Check.
  2. Young people enjoying beer in nature? Check.
  3. Inexpensive?  Check.
  4. Conforms to Sally's rule ("beware a company selling packaging, not beer").  Check.
There are a few cues to the brewery's craft provenance, as well--beards, quirky comedy, irreverent images (in a brief cut, you'll see a shot of two cans recently employed in shotgunning).  In all ways that matter, though, this is effectively a little guy doing everything possible to grab some of that may-be-shrinking-but-still-gigantic mass market.  Huge brewing conglomerates are working very hard to enter the craft segment, and the little guys are trying to hop into the mass segment.

The lines blur on...

Update.  This has sparked entertaining discussions on both Twitter and Facebook.  Because, you know, blogs are nearly a dead medium.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Drink This Beer: Walking Man Memorial Fund ISA

Shari Landers was a woman I would have loved to meet.  Here's a tiny bit of her story:
She became the first woman pipefitter in Louisiana, as well as a welder, carpenter, pot farmer, crypt caretaker, small business owner, Kool Aid mom, longshore-woman, Bering Sea fisherwoman, a life long purveyor and connoisseur of the finest drugs, and an amazing mother. Her nonconformist disposition made her an outlaw in the Hunter S. Thompson sort of way (as well as the normal outlaw kind of way) leading her to many adventures throughout her life. She held a “DIY" attitude close to her heart and it allowed her to accomplish anything she set out to do no matter who or what stood in her path. Shari’s spirit had her hitch hiking across states when she was 10, deported from Canada when she was 12, and building a cabin in Alaska when she was 13.
Does she sound spectacular or what? 

Sadly, Shari died of cancer last month.  Her son is James Landers, the Head Brewer at Walking Man, and he's asking for a little help on medical bills left over from the last weeks of her life.  To help pay them off, Backwoods Brewing donated ingredients for a beer made at Walking Man called Memorial Fund ISA.  You can buy a pint at either location, and a dollar  of the cost will go to help pay the bills. 

I can't think of a more wholesome beer to spend you money on--

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: Beer Britannia by Boak and Bailey

Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer
Jessica Boak & Ray Bailey
Aurum Press, 298 pages

Considering the long history of British brewing, most historians have focused on London or Burton and their respective great eras of brewing.  Few have turned their attention to the most recent forty years, a depressing time when ales lost out to lagers and breweries consolidated and collapsed by the legion.  But it's possibly the most dynamic period in Britain's brewing history, and certainly one of the most interesting--and these are the decades Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey consider in their engrossing new book, Brew Britannia.

The narrative they tell is equal parts straight history and ethnography.  The events are fascinating because they're so English. (The title of the book is slightly misleading; this is really a story about England, and nearly all the protagonists are English or live and brew in England.)  The story starts out describing the activities of two different citizen groups, both devoted to preserving some part of English life that seemed imperiled by the churn of modernity.  The first didn't have a huge impact on the course of events, but the second, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), did.

For the first time, I finally understood the context that gave rise to CAMRA and the effect it had in English life.  And, given that the switch from ales to lagers continued to plug along unabated through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, CAMRA's impact really does seem to mostly cultural.  They did not so much restore real ale as they did change a nation's understanding about it's place in society.  If cask ale did not displace lager, it at least came to be seen as local, as English--a powerful shift that may have at least allowed it to survive.

Boak and Bailey then describe how small breweries started popping up in the 70s and 80s.  Americans who (like me) imagined this development paralleled the US microbrewing trend of 1980s will discover they are mistaken.  Again, the contours of this story are entirely English.  The first small breweries made cask ale.  It would take a couple decades before breweries started making the stuff we think of as "craft beer," and yet even that part of the story is particular to the situation in the UK.

Boak and Bailey did scads of research and talked to tons of people in assembling the book.  The arc of Brew Britannia is told through the stories of scores of individuals--activists, beer drinkers, and brewers--which makes it a hugely propulsive read.  We've enjoyed a number of good beer books in the last few years, but none can touch Brew Britannia in terms of pure entertainment.  If you have even the slightest interest in English beer, you'll really enjoy it.  (Even people who are interested mainly in American craft breweries will find it interesting because of the contrast it offers to our story.)  And for people like Ted Sobel (and me), it is an absolute must-read.

Addendum.  As I read the early chapters, marveling at the way the English seem to naturally form clubs and campaigns, I wondered why we don't do that here in the US North America.  The Brewers Association has effectively seized the space occupied by CAMRA in the UK, and they have taken it in a very particular direction.  It's not that CAMRA is a flawless organization (in fact, it's got so many problems that CAMRA-bashing is something of a national pastime), but it is a consumer organization.  They do not represent the interests of the breweries, but the people who drink beer.

If we in the US North America formed our version of CAMRA, I doubt we would spend so much time obsessing about who owns which brewery, seemingly the sole concern of the Brewers Association.  In framing the conversation in the UK, CAMRA in some ways invented English beer--or at least the idea of it.  If consumers made an American-beer advocacy group, what would they focus on?  I don't have any ideas, but it would not be the issues that so interest the Brewers Association.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Budweiser Ironies

A couple weeks ago, Pete Brown posted a wonderfully nuanced piece about Budweiser--both of them--in London Loves Business.  He argued that the two Buds were about as well-made as any on the planet and that, while you may not enjoy the American Bud, you could not doubt its quality.  He's correct. As sensory experiences go, American Budweiser is not a particularly thrilling ride.  (When I visited the St. Louis plant, brewmaster Jim Bicklein took me to the cellars, where we had a zwickel from the huge conditioning tanks.  On every previous occasion when I've been offered a tank-fresh pour, I have found depths and delights in a beer I missed in the store-bought incarnation.  I held my breath and sipped the cool, sparkling lager through a skiff of snowy head and ... it was just Bud.  Very, very fresh Bud.)  But the brewing process is exacting and there are no shortcuts.  It is intentionally unthrilling.  (And millions of drinkers like it that way.)

But what really caught my eye was this paragraph:
One of the most famous battles in Beerworld is the epic David and Goliath tussle between the world’s biggest brewer – Anheuser-Busch Inbev – and the small, state-owned Czech brewer Budweiser Budvar. In 1876 Adolphus Busch stole the name Budweiser from the town of Ceske Budejovice – or ‘Budweis’ in German – and over the ensuing decades agreements were reached about who had the rights to the name in various parts of the world. When the Czech Republic disappeared behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War the American brewer tore up the arrangements it had agreed to and made American Budweiser the world’s biggest beer brand. 
There are a few stories about the Budweisers, and this is the one only a fraction of beer drinkers know.  It is not the one they tell in St. Louis.  However, even this version isn't exactly right.  The real story is much more interesting and filled with irony.

Jim Bicklein at the brewery in St. Louis
The town of České Budějovice [pronounced, roughly, ches kay bud ye-oh vit sa] is located in the south of Bohemia.  Bohemia being located in the Czech Republic, you will not be surprised to learn that the people there speak Czech.  But this also the crossroads of some very important empires, and in centuries gone past, the region was controlled by a German-speaking population, who called it Budweis. Beer brewed there, as it has been since the 13th century, was therefore either Budějovický or Budweiser—literally, beer of the town of Budějovice or Budweis.  Fast forward to the period following the success of Josef Groll’s 1842 pale lager in Pilsen.  Other Czech breweries began making pale lagers, too.  The Civic Brewery in the town then called Budweis was one of them.  A supplier to the court of King Wilhelm II, the lager earned the nickname “the beer of kings.”  Ring a bell?      

By the 1860s an enterprising American brewery, enchanted by the idea of Bohemian beer, decided Budweis’s were the best.  It was no easy task to make those kinds of beers in the United States, but Adolphus Busch of the Anheuser Brewery had managed to do it and in 1876 debuted his own Budweiser beer.  Busch was selling beer for twenty years under the Budweiser name before a new brewery opened back in Budweis as a rival to the older, German-owned company.  This new brewery, the Joint Stock Brewery, was one of a wave of new Czech-owned businesses to spring up as a part of the Czech National Movement of the late 19th century.  Eventually that brewery became known as Budějovický Budvar.    

The fascinating part of the history is that the claims and counter-claims the two companies hurl at each other are generally founded in fact.  As it happens, Adolphus Busch did find inspiration for his beers from Budweis and did spirit away both the type of beer and the name.  But it’s also true that he brewed his beer before Budweiser Budvar even existed.  He did also apparently appropriate “the beer of kings” and turn it into “the king of beers”—one of the most valuable corporate slogans in the world.  (Budvar disputes the history of “beer of kings.”)  But the brewery that inspired Busch is no longer in existence.  And in the most wry of ironies, neither company has a clear historical claim to the name Budweiser: Busch obviously borrowed and rebranded it with absolutely no connection to the town or people; on the other hand, except as a valuable trademark, why would the people of České Budějovice want the name?  Budvar remains state-owned and is an artifact of the Czech National Movement.  “Budweis” was the name the city has abandoned.      

Pete points out that the dispute hasn't exactly been terrible for Budvar.  Picking a fight with the world's most famous and popular brands has its upside.  But the real story is actually more interesting, and the clean lines of the narrative a bit more smudged.