AUG/SEP 2005 | REGIONAL | INTERNATIONAL
The Precepts of Josef
By Jack Curtin
The proud, stubborn brewmaster at the Czech Republic’s
Budweiser Budvar would be happy to accede to American calls
for Czechvar on draft, but only on his terms.
On a pleasantly cool afternoon in the Czech Republic last
April, Budweiser Budvar Master Brewer Josef Tolar stood in
front of the 300-meter-deep artesian wells from which all
the water used in making his beers is drawn, answering questions
offered up by a six-pack of American journalists. We had come
visiting in conjunction with a traveling party of U.S. distributors,
under the auspices of Colorado-based Distinguished Brands
International, which took over the importing of Tolar's beer
into the U.S. late last year.
We were in Ceské Budejovice, located on the Vltava
River south of Prague, a small town that has a brewing tradition
dating back to 1265, when King Premysl Otakar II granted citizens
the right to brew beer. Budweiser Budvar traces its lineage
there to 1895, when Cesky Akciovy Pivovar, the brewery's direct
predecessor, started brewing. The beers are marketed in the
U.S. under the Czechvar label because of a little dispute
with Anheuser-Busch you may have heard about, over the use
of the brand name "Budweiser" (see below).
Budvar, Czechvar — whatever name makes the lawyers
happy — is one of the two best-known beers from the
beer-loving Czech Republic, second only to Pilsner Urquell.
Budweiser Budvar, the last of the nation’s state-owned
breweries from the communist era that ended with the "Velvet
Revolution" in 1989, is the third largest in the republic,
behind SABMiller (which owns the Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus,
Radegast and Velkopopovicky Koze brands) and Staropramen (owned
by InBev since 2000). Budvar is second in exports (to SABMiller),
with a 25.3 percent share overall and a 30.5 percent share
of lager exports. Indicative of its strength in that area
is that it is the number one imported Czech lager, the sixth-largest
premium lager brand in the U.K. and the number two imported
beer brand in Germany. Total sales of Budvar break down to
48 percent domestic, 52 percent export.
Tolar, only the ninth brewer in the brewery's 100-year history,
is the man responsible for all the beer produced there for
sale at home and to nearly 60 countries around the world.
As he spoke, he revealed the pride, caution and stubbornness
that have marked his 40 years with Budvar, 20 as an apprentice
to his predecessor and 20 in his current position.
Pride showed through when he reacted animatedly to a question
about whether his beers sold in other countries are any different
from those sold in the Czech Republic. "You taste the
beers," he said emphatically, "and you'll see. The
beer you get everywhere is brewed with the same ingredients,
lagered in the same tanks, filled by the same machines. All
the beer comes from one man and one place." This latter
point is a not-so-subtle dig at his major competitors, who
are now brewing in several different locations, including
Russia in the case of Pilsner Urquell.
Caution manifested itself when the discussion turned to the
dark lager that the brewery introduced last year. This impressive
beer was an immediate hit with our group at a luncheon held
at the brewery prior to the tour of the facilities conducted
by Tolar, which led us to this moment.
"I was very skeptical when we first brewed it,"
he admitted, "because I thought it was something new
that people would try only once. Instead, we sold twice the
5,000 hectoliters I expected we would, and we are already
selling it abroad in Finland, Sweden and other countries."
Selling abroad is where the stubbornness comes in. DBI, which
took over importing bottled Czechvar to the U.S. last year,
announced at the time that a pilot program to introduce a
draft version would begin in early 2005. That never happened.
Tolar ignored the question of whether we’d see draft
Czechvar anytime soon, dodging and weaving the first few times
it was asked that afternoon. However, he finally broached
the subject on his own.
"We would like to send draft beer to your country,"
he acknowledged, "and we are working on that. But we
must be absolutely sure our beer is treated as it should be.
We send draft to Germany, Austria, Russia, Poland, Italy,
Spain and Great Britain, but we prefer bottles for more distant
locations like Asia and America because it is easier to control
the situation and keep the beer fresh."
For Tolar, freshness is not merely next to godliness, DBI
president Jeff Coleman explained later; it supersedes it.
"Josef is a man who is passionate about his beers. He
considers himself the guardian of a national trust, and he
has given us absolute mandates for how draft Czechvar is to
be handled so that, if we do bring it into the U.S., the procedure
will be unprecedented. Our freshness standards for an imported
beer will be stricter than those used by Anheuser-Busch. We
won't be allowed to sell any beer that is over 90 days from
shipping from the brewery, and to make that possible, accounts
who want draft Czechvar will have to pre-order kegs two months
in advance. Then, once the beer is tapped, they have to agree
to turn over each keg in three days or less.
"Josef is absolutely convinced that his beer is good
enough and will be successful enough to warrant all that special
attention. Certainly any of our accounts who are willing to
work with those restrictions will also have to believe that
and really care about the beer … which is, of course,
just what he wants."
Whatever Josef wants, Josef gets? We’ll see.
“You never even called me by my name.” That line
from a classic country song might well serve as the anthem
for the complicated, ongoing dispute between Budweiser Budvar
and Anheuser-Busch. The town now known as Ceske Budejovice
was populated by both Germans and Czechs and originally called
by its German name, Budweis. Beers produced there were called
Budweiser, as were the citizens; ethnic stress eventually
changed all that and led to the adoption of the Czech name.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., German immigrants Carl Conrad and
Adolphus Busch first bottled and sold their Budweiser in 1876.
They trademarked the name in 1878, and Anheuser-Busch took
over the brand in 1883. As noted above, the brewery now known
as Budweiser Budvar did not come into existence until 12 years
Several beers bearing the name Budweiser were produced in
the U.S. in the early 20th century, until A-B began going
to court to challenge the use of the name. Still, one competitor,
the DuBois Brewing Company in western Pennsylvania, actually
brewed and sold its own Budweiser from 1906 until 1972, prevailing
over A-B in court twice, until the brewery founder died. Long
before that, in 1911, A-B and Budweiser Budvar, which contends
that its historic location and lineage trump its competitor's
patent, came to an agreement that they could both use the
name; the Czechs even got to add "original" to their
labels. Then, in 1939, following an abortive attempt to patent
the name Budweiser in the U.S., Budvar signed a second agreement
relinquishing all rights to the name on the North American
continent for a modest payment from A-B. That agreement is
still in effect today.
North America may be lost to them as a result, something
that still obviously irks the Budvar folks, but the battle
continues around the world. There was a brief hiatus when
Anheuser-Busch approached Budvar in 1990 with a proposal to
acquire a substantial stake in the brewery, That effort, including
a moratorium on legal confrontations, lasted for four years.
Then Budvar unilaterally ended the negotiations in 1996, and
it was back to the courts for both sides.
The Czech brewery currently has some 380 trademarks registered
in more than 100 countries and is battling what it calls “attacks”
from the other side in more than 100 legal actions and administrative
procedures in various patent offices. I think it’s fair
to say that the implied David vs. Goliath aspect of the ongoing
conflict, not to mention Budvar’s positioning itself
as the protector of the “real” Budweiser, has
probably been a competitive advantage for them in many countries
and many courts.
Jack Curtin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether doing so is a good idea remains open to debate. You
can read more of Jack Curtin’s beer commentary —
uncensored, painfully disorganized and ineptly proofread —
Oh, and that Cask Ale story he promised for this issue? Look
for it next time.