I don’t follow intellectual property or international legal issues very closely because neither are areas of law I practice but as a craft beer geek and lawyer I couldn’t pass up mentioning a very interesting (to me) story I pulled from this month’s American Bar Association Journal regard Budweiser. For most Americans, Budweiser represents a beer born in St. Louis by Anheuser Busch (now part of the international brewing conglomerate AB InBev) that is the “King of Beers” or at least one of the three largest beer brands in the U.S. along with Miller and Coors. If you remember the 90s as more than a fog of stained dresses and AOL advertisements you might remember Budweiser from this commercial, later turned into the intertubes’ first widespread meme.
In Europe, Bud and Budweiser do not necessarily mean the same beer that we think of in America. Certainly one can get the American Budweiser in many parts of Europe but a request for a Bud might get you something entirely different. (And in Amsterdam, maybe not even a beer at all.) Instead, you might be offered a Budvar, produced by Czech brewery Budejovicky Budvar. Budvar, often referred to as the “Czech Budweiser” by some Americans is a completely distinct beer in a very different style of pilsner.
Budvar has been fighting AB InBev for a long time to maintain its right to call its product “Bud” and “Budweiser” althoughwith its brewery-identified name of Budvar. Budvar maintained the right to these names because the beer is actually made in a place once referred to by its German inhabitants as Budweis. Hence, under German word construction rules, a beer originating in Budweis would be a Budweiser. Budvar atttempted to maintain an origin trademark on Budweiser, much in the same way sparking wine can only legitimately call itself champagne if it is from Champagne.
AB InBev argued that even if Budvar is geographically a Budweiser, Budvar did not begin production until nearly two decades after Adolphus Busch first slapped the term on his St. Louis-born lager. Budvar eventually caved in its attempt to defend its trademark from AB InBev, allowing AB InBev to use the term Budweiser for its beer across Europe. Prior to this recent litigation, Budvar labeled its product Budvar, Budweiser and Bud. AB InBev had to label its product “Bud” where Budvar controlled the Budweiser term but AB InBev used Budweiser and Bud where Budvar lacked exclusive rights. Beer drinkers on both sides of the pond will see no major change. Budvar will still be produced and sold in the U.S. under the Budvar name and now even more Europeans can enjoy the same empty advertising of AB InBev’s Budweiser
It’s interesting, if not slightly disappointing, to see the historical association between processes and products and the locality where they originate getting disassociated by global intellectual property laws. In Germany and many other parts of eastern Europe, beers are designated by style based on where they are produced, much like a Budweiser would be associated with Budweis. Kolsch, for example, is a style closely associated with Cologne, Germany. It is the regional style. Pilsner, the mother of most of the world’s most popular beers, is a style closely associated with Plzeň, Czech Republic (often written in English as Pilsen). In Europe west of Germany, there is far less geographic association with styles, at least as far as marketing is concerned. French, Belgian, Dutch and English beers are historically notorious for labeling beers with names that would sell products, even if a little dishonest. While France has carefully protected several wine-related appellations, the beer brewing community enjoys far greater latitude to name products however they wish.
Perhaps Germany and its more eastern siblings are less concerned with protecting the geographic relationships. There are certainly plenty of American brewers labeling their own beers with the same terminology, such as kolsch, dortmunder and berliner weisse, even where on occasion a German beer competes in the same U.S. marketplace as a domestic brewer. I would be somewhat disappointed to see brewers in America prohibited from using terms that designate a style as much as a historical and geographic designation but I would be even more disappointed to see Germans prohibited from protecting their own historical terms on their own turf.
The question then, to get back to the title of this post, is whether AB InBev’s Budweiser is a budweiser. Geographically, it surely isn’t. There does not seem to be a substantial connection between the historical location of Budweis (or in native Czech: České Budějovice) and AB InBev’s Budweiser that seems to connect the two together other than a use of the name for marketing purposes. Budějovice, or Budweis, was the imperial brewery location for the Holy Roman Empire. That’s some serious marketing juice. Organized commercial brewing in the town arose in 1795 by Budweiser Bürgerbräu and Budvar came along roughly 100 years after Anheuser-Busch started selling a beer in the image of Budweiser-style beers. Although there is a protected geographic indication (PGI) that protects the right to Budějovice brewers to use the Budweiser name, AB InBev now has trademark rights to the term across the entire EU.
Stylistically, AB InBev’s Budweiser might be stylistically true if we could figure out what budweiser means as a style. Budějovice beers tend to fall in the bohemian pilsner style. Lagered, light, refreshing but unmistakably hopped. AB InBev’s Budweiser is definitely not a beer that could be mistaken for the bohemian pilsner style. It isn’t hoppy at all. Additionally, old Adolphus Busch made a huge change in his recipe from those bohemian lagers. He added rice as a way of drying out the beer to make it more appealing to American palates. Rice is not commonly found in bohemian lagers.
So if budweiser means something as a style, it either relates to something connected to a unique brewing tradition in Budějovice or some particular recipe formation. There’s nothing terribly unique about either budweiser beers from Budějovice from other parts of Bohemia producing pilsner-style beers. Nor is there something unique about the recipe, unless you consider the rice-based recipe to be different from other beers. But if that’s the case then many Japanese brewers, such as Asahi, have a legitimate claim to the term as well. Seems odd that a term that relates to a specific geographical patch of the Czech Republic could be captured by a brewery from St. Louis, Missouri and Japanese brewers.
I am not convinced that budweiser represents a style that is any different from the bohemian pilsner style from Plzeň itself. It seems as though the Budějovice-based brewers are using the term budweiser for marketing purposes, even if they have a legitimate geographic basis for its use, just as much as AB InBev is using the term for the same purpose. However, at least the Budějovice brewers are brewing to the traditional style of the region. Perhaps the most disappointing part of this whole thing is that a truly valuable place in the brewing history of the world has been reduced to a meaningless marketing term.