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In Europe, It's a Battle of the Buds

American giant Anheuser-Busch is fighting to protect the name of its most popular beer. But a Czech brewery in a town once called Budweis is equally determined to retain the label for its lager.

April 08, 1998|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CESKE BUDEJOVICE, Czech Republic — Back when men were men, beer was the color of molasses, and mugs were made of stoneware or pewter, someone in the Bohemian town of Pilsen found a way to make yeast sink harmlessly to the bottom of the fermentation vat. Thus was born the world's first pale lager, a chic new drink that was to launch a thousand clear-glass schooners.

Pilsener, first produced in the 1840s, should have made its hometown rich, but by the time anyone in Bohemia thought to license the name, the dray horse was out of the barn.

Brewers here in Ceske Budejovice, another Bohemian mountain city renowned for its beer, are determined not to let that happen to them.

In the days when the kingdom of Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, people here spoke German and this town's name was Budweis.

There was a local brewery, and the output was, sensibly enough, called Budweiser.

"You had cognac made in the province of Cognac and champagne made in Champagne," points out Petr Jansky, financial manager of the Budejovicky Budvar brewery.

For him, logic is logic: Even though the empire is long gone and the city's name has reverted to the original Czech, the beer from here is still Budweiser.

And only the beer from here. In a David-and-Goliath routine par excellence, the small, state-owned Budejovicky Budvar brewery is duking it out with Missouri's Anheuser-Busch Cos. in courts all across Europe, claiming the right to reserve the names "Budweiser" and "Bud" for its brew, in much the same way the French have so jealously--and lucratively--reserved the name "Champagne" for their top-franc sparkling wines.

"This is something Americans should understand," Jansky says, "for it is in the tradition of your great country to have a brave and capable little company fighting against a big opponent."

Mighty Anheuser-Busch--which controls 45% of the U.S. beer market and 8.5% of the world market, with sales in more than 80 countries--says the dispute poses no threat to its finances, growth or international marketing strategy. Its advertising budget alone is bigger than Budejovicky Budvar's entire annual revenue.

But Bud vs. Bud can certainly cause confusion for the beer drinkers of Europe. With the matter before trial and appellate courts in more than 20 countries, it's impossible to belly up to a bar anywhere on this continent and know, with confidence, which Bud's for you.

Demand a Bud in Switzerland and you're apt to be handed a frosty glass of the Czech version; a lower court ruled in December that Anheuser-Busch could no longer sell its flagship beer there under that name. In Denmark, by contrast, calling for a Budweiser will get you the lighter American stuff, thanks to a December injunction prohibiting the Czechs from including that word on their labels in Denmark.

In the Czech Republic, calling for a Bud will get you the domestic brew. But in Britain, a drinker who orders Budweiser has no way of knowing what he'll get, because her majesty's courts have agreed to let the two names coexist.

The British Trade Marks Registry office does permit Anheuser-Busch the exclusive use of the slogan "King of Beers"--even though Budejovicky Budvar likes to call its Budweiser the "Beer of Kings."

In Germany, the jewel in the European beer marketer's crown, use of the word "Bud" is still under adjudication. But while the judges deliberate, Budejovicky Budvar has been free to use "Budweiser," and its brew has blossomed into the third-largest import. Anheuser-Busch is meanwhile striving to close the gap with a beer labeled, simply, B.

These courtroom battles are but the latest phase in a dispute that goes back more than a century. World wars have been fought, the Iron Curtain has been thrown up and dismantled, breweries have been bombed, occupied and nationalized--and, still, Bud vs. Bud marches on, providing a textbook study of cross-cultural incomprehension.

A Dark Parable?

Seen from America, Bud vs. Bud is a nifty compendium of the fundamentals of Marketing 101: the incalculable value of bringing to life an "icon" brand and the need to defend it to the death.

But here in the cradle of Bohemian brewing, the case is seen as a dark study in the way America steals other people's cultural props and mass-merchandises all the charm away.

"Anheuser-Busch will never be able to make the Budweiser trademark into another big brand like Marlboro or Coca-Cola" in these parts, says Jansky, "because they are really impostors."

He is unsparing in his contempt for American Budweiser, which is, indeed, lighter and fizzier than Budejovicky's rich, traditional Bohemian lager. Anheuser-Busch retorts that it makes American Bud "less bitter and more drinkable" on purpose, because that's what Americans prefer.

"These are two different products, enjoyed by two different groups of people," says Steve Burrows, president and chief operating officer of Anheuser-Busch International Inc.

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