The ‘King of Beers’ may be an all American icon but in truth Budweiser is a Czech beer brewed American style.
All American Beer?
When the US brewing monolith, and home to Budweiser, Anheuser-Busch was bought by Belgium-based Belgian-Brazilian corporation InBev in 2008, a nation mourned the loss of an all American treasure. The ‘King of Beers’ had been dethroned and its kingdom looted by the dastardly Europeans.
The irony of the tale was not lost on many. The Budweiser brand may be as iconically American as hot dogs, baseball and mom’s apple pie, but like those the beer is only ‘American’ in the sense that it is an amalgam of foreign influences. Like many great Americans, Budweiser is a European immigrant, with its history beginning in the small Czech city of Ceské Budejovice.
Capital of the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic, Ceské Budejovice was officially known by its German name of Budweis until 1918 when the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed following the end of the First World War.
Like nearby Pilsen (Plzen in Czech), Budweis has long been a celebrated beer brewing hub. Since brewing began there in 1265, the beer from Budweis – or ‘Budweiser beer’ – soon built up a formidable reputation throughout the country.
Two German Immigrants on a Business Trip
No doubt it was the reputation of Budweis as a brewing hotspot that prompted US liquor importer Charles W. Conrad and commercial brewer Adolphis Busch to pay a visit to the city during a tour of Europe in the 1870s. The interests of the two German immigrants in the local brews were unlikely to have been entirely recreational because once Conrad returned home to St Louis, he set about using a procured recipe and imported hops and barley to recreate some of the light coloured lagers that had so impressed him on his expedition.
Having created a satisfactory version of beer sampled in Budweis, Conrad then asked his friend Busch, to brew it commercially. The then named E. Anheuser Co.’s Brewing Association (later to become Anheuser-Busch), which Busch ran on behalf of his father-in-law Ebehard Anheuser, introduced the new beer to the American public in 1876 under the name ‘Budweiser lager beer’ with Conrad in charge of bottling and distribution.
In a nation of European immigrants that likely still went all misty-eyed and dry throated at talk of the unassailable brews left behind in the old country, it obviously made sense to market the new beer as part of the hallowed Czech and German brewing lineage rather than as a brand new ‘American’-style beer. But why did they copy the name Budweiser?
In the German language the name ‘Budweiser’ literally refers to something that comes from Budweis. As an analogy, a ‘Berliner’ can refer to the city’s local lager, as well as its citizens and the doughnut made famous by JFK. To give something the German adjectival form of a place other than where it is produced might seem rather illogical, but it’s a common practice for product sources that don’t boast geographical protection, with pilsner – which by this theory should only refer to beers from Pilsen – the frankfurter and the hamburger all being well know examples.
The difference with Budweiser is that Anheuser-Busch not only turned it into an ‘American’ brand but even had the gall to trademark the name and then jealously guard it to prevent genuine beers from Budweis being called Budweiser beers.
A Readymade Brand
As German immigrants themselves, Busch and Conrad would have been well aware of the implications of the name and its potential for upset caused by misappropriating it. Busch was clearly not duly concerned. He had chosen the name simply because, in being popular and revered in its homeland, Budweiser beer was already in effect a successful brand.
Funnily enough, when Budweiser quickly became very popular in the USA, rival brewers chose to market their own beer under the Budweiser name for that very same reason. It’s ironic that Anheuser-Busch fought off these leeching competitors on the grounds that they owned the successful brand, when one could argue they had in fact stolen it to begin with.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the dubious origins of the all American brand would return to haunt the brewer that had got so rich on it. Having been founded in 1896, the Budweis-based Budweiser Budvar (Budejovický Budvar) brewery soon clashed with Anheuser-Busch over the rights to the name Budweiser, and in doing so began one of the longest running commercial disputes in history.