The centuries-old battle over Budweiser

It is a David versus Goliath affair that has spanned centuries, countries and courthouses. Mick O’Hare delves into the bitter history of one of the world’s most famous lagers

Tuesday 04 August 2020 15:10
Britain is the only nation in the world where both beers can be sold under the name Budweiser
Britain is the only nation in the world where both beers can be sold under the name Budweiser

The Beer of Kings or the King of Beers? The difference is a big one. So big, in fact, that the arguments have ended up in courtrooms around the world. Barrooms have long been the locus of quibbles about who brews the finest beer and the arguments are subjective at best, but rarely do they end up in front of m’learned friends. However, this one has. Repeatedly. A battle has raged for more than a century over the name and origins of two lagers that share the same name. There’s Budweiser, the beer of kings and, er, Budweiser, the king of beers.

It’s a long story. And it starts in the city of České Budějovice in the south of the Czech Republic. When the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire the city went by the name of Budweis, a moniker that might look familiar to lager drinkers. Beers brewed in the city were known as Budweisers. Just up the road is Plzeň (known in German as Pilsen) from whence hails the term Pilsner, or pils, another style of lager. Indeed it was commonplace in centuries past for beer styles to be named after the cities in which they were first brewed. In Germany there is Kölsch from Köln and Dortmunder from Dortmund; in Britain there were Burton ales and London porters. Towns that had the right kind of water for a particular beer style thrived and Budweis was one of them – at one point in the 15th century it had 44 breweries. It was also home to the royal court brewery of Bohemia, giving rise to the sobriquet “the beer of kings”.

Now, other than small producers, only two large breweries remain in the town. But one of them, the Budějovický Pivovar, produces a beer that among aficionados is widely acclaimed as one of the world’s classic lagers and is known as Budweiser Budvar, or – especially in the Czech Republic – Budvar for short. It was first brewed in 1895 and while it can lay claim to being a genuine Budweiser from the original brewing town it cannot claim to be the oldest extant beer in the world to be called Budweiser.

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