Beer trademark wars might feel like the result of a crowded contemporary marketplace, but breweries have been filing C&Ds since way before Stone sued Keystone. That high-profile case seems to be taking a while, but it pales in comparison to the infamous global battle over the name “Budweiser,” which has gone on for about 112 years—long enough to merit its own Wikipedia entry. The commonly told version of that battle says that the original Budweiser actually comes from the Czech city of České Budějovice, a spire-capped, tower-filled South Bohemian burg that German speakers traditionally call Budweis. Unfortunately, the commonly told version is wrong.
As the story goes, in 1876, a St. Louis brewery started making a Lager it called Budweiser, meaning “from Budweis,” after the famous beer from the historical Czech town. The “original” Budweiser, it notes, is actually Budvar, a small Czech brewery that has been fighting the giant Anheuser-Busch—and now its parent company AB InBev—on multiple fronts for the right to use the Budweiser name since before World War I.
That version of the story has a couple of big holes, starting with the fact that Budvar—aka Budweiser Budvar—was founded in 1895. The American version dates to 1876. If the Czech Budweiser is 19 years younger, you might ask, how can it be the original?
Like many tales involving language, ethnicity and identity in the palimpsests of Central Europe, the answer isn’t exactly straightforward. To start, Budvar has made geography, not chronology, the crux of its case. Tough-to-pronounce České Budějovice (roughly chess-kay bood-yay-yo-vit-seh) has a history of making beer that dates all the way back to its founding in 1265. Budvar has reasonably argued that, as a descendent of a 750-year brewing tradition that is actually located in the city called Budweis (in German), it should be the brewery allowed to use the name Budweiser, rather than a brand invented in far-off Missouri.
But there are some overlooked elements to the case—like the much smaller brewery now known as Samson. Also located in the city of České Budějovice, it dates from the year 1795. If there’s an “original Budweiser,” Samson is it.
A second, smaller point: České Budějovice was once a town with both Czech and German speakers, who all got along swimmingly until, towards the end of the 19th century, they really didn’t, a topic covered by Jeremy King’s academic history Budweisers into Czechs and Germans, and which is actually how we ended up with Budvar in the first place.
Though Germans were the minority in České Budějovice, King writes, they enjoyed political power far beyond their number, including ownership of the Samson brewery and other important local institutions. Czech speakers founded the Czech-owned competitor Budvar amid the nationalistic fervor of the late 19th century, the same era when the Czech National Theatre was founded with the goal of letting locals hear opera and plays in their own language, rather than in German. There’s a noticeable amount of irony when a brewery founded on the idea of Czech independence fights for the right to use a German name.
In recent years, tiny old Samson has been an overlooked aspect of the beer world’s best-known trademark fight. At the same time, Samson’s quality suffered under successive ownership changes, earning the brewery a reputation for bad beer, and speculation about a possible closure.
And then, in 2014, the inevitable happened: after an initial purchase of some of its intellectual property, AB InBev bought all of struggling Samson, giving the maker of the American Budweiser a foothold in the very town of Budweis itself.
That story got lost among the news of AB InBev’s purchase of SABMiller in 2015, which required it to shed most of SABMiller’s Central and Eastern European brands, including Pilsner Urquell and other breweries that went to Asahi. Among those whirlwind sales, however, AB InBev held on to Samson.
Which is how we get to the present day, with Czech media reporting that AB InBev has started putting piles of money into Samson—almost $17 million since 2014. Meanwhile, under a new CEO, state-owned Budvar has launched major expansions of its own.
It’s almost as if a new front has opened in the beer world’s longest-running trademark war.
“We used to be much larger,” says Samson CEO Daniel Dřevikovský. “We need to connect to our local consumers, because we lost them at the end of the ’90s.”
How much larger? In 1996, Samson was brewing at capacity, nudging up against 380,000 barrels (in local terms, 450,000 hectoliters) per year, about as much as what Stone Brewing produced last year. Today, its annual production is only 75,000 barrels, a little more than what Massachusetts’ Wachusett Brewing Company made in 2018. That’s not the nadir: volumes at Samson have actually improved under its AB InBev ownership, up more than 10% in 2017 and increasing slightly from there last year.
Those results, Dřevikovský says, are due to investments in technology and sanitation under the ownership of AB InBev, which has put millions into Samson over the last five years.
“We invested into quality a lot of money, and our beer is recognized as high-quality again,” Dřevikovský says. “We haven’t adjusted recipes. There is not a single change in our recipes. It is only in technologies. We’ve got our history, our recipe, our traditions, our taste.”
That taste is wildly improved from where it was a decade ago. Last year, Samson won an award for the Czech Republic’s best Czech-style Pale Lager at the World Beer Awards. (In 2009, one reviewer on Ratebeer gave the beer a single star before describing it thusly: “Eww! there are chewy things floating it, like toilet paper! At least it smells decent. Gross.”)
“There was a transition period between the switch from the old technology to the new ones,” says Samson brewmaster Radim Lavička. The big changes include a lot more stainless steel, with a dozen new, giant cylindro-conical tanks (CCTs) to complement the few that Samson already had in place, as well as new filtration and cleaning systems. With the new fleet of CCTs, the brewery’s old lagering cellars—formerly used in parallel with the older CCTs—were closed for good in 2016. “Now we are in Year Two. The next step is to recover sales ‘around the chimney.’”
That Czech phrase for a brewery’s local sales includes the upscale pub across the street, now considered the brewery’s flagship. In a change from previous eras, Dřevikovský says, it’s getting less difficult to find local outlets interested in carrying Samson.
“Two years ago, to convince a pub owner, it was nearly impossible,” Dřevikovský says. Now, there's been a near-doubling of local outlets serving Samson—it is now sold in about 12 pubs—which brought the share of its exports from 70% to 55% in the short timeframe. The brewery will continue to focus on local sales in and around České Budějovice.
The old brewery has a lot going for it, including the same celebrated water source as Budvar, drawing its pure brewing liquor from a 900-foot (274-meter) artesian well. It uses a similar yeast strain as Budvar. Like Budvar, and in sharp contrast to the Budweiser from St. Louis, its beer is made from 100% malt and 100% Czech hops, and is still produced with decoction mashing. With luck, Dřevikovský says, the brewery can again achieve its previous production level of 380,000 barrels.
“This is our main goal, to fulfill the capacity of the brewery back up to 450,000 hectoliters,” Dřevikovský says. “Every week, people come up to me and say, ‘I tasted Samson and it’s amazing beer again.’”
With the return of those local fans, Samson might make it up to 80,000 barrels this year.
In the widely told version of the Budweiser saga, Budvar is cast in the role of David, fighting against a multinational Goliath. But in the town of České Budějovice, Budvar is the giant. While Samson might hit 80,000 barrels this year, Budvar will sell over 1.35 million. Samson has some 70 employees. Budvar has 700.
And Budvar is growing.
“We are the only brewery in the world that is still expanding its lagering capacities,” says Budvar CEO Petr Dvořák, referring to breweries of Budvar’s size that still use separate vessels for fermentation and lagering, a traditional process that has largely disappeared. “We have not only invested into our new logistical center, but we have also invested into new cellars.”
New lagering cellars alone would make Budvar a standout, especially considering how breweries like Samson are shuttering theirs. But Budvar’s logistical center is on another level. Located on the other side of a public road from the main brewery grounds, it required the construction of two bridges over the street and cost over $32 million when it opened during Easter weekend of 2018. Inside, pallets of the brewery’s various beers are selected and packed by robots, arriving at their destination bays via monorail before being loaded into trucks for delivery. It has been called the most modern packaging center in the country, if not in all of Central Europe, and that includes several Amazon warehouses.
The logistical center is just one of several big new developments at Budvar, which has announced plans to expand its annual production volume by around 30%, aiming for the big round number of 2 million hectoliters, or about 1.7 million barrels. That will require a new packaging line, new brewhouses, and expanded lagering cellars, meaning a further investment of about $55 million.
And while Budvar remains an extremely traditional brewery, it has taken noticeable steps to modernize following Dvořák’s appearance as CEO in mid-2017. This spring it launched a new, draft-only Lager, Budvar 33, which has 50% more bitterness than the 22.5 IBUs of the brewery’s traditional Pale Lager. It also has a deeper color of about 8 SRM, thanks to a small amount of British crystal malt, vs. 5 SRM in the standard Lager. If Budvar’s flagship is sometimes called a too-attenuated, not-bitter-enough outlier among the country’s Pale Lagers, Budvar 33 is a step closer to the national palate.
In addition, Budvar has recently started working with local craft breweries, selling IPAs and the like from Permon, Zichovec, Nachmelená Opice and others in Budvar’s roughly 30 restaurants and pubs. Last fall, Budvar even brewed a Polaris-hopped collaboration beer with Pavel Palouš, brewmaster at Prague’s Cobolis brewpub.
Such changes are big news at a brewery that prides itself on tradition. (For followers of Czech beer, the idea of a stalwart like Budvar using even a pinch of British malt in a Czech Lager is so strange as to be literally unbelievable. It might suffice to point out that Polaris is a German hop.) And yet the brewery remains resolutely old-fashioned. Walking around the cellars with brewmaster Adam Brož, you might notice that, despite all the big investments, the lagering tanks still have manual valves. That is a result of Budvar’s commitment to cold conditioning for 90 days, he explains. “If you only use the tanks four times a year, there is no need for automation.” The three full months of cold conditioning will not change, Brož says, and the company is still using only classic Saaz hops for its traditional Lagers—and only whole hop cones, not pellets.
For Dvořák, his company’s survival is about more than just the brewery: he looks at it as a way to help the country. Budvar remains the property of the Czech government three decades after the fall of Communism; as a profitable business, that means that Budvar regularly contributes to state coffers. But beyond that, the best-known beer from České Budějovice is a flag-bearer for Czech culture.
“I think it’s a huge win for the country when someone walks into a bar in New York and asks ‘What kind of Czech Lager do you have?’” Dvořák says. “We are a brewery with 10 million shareholders. We are owned by the nation. We can help promote Czech beer culture and help promote the Czech nation.”
That doesn’t mean that you’re going to start seeing Czech Budweiser at more bars in NYC, at least not under that name. Stateside, Budvar has to sell under the brand “Czechvar,” and imports throughout the Americas are minimal.
The rest of the planet is a different story. Budvar now sends beer to 79 countries, with its biggest export share going to neighboring Germany, where Budvar has long been the best-selling import in the retail market. In good news for the budget of the Czech government, sales there increased by 6% last year. Other countries also had great results: sales to Russia jumped by 64%, while Swedish sales increased by 80%. All told, Budvar’s 2018 exports of 916,000 BBLs counted as its all-time high.
While Budvar generally holds the rights to the name Budweiser throughout Europe, its much smaller neighbor in České Budějovice also has a few rights. Known from at least 1795 until 1948 and once again since 2001 as Budweiser Bürgerbräu (or the equivalent “Budějovický měšťanský pivovar” in Czech), Samson also has the legal right to use the EU Protected Geographical Indication Budweiser Bier in Europe.
So does that mean that AB InBev is going to start brewing Missouri-style Budweiser in České Budějovice, using Samson as a backdoor for sales into Europe? Probably not. The biggest market in Europe is Germany, where a beer made with rice is, well, not beer.
Cynics will probably say there has to be some kind of long game in play, a chance for AB InBev to muddy the waters or gain some leverage. That might be true. But at the most basic level, it’s hard not to appreciate that a floundering Czech brewery with a boatload of history was saved when the Brazilian-Belgian giant bought Samson. Additionally, it’s easy to like what’s in the glass: I tried a grocery-store-purchased Samson this week, and it was delicious.
It’s also hard not to cheer Budvar’s success. While the previous management felt extremely slow-moving and insular—with marketing tricks that occasionally hit sour notes among locals—the new team is clearly thinking beyond the brewery’s longstanding assumptions.
There might be a loser along the way: the trademark fight between Budvar and AB InBev is a battle, after all. But for now, the story in Budweiser’s hometown looks like a win for all sides. Especially people who love beer.