If American readers are confused by the role of the European Union, they are not alone. Many of us who live in EU countries are increasingly reduced to head-scratching disbelief by its activities.
It started life as the Common Market, an attempt to bring down trade barriers. Politically, the aim was a worthy one. But the EU has created a vast bureaucracy with unbridled powers to interfere in the affairs of individual member states. Last year many new countries that had been members of the old Soviet bloc joined the EU, and now Turkey’s membership is under discussion. Is Turkey in Europe? Look at an atlas and discuss.
What, you may well ask, has this got to do with beer? Rather a lot. On the positive side, the EU has published an ordinance that protects lambic and gueuze, the Belgian beers made by “spontaneous fermentation,” using wild yeasts in the atmosphere. The ordinance defines the ingredients and the way the beers are made, thus preventing other brewers from passing off beers made with cultured yeasts as lambic.
On the debit side, the EU classifies beer as an “industrial product” alongside steel and cement. This absurd categorization reflects the balance of power within the EU and one of its central building blocks, the Common Agricultural Policy or CAP.
Farmers receive vast subsidies under the CAP. Those who grow grapes for wine production get big handouts that enable the price of wine to be held down, even when the wine is made in big urban factories a long way from the countryside.
Brewers, some of whom are located on delightful rural sites, enjoy no such largesse from the public purse. Beer, as visitors to Europe can testify, is expensive. It is often cheaper for two people to buy a bottle of wine and stay at home than go to a pub for a couple of beers. When you consider that such great brewing countries as Britain, Germany and Ireland are members of the EU, you wonder why their leaders don’t make more of a fuss about this bias in favor of wine.
PGI for Budweiser Budvar
However, it is not all bad news on the beer front. The Czech Republic, one of the ex-Soviet bloc countries that joined the EU last year, has immediately benefited. In May, the EU awarded a Protected Geographical Indication to Budweiser Budvar, the classic pale lager brewed in the ancient city of Ceske Budejovice, better known under its old German name of Budweis. With this designation of origin, Budvar has joined such prestigious food and drink categories as Camembert, Cognac, Champagne and Parmigiana that are made only in their home areas.
Budvar has run a high-profile campaign in the Czech Republic and other European countries against the way in which once-proud beers are brewed under license a long way from their home bases. For example, Pilsner Urquell, the original golden lager from Pilsen, is now brewed in Poland and its owner, SABMiller—a merger of South African Brewers and Miller—plans also to brew it in Russia. As “urquell” translates as “original source,” the name surely loses all meaning.
Apart from added prestige, the PGI award won’t help Budweiser Budvar in its long dispute over trademark rights with Anheuser-Busch, but at least the EU has at long last recognized that beer is worthy of protection. The seal given to Budvar balances the fact that the only other PGI ever given to beer has been revoked. The owners of the British brand, Newcastle Brown Ale, lost their PGI as a result of closing the brewery in Newcastle and moving production elsewhere. What the EU giveth, it also taketh away.
Cheers for New Labor Policy
On the self-same day that Budvar got its PGI, Tony Blair’s Labor government won the British general election, albeit with a sharply reduced majority in the House of Commons. I did not vote for Mr. Blair, but I will give one small cheer for a Labor policy that has given a considerable boost to small independent brewers in Britain.
In 2002 the government introduced Progressive Beer Duty, sharply reducing the tax bills for micros producing no more than 20,000 barrels a year. In 2004 the ceiling for PBD was raised to 36,000 barrels, which brought many regional and family-owned breweries within the new policy. The savings are considerable, around $30,000 a year for many breweries, allowing them to invest in new equipment and increase production.
The price of a pint hasn’t come down yet, but I live in hope.
Roger Protz is the author of Complete Guide to World Beer and 300 Beers to Try Before You Die. He is a respected beer authority and editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.