The old saying that only lawyers get rich has never been more true where the protracted legal wrangles between Anheuser-Busch in the United States and Budweiser Budvar in the Czech Republic are concerned.
The two brewers have been slugging it out in courts throughout the world for more than 100 years. The battle becomes ever more bitter. Each side, like armies in World War I, gains a few yards of territory but is often forced back to the trenches under a hail of hostile fire.
And the lawyers stand on the sidelines, their meters running.
Point of Contention
The dispute centers on who has the best claim to the trademark, Budweiser. A-B says it started brewing its version in St. Louis in 1876 while Budvar didn’t arrive until 1895. But, for centuries, beers from the South Bohemian town were known generically as Budweiser. The old German name for the town is Budweis. An older brewery in the town, now known as Samson, sold its beers under the Budweiser label long before Anheuser and Busch fired their kettles in Missouri.
In a court case in 1880 between A-B and the Joseph Uhrig Brewing Co., Adolphus Busch said his beer was produced “by the process by which beer is made in Budweis, to my best knowledge.” A-B was already a litigious company. In a second case between A-B and the Fred Miller Brewing Co. in 1898, Adolphus Busch said, firmly and categorically, that his beer was “brewed according to the Budweiser Bohemian process.”
No chest-thumping there about American Bud being “the original.” Even the marketing tag, “the King of Beers,” was a reworking of “the Beer of Kings,” which was applied to the Bohemian versions when they found favor with the local monarch in feudal times.
Behind the Iron Curtain
In 1911, a short-lived agreement permitted both the American and Czech beers to be sold in the United States under their full titles. But A-B quickly reneged on the deal. It went on the offensive in 1939 in an attempt to remove all the Czechs’ rights worldwide to the Budweiser trademark. A-B chose its time well—the Nazis were just invading the Czech homeland. For the duration of the Nazi occupation, the beer was known as “Budbrau.” The country and its beers then disappeared behind the Iron Curtain for the best part of 50 years, leaving the rest of the world free to A-B.
But long before the Eastern bloc began to fall apart, those in power started to export Budvar with some vigor to the West. The impoverished communist regime was desperate for hard currency and began to promote Budvar on the other side of the wall.
Battle of the Buds
The battle of the Buds recommenced. If one company managed to register its trademark in a particular country, its rival was forced to use a pseudonym: “Bud” in the case of A-B, “Budejovicky Budvar” for the Czechs. When either side does lose a trademark dispute, it gets its lawyers to contest the court ruling.
The Czechs are able to sell their beer under the full Budweiser Budvar label in Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Switzerland. In Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden, the brew is sold as Budejovicky Budvar.
Last year the Czechs received a major setback in Italy where their beer had been sold as Budweiser Budvar for some time. A-B went to court, won its case, and as a result, the Czechs can no longer use any trademarks that refer to Budejovicky or Budvar. The beer is now sold in Italy as “Czechvar,” and Budvar admits it has lost sales. Czechvar is the name used in the United States, where sales resumed in 2001 with considerable success.
The Czech Republic has been invited to join the European Union, the giant trading bloc of western Europe that is now moving east. Budvar has welcomed an agreement that will protect such titles as Budejovicke pivo (Budejovice beer) in 25 European countries. A-B hit back with a statement saying the agreement did not infringe its own rights in Europe. It would take a clever (and rich) lawyer to work that one out.
Meanwhile, British beer drinkers are bemused by Anheuser-Busch’s new TV campaign for Bud that focuses on the freshness of the beer. A typical ad attempts to impress viewers with the fact that a particular batch of Bud started to be brewed on January 3. But if the ad runs on TV on January 13, this means that the entire brewing and packaging process lasts just 10 days.
It may be beer, but is it lager?
Roger Protz is a respected beer authority and author of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, as well as many other books on good beer, including The Ale Trail and the Real Ale Almanac.