The press conference following the European Beer Consumers Union’s 35th meeting in Prague on 14 May was an unmitigated success. First the attendance was unexpected, with a dozen media represented, and the ensuing coverage was pretty good. The only slightly worrying bit is that the media didn’t say much about EBCU or the meeting itself, but focussed on a few words I said about EBCU being worried about the Czech State’s plans to sell part of the shares of Budvar Brewery.
Budvar, short for Budejovicky Pivovar, or, as it was is, I’m sure you all know already, home of the original Czech Budweiser. The brewery has been tangled in a worldwide legal guerrilla with Anheuser-Busch for the rights to the Budweiser brand for over a century now. The last 18 years have been especially intense, and the struggle is far from over.
But then, as a beer lover, away from the legal business, what I mostly care a bout is what I get in my glass. And I’ve always preferred the balanced, floral, hoppy Czech Budweiser over its dry, thin, watery American namesake.
Part of the reason why Budvar still churns out great beer is because it’s still in the hands of the Czech state. Czech breweries such as Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen, which ended up in the hands of multinationals after the end of communist rule, have seen a dramatic drop in character in their beers, because corners have been cut all over the brewing process, in the name of short-term return on investment and shareholder value.
On the other hand, a state asset such as Budvar is managed with an eye on long-term development, under much less a pressure on immediate profit. This means, in practice, its aims are to maintain a strong local following, which means not to endanger the brand’s image by dumbing down the beer. And it does show. Budvar’s beers tend to stand out of the crowd, as are the beers produced by smaller brewer Primàtor, which is also state-owned.
Selling off Budvar, be it in whole or gradually, would certainly see Anheuser-Busch try and buy a majority stake in the brewery, to settle its trademark dispute once and for all. Peace at last, and a disaster if you care about what’s in your glass, should Budvar ever head in the same bland direction as Staropramen and Pilsner Urquell.
But surely, this business of state-owned breweries must be a relic of communist times, and per se an evil that must be stamped out ? Well, not necessarily. In Germany, there’s at least two breweries owned by the state in parts of the country that have never, ever been subjected to communist rule. The most notorious of the two is certainly Weihenstephan, part of the Munich Technical University, and therefore in public hands. Its beers are widely considered prototypical Bavarian beers, and not just because most local brewers are trained there. Yup, got me right, those beers are superb, not only the Hefeweizens, but also their range of Lagers : Helles, Dunkles, Doppelbock, are of invariably high quality, tasty, pleasant, balanced… superb.
The other one is tucked away in the Black Forest, close to the Swiss border, Rothaus, or rather Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus, to give it its full name, has been in public hands since 1806, when the Grand Duke of Baden confiscated the catholic church’s assets to the profit of the Grand Duchy. So any Marxist influence can definitely be ruled out in this case. Rothaus still is in public hands, being owned by the Land (province) of Baden-Würtemberg and its finance ministry. Many voices have already demanded the privatisation of Rothaus, but it’s always been stopped because the locals held on to their beer. Indeed, where Rothaus Märzen Export and Hefeweizen are fine Beers, their Pilsner, especially in its draught, unpasteurised form, is arguably one of the best pilsners in Germany : flowery, almost honeyish, oozing of hops, with a crisp bitter finish… and damn cheap at that!
Whenever voices are heard advocating state-owned breweries to be sold, silly arguments such as the immorality of the state selling evil alcohol are lurking in the background. And that’s a problem. Rothaus, Weihenstephan, Primàtor and Budvar are part of the heritage of their local communities, they’re a living, tasty, damn enjoyable slice of history and culture. Just like castles or nature reserves, they have to be kept safe from greed, so that local drinkers can continue enjoying great local beer at affordable prices, not to mention passing beer-hunters who can then reset their much-abused taste buds within seconds.
If you happen to be that passing beer-hunter, do your bit, seek out those beers. If you’re serious about your beer, it’s your heritage too !