After 49 years, the wait is almost over for Joseph Sulz of South St. Louis: Budvar is coming. Make that Czechvar. But not Budweiser. That beer's already here, brewed down on Pestalozzi Street.
The Czech beer -- what some folks call the original Budweiser -- has made it all the way from Bohemia to Granite City, Ill., but it hasn't crossed the Mississippi into St. Louis. By the end of this year, it should, unless a giant transnational corporation chooses to block its entry. But of course that won't happen. Why would anyone suspect the world's largest brewer of trying to squelch competition? Ridiculous.
Sulz knows a bit about the Hundred Years' War between Anheuser-Busch and the Budejovicky Budvar brewery in Ceske Budejovice, a town south of Prague in the Czech Republic. The German name for the town was Budweis, and it's where that local beer, Budweiser, got its name. Adolphus Busch took the same name for his brewery's flagship product back in 1876, perhaps borrowing on the Czech town's beer-brewing fame. Of course, many Czech towns are famous for their beers: For example, Pilzn was the birthplace of Pilsner Urqell, a beer that inspired a whole category of beers, the pilsners. In 1911, the settlement of a lawsuit between the Czechs and A-B gave Budvar the rights to the Budweiser name in Europe and forced A-B to stop calling its beer "the original."
When the Soviet bloc collapsed, A-B sought to buy an interest in the Czech brewery in the hopes of ending the name game. In the early '90s, Sulz was hired by D'Arcy, McManus & Masius, A-B's ad agency at the time, to serve as an interpreter for the public-relations crew sent to find out how Ceske Budejovice residents felt about the prospect of A-B's buying all or part of the Budvar brewery. They didn't like the idea.
"The majority said they would ruin it," Sulz recalls. "They said [A-B] would start brewing American beer, which is tasteless. They would ruin it. They said, no, they did not want to sell it to them."
The Iron Curtain was gone, but there were limits to what capitalism could buy.
"The people of that city, probably all the people of the Czech Republic, are very proud of their brewery. It's almost like a religion," Sulz says. "They don't want it to be ruined by the American influence."
As in most religions, the Czechs tithe. They consume more beer than any other nation, a woozy 42.2 gallons per person per year. So it's not surprising that A-B's overtures failed. The Pestalozzi propaganda machine donated $50,000 to the local university and built a "cultural center" for a rumored $1 million, all for naught. "They tried all kinds of things to prepare the ground for them to enter into the brewery, but it didn't work," Sulz says. "They tried to buy public opinion."
Maybe that would have been money well spent; A-B now is mud-wrestling in European courts with the makers of Budvar over who owns the rights to the Budweiser name -- or, for that matter, even the nickname "Bud." About 40 legal challenges are in play throughout the continent. Budvar uses "Budweiser" through much of Europe but couldn't even use "Budvar" for its entry into the U.S. market. "Czechvar" is the label name used on this side of the Atlantic, starting in April.
U.S. distributors must sign an agreement containing strict instructions not to mention the "B" word -- Budweiser -- when marketing Czechvar. The point-of-sale catchphrase is "Only the name has been changed to protect the beer." Distributors have had to sign papers saying they won't peddle this beer as the real deal, the first Budweiser. Steve King of Peoria, Ill.-based Specialty Beers walks a tightrope when negotiating with retailers and bar owners.
"Some of my bars and liquor stores have been using the line 'It's what you think it is.' It's kind of unofficial," says King. "You can't say Budweiser. You can't say this is the original Budweiser. We can tell them, 'This comes from a town named Budejovice, the Budejovice brewery. Bood-a-vice.' You have to emphasize the 'Bood.' Then the retailer will go, 'Oh, like Bud?' I'll say, 'Yeah, like Bud, but it's called Bood."
The last thing any distributor wants is an attack by A-B legal eagles. "If we ever get in a stink with it, then Budweiser is going to raise holy hell, saying we're out there selling this as the original Budweiser. They think their beer is the original Budweiser," King says.
Rob Neuner, president of Czech Beer Importers of Darien, Conn., is in charge of Czechvar distribution stateside. He says, "This is the best beer in the world, but we can't call it what it's supposed to be called because of legal problems. But we want people to know this is the same product that has won all the awards."
Czechvar arrived in Illinois in May. The next states that will receive shipments of Czechvar are Wisconsin and Michigan. Local beer guzzlers will see it on St. Louis shelves in November, at the earliest -- or later, if a distributor isn't found.
Sulz, 72, says not having easy access to a cold Budvar is "unfortunate." He hasn't made it over to Corral Liquors in Granite City, which has gone through 200 cases of Czechvar since May.
"So we have to suffer. I miss it very much," says, Sulz, who came to the States in 1952. "Tell me when it comes. I'll go buy it."