It was in the news last week.
Well, Budweiser was.
Specifically we heard that Budweiser is to be officially rebranded as ‘America’ until the election in November. Which was absolutely fantastic news that sent waves of delighted mockery around the globe as we all watch you slowly turn Team America into a documentary.
I jest, of course. Most of the world had the same reaction as most of America: a rueful shaking of the head at another sign of a world gone mad. However, there were some people who did welcome the name change, who drew some actual joy from it, and who were disappointed when they found it was to be only a temporary thing. One of those people was me.
Before I explain why, it should be noted that laughing at Americans for ‘Budweiser’ being rebranded as ‘America’ makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. We know it wasn’t you who did it. It was the folk who own Budweiser — namely the colossal, Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate, Anheuser-Busch InBev (or ‘AB InBev’ as it’s commonly known. Because every megacapitalist Death Star needs a relatively cuddly nickname.)
AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer is, to put it lightly, a bit of a beast. Producing a mind-splitting 352.9 million hectolitres per year, and responsible for 18.1% of the world’s beer production, AB InBev owns Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois, Beck’s, Hoegaarden, Leffe, and — well, a lot more:
Yes, like an insatiable reptilian monstrosity Ab InBev ceaselessly stalks the Earth, gobbling up smaller, independent breweries wherever it finds them, forever secreting anxious, desperate sweat from its pores in fear that one of its main competitors might catch up with it.
It shouldn’t really worry, as the four closest titans behind it — titans though they are — are dwarfed quite comprehensively by its corpulent shadow.
The second-largest brewer in the world, UK-based SABMiller, pales in comparison, producing as it does ‘only’ 190 million hectolitres per year and being responsible for ‘just’ 9.7% of the world’s beer production. SABMiller (no cutesy nickname) houses Pilsner Urquell, Foster’s, Miller Genuine Draft, Grolsch, Peroni Nastro Azzurro, Tyskie, and a whole slew of others under its gigantic skirts.
Then, after SABMiller, there’s a steady, gradual drop-off in the rest of the top five:
In third place is Denmark-based Heineken International (171.7 million hectolitres per year, 8.8% of the world’s beer production), which has Amstel, Cruzcampo, Birra Moretti, Murphy’s, Ochoa, Sol Premium, Star, Starobrno, Tiger Beer, Zagorka and more nestled under its jowls.
In fourth place is Carlsberg Group, also Denmark-based (120.4 million hectolitres per year, 6.2% of the world’s beer production), which gets to decide when brands like Tuborg, Somersby Ciders, 1664, Kronenbourg, Holsten, and about five hundred more brands get to go out and play.
And fifth place is taken up by China’s very own China Resource Snow Breweries Ltd., or ‘CR Snow’ for short. Technically a joint venture between China Resources Enterprise and the aforementioned SABMiller, CR Snow is the largest brewer in China and it produces 106.2 million hectolitres per year — 5.4% of the world’s beer production. Interestingly, SABMiller owns 49% of CR Snow, so its tentacles are spread even further than it initially seemed.
Fucking hell, I tell ya, documenting the globe-spanning nature of capitalist consolidation is exhausting.
It turns out that the bulge-eyed river demon that is AB InBev is currently in the process of taking over the drooling hog that is its nearest competitor, SABMiller — a deal which, if completed, would give it control of roughly half of the entire industry’s profits, and about a third of all beer sold worldwide.
Which, holy shit, that’s a hell of a controlling stake.
I mean, we know monopolies are a thing — what with the number of companies controlling the vast bulk of the US media dropping from fifty in 1983 to just six today — but still. Goddammit, beer, can’t you at least stand pure and untouched?
If it seems like there is an extra, personal edge to my grief, then I freely hold my hands up and admit: there is. It comes from an ancestral and genetic place, one I cannot fight, and it is related to Budweiser’s previously mentioned temporary rebrand. For you see, although I live in London, England, I was born in Prague and am, in fact, otherwise completely Czech. And the Czechs — well, there’s one thing we do comprehensively and quantitatively better than anyone else.
We drink beer.
We also make it. We do it really well too, if I say so myself. Pilsner Urquell (the world’s first pilsner), Kozel, Gambrinus, Radegast, Staropramen, Krušovice, Starobrno, Bernard, Svijany, and Budvar are all, to a varying degree, delicious, and — as elitist as this is gonna sound — if you haven’t drunk them in the Czech Republic, then you haven’t drunk them. I drink a Czech beer wherever I can find it, but drinking one outside of the motherland is an experience akin to hearing someone else describe the Sistine Chapel for you instead of standing underneath it and gazing up at it yourself.
Now here’s where we circle back to Budweiser — or, ‘America’, for now — and to a centuries-old legal dispute that makes David VS. Goliath look like an evenly matched playground scrap.
You might’ve noticed a familiar-looking name in that list of Czech beers up there: Budvar. Its actual, original name, is Budweiser.
Let’s let Wikipedia tell the origin bit of the story here (with a little bit of emphasis from me):
Beer brewing in the city of České Budějovice (German: Böhmisch Budweis), which was then in the Kingdom of Bohemia and is now in the Czech Republic, dates back to the 13th century, when the city was granted brewing rights during the reign of Ottokar II of Bohemia. During the time when both Czech and German were official languages in the kingdom, two breweries were founded in the city. Both breweries made beer which they called “Budweiser”, similar to how brewers in the city of Pilsen made a beer generically called Pilsner. In 1876, the American brewer Anheuser-Busch began making a beer which they also called “Budweiser”, motivated in part by a desire to “brew a beer similar in quality, color, flavor and taste to the beer then made at Budweis”, according to Adolphus Busch.
In other words, in the blue corner, we have the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, weighing in at 150,000 employees and 352.9 million hectolitres per year; and in the red corner we have state-owned Budweiser Budvar Brewery, weighing in at 600 employees and 1.4 million hectoliters per year.
This comically lopsided match-up has resulted in a seemingly endless series of running legal battles, in which — somehow — the original Budweiser has managed to retain control of the name in certain parts of the world. More specifically, thanks to a legal thingamabob called ‘protected designation of origin’, it is the European Union which allows only the small Czech rebel alliance beer to be sold under the ‘Budweiser’ name. American Budweiser must go by the label ‘Bud’. That is apart from the United Kingdom and Ireland, who just have to be different, and where courts ruled that neither company had exclusive rights to the name, and thus both beers are currently sold under the ‘Budweiser’ name. On the other hand, in places like the United States, Canada, Brazil, and a few others, it is the Czech Budweiser that must be marketed under another name — in this case, ‘Czechvar.’
The situation is further muddied by the fact that almost every decision or ruling made, in either side’s favour, is questioned, appealed, or otherwise contested. Historical and geopolitical happenings in 20th century Europe (dunno if you remember, but things went a bit crazy then) also didn’t help in keeping matters clear, as the Czech Republic was ridden roughshod over by Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. respectively for most of those decades; which tended to shunt the brewery issue a bit further down the old National Priorities List (to somewhere just below ‘resistance and ‘survival’).
So it is, then, that today we find ourselves in a situation where a tiny, state-owned brewery, nestled in a small country in the centre of Europe, continues to resist all attempts at privatisation, as well as showing no signs of tiring in its staring contest with the world’s largest — and still growing — mega-brewery.
It’s an odd and irrational thing indeed, nationalist pride. More often than not I would scoff at myself here. But I guess when it comes to beer, there are some things more important than reason. At least if you’re Czech.
So I’ve got a deal for you, AB InBev: swallow up SAB Miller if you like. I’ll allow it. But in return, make that Budweiser name change permanent. You take ‘America’, we’ll keep ‘Budweiser.’