Depending on where you’re reading this, you may not know that there are two different Budweisers. If you’re in the U.S., you’ll be imagining the watery-tasting American Budweiser, with its dark brown bottle, silver and red label and blue sans-serif name plastered across the front. If you’re in most of Europe, however, you’ll probably be picturing a light green bottle, wrapped in a cream label, with a red sans-serif name over it that reads, Budweiser Budvar. And, if you’re thinking of the latter, you’ll likely be hankering after its creamy, malty, delicious taste.
Wherever you are, you’ll likely know of each beer, but not by their original names — in most of Europe, American Budweiser goes by the name Bud, and in North America, Budweiser Budvar goes by the name Czechvar. In the U.K., where I am, they’re both called Budweiser. And, as you may have guessed, there’s a big fight raging about it all, which has been going on for over 100 years.
It all started in the 13th century, when the King of Bohemia (now known as the Czech Republic) granted the city of České Budějovice — which translates to Budweis in German — the rights to brew beer. It called its brewery Budweiser Bier, meaning simply “beer from Budweis.” In 1795, another brewery was set up by the city’s German-speaking citizens, this time called Budweiser Bürgerbräu — this brewery started shipping its beer to the U.S. in 1875.
A year later, a man named Adolphus Busch — the co-founder of American Budweiser’s owner, Anheuser-Busch (AB) — visited Bohemia, and found himself enthralled by the beer and its brewing process. So, he took the name and the process, and started brewing his own beer in the U.S., called, simply, Budweiser. Busch even admitted his intent to copy the original beer in a New York district court in 1896 (after AB trademarked Budweiser and was then legally challenged by the Bohemia brewers). “The idea was simply to brew a beer similar in quality, color, flavor and taste to the beer then made at Budweis,” he testified in court.
Based on this, it’s not hard to see who should own the name Budweiser — that being the Czech brewery who created it, not the American brewery who stole it. Or, as California-born, Prague-based journalist and author of Why Beer Matters, Evan Rail, puts it: “If there was a magazine called The New Yorker that was published in Beijing, and another magazine called The New Yorker that was published in New York, it would be pretty obvious which one deserved the name. This is the same issue. Only one of those two breweries is located in the city of Budweis.”
But if it’s as clear-cut as that, how is there even a dispute over who deserves the name? Well, because AB successfully registered Budweiser as a trademark first, meaning the Bohemians were forced to concede the name in all territory north of Panama. In 1939, the two breweries made an agreement that AB could only market its beer as Budweiser in North America, while the breweries from Bohemia had the rights to the name in Europe.
Since then, however, the breweries have continued to fight, mostly because AB (now known as AB InBev) keeps pushing for the E.U. trademark of Budweiser — a move that the Czech company says could potentially eradicate its brand. To give you an insight into the companies’ size differences: Budweiser Budvar — which remains state-owned, even since the fall of communism — has just 653 employees (as of 2015), while AB InBev has nearly 200,000 (as of 2019). According to USA Today, as of 2013, the dispute has encompassed 61 lawsuits in 11 countries. In 2014, AB even acquired Samson, the parent company of Budweiser Bürgerbräu (remember, the second brewer from Bohemia, which, to this day, still brews in Budweis), in an attempt to bolster its claim over the Budweiser name.
AB InBev refused to comment for this piece, and although Budweiser Budvar agreed to speak, they never sent through a response. But speaking to TIME in 2014, the Czech brewer said that the dispute was simply about “territory.” Expanding on this in a 2019 interview with Good Beer Hunting, Budvar CEO Petr Dvořák said the protection and survival of the Czech Budweiser is about more than just the brewery itself. “It’s a huge win for the country when someone walks into a bar in New York and asks, ‘What kind of Czech lager do you have?’ We are a brewery with 10 million shareholders. We are owned by the nation. We can help promote Czech beer culture and help promote the Czech nation.”
Beer from the Czech Republic is globally respected and admired, earning it the informal title of “Best Beer in the World” (though Germany and Belgium might dispute this). American beer, on the other hand, is widely considered, as The Atlantic previously put it, “defined by its dullness.” There are, apparently, a handful of reasons for this. First, that the ingredients for light beers (corn, wheat and molasses) were cheaper than those to make dark beers (malted barley). Workers also favored light beers because they wanted to drink beer at lunch, but couldn’t be drunk on the job — and, as Ranjit Dighe, a professor of economics, told The Atlantic: “The milder the taste, the milder the beer, would be a natural assumption.”
Joe, a New York-based bartender, says American Budweiser now has an “old man beer” vibe — “something you might find in a country dive, a bowling alley or a pizzeria, but seldom elsewhere,” he says. “I’ve only worked at one bar that stocked it, and we didn’t sell much of it.” But, Joe adds, Bud Light — American Budweiser’s weaker, lighter sibling — is “insanely and ubiquitously popular.” “I’ve served thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of bottles of it, to all demographics,” he explains, seemingly confirming Americans’ love of a bland beer. Although Joe has heard of the Czech Budweiser, he says patrons often tell him about it, as “one of those funny stories that gets told at the bar once in a while.”
Without input from either beer brand, there was really only one avenue left to settle the score: me. Figuring I could pit the two against each other in a taste-off, I went to the store and bought both types of Budweiser for a little home experiment. I have a memory of the Budweiser Budvar being particularly nice — my boyfriend recalls his college friends buying it “as a treat” — but it wasn’t as good as I remember. It’s a much darker beer than the American version, and it does have a more malty taste and deeper flavor, but it still tasted kind of weak (it also wasn’t very fizzy). In terms of ABV, it’s got five percent compared to American Budweiser’s 4.5, but that didn’t help much — it had almost no body, and left much to be desired.
Meanwhile, the American Budweiser, which was piss-colored, barely tasted like beer. It did have a bread-y aftertaste, which I liked, but finishing the sip shouldn’t be peak enjoyment. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever drink Bud Light, when American Budweiser tastes basically like unflavored air bubbles.
To sum up, neither are particularly special — almost not worth fighting over — but the Budweiser Budvar takes it, partly because it’s tastier, and partly because it didn’t steal its name and brewing process from another company, trademark it and then attempt to eradicate the original brewer.
There hasn’t been much press about the dispute since 2014, but there’s still one concern for Budweiser Budvar: the fact that it’s state-owned. As TIME pointed out, “privatization almost always requires that governments sell to the highest bidder.” And if this scenario reared its ugly head, there’s no doubt that AB InBev would cough up any amount of money needed to absorb its Czech cousin like a capitalist amoeba. Rail doesn’t think this will happen, though. “Budweiser Budvar will remain state-owned forever,” he says. “It’s profitable; it returns money to state coffers; it tastes great. There’s a lot to like about it.”
Look, it tastes okay, and American Budweiser tastes… not as okay. But which would you rather drink, and see win the Budweiser name? The self-described “King of Beers,” or the actual beer of kings?
That’s what I thought — it’s that Bud for you.