Beer is a big deal in the Czech Republic. The original Budweiser and the first pilsner were both brewed in the western part of the country, and they’re still brewed there today. It’s no surprise that the Czech Republic routinely ranks at the top of the list of countries whose citizens consume the most beer per capita. In Prague, you can even bathe in beer if you’re so inclined. But hop-sauna kitsch aside, the Czechs embrace a proud tradition of making and enjoying their beer.
I was traveling south from Prague when I first learned about the Budweiser brouhaha. My destination was the quaint medieval town of Cesky Krumlov. Train service in that part of the country is pokey, so I took a shuttle through the city of Ceske Budejovice, sometimes known by its German name “Budweis.” The shuttle driver explained that Ceske Budejovice is home to Budweiser Budvar beer, which is a transparent, golden lager.
He emphasized that the Czech Budweiser Budvar is in no way similar to the Budweiser brewed by Anheuser-Busch, which he described as “watery American beer.” I’m no beer expert, but I didn’t disagree. Compared to most European beers I’ve tasted, plain old American beer does sometimes seem a little on the watery side. So I kept my mouth shut and let the driver have his say.
When we arrived in Cesky Krumlov, I set out to explore the Old Town. The historic walled city was built on a horseshoe bend of the Vltava River, and its narrow lanes still wind tightly toward the town square.
The tower of the Cesky Krumlov Castle sits perched on a steep cliff-side, easily visible from most lanes below.
At dinner in a little side-street tavern, I ordered the regional Budweiser Budvar, and the tavern owner gave me his take on the ongoing dispute over the term “Budweiser.” In general, he said, the nearby Czech brewery has the right to market its lager under the Budweiser name in Europe. In the United States, however, Anheuser-Busch has the exclusive rights to the name. If you want the Anheuser-Busch variety in Europe, you would simply order a “Bud.” (I never tested this theory, because the only thing more touristy in Europe than ordering iced tea would be ordering a Bud.)
Like the shuttle driver, the tavern owner was quick to dispel any notion of similarities between Czech Budweiser Budvar and American Bud. He explained in great detail that his beloved Budweiser has a higher foaminess and a lighter flavor than the copycat American brew. With great flourish, he poured a Budweiser Budvar for me and wouldn’t go away until I took my first sip.
May the beer gods forgive me, I thought it tasted kind of like an American Bud.
The next day, I walked high into the historic city center, browsing shops and snapping photographs of the quiet Old Town and the lush valley beyond.
I stopped for lunch near the Cesky Krumlov Castle, and the young waitress offered me a Czech beer. I had liked the Budweiser Budvar, so I eagerly accepted. But she didn’t deliver a Budweiser Budvar. Instead, she brought me a Pilsner Urquell.
Pilsner Urquell is the other well-known, regional Czech beer. It’s a blonde lager that has been brewed in the nearby city of Pilsen since the mid-19th century. Pilsner Urquell was so successful that it became the inspiration for most light-colored lagers around the world, many of which are considered “pilsner” type beers.
Some of my lunch companions hashed out the relative merits of Budweiser Budvar versus Pilsner Urquell. The more they drank, the more they debated. Then they waxed indignantly about that feeble lager imposter, American Bud.
I enjoyed their conversation, and I really enjoyed the Pilsner Urquell. But if you cornered me and made me tell you the truth, I would say that it reminded me just a little bit of American Bud.
Later that evening, I saw my lunch companions again on the way to a row of riverside restaurants.
Befuddled with malt, they were still arguing about beer.
It was my last night in Cesky Krumlov, and I wanted to enjoy it without quarrelsome beer babble. So I declined to join them for dinner, and instead found my way to a quiet patio cafe by the river.
For dinner, I chose rich Czech specialties of dumplings and roast meats. And when the waiter asked what I’d like to drink with my meal, I ordered Czech wine.