The always-great Good Beer Blog has an interesting post from Alan on brewing under license and a recent article about the Pilsner Urquell which is brewed in Russia. Unlike Pilsner Urquell, Russian journalism doesn’t have such a great reputation, and this article seems more than a bit sensationalistic, starting out with the premise that Russian beer drinkers are being cheated (it’s right there in the headline, folks).
Two things caught my eye: the article says that the Russian version doesn’t taste as good as the original, claiming that it uses Russian water and hops. Second, the article quoted a company spokesman as saying that Russia is the only brewer of Pilsner Urquell outside of the Czech Republic.
That definitely seemed strange, as everyone knows that Pilsner Urquell started brewing under contract in Poland several years ago. So I picked up the phone and called Pilsner Urquell’s press spokesman Jiří Mareček, who said that yes, Pilsner Urquell is brewed under contract by a Czech brewmaster in Poland (at a dedicated brewery in Tychy) and in Russia (at Kaluga, south of Moscow), but that the Polish and Russian versions are only sold in those countries and not exported elsewhere. The Pilsner Urquell in this country and everywhere else in the world is from the original brewery in Plzeň, aka Pilsen. He added that the Czech brewmasters export both hops and barley to the breweries in Russia and Poland, and clarified via email that the licensed Pilsner Urquell in Russia uses 100% Czech Saaz hops, just like the brew back home, contrary to what was reported in the article.
Points of contention: the licensed brew is made with Russian water, so if you’re buying a can of Pilsner Urquell for the famously soft water of Plzeň, you’re out of luck. And while the original says “Brewed in Plzeň” on the front, the Russian and Polish versions say “Born in Plzeň,” which might lead to confusion.
Personally, I can see both sides of this issue. I’m keenly interested in beer as a local beverage, with local roots, and I have no interest myself in drinking any Pilsner Urquell that doesn’t come from Plzeň. However, the Russians might not be making out so badly: a story quietly making its way around Czech beer circles has it that the Russian Pilsner Urquell was the winner of the brewmasters’ in-house quality-control tasting, besting the Polish version as well as the Czech original.
If the Russian Pilsner Urquell actually tastes bad, I can understand why people would be disappointed — but no one is forcing them to ever buy that beer again.
Of course, if the beer is good, does anyone really care where it’s made?
And on a macroeconomic level, isn’t a local product — even one with a foreign name — a lot more desirable than an import?
Not to get too far out on my contrarian limb here, but there’s also an environmental aspect that no one ever seems to mention: the vast amounts of energy that it takes to ship beer all over creation. One would imagine that Greenpeace and Al Gore would sign off on the Russian-brewed Pilsner Urquell, at least for local, Russian beer drinkers.
I’m not saying I’m crazy for licensed beer. I always found it strangely sad that at one time much of the Asahi in Europe was actually brewed at Prague’s Braník brewery, despite the fact that it presented itself as a Japanese beer. And after InBev closed the Braník brewery last year, nothing stopped them from brewing Braník across the river at the Staropramen brewery, but still calling it Braník.
But what if the Russian-brewed Pilsner Urquell is actually the best golden lager in Russia? Would brewing under license really be so bad?
Here’s a solution for everyone, no matter where you are: buy the best locally produced beer that you can, no matter what it is. And if it’s not good enough or not what you want, let the breweries know what you prefer and buy that.
Vote with your wallets. And vote every day.