Here’s an interesting bit from the Czech news wires: an article at actualne.cz notes that the term “Czech beer” is moving closer to protected name status. Much like the AOCs and DOCs of the wine world, the special status will mean that brewers in the EU can only use the term “české pivo” if the beer is, in fact, brewed in the Czech Republic, as well as if it meets certain requirements of ingredients and quality.
If the application is successful, “české pivo” will join 10 other Czech geographically protected names in the EU, including “žatecký chmel” (“Saaz hops”). The big one that’s missing outside the country itself (barring “Budweiser,” of course), is “Pilsner,” used all over the world for widely different beers of varying ingredients and varying quality, even though it originally meant a certain style of beer from a certain place: a clear golden lager from the west Bohemian town of Plzeň, known as Pilsen in German. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard people say it’s too bad the Czechs didn’t retain control over the name.
Ah, but they tried.
According to an article in the New York Times of December 25, 1910, “United States Circuit Court Judge Hough is considering an application by the Brewers’ Association of Pilsen, Bohemia, for an injunction restraining an importer from using the word ‘Pilsner’ to describe the Bohemian beer brewed outside that municipality.” The upshot: a distributor in New York was selling beer from the Bohemian town of Aussig (in Czech, Ústí nad Labem, presumably today’s Zlatopramen brewery) under the name “Pilsner.”
“The contention of the Pilsen Brewers’ Association is that no genuine Pilsner beer can be brewed outside of Pilsen,” the article continues, noting that US Treasury Department rulings on sardines (from Sardinia) and Malaga grapes gave their case legal precedents. The article, however, undermines their argument by itself referring to Pilsner beer as a style, not a specific product from a specific place. “It is contended that Pilsner has become by usage in the beer trade simply a descriptive title applying to beer brewed in a certain manner,” it says, noting that a local brewer “makes a specialty of brewing Pilsner beer in Brooklyn,” selling it as “Pilsner” in conjunction with the name of his brewery.
I mentioned this in an email to Garrett Oliver, author of The Brewmaster’s Table and brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, who noted that German brewers use the name “Pils” in order to avoid just this conflict. (And when “Pilsner” is used as the name of a German beer, it appears with an adjectival place name so it’s clear precisely where the beer is from, as in the case of Radeberger Pilsner, brewed in the Saxon town of Radeberg, just outside Dresden.)
It’s pretty clear how the US ruling from 1910 worked out, as many American beers — and indeed, beers all over the world — now call themselves “Pilsner.” Here, of course, I use the terms “Pilsner-style beer” or “Czech golden lager” when referring to brews that are not Pilsner Urquell. That is because in the Czech Republic, there is only one Pilsner, and everything else that is similar is pivo plzeňského typu, or “beer of the Pilsner type.”
In the big picture, this story is just a small historical footnote, but it does provide an interesting context to the story of Budvar’s fight with Anheuser-Busch today, as well as Pilsner Urquell’s decision to brew new beers with the same name in Russia and Poland.
Just imagine, for example, if Anheuser-Busch were somehow forced to rename their product “Budweiser-style beer.” Or imagine if every brewery in Germany produced a golden lager called “Bud,” alternately labeled something like “Radeberger Budweiser.”
It’s a weird image, I admit. As for “Czech beer,” it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to limit its use to beers that are in fact Czech, produced from 100% barley malt and Saaz hops. But labels can only do so much. If consumers don’t pay attention to how beers actually taste — buying, for example, low-quality brews ostensibly produced from high-quality ingredients — the term “Czech beer” could end up being a distinction without much difference. In many countries, that’s exactly what happened to “Pilsner.”