Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

Czech Beer and Protected Names


Here’s an interesting bit from the Czech news wires: an article at 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.”


Vienna and Vienna Lager


Pivovar Platan


  1. My question is, is it really worth it?
    Many Czech beers aren’t 100% malt (i believe that in most cases is not because brewers want cut corners), and some others have E300 added. I know it is vitamin C, but it is still a chemical additive that I wish they didn’t use.
    Internally, what criteria should be used to give the “DOC” label to local brewers?

  2. Ah, but that’s the thing, Max. The proposed requirements don’t specify 100% malt and Saaz hops — that’s just my wish. However, they are very close: “At least 80 % of the total malt grist is made up of malt produced from approved varieties.” I suppose that means up to 20% can be made up of unapproved varieties.

    You can check out the complete requirements here:

    As I said, labels can only do so much. I simply think it’s more important that people actually taste what they’re drinking.

  3. My mistake here!! (and a beginner’s one at that). When reading malt I thought barley. Silly me.
    I’ve got nothing against this initiative, but it seems a bit half hearted. They should require 100% of approved ingredients in the recipes, no less than that. I am up for allowing more ingredients to make the list (e.g. unmalted barley), but to make it strict.
    But as you say, it all comes down to the consumer, and they are easily hypnotised by marketing. There will always people who will still think that Gambrinus and Staropramen are what České Pivo should be about. (Not to mention those who think Stella is a premium quality beer).

  4. How about the plethora beers labeled “Belgian-style” ales, or Abbey as opposed to Trappist? Personally, I think authenticity is important, but would hope that the re-labeling wouldn’t cause the average beer drinker to suddenly look down upon a beer that’s actually pretty good, but has a “-style” added onto it. Strong point you made there in those last two sentences.

  5. honza

    Well Evan, guess what. Our micro brewery Kocour, planning to have a traditional czech lager, decoction, czech hops and malt…but we can not use the term czech beer on the label? Why? Becasuse we are just outside the geographical “border” lined by the Svaz here. Varnsdorf is just too far to a real border with Germany…:)

  6. That’s nuts.

    I noticed the geographic limitations in the EU documentation. One would think that they would include all breweries within the borders of the Czech Republic. In that case, one would be wrong.

    Something tells me Pivovar Kocour Varnsdorf is going to do quite well regardless.

  7. I remember being told, about ten years ago, by the then-owner of the Meteor brewery in Alsace (she was in Philadelphia launching her beer, which unfortunately went nowhere) that Meteor had applied for — and received — permission from Pilsner Urquell to use “pilsner” on their golden lager. No way of knowing whether it was true at the time, and I never followed up on it. Drank a lot of the beer, though, and enjoyed it. They had a pretty good wit, too.

  8. Interesting, Lew. I wonder if anyone else has ever asked Pilsner Urquell for permission. In this country at least, it’s not an issue.

    I like Alsace, but I’m more familiar with Alsatian wines (and flammekueche) than beers. Now I’ll have to go and find out what I’m missing.

  9. honza

    Well, may be this what we should do at our Kocour – ask Pilsnerr Urquell for permision to brew “bohemian pilsner” beer, when we can not have “ceske pivo”:))). Thanx

  10. richiecdisc

    Appellation is a fancy name for control and the big benefit is for those trying to gain it. Anyone should be able to taste the difference between Victory’s Pima Pils and Budweiser “pilsner” and I really doubt that Bud drinkers would even notice if Anheuser Bush removed the name from their label. I think the makers of the original Pilsener should concern themselves with returning to their traditional methods before trying to create an appellation for something that does not even exist as it once did. What ever happened to open fermentation and lagering in wooden vessels? If they are going to gain complete ownership of the name I want the exact product that was brewed when that glorious name came into use.

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