Wednesday, June 28, 2006

From the 1997 archive: "Anheuser-Busch, Gone Home."

Introduction (2006)

As I continue to dig through the archives in search of material to assist Jay’s revamping of the NABC web site, fascinating time capsules keep floating to the surface.

My first visit to Ceske Budejovice came in 1989 during the Communist period, and eight years passed before a second stay in 1997, which is the one recounted here.

Most recently, I had the pleasure to return in September, 2004. Through all three visits, the hundred year war between Budvar and Anheuser-Busch has persisted, flaring periodically in courtrooms throughout the world. Budvar has long since sidestepped Anheuser-Busch’s restraint of trade by exporting to selected markets in America under the name Czechvar (available in Kentucky, but not Indiana).

The Masne Kramy beer hall has been closed for quite some time, supposedly awaiting renovation, but in spite of this loss of traditional ambience, dozens of pubs and restaurants serving Budvar have opened in the obviously prosperous city since the 1997 journey.

On the 2004 visit, my group gained entry to Samson – Ceske Budejovice’s “other” brewery, now known as Budejovicky Mestansky Pivovar, and in the process of bouncing back from heavy damage during the bad flooding of 2002. It now exports under the Budweiser Burgerbrau name, and markets itself as the city’s oldest operating brewery.

Three Sticks never responded to my challenge, either.


From Bohemia’s Meadows and Groves.

Ceske Budejovice’s central square is just that: Square. It is a vast, perfectly symmetrical, open area surrounded on four sides by the beautiful Renaissance and Baroque arcaded buildings that are the city’s most memorable architectural feature. In the very center of the square, there is a fountain -- dormant in winter -- and a dramatic statue of Samson slaying a lion.

Any symbolism to come is purely intentional, but it won’t have to do with Ceske Budejovice’s other brewery, which is named after the Samson statue, and which itself hasn’t done any big game hunting lately.

The powder-blue facade of the recently renovated town hall is to the southwest of the statue. To the northeast is the Black Tower, a belfry and watchtower that was finished 200 years before America’s Declaration of Independence was written.

On the northwest corner of the square, a narrow street leads north, in the direction of Prague, which is a hundred miles away. On the street, where not so long ago dingy COMECON outlets peddled Bulgarian embroidery, East German cameras and Polish strawberry preserves behind dark, imposing, distant counters loosely monitored by dozing and easily offended sales clerks, there now are bright, new shops boasting fancy mirrors and track lighting, which offer current fashions in clothing, expensive jewelry, and the latest in Korean consumer electronics. These attest to the post-Communist awakening and provide stark, almost nostalgic counterpoint to this traveler’s memories of the ancien regime.

A block or so up this street lies the Masne Kramy, which must be counted as one of the top beer halls in all of Central Europe. For three centuries, the building housed Ceske Budejovice’s meat market, where the butchers operated their stalls behind the low, arched arcades on both sides of a long, central hall. Now the hall and the surrounding alcoves are filled with neat wooden tables covered by bright red and white cloths, dotted with coasters and centered with glass ashtrays, all bearing the logo of Budweiser Budvar (or Budejovicky Budvar), the city’s most famous brewery supplier of the Masne Kramy’s exquisite beer.

The beer hall boasts a bountiful dining menu of inexpensive, well-prepared Czech dishes -- pork in all its baked, fried and cured manifestations, tangy goulash soup, rich farm-raised carp, dense potato dumplings and sugar-laden desserts -- but only one beer is available: Budvar, the Beer of Kings, which is dispensed in half-liter mugs for the stupefyingly low price (yet still expensive by local standards) of about 55 cents, American. The lager is golden, creamy and superbly balanced. In the best tradition of like-minded establishments, barmen work constantly at filling and topping off mugs of beer, which are brought to the patron’s table by efficient waiters who continue to line them up until a signal to stop is given, cash is exhausted or unconsciousness sets in ... and sometimes not even then.

On the opposite side of the street, a couple of doors down, there is a lonely, unpopulated cafe front. It is scrubbed, modern and attractive, and it seems out of place, almost as much so as the banners that once were unfurled in streets like this one to announce the fraternal solidarity of the Czech and Soviet people, and were later removed and cut into strips for use as toilet paper.

There is a tidy glass case to the left of the door. It was meant to display the establishment’s offerings; instead, a handsome sign in the case informs passers by, in Czech and in English, that the cafe has closed as of the first of the year. This already dated announcement immediately produces more curiosity than sadness, primarily because the cafe seems so very alien to the environment around it. One notices the red, white and blue rectangle of a foreign flag, and further imagines a strange metallic Missouri arch staring out from the menu case, and these images are overtaken and pushed aside by the reflection in the glass of the vintage local stone arches lining the elderly Czech street.

The Masne Kramy is only a few doors down on the other side of the street, its venerable, confident facade gently mocking the gutted corpse of the fallen interloper. The questions are inevitable. Who was the invader, the intruder, the outsider who couldn’t cut the Bohemian mustard and had to shut down? What sort of creature was this that swaggered into town, boasting of its reputation, brandishing its wallet and peeling off large bills in a humorless parody of the way that the Russians paraded their tanks through the squares and handed out plastic Lenin pins and the charming prospect of a fun-filled holiday in Odessa if the Czechs remained nice little boys and girls and followed the Plan?

Hello, We Must Be Going.

In the end, the now-vacant retail floor space was far more than just a spiffy cafe where people could relax and read American newspapers, or attend English language lessons while drinking Folgers and idly dreaming of the Yellow Brick Road that leads from every Wal-Mart to the ice-cold Bud Light on draft at Appleby’s.

The defunct St. Louis Cultural Center wasn’t a cafe. It was meant to be a nice, big, fat, succulent carrot to be waved in the deprived, grubby faces of the citizens of Ceske Budejovice, those only recently roboticized socialist drones, and one meant to entice them, to inflate (and fellate) their expectations, and to purchase their acquiescence as Anheuser-Busch negotiated for a stake in the city’s famous brewery. It was the American imperialist’s Trojan Horse, its magnanimous surface glitter concealing the industrial technologists, the glassy-eyed bean counters, the soulless pitch men and the corporate strategists without whom A-B would be nothing more than a mere brewer of second-rate beer.

This oxymoronic cultural center in Ceske Budejovice was one of the most obvious incentives dangled by the Busches, who’ll never be accused of grasping concepts like subtlety and irony, but the ostensibly benevolent Anheuser-Busch steamroller didn’t spare the rod during the time when it coveted Budvar. There was always the unsavory prospect of

Anheuser-Busch choosing to lay siege to Budvar through endless, full-court litigation conducted by generations of lawyers bankrolled by the Busch billions. There was the announcement that A-B would drastically reduce the amount of Czech hops that it buys, and the company’s subsequent denials that this wicked blow to Czech hop exports amounted to blackmail, and the universal wonderment that ensued given the absence of any existing olfactory evidence of hops in A-B’s factory-brewed beers.

But in the end, no agreement was reached, and the American giant’s advances were spurned virtually on all fronts, and now the techno-brewing colossus is busy doing its own little bit for the ignoble cause of historical revisionism. It says that it all was a misunderstanding of sorts, and that it didn’t really ever want Budvar, and it doesn’t need to achieve an agreement on the 100-year-old copyright dispute that has bedeviled the philanthropic slumber of generations of degraded Busch imperial chieftains, and after all, Europeans love Budweiser from America even if it can’t be labeled that way in a number of European countries ... and, by the way, since we no longer have any business interests in the Czech Republic ... well, you know how it goes with purely business decisions ... not that we don’t still love you and are motivated by a shining altruism that transcends crass commercial considerations ... but we’ll have to close the St. Louis Cultural Center.

First the oppressive Soviets left, and now the carpet bagging Americans. Can true freedom be very far behind?

We Have Met the Enemy ...

For those readers who have been slumbering on the swampy rocks along with the cute and cuddly Anheuser-Busch coterie of frogs, ants, alligators and two-toed sloths, it’s been almost three years since the Campaign for Real Ale sounded the alarm that Anheuser-Busch was intensifying its efforts to buy into the Czech Republic’s Budweiser Budvar brewery as a means of resolving the long standing copyright dispute between the two companies, and in malicious intent if not in actual press release, seeking the effective decimation of the Czech brewery that has spent most of this century proudly refusing to prostrate itself at the feet of the Great Satan of the planet’s -- the universe’s -- brewing industry.

Although CAMRA’s warning wasn’t the first issued by parties concerned by A-B’s predatory designs on Budvar, it was a wake-up call for those American beer aficionados who hadn’t previously recognized the nature of the threat to the future of real, traditional beer that will continue to exist for so long as companies like Anheuser-Busch remain free to roam the earth. This may strike some as a harsh judgment, but it is a necessary one, and it is being seconded by an increasing number of beer authorities, including beer writer Fred Eckhardt, who recently went public with the thought that so many have expressed only privately for so long: Anheuser-Busch is the enemy.*

(A Brief Aside: Charlie Papazian, are you reading? Or does the plight of southern Africa’s small, local sorghum beer makers interest you more than the dismantling of Budvar? Shouldn’t they both interest you? Are you speaking publicly now? And just how much do events like the Great American Beer Festival depend on the largesse of the zymurgicidal assassins in St. Louis? Charlie, there are so many questions for you to answer, but so few actual words coming from you ...)

... and Anheuser-Busch Is the Enemy ...

... and yet consider the difficulties that we face as we attempt to make this point to those who’ve never considered the dreary legacy of the seemingly innocuous product that they unthinkingly swallow while watching the tube, changing the oil, playing softball and dreaming from the waist.

To millions of Americans, it is an article of faith beyond any question that Anheuser-Busch exists somewhere in a rarefied utopia of patriotic, mythological symbols that include Ozzie, Harriet, apple pie, baseball when Kennesaw Mountain Landis called the shots, Abraham Lincoln, Manifest Destiny and eagerly scoring with a nubile cheerleader in the frigid back seat of a ‘57 Chevy parked by a barn following the homecoming basketball game, and being utterly unrepentant about it during Sunday School the following morning .

Millions effortlessly accept this image of Anheuser-Busch, one that is enforced by the incessant, digitally-enhanced clatter of the brewer’s public relations and marketing mega-machine, one whose cost exceeds that of the gross national product of most Third World nations and contributes mightily to the price of a "beer" that is filled to the brim with rice, fermented in a couple of hours, lagered for less than the two weeks that entry level American workers meekly accept as the duration of their paid vacations until they’ve somehow managed to avoid termination for ten to fifteen years, and elevated to the status of reigning religious trademark icon for little other reason than a cacophony of advertising that is so venal and patronizing and pervasive that Josef Goebbels surely spins in his grave at the recognition that his notion of the Big Lie has been so brutally corrupted by these robber barons of the buzz biz.

However, in a perverse and backhanded sort of way, perhaps Anheuser-Busch does indeed symbolize the so-called American Dream, in the sense that the idealized, sanitized American Dream is a tricky coin with two radically different sides. On one side the familiar platitudes are arrayed: purple mountain majesty, pursuit of happiness, we the people, the

King of Beers. On the other side, realities intrude, and by dawn’s early light we see the malignant, slimy, exploitative underbelly: The glorification of ends achieved by any means, the corruption engendered by power for the sake of power, the cancerous ideology of growth for the sake of growth.

To be sure, Anheuser-Busch isn’t the only company that rose to a position of prominence by destroying its competitors, by bribing, by threatening, by extorting, by fixing prices, and by caring not one jot about the destruction -- and the utterly vapid sterility -- left in its bullying and arrogant wake. Not the only one, but the best example that we have in the world of beer, which A-B dominates like a mutant Godzilla.

Of course, the ultimate irony is that the vise-grip of A-B’s market share is perpetually tightened by the brand loyalty of those who aren’t able, or interested, or willing, to try and look past the shameless propaganda blitzkrieg to glimpse the savage realities -- the exceedingly relevant truths -- that lurk beneath the motifs of Americana that are exalted and perpetuated by the company’s pervasive public relations machine.

Which Bud’s For You?

All I want to know is this: How many of the people -- the common people, just plain folks, the silent majority, the man in the street -- who lift Budweiser to their lips in a daily ritual of patriotic affirmation are using the Busch family’s alcoholic soda pop as a medicinal salve; a few cold beers to wash away the frustration of another long working day caught in the tentacles of regimented, corporate America, at the mercy of tyrannical multinational corporations who can buy and sell them a billion times over, chew them up, spit them out, run rampant, fill the pockets of upper management even as the individual is being down sized into a taco-slinging, minimum-wage nonentity ... and yes, that would be the very same sort of bloated, multinational corporation that has created the blessed, nearly frozen medicine, the aluminum-clad balm, and has done so by way of a cynical agro-industrial process, and now the drinker is angrily slamming the fragile can to the unsuspecting surface of the bar top in a fit of impasioned rage at the economic injustice of the evil multinational corporations without ever grasping that the product in his hand is part and parcel of it, a bulwark against the intrusion of craft-anything, and inexorably woven into the fabric of the evil that he so loudly detests.

The cure is the disease ... but just try making the point to someone who is convinced that the eagle on the dollar bill is the same one on the Anheuser-Busch logo, and that both nest in the nostrils of George Washington’s nose on the face of Mt. Rushmore. As H. L. Mencken said, "Human beings never welcome the news that something they have long cherished is untrue: they almost always reply to that news by reviling its promulgator."

I’ll consider myself reviled.

Might Doesn’t Always Make Right.

I find myself back on the street in Ceske Budejovice, at night, watching, listening, savoring the memory of the Slovak band playing that time in the Masne Kramy, the sausages and ham and cabbage, the seemingly endless and always amazing mugs of draft Budvar, and the odd, nagging, Biblical notion that just as the moneychangers were purged from the temple, so were the brewing Philistines evicted from the storefront across the street to beat a hasty and humiliating retreat back to the rice paddies of St. Louis. It is worth noting that Budvar is thriving in the post-Communist milieu, in spite of A-B’s protestations that Budvar would do better under the protective, big brotherly wing of the St. Louis-based brewing Medusa.

Indeed, the spectacle of America’s arrogant brewing Goliath’s defeat at the hands of the small, yet resourceful, Czech David has proven to be the most enjoyable moral saga of our age. How many action/adventure flicks starring luminaries like Steven Seagal and Sly Stallone have yielded such a stirring, enjoyable, feel-good outcome of justice prevailing over the forces of gloom and doom? However, we’re lacking a true resolution to the saga, a fitting closure, something to make sense of it all. How’s this for an unexpected plot twist: Evil empire shocks the world by conceding defeat graciously, and offers a surprising, sensible, overdue trophy to the victor and a treat for the long-suffering, beer-loving spectators.

And So, A Public Challenge to the Missouri Kremlin.

Why can’t we buy Budvar here in the United States, the alleged bastion of the free market? Basically, we can’t buy it because Anheuser-Busch won’t permit it to be sold here.

Thus, I’ll bring this tantrum to a close by issuing a personal challenge to August Busch III, patriarch of the world’s largest industrial manufacturer of semi-beer-like liquids, and to set the table, I’d like to remind him of the words of former President Ronald Reagan. During his second term, President Reagan stood before the single most recognizable symbol of the Cold War, the cruel barrier that divided Berlin, and said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

I consciously echo this thought by asking August Busch III to permit the sale of Budvar in the United States, and to do it under whatever label Budvar chooses, whether it be Budweiser Budvar, or Budejovicky Budvar, or Budvar, or

Budvar the Anti-Busch Magic Elixir, or any other name it desires. Mr. Busch, for once in the long and sordid history of the Busch imperial dynasty, just do it; do the right thing; and do it irrespective of whether America’s Budweiser is or isn’t permitted to be sold in the Czech Republic at the present time. They’ve endured enough hardship this century, so let them exclude your beer if they want and explain it to the world in their own fashion. The pet shampoo market in the Czech Republic isn’t that big, anyway.

Of course, acceptance of my challenge will require a ranking Busch czar to seek the high ground, to sprout gills and dive to the bottom of the ocean and discover Atlantis, to run a one-minute mile, to balance the Empire State Building on a six-pack of King Cobra, and to swallow a century's worth of stubborn and egotistical vanity -- it’ll be unfamiliar territory, to put it mildly -- but damn it, why not let us, all of us, beer snob and supermarket case sale shopper alike, decide which of these two, Czech Budvar or American Budweiser, truly represents the best that beer can be. Anheuser-Busch insists that the two beers aren’t alike and pose no threat to each other, so why the continuing, pique-fueled blockade?

How ‘bout it, Auggie III? How ‘bout it, Auggie IV, heir to the throne?

Any one care to guess which one will receive my vote? Mine’s a Budvar, prosim ... and keep them coming until the crowns run out and the last imperialist has headed home to St. Louis.


* Eckhardt’s article originally appeared in All About Beer magazine, and was reprinted in Walking the Dog #78 (March, 1997).

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