It's About That Czech Beer

I have been to the mountain. Figuratively speaking, of course. Since that phrase has religious connotations I can tell you our trip to the great Budweiser Budvar brewery in the Czech Republic (see lead story) was undertaken with the same fervor and zeal as a visit by a baseball fan to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

An opinion I have often expressed in these pages is that Budvar is the world's best beer. That, of course, doesn't make it so; merely my favorite. This "best" business can be a little complicated. Last month, a subscriber wrote in praise Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan. That Weihenstephan didn't suit me counts for nothing. We all have different expectations and different ideas about what is "best." For some, the ultimate beer is a thick, black Guinness Stout served at room temperature. For others it is an ice-cold Silver Bullet. For me, it's a Budvar from the tap, and the nearer that tap is to Ceske Budejovice, the better.

My first Budvar was at the Prater, Vienna's big amusement park, in about 1985. I had known for several years the reputation of another Czech brew, Pilsner Urquell, but until then Budweiser to me was Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis. After that first taste I stayed on the lookout for "Budvar" signs and more than once a lunch or dinner decision was made solely because a restaurant served my favorite beer.

So how come these Czechs are so good at beer? Brewing experts say they have the best raw materials. Their malting barley is described as "sweet and clean" and grown in a temperate, "continental" climate. For hundreds of years, Bohemia has been famous for its hops. Microbrewers in the U.S. who import Czech hops can be relied on to brag about it on menus and in advertising. In fact, Lind Brewing, in the San Francisco Bay Area, makes a delicious lager called Zatec, named after the town in Bohemia where the best hops are grown. Few U.S. microbrewers even bother with lagers (most Czech beers are lagers) because the process takes longer and is more expensive.

Budvar was, and is, not available in the U.S. because, of course, Anheuser Busch owns the name "Budweiser."

In the late 19th century, when Adolph Busch went to Europe to study brewing, specifically lagering, he became intrigued with the town of Ceske Budejovice, once home of the royal court brewery. Old Augie copyrighted the name "Budweiser" and began calling it the "King of Beers." His Michelob is also named after a Czech town, Michalovce. So even though Ceske Budejovice had about a 600-year head start on Busch, the first and original "Budweiser" cannot be marketed in the U.S.

Both brewers have used the name Budweiser for more than 100 years, ever since they forged an agreement that gave the Czech brewer the right to use the name in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

After the fall of communism, Anheuser Busch sought to end confusion resulting from two versions of Budweiser being sold in Europe. Seeing an opening when the Czech government decided to privatize thousands of government-owned businesses, A-B turned the full force of it economic and public relations might on the little Czech town and its brewery. In an attempt to buy the brewery and the trademark, it wooed the town with big money, pouring millions into an elaborate "cultural center." Money also was spent on Czech schools and universities, and for advertisements in the country's leading newspapers.

The Czechs loved the cultural center, "oohing" and "ahhhing" over the high tech gadgets, but, God bless them, said no to the offer. Considering the average Czech earns in one day's work about what a six-pack of Budweiser costs in the U.S., it is a decision A-B may have found difficult to understand.

The mayor of Ceske Budejovice, brewery officials and the Czech government turned back the world's largest brewer (at 91,000,000 barrels per year, A-B makes more beer in a week than Budvar makes in a year) by forging an arrangement which excluded Budvar from the privatization movement and kept it under government control.

In the end, the Czechs decided they didn't want a lot of high-tech brewing equipment and western control. The loved their old brewery and, more than anything else, they were afraid the Americans would change their beer. After all, they contended, A-B brews bland, undistinguished beer.

The whole affair was the subject recently of an ABC-TV "Nightline" with Ted Koppel. There were many shots of foamy glasses of Budvar and one interior of the brewery's restaurant. It solidified my resolve to go there. I have been to the mountain.

Amex Reduces Coverage

Holders of the American Express card who rely on it for Collision Damage Waiver and Theft insurance should be aware they may no longer be covered for rental cars in Europe and certain other countries. Effective June 1, the Amex gold corporate card no longer covers CDW or theft insurance in Europe. Coverage in Ireland has also been withdrawn for holders of the regular green Amex card. Italy has not been covered by any Amex green or gold for some time.

Remember, too, that coverage is limited to rentals of not longer than 30 days. Don't think that if you have a 31 day rental you are covered for 30 of those days. That's not the way it works. Contracts of longer than 30 days simply are not within the Amex coverage parameters.

Also pay attention to the kind of vehicles Amex does not cover. These include "expensive" cars costing more than $50,000, "exotic" cars regardless of value and full-size vans. Examples of excluded cars include: Mercedes SL, SLK, S Coupe and E320; BMW M3, Z3 and 8 series; Porsche and 9-passenger vans. Minivans are covered. Check with American Express to make sure the vehicle you plan to rent is covered.

Gemütlichkeit Swissair Deal

There is some confusion among subscribers about the special reduced rate program with Swissair. Here are the salient points to remember:

Paid subscribers are eligible for from $50 to $600 off Swissair's regular and sale fares. Right now the reduction is $50 for economy tickets priced under $1000, and $150 if the economy fare is $1000 or more. Business and first class reductions are $400 and $600 respectively. However, purchasers of full-fare economy tickets (about $3300 from the West Coast) are entitled to a free business class upgrade.

A coupon is not needed but you must book directly with Swissair. Reserve through Swissair at 800-221-4750, then call Shirley at Swissair in L.A., 310-335-5900. She will confirm with us your subscriber status and issue the tickets at the lower price.

All persons traveling with the subscriber on at least one leg of the transatlantic journey are eligible for the reduced fares. RHB

May 1997