The World's Best Beer

In the 1960s and 70s Americans began traveling to Europe in great numbers. What we experienced over there, including what we ate and drank, changed our culture. Suddenly breakfast in Fresno and Dubuque, just as in New York and San Francisco, might include French roast instead of Folgers or a croissant instead of a donut. The wine boom was ignited at least in part by American travelers who, having seen it on every table in Europe, sought to make wine a part of daily life over here. We became more interested in food. Cookbooks by Julia Child, who was billed as the "French Chef," began to outsell the ubiquitous, fictitious Betty Crocker.

Another thing we discovered was that beer didn't have to be what it was at home: fizzy, watery, headless stuff that looked like weak tea. The major breweries of America, intent on creating brand loyalty in males, 18 to 25 years old, marketed a product they hoped would win instant approval by that segment of the population. Beer with some complexity that was an "acquired taste" was to be avoided.

I was one of those blithely rolling through life content with Budweiser or, on special occasions, a Michelob. In the 1950s and 60s, these two Anheuser-Busch beers, along with Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon and a few others, were known in the west as "eastern beers" and usually cost slightly more than local stuff like Olympia (known, of course, to every high school kid on the coast as "Oly"), Lucky Lager, Blitz Weinhard and Burgermeister. We didn't know any better.

When I made my first trip to Germany in the 70s, my uncle John, already an experienced consumer of German brews, warned me that the beer there wouldn't come cold as in the U.S. That worried me some as I had heard tales of German beer being served at room temperature. However, he assured me I wouldn't care whether it was cold and he was right. From my first glass of pils I loved it. (Beer in Germany is actually served cool and not at room temperature.) It is one of the reasons I keep going back.

An early outcome of Americans traveling to Europe was that we began to import the beer. Mostly it came in bottles, but some restaurants brought it in by the keg. Doesn't work either way. Whether beer we import from Europe is simply not the same stuff served over there, or it can't stand the trip, or both, I don't know. What I do know is that the glass of Späten I can buy at any of several restaurants with a 30-minute drive from my home has little relationship to a glass of Späten in Munich. Beer is best when consumed soon after it is brewed, and the closer to the brewery the better. Sometime in the mid-70s I read an article which rated the Czech brew, Pilsner Urquell, as the world's finest. I purchased several bottles from a place which sold exotic beers and was greatly disappointed. It was terrible, flat and off-tasting. Now I realize that that beer was probably several months old and in transit may have experienced a wide range of temperatures.

It was in Vienna in about 1983 that I discovered the real Budweiser, a Czech brew also known as Budvar from a town called Ceske Budejovice. At that time, I believe, it was just beginning to be exported along with Pilsner Urquell (enabling me to, at last, discover the real Pilsner Urquell). In my personal list of the world's best beers they are #1 and #2.

As good a reason as any to go to Europe is that you'll never see Budvar in the United States. About 50 years ago Anheuser-Busch cut a deal which gave it the exclusive U. S. marketing rights to the name Budweiser. Budvar kept the rights in Europe. Now A-B wants to play a role in Europe. Not a good idea says CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), an organization of British beer lovers. We agree.

In a story in the magazine Beer, Stephen Cox of CAMRA is quoted as follows:

"As a consumer body, we have an enormous suspicion of any large brewery conglomerate that takes over an artisanal brewery. Any beer that Germans will go out of their way to drink is obviously a very important and classic beer. Such a beer should be preserved, and there have been too many instances where a large brewer has taken over a small brewery, promising that no, we'll never change the beer.' But then, the person who made the promise is fired, or a new managing director is hired, or the acquired brewery is spun off into a different division, and the quality of the beer suffers enormously. Budvar is one of the Czech national treasures..."

Budvar, you see, needs money to expand and become more modern. The article in Beer claims that Budvar's distinctive flavor is in part due to the yeasts that live in the planks of the thousands of its old wooden fermenting and lagering tanks. Under communism labor was cheap enough and plentiful enough to regularly scrub and maintain these wooden barrels. With a rich, new partner the wood would likely be replaced with stainless steel tanks. Plans are for the Czech government to wind up as the brewery's majority owner with a foreign partner. Enter Anheuser-Busch which has mounted a campaign to be that partner. The courtship is a hot and heavy one. According to Beer, A-B has already opened a "cultural center" in Ceske Budejovice and purchased a four-story building on the town square where it offers business seminars for the local populace. A-B has also sponsored a Junior Chamber of Commerce and made a $50,000 donation to the University of South Bohemia.

I believe in capitalism but I fear what Anheuser-Busch will do to the beer. Will it taste better? Get serious. The article in Beer had good advice for all of us: "For a taste of the real Budvar, hurry to the Czech Republic. It may be only a matter of months before the brand rights change hands and perhaps the recipe, too."

Ringhotels Special Price

Last month our piece on Baden-Baden included a review of the Allee-Hotel Bären, part of the Ringhotels group. We like this hotel very much but noted in our story that its rates - up to $134 for a single room and as much as $234 for a double - are somewhat high. Subsequently we have been apprised by Hans Boldt, whose company, Boldt International, is the U.S. reservations' agent for Ringhotels, that by booking through his toll-free service - 800-558-6850 - the guaranteed dollar rate is $79 for single rooms and $118 for doubles, including buffet breakfast. At these rates the Bären becomes a bargain.

These prices, in fact, apply at all Ringhotels except for certain four-star hostelries in major cities. In these few there is, in addition to the $79 single, $118 double prices, a supplement of approximately $10 to $12 per person.

These guaranteed dollar prices also apply at another of Mr. Boldt's clients, Idyll Hotels Schweiz, a group of 19 hotels in Switzerland, where $118 for a double room is an even better value. RHB

October 1994