Saturday, January 21, 2012

The King of Beers vs. the Beer of Kings

When I was in culinary school one of my instructors was a Czechoslovakian man with a a great gray mustache. It was the kind of mustache you'd expect from a Civil War general more so than someone who has spent most of his life in the restaurant business. Perhaps in Czechoslovakia there are a lot of American Civil War themed restaurants the same way American restaurants put a lot of baskets, old barrels, and fake grapes hanging off the walls.

This man, Mr. Browchuk, would often invite me after class to participate in wine tastings. It might be because he could see, unlike many other students, that I actually had an interest in it other than a means of becoming drunk. I took him up on many an after class tasting where he introduced me to Rosé d'Anjou which taught me that there was another type of rosé other than white zinfandel.

There was an incredible man behind that incredible mustache. On the first day of class he asked us all to tell him his name. Then he taught an entire class (a six hour class) and at the end of the class went through the room telling us all our names without getting a single one wrong. This didn't have anything to do with our culinary education but it sure was impressive.

Buddy Cianci Giving a Talk at The Gatehouse Restaurant in Providence, RI (c. 1998)

At the time I attended these wine-tastings I was nineteen. The University had some sort of special license where it was allowed to serve alcohol to underage students for educational purposes. I'm not sure if this is actually legal but it's what they did. It could have been that Providence was ruled at the time by corrupt mayor Buddy Cianci who had pulled some strings to make this "legal." It's worth noting that he also had the license plate "1" which was actually illegal since the governor also had the same license plate. The only difference is that the governor was supposed to have that plate number. Mayor Cianci seemed to get around it by claiming that he was the most important person in Rhode Island.

He may have been right about that.

Budweiser Budvar in Glass

During one of these tastings Mr. Browchuk told me that he enjoyed a beer called Budweiser. Before I could allow this to tarnish my image of him he explained to me that in Czechoslovakia they brewed the original beer called Budweiser. He said it was a Czech lager whose name was stolen by the American beer. I could hardly believe it. I held that fact in the back of my mind for years imagining what this beer could be like and, more importantly, how Anheuser-Busch could get away with it.

As you can see from this video clip above from one of my favorite shows, Michael Jackson's The Beer Hunter, the town of Budweis has been brewing beer since the 1200s. In fact, Adolphus Busch began brewing Budweiser in America as an homage to the Bohemian lagers he'd had while traveling Europe. He was particularly fond of the lager brewed in Budweis which had been the beer consumed by many of the kings of Europe for hundreds of years.

Actual real Budweiser (from Budweis) wasn't sold in America until recently and even now is only allowed to be sold under the name Czechvar. It's sort of like the Busch/Bush beer fiasco I talked about last month.

Anheuseur-Busch, in order to protect its brand, has employed its arsenal of lawyers to do everything possible to make sure that the beer that inspired its success was marginalized in the United States. The original Budweiser from Bohemia had been called "The Beer of Kings" for centuries. Anheuseur-Busch played off that slogan by calling its beer "The King of Beers." How did they pay the original Budweiser back for all this inspiration? They prevented the use of the word 'Budweiser' (the actual name of the beer), 'Bud' (another Anheuseur-Busch trademark), and any use of the centuries-old slogan "The Beer of Kings."

Ain't that America?

Budweiser Budvar (European Bottle)

I had a lot of time to think about this today, on my back, lying around and thinking about things. Truth be told, I'd been thinking about this for some time. I'd never had the original Budweiser, and I hadn't had American Budweiser in well over a decade. So that got me to thinking that I would like to do a blind taste test of the two.

Now I'm fully aware of my bias against the American lager. That's why this would have to be a completely blind tasting. How could I accomplish this fairly given that I am only one man, alone, at home, experiencing lower back pain?

Blind Tasting Cups Labeled

First I would need two, identical, opaque service glasses or cups. While I wasn't 100% certain I was still pretty sure that Czechvar would end up being a little darker than the American lager. I marked the bottoms of the cups with the names of the beer they were about to receive.

American Budweiser Born on Date Budweiser Budvar (Czechvar) Best By Date

To be fair I made sure to check and get the freshest possible version of each beer. The American Budweiser had a Born On Date™ of December 6, 2012 while its Czech counterpart had a Best Before date of October 10, 2012. Different dating systems but both were about as fresh as I could hope for.

Pouring American Budweiser For Blind Tasting Pouring Budweiser Budvar (Czechvar) For Blind Tasting

Then I poured the two beers into their respective cups.

Microwave Carousel

After that I needed some sort of rotational device so I could spin the beers around while closing my eyes. I was at a loss for a moment until I decided to take the turntable out of my microwave, set it up on my table, and use it as a makeshift Lazy Susan.

Marking Blind Tasting Cup Numbering Blind Tasting Cup

After they were sufficiently mixed up I had to mark the cups again, this time on the front with a 1 and a 2. This time not knowing which beer is which.

American Budweiser and Budweiser Budvar (Czechvar) For Blind Tasting

I made sure to hold the beer up at eye level so I could not be influenced by the look of the beer. I didn't know for a fact but I didn't want my taste buds to be influenced by what I expected to be the darker Czechvar.

Then I took notes, sitting on the floor as not to be able to peer into the tops of the cups. It also helped to relieve my back pain to sit on the hard wood. Score!

I skipped over the visual element as I would have to get to that later as I didn't want it to cloud my judgment. And now onto the beer judgment!

Beer 1
On the nose I picked up a very faint and light hop aroma. There were notes of grass or hay and something slightly acidic like a very faint citrus. The malt and yeast gave off a smell of fresh dough and a soft-ripened cheese like brie. It tasted a little reminiscent of Corona but, unlike last night's beer, without the lime. The body was very light and thin with an average carbonation. The flavor did not linger for very long but there was a slight sweetness to it and it had a creamy finish with absolutely no bitterness to speak of. It had a watery quality one would associate with most lagers.

Beer 2
Yup, this one was the American Budweiser. The blind test was over the second I had a sip of this one. There is something so distinct about the taste of this beer, a flavor I recognized from long ago at functions held at establishments with poor beer selections.

Beer #2 had a lot of the same tasting notes. Present was the soft-ripened cheese smell, the dough scent from the yeast, and the smell of straw and hay from the malt. It was slightly less acidic than Beer #1 but with a similar sweetness. The main difference was that Beer #2 had a slight sake taste to it. After researching this a little I found that American Budweiser is made with about 30% rice so that would explain the sake flavor.

Just to be sure I checked under my cup at this point to see if I was right.

Blind Tasting Cup Labeled

Yup. I was. It's amazing how ingrained in me the flavor of American Budweiser was even after not having it for at least a decade.

So what was the verdict? Which one was better? Well, I think I will say that the findings of this test were largely inconclusive. The fact is I didn't really care for either. American Budweiser was more familiar but both were pretty flavorless. I had been hoping I could review them both, make a decision then look under the cup and be surprised. Unfortunately one of the beers had unknowingly imprinted itself on my brain so I was unable to have the result I wanted.

Dumping Budweiser Down Sink

I really had no need for either of these beers so I dumped them and settled back with something a little more enjoyable.

Dogfish Head Pearl Jam Twenty Faithfull Ale Instead of Either Budweiser

Since I'm a light weight and can only really drink one beer in an evening I poured the remainder of last night's Pearl Jam beer from Dogfish Head into a glass. While this beer had measured as a disappointment to some I must say it was like a special treat after drinking lackluster versions of a lackluster beer style.

America: 0, Czechoslovakia: 0.

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