Budweiser, larger and more famous by far than its European namesake. The American beers called “Budweiser” are made by Anheuser-Busch Companies (A-B), a division of the world’s largest brewing company, Anheuser-Busch InBev. Although now widely thought of as being as American as McDonald’s, the name is taken from a famous Czech Bohemian brewing center, České Budějovice, which is called Budweis in the German language that was once commonly spoken there. Anything from Budweis, whether it be a beer or a person, might be called a Budweiser. Unauthorized borrowing of place names was commonplace in the 19th century, when Europeans were not worried that American products would cut into their markets or reputations. Later, just as winemakers in France became upset by ersatz American wines labeled “Champagne,” the Czechs were to become more than slightly perturbed by American Budweiser.
Most early lagers in the United States were made in imitation of the brown Munich type: all malt, rich, and heavy. With its hotter climate and richer diet, brewers sensed that Americans might be interested in a lighter, more refreshing style of beer. Inspiration came in the form of Bohemian lager, which spread rapidly in Europe after its introduction in 1842.
Brewing this style of beer from American ingredients was not a simple matter. The North American six-row barleys prevalent at the time had very high protein levels and produced beers that were prone to an unsightly haze, especially when chilled, making the product unstable on the shelf. Based on work that had been ongoing in Europe for some time, in 1869 brewing chemist Anton Schwarz published an article called “Brewing with Raw Cereals, Especially Rice” in American Brewer magazine.
In the mid-1870s, Adolphus Busch and his brewmaster Irwin Sprule formulated their first Bohemian pilsner recipe, labeling it “St. Louis Lager.” Shortly thereafter, a second recipe was created for Busch’s friend Carl Conrad, a liquor merchant and restaurateur in St Louis. Based on the slightly paler and more effervescent “Budweis” beer from České Budějovice, it was sold under the “Conrad Budweiser” name. The recipe contained 23.5% rice in addition to the malt and was hopped with a combination of American and European hops. Rice, rather than corn, was felt to give a crisper, more refreshing edge to the product.
Budweiser was exclusively a bottled product, allowing the label to serve as a guarantee of origin. However, by the late 1870s, the name and label were so widely copied that Busch was forced to sue, and this was to be repeated many times in the decades to follow. Budweiser was the first beer to be bottled and pasteurized on a large scale. This allowed Busch to market the beer far from home. Thanks to an extensive network of refrigerated rail cars and ice depots, Budweiser was very successful in the expanding markets south and west of St Louis and eventually throughout the United States.
By 1882, Conrad was bankrupt. In lieu of payment of a $94,000 debt, the brand was transferred to Anheuser-Busch, but Busch and Conrad wrangled for control of Budweiser until 1891, when Conrad gave Busch perpetual rights to the name. That year, 14 million bottles (5 million l) were sold. In 1901, Budweiser was 65% of total A-B volume, and 761,000 hl (650,000 US bbls) were sold across the United States and in foreign markets, including Asia and South America. Sales for all alcoholic beverages declined in the United States after that date in the run-up to World War I and national Prohibition.
When the company resumed brewing after Prohibition, Budweiser was its main brand and sole focus of its advertising efforts. Diligent marketing and steadfast technical quality helped grow Budweiser, and after trading the top position several times with Schlitz in the decades after Prohibition, it became the number one beer brand in the United States in 1957. Budweiser was itself upstaged in 2004 by its sister brand, Bud Light, launched in 1982, which remains the single largest beer brand in the world.
Battles with Europeans over ownership of the Budweiser name began as early as 1907, when challenges by German and Bohemian breweries were settled by large payments. The matter remained mostly dormant until the mid-1980s as A-B attempted to widen its reach into Europe. Courts in the UK granted both American and Czech Budweisers the use of the name there in 1984. After the fall of communism, A-B attempted to purchase its namesake brewery in Budweis, and at one point the workers went on strike to encourage the purchase. Czech President Vaclav Havel reportedly got involved to stop the sale. Today, detente has been reached. In Continental Europe, A-B InBev’s Budweiser is generally known as “Bud,” whereas the Czech-brewed Budweiser Budvar brand is called “Czechvar” in the United States. In July 2010, A-B InBev lost another significant battle as Europe’s highest court denied their request to register the Budweiser brand in the European Union.
A number of line extensions to the Budweiser (Select, American Ale) and Bud Light (Chelada, Bud Light Lime) brands have been launched with varying degrees of success.
The flagship beer, simply called Budweiser, is an extremely pale lager with a mild, bready aroma, a bit of apple fruitiness, a clean, dry palate, and a crisp finish. The recipe consists of a mix of about 30% four-row barley malt from A-B’s own maltings and 40% six-row malt; the remaining 30% is rice grits. The recipe varies by a few percent to hit specific flavor targets depending on the characteristics of the grains available. Budweiser has a standard 5% alcohol by volume from an original gravity of 11.0°.
The brewing process is a modification of the traditional American adjunct mash procedure. The malt mash is given a short protein rest at 120°F (48°C) while the rice grits are brought up to temperature for a short boil, and then the two mashes are combined for a saccharification rest. For many decades, A-B employed a unique wort separation vessel called a Strainmaster, which consisted of a trough-like vessel with a conical bottom and a perforated manifold through which the clear wort is withdrawn. This system offers speed but is a bit less efficient that traditional lauter tuns, and for this reason they have been largely replaced.
Bitterness is low, but noticeable on the palate at 10 to 12 international bitterness units. Hops are mainly US-grown German varieties such as Hallertau, Saaz, and Tettnanger, with some European hops plus high-alpha and non-Germanic types such as Willamette in the mix. This complex hop bill allows brewers to maintain a consistent flavor and aroma despite changing characteristics of hops available on the market.
Prior to chilling, the wort undergoes a special stripping process to remove sulfur compounds, especially dimethyl sulfide. The hot wort is streamed in a filmy layer on the inner surface of thin vertical tubes through which is blown hot, sterile air. This method provides additional evaporation that allows for a shortened wort boil, more or less replicating the effects of the Baudelot wort chillers that the company used until the 1960s.
Fermentation and lagering normally takes 21 days. By traditional standards, lagering is a bit warm, at 7.2°C–8.9°C (45°F–48°F). At these temperatures the yeast does a good job of reducing diacetyl and acetaldehyde (which, contrary to a commonly held notion, is at very low levels in Budweiser) but also allows for a bit of ester development, giving the beer its hint of applelike fruitiness. Bottled Budweiser is pasteurized; draught is not.
The company employs extensive quality control procedures, both mechanized and sensory, a necessity with any packaging brewery, especially one dedicated to producing an identical beer at locations across the globe. In one extreme measure, cans of Budweiser are frozen in liquid nitrogen and tasted years later, a check against slow drift of the famous flavor profile.
In 2008 Budweiser volume was 43.4 million hl (approx. 37 million US bbls), whereas production of Bud Light was higher still at 55.6 million hl (approx. 47 US bbls).