The Czechs have been brewing beer since at least 993AD when some resourceful monks started fermenting with grain at the Břevnov Monastery in Prague. For 250 years, only monks were allowed to produce beer but, once the rules were relaxed, it took off across what is now the Czech Republic, including the city of České Budějovice (pictured) in the south which was one of the first to gain the right to brew in 1265. Not only did the Czechs pioneer the use of hops in beer but they later championed “lagering” – the process of maturing beer in cold storage to make it smoother and richer in taste. These full-flavoured lagers are core to the country’s beer culture alongside the pilsner style developed by Pilsner Urquell in Plzeň from 1842. Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the country’s beer industry has blossomed, with more than 400 smaller breweries now producing a range of different styles. In fact, the Czech Republic now has the highest consumption of beer per capita in the world.
This brewing heritage has been embraced by Budějovický Budvar in České Budějovice, which dates back to 1895. After all Czech breweries were nationalised in 1948, it is now the only beer producer to remain state owned but this has not stopped it growing into a global brand with increasing volumes in the UK. This unique position, combined with the Czech Republic’s beer culture, consumption and heritage, has inspired the brewery’s marketers to launch a new tagline for its beers around the idea of “the Republic of Beer”, which is now starting to be seen across bottles, cans and fonts.
By promoting Budweiser Budvar as the flagship of a “Republic of Beer”, the marketing team say the company is championing not just Czech beer but the country and its brewing and drinking culture. Josh Nesfield, international brand manager at Budějovický Budvar, admits these goals are quite “lofty” and “ambitious” but says it has already had “absolutely fantastic” feedback from beer lovers. “We are very clear that we are the representatives of one of the greatest, if not the greatest beer culture in the world in the Czech Republic, and, as the national brewery, what better position than to be ambassadors for Czech beer culture. We are not just a company that sells drinks. We are representing a whole nation so we want to showcase the country, we want to showcase the people, we want to showcase other Czech breweries as well as make sure that everybody benefits and drinkers want to visit the country and not just drink our beer.”
This new branding, announced in July, draws on trends in the beer market in the UK and globally. “People still like things rooted in provenance,” Josh says. “Cigars from Cuba have a special link, whisky from Scotland, and we definitely believe lager from the Czech Republic has a special place in people’s hearts in the same way.” Budvar’s new cans and bottles emphasise the provenance and its use of malted Moravian barley and Saaz hops from the country’s hop region of Žatec, combined with natural soft water from an Ice Age aquifer beneath the brewery. Unlike big industrial brewers that can make lager in less than a week, it still takes around three months to produce Budweiser Budvar Original from start to finish.
Packaging also emphasises the provenance and heritage by including the round symbol for České Budějovice and the phrase, “Owned by the Czech Republic”, while the branding partly draws on the red of the Czech flag. The bottles and cans also carry information that highlights how Budějovický Budvar’s traditional production processes have not changed since 1895 despite the introduction of new technology. “People want authentic brands,” Josh adds. “If we can show to people the values that we know we have as a brewery and a brand, of being completely authentic, showing no bullshit, and keeping things the way they have always been, we know that we are going to be reaching consumers.”
The concept of a “Republic of Beer” has been welcomed by Adam Brož, who has worked at Budějovický Budvar for 21 years and became brewmaster 11 years ago. “We are cooperating with many small breweries… to enrich the market and customers with different kinds of beer,” he explains. The brewery supports Czech microbreweries by providing them with its own brewing yeast, running trade educational events, and helping them with new recipes, including time to test them in Budvar’s labs. It also provides support for Czech producers and suppliers of hops, malt and other ingredients that are needed for beer-making. Czech microbreweries assisted by Budvar include Cobolis in Prague and Antoš in Slaný.
According to Josh, this support for Czech beer as a category matches another marketing insight: that people want “brands with a purpose”. “That could be a purpose of saving the rainforests but it could also be the fact that we’re showcasing the best of Czech beer culture. We are the national brewery but we’re also, in many ways, the big brother of lots and lots of the small breweries and craft breweries that are popping up around the Czech Republic. We don’t have an interest really in doing other Czech brewers out of business. We want to see other Czech brewers do well as it means ourselves as a brewery and as ourselves as a nation do really well.”
Another part of Czech beer culture is its beer halls, with some dating back many hundreds of years. Here you drink at long communal wooden tables, usually tucking into traditional Czech dishes such as goulash and dumplings. The team at Budvar were inspired by an illustration of a beer hall by Czech artist Josef Lada to develop a chunky new branded pint glass. Created by contemporary Czech designer Rony Plesl, it is based on glassware seen in Lada’s illustration, “Palivec and the Gang at U Kalicha on Na Bojišti Street in Prague”, from the early 20th century. It shows a group of men drinking round a table at a real-life beer hall that features in classic 1920s Czech novel The Good Soldier Švejk, written by Jaroslav Hašek and originally illustrated by Lada. The 568ml glass is being tweaked for the UK market so it can be filled right to the brim in a way preferred by British consumers and will be available in pubs, bars and restaurants in the UK from November or December.
A new bar font is being introduced in the UK early next year, with a Czech-style side-pour tap. As well as standing out on the bar top with its illuminated design, there will be notes on ingredients, provenance and tasting facing bar staff. “We are trying to improve the consumer experience as increasingly consumers are asking staff for recommendations and for information about where their beer comes from,” explains Budweiser Budvar UK’s managing director, Simon George.
The loss of trade in pubs and bars caused by the global pandemic has hampered plans to expand the availability of “tank beer” – the brewery-fresh beer transported straight from České Budějovice to Britain. With the need for a tank to be consumed within a week of arrival, throughput has been high enough in only two outlets, including Brewhemia in Edinburgh, with the other eight having to put it on hold until enough customers return. However, the new “Republic of Beer” branding is also being rolled out for the tanks alongside the other sales and marketing collateral going to all of Budvar’s customers. The branding also extends to bottles of the dark lager, which has a rich coffee and dark chocolate flavour from using heavily roasted malts. Other beers in the UK include the hazy Kräusened Lager on draught, which is unfiltered and unpasteurised for a deeper flavour, and the alcohol-free Nealko.
In České Budějovice, the pandemic has not halted Budějovický Budvar’s investments in its brewery which began eight years ago. After a new bottling plant, a new logistics centre, a new lager cellar and upgrades in the tanks for the main fermentation, the final stage is the brewing room, which will increase capacity from 1.6 million hectolitres to 2.25 million hectolitres – an increase of around 40%. However, Adam stresses that these investments do not mean Budvar is turning its back on Czech beer-making traditions and is keeping the process the same as it was when the brewery was founded 125 years ago. “I can promise we will be equipped enough and we will protect the great heritage and great beer in the next 125 years.”