Budvar's Czech points

The assumption when a drinks brand relaunches with a new look is that it’s to sell more stuff.

This year’s rebranding of Czech lager Budweiser Budvar came with a very different target though, as international brand manager Josh Nesfield explains. “If you’re a normal corporate brewery the brief from the people at the top is to strip lots of costs out or sell lots and lots of beer,” says Nesfield.

“Our brief was to sell the Czech Republic. As a state-owned brewery we have a dual goal of representing ourselves as a company and representing the Czech Republic and its beer culture.”

Budvar’s ownership status – a legacy of the country’s late-20th century Communist rule – truly sets it apart in the beer world, not just globally but in the Czech Republic as well, where the brands UK drinkers will most easily recognise, Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen, are respectively owned by Asahi of Japan and Molson Coors of the US.

After Communism collapsed, Budvar’s state-owned status was briefly challenged, as the American Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch courted it with predatory intentions.

The UK’s Camra played a significant part in a popular campaign to send Anheuser-Busch packing and the Czech state seems to have made peace with the idea that owning one of the world’s great lager breweries is an asset. “It’s the Czech family silver,” says Nesfield. “There’s no intention to sell.”

The relaunch cements the relationship between the Czech people and the brewery. While many British beer enthusiasts scan world lager labels for signs that they are brewed in the place their imagery suggests they’re from, the front of the new Budvar packs state that it is “owned by the Czech Republic”, not just made there.

“We believe that lager from the Czech Republic has a special place in people’s hearts, like cigars from Cuba or whisky from Scotland,” says Nesfield. “It’s not a revolution when it comes to this positioning. It’s tightening up the history and DNA we’ve always had and talking a bit more patriotically about Czech beer and beer culture.

“Beer’s very much a point of Czech national pride and culture, not just brewing but consumption as well. The Czech Republic consistently has the highest per capita beer consumption in the world.

“We’ll always only ever brew in one place. It’s not cheap to brew exclusively with whole-cone Saaz hops and have longer maturation times than most other world lagers, but costcutting and value-engineering are not really in our dictionary.”

Simon George, managing director of Budweiser Budvar UK, says the brand had a good lockdown compared to others, with IRI figures showing off-trade sales up 74% in the 12 weeks to August 9, despite a 12% drop in distribution points against a year earlier, mainly as a result of being dropped by Sainsbury’s.

“We had a very strong showing on cans in the convenience channel with other breweries being unable to supply,” says George. “The brand performed really well across both multiple grocers and the convenience channel.”

Inexplicably, in an age when acceptance of the unusual in British beer culture has never been higher, Budvar has been unable to gain much off-trade traction for its moreish Budvar Dark lager. “It’s not through lack of trying,” says George, “but it’s not something that’s understood as easily by the supermarket lager buyers as a pale Czech lager is.

“We’ve got good distribution in the on-trade and we enjoyed success in a direct-to-consumer initiative with Flavourly. If you want to want to write to your local Sainsbury’s or Waitrose and say they should stock Budvar Dark I’d be absolutely thrilled.”

Overall Budvar export volumes have been steadily increasing over the past few years, adds Nesfield. “We’re still expanding and increasing capacity,” he adds. “The thing that’s really stopping us from selling more is not lack of demand but our own inability to supply it. It’s a very nice position to be in for a brewery that’s been around for so long.”

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