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Budvar champion hailed at Czech brewery

Added: Thursday, April 3rd 2014

Denis Cox

Denis Cox is retiring. It’s one of the vagaries of the English language that it could be taken to mean he’s the shy type. But anyone who has met and supped with the PR controller for Budweiser Budvar UK will know that, on the contrary, he’s an ebullient and uproarious character who tirelessly supports the brand and the brewery he loves.

Denis is a street fighter. He is the polar opposite of the smooth-talking PR type who keeps his views tightly buttoned. Like a stick of Blackpool rock, he has Budvar stamped all over him. He has fought tirelessly not just to promote the Czech beer but also to keep it free from the clutches of the American giant Anheuser-Busch, brewer of the rival Budweiser.

Denis dubs AB – now AB InBev – “the evil empire”, a phrase burrowed from Ronald Reagan. Ten minutes in Dennis’s company will quickly tell you it’s the only thing he has in common with the former American president.

His contribution the Budvar cause was marked at the brewery in Ceské Budejovice in February when he was presented with an engraved drinking stein and a key to one of the coveted boxes in the brewery’s "Chapel" in the reception area. The boxes hold beer mugs for those people the brewery recognises as its vital friends and supporters. Denis Cox has joined me and we’re the only two Brits honoured with mugs and keys: mine is Number 68, carefully chosen to recall the Prague Spring of 1968, the first revolt against Soviet rule.

If that suggests Denis and I are joined at the hip, it’s a reasonable assumption. I first met him when he invited me to sample the two beers named Budweiser and asked for my opinion. The American version – brewed, as the label makes clear, from rice as well as barley malt – is thin and largely devoid of taste. The Czech beer, on the other hand, is packed with juicy malt and tangy hop character: a joy to those “who have sense in their mouth”, as a British beer writer observed several centuries ago.

From then on, I joined Denis on a helter-skelter ride to defend Budvar from possible takeover and emasculation. He gave me a quick history lesson to explain why there are two beers with the same name. Budvar is based in a town in the Czech Republic that’s best known by its old German name of Budweis. For centuries, beers from the town have been called Budweiser, just as the great Czech brewing city of Pilsen marks its beer as Pilsner.

Budvar brewhouse

The waters were muddied in the 19th century when two German emigrants to the United States called Anheuser and Busch opened a brewery in St Louis and called their beer Budweiser. The result has been a long and seemingly unending legal tussle over trademark rights to the brand name.

For years, it seemed inevitable that the financial muscle of the American giant would lead to Budvar’s takeover. But the Czech brewery remains owned and controlled by the government that has repeatedly made it clear it will not allow AB InBev – or any other global beer maker – to snap up this jewel in the brewing crown. The brewery's magnificent copper brewhouse is pictured above.

The fact that so many people in Britain are aware of the “battle of the Budweisers” is due largely to Denis Cox’s indefatigable support for the Czech version. He’s a journalist by trade, a background that has helped him tell a good story with clarity and panache. He was born in Luton, educated in Bedford and worked for both the Luton News and Bedfordshire Times before moving into public relations.

It was while performing PR duties for a British engineering firm that worked in communist Czechslovakia that he came into contact with Kospol, the government body that controlled the export of food and drink to the West. Ironically, his first work for Kospol was promoting not Budvar but its rival, Pilsner Urquell.

But back in Britain, his wife Shirley, who worked for the magazine Drinks Retailing, put him in touch with Lynne Zilka, who had started to import Budvar and needed PR support. Eventually Lynne Zilka was replaced when the Czech brewery opened its own London office and set up Budvar UK. Denis Cox, however, remained as the hub, endlessly proclaiming the superiority of the Czech beer and taking parties of journalists to the brewery.

Now, as he prepares to take a well-deserved rest, he can point to the success of Budvar that can be measured by sales in Britain that have grown from 20,000 hectolitres a year to around 100,000. On its home patch, Budvar has just announced that global exports have risen by 16% to 763,000 hectos or 20m gallons, the best for 118 years. The beer that won’t lie down is now sold in 65 countries.

Neither, I suspect, will Denis Cox lie down for long. He’s not, in every sense of the word, the retiring sort. A farewell party is planned by Budvar UK and what better theme for the occasion than Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way”.

*Print version Publican's Morning Advertiser 3 April 2014