Walk into a saloon in any of a dozen U.S. cities and ask for a Lev—most likely, all you’ll get back from the bartender is a quizzical stare. Few states sell the tall, dark bottles of Lev, but the beer has become one of Utah’s go-to beverages. Brewed from 1844 to 1999 in the town of Hradec Kralove and then Havlickuv Brod, both in the Czech Republic, Lev (“Lion”) beer is a kind of local oddity—indeed, the brew is consumed by more Utahns than beer drinkers in its home country.
Distributed in 12 states, Lev has, for some inexplicable reason, made its biggest splash in the Beehive State. It sells better here than anywhere in the country, says Milena Harvey, the beer’s U.S. importer. Every year since it was introduced to Utah in 1995, the beer’s sales have increased. In 2006, the state consumed 10,000 cases.
Lev’s popularity is especially interesting due to the, well, special place beer holds in this state. Even as the amount of beer produced and consumed in Utah rises, the state still consumes, per capita, the lowest amount of beer in the nation: 12.2 gallons a year, according to the National Beer Institute.
So, how and why a regional beer from a Central European nation with one of the highest per-capita beer consumption rates in the world became popular in a state with the lowest per-capita beer consumption rate in the nation is a curious tale.
It took the fall of the Soviet Union, Utah’s strange liquor laws, the energy of two European women and the indefinable nature of local tastes to bring the Lion to Zion.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Eastern Europe was freed. But the end of communism did more than free people. It opened up Western markets that had been deprived of some of the best beers in the world for almost 40 years.
For the majority of Czech breweries, which had previously been told how much beer to produce and to whom it would be sold, the transition to free-market capitalism was a difficult process, says Martin Dvorak, the head economic adviser of the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Washington, D.C. So, when a Czech expatriate came knocking on brewery doors, she was more than welcome.
In the early ’90s, Lev importer Harvey—a Czech—had married an American and moved to the United States. As she looked for work, she noticed a dearth of good beer. As she says, “Czechs are taught they make the best beer in the world.” At the time, she says, only one Czech beer was on the U.S. market: Pilsner Urquell. But Harvey knew that dozens of quality beers were brewed in her homeland. So, she thought, “Why not import some here?” One of those quality brews was Lev.
“We tried to introduce the beer to as many places as possible,” including Utah, says Harvey, who is based in Pleasanton, Calif.
Harvey met Gisela Cavalleri, Lev’s Utah distributor, through a mutual friend in the early ’90s. Originally from Germany, Cavalleri was trying to sell foreign wines at the time and halfheartedly agreed to sell Lev in Utah. “Lev was just kind of an afterthought,” she says.
But Utah’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the state agency responsible for buying and selling all alcohol over 3.2 percent, chose Lev first. The DABC’s explanation is that the beer is of good quality, is priced well and there are few similar beers on the market. After the state bought Lev, Cavalleri made sure “her baby” was doing well, she says. From then on, she made frequent stops at each of the six wine stores in Salt Lake County to make sure Lev was on the shelves. Twelve years later, Lev sells better than any of her other products. Her only explanation for Lev’s success: “It’s good.”
“In Utah, to sell any kind of liquor is difficult,” she says. So, if a beer sells well, she doesn’t ask a lot of questions.
In the end, the answer to Lev’s success might be simpler than it sounds. High alcohol content, low price (a 16-ounce bottle of Lev is $2.05 at the state store) and high quality might be all it takes. At least, that’s the opinion of Derek Johnson, a bartender at Junior’s Tavern in downtown Salt Lake City. “It’s in a big bottle, it’s fairly inexpensive, and it’s a good beer.”