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Authors: William Knoedelseder

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #History, #General, #Business & Economics, #Business

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer (3 page)

BOOK: Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer
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He closed with a sign-off that would be made famous some years later by newsman Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck,” then walked over to a VIP table and announced, “Beer is now being served.”

Indeed it was. Over the next eight hours, America's beer cities went on a bender unlike anything ever seen before, not even after the Armistice in 1918. Back at Kyum Brothers Café, a local politician named Larry McDaniel squeezed his ample belly behind the bar, raised a ten-cent glass of golden liquid, and hollered to the cheering crowd, “This is
beer.” At 2:30 a.m., four apparently democratically inclined beer lovers attempted to hijack an Anheuser-Busch truck but were interrupted by the police. By breakfast time, Anheuser-Busch had moved the equivalent of 3,588 barrels out of its plant, and the citizens of St. Louis had literally drunk the town dry; there wasn't a drop of beer left anywhere outside the brewery.

The situation was the same in all the big brewing towns, as demand outstripped all capacity for supply, prompting Gussie Busch to make a public plea for moderation. “We are asking people to hold back their orders,” he said. “I believe they are for not less than five million cases. Our Pacific Coast division has ordered 74,000 cases, and a man in Seattle has asked us to send him a seventy-five-car trainload as soon as we can.” In what would become a recurring theme in the decades to come, he explained, “The reason the supply is so limited is that beer must be thoroughly aged. This process takes more than three months, and cannot be hurried even under present exceptional conditions.”

In New York on the morning of April 8, thousands gathered to watch as the Clydesdales clopped through the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan and down Fifth Avenue to the Empire State Building, where Al Smith was waiting with a live radio microphone. In Washington, the White House was inundated with shipments from breweries all over the country, but Anheuser-Busch's huge bay horses with their white-feathered hooves caused a sensation when they pranced proudly along Pennsylvania Avenue with their package for the president.

The Clydesdales were featured prominently in the company's full-page newspaper ads the following day, along with heroically rendered images of American male archetypes—the Farmer, the Laborer, the Hunter, the Athlete. “Beer is Back!” the ads proclaimed, expounding on the same patriotic, Depression-busting theme as Gussie's radio address the night before:

Beer is back. But is that all? No. To cheer, to quicken American life with hospitality of old, the friendly glass of good fellowship is back. Sociability and good living return to their own, once more to mingle with memories and sentiments of yesterday. America looks forward, and feels better.

No one felt better than the Busches, of course, because no one had more to gain—or regain—from the repeal. Before Prohibition, they had been to beer what Rockefeller was to oil and Carnegie to steel, and the story of their rise in America rivaled that of the most famous robber barons of the Gilded Age.

dolphus Busch, the second youngest of twenty-two children born to a well-to-do wine merchant in Kastel, Germany, arrived in the United States in 1857 at the age of eighteen, in the midst of a massive influx of German immigrants. More than a million of them had arrived in the previous decade, a “Teutonic tide,” in the words of one historian. Unlike the Irish, who were pouring into the country desperately impoverished, the German émigrés tended to be middle-class liberals seeking social and economic freedom following the failure of a political revolution in 1848. They came to America with money to spend and migrated inland, with huge numbers of them settling in an area of the Mississippi River valley that became known as the German triangle, the points of which were Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.

Adolphus landed in New Orleans and traveled up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, where the German-born population had swelled from a mere sixteen families in 1833 to fully one quarter of the city's 161,000 residents the day he stepped off a steamboat. A June 1857 editorial in the newspaper the
described how the city had been transformed by his countrymen: “A sudden and almost unexpected wave of emigration swept over us, and we found the town inundated with breweries, beer houses, sausage shops, Apollo Gardens, Sunday concerts, Swiss cheese and Holland herrings. We found it almost necessary to learn the German language before we could ride in an omnibus, or buy a pair of breeches, and absolutely necessary to drink beer at a Sunday concert.”

St. Louis even had a German-language newspaper. The
Mississippi Hansel-Zeitung
reported in detail on the operations of the city's thirty to forty breweries, which were producing more than 60,000 barrels a year, or about 18 million five-cent glasses of beer, all of which were consumed locally.

Adolphus worked for two years as a clerk on a riverboat. When his father died in 1859, he used his inheritance to buy into a brewery supply business, forming Wattenberg, Busch & Company. One of his early customers was Eberhard Anheuser, a prosperous soap manufacturer who had come into ownership of the failed Bavarian Brewery through a defaulted $90,000 loan, and was trying to make it profitable.

On March 7, 1861, three days after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, Adolphus married Anheuser's daughter Lilly in St. Louis's Holy Ghost German Evangelical Lutheran Church. It's unlikely that Anheuser's beer was served at the wedding reception; it was so foul tasting that tavern owners were accustomed to patrons spitting it back across the bar at them. Anheuser, struggling to sell 4,000 barrels a year, soon ran up a sizable debt to his son-in-law's supply house. In 1865, after a four-month stint in the Union Army, Adolphus went to work for his father-in-law, and by 1873 the E. Anheuser & Co. brewery was profitably producing 27,000 barrels a year. Eberhard rewarded Adolphus in 1879 by making him a partner in the rechristened Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association and allowed him to purchase a minority stake in the company, amounting to 238 of the 480 shares of stock. When Eberhard died in 1880, he divided his stock among his five adult children. With Lilly's 116 shares added to his own 238, Adolphus controlled a majority, and his own destiny.

One of the first things he did as president of his own brewery was to acquire, through a close friend and local restaurant owner named Carl Conrad, the recipe for a beer that for years had been produced by monks in a small Bohemian village named Budweis. The crisp, pale lager was known in the region as Budweiser. Adolphus adopted the name along with Conrad's refined recipe and, now armed with a competitive product, set about revolutionizing the brewing industry.

Adolphus was the first brewer in the United States to pasteurize his product, which enabled him to bottle Budweiser and store it longer without fear of spoilage. He built a system of rail-side icehouses and became the first brewer to distribute his beer far beyond the local market. The icehouses morphed into a national distribution network when he pioneered the use of artificial (non-ice) refrigeration, first in his plant and then in a fleet of 250 railroad cars that transported his beer throughout the country. A proponent of vertical integration before there was even a name for it, he bought a controlling interest in the company that built the rail cars he used, as well as the company that made the glass bottles his brewery consumed in huge quantities. He bought two coal mines on the Illinois side of the river and built his own railroad connecting them to the brewery.

And he extended his control of the process all the way to the other end of the supply line by acquiring an interest in countless taverns, often paying for a new proprietor's liquor license, permits, and sometimes even rent, and providing promotional light fixtures and glassware, all in exchange for a signed agreement that the establishment would sell only Anheuser-Busch products.

As other brewers scrambled to compete by buying into their own saloons, abuses abounded, with proprietor-partners dabbling in prostitution and gambling on the side, bribing local police and politicians to look the other way. Those corrupt practices would come back to bite the brewing industry, but not before Adolphus Busch had built Budweiser into the first national brand of beer.

Of course, Adolphus got an assist from the U.S. population, which more than doubled between 1820 and 1870 with the arrival of 7.5 million immigrants, two-thirds of whom came from the beer-drinking countries of Germany and Ireland. He saw the dramatic population growth in St. Louis's German neighborhoods of Carondelet and Soulard and in the Irish section of the city known as the Kerry Patch, and he concluded that beer was on its way to becoming America's national drink. So he plowed profits back into the company, building more and more production capacity. Sure enough, between 1870 and 1900 per capita consumption of beer in the United States quadrupled, rising from four gallons a year to sixteen, and Anheuser-Busch became the largest brewer in the country, pumping out more than a million barrels of beer annually by the turn of the century.

Adolphus turned that river of beer into a mountain of money that he lavished on himself and his large family (Lilly gave birth to thirteen children, nine of whom survived to adulthood). With a personal income of an estimated $2 million a year at a time when there was no income tax, he maintained baronial mansions in St. Louis; Cooperstown, New York; Pasadena, California; and Bad Schwalbach, Germany, on the banks of the Rhine River. He called the Pasadena estate Ivy Wall, but it became known to the public as Busch's Garden due to the thirty-five acres of surrounding flora, which cost $500,000 to plant and required fifty gardeners to maintain. The estate was the envy of his fellow tycoons Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan, who hurried to build their own mansions nearby, creating Pasadena's famed “millionaire's row.”

Adolphus traveled between his American estates in a private rail car, immodestly named the
and outfitted sumptuously enough to earn its description as “a palace on wheels.” He built his own rail spur so the
could roll right up to the back door of the family's principal home at 1 Busch Place, located in the middle of a large park dotted with ponds and fountains on the grounds of the brewery. Everything he did was in the grandest style; some would say over-the-top or gauche. Indeed, the French-descended, blue-blooded banking class in St. Louis so disdained his showiness that they coined an adjective to describe it—“Buschy.” But Adolphus didn't much care what they thought. He didn't need their money; he did all his own financing. And he didn't need their social acceptance; he numbered among his friends Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The latter called him “Prince Adolphus.”

Among the general population in St. Louis, Adolphus was viewed as a benevolent monarch whose carriage whooshing past would cause common folk to catch their breath and cry out, “Oh, look!” And he played the part with flair. Always resplendent in the latest European tailoring, his flowing gray hair, twirled mustache, and elaborately long goatee trimmed daily by his personal servant barber, he greeted passersby in a booming, heavily accented voice and had a habit of handing out silver coins to the children who, understandably, came running whenever he appeared on the street. It wasn't so much affection he inspired among the populace as it was awe. He exuded power and privilege; he personified the American possibility. When he and Lilly celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, more than 13,000 people showed up at the St. Louis Coliseum for a party in their honor. The fact that the couple was 1,400 miles away at their Pasadena estate was more than made up for by the fact that the beer was free and unlimited. The crowd managed to consume 40,000 bottles in a few hours.

For all his Old World–liness, Adolphus had a genuine feel for his adopted country, and he exhibited a keen understanding of America's symbols and myths. In 1896, for example, he conceived a brilliant advertising campaign based on an epic painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn that he saw hanging on the wall behind the bar in a St. Louis saloon. Titled
Custer's Last Fight
, the eye-grabbing nine-by-sixteen-foot oil on canvas was the work of a local artist named Cassilly Adams, a descendant of Founding Father John Adams. The painting depicted General Custer with his long hair flying, saber in hand, fighting desperately in the last few minutes before he and his men were overwhelmed by thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The saloon was about to go into bankruptcy, and Adolphus was among the major creditors, so he acquired the painting along with its reproduction rights for a reported $35,000. He commissioned another artist to paint a smaller, modified version of Adams's work, instructing him to add more blood and scalpings. Then he distributed 150,000 lithographic prints of the painting to taverns, restaurants, hotels, and anywhere else that Budweiser was sold. There was no product mentioned or beer bottle pictured, just the legend “Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association” emblazoned at the bottom.

In a masterstroke of associative advertising, Adolphus had branded a piece of American history and made both the painting and the brewery part of the nation's popular culture. The campaign proved so successful that fifty years and an estimated million prints later, customers still crowded around a framed copy of
Custer's Last Fight
that hung on the wall in one small-town Missouri tavern. According to an article published in 1945 by the Kansas Historical Society, “It is probably safe to say that [
Custer's Last Fight
] has been viewed by a greater number of the lower-browed members of society—and by fewer art critics—than any other picture in American history.” More to the point, untold millions of those lowbrow barflies became loyal Budweiser drinkers, and Adolphus's promotional genius became part of his company's DNA.

BOOK: Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer
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