For over a hundred years, Anheuser-Busch — specifically Budweiser — was an American empire. It’s a company that managed to survive Prohibition, the Great Depression, and a finicky market that wanted to stray from an old blue collar beverage in favor of newer “light” beers, wines, and specialty microbrews. Yet the company was always able to outdo its American competitors and maintain its stronghold, even branching out of the beer industry by creating entertainment markets like Busch Gardens theme parks and maintaining ownership of the St. Louis Cardinals. When the national economy hit rough patches, Anheuser-Busch employees knew they could still count on steady employment, and the Busch family was sure to spread their wealth among various charities in St. Louis. They were untouchable.
How, then, did Anheuser-Busch manage to crumble so spectacularly in 2008? William Knoedelseder’s Bitter Brew begins on that fateful day in May 2008, when August Anheuser Busch IV, the forty-three-year-old CEO of AB showed up late to give his speech at the National Beer Wholesalers Association/Brewers Legislative Conference while appearing to be seriously impaired and under the influence of drugs. It was an embarrassing scene, and less than a month later InBev, a foreign corporation, made its first move to acquire AB. It wouldn’t be long before the biggest name in American beer was sold abroad, fundamentally changing a St. Louis institution and everything the company once stood for.
From there the book jumps back to the beginning, when the brewery was in its infancy and in the hands of enterprising German immigrants who got their hands on a beer recipe that “for years had been produced by monks in a small Bohemian village named Budweis.” It was a success, and even though the nation would soon be at war with Germany, smart marketing and business strategies kept the company afloat. Likewise, business savvy would keep the company alive during Prohibition: though they couldn’t sell the beer, they could sell the products needed to make the beer, and the company ended up being the go-to place for bootleggers!
It’s stories like these that make the book so wonderfully entertaining. Then, of course, are the members of the Busch family themselves, beginning with Adolphus Busch all the the way to the last CEO, August IV. “Gussie” (August Jr.) was a particularly colorful character (and if there’s ever a full-length biography published about him, I will gladly read it)! The book is tragic in terms of the Busch clan’s relationships with one another: all five AB CEOs were male heirs in the Busch clan, and all of them had troubled father-son relationships (some more explosive than others). All were philanderers with broken marriages. Saddest of all is August IV, who was CEO when AB collapsed, and whose drug and sex addictions and involvements in scandals — including the deaths of two women — are horrifying. It is certainly a very male/patriarchal narrative; at one point I wondered if any women ever worked at AB in any kind of major role (the answer is yes, and she’s currently suing the company for discrimination).
But overall I loved this book. Knoedelseder is a talented writer who keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Whether you’re reading about the story behind the Clydesdales or the story behind the Budweiser frog commercial, everything is utterly fascinating.
Bitter Brew: the Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer was released in November 2012 by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins.