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Stretching across three centuries, from the start of the Civil War through Prohibition to today, Bitter Brew is the engrossing, often scandalous saga of one of the wealth- iest and most colorful dynasties in American commerce: the Busch family of St. Louis, Missouri, the founders of the legendary Anheuser-Busch company. The critically acclaimed journalist William Knoedelseder tells the story of how the Busch patriarchs turned a small brewery into a multibillion dollar international corporation and trans- formed ...
Stretching across three centuries, from the start of the Civil War through Prohibition to today, Bitter Brew is the engrossing, often scandalous saga of one of the wealth- iest and most colorful dynasties in American commerce: the Busch family of St. Louis, Missouri, the founders of the legendary Anheuser-Busch company. The critically acclaimed journalist William Knoedelseder tells the story of how the Busch patriarchs turned a small brewery into a multibillion dollar international corporation and trans- formed their product, Budweiser, into the iconic "King of Beers." He paints a fascinating portrait of immense wealth and power accompanied by scandal, heartbreak, tragedy, and untimely death. A cautionary tale of prosperity, hubris, and loss, Bitter Brew is also a revealing chronicle of American progress and decline over the past 150 years.
"BEER IS BACK!"
A crowd began gathering at the brewery gates in the early evening of April 7, 1933, milling around near the intersection of Broadway and Pestalozzi Streets on the south side of the city near the river. As the hands of the lighted clock on the Gothic Brew House tower approached midnight, the number of people swelled to an estimated 35,000, standing shoulder to shoulder for blocks around, growing increasingly boisterous in anticipation: America's thirteen year prohibition against the sale of beer was about to end.
"Happy days are here again, the skies above are clear again," they roared out in a raucous chorus, "Let us sing a song of cheer again."
Similar scenes played out in smaller scale all around town. Over at Kyum Brothers Café at Ninth and Pine, patrons sang Irving Berlin's teetotaler's lament "The Near Future" - "How dry I am ..."- while hundreds of customers at the German House restaurant joined in an old Deutschland drinking song, "Was Wilst du Haben?" (What will you have?).
Inside the iron gates of the giant brewery complex, 300 trucks pressed up to the loading dock, while 1,200 more lined up bumper-to-bumper on the street outside, ready to take their place. From within the plant the rumble of machinery signaled that the long hibernating giant was now fully awake, as seemingly endless columns of brown Budweiser bottles, with their famous red-and-white labels, clattered along snaking conveyor belts to be packed in wooden crates proudly stamped, "Property of Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis Mo."
On the bottling plant floor, brewery president August A. Busch Sr. and his two sons, Adolphus III and August Jr., posed for photographers as they packed a twenty-four count crate destined for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who'd swept into office in - November on the promise of a "new deal" for America that included the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Full repeal would not come for eight more months because it required another constitutional amendment and thus needed ratification by the legislatures in thirty-six (three-fourths) of the forty-eight states. But FDR had already made good on his campaign promise to the nation's brewers. On March 4, nine days after his inauguration, he asked Congress to immediately modify the so-called Volstead Act, which had set the maximum legal alcoholic content of beverages at .05 percent, to allow the sale of beer with a 3.2 percent alcohol. "I deem action at this time to be of highest importance," he said. Both the House and the Senate quickly complied, setting April 8 as the date when the sale of beer could resume.
The Busches had been preparing for this moment ever since the election, spending more than $7 million to refit and modernize their plant, purchase supplies, and gather the ingredients for the brewing process, notably the expensive Bohemian hops they considered crucial to the character of Budweiser, which had been the No. 1 selling beer in the world when America's state lawmakers shut off the tap.
Eager to reestablish their brand as the "King of Beers," the company's board of directors had authorized August Jr., the superintendent of the brewery, to buy several teams of Clydesdale draft horses "for advertising purposes." Gussie, as he was called, purchased sixteen of the massive 2,000-pound animals for $21,000 at the Kansas City stockyards. He also found two wooden wagons from back in the days when the company employed eight hundred teams of horses to deliver its beer, and set about having them restored to the exacting standards of his late grandfather, brewery founder Adolphus Busch, who liked to conduct weekly inspections from a viewing stand, with his son August at his side as all the drivers passed in parade, hoping to win the $25 prize for the best kept team and wagon.
Gussie's wagon restoration was conducted in secrecy behind locked doors in the brewery's famed Circular Stable because he wanted to surprise his father with this majestic symbol of the company's history and the old man's youth. Gussie even tracked down Billy Wales, who had been the company's best eight-horse driver for years prior to Prohibition, when he left to work in the Chicago stockyards because he couldn't bear to be away from horses. When all was ready, Gussie and his brother Adolphus III called their father out of his office, telling him they wanted to show him a new automobile. Instead, as they walked across the street toward the stable, the big doors swung open and the first team of perfectly matched Clydesdales - each with white stockings and feathers, a white blaze on its face, and white ribbons braided into its mane and tail - high-stepped into view, pulling a bright red brass-trimmed wagon with Billy Wales sitting up in the driver's seat. Speechless, the old man wept at the sight.
And now, finally, the big moment had arrived. A brass band was playing outside the brewery as the crowd counted down the Brew House clock. At the stroke of midnight, the plant whistles shrieked, setting off widespread jubilation, with cars honking and bells ringing all across the city. At 12:01, beer trucks began rolling through the gates and onto the streets. Sirens wailed as police cars escorted the first truck to the St. Louis airport, where one case of Budweiser was loaded onto a Ford Trimotor plane bound for Washington, D.C. and President Roosevelt, and another was put aboard a flight to Newark, New Jersey, for former New York Governor, Al Smith, a hero to August Sr. because of his anti-Prohibition presidential campaign against Herbert Hoover in 1928. A six-horse hitch of Clydesdales had been sent ahead to Newark, New Jersey, where it now waited on the tarmac to carry the precious cargo on the last leg of the journey.
In the train yard of the Anheuser-Busch complex, newly hired workers loaded cases of bottled Budweiser onto 130 freight cars while the brewery's fleet of bright red trucks fanned out through the city, making priority deliveries to the Jefferson, Mayfair, Lennox, and Chase Park Plaza hotels, where crowds of well-heeled patrons waited. In the lobby of the bottling plant, Gussie Busch stepped to a microphone that had been set up by the fledgling CBS Radio Network for a nationally broadcast report on the celebrations going on in three "beer cities"—St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee's his ailing father listened to the radio broadcast at his home, Gussie addressed the nation for the first time:
"April seventh is here, and it is a real occasion for thankfulness, marking a new found freedom for the American people, made possible by the wisdom, foresight and courage of a great president and the cooperation of an understanding Congress. There is a song in our hearts: it's 'Happy Days Are Here Again.' And they are here again," he said, "for out of a maze of confusion and anxiety has come a beacon light to guide the way to better times. Happy, grateful men are back to work after what seemed an endless idleness."
Reading from a script he surely had not written but every word of which he certainly believed, Gussie went on for more than two minutes, linking the country's economic future to that of the brewing industry. "Once again freight cars are rolling in, loaded with grain from American farms, bottles and cases and various equipment, as well as coal and supplies from industries long suffering from the Depression, while others soon will be rolling out and onward, contributing their share toward the rehabilitation of industry, agriculture, and transportation." With brewers and politicians now working together, he said, "a new and greater era looms on the horizon for our people, one that will result in a happier and more secure existence for all of us."
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 Democratic 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.
Adolphus 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 Republican 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.
Excerpted from Bitter Brew by William Knoedelseder. Copyright © 2012 by William Knoedelseder. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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