Citizen Coors: An American Dynastyby Dan Baum
Citizen Coors is the riveting saga of an American dynasty. From the moment the destitute Prussian Adolph Coors stows away on a Baltimore-bound ship in 1868 to the worldwide expansion of the billion-dollar Coors Brewing Company, Citizen Coors is a headlong American tale of triumph over bare-knuckle competition. The Coors family does it the/b>/b>
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Citizen Coors is the riveting saga of an American dynasty. From the moment the destitute Prussian Adolph Coors stows away on a Baltimore-bound ship in 1868 to the worldwide expansion of the billion-dollar Coors Brewing Company, Citizen Coors is a headlong American tale of triumph over bare-knuckle competition. The Coors family does it the old-fashioned way, through fearsome devotion to product, rejection of modern marketing, and refusing to borrow so much as a nickel.
But the family almost rides its principles into the ground. "Nobody will ever choose a beer on the basis of a thirty-second ad," Bill Coors is fond of saying at a time when his two main competitors, Anheuser-Busch and Miller, are spending upward of a billion dollars a year on ads. He won't even allow a ring-pull can. The brewery's decline and recovery are dizzying.
But Citizen Coors is more than a business story. Here is Adolph, the founder,in 1929, distraught over Prohibition, hurling himself to his death from a hotel balcony. Here is Bill,ten years later, yearning for the wider world but forced back to the brewery by a single glance from his father. Here is Joe, Jr., raised to rule yet suddenly banished for marrying without permission. Here is Peter, prevented from rescuing the company precisely because he has been trained to do so. Here is kidnapping and murder. Here are generations of Coors men broken against the iron will of their fathers. Here is a second suicide, eerily similar to the first.
Citizen Coors is finally a chronicle of how America was shaped politically in the last three decades of the twentieth century. For along with the Coors family's adherence to handshake integrity and old-world craft came some less roseate ideals from the nineteenth century: that disparity of wealth is proper, that government efforts to achieve social equality are illegitimate, that the Bible is the rule book for intimate conduct, and that capital must never bow to labor. The Coors family forever changed the American political landscape by creating the Heritage Foundation and a right-wing TV network, by financing the conservative shift in Congress, and by being early backers of a politically ambitious B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan.
In retaliation, blacks, feminists, unions, gays, and environmentalists came together to bash Coors in perhaps the most effective consumer boycott of modern timesa boycott that continues to hobble the company.
Based on more than 150 interviews, Citizen Coors serves up a powerful cocktail of beer and politics. Dan Baum, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, captures in this rollicking narrative the genius, eccentricity, and tragic weaknesses of the remarkable Coors family.
With enough private dramas to put them on par with the Ewings of Dallas, and enough business crises to keep them constantly in the business hot-seat, the ultra-right-wing Coors of Golden, Colorado, represent one of the more riveting family sagas of our time. Their billion-dollar empire grew out of a single brewery begun in 1873, but it wasn't long before the family became known as much for their right-wing politics as their beer.
The third generation of Coors men financed the birth of the Heritage Foundation, which jump-started the Reagan revolution. Old-fashioned about business and equally dubious of new ideas, they consistently ignored the importance of marketing until they were forced to, finally introducing the "Silver Bullet," and improved their image with unions and minorities only after they were compelled to do so by years of boycotts. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum captures the eccentricity and foibles of this family and company in this fast-paced tale of vivid characters in business and politics.With enough private dramas to put them on par with the Ewings of Dallas, and enough business crises to keep them constantly in the business hot-seat, the ultra-right-wing Coors of Golden, Colorado, represent one of the more riveting family sagas of our time. Their billion-dollar empire grew out of a single brewery begun in 1873, but it wasn't long before the family became known as much for their right-wing politics as their beer.
The third generation of Coors men financed the birth of the Heritage Foundation, which jump-started the Reagan revolution. Old-fashioned about business and equally dubious of new ideas, they consistently ignored the importance of marketing until they were forced to, finally introducing the "Silver Bullet," and improved their image with unions and minorities only after they were compelled to do so by years of boycotts. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum captures the eccentricity and foibles of this family and company in this fast-paced tale of vivid characters in business and politics.
The New York Times Book Review
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Clear Creek flowed toward Adolph Coors as water and away from him as beer. Born among the frosted peaks of the Continental Divide, it trickles into rivulets atop shoulders of silver plume granite and plunges down twenty-five miles of winding rock canyon into Golden, Coloradoa perfect trove of luscious snowmelt. Adolph Coors founded his brewery here in 1876 with a grubstake of $2,000. Seventeen years later, he was a millionaire. Then Clear Creek rose up and nearly killed him.
It happened on Memorial Day, 1894. A flash flood thundered down the canyon and sheared an expensive new addition off the brewery. Two ice reservoirsshallow, man-made ponds from which his German workmen cut blocks in wintervanished under the torrent. The water kept rising. Adolph and his family abandoned their ornate Queen Anne mansion for fear of being swept downriver.
Adolph wasn't religious, so he likely took no comfort from thoughts of God's will as he watched Clear Creek heedlessly tear his handiwork to pieces. Nor was he a devil-may-care who could appreciate the irony of the moment and vow with a laugh to make his second million as easily as he'd made his first. Adolph grimly stood his ground between the foaming cascade and his beloved brewery. Around him, the people of Golden scattered like leaves, grabbing what possessions they could. In front of him, dead sheep, whole trees, and shards of ruined buildings slid past. The river lunged closer and closer to he toes of his boots. The Coors story might well have ended there.
That it didn't is tribute to the double-edged legacy of ingenuity and muleheadedness Adolphbequeathed his family. Even though Adolph Coors died in 1929, he was still effectively running the company more than sixty years later; the company's genius for mechanical invention and vertical integration derived directly from his personality. So did its nearfatal aversion to marketing. The patriarch's portrait glowers everywherein the boardroom, in the lunchroom, in the annual report. Adolph's signature is the corporate logo. "It's the reason they've had so much trouble doing anything new," one of their former marketing chiefs laments. "They're all afraid old Adolph is going to rise up out of the grave and kick their ass."
Adolph Coors was indeed an ass-kicker: a brooding, taciturn man who demanded uncomplaining performance equally from brewery foreman and youngest grandchild. He wasn't heartlesshe lost money keeping his workers on the payroll during Prohibitionbut he was all business. Money wasn't his motive, although he did treat himself to finery and displayed instinctively elegant taste. Political power wasn't his mission, either. Adolph Coors believed a man is measured not by wealth or influence but by the quality of his work, and Adolph's work was brewing beer. He had no hobbies, played no sports, sought no learning beyond his craft. He had a wife and six children, whom he carefully arranged around himself for photographs. On Sundays he demanded their attendance at extremely formal and virtually silent family dinners. He buried two infants within seven years of each other and left their graves unmarked. Adolph Coors aged into a dark and joyless reticence, unable to take pleasure in his remarkable achievements. He would finally kill himself, leaving behind $2 million, a unique dedication to quality above profit, and a family tradition of frosty obedience that stifled intellect, thwarted dreams, fostered rebellion, and occasioned a second suicide.
Adolph Coors was born in the central European "patchwork of petty principalities" that would one day become Germany. In 1848, his parents Joseph and Helene moved with baby Adolph from the Prussian countryside into the city of Dortmund so that Joseph could work as a miller. Helene birthed two more children in the home that stood providentially across the street from the Wenker Brewery. When Adolph finished grammar school at fourteen, his father talked to Mr. Wenker and Adolph was awarded an apprenticeship in the brewery's business office.
Within a year, the Coors children were orphans. Tuberculosis killed Adolph's mother in April 1862 and his father eight months later. Adolph, William, and Helene were installed in a Catholic orphanage. Six days a week, fifteen-year-old Adolph trudged to his bookkeeper's stool at the brewery, trying to buy his siblings out of hock.
Two other developments in Adolph's teenage life helped forge the man he grew to be. First was the arrival of the Industrial Revolution to Germany's brewing industry. Young Adolph watched the Wenker Brewery bolt its first steam engines into position and with a clang and a roar multiply its output manyfold. Adolph was entranced. The collar-and-tie front office where he labored over ledgers was all talk and paper. But back in the brewery, men wielded the might of steel and steam against tangible problems. Adolph yearned to be among the men in leather aprons, where sparse talk was valued for its technical content. In a career move that would shape everything to come, Adolph abandoned the business of selling beer for the challenge of brewing it.
The second development was Otto von Bismarck's bloody campaign to unite the German-speaking principalities into a single state by finding common enemies to fight. Conflict was constant and the bloody burden fell upon the nation's young men. Half a million chose to flee to America instead of fighting for the Kaiser. Adolph Coors, twenty-one years old, was among them.
Adolph stowed away on a ship bound for Baltimore, an act that would haunt him the rest of his life. Despite all he achieved, he remained ashamed that he once boarded a ship without paying. Never mind that he later paid the passage. He decreed this never be discussed, and his hold over the family was so strong that they obeyed him long after his death.
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(Peter Hernon, coauthor of New York Times bestseller Under the Influence: The Unauthorized Story of the Anheuser-Busch Dynasty)
Meet the Author
Dan Baum has been a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and now writes occasionally for Rolling Stone. He is the author of Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. He lives with his wife and daughter in Watsonville, California.
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