Bitter Brew

The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer

by William Knoedelseder

Bitter Brew

Paperback, 396 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $17.99 | purchase


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Hardcover, 396 pages, HarperBusiness, $27.99, published November 6 2012 | purchase

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  • Bitter Brew
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NPR Summary

Part cautionary tale, part business manual, William Knoedelseder's Bitter Brew tells the story of how five generations of men took a small, bankrupt brewery on the banks of the Mississippi and turned it into an international empire.

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NPR stories about Bitter Brew

August A. Busch (center) and his sons, Adolphus III (left) and August Jr., seal the first case of beer off the Anheuser-Busch bottling plant line in St. Louis on April 7, 1933, when the sale of low-alcohol beers and wines was once again legal. Prohibition didn't officially end until Dec. 5 of that year.

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Bitter Brew


"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 Cafe 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 13, 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.

From Bitter Brew: The Rise And Fall Of Anheuser-Busch And America's Kings Of Beer by William Knoedelseder. Copyright 2012 by William Knoedelseder. Excerpted by permission of HarperBusiness.

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