Bitter Brew: The story of how Budweiser hasn't always been terrible



Budweiser: Americas social companion
  • Who needs friends when you've got Budweiser?
William Knoedelseder's recent book Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer covers a lot of ground: the Busch family dynasty and the antics of its members, the company's importance in Saint Louis and its struggle to become (and then remain) the biggest brewer in the U.S.—and, relatedly, Anheuser-Busch's commitment to quality. Of all the revelations in the book, it's that last part that surprised me the most.

I grew up with Budweiser—I'm pretty sure it's the first beer I ever tried, and probably the reason that I thought for a long time that I didn't like beer—and I don't remember anyone thinking it was particularly good. And in craft-beer circles if it's mentioned at all, it's generally to make a negative comparison: for example, "This beer is swill; you might as well just drink Bud Light." (Incidentally, the introduction of Bud Light in 1982 was what finally allowed Anheuser-Busch to take the lead in the battle with Miller for dominance of the market, Knoedelseder says.)

For research purposes, I drank some Bud Light last night, and the truth is that as long as it's cold it doesn't taste terrible. It doesn't taste like much of anything, of course, but whatever flavor it does have is apparently carefully controlled (or was before the InBev takeover; the book doesn't get into whether the formula has changed since then).

In the early 1970s, Schlitz was the biggest threat to Anheuser-Busch's number-one place in the market, building huge plants and adding artificial carbonation to speed up fermentation, which reduced its brewing time from 25 days to 15, compared with Budweiser's 40 days. Knoedelseder describes a shareholders' meeting in 1973 where August Busch Jr. (who went by "Gussie") and his son August Busch III had to explain the company's declining profits:

Schlitz looked better on paper for the moment, they claimed, only because the Milwaukee brewer used cheaper, non-natural ingredients in its brewing process. . . . "We are not going to trade cost efficiency for low product quality," August vowed. "We are not going to trade solid long term growth for short term earnings gain." Gussie put it in a more personal context: "As long as I'm in charge, I'm not going to lower quality." He believed in his bones that shortcuts and substitutions were the road to ruin in the brewing business . . .

As it turned out, Gussie was right: because of the shorter brewing process, Schlitz beer didn't have time to settle out, so the company started using an antihazing additive to make the beer clear. That additive ended up reacting over time with a foam stabilizer used in the beer and forming tiny white flakes in the bottles and cans. Schlitz tried removing the foam stabilizer and ended up with flat, headless beer. They had to recall more than 10 million bottles and cans of "unacceptable beer," and, Knoedelseder writes, "Schlitz sales fell more than 40 percent, its stock price plummeted to $5 a share, and its reputation as a quality brewer was irrevocably destroyed. Within a few years, the 'beer that made Milwaukee famous' all but vanished from the marketplace (the brewery was purchased by Detroit-based Stroh Brewing Company in 1982)."

In the mid-70s Augustus Busch III took over the company, and, according to Knoedelseder, "Much of the company lived in constant fear of August's taste buds. He functioned as A-B's unofficial taster-in-chief, relentlessly sampling the output of all nine plants." Each brewery already had a tasting room where the brewers would sample the plant's products every afternoon and take notes, but August would drop in, gather a bunch of people, and have them taste beers from various plants. And his work extended to the field, too; former executive Michael Brooks told Knoedelseder about an inspection tour of the company's marketing presence at the Indy 500.

After checking out the ad signage and meeting the Budweiser racing team owner and driver, August was headed back to his helicopter when he spotted a large trashcan overflowing with empty beer bottles. Brooks watched in astonishment as the boss whipped out his Dictaphone and began fishing out Bud and Bud Light empties, reading the date codes aloud so someone could check to see if the beer being sold at Indy was fresh. "That’s how focused he was on quality," Brooks said.

"So there he was, the chairman of the company in his sunglasses, $500 slacks, and $1,000 boots, digging through the trash," said Brooks, still marveling at the image years later, "when this drunk, tattooed biker walks up, stares at him like he's from the moon, and says, 'Hey, buddy, if you need a beer that bad I'll buy you one.' August almost fell down laughing."

I'm still not planning to start drinking Anheuser-Busch products anytime soon, but the company does have a fascinating history.

Julia Thiel writes about booze every Wednesday.

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