Kings of Beer

Some Americans--their ranks include both beer snobs and prohibitionists--consider Anheuser-Busch the devil incarnate. Still, the devil deserves his due. Anheuser-Busch is an American rarity: a family business that not only survived but came to dominate its industry. The Busches have outlasted the founding families of Pabst, Schlitz, and even Coors. 

In Under the Influence, prize-winning journalists Peter Hernon and Terry Gainey tell how the Busches managed this feat. Theirs is definitely an unauthorized biography; in fact, CEO August Busch III ordered Anheuser-Busch employees not to cooperate with them.

One reason for Busch's stonewalling is his family's scandal-ridden history. The men of the clan behaved like princes of the Holy Roman Empire: they brawled, sired big families, spent lavishly, and hobnobbed with the rich and titled. The family's story is also marred by tragedy: several men committed suicide, and others were involved in fatal accidents reminiscent of Chappaquiddick. And Busches of both sexes squabbled endlessly, especially when a wealthy patriarch passed on.

But the Busch men knew when to say when: their first loyalty was to the family business. As the authors put it, "The best among them have matched anyone's standard of hard work and pride of product. They have minded the store. Above all, they have remained true to their calling."

The Anheuser-Busch story began when Adolphus Busch arrived in America. A salesman, not a brewer, he married into the family of brewmaster Eberhard Anheuser, then turned a struggling business with a reputation for lousy beer into the world's number-one brewery. 

Described as "P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill and Cornelius Vanderbilt rolled into one," "Papa" Busch aggressively peddled his beer. He destroyed weak rivals and entered into price-fixing agreements with strong ones; that's how the game was played in robber-baron days. Some of Busch's tactics, especially bribing bar owners to sell his beer, created a backlash that helped usher in Prohibition. Even today, Anheuser-Busch is notorious for hardball marketing tactics, some of which skirt the edge of legality.

Anheuser-Busch's success wasn't based on marketing alone. It also was the result of Adolphus's stubborn insistence on quality, a tradition carried on by later generations. The Busches refused to boost production by cutting corners, a blunder that mortally wounded rival Schlitz in the 1970's. Theirs was also the first American brewery to use pasteurization, a process that enabled it to become America's first national brewery.

Buying influence was another key to success. The Busches cultivated a personal relationship with presidents, and spent heavily at the grassroots level to fight Prohibition. Even today, the company fears Carry Nation's return. As one company executive remarked, "The battle will never be won, but if we keep fighting, we won't lose it." For the most part, they haven't; while lawmakers have raised the drinking age and tightened the legal standard for drunk driving, they've done little to curb advertising and passed only modest tax increases. 

Having lived a full life, Adolphus Busch was laid to rest after one of the most lavish funerals America had seen. But in time, he would be outdone by his grandson, Augustus, Jr. Considered a lightweight when he took the reins at Anheuser-Busch, "Gussie" proved his critics wrong. He reveled in publicity, and got plenty of it from his four marriages and stormy tenure as president of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball club. But Gussie never lost sight of the importance of selling beer. 

Gussie, too, lived to a ripe old age. But his longevity almost proved Anheuser-Busch's undoing: during the Seventies, Gussie dithered as the brewery's profits eroded and its stock sank. Eventually, his son August III engineered a palace coup, a move the authors believe saved the company. Unlike his father, August III was a no-nonsense workaholic who loathed publicity. He was ruthless, but got results; under his rule, Anheuser-Busch dominated the beer market beyond Papa Busch's wildest dreams. 

Under the Influence is a compelling story of the dynasty that made Budweiser an international icon. The authors clearly don't admire the Busches, but treat them with respect. They're a clan to be reckoned with, especially by those unfortunate enough to stand in their way. 

Colorful as the Busch saga is, I wish the authors had paid more attention to the beer business. Reading the book, some questions come to mind: How did a beverage touted as one of moderation become a lightning rod for critics? Have America's drinking customs changed? To what extent was that change is due to the beer industry's relentless marketing? And how much blame does Anheuser-Busch deserve? These issues are as much a part of the Anheuser-Busch story as the family's many marriages, divorces, and affairs. 

A postscript: Since Under the Influence appeared in 1991, August III announced his retirement; and, for the first time, a non-Busch was named CEO. August IV is the heir apparent, but probably won't be handed the top job for several years. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch's amazing run continues: it almost achieved Gussie's audacious goal of half the U.S. beer market by 2000.