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Why Budweiser Should Matter to the Midwest
"The consistency is staggering"
By Tony Rehagen
In Midwestern craft beer circles, there’s nothing cool about Budweiser. Anheuser-Busch was already the Walmart of Big Beer before InBev’s 2008 hostile takeover, after which a disturbingly powerful new American-Brazilian-Belgian conglomerate known as ABInBev cut thousands of jobs in its hometown of St. Louis and moved its sales and marketing operations to New York.
Of course, ABInBev is still a domineering presence in the Midwest, as it is all over the world. The company’s garrison of Clydesdales, bull terriers, and talking frogs has helped it squeeze diversity—and flavor—out of the domestic marketplace, making room for thirty-packs of cans containing marginally different variations of the same watered-down brew. When craft beer dared to nibble at the outer edges of its massive market share, the company started swallowing up beloved regional microbreweries, including Chicago’s Goose Island and Cleveland’s Platform, and turning them into “crafty breweries,” marketed as craft but backed by big bucks, further nudging truly independent brewers out of prized shelf and tap space.
But despite this litany of crimes against craft, to many beer aficionados, Anheuser-Busch’s most maddening offense might be that its product, namely its flagship Budweiser, is actually, objectively… pretty damn good.
“It’s dirty—they’re dirty, and the lobbying dollars they spend hurt us,” says Abbey Spencer, head brewer at Third Wheel Brewing in St. Peters, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb in the shadow of the Clydesdale Empire. “But they also spend a massive amount of their money on the quality of their product. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be where they are.”
Spencer is far from the only craft brewer with a begrudging admiration for the so-called King of Beers. Any basement homebrewer who has tried making an American light lager knows that it can be significantly harder to execute than, say, an IPA. Fewer ingredients means fewer flavors to cover up mistakes, flaws, and imperfections. And even if you get it right once, replicating that success over and over again for decades is nearly impossible for a small-scale operation. “The consistency is staggering,” says Jonathan Moxey, head brewer at Rockwell Beer Company, an award-winning purveyor of craft lagers in St. Louis. “They have teams of people and types of equipment they use to dial it in at a fine level of precision. They are making beer exactly as they set out to, nailing it in breweries across the country. Most people aren’t going to be able to tell if their Budweiser was brewed in St. Louis or New Jersey.”
“Budweiser is kind of the beer equivalent of McDonald’s French fries,” says Jim Koch, an Ohio native who launched his own popular American lager, Samuel Adams, in 1984. “McDonald’s has perfected the French fry. You can go to fancy restaurants that have pommes frites on the menu, and they aren’t that much better than what you can get from a drive-thru. The technical definition of quality is conformity to the maker’s intentions. By that definition, Budweiser—like McDonald’s fries—is undoubtedly a quality product.”
Despite its foreign ownership and global reach, Budweiser is still the quintessential American beer. The original brew is only the fourth most popular beer in the U.S., but Bud Light holds the top spot. And there’s no questioning Bud’s place in our culture, from omnipresent TV and radio ads to the logos emblazoned on stadium walls and boxing-ring canvases to the product placements in movies to the beer’s popularity as a prop in political campaigns. The company even had the audacity to temporarily change the name on its cans to “America” a couple of years ago. In the beginning, it was just one of many Old World-inspired lagers brought over by the German immigrants who settled in America’s heartland. Today, it’s as iconic as Uncle Sam.
There’s some controversy over who exactly founded the Bavarian Brewery. Tradition holds that it began with a St. Louis businessman named George Schneider in 1852, but further research has revealed that it may have been a side project for a German physician named Dr. Adam Hammer, who funded it with a loan from one Eberhard Anheuser. When Dr. Hammer defaulted, Anheuser stepped in, eventually partnering with his son-in-law, Adolphus Busch.
For our purposes, all that really matters is that all four of those names are German, and that the brewery opened in the mid-1800s. At the time, the Bavarian Brewery was just one of dozens like it in St. Louis and one of thousands throughout the Midwest, then swelling with immigrants from Bavaria, Prussia, and other parts of present-day Germany. They were fleeing failed revolutions and oppressive monarchies when they settled in what came to be known as the German Triangle, anchored in Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
German and Eastern European lagers were different from English and Irish ales not only in their crispness and effervescence, but also in their function in immigrant Americans’ day-to-day lives. Those light, lower-alcohol beers were brewed to be enjoyed all day—with family, in biergartens and bierhalls, during concerts and sporting events.
Anheuser-Busch released Budweiser—a crisp lager lightened by American-grown rice—around 1876. The beer was a Midwestern take on a Czech-style beer, named for a European town that had been famous for its breweries since the Middle Ages: České Budějovice, called Budweis in German.
(There’s an age-old debate—tailed by a paper trail of litigation—over which breweries have a right to sell “Budweiser” beer. In the latter part of the 1800s, both Miller and Schlitz, along with other major American brewers, used the name. Not surprisingly, Anheuser-Busch has usually succeeded in protecting its trademark. The brewery has nearly always been able to afford the best lawyers.)
The proliferation of rail lines from Midwestern hubs like St. Louis, along with the advent of pasteurization and the refrigerated rail car, allowed Anheuser-Busch and other heartland breweries to grow quickly. By the first decades of the 1900s, the entire country was seeking out easy-drinking lager beers. A period of consolidation ensued, as moneyed breweries muscled out smaller hometown operations. Prohibition accelerated that process, shuttering businesses that weren’t big enough to pivot or ride out the drought. In 1933, when the 21st Amendment officially repealed the misguided 18th Amendment, Anheuser-Busch was poised to turn on the taps and resume domination.
Some researchers believe that Prohibition had another, less obvious impact: During the thirteen years that alcohol was officially illegal in the United States, a generation of Americans lost their taste for beer. “They came of age without participating in beer culture as it had been enjoyed,” says Theresa McCulla, curator of brewing history at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “The palate for beer, especially the bitterness and variety of flavors, was not really present.” McCulla says that as a result, even milder traditional lagers may have tasted unpleasantly bitter. Thus, Prohibition may have helped light lagers like Budweiser pull ahead of more flavorful brews.
But how did the most popular beer in America become a truly American beer—the truly American beer—given its Czech name and German immigrant origin? McCulla suggests we skip forward to World War II, when the country needed a drink more than ever, but many Americans were reluctant to buy anything with a German name, like Budweiser, Pabst, or Schlitz. To combat that sentiment, the overwhelmingly German U.S. beer industry launched a PR campaign extolling the patriotic virtues of American beer. It was all about nostalgia: When you get done fighting the Nazis, we’ll have a cold one waiting for you.
That mythos endured after V-Day, as GIs came back to build lives in suburbia. “Beer is portrayed as a central part of American life, post-war,” says McCulla. “It was tied to patriotism and the consumerist ideal.”
In other words, every Tom, Dick, and Harry wanted the family, the fence, the pristine lawn, and the two-car garage with a beer fridge full of ice-cold Midwestern lager. The Anheuser-Busch marketing machine kept going from there.
“The Busch family tried to put me out of business more than once, so I should probably have some resentments, but I have to admire the passion and commitment to quality that Budweiser represented during the family’s tenure—for a full 130, 140 years,” Koch says. “They did change the flavor over the years to keep up with consumer tastes, but they never cut corners. Until very recently, Budweiser was an uncompromising beer.”
Like Spam, Corn Flakes, the Filet ‘O’ Fish, and other Midwestern-made supermarket staples, Anheuser-Busch’s flagship beer belongs to the world now. But it came from somewhere. “It’s probably the most significant beer in the world, born in the heartland of America,” Koch says. “That’s worth noting.”
Tony Rehagen is a St. Louis-based writer and beer enthusiast (which is redundant). His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Politico, The Washington Post, and Jack and Jill.