How Budweiser Became the King of Beers

By Thom Forbes

Bud, Budweiser's a friend of mine,
Friend of mine,
Yes, a friend of mine,
What care I, if the sun don't shine,
While I've got Budweiser;
That's the reason, I feel so fine,
Feel so fine, yes, I feel so fine,
For though Bill the Kaiser's a friend of Budweiser's,
Budweiser's, a friend of mine.

—Chorus to "Budweiser's a Friend of
Commissioned by Anheuser-Busch Cos., 1907

Nineteen ought seven was a time of expansion, a time of firsts. Teddy Roosevelt was dispatching a fleet of sixteen battleships around the world to demonstrate American military prowess, Oklahoma was joining the Union, a record number of immigrants — 1,285,349 — were entering the country, and so, too, was the first metered taxicab. The British passenger ship Lusitania steamed into New York harbor on her maiden voyage, arriving from Queenstown, Ireland in the record time of five days and forty-five minutes. It would be another eight years before Kaiser Wilhelm II's navy torpedoed the Lusitania, turning American sentiment against Germany in the Great War. As popular as "Budweiser's a Friend of Mine" was when it first came out, after the Lusitania sank, any friend of Bill the Kaiser's suddenly became suspect in the eyes of most Americans.

1907 was also good year for Budweiser beer. A full-page newspaper ad in January told readers that the largest brewery in the world, covering 128 acres, had sold 137,722,150 bottles of "the king of bottled beers" the year before.

A National Institution

In fact, Budweiser at the turn of the century "was a national institution in much the same way as baseball, ice cream, or the Ford automobile" Mark Sullivan wrote wistfully from the perspective of the Prohibition years.

The lager brewed by Adolphus Busch had overtaken Pabst in 1901 to become the nation's best-selling beer. Annual shipments topped a million barrels. Its name was writ on the windows of 10,000 saloons nationwide. As one of the first brewers to use outdoor advertising, it's posters dotted the landscape. And while motorized trucks were beginning to replace majestic horse-drawn wagons, the ornate scroll of the Budweiser name was a familiar moving billboard on streets across America.

It might be argued that the secret of Budweiser's success was its taste. The brew, light for its day, took top honors at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition competition in its launch year of 1876.  It sporadically continued to win gold medals at national and international fairs for as long as such competitions were fashionable.

It might also be argued that Adolphus Busch's technological prescience led the beer into prominence in an expanding national marketplace. In order to open the Southern market, Adolphus designed the first refrigerated railway cars and built shacks along the rail bed to provide a fresh supply of ice. His technical staff pioneered the process of pasteurizing bottled beer so that it could travel longer and farther in all directions. Later, he would buy the patent on the diesel engine and manufacture the first American-made diesel locomotive.

But in the end, Adolphus' blustering, star-spangled friendliness — an ingredient as difficult to quantify as beechwood aging — has probably had a lot more to do with his brand's success than any of the other elements in the mix.

Adolphus the Glad Hander

Adolphus had joined his father-in-law's struggling brewery as a salesman in 1865 with, as one report has it, a peculiar notion about merchandising. "Our business is not just making beer," he told Eberhard Anheuser, a soap manufacturer who found himself running The Bavarian Brewery to protect an investment. "No," said Adolphus, "making friends is our business."

And just to make sure that his friends didn't forget him, Alolphus wasn't content to leave behind a simple business card. He gave his customers pocketknives with a peephole on one end that, upon a glance, revealed his visage. Other give-aways included watch fobs in the shape of the company logo and cork-pulls. Within seven years, the glad-handing salesman was a partner in the firm, which was one of 4,131 similar operations then in business in the United States.

The brewery was making 16 brands of beer the year that Budweiser rolled out — the same year that General George Custer rode out to the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory to engage the Sioux and Cheyenne. Details about that relatively obscure battle fascinated Americans in the ensuing years. In 1888, Busch bought a saloon that contained a 16-foot by 9-foot painting of Custer's defeat. Ever attuned to national sentiment, Adolphus a few years later commissioned lithographer F. Otto Becker to produce a smaller print of the battle. Even more attuned to his distributors, Adolphus ordered reproductions of the painting to be shipped to tavern owners across the country. More than a million prints of "Custer's Last Fight" were eventually circulated — all of them, of course, bearing the Anheuser-Busch name.


Two Conflicting Trends

The Budweiser brand prospered in the midst of two emerging trends that were as distinct from one another as they were intertwined: the rising popularity of beer as the alcoholic beverage of choice and the growing sophistication of the temperance movement.

Per capita consumption of beer by those aged 15 and older rose from 10.1 gallons in 1875 to 29.7 gallons in 1915, according to estimates compiled by Prof. W.J. Rorabaugh in 1979. More telling than the number of actual gallons consumed, however, is a comparison of the consumption of beer to spirits when beer is weighted for its absolute alcohol content. In 1875, weighted per-capita consumption of spirits was1.2 gallons per year, Rorabaugh estimates, compared to 0.5 for beer. By 1900, the figures were 0.8 gallons for spirits; 1.2 gallons for beer. By 1915, beer consumption had risen to l.5 gallons per capita, while spirits were flat at 0.8 gallons. (Wine held steady through this period at about 0.1 gallons per capita.)

In the meantime, the temperance movement was becoming more than a moral crusade waged from the pulpit, where it had had its origins in the 1830s. The formation of the Anti-Saloon League of America in 1895 not only brought the fight for mandated sobriety right to the tavern door, it also tied it to the industrious American's wallet. Quite simply, the Anti-Saloon League galvanized all the disparate forces for temperance around the "scientific" argument that drinkers cost the public money — in shoddy workmanship, in lost time, in crime, in tax dollars, even in lives. It also pointed out that money that went for drink would be better spent on consumer goods: a bicycle, say, or household furniture, or perhaps an automobile. Henry Ford was among the prominent industrialists who promoted the cause — and put big bucks behind it.


Why Beer Was Banned

The most ardent prohibitionists had always placed beer on the same plane as other intoxicants, even though there was considerable public appreciation of beer as a drink of moderation. Horace Greeley, the influential newspaper editor, likened the drinking of beer or wine to "the casting out of big devils by . . . little ones." The U.S. Brewers' Association, however, lobbied hard to distance beer from spirits, and after Prohibition went into effect, argued that the legalization of the sale of beer would be the only measure that could save "the noble experiment." The position evidently had popular support. A nationwide Literary Digest poll taken in 1922 showed that only 20.6% of the people wanted outright repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, but additional 40.8% stood for "modification" of the amendment.

Beer might not have been included in the Eighteenth Amendment at all if it weren't for two factors. Beer companies owned or sponsored most saloons at the time. The saloon's image had become, in the words of one temperance screed of the day, that of "a parasite [that] absorbs much and yields nothing." The second factor was the American entrance into World War I in 1917, which not only conditioned those on the home front to rationing (including restrictions on alcohol), but also engendered great hatred of "the Hun."

 "The War brought with it a mood of Spartan idealism of which the Eighteenth Amendment was a natural expression," wrote Frederick Lewis Allen. He also pointed out that it turned public opinion against everything German — "and many of the big brewers and distillers were of German origin."

Surviving Prohibition

Adolphus Busch had died in 1913, and the company passed to  the control of his son August. "Gussie," who in his youth had headed west with a six-shooter to become a cowboy, found himself in the middle of a battle to keep the company alive. Sales of Budweiser dropped from $18 million in 1913 to $12 million in 1917. He first tried to cock the spigot by introducing a nonalcoholic brew called Bevo. Two soft drinks, Busch Tee and Kaffo, also failed as Prohibition became law. Near beer, with less than 0.5 per cent alcohol, proved no competition for the illegal hooch and bathtub slosh of the period, and only dimly kept the Budweiser mark before the public's eyes.

Busch inventiveness prevailed, however, and saw the company through the dry '20s as well as the depressed early '30s. Anheuser-Busch produced truck and bus bodies, refrigerated cabinets, baker's yeast, and corn and malt syrup. While the company's value dropped from $31 million to $22 million during Prohibition, Gussie Busch and his two sons, Adolphus and August, Jr., held on to their128 acres and 110 buildings containing the guts of a brewery. When Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, Anheuser-Busch was already geared up for full production of 6-million bottles a day.


A National Broadcast Celebrates Bud's Return

In April of that year, the sale of 3.2% beer became legal in 19 states. As the first cases of post-Prohibition Budweiser rolled off the line on April 7, the Columbia Broadcasting System carried an 11-minute national broadcast live from the brewery. Imagine, if you will, the clipped, rapid-fire enunciation of a '30s radio announcer setting the scene:

"There is no celebration at the plant, no hilarity, only a sea of smiling faces as cheerful workmen go about their duties and become accustomed to new jobs."

After a few encomiums to the genius of the Busches, the microphone is turned over to August, Jr., the company's vice president and general manager. Just as surely as the company fortunes were soured by the social and political sentiment that followed the Great War, they were about to be sweetened by the social and political reality of the Great Depression. And though Busch's speech calls for the divorce "for all times" of his business from politics, his citation of Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign song, Happy Days Are Here Again, is well considered. Busch continues: "Once again, freight cars are pulling in loaded with grain from American farms; bottles, cases and various equipment, as well as coal and other supplies from industry long-suffered through the Depression, while others will soon be rolling out and onward, contributing their share toward the rehabilitation of industry, agriculture and transportation."

Lest there be any doubt of the extent of Bud's contribution to the general welfare of the republic, the broadcast turns back to the announcer:

 "Dozens of new motor trucks are being bought by Anheuser-Busch. How's that, Mr. Truck Manufacturer? Millions of labels will keep a hundred or two printers busy. . . . Over 50,000 freight cars will come in and out of [the] Anheuser-Busch plant during the coming year. How does that sound, Mr. Railroad Man?" Not to mention the $10-million company payroll and $9 million federal tax bite.

"Oh boy, oh boy!"

But the announcer's rhetoric can hardly capture the full flavor of the industrial renaissance being played out. In your mind, cut to another announcer at the loading dock waiting for the giant steels doors, powered by an electric switch, to open. His breathless introduction is muted by the steady blare of a whistle "signaling 7,500 men back to work." There's an anxious moment of silence as the doors roll up, then the sounds of dozens of revving engines, followed by shouts and the bleating of horns.

"The trucks are just about ready to leave. The trucks are on their way to make the great journey to Lambert Airport." It all sounds more significant than Walter Cronkite made Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon feel — and you can't help but think that perhaps it is.

The announcer buttonholes a driver.

"Oh boy, oh boy!" the driver says. "This is the first job I've had in six months. I'm plenty thankful to get this chance to deliver this first load of Budweiser."

While various announcers gush at the sight and significance of so many men returning to work, similar interviews are conducted with a train engineer and a pilot, the clang-clang-clang of a locomotive bell and the chug-chug-chug of propellers punctuating their words.

Clydesdales Clop Into Our Consciousness

But of all the images of Repeal hoopla, the one that was to sear itself into the public's consciousness was decidedly pre-industrial: the clop-clop-clop of Clydesdales. As the end of Prohibition neared, the Busches knew that it was not enough to simply return the product to the shelf. The two Augusts, Sr. and Jr., mulled over ways to bring their beer back with a memorable flourish, according to the book Great American Brands. August, Sr., recalled how the Budweiser wagons of his youth, drawn by hefty brewery horses, would mesmerize pedestrians. To August, Jr., the book relates, "the Clydesdale idea was a unique combination of early American romance and relevant showmanship."

And so it was that while other popular pre-Prohibition beers — Rheingold, Fideleo, Knockerbocker, Schlitz, Lion Pilsener — took out advertisements in the The New York Times the day beer became legal, a six-horse hitch pulled an antique Budweiser wagon up Fifth Ave. to the Empire State Building. The driver was Billy Wales, formerly of The Buffalo Bill show. The Clydesdales wore red and white roses in their manes; their tales were festooned with ribbons. One of the few pictures in the next day's Times showed former Gov. Al Smith accepting a case of Bud — the only one of the more than 300 cases prominently stamped Budweiser that really contained beer. An 8 1/2-inch story accompanying the photo told how "a crowd of 1,000 men and women fought for room on the sidewalks and cheered long and loud."

It was be five years before the public's demand for Budweiser again caught up with the brewer's supply. "The prohibition-mutilated palates of many people were not tuned to the tangy taste of good beer," explains one company document. But by the time of the second World War, when the sounds of industry at work were again commonplace, one simple, romantic image of Budweiser lingered in the public's consciousness, as it does to this day: that of the sturdy Clydesdales and the mythical America they represent.


Copyright © 1990-2017, Thomas Forbes, All Right Reserved

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