By Maureen Ogle
Sunday, July 6, 2008
The calendar says it's carefree summertime, but this year's edition of sunburn season has arrived with an anxiety index that rivals the humidity. Planning a trip to California? Check ahead to make sure your destination isn't in flames. Flying to the Midwest? Much of it's flooded, but hey, your flight will probably be canceled anyway. You could hang out at home instead -- although you'll need half your paycheck just to put meat on the grill and ice cream in the freezer.
Now more bad news gnaws at what's left of our summer bliss: Budweiser -- our Budweiser, a beer as American as baseball and barbecue -- is about to become Belgian (and Brazilian too). "No!" I wail, tears splashing into my beer, when I hear that Carlos Brito, chief executive of InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian corporate behemoth headquartered in Leuven, Belgium, wants to acquire Budweiser.
"This is Anheuser-Busch we're talking about," I shout. "This is Budweiser, for crying out loud. This is all those great jingles, and Spuds McKenzie, and 'Whassup,' and flatulent Clydesdales and that tear-jerker, troops-arriving-at-the-airport TV commercial. They can't do this."
But on second thought, maybe they can. Isn't Brito's maneuver precisely the sort of bold strike that launched the American Revolution and still fuels the American dream? Haven't millions of people flocked to these shores for opportunity and economic gain? Of course Brito lusts after Anheuser-Busch's regal 1893 brewhouse and its stable with those Tiffany windows. Who wouldn't want a beer whose name is a household word in a global village?
Isn't InBev simply emulating the American way? Brito and his troops are shining beacons of hope and light, in the form of hefty returns for stockholders. They're seeking profit in every purple mountain, fruited plain and amber wave of grain. Brito is precisely the kind of brawler who made America great. If Adolphus Busch, the German immigrant who transformed his father-in-law's no-account brewery into one of the world's largest, were still here, he'd offer the guy a job.
That notion doesn't do much to ease my pain, but at least my misery has company. Anheuser-Busch's current chief executive, August Busch IV, assures Americans that he'll resist InBev's assault to his bottom barrel, presenting shareholders with a detailed plan designed to cut costs and raise the company's stock price to match InBev's offer. The governor of Missouri has vowed to fight, and the state's congressional delegation has issued indignant press releases. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) met with Brito on Capitol Hill to discuss the bid, and they both reportedly drank Bud Lights during their chat. E-organizers have mounted e-campaigns to save Anheuser-Busch. "With your help we can fight the foreign invasion of A-B," say the folks at SaveAB.com, who vow to carry the struggle "to the Internet, to the streets, to the marble halls of our capitals, whatever it takes to stop the invasion."
For my part? I've manned my barstool. (What can I say? I'm an intensely patriotic, and excessively sentimental, sap.) It's true that I'm a patriot-come-lately who embraced Budweiser later in life than most Americans. As a young woman, I slugged down my share of beer, but I drank Budweiser only if it happened to be on tap during "dime beer hour" at whatever dive I was sitting in. And my admittedly pale passion for beer ended once real life -- rent, food and the aging process -- intervened.
But in 2001, I began researching and writing a history of beer in the United States, and during the five years I worked on the book, I developed a deep and abiding respect for Anheuser-Busch and the Busch family. Bud still isn't my favorite brew -- I'm an eclectic beer drinker, although Abita Turbodog makes me weak in the knees -- but I recognize a great American saga when I see one.
In fact, InBev's assault on Anheuser-Busch is a classic case of history repeating itself. "American" beer has been under siege before. In the late 19th century, British syndicates snapped up dozens of American beermakers, including the then-iconic Blatz Brewing. The pesky Brits tried to buy Pabst Brewing Company, too -- a Milwaukee legend and, at the time, the world's largest brewing operation. Frederick Pabst weighed the offer, which he called the kind of money that stood his hair on end. A true patriot, he declined.
Philip Morris, the archetypal global conglomerate, commandeered Miller Brewing Company (founded by immigrants and family-owned since 1855) when it purchased the bulk of the Miller family's stock in 1969 and the remainder the following year. In 1987, Miller, oozing Philip Morris cash, purchased another immigrant-rooted, family-owned Wisconsin brewery, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company (founded in 1867). A few years ago, the Coors family (yes, German-speaking immigrants -- they founded the company in Colorado in the 1870s) ceded control to Canada's Molson. Miller is now owned by another multinational beer titan, SABMiller, and SABMiller and Coors recently merged their North American operations.
So the InBev bid for Anheuser-Busch is only the latest chapter in the ongoing tale of consolidation, mergers and globalization that is the American brewing industry. This time Anheuser-Busch is the target of an aggressor's hostile takeover bid, but usually, it plays the role of the bad guy.
In 2006, Anheuser-Busch snapped up the Rolling Rock brand brewed at Latrobe Brewing Company of Latrobe, Pa. A travesty, many declared. How dare that nasty corporate giant destroy a Latrobe tradition and move the brewing process to (ugh) Newark? The people of Latrobe (population 9,000; the brewery was a major employer) begged the company not to shut down its plant. The St. Louis brewing titan shrugged, and that was that. It's worth noting, however, that Anheuser-Busch purchased Latrobe from . . . InBev. As far as both parties were concerned, it was just another day on the battlefield.
So why am I -- and the Missouri congressional delegation and all those online activists -- so bothered by Brito's siege? It's not that we love Budweiser more than, say, Miller or Coors. (Well, technically, most Americans do love it more: Bud has outsold both brands for decades.) It's that we love the idea of Budweiser, or, more accurately, Anheuser-Busch. Immigrants founded the company and, in the course of about 30 years, transformed it from nothing into one of the world's largest breweries. Despite being publicly held for decades, it has been run, with only two brief interruptions, by family members for six generations, including the current CEO's great-great-great-grandfather, Eberhard Anheuser.
The beer itself is about as "American" as it gets -- which is to say that it was introduced in 1876, the nation's centennial, by three otherwise ordinary immigrants: Carl Conrad, a St. Louis wine importer, who came up with the idea and owned the trademark; his friend Adolphus Busch, who managed the brewery where Conrad arranged to make the beer; and Busch's brewmaster Irwin Sproule, who used his European training to transform a mishmash of ideas and ingredients into our beloved Bud.
The beer -- inspired by one brewed in the town of Budweis, in what is now the Czech Republic -- contained Czech hops and yeast, North American barley, rice from who-knows-where and Missouri trial-and-error. It was also a revelation: At a time when most American beers were heavy, thick and opaque, Budweiser was a pale, translucent gold in color and nearly effervescent in body. It was an instant crowd-pleaser: Conrad sold 20 million bottles of the stuff in its first six years on the market, despite the then-eye-popping price of $1 per bottle (about $17 today). A glass of Bud contains an American epic. That's why I love Anheuser-Busch and Bud. I am they, and they are me: a mixture of old world and new; hard work, tenacity and ambition.
Besides, the Brazilianization of Bud doesn't mean the end of American beer. That same story of little guys creating something from nothing is unfolding right now in more than 1,400 breweries around the country. In 1978, there were only a few dozen brewing companies in the United States. In the intervening 30 years, the industry has exploded in size, and today the United States boasts the most dynamic, creative brewing culture in the world. If you don't believe me, ask one of the Belgian and German beermakers who regularly journey here to learn from the American masters. Better yet, try a glass of Sam Adams's rich brew, Utopias, introduced in 2002.
So this Independence Day weekend, let's drink to Budweiser's longevity and the Busch family's six generations of stewardship. And then let's all commit an act of patriotism by raising a glass to the next chapter in American beer history. On this 232nd anniversary of our founding (try saying that after you've hoisted a few), this Bud -- or this Yuengling, Saranac, Russian River, Abita, Anchor, Magic Hat, Summit, Warbird or New Glarus -- is for us.
Maureen Ogle is the author of "Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer."