Beer & Books: Bitter Brew

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Beer & Books is a semi-regular series featuring thoughts and opinions on books about beer. Oftentimes, books mentioned here often won’t be new releases. Rather, they’re simply what we’re reading at the time, usually with a cold brew in hand. We rate them on a five-star scale. We’re always looking to add to our library. Please feel free to drop a line if there are Beer Books you recommend we read. Today’s read: Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder.

Bitter Brew

I finished reading Bitter Brew: The Rise and all of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer just ahead of Super Bowl Sunday. That’s worth noting, I believe, because so-called Big Beer — Anheuser-Busch (AB), specifically — is notorious for dropping millions of dollars on Super Bowl ads each year.

This year proved to be no exception. Most notably, the Bud Light brand took clear aim at its rivals and their corn syrup usage. A few years earlier, craft beer upstarts were in the AB crosshairs.

Bitter BrewOf course, marketing-fueled “beer wars” are nothing new. After all, I remember the Miller Lite “Great Taste, Less Filling” campaign in the ’80s. Background on that one, from AB’s perspective, is detailed in Bitter Brew.

The latest Super Bowl salvos have been shot following AB’s 2008 acquisition by Belgium’s InBev. It’s after this takeover that veteran journalist William Knoedelseder went to work chronicling 150 years of AB’s dynastic history.

A Family Soap Opera

German immigrant Adolphus Busch, in the wake of the Civil War, purchased a bankrupt brewery and transformed it into Anheuser-Busch. The St. Louis brewery survived world wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and increased competition. It also weathered storms brought on by its own leadership.

The AB torch passed from Adolphus to August A. Busch to August Busch Jr. (known as  “Gussie”) to August Busch III and then to August Busch IV (aka “The Fourth”). With each new personality at the helm, a different batch of successes and challenges materialized.

Yet, over the course of five generations, “they’d taken a tiny, bankrupt brewery that made bad-tasting beer on the banks of the Mississippi River and transformed it into a colossus that pumped out more than 100 million barrels a year.”

Side Note: I may have missed an explanation, but I’m surprised the Busch dynasty never dropped “Anheuser” from its corporate name. I suppose there’s a lot of equity in the name, but it seems like something one of the family members would have done at some point.

Knoedelseder does a nice job developing cause-and-effect relationships between internal family dynamics and larger business ramifications. The Busches truly are the stars of a real-life soap opera. And the author doesn’t shy away from salacious details.

The St. Louis-based company’s rise to American beer royalty (and then its fall) is fascinating. I enjoyed learning how it navigated obstacles and positioned itself for success time and again. The stories of scandal that generally seem to accompany wealth and power are riveting.

Above all, Bitter Brew is a well-crafted, thoroughly researched history of AB.

The Takeover

From the opening pages, and the author’s present-day scene-setting, I settled in to learn more about AB’s recent history. For instance, how its one-time 50% market share ultimately became an InBev target. In the craft beer world, AB InBev represents the antithesis to craft beer. It’s nice to gain context as to how that relationship came to be.

It’s enlightening to get a behind-the-curtains look at the inner workings of AB pre-takeover. Moreover, it’s interesting to get a glimpse of penny-pinching changes implemented by InBev, a company that hadn’t existed four years earlier.

A perfect storm of seemingly inept leadership, a shifting beer market, and an opportunistic suitor paved the way for what became one of this century’s most fascinating — and, in my opinion, disheartening — beer stories.

The $52 billion takeover, which was the largest cash transaction in the history of American business, has had ripple effects throughout the craft beer community.

As Josh Noel details in his book, Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business, AB InBev’s craft brewery purchases between 2011-18 practically blanket the United States.

Any way you look at it, today’s Anheuser-Busch is a far cry from the bankrupt brewery Adolphus Busch purchased more than 150 years ago.

Review: Bitter Brew

Beer Books: Bitter Brew
Bitter Brew

Book Title: Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer

Book Description: From the Publisher: "Stretching across three centuries, from the start of the Civil War through Prohibition to today, Bitter Brew is the engrossing, often scandalous saga of one of the wealthiest and most colorful dynasties in American commerce: the Busch family of St. Louis, Missouri, the founders of the legendary Anheuser-Busch company. The critically acclaimed journalist William Knoedelseder tells the story of how the Busch patriarchs turned a small brewery into a multibillion dollar international corporation and transformed their product, Budweiser, into the iconic "King of Beers." He paints a fascinating portrait of immense wealth and power accompanied by scandal, heartbreak, tragedy, and untimely death. A cautionary tale of prosperity, hubris, and loss, Bitter Brew is also a revealing chronicle of American progress and decline over the past 150 years."

Book Author: William Knoedelseder

Book Format: AudiobookFormat

Date published: 2014-01-07

ISBN: 0062009273

Number Of Pages: 416

  • Utah Beer News Rating


Bitter Brew offers a look inside one of America’s most-fascinating corporate dynasties. It describes in detail how the Busch family turned a small brewery into a multibillion-dollar corporation. But the ride spanning three centuries, from the company’s founding in the 1850s to ultimately being acquired by Belgium’s InBev in 2008, proved to be anything but smooth.

William Knoedelseder chronicles the ups and downs of Anheuser-Busch in an entertaining and informative way. The personalities are colorful. And Knoedelseder’s narrative helps the characters spring to life. It also shines a spotlight on how Anheuser-Busch came to be so successful ahead of its dramatic downfall.