William Knoedelseder’s “Bitter Brew” offers a sometimes fascinating history of America’s most famous beer-makers
Written by Tom Dibblee for LA Review of Books and Salon.com
I decided to review William Knoedelseder’s Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer because of my loyalty to Bud Light Lime. I love Bud Light Lime, and I wanted to know where it came from. But because Bud Light Lime probably isn’t a natural beer of choice for the LARB crowd, I thought I’d take a second to explain its excellence.
Bud Light Lime does two things: it allows me to shed the burden of sophistication, and it restores beer to what it once was, when I was young — a tart nectar that makes me happy.
To speak to the second point (I’ll get to the first later): With Bud Light Lime, I never find myself slumping over the bar, turning every 30 seconds to watch the door in the hope that some imagined friend will walk inside and pick me up and fix all my problems. With Bud Light Lime, that kind of attitude isn’t even possible. Because it’s hard to be morose while drinking a sweetened, lime-flavored beer, yes, but also because being morose requires a self-seriousness that Bud Light Lime completely forbids. And, to speak to the skeptics in the audience: yes, they do serve Bud Light Lime in bars. Mulligan’s in Valencia has it, but they won’t give you the happy hour price that applies to regular, unflavored Bud Light and Budweiser. If you order six of them at the Chincoteague Inn in Virginia they’ll serve them to you in a cardboard six-pack container. And if you get one at the Stampede in Temecula, where not just the American and the Californian but also the Texan flag hangs from the rafters, you can drink it alongside skinny white guys with Confederate flags folded just so and hanging from their jeans’ back pockets, which is a fashion I never even came close to seeing while living in Georgia, where my BLL drinking got its start.
I first tried Bud Light Lime in 2010, two years after it hit the market, at a shallow and warm-watered man-made reservoir beside a coal plant while watching TV under a tarp, beside an RV, in an RV park. We drank it under the tarp, and then we drank it on a boat while blasting music. Then the guy who owned the RV, a potbellied financial advisor from Tampa named Patrick, gave me a 12-pack for the road, and after that, I never looked back. Now, I get text messages from multiple friends when they drink the stuff, and I have participated in the invention of multiple BLL variations: Double Down (BLL with a slice of lime), Picante (BLL with a massive amount of Tabasco) and Loco (BLL with Mountain Dew).
Bud Light Lime is mentioned exactly once in Bitter Brew, on page 321:
[It was the year 2008 and Anheuser-Busch] department heads were scrambling to find more then $400 million in spending cuts just as the company was preparing to drop a bundle on the rollout of a high-profile new product, Bud Light Lime.
At the time of BLL’s launch, Anheuser-Busch (A-B) was under the watch of August Busch IV, a good looking guy with a taste for fast living. Known around the offices as “the Fourth,” August was the last of the Busch clan to run the company. The Anheusers, while still involved with A-B, hadn’t played a leading role since Eberhard Anheuser died in 1880, leaving his former partner, Adolphus Busch, with enough shares to assume control of the company, thanks to his marriage to Eberhard’s daughter Lilly.
Before partnering with Eberhard, Adolphus Busch, a German immigrant, had worked as a clerk on a riverboat. After Eberhard died, Adolphus started to brew something new. Eberhard had been making a bad beer, a beer that “was so foul tasting that tavern owners were accustomed to patrons spitting it back across the bar at them.” So Adolphus went out and bought “the recipe for a beer that for years had been produced by monks in a small Bohemian village named Budweis.”
Knoedelseder doesn’t describe the original Budweiser’s taste. He does say that Anheuser-Busch was now armed with a product competitive enough for Adolphus to turn his “river of beer into a mountain of money.” With the temperance movement gaining steam, Adolphus, who once claimed that Prohibition would “ruin the whole world,” branded Budweiser an antidote to “the devil whiskey,” calling it a “beverage of moderation” and describing it as “light” and “happy.”
After Adolphus came August A., who wasn’t as blustery as his father, but did steer the company through Prohibition — during which he kept the company afloat mostly by selling supplies to home brewers — and through the anti-German sentiment that arose with World War I. He removed the double eagle from Budweiser’s label. He donated to the Red Cross. His father’s hero had been Otto von Bismarck, but August A. espoused his American patriotism as loudly and often as possible. And in so doing, he managed to link Budweiser’s moderate, light, and happy character with the American character, claiming that “pure, light beer” contributed to the “temperance progress of the nation.”
Anheuser-Busch’s third president, August “Gussie” Busch Jr., was loud and loved animals and guns and women and believed that the beer business was about making friends. Gussie did extremely well, and people liked him. But he didn’t trust his son to succeed him, so he hung around the A-B offices too long, leaving August III with no choice but to depose his father in humiliating fashion. August III gathered support for Gussie’s ouster in secret, and then broke the news to his father in front of the entire A-B board, with a doctor present, in case Gussie suffered a heart attack. So Gussie’s career ended in ignominy. But, before he died, he was at least partly vindicated: his commitment to the integrity of Budweiser — natural ingredients, slow brewing process — paid off when then-archrival Schlitz collapsed thanks to an additive they’d used to speed up fermentation, a chemical that led to the build-up of a mucus-like substance in cans of Schlitz that sat too long on the shelves.
August III, too, was known for his maniacal commitment to freshness. He also thought through every decision, brought in teams of MBAs to use computers, and made only two mistakes: failing to globalize the company through mergers, and promoting his own son, the aforementioned Fourth, to president, despite many clear signs that he was unqualified. To wit: while an indifferent student at the University of Arizona, the Fourth wrecked his Corvette at a high speed while wildly intoxicated and (allegedly) killed a woman named Michele Frederick, a cocktail waitress at a bar in Tucson called Dirtbag’s. August IV claimed not to remember what happened in that car and got off without repercussions. After he returned to St. Louis, he partied a lot and began his rise through the ranks of the publicly-traded-yet-still-very-much-family-run business. He didn’t get along with his father, and despite being in charge of A-B’s brewing division during the wildly popular “Frogs” ad campaign — you remember: frogs on lily pads croaking: “Bud … bud … weis … bud … weis … bud … weis … er” — he didn’t do especially well at his job. But, his father made him president of the company anyway, for all sorts of reasons that the LARB reader may well be able to infer for her/himself.
Once in charge, the Fourth, billed as a leader in touch with the new era of adult contemporary beverage consumption, set out to modernize the company, and launched such products as Jekyll & Hyde (a type of double shot that came in two bottles that you were supposed to mix together on your own), Spykes (a mildly-alcohol flavored shot that came in a tube that looked like a lipstick container that you were supposed to “spyke” your beer with — flavors included melon and hot chocolate) and Bacardi Silver (which may very well have been good, but came too late into the flavored malt beverage market, and just plain missed the boat).
But the Fourth did not stop there. Next came Chelada Bud, Michelob Ultra Lime Cactus, and Michelob Ultra Tuscan Orange Grapefruit, and — yes — Bud Light Lime. At the same time, his own drinking and drug use had gotten out of control. Soon after BLL’s release in 2008, the Fourth tried to address a wholesaler convention and couldn’t read the lines off the teleprompter. Not long after, InBev, a massive global conglomerate, bought Anheuser-Busch and took the company out of the Busch family’s hands. “August IV quickly descended into an abyss,” as Knoedelseder tells it:
According to friends, family members, and court documents, when the police came for him in February 2010, America’s last king of beer was holed up in his mansion, grievously addicted to drugs, gripped by paranoia, beset by hallucinations, and armed with hundreds of high-powered weapons, including several .50-caliber machine guns.
Which is all to say that Bud Light Lime came to us from the edge of an abyss.
Knoedelseder makes a big point of how A-B clung to its principles and, despite pressure from Wall Street — who cheered as Schlitz achieved major cost-savings by cutting corners in their brewing process, hence the mucus debacle — never caved in to pressure to buy second-tier ingredients or to accelerate the brewing speed. But they couldn’t afford to ignore their competitors, and sometime during August III’s reign, the Miller Brewing Company emerged as A-B’s newest rival, assuming the role once held by Schlitz and before them by Pabst. Miller rose to prominence on the wild success of Miller Lite in the early 1970s, which essentially created the market for light beer and shifted America’s palate maybe forever (Miller Lite’s first tagline: “All you ever wanted in a beer. And less”). This created a world in which college students would refer to Budweiser — a beer that August A. had called light and happy — as “Bud heavy.” In the 1980s, with August III’s MBAs newly empowered after the ouster of Gussie, A-B responded to Miller Lite’s growing market share with Michelob Light (in 1978), Bud Light (1982), and Bud Dry (1989).
But didn’t something have to change around this time? Is it even possible to make light beer as we know it in a traditional way, with only natural ingredients? There is an old German tradition of dry beer that has fewer calories, and Knoedelseder says Bud Dry at least was inspired by that. But what about Bud Light, let alone Bud Light Lime? Is there any room for authenticity here? For soul?
One thing that’s funny about Anheuser-Busch: they’re not even proud of Bud Light. In 2002, when Bud Light overtook Budweiser as the most popular beer in the States, they were upset. They wanted Budweiser to be America’s top beer. Nobody there even wanted to make light beer to begin with, and August III, who, with the help of his MBAs, presided over the creation of what was originally called “Budweiser Light,” didn’t even like how Bud Light tasted.
After Bud Light overtook Budweiser as the country’s — and the world’s — top-selling beer, the Fourth reacted like this:
The question isn’t “Can Budweiser grow again?” We must grow Budweiser again. Budweiser is our ticket to go international. Budweiser is our Coca-Cola.
August III had been an extremely competent corporate president. August IV was not. But both of them were blind to the future, and A-B got taken over by InBev. The Busch family was blind because they had the same problem with Bud Light that the standardized microbrew-drinking sophisticates I know have with it: it doesn’t satisfy the narrow, nostalgic sense of what soul should feel like.
I wrote earlier that I like BLL because it helps me shed the burden of sophistication. What I meant by that was, with a BLL in hand, I am free to say out loud that I like the singer Adele. And that I think high-end cheese makes for a boring topic of conversation. And that I can see the problem everyone has with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (shameless sentimentality), and that I didn’t really like that book all that much, but that I got weepy during its last 50 pages anyway. And why is this important? I know some writers who I think are hemmed in by their sense of sophistication, by the fact that they know they shouldn’t like Adele, or Foer, or Bud Light Lime, and who, as a consequence, write in a frightened, soul-stunted way.
Anheuser-Busch, at one time, had soul, in the traditional sense, in every sense. It was an immigrant-founded, family-run business with a product they took pride in: Budweiser, a beer built on natural ingredients and a time-honored brewing process. A-B says Budweiser still uses those ingredients, and that’s quite possible. And it’s quite possible that their brewing process still resembles the original brewing process, albeit on a much, much larger scale. But there’s nothing time-honored and cozy about a product like Bud Light Lime, and Knoedelseder implies that Anheuser-Busch let itself slip somewhere along the way into what the average sophisticate will recognize as soullessness. Maybe this happened under pressure from Wall Street to improve profit margins. Maybe it happened with the advent of the calorie-conscious 1970s. Maybe this didn’t happen until InBev took over in 2008. Or maybe this happened on the day that August IV realized he had no idea how to run a Fortune 500 company, and began, in his last spurt of semi-sober sanity, to churn out a series of novelty beverages, all of which were failures — until Bud Light Lime, which, in 2008, led to Anheuser-Busch’s best summer sales in years.
Myself, I prefer the last option. Do I even have to tell you what’s happened since InBev took charge? Can’t you predict it for yourself? Layoffs, ruthless cost-cutting, insane bonuses for a handful of executives. That story, to me, is completely busted and spent. I never need to hear it again. The story I’d rather hear is the one about the drug-addled playboy, who, in an act of desperation, before retreating to his heavily fortified compound in Missouri, where yet another waitress would die on his watch, churned out a beer-like beverage absurd enough to give me hope that something good can come out of the lunatic frenzy that is the international marketplace in which we have no choice but to take part