Book Review: Bitter Brew

by Karl S Updated on December 11, 2012

My experience with Anheuser-Busch goes far back and beyond beer. Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia I was constantly exposed to AB. Many of my friends’ parents worked at the giant factory. Busch Gardens was an annual summer tradition. It may even surprise (or horror) my readers to know that I was once employed by AB. Not in beer, but as a lifeguard at their Water Country USA theme park.

I remember the time that August Busch came for a visit. The entire place went into panic mode. I cleaned the hell out of the bathrooms that day. You would have thought that God himself was coming down for judgement.

That was my first experience with the Busch men and the power they wield. Or should I say, wielded.

OK time for the review

As craft beer drinkers we tend to look at AB as the enemy. The symbol of bland, corporate beer. Beer sold by TV ads, not flavor.

You may not enjoy the beer, but you can’t deny AB’s contribution to America’s brewing history. The history of Anheuser-Busch’s beer in America is the history of beer in America. You don’t know the whole story until you view it through the eyes of the country’s most prolific brewer.

Bitter Brew by William Knoedelseder tells the story, and it is a good one.

This is not a story of beer so much as it is about the Busch family, who happen to make beer. The subtitle of this book could be “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Starting with AB’s founder Adolphus and continuing five generations to August IV, you follow the kings of beer through their journey to the top of the beer world and their struggle to stay there, ending with AB’s sale to InBev. While each “August” has his unique differences, you could sum up all of the Busch heirs with these words: Ambitious, arrogant, and competitive.

Shootings, police chases, young women found dead, drugs, endless partying, and above all, massive wealth and power. It sounds like Scarface, but this is the Busch family.

Here is a picture from the book of the Busch family tree to give you a little context.

Bitter Brew takes it generation by generation, telling each Busch’s personal story from childhood to their rise to the top. It never gets dull, a trait made easier by the colorful lifestyles these guys lived, but most credit goes to Knoedelseder’s presentation. He uses firsthand accounts, historical context, and engaging writing to tell the story. It would be easy to get off track when your tale spans 5 generations but Knoedelseder keeps it focused and moves along at a brisk pace.

You’ll hear about the St. Louis Cardinals ownership (including something scandalous about Harry Caray I’d never heard before), the battle with Schlitz, Pabst, and Miller, as well life at the Busch estate, complete with mansion and animal farm.

If there’s anything I didn’t like it’s that I could have used more focus on the beer. More stories from the brewery floor and less from the corporate offices. But like I said, this book is not about beer, it’s about the Busch family.

If you’re from St. Louis this book is a must read. The Busch impact on the city is profound and immortal. Beer lovers should also read this book. It will give you an insider’s look at America’s most famous brewer, from the glory days to the dark.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the now AB-InBev.

Highly recommended.