By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
William Knoedelseder's new book, Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer, opens with a foreboding scene. It's May 2008, and August Busch IV, the young CEO of the brewery that bears his family's name, is expected to speak in front of 1,200 beer wholesalers gathered for a conference in Washington, D.C.
The Fourth, though, is running late.
Finally, after a half-hour has passed, David Peacock, Anheuser-Busch's VP of marketing, takes the mic to explain that the company jet had trouble landing. August IV is "taking medication for a sinus infection," he adds.
Ten more minutes pass before August IV saunters to the podium and wades into his prepared remarks.
It doesn't go well. He trips over the text. He slurs his words. August IV is clearly on something, though few in the crowd believe it's cold medicine.
Again Peacock grabs the microphone. "Obviously, August is not feeling well," he tells those assembled, then quietly ushers August IV off the stage.
Six months later Belgian beer conglomerate InBev will announce that it has successfully completed its takeover of America's most storied brewery.
Newly revealed anecdotes like the one from the wholesalers' conference carbonate Knoedelseder's book, which — thanks to the cooperation of family members, their friends and former brewery employees — may be the most detailed rendering of the heady blend of power and peccadilloes that for a century and a half has made the Busch clan as intriguing as it is controversial.
Last week Riverfront Times interviewed the author, a St. Louis native and former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter, by phone from his home in Southern California as he prepared for a book tour to launch Bitter Brew.
Riverfront Times: How did this project come about? I've heard the Busch family sought you out.
William Knoedelseder: I was in St. Louis in 2009 promoting my book I'm Dying Up Here, and I met Adolphus Busch IV, and we got talking about books. He told me he wanted the real story of his family told. He asked if I'd be interested. I told him I was, but I don't do books for hire. I basically said, "You tell me everything, and you have no editorial control, and I own it all."
I've always wanted to do this story. When I was working for the LA Times in the early 1980s, I wrote up a big treatment for a television series about a rich brewing family that owned a baseball team. But no one was interested, so nothing came of it. Then I remember when [Terry] Ganey and [Peter] Hernon's book [Under the Influence] about the Busch family came out, and I was like, "Oh, shit. There goes my chance." And so I never thought about it again until Adolphus brought it up. By then the company had been acquired by InBev. I remember thinking, "Hmm. Now there's an ending to the story." And there's a great arc to the story: The history of Anheuser-Busch runs from the week Lincoln was inaugurated to the week Obama was elected. In between, you can tell a great story of America through this beer company.
Does the world need another book about the Busch family?
Does the world want another book about World War II? The answer is, if it's a good book, yes. Despite how it seems in St. Louis, the world doesn't really know the story of Anheuser-Busch and the Busch family. And I was given the potential of getting input from the people who lived in the house where Gussie lived. They may have been rich and colorful and controversial, but they were also a mom and dad and seven kids and 300 wild animals. That is interesting.
And really, this seemed like something I was always meant to do. The weekend I started doing research for the book — in spring of 2010 — I came back to St. Louis and went to a Cardinals game with some of my relatives. We had nice seats along first base. The second batter for the visiting team hit a pop fly right to me. This may sound weird or grandiose, but I took that as an omen. Another thing: The masses streaming into the ballpark made me wonder what this city would be like if Adolphus Busch hadn't stepped off a steamboat here in 1857. It's kind of like the theme to It's a Wonderful Life. What would Bedford Falls have been like without George Bailey? What if Adolphus had wound up in Cleveland? What if his son hadn't kept the business going though Prohibition? What if his son hadn't expanded the company and bought the Cardinals and so on and so forth?
Most of the book focuses on the Busch patriarchs who ran the brewery in modern times — Gussie, August III, August IV — and it is not always a flattering portrait. Gussie, as you tell it, turned into a sobbing shell of himself in his later years. His son, August III, comes off as a callous, emotionless man. And August IV? Where do we begin? The escorts, the coke, the megalomania? I've heard that he was trying to get a restraining order to keep this book from hitting store shelves.