In the annals of American history, there have been few days as momentous as April 7, 1933. As August A. Busch Jr. (better known as Gussie) of Anheuser-Busch informed his fellow citizens via a broadcast on KMOX, it was "a real occasion for thankfulness, marking a newfound freedom for the American people."
It was, of course, the day Prohibition officially came to an end. Monday marks the 75th anniversary of that joyous occasion, and the folks at Schlafly Beer have planned an entire week of festivities beginning at 12:01 Monday morning.
But what can Schlafly truly know of the suffering wrought by Prohibition and the relief of repeal? The young upstart wasn't even founded until 1989. Anheuser-Busch, on the other hand, bravely endured all thirteen years of the calamity during which more than half of U.S. breweries, including A-B's great hometown rival, Lemp, perished. (Consider: In 1910 there were 1,568 breweries in this country; by 1934 only 714 remained.)
To mark the anniversary of repeal, Anheuser-Busch curator Tracy Lauer rummaged through the 17,000 artifacts and 100,000 photos in the brewery's basement archive and dug out some of the more notable evidence of its struggle for survival. Lauer's trove will be on display in the Anheuser-Busch tour center until next January.
"It is a sign of the tenacity of this company," says Tom Shipley, Budweiser's brand manager.
Shipley's opinion is a bit biased, of course. Maureen Ogle, a historian and author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, attributes Anheuser-Busch's survival less to strength than to cunning: "What the brewers like Anheuser-Busch had to figure out," she says, "was what to sell and how to sell it."
Surprising as it may seem in this age of ubiquitous beer ads, before Prohibition, brewers were largely innocent of the arts of marketing and advertising. They didn't need them. "They had a captive audience," Ogle explains. "They either owned the saloons outright or leased them. That was the core of what drove the Prohibition movement. The Anti-Saloon League thought if they shut down the saloons, they would drive the breweries out of business. The brewers didn't know how to sell. They had to figure out what the customer wanted — basic marketing. Companies like Anheuser-Busch had to reinvent themselves."
There were plenty of misfires along the way, and many are on display at the brewery. Like a grape soda they produced called Grape Bouquet. And A-B Ginger Ale. There were Kaffo and Buschtee, a carbonated coffee and tea, respectively. And there were the "cereal beverages," like Bevo and Malt Nutrine, the latter of which was marketed as a digestive aid that "rests the brain and quiets the nerves" and was particularly recommended for nursing mothers. (Shipley: "There was more liberty in advertising then.")
Also on exhibit is the sole surviving bottle of the "new Budweiser," which sported a 0.5 percent alcohol content and which Gussie Busch claimed was "such a perfect imitation of our Budweiser beer that our experts could not determine, from taste, which was the beverage and which was the beer." Ogle dismisses it as "slightly brown, hoppy water."
Not surprisingly, none of these drinks (save for the new Budweiser) survived until the end of Prohibition. Inexplicably, A-B maintains the trademark on Malt Nutrine.
Though it might have been a nice bonus, the company's intent in producing these new beverages was not just to tantalize America's taste buds. "In 1919 we were the biggest brewer," Shipley says, noting that the brewery was producing 1 million barrels of beer each year and employed nearly 3,000 workers. "They wanted to keep everybody working. I think they knew Prohibition would pass, and they wanted to have a work force when it ended. But they probably didn't think it would take that long."
Although the brewery instituted massive layoffs, it tried to keep its workers busy. Several plants began producing ice cream. The vehicle department switched from manufacturing beer trucks to making products like the Lampstead Kamper, an early version of the RV that fit on top of a Ford and folded out into a camping shelter. "It was very popular," says Lauer.
In 1927 Anheuser-Busch broke into the yeast market. It already sold Budweiser Barley Malt Syrup, which was advertised, improbably, as an essential ingredient in bread and cookies. Perhaps malt cookies were an acquired taste, but bakers quickly discovered that Barley Malt Syrup, when combined and fermented with Budweiser Yeast, made quite a tasty homebrew.
Lauer denies that the brewery colluded with bootleggers, but Gussie Busch, in an interview with Peter Hernon and Terry Ganey for their book Under the Influence: The Unauthorized Story of the Anheuser-Busch Dynasty, claimed otherwise. "If you really want to know," he said, "we ended up as the biggest bootlegging supply house in the United States. Every goddamn thing you could think of. Oh, the malt syrup cookies! You could no more eat the malt syrup cookies. They were so bitter." If a St. Louis baker wanted to buy 500 pounds of yeast, Gussie said, he knew better than to ask questions.
Despite all this initiative, Anheuser-Busch barely survived. According to Ronald Jan Plavchan, who wrote a history of the brewery for his Saint Louis University Ph.D. thesis in 1969, "Anheuser-Busch, which had never before failed to make a profit on its operations in any year for which records exist, showed substantial losses in 1919 ($2,478,985), 1920 ($1,572,255), 1921 ($1,329,072) and 1922 ($218,270)." The brewery's financial situation had begun to stabilize by 1923, but Plavchan discovered that in order to make ends meet, the Busch family had sold off half its real estate holdings.
"By 1932," Ogle says, "all the breweries were close to going under. I don't know if A-B could have lasted another three or four years."
When Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932 on an anti-Prohibition platform, signed the repeal legislation, thousands of workers were lined up outside the Anheuser-Busch brewery to apply for jobs. The grateful Busch family sent FDR a case of beer in a wagon pulled by the famous Clydesdales, which had been introduced on the occasion of repeal.
Alas, Roosevelt famously preferred Scotch.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.