William Knoedelseder’s book captures the larger-than-life story of five generations of a family who piloted America’s premier brewing company through the Civil War, Prohibition, two world wars, and a developing global market that ultimately proved to be too great a match for them. It’s an excellent read.
Like the Kennedys, the Busches have had more than their share of success, failure and outright tragedy. As a St. Louisan who grew up two blocks from “the brewery,” I’ve always been fascinated by them. As a one-time employee of Fleishman-Hillard, the PR firm that represented Anheuser-Busch for decades, I had the opportunity to meet and occasionally work with several of the family members. The ones I knew seemed driven to excellence. Most of us would say they lived extravagantly, but then again, they could afford it, and they never squandered their wealth.
The Busches had several ugly divorces, and as the book chronicles, they were involved in some notorious slayings that would have resulted in lengthy prison sentences for those less well-connected than they were.
This family produced five generations of CEOs who led their company to the top of their industry and kept it there for more than 100 years. The last of them, August IV, presided over the fall of the company to InBev, the Belgian brewing conglomerate. You’ll learn from the book of his many shortcomings, but to pin the fall only on him would be a mistake. He faced a cauldron of internal and external forces that the company had failed to evaluate fully. As a result, it couldn’t respond quickly or strongly enough to the unrelenting globalization of the brewing industry. In the Darwinian global beer business, it became prey instead of predator.
Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer is part business history and part prime-time soap opera. I, for one, couldn’t put it down.