‘Sins And Successes’ Of St. Louis’ Beer Kings | St. Louis Public Radio

‘Sins And Successes’ Of St. Louis’ Beer Kings

Dec 13, 2012

When St. Louis native Bill Knoedelseder pitched the idea for a TV series about a wealthy brewing, baseball-team-owning family, Hollywood was skeptical. How could a Midwestern mansion hold a candle next to, say, an oil family in Dallas?

Years later, Knoedelseder believes he has answered that question with his new biography Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer. He joined host Don Marsh to talk about the book, the Anheuser-Busch legacy and the St. Louis-centered characters who constructed it.

“You have this narrative that runs from three days after Abraham Lincoln was first inaugurated to three weeks before Barack Obama was sworn into office... [there is] an American story through this company, through the five guys who ran it. That’s what compelled me,” Knoedelseder said.

At the end of the 19th century, Adolphus Busch - a German immigrant with a penchant for marketing - realized that a new pasteurization processes might work for large-scale alcohol production. Until that point, beer was brewed in neighborhoods at a hyper-local level. St. Louis’ system of caves made the drink relatively popular here, and Busch was determined to turn America into a “beer-drinking nation.”

Knoedelseder spoke of the Busch family’s “sins” and “successes” as fixtures of St. Louis lore. For many years, Anheuser-Busch has held a prominent role in the local community, as both fodder for gossip and fuel for the economy.

“Part of their style was profligate spending on anything that was promotional. If your motto is ‘Making Friends is Our Business,’ and that makes you a lot of money, well that forgives you a lot of sins,” Knoedelseder said.

Jerry, a listener from Kirkwood, called in to reminisce:

“It was more like a culture. When you went over to the brewery, you were in a different world. It wasn’t just beer; it was blood.”

Knoedelseder said a number people he spoke with, from the family and outside, echoed that sentiment many times over.

“When I was [writing] the book I was going to a Cardinals game, [it was my] first time in new stadium.  I was in a sea of people wearing red shirts and I was wearing a blue shirt, and I was struck by the thought: ‘What would it have been like if Adolphus Busch had stepped off the boat in Cleveland?’”

With Assistance from Ariana Tobin

Follow St. Louis on the Air on Twitter - @STLonAir