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Sale of Anheuser-Busch was ‘a win’ for St. Louis craft brewers, beer drinkers

Kevin Kious (left) and Stefene Russell (right), co-authors of “St. Louis Brews, 2nd Edition: The History of Brewing in the Gateway City.”
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

Everyone knows St. Louis is a beer city as much as a river city or Gateway city or 1904 World’s Fair city. But not everyone has the encyclopedic knowledge of the history of brewing in St. Louis that the second edition of “St. Louis Brews” provides.

“St. Louis Brews: The History of Brewing in the Gateway City” features a chronology of brewing history in and around St. Louis; profiles of over 100 local breweries; biographies of the household names Busch and Anheuser; and, new to the second edition, an expansive survey of the city’s prospering craft beer scene.

“The first edition came out in 2009, and so the major difference in this edition is what has happened since then…the resurgence of the craft beer industry and the brewpub,” co-author Kevin Kious said. He and another author, Stefene Russell, joined “St. Louis on the Air” to talk about shifts and patterns in the history of St. Louis brewing.

As the title implies, “St. Louis Brews” focuses mostly on regional beer history, which really began when German immigrants began flooding into and around St. Louis in the early 1800s. Kious noted that 95 percent of the brewers in the area at that time were German—the rest, a smattering of English and Irish brewers.

Small, neighborhood breweries were the most common kind, Kious said. Typical neighborhood breweries might brew a thousand barrels a year to be distributed to local pubs and saloons. Saloons, in turn, were often financed (and sometimes owned) by the breweries, which would provide signage and bar fixtures and, of course, the product.

“That was part of why the heat was on the brewers prior to Prohibition,” Kious said. “Some of the saloons were pretty unsavory places”—a fact which gave temperance advocates a political hook to push the criminalization of alcohol production into law.

After Prohibition, ‘St. Louis lager’ was actually a nationally-known style of beer. This was largely thanks to local breweries like Lemp, Griesedieck Brothers, Falstaff, and of course Anheuser-Busch, which were all big exporters of beer throughout the nation.

“A lot of brewers out west, when they started opening, would copy the bottle labels to make it look like St. Louis lager labels,” Kious said.

Competition at that point was fierce, especially among those big regional breweries—but Anheuser-Busch inevitably muscled out many of its local opponents with strong, smart marketing.

For a while, Anheuser-Busch was the St. Louis beer; and indeed, the American beer. But Billy K. Busch, who splintered from the family business to create Kräftig in 2011, inherited some of his forbears’ marketing savvy by riding the national wave of smaller-scale breweries. ‘Kräftig,’ Russell said, elicits the idea of ‘craft’ for a product that is in fact a typical American beer.

“He’s definitely unapologetically brewing this sparkling American lager,” she continued. “It’s not really a microbrew, but I don’t put it exactly in the Coors category, either…I find him one of the more interesting stories in this whole panorama.”

Tom Schlafly, however, was the first to breach Anheuser-Busch’s vicelike grip on St. Louis brewing in 1991. Other ‘old guard’ craft brewers like Morgan Street were soon to follow, Russell said, but Schlafly was really the first advocate for the St. Louis craft beer scene. “They’re interesting because they’re not a tiny brewery…but they’re still very much in that craft brew model.” And despite the perpetual addition of new microbreweries in St. Louis, Kious noted, they’re still selling quite a lot of beer.

Change in the local brewery status quo was marked most saliently by the sale of Anheuser-Busch to the Belgian company InBev in 2008; the sale was “traumatic” for the city, Russell said, but enabled the birth and rapid growth of many smaller craft breweries.

“There was this very public mourning of this company…going from a local company to basically a global conglomerate,” Russell said. “People who felt ‘yeah, A-B is my brand,’ no longer felt obligated to drink Anheuser-Busch products.”

The sale, and Anheuser-Busch’s accompanying layoffs, was overall a win for St. Louis, Russell noted. The pool of brewing talent that Anheuser-Busch had hitherto monopolized spilled out into a public which—though existentially hurt by the loss of their locally-based international institution—was ready and waiting for new beer. The yet-untapped market exploded.

In fact, it was hard for the authors to keep up with the onslaught of new microbreweries and brewpubs in the second edition of “St. Louis Brews.” “It was sort of a moving target. We were rewriting text as we went to press,” Russell said. “We mentioned 25, I think, in the book, but there were more than that.”

“You could do a whole book on microbrewing in St. Louis,” she added. “It’s that deep a culture.”

Developments in craft brewing since the late 2000s include the surge of women getting involved in microbrewing—thought generally to be a man’s game, Russell noted—and the modernization of regulatory laws that make it easier for smaller breweries to operate. The most important shifts in beer culture, however, are those that have changed the way people make, drink, and appreciate local beer.

“People have connected the microbrewery movement with the local food movement, so the point is no longer to get as large as possible and sell as many beers as possible,” Russell said. “It’s more about creating something that has some ‘terroir’ to it—that’s more of a wine term—but it’s more about reflecting the place where the beer is from and creating something that is an artistic product.”

Compared to the big-brewery culture of post-Prohibition, she says, “It’s a whole other mindset.” And St. Louis is lucky to live in it.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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