The U.S. doesn’t have royalty. But it has had its share of drama-filled political dynasties (the Kennedys, the Bushes) and commercial ones (the Rockefellers, the Fords). It may seem odd for an economy built on creative destruction and competition, but a surprisingly large number of our best-known brands and consumer products were family companies for well over a century. In Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer, William Knoedelseder tells the story of five generations of Busches. Over a period spanning 150 years, the dysfunctional family constructed an empire in the heartland and imprinted itself on the popular culture. “Thanks to their beer, the Busch family had tasted all that America ever promised the immigrant class from which they sprang—wealth almost beyond comprehension, political power that provided access to presidents, and a lifestyle rivaling that of history’s most extravagant royals,” he writes.
In this engaging narrative, Knoedelseder, a veteran reporter and author, highlights the ups and downs of using DNA as the main criterion for the selection of CEOs. The Busch family corporate dynasty ended, as so many dynasties do, with an unqualified heir ceding control to savvy, aggressive foreigners. In 2008, Anheuser-Busch, then led by August Busch IV (and I use the adjective ‘led’ advisedly) was sold to InBev, a Belgium-based firm run by Brazilian managers.
Adolphus Busch came to the U.S. from Germany in 1857 as an 18 year old, found his way to St. Louis, got married, went to work for his father-in-law, Eberhard Anheuser, and started brewing beer. The decades after the Civil War brought the industrialization of food production, distribution, and marketing. And Busch was “the first brewer in the United States to pasteurize his product, which enabled him to bottle Budweiser and store it longer without fear of spoilage.” The railroads, which helped create a national market in goods for the first time, allowed small local businesses to build regional and national brands overnight. And the influx of Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland helped create a beer-drinking culture. By 1911, despite the best efforts of Protestant prohibitionists, “the U.S. surpassed Germany as the No. 1 beer producing country in the world,” Knoedelseder writes. Adolphus Busch died in 1913, the proprietor of a national beer company, and with an estate worth $60 million.