The Observation Post

Welcome to my non-blog or, as I prefer to call it, my Observation Post. Why, you ask, is this not a blog? (Yes, I’ll get to the main topic, beer, in a minute.)

Here’s the thing about writers and blogs: Writers write in order to earn a living. Some write books. Some write magazine articles. Some write both. A few specialize in blogerature, but most writers earn their living in print, not onscreen. As a result, we don’t have time to maintain a daily blog because we’re too busy writing the books and articles that make up our bread and butter.

So if a blog is a literary form updated daily or at least regularly, this isn’t a blog. I won’t be posting the excruciating details of my life on a daily basis. Or every other day. Maybe not even every week. Not because I’m lazy or boring, but because I don’t have time to do so.

Okay, now that we’ve got that settled, on to more important stuff. Beer. Not, I hasten to add, that this blog will be only, always, and forever about beer. I’m ready, willing, and able to rant on just about any subject. (Don’t EVEN get me started on the subject of customer “service" at the phone company.)

Anyway, back to beer. 2006 marks the 130th anniversary of Budweiser’s American debut. In March 1876, Carl Conrad, a St. Louis wine importer, introduced Budweiser, which was brewed for him by his friend Adolphus Busch at the brewery owned by Busch and his father-in-law Eberhard Anheuser. In 1891, Busch gained outright ownership of the beer, which had already made him and his Anheuser-Busch brewery famous. He once commented that he was “often greeted as 'Mr. Budweiser' instead of Mr. Busch."

Today, Budweiser is perhaps the most famous beer in the world. (I didn’t say the most liked; I said the most famous.) This one brand accounts for a whopping eighteen percent of all the beer sold in the United States. That probably explains the minor uproar that erupted over a front-page story that appeared in the April 26 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

According to the report, sales of Bud have slipped recently because consumers want a “stronger," more flavorful beer. A-B officials explained, that yes, over the years they’ve reduced the amount of hops in the lager. Now, however, in response to a changing American palate, they plan add more hops to the Budweiser brewvats.

“See," said some folks (including many bloggers). “We told you so. Bud is nothing but watery swill and now even A-B is admitting it."

Not so fast. This tempest in a teapot (or brewvat) demands the perspective of history. This is not the first time brewmasters at Anheuser-Busch have tinkered with company recipes, nor is A-B the first brewery to alter its beer. The history of the American brewing industry is one of constant change and adaptation. Indeed, Budweiser itself is a product of the most important moment of adaptation.

The American brewing industry was born in the 1840s, during a wave of German immigration. In the 1840s and 1850s, brewers sold their beer primarily to other German-Americans. Many English-speaking, “native" Americans refused to drink alcohol, and those who did mostly drank whiskey, scorning scorned beer as too heavy and filling.

But in the 1860s, a second-generation of brewers entered the business. The most ambitious among them, men like Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch, longed to expand their markets. To do so, they had to create a beer that would appeal to Americans. So they and other brewers began experimenting. Using translucent, relatively light-bodied Bohemian lagers as their model, they began adding corn and rice to their brewvats.

The results were a revelation: The new lemon-colored lagers were nearly effervescent. They sparkled with a brilliant sheen and, thanks to the corn or rice, possessed a rich, creamy flavor. The new brews were not easy to make, nor were they cheap: in 1878, a bottle of Budweiser retailed for a dollar a bottle, at a time when a schooner of conventional all-malt lager sold for a nickel.

The new lagers elbowed heavy all-malt beers right off the table. In 1875, the Schafer brothers of New York tried to switch back to an all-malt lager. Sales plunged. Consumers wanted nothing to do with the old-fashioned heavy stuff. Budweiser was perhaps the most famous, because the finest, of the new American-style lagers. Between 1876 and 1882, Conrad sold twenty million bottles of the stuff! In 1891 alone, Adolphus Busch sold fourteen million bottles. That may not sound like much now, but back then, that was a LOT of beer.

So if A-B today is reinventing Budweiser, well, August Busch III and his son August IV are only following a path paved by the men who preceded them. To me, that’s the important story: for more than century, one generation after another of Busch men have kept a firm hold on their creation and an even firmer grip on the title of “nation’s largest brewery." And they’ve done so by paying attention to what customers want, and by focusing first, last, and always on quality. You may not like the kinds of beer A-B makes, but even the most diehard anti-Buscher has to admit: the Busch family does what it does better and with more consistency than any other beermaker in the world. That’s no small feat.

I don’t know about you, but I admire excellence, quality, and passion no matter where I find it.

So I tip my virtual hat to Anheuser-Busch, and send that fine American institution my sincere best wishes on this, the 130th anniversary of the birth of Budweiser.