Was Budweiser Really Born the Hard Way?

6, February 2017
Carte de visite of a young Adolphus BuschThe real Adolphus Busch as a young man. Carte de visite by Hoelke and Benecke. Missouri History Museum.

With the words “Welcome to St. Louis, son,” an exhausted, visionary immigrant joins the ranks of famous Anheuser-Busch Super Bowl commercials alongside croaking frogs, “Wassup” dudes, and Clydesdale-puppy friendships. The immigrant is Adolphus Busch himself, and the commercial is a minute-long mini-drama of what it takes to leave all behind and follow your dreams. Although the commercial is a giant Hollywood leap away from the life of the real Adolphus Busch, his story is just as exciting.

Adolphus Busch Meets Eberhard Anheuser . . . Eventually

Busch’s parents had plenty of experience with child-rearing by the time he was born in 1839—he was their 21st of 22 children! The middle-class German family ran a wholesale brewing-supply company in Mainz, and they made enough money for Busch to receive a top-notch education at the Collegiate Institute of Belgium in Brussels. Soon after graduating, the young Adolphus Busch decided to try his luck in America.

While Busch was just a young boy in Mainz, Eberhard Anheuser, maker of soaps and candles, was already on his way to the United States. After a brief stint in Cincinnati, he moved west to St. Louis, which offered more opportunity for expansion. In 1852, Anheuser bought into the failing Bavarian Brewery, taking over control of the company in 1860 after the principle owner’s finances fell through. Although not a brewer himself, Anheuser was a successful businessman with the sense and funds to keep the brewery running. More on him later!

In 1857, Busch crossed the Atlantic (not alone as in the commercial, but with three of his brothers), landing in New Orleans, where he then headed upriver to St. Louis. We don’t know what his trip from New Orleans to St. Louis was like, but he probably traveled quite comfortably on a large steamboat, feasting in the boat’s grand hall before retiring to his own private room. The commercial shows Busch’s boat ablaze, with him jumping into the swirling Mississippi River and resorting to “hitchhiking” upriver on any raft that would carry him. None of this was the real Adolphus Busch’s experience, but thousands of other immigrants did face the terrifying reality of a steamboat explosion. Take this diary entry from Walter Foster, who was startled awake when the nearby steamboat Edna blew up near St. Louis in 1847:

“The scene that then met our eyes no pen can describe. . . . The entire deck after the boilers was a complete wreck. The dead, wounded, and dying were scattered in all directions, some lying upon another, others half buried in the goods and rubbish. . . . Some begged in the most piteous account to be killed at once. Some uttered shriek on shriek in the most heart-rending manner while others lay perfectly silent.”

Daguerreotype of the St. Louis levee in 1852The St. Louis levee in 1852. Adolphus Busch would arrive right here just five years later. Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly. Missouri History Museum.

When Busch stepped onto the St. Louis levee in 1857, he had no idea what kind of job he would get, but he did have the comfort of knowing he wasn’t alone. Because Germans made up a full quarter of the city’s 160,000 residents by the late 1850s, he was bound to find many others who shared not only his language but also the customs particular to his region of Germany. As a St. Louis Republican editorial from that time put it:

“A sudden and almost unexpected wave of emigration swept over us, and we found the town inundated with breweries, beer houses, sausage shops, Apollo Gardens, Sunday concerts, swiss cheese, and Holland herrings . . .”

In 1859, Busch lost his father but gained an inheritance that he used to buy into a brewery-supply business. One of his primary customers? None other than Eberhard Anheuser. The two men likely had quite a bit more than beer in common from the moment they met, considering their German hometowns were less than 25 miles from each other. But what seems to have caught Busch’s eye most was neither beer nor fond memories—it was Anheuser’s daughter, Lilly. Adolphus Busch married Lilly Anheuser in 1861, and a few years later, he began working in his father-in-law’s still-struggling brewery.

Black-and-white photo of Adolphus Busch and Lily AnheuserAdolphus Busch and his wife, Lilly (daughter of Eberhard Anheuser), ca. 1870. Missouri History Museum.

Busch proved to be quite talented at marketing even at a young age, and he possessed a shrewd business sense. He expanded the brewery with new and innovative ideas, including pasteurization and refrigerated rail cars that allowed beer to be sent over long distances without spoiling. This shipping ability propelled the brewery to the front of the nation’s beer makers, growing from 27,000 annual barrels in 1873 to more than 1 million in 1901.

The Beer of Dreams

Steel engraving of early Budweiser adA Budweiser advertisement, ca. 1900. Missouri History Museum.

The commercial shows Adolphus Busch meeting Eberhard Anheuser in a saloon, where, in a moment of destiny, the two men look upon a simple sketch Busch has carried with him through thick and thin. It’s Budweiser! His beer of dreams! Immediately the two men see its genius and exchange a hearty handshake. Again, this makes for fantastic television, but it isn’t the story of the real Adolphus Busch, or the real Budweiser. (Surprisingly, Busch hated beer, which he called “slop,” and preferred to drink wine.)

Hoping to keep up a string of incredibly successful years in the 1870s, Busch wanted to create a beer that appealed to all drinkers. The name for this equal-opportunity beverage needed to have a European flair but be easy enough for non-Germans to pronounce. Busch and his friend Carl Conrad, a liquor importer, came up with the name Budweiser, which they thought had a nice Bohemian ring to it, and began producing the beer in 1876.

One of the biggest reasons for Budweiser’s continued success wasn’t the beer itself but rather an advertising campaign involving a particularly violent artwork. In the 1890s, Anheuser-Busch produced and distributed thousands of copies of Custer’s Last Fight, a painting that depicts the famous Battle of Little Bighorn. The result was a masterpiece of early beer advertising: In saloons far and wide, patrons studied the painting’s gory scene, glanced down to the thick black letters spelling out Anheuser-Busch, and proceeded to say the magic words “I’ll have a Budweiser.”

Black-and-white photo of Budweiser billboardA Budweiser billboard, ca. 1900. Missouri History Museum.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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