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Calling Budweiser the "King of Beers" is a good way to get beer geeks to roll their eyes. A lot of beer connoisseurs mainly think of Budweiser as a thin-tasting symbol of corporate hegemony—it's the beer version of a Big Mac. But regardless, Budweiser's success has always been a story of savvy marketing; less known is that it's also a story of ingenuity and invention.
Adolphus Busch, who created Budweiser in the 1870s, didn't even like it much, calling it "dot schlop" and preferring wine instead. Busch, however, found a creative way to give America what it wanted, and in the process created a unique symbol of the nation's growing prosperity. Busch, along with other brewers such as Frederick Pabst and Joseph Schlitz, belonged to the generation of American robber barons like Jay Gould and Andrew Carnegie who ruthlessly built industrial empires utilizing new technologies. American brewers modernized their craft with advances in refrigeration, pasteurization, pressurized carbon dioxide injection, and by staffing laboratories full of scientists who traveled the world studying beer. They also reinvented beer itself.
In the decades before Budweiser was created in 1876, most beer in America was dark and heavy—think English-style ales, porters, or stouts—and wasn't as popular as cider or whiskey. Beer became more popular in America as greater numbers of Germans arrived, but their brews didn't quite fit in with their new country. Many European immigrants came from overcrowded cities where food was scarce, and they treated beer as liquid bread they could nurse from a single glass for hours, according to historian Maureen Ogle in her delightful Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.
America, however, was the land of plenty, and beer didn't need to substitute for food. Americans simply wanted to drink to "pass time pleasantly in jovial society," noted one editor at a popular brewing trade publication in the 1870s. And when Americans wanted to drink, they wanted to drink. Lighter lagers, which went down smooth and easy, were more appropriate to the young nation's new style.
Beer brewers such as Busch quickly noticed the trend, and set out to "modernize" beer by developing a brew appealing to the new taste that would also be easier to preserve and ship as American breweries grew their businesses. The golden moment for these brewers arrived shortly after the 1873 Vienna Exposition, where visiting Americans were introduced to light varieties of lagers and pilsners, including a champagne-like beer from the Bohemian city of Budweis (today located in the Czech Republic) that stole the show. This lighter style of beer had existed for years, but was relatively unknown in America because most German-American brewers were from regions where brewing traditions favored darker beers. The Budweis brewery made beer for the official court, advertising itself as the "Beer of Kings," a slogan that was later adapted by Busch for his American audience.
Recreating Budweis in America, however, was nearly impossible because of the difference between American and European barley. American barley was higher in protein, which resulted in unappealing blobs and undissolved yeast that looked like phlegm floating in beer that was supposed to be crystal clear.
But technology and creativity came to the rescue. Busch and his scientists tackled the problem by experimenting with alternate cooking techniques and mixing in starchy grains such as white corn and rice that absorbed excess proteins and helped their beer attain the lemon-colored transparency they were seeking. Today, this process of "adjunct brewing" is often derided as a way to stretch grains and save money, but in Busch's time high rice prices meant that Busch spent more on his beer and thus charged more for it. He also sold his Budweiser (Germans add er to the end of word to denote location) in bottles rather than casks to prevent fraudulent imitators from taking advantage of the era's lax copyright laws.
Aside from a few drinkers who spit it out during taste tests, the beer was a hit. Busch and his competitors, many of whom had developed comparable beers using similar techniques, paraded their brews around international competitions and vacuumed up the awards (though it should be noted that the breweries made some efforts to influence the judges.) The court of public opinion also awarded them with boatloads of cash—Americans drinking lighter lagers consumed three times as much beer as their German-born counterparts who preferred darker beers, according to the New York Times in 1877. America's notorious sweet tooth preferred the "sweeter" taste of beers like Budweiser, the Times claimed. The lesson was repeated constantly when competing breweries tried to reintroduce darker beers and were met with failure.
Of course, over a century later, all that would begin to reverse.
About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He is currently writing a book about bourbon for Viking/Penguin. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire and on Twitter @ReidMitenbuler.