Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: Bitter Brew by William Knoedelseder

For a change of pace I'm doing an old-school book report!  What did I read on my vacation to St. Louis?  Why, I read about beer of course!  Having been to the AB brewery on my trip, I was intrigued by the history and majesty of this brewing behemoth.  I was shocked that the enormous AB gift shop had no books about the brewery at all.  With the storied history of that place, a giant coffee table book with tons of old pictures and a positive spin on some of those sometimes controversial stories seemed like a no-brainer.  But the shop seemed to ignore much of the historic aspect of the brand in favor of Bud Light, and Shock Top.  Feeling let down, I discovered this book in the St. Louis airport and went to town on reading it.
The book is written by an author with a fairly respectable history in news and reporting, and from it seems that he did quite a bit of research to write it.  Between historical registries, court reports, old newspaper clippings and personal interviews there is a lot in information here. 
Strangely the first chapter of the book starts at the end of the story, covering the buy-out by In-Bev, then jumps to the repeal of prohibition, then goes back to the founding of the brewery and continues chronologically from there.  I found this a bit disorienting, and felt like the author would have done better to have a slow build-up to these momentous events, which would have fallen appropriately midway through the book and at the finale.   Continuing past the odd first chapters, the next third of the book covers the rise of the brewery and the Busch family to prominence.  To me this is the most interesting era, when one man could build an empire through luck, skill, crookery and sheer force of personality.  Some of the stories of the early years are interesting, but not quite fleshed out enough for my taste.
The following third of the book covers mostly Gussie Busch and his son August the III.  The book spends a lot of time on baseball, since Gussie bought the St. Louis Cardinals to prevent them from being sold to another state (and as a vehicle to sell beer of course!)  Not being a huge baseball buff, some of this was lost on me.  I'm sure most red-blooded American males will know all the names and history, but there wasn't enough detail to really make me feel like I knew who these stars were.  The high point of this section was the underhanded deposing of Gussie by his own son, showing quite the dysfunctional family dynamic.
The last third of the book mostly covers August III and his son August IV, having a very similar feel to the previous section of the story.  This part of the book spends a lot of time on IV's scandals, and is a bit sensationalized, putting much focus on the extreme drugs, partying, deaths and brushes with the law.  The descent of the man into Howard Hughes quality mania and drug use is almost difficult to read.  The finale of the book returns to the In-Bev buy-out and has a brief coda about how things have gone for the company since. 
I liked the book and felt that it had a nice mix of history, scandal and social commentary.  Even seeing the excesses of the Busch family and the Mega Corporation, I felt sad at the end.  Not being a fan of Bud or it's beer line-up I expected to feel happy that "The Man" had failed and now was on the run from Craft Beer.  In reality, I felt sorry for the state of August the IV and for the Great American Company.  I recommend this as a good read, but would have loved more pictures!  If anyone (local) wants to borrow it, just ask.

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