The Mad History of American Brewing

anheuser busch st louis

The Anheuser-Busch brewery in its early years,
St. Louis, Missouri

Tom Dibblee’s self-professed (and entirely perplexing*) love of Bud Light Lime was the initial draw to his Los Angeles Review of Books article on William Knoedelseder’s Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s King of Beer.

Granted, Dibblee answers that question – eloquently and honestly, in fact – but that’s not what I took away from the article.  Rather, it was the ancillary facts, the words forming the context, history, and personality of the men at the center of America’s early brewing empire.  What I learned from the article was this: since its inception, American mass-produced beer has never been good, even to those producing it.

While Dibblee decided to review Knoedelseder’s book because of his “loyalty to Bud Light Lime,” I decided to discuss Dibblee’s article based on the hilarity (intentional or not) of various quotations regarding the quality of American beer for much of the last century.

Consider the following from Dibblee’s review:

[Eberhard] Anheuser had been making a bad beer, a beer that ‘was so foul tasting that tavern owners were accustomed to patrons spitting it back across the bar at them.’

Schlitz collapsed thanks to an additive they’d used to speed up fermentation, a chemical that led to the build-up of a mucus-like substance in a can of Schlitz that sat too long on the shelves.

The litany of AB novelty drinks: ‘Chelada Bud, Michelob Ultra Lime Catcus, and Michelob Ultra Tuscan Orange Grapefruit, and — yes — Bud Light Lime.’

Miller Lite’s first tagline: ‘All you ever wanted in a beer.  And less.’

On Anheuser-Busch’s executives: ‘Nobody there even wanted to make light beer to begin with, and August III…didn’t even like how Bud Light tasted.’

While hilarious, these quotations point to a larger question: when has American mass-produced beer ever been good?  From what I can tell, the story can be summarized as such: start with a bad product; cut corners to produce a worse product; lower the bar in order to beat competitors; produce lousy substitutes or alternatives; then, when your product is inexplicably successful, don’t believe in it.  All of which points to: no – American mass market beer has never been good.

Fortunately, American microbrewers came along, and fed up with decades of swill, decided to focus on quality, not quantity, thereby transforming the landscape of American beer.  Which adds a bit of irony to this history, as it was quality Adolphus Busch was likely seeking when he “went out and bought ‘the recipe for a beer that for years had been produced by monks in a small Bohemian village named Budweis.'”

What I call quality, Dibblee calls authenticity and soul.  Those of us who truly drink beer for beer’s sake (and not drinking’s sake) indeed recognize these characteristics.  Which includes Dibblee too, who when summarizing Knoedelseder, even concedes it applies to his beloved Bud Light Lime:

“But there’s nothing time-honored and cozy about a product like Bud Light Lime, and Knoedelseder implies that Anheuser-Busch let itself slip somewhere along the way into what the average sophisticate will recognize as soulessness.”


* I have tried Bud Light Lime only once, when it was purchased for me at a ballgame.  I thought it better to accept, rather than offend, and I couldn’t finish it.  Calling it “beer-light” is generous.  So my first impluse was to judge Mr. Dibblee on his love of such putridity.  Yet, his explanation is admirable and worth repeating.  He explains:

“I wrote earlier that I like BLL [Bud Light Lime] because it helps me shed the burden of sophistication.  What I meant by that was, with a BLL in hand, I am free to say out loud that I like the singer Adele.  And that I think high-end cheese makes for a boring topic of conversation.  And that I can see the problem everyone has with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close…I know some writers who I think are hemmed in by their sense of sophistication, by the fact that they know they shouldn’t like Adele, or Foer, or Bud Light Lime, and who, as a consequence, write in a frightened, soul-stunted way.”

I commend Dibblee’s bravery in admitting he enjoys something he knows he shouldn’t.  And yet his enjoyment remains perplexing.