Do not adjust your computer monitor. It’s true. A new Busch family brewery appears to be headed for St. Louis, home of the former Busch-led Anheuser-Busch Brewery. William K. Busch is looking to put the “Busch” back into St. Louis beer for the first time since the company’s 2008 acquisition by Belgian brewing giant InBev and the subsequent departure as CEO of fifth-generation leader August Busch IV, perhaps better known colloquially as “The Fourth.”
William K. Busch, also known as Billy Busch, is the son of third-generation AB leader August “Gussie” Anheuser Busch Jr., which makes him the uncle of former CEO August Busch IV. He’s not a particularly well-known member of the family. In fact, as a sort of measuring stick, if you Google “William K. Busch” or “Billy Busch,” the only image you’re going to get of him is an action shot of Busch on a horse, because he’s apparently a competitive polo player. This makes the announcement the other day that he’s opening a new brewing venture, the William K. Busch Brewery, all the more surprising. He was never involved in the “family business” up to this point, and that’s actually the only reason he can legally open his brewery now–he didn’t have to sign a “no-competition” agreement like those members of the Busch family who actually worked for the brewery when it was acquired by InBev.
The really weird thing about the proposed William K. Busch Brewery is what it will actually produce–an American lager and an American light lager.* Sound familiar? Instead of taking the opportunity to make something different from AB’s history, Billy Busch intends to make essentially the same beer, competing directly against the megacorporation his own family created. No word on if it will be beechwood-aged. The brewmaster will apparently be Marc Gottfried, brewer for St. Louis brewpub Morgan St. Brewery.
*UPDATE: In the time since this post was originally written, the William K. Busch Brewery launched these lagers, which are known as “Kraftig.”
Now, this seems like kind of an insane course of action to me, but I’m not a Busch.
In that spirit, please note this: I am no expert on the tangled web that is the Busch family tree. It is a very confusing, eccentric, fascinating family, riddled with power struggles and the occasional scandal involving the death of random people who got too close to the family. The most common way of taking control is by wresting it away from your father amid bitter recrimations. It’s basically the succession style of Roman emperors, which makes it all the more proper that it’s a bunch of “Augustuses” in charge. You could spend all day simply trying to understand who is who and who does what in the family.
For that reason, I’ve contacted someone who does know a thing or two about St. Louis beer and the Busch family, St. Louis Post-Dispatch beer writer Evan Benn. Benn is the author of a great beer blog, Hip Hops, that is a must-read if you’re planning on doing any craft beer drinking in the St. Louis area. I’m actually going to be there for a wedding this weekend, and the two breweries I plan to visit (Six Row Brewing and Urban Chestnut) are largely because of what I’ve read on Hip Hops. He’s also the author of “Brew in the Lou,” a Post-Dispatch book on the history of St. Louis brewing. Who better, I figured, to explain this whole situation? What follows is the brief conversation we were able to have.
Kid Carboy Jr.: What kind of reputation does Billy Busch have there in St. Louis and in the Busch family? It really doesn’t sound like he had much interest in the brewing industry before, or he wouldn’t even be in the position to be able to start a brewery now, because he’d be restricted by the no-competition clause.
Evan Benn: Billy Busch has stayed out of the limelight here in recent years, unlike some of his other family members. He was involved in a nasty custody battle in the late ’80s that garnered a lot of headlines, but that was a while ago, of course.
Carboy: When would this William K. Busch Brewing start distributing beer? Was this just announced? If they put in a physical location, where would it be?
Benn: The plan is for the brewery to get their first two lagers into the St. Louis market as soon as November, with broader distribution to follow. It will initially be contract-brewed through a facility in Wisconsin (I’m guessing Stevens Point but haven’t gotten that confirmed). They haven’t decided on a physical location yet, nor have they said that it will definitely be in St. Louis. It will be a St. Louis-based company, however. This just came to light this week.
Carboy: I’m a little confused on the lineage. Is Billy a son of The Third? What exactly happened to the previous planned Busch-Timmermann Brewery that made it fall through?
Benn: Billy is the son of August “Gussie” Busch Jr. August Busch III and Billy are half brothers. August Busch IV is Billy’s nephew. Adolphus Busch IV and Andy Busch are two of Billy’s full brothers. *
I’m unclear what made the Busch Timmermann plans fall through, but I do know that Mr. Timmermann is not a part of the current brewery project.
*You see? It’s nuts.
Carboy: I have heard from St. Louis people often that this Morgan St. place is among the least interesting breweries in town–there’s a reason I wasn’t planning on heading there this weekend, for instance. What do you make of them? I know you’re a craft beer geek, don’t hold out on me.
Benn: Morgan Street is our only all-lager brewery, and its brewmaster, Marc Gottfried, is a lifelong prodigy of brewing* who churns out some excellent, award-winning beers. There is certainly nothing uninteresting about an India Pale Lager or a Bohemian-style Golden Pilsner that has won gold medals against pilsners from all over the world. The only real strike Morgan Street has against it, in some people’s eyes, is that it’s located in a part of downtown called Laclede’s Landing that tends to get overrun by tourist types** and young party kids on the weekends.***
*He started brewing at 13 and was named the youngest Master Brewer in North America at the age of 22. Very impressive.
**Like me, for instance.
**Okay, I’ll give you that, but if you peruse the Morgan St. Brewery’s website (which is a frighteningly outdated-looking site, by the way), it’s definitely not making any references to India pale lagers, and that’s pretty much what I was going off of. That and there’s a few stouts on the list, so I’m not sure if “all-lager” is accurate. I pray that they’re not some sort of lager-stout. UPDATE: Benn informed me that they are in fact lagers, which I personally can’t help but imagine as some kind of hideous, Frankensteinian lager-stout hybrid. I’m suddenly very afraid.
Carboy: And finally, what in God’s name is Billy Busch thinking in starting a new brewery that is just going to make more American lagers and light lagers as its flagships? There is no way that he can possibly think that he’ll be competing with AB-Inbev. No one could be that delusional. Please confirm that this is impossible. I mean, how many other breweries do you see opening today that just make those kinds of beer? You see…none of them, because that market is already spoken for. And by volume, that market is already decreasing each year. Is there a reason he wouldn’t do something a little more crafty? Does it seem as pointless to you as it does to me?
Benn: You could be right, or Busch could be on to something. A lot of people have taken the InBev takeover as an opportunity to try out some non-A-B beers. Some people are just looking to support a local brewery, but not everyone likes big imperial stouts or double IPAs that many of the craft brewers produce. So in that sense, it could be a smart call for a local-owned brewery to fill the niche of making the kind of easy-drinking lagers people have been drinking and loving their whole lives. Time will tell.
A big thanks to Evan Benn for contributing his opinions and replying speedily to my request. Personally, however, I find it difficult to envision the citizens of St. Louis deciding en masse that they want to support the “local” Busch-owned brewery over just buying another Bud Light–this just doesn’t seem to be in the typical macrobrew drinker’s mentality, to me. It’s the craft beer drinker who goes out of his way to drink with ideals, like where a beer is made or who makes it. Unless Billy Busch is somehow able to beat Budweiser in price (and that would be some really cheaply made beer), I can’t expect the William K. Busch Brewery to amount to much.
But who knows? I could be wrong. As Benn said, time will tell. If you’ve bothered to read all this, please let me know what you think.