The King is Born
Adolphus Busch fared better. In the early seventies, he and brewmaster Irwin Sproule developed St. Louis Lager, a rice-based brew that they modeled after the “highly esteemed” Bohemian beer that won top honors at Vienna in 1873. Busch took his new product to the next major exposition, at Paris in 1878, where it won the grand prize for bottled beer.
But in 1874 or 1875 (the precise date is not known), Busch and Sproule developed a second rice beer, this one for Busch’s friend Carl Conrad, a St. Louis importer of wine and liquor. Conrad was no brewer but he knew a profitable market trend when he saw one and he contracted with Busch to create and brew a “very pale, fine beer” that Conrad would bottle and sell under his own label.
Conrad wanted the beer to stand out in an increasingly crowded field of Pilseners, so he asked his friend to model the lager after the pilsener brewed in Budweis (Ceské Budejovice), an ancient Bohemian city where an “official” court brewery produced the “Beer of Kings,” a slogan Busch would later invert. Budweis brewers used Saaz hops and Moravian barley, but they employed a slightly different mashing method than did makers of Pilsener, and the resulting beer was a shade lighter in color and slightly more effervescent than its Pils counterpart. Neither Busch nor Conrad had been to Budweis, but they had visited Bohemia and tasted Budweis beer in other European cities. Conrad claimed that Budweis-style lager “was always the finest Beer [he] could get in Europe,” and that the “Budweiser process [made] the finest Beer.”
Busch tackled the problem with his usual thorough enthusiasm, studying the matter in books and the trade press and consulting with men who had worked in Budweis breweries. After some months of experimentation, he and Sproule settled on a combination of technique and ingredients, beginning with a mixture of high grade North American barley. The mash contained about eight pounds of rice to five bushels of barley, but it’s not clear when they added the rice or how long it cooked. Nor were Busch or Conrad inclined to reveal the details of what they regarded as a priceless trade secret.
Saaz hops imbued the beer with an “exquisite aroma” and “special . . . bouquet.” Sproule added 20 to 24 ounces per barrel, slightly less than the 30 or so ounces used in the company’s other beers. He pitched the lager with an imported Bohemian yeast that provided “a peculiar, fine flavor.” Beechwood strips lined the bottoms of the aging vats, creating rough-textured traps for impurities and bits of flock or yeast that drifted their way. Then workers transferred the beer to kegs coated with an “aromatic” pitch made from fitchen pine; this, claimed Busch, gave the beer “a special characteristic.”
The final result, which Conrad named after its place of origin, was a masterpiece of brewing prowess. Budweiser is “fine and elegant,” Conrad boasted. It “sparkles” and “has a very pretty flavor.” It’s not clear what his original label looked like, but the man who designed Conrad’s second label claimed that it included the word “champagne.” That would not be surprising because effervescent Budweiser looked more like Champagne than it looked like other beers, a comparison that Conrad fostered by corking the lager in Champagne bottles.
Conrad and Busch launched the lager by hitting the road. The two friends traveled around Missouri and to Arkansas and Texas talking up the beer and hunting for reliable sales representatives. Conrad also invested three thousand dollars outfitting a “fine place” in San Francisco “where people could find [his] beer.” He sold most of it to California but also shipped it to Chicago, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Louisville, and cities in Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, and Alabama.
From the moment of its first public appearance in March 1876, Budweiser was a hit. Herman Kramer, Conrad’s California agent, pronounced the lager “an easy thing to sell.” “I never found a business so easy as this Budweiser,” he raved, and that despite it being “sold at a higher price than any other Beer in the country,” two dollars more per barrel than conventional lager. Even other brewers conceded Budweiser’s special character. “[I]t is the best bottled beer in this market,” said one. “I have drank Anheusers [sic] Bottled Beer, & the Budweiser beer is much the best.” Conrad sold a quarter of a million bottles of Budweiser in twelve months, and by late 1878, had sold six thousand barrels of the beer.