Global | Local | Middle

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bud Buyout Burns St. Louisians

News comes this week that the symbolically "American" beer company Anheuser-Busch may be bought out by a Belgian-Brazilian brewing conglomerate. As the Guardian tells it, St Louis will become the global HQ for the new company (yet to be named). Locals have already mounted two protest sites (Save Budweiser and SaveAB), and rallied to protest the sale wearing T-Shirts with slogans like "This Bud's for the U.S.A." and "Keep my Bud American." Consider this broadside from "":
My fellow Americans,

Like baseball, apple pie and ice cold beer (wrapped in a red, white and blue label), Anheuser-Busch is an American original. Founded in St. Louis, Missouri, AB represents the spirit of our country, giving millions of Americans the "pursuit of happiness" through its high quality products and thousands of great paying jobs. Generations of Americans have grown up loving AB products and have appreciated its committment to our communities.

Now, our city, our state, our nation and our workers are being threatened with the loss of A-B to foreign investors.

With your help we can fight the foreign invasion of A-B. We will fight to protect this American treasure. We will take to the Internet, to the streets, to the marble halls of our capitals, whatever it takes to stop the invasion.
Wow. No doubt, the merger will bring job cuts to communities that are already struggling--reason enough to protest. But after a generation of economic restructuring in which "American" employers led the way in outsourcing jobs and undermining communities, I wonder if the "Keep my Bud American" sentiments can really gain traction. Then again, a good number of Americans are already primed by Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and Lou Dobbs to connect this corporate takeover with their fear of immigrant workers. The term "invasion" is key here.

From a historical perspective, the story of Bud is all about the dynamic of globalization and localization. Let's review. According to the corporate history, Anheuser-Busch started as the Bavarian Brewery in 1852 in the heavily German immigrant city of St. Louis. A "prosperous soap manufacturer" German immigrant (according to Wikipedia) named Eberhard Anheuser bought the brewery, and was later joined by his German immigrant son-in-law Adolphus Busch. (Forgive the shaky source material, it's all I have at hand.)

Beginning in 1872 (again from the corporate history), the company trade mark was solidly Americanized: a large letter "A" over a bald eagle standing on stars-and-bars, red-white-and-blue shield. A few years later, the company introduced "Budweiser" beer, drawing the name from beers brewed in the Bohemian town of Budweis (then part of Austria-Hungary, now Czech Republic). Today, the Budweiser website is at pains to emphasize the brew is a "great American lager," but it seems likely the name was initially intended to suggest the opposite: this beer is as good as the stuff you can get back home.

The irony that Anheuser-Busch's patriotic defenders seem to miss is that the company was a product of 19th century globalization that brought millions of Europeans to North America. The population of cities like St. Louis, a gateway to the American West that was experiencing an economic take-off, was disproportionately immigrant. But over time, and by various means, immigrants laid claim to American national identity. That process, like A-B's marketing, was always something of a two-step. Fixing immigrant culture in North America required local claims (cultural as well as economic) but rarely rejected international connections. Whether out of sentiment or marketing acumen (not that the two are mutually exclusive), "Budweiser" worked. Over time it became an "American" brand.

In 1980, A-B went public with a listing on the New York Stock Exchange, and in the 1990s it began partnerships with large breweries in Mexico and China. The Mexican brewers of Corona are major shareholders in A-B. The Busch family itself owns a mere 4% of the company's stock, although they are still the top managers. The company is already largely globalized in terms of ownership, although most of its sales are still in the US. The buyout will simply make plain what is already a reality.

The defenders of A-B's American identity are likely the great, great grandsons (perhaps some daughters) of those immigrants who danced a local-global two-step toward Americanization. These days they dance to a different tune, but it's still a two-step. A parody ad playing on a local radio station intones over the strains of beer-commercial rock music, "interwoven into fabric of American culture and landscape since the 1850s, the great American beer-maker may soon have a European flavor." And that's the story of how a product of the immigrant economy becomes American, how the global is localized and turned back around to fight a perceived global threat. I would look for the immigrant-success-story angle to appear soon in the anti-takeover rhetoric, it's just too full of possibilities for them.

As for me, I've never been a big fan of Bud. I grew up on Stroh's. Same story, different town.

Update: Anheuser gave up and agreed to the buyout today (7/11/08), according to the Financial Times.


Tim Lacy said...

Personally I'd have no problem with Bud being bought out or going belly up. Of course I'd want those jobs to stay in St. Louis and the U.S.---the ones that are still here, per your post. But as a native Kansas Citian, I've heard too much about how great the Bud beer and family are from obnoxious St. Louisans.

The only big-name brewery beers I can occasionally tolerate are Miller Lite and Sam Adams (who at least was recently small before becoming mainstream). But thesee are not labor issues. :) - TL

Tim Lacy said...

As an after thought, related but perhaps deserving of another post: When did "protectionism" become a dirty word? What's wrong with the occasional tariff to protect American-made goods? We're fine with it in agriculture (corn/ethanol v. sugar/ethanol/S. America), but not with cars, textiles, and household items. Sigh. - TL