How America’s Two Signature Beer Companies Became Expats

Budweiser and Miller: Even if you don’t like them, you have to admit that they have long been considered the two beers most associated with America. Their ads feature vast fields of wheat, baseball, hard-workin’ and hard-partyin’ men and women — heck, Bud even went so far as to rebrand itself “America” for the summer — even though neither brand has been majority owned by an American company in years. And now that U.S. regulators have signed off on on the marriage of Bud and Miller’s parents, these once-American titans of industry have completed their transition to become worldly expatriates.

Budweiser is, of course, owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which still has a strong connection to its St. Louis roots, but which is in reality a Brazilian-Belgian concern that has its eyes on the African market.

Which is one of the reasons why it is acquiring SABMiller, a company that clearly traces its origins back to Milwaukee, but also to Johannesburg and now London.

They’re like the two kids from your hometown who became world travelers but still held on to the family home back in the States. Except now they are consolidating their things and one of them has to sell the old homestead… to Molson Coors.

Anyway, here’s a quick look at how each of these companies transformed from Midwest family businesses into global concerns for which the U.S. is just one piece of the pie.

Anheuser & Co. brewery was founded in St. Louis in 1852 after Eberhard Anheuser first became part owner of Bavarian Brewery, then bought out his partners and changed the name, according to the company’s website.

The Busch part of the company came several years later when Eberhard met a young riverfront clerk, Adolphus Busch. This younger man went on to marry Anheuser’s daughter, Lilly.

At that point, Busch went to work at the family brewery and years later purchased half ownership from his father-in-law, becoming a partner.

In an effort to “transcend the tradition of local brews and appeal to the tastes of many different people,” Adolphus and a friend created an American-style lager beer in 1876. The duo named the beer Budweiser hoping that it would catch on with German immigrants, but could still be pronounced easily by Americans.

Thanks to these efforts, as well as the introduction of the Michelob brand, the company’s name was changed in 1879 to the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association.

The company remained in the family for decades to come, passing down from generation to generation in St. Louis.

The company and the Busch family became integral to the St. Louis landscape. In 1953, August “Gussie” Busch — grandson of Adolphus — purchased the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Following his death in 1989, the team’s ownership passed on to Anheuser-Busch. Even though the company subsequently sold the Cards to its current owner William DeWitt, it has kept its name on the stadium where the team plays.

The company even got heavily involved in that most American of entrepreneurial endeavors: Theme parks, operating Busch Gardens, acquiring Sea World, and Cypress Gardens.

Then, after more than a century as inarguably one of the most identifiable American brands, things changed in 2008, when Anheuser-Busch agreed to an all-cash $52 billion offer from InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate that had been formed only four years earlier by the merging of Europe’s Interbrew South America’s AmBev.

Two decades before Adolphus Busch married into the Anheuser family, another brewing giant was on the cusp of creation as the Miller Brewing Company was launched in 1855 in Milwaukee.

Fredrick Miller opened the operation after purchasing a small company called Plank Road Brewery for a few thousand dollars, according to Beer History.

The new brewery — renamed Milwaukee Brewery — was situated in the Menomonee Valley, creating the perfect location for good water and raw materials.

Miller had brought with him a special German yeast to use in his beer, and later that year produced the first barrels of his American beer that fall, MillerCoors notes in its history timeline. 

After Miller’s death in 1888, his second wife and children continued operating the brewery, passing it down through the family for decades.

Unlike, Anheuser-Busch, Miller didn’t stay in the family into the 21st century. First, it sold a majority stake to W.R. Grace & Co. in 1963, only to have Grace flip that stake over to tobacco giant Philip Morris six years later.

This marriage of beer and cigarettes lasted more than 30 years, during which time Miller revolutionized the industry (for better or worse, depending on who you ask) with the introduction of Miller Lite.

The classic ad campaigns for Miller Lite also changed the way folks advertised beer — featuring former athletes like Dick Butkus, Bubba Smith, and most famously Milwaukee’s own Bob Uecker alongside famous actors and comedians like Rodney Dangerfield, these commercials helped “light” beer to be marketed to manly men who might have otherwise treated the product like a “slim” cigarette.

Speaking of cigarettes, as tobacco use tightened up in the U.S., Philip Morris rebranded itself Altria and began work on spinning off its international operations. Around the same time, in 2002, it agreed to sell most of its stake in Miller to London-based South American Brewers. Altria retained a minority ownership position in the resulting SABMiller, but the company’s home base had moved across the pond for good.

In 2007, things stateside got even more muddled when SABMiller formed MillerCoors as a joint venture with Molson Coors — the Canadian/American hybrid formed in 2005 by the combination of those two companies. SABMiller held a 58% ownership stake in MillerCoors, but that will soon be sold off to Molson Coors.

So while the company that began as Miller Brewing will cease having any involvement with any Miller beers, there’s some solace in knowing that the company taking control of MillerCoors is only half-Canadian.

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