St. Louis bids farewell to local brewer ownership

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 | 7:53 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — Few American cities are as closely linked to an industry as St. Louis is to the Anheuser-Busch brewery, making Tuesday a difficult day for many here when Belgium-based InBev closed its $52 billion buyout of the company.

The Anheuser-Busch-InBev combination creates the largest beer company in the world, and one of the top five consumer product companies.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the company's CEO, Carlos Brito, phoned him Tuesday afternoon.

"I think that St. Louis is going to like him — and I am looking forward to working with him," Slay said in a statement.

Brito told the mayor he and a team of employees will spend several months making changes at Anheuser-Busch, but Slay sounded a positive note.

"Closing the Anheuser-Busch InBev deal, of course, means that thousands of St. Louisans will now be sharing one of the largest infusions of wealth into this region in our history. Given the state of the national economy, it probably could not come at a better time."

St. Louisans have had months to grow accustomed to the deal, but word that the brewer would no longer be owned locally still raises worries about what that will mean for the region's economy — and its psyche.

The brewer employs about 5,700 people in the St. Louis area and pays roughly $32 million in state and local taxes and fees. Anheuser-Busch donated about $13 million to philanthropic and charitable organizations last year.

The company said in a statement Tuesday that it has not made any additional changes to its work force, adding that "InBev has affirmed its commitment to the community." St. Louis will remain the North American headquarters for the company.

Brewery tours that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the red-brick Anheuser-Busch complex in the Soulard neighborhood are expected to continue, as are symbols long associated with the brewery, such as its famed teams of Clydesdale horses.

Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society, said he has heard people are worried about "the loss of one of the last St. Louis icons," but he thought the city's strengths will allow it to "do just fine."

Brewing has historically been an important industry in St. Louis, brought about by huge waves of German immigrants who came to the region before the Civil War. Beer, which would not have been pasteurized at the time, was often stored underground in area caves to keep it cold.

Anheuser-Busch had its roots in the Bavarian brewery, which Eberhard Anheuser acquired in 1860. His son-in-law, Adolphus Busch, in 1864 joined the company that would later become Anheuser-Busch.

There used to be dozens of breweries in St. Louis, but Archibald noted Anheuser-Busch developed its reputation through its marketing genius.

In St. Louis, the brewery's name is commonplace, glowing on signs at Busch Stadium where the baseball Cardinals play and marking the business' many corporate sponsorships of area programs and events.

In Archibald's view, there was a certain inevitability that the long-standing business, closely associated with a family, would change into a larger company and operate on a broader global scale.

But in St. Louis, all the economic realities in the world can't change that for residents, the loss of local A-B ownership feels personal.

At Bevo Mill, a south-side restaurant built by August A. Busch Sr. and completed in 1916 with a five-story windmill, restaurant president David Gilbert gets photographs in the mail almost weekly from people who marked family events from baptisms to after-funeral gatherings there.

Gilbert, who described Bevo Mill as a Busch property that he leases, said the restaurant will remain open.

Busch used to entertain business associates at the Flemish-inspired spot and used its Mill Room as his private dining room. The restaurant is halfway between the brewery and Grant's Farm, which was then Busch's home and is now a family attraction open to the public.

Area residents dining at Bevo Mill expressed sadness the brewery will no longer be owned by St. Louisans.

"It's kind of a shame we're losing local control of it, but I expect I'll still like the beer," said Jerry Venverloh, 85. He and classmates from his 1937 graduating class from Our Lady of Sorrows elementary school gathered there for lunch.

Venverloh said he expects changes will come to the brewery in St. Louis, including a reduction in jobs, now that the deal is complete.

"In my working life, I've been in situations where new owners come in, and say they'll keep everything the same. Six months later, everything changes," he said.

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