Saturday, December 13, 2008


When you come to visit us in St. Louis you will probably ask us to take you on a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, home of the “King of Beers,” Budweiser. So as not to be caught unprepared we toured the place ourselves last Sunday. To my mind there are three things that make the A-B tour stand head and shoulders above all other brewery tours: (1) the eye-popping historic buildings, three of which are national historic landmarks, (2) the Clydesdales in residence, and (3) the mystery of Bevo.

The tour begins with the Clydesdales stables and wanders downhill through the massive factory complex to conclude at the Bevo Bottling Works where the A-B products made in St. Louis are packaged. As you approach this six story brick factory building that fills a city block the most remarkable thing you see is a large gargoyle perched midway up each corner. I initially thought it was a rat dressed in coat and boots playing a flute. Closer inspection revealed “Bevo, the Fox.” The lobby of the building is also beautifully decorated with handmade tiles featuring the same crafty fox.

We were told that the bottling works was built during Prohibition and named for the A-B's then new non-alcoholic “cereal beverage.” Anheuser-Busch started brewing Bevo in 1916 when the US armed forces prohibited use of all alcoholic beverages. That crafty fox Augustus Busch, Sr. knew the tide was running against him and that it would only get worse in the near future. He had backed anti-prohibition candidate Taft in the 1914 election but lost. Then the US went to war with his fatherland, and robber barons like him with close German ties were highly suspect. He worked tirelessly to try to prevent the coming of Prohibition even closing down scores of highly profitable but disreputable A-B owned saloons across the country. By 1916 he must have known his efforts were failing.

He decided to diversify. Not only did A-B start to brew Bevo well before national Prohibition took effect, he also developed a number of products for home brewers like brewers' yeast and malt syrup. He appears to have known Prohibition would not last forever, but he was determined to make the best of it. Production of Bevo rose greatly when Prohibition finally took effect in 1919, and Bevo was by far the most popular of the many "near beers" of the time. At the peak of its popularity in the early 1920s, more than five million cases of Bevo were sold annually. However by the late 1920s bootleg beer and liquor as well as home brew had cut Bevo's market share. With sales flattening to 100,000 cases by 1929, Anheuser-Busch stopped production.

But why did they call it “Bevo?” The only explanation I can find is that the name "Bevo" was coined from the English word "beverage" and the Slavic or Czech word for beer "pivo.” It would seem Busch wanted the name to subliminally suggest that beer was not long gone. The use of the Renard the Fox character to symbolize Bevo also suggest A-B is winking an eye at Prohibition saying, “Here, drink this. I promise that real beer will be back before too long.”

But there are more curious twists. Augustus did not like living at the family mansion on the brewery grounds so he moved out to the suburbs. In 1913 he purchased “Grant's Farm” from the heirs of the former President and civil war general and built a new home, “Baurenhof,” there on the banks of Gravois Creek. It was, however, a long trip home from the brewery. To break up the journey Augustus built himself a private dining room along the Gravois road exactly halfway home. For some reason he commanded that this building be an authentic replica of a Flemish windmill. Of course, he called the place the “Bevo Mill.”

In 1917 the Bevo Mill started serving meals to the general public. It still does. The neighborhood that grew up around the Mill came to be called “Bevo” and still is.

Augustus also loved parades. During the 1920s he started the tradition of putting A-B promotional vehicles into parades all over the country by designing and building “Bevo Boats.” Apparently he build as many as eight of these extravagant precursors to the Clydesdales and Rose Parade floats. The one surviving example of a Bevo Boat was built in 1930 after Bevo had ceased production, and thus was probably called a Budweiser Boat. Mounted on a 1930 Cadillac frame with a boat body finished in red with white stripes, it has a red leather interior. Some of its most unusual features include two large chrome anchors mounted to the bow, a propeller on the transom, Wig-Wag taillights with lanterns that swing from their mount, an Anheuser Busch eagle mounted on the front deck as well as two functional Winchester Arms 10 gauge cannons mounted on the rear fenders.

Augustus Busch did everything he could to assure the word Bevo became part of the popular culture of the time. His efforts paid off in ways he could not control. Irving Berlin included a song "You Can't Stay Up on Bevo", in his 1917 army revue, Yip Yip Yaphank. The popular references were not very complementary. The suggestion is that Bevo is not the real thing. Here's how Irving Berlin put it: “I used to own a vicious looking dog who wouldn't bite, I used to know a dangerous looking man who couldn't fight, My brother trained wild animals but they were really tame, And now I've tasted of a drink that strikes me just the same – [Refrain:] Bevo, oh, oh, oh, Bevo, You're the grandest imitation that we know, You're the only drink that a soldier can pick, You taste like lager but you haven't got the kick, oh!” Thereafter at least for a time “Bevo” became army slang for a young and inexperienced officer.

Decades later, Bevo is mentioned in a list of popular culture items that can corrupt children's morals in the song "Trouble" in The Music Man.

During the same time span the University of Texas football team acquired its mascot, a long-horn steer named “Bevo.” According to the official web site of UT Football, its mascot Is not named for the A-B near beer.

All of this is my way of explaining the thoughts running through my mind as I stared up at Bevo the Fox last Sunday. How does a made up name for a product that no longer exists and almost nobody remembers come to designate a large industrial building and a St. Louis neighborhood?

No comments:

Post a Comment