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Good Beer Hunting

Feb 4, 2023

It was 1922, and August A. Busch, Sr. needed a break. A long one. It turns out that running a gigantic brewing company like Anheuser-Busch during Prohibition was kind of stressful. And so, being the patriarch of one of the country's wealthiest family dynasties at the time, Busch did what dynasts do: he treated the word "summer" like a verb.

On May 15th of that year, Busch boarded the SS George Washington, a passenger ship about half the size of the Titanic, bound for a three-month retreat at the family's country estate in western Germany. Now, we could all get a cheap laugh at the elitist image of Anheuser-Busch's president leaving his titan brewery so a luxury liner can whisk him away to his personal castle on a German hillside, but I urge you to resist the temptation. If you'd had the run that Busch had so far, you'd need a vacation too.

Prohibition in the United States, which banned the manufacture, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages nationwide, had been in effect for over two years now–which meant the beer that had built the Busch family's empire was illegal. 

Many of the nation's thousand-ish breweries simply closed, but Anheuser Busch was one of the few that tried to survive in a post-beer country. And so far…it wasn't going well. The brewery was millions in the red, the products they made to replace beer weren't cutting it, and the government was failing spectacularly to contain the growing hordes of moonshiners and bootleggers across the country.

But if you're going through hell, keep going. Whether it was pure faith or rational assessment, Busch believed that Prohibition wouldn't last forever. Even so, it was clearer every day that fighting the 18th Amendment would be a marathon, not a sprint. Which brings us back to the George Washington.

Busch boarded and the ship set sail, but the George Washington was barely underway when Busch saw something shocking. As soon as the ship passed into international waters, and out of U.S. jurisdiction, the ship's staff threw open cabinets full of liquors, wines, and beer, and opened up a bar. Actually, they opened five bars, all over the ship. And because American alcohol producers, like Busch, had all been put out of business, the booze was entirely foreign in origin–even the so-called "Old American Moonshine Whiskey."

As you might imagine, this made Busch a little angry. The George Washington, like many American passenger liners at the time, wasn't just some ship. It was owned and operated by the United States Shipping Board, a government agency. In other words, the government that was enforcing Prohibition on Americans was also slinging drinks on the side.

August Busch wasn't about to take this lying down. The United States government had become, in his words, the "biggest bootlegger in the world," and everyone was going to know about it.

In this episode, the strict impositions of Prohibition draws a once and future titan of the brewing industry, Busch, into a very public feud with Albert Lasker, an advertising guru turned reluctant chairman of the Shipping Board. Their battle over the right to sell alcohol at sea delighted a sensationalist media, put a finger on the scales of the 1922 congressional midterm elections, spurred a Supreme Court case, and laid bare the strange politics of the Prohibition era. As Prohibition expanded the size and reach of the U.S. government, it also kindled political conflicts that went far beyond the morality of drinking beer. In fact, Prohibition laid bare the complications involved in implementing, adapting to, or coping with high minded social concepts. Whether that idea is a controversial moral creed like banning alcohol, or a hopefully straightforward ideal like democracy, the devil will always be in the details.