What’s a Brew Got to Do With You

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By Harvey Jacobs

There have been reports that Anheuser Bush might be swallowed up by a Belgian brewing conglomerate. I guess most everyone knows that Anheuser is the corporate umbrella for some of the most iconic brands in the history of America, the best-known being Budweiser, “The King of Beers.”

I don’t know if it was artist Edward Hopper, or that footnote to the history of 20th Century art, Andy Warhol, who helped us realize how important a shrine like a late-night diner, or how comforting a familiar label on a soup can is in forging what might be called a national product identity. In a curious way, the items on the shelves of a zillion markets that seem to have been around forever are inanimate communicators, linking us to a time and place, a lifestyle, a shared membership in some vast and nameless club.

Most of the time, we’re hardly aware of those tiny, dependable links to the private geography of memory and to the very public geography of belonging to a binding social order. Products like Bud, or Coke, are part of our universal kinship in the kingdom of the grocery, the bar, the vending machine, or the refrigerator in our kitchen. They’re keywords in the language of consumerism we all speak frequently and fluently.

From television commercials to checkout counters, Budweiser is certainly one of those ubiquitous reminders that the things that count are still in place, handles to grab as we navigate the swirling chaos of inevitable change. It’s as if they’ll always be there. Not necessarily…you’ve got to earn your stripes.

It isn’t easy for a product to survive, much less thrive, in these days of competitive fad and fancy. Most products actually have the lifespan of overnight celebrities. Of the thousands of items you’ll see in your supermarket, a huge percentage have grabbed shelf space at the expense of others within the last year or two. Those they’ve displaced have been banished to the great recycling machine called oblivion. Which will endure and which will vanish in terminal disposal–and why—is the great mystery of marketing.

One thing that seems clear enough: quality and consistency always mark the winners.

Those traits are not built into a beer, or people, by accident. Several years ago, I had the good luck to work with the Anheuser Bush people in St. Louis as writer of their galas. Under August Bush II and his right hand guy, a play-it-as-it-lays genius, Mike Roarty, the company had prospered hugely. It became a tradition that every few years the eagles had a chance to soar; Anheuser distributors came together to touch base with the rest of the family (and it is a family), talk profits and futures, and have a few laughs along the way.

The centerpiece of these meetings brought over a thousand beer jockeys to some jazzy venue, like the Shrine Theater in Los Angeles, where they’d be treated to a red carpet entertainment that even the participating stars from film, theater, music and sports– Sinatra to Hope, Lucy to Kelly, Moore to Newman, Charles to Rawls–you name ‘em—didn’t believe who showed up in the Green Room. Those shows were legendary, infused, and enthused, with a spirit and company pride many of today’s young entrepreneurs would find impossible to believe. Nowadays, the dream of most workers is to put in a few years, get vested in a hot stock issue, sell out and move on. The idea of building a company to last, to thrive, is all too rare. We’re talking about a testimony to excellence. Those Anheuser shows were a metaphor for success.

The Anheuser brewery is a smooth operation, efficient, spotless, a good place to work. A staff of every ethnicity does what it takes to keep their products on top of the heap. Talent is recognized and rewarded. Grant’s Farm, where the Clydesdales hang out, reflects that same aura of speciality; those great beasts are treated like Saudi princes.

It wasn’t hard to see that Bud’s dominance was no accident. Imagine watching August Bush check out the beer section of a local convenience store, making sure that his products were well displayed and fresh. Any can or bottle past its expiration date was tossed. (August was pretty serious about his brand. The only time I saw him laugh was when, during a rehearsal, he offered comedian Robert Klein a beer and Klein said, “Not if it’s your last one.”)

OK, so what has the case for keeping a mythic brew back home got to do with Sag Harbor’s fate? A few weeks ago, with all good intentions, some experts on rejuvenating small communities spoke to a large crowd at the Bay Street Theater. The evening was a classic case of mixed signals. The speakers told of communities that saved themselves by rebuilding Main Street, using flashy electric signs to attract customers, and finding other techniques to “modernize” (I’d say mall-ify) their dismal economic environment. One woman expressed what I felt was the overwhelming feeling of the Bay Street audience: She said she’d left one of those glitzed-up towns in Maine to come here because that town tried to save itself by turning into a New England version of Atlantic City.

Most of us had come to that gathering searching for guidance on how to keep CVS, or any other chain, from swallowing up Main Street. I’d say we felt that the SAG HARBOR sign on the movie theater was enough neon for one of the landmark villages in America.

Allowing for, even welcoming, change for the better, the forces that may well turn our town into a parody of itself have got to be thwarted. Ruining the commercial appeal of Sag by overbuilding and overselling the community is not the best route to prosperity. Tourists and residents come here because the place is unique, not for more of the same. Our Town’s identity should be defended against morphing into an over-dressed hooker decorated with too much face powder, eye-liner and lipstick, dreaming of better days.

Globalization or not, I hope Anheuser Bush remains a family company rooted in St. Louis, Mo., U.S.A. It’s one of the corporate anchors that help hold American life together.

A good beer, well-made, may not be the end of the world but it is one small reason to hope the world doesn’t end too soon. And our good little village, bridging past and future, is another good reason to hope for the best. But we’ve got to work at keeping our fate in our own hands.

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