Budweiser, in dramatizing the humble start and entrepreneurial spirit of its founders, took a few liberties. Adolphus Busch did not brew beer professionally, with Anheuser or otherwise, until years after arriving in the United States. And Budweiser was not invented until 1876 after Busch, in cooperation with St. Louis liquor dealer Carl Conrad, drew inspiration from the Czech pilsner style for which it is named.
Busch was one of 950,000 German immigrants who came to the U.S. during the 1850s, many of whom became brewers. Though others stayed in eastern brewing powerhouses like New York and Philadelphia, many continued their journey to Midwestern cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, at times accounting for 25-40% of the local population.
Busch’s muddy, unceremonious arrival in St. Louis, as portrayed in the Budweiser ad, speaks to the rugged frontier lifestyle of these cities’ early years. Chicago’s downtown streets, for example, bore no semblance of pavement before 1855, and were impassible following any measurable rain.
Nor were the locals always welcoming. In the ad, a native-born American channels Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York by shoving Busch and yelling “You’re not wanted here!” and “Go back home!” This hostility overwhelmingly came from the large and politically successful anti-immigrant factions of the 1850s.
Organized into the American Party, also known as Know-Nothings, some Americans objected to the rising tide of immigrants, German and otherwise, as lower class undesirables, competition for labor, and undeserving recipients of American citizenship. German beer did not escape their ire. Know-Nothings often joined temperance reformers in decrying beer-swilling Germans, like the whiskey-tippling Irish, as a source of degeneration in American society.
But, for German-American brewers and imbibers alike, beer made up a significant part of their dual cultural identity—one they were determined to defend in Germany and in their new American homes. Lager beer was not only a German style of beer, it was at times a centerpiece of ethnic expression. Back in Munich or Frankfurt, modest increases in the price of beer led to riots, and in America the freedom to consume fizzy lager in family-friendly outdoor beer gardens (especially on Sundays after church services) served as both a demonstration of economic freedom and a cultural anchor in a new home.
German immigrants also adapted their beer for American lifestyles, serving lager in traditional saloons defined by brass rails and overwhelmingly male clienteles. The brewers themselves were likewise viewed by fellow Germans as hardworking entrepreneurs, using an albeit controversial product to forge a livelihood on American terms and navigating an increasingly capitalist and economically liberal nation.