How Budweiser's Super Bowl Ad Taps America’s Contentious Immigration Past

American beer as we know it today was the gift of a once-despised immigrant group: German Americans.

David W Cerny / Reuters

On Sunday, Budweiser will air its highly anticipated Super Bowl ad, “Born the Hard Way.” The short film depicts a young Adolphus Busch emigrating from Germany to St. Louis in 1857. Faced with a difficult Atlantic voyage and hostile American attitudes toward immigrants, Busch relies on his dream of brewing beer to propel himself forward, and ultimately finds a kindred spirit in one Eberhard Anheuser.

This ad appears at a tenuous moment. President Trump’s recent executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority countries has brought immigration policy to the forefront of national politics. Though the Budweiser ad plays loose with a few historical facts, it captures how beer served as both a cultural handhold and form of economic engagement for German immigrants in the 19th century United States.

Beer also holds another legacy that the advertisement overlooks—how modern American beer, the kind that millions of Americans will consume on Sunday, is a product of immigrant activism and entrepreneurship. In the 1850s, beer became a cultural battleground for German immigrants to defend not only their right to participate in American political and economic life, but also their very presence in the U.S.

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.

When nativist and temperance activists sought to suppress German beer and, by extension, their rights, immigrants fought back. In 1855, a Know-Nothing city government in Chicago targeted immigrants with anti-alcohol liquor license regulations and a selectively enforced ban on Sunday alcohol sales. In response, the German population rioted. Police and immigrants clashed, shots were fired, and cannons were eventually deployed by what is now Chicago’s Daley Plaza, where a German-style Christmas market is hosted annually (without any need for artillery).

Germans continued to defend lager beer as a desirable alternative to hard liquors, persisted in their Sunday revelries, organized to promote their industry, and of course brewed more beer than the U.S. had ever seen before.

Though Prohibition and significant anti-immigrant sentiment lay ahead, Germans carried the day. Know-Nothing candidates lost political power and temperance efforts to enact prohibition at the state level failed. Lager beer spread like wildfire, replacing the English-style ales and porters that preceded it and multiplying the number of American breweries tenfold between 1850 and 1873. It was lighter in alcohol, easier to drink, tastier, less prone to spoilage and infection than previous American beers, and came to be preferred by native-born Americans as well as German immigrants. Adolphus Busch participated in a wave of immigrant activism that negotiated American economic and cultural life and in turn transformed both German-American citizenship and the brewing industry.

Contemporary questions about the rights and status of immigrants are no more foreign today than 160 years ago, and the unforeseeable social and moral implications of an increasingly globalized world carry significant weight. Immigrants in the 1850s, German and otherwise, forced Americans to reflect on the practical definitions of notions like rights and citizenship. These notions revealed themselves to be multifaceted negotiations rather than static monoliths.

Budweiser, if anything, now represents the old guard, analogous to the English-style ales that Busch and other German brewers once challenged. By reconciling American beer’s present with its contentious immigrant past, the largest brewer in America has shown once again how beer is culture brewed.