Amid worries of takeover, only local brew can soothe

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | June 13, 2008 | A1

The tiny Silverleaf Lounge has a few tables, about a dozen bar stools and enough Budweiser signs to light up a frat house. By midafternoon Thursday, most of the seats around the rail were filled by guys with plenty of stories to tell: retired military men, firefighters, cops.

But they weren’t trading war stories. No, talk of Anheuser-Busch and a possible foreign takeover was the topic du jour – or perhaps du beer.

“If I had a vote, I’d say, ‘No. Hell, no!’ ” proclaimed bar owner Ronald Damery, 65, after some thought and a few tugs on his Bud Light. “Course, I don’t have a vote.”

“What you think doesn’t mean a dang thing,” shot back Ron Wood, 61, a salty ex-Marine clutching a Budweiser.

Both men laughed. Then they sighed.

As they sat on beat-up stools in the smoky south city bar, the Budweiser faithful such as Damery and Wood seemed sadly resigned in the wake of the news that the King of Beers may have its throne usurped by Belgian giant InBev.

“Maybe a horse will be too expensive for the new guys,” Wood said. “(Does) that mean the Clydesdales will be gone?”

Wood has been reading the newspaper, and he has some predictions about InBev. He’s heard the Belgian company wants to trim fat, but he thinks that’s code for two things: laying off workers and finishing off A-B’s traditions.

Then again, think about the other St. Louis corporations that have come and gone or merged, said Damery. TWA is done for. Ralston Purina got bought out by European corporation Nestle. McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing. The Pulitzer family sold the Post-Dispatch to Iowa-based Lee Enterprises.

Corporate mergers, reshuffling and the occasional international buyout are simply part of the new commercial landscape, Damery concluded.

“We used to own half the world,” agreed Mike Crisafulli, 50, a firefighter captain whose fiancée says she will never drink an A-B product again if the company is foreign-owned.

“It’s sad but true. It’s just inevitable, I guess,” Damery said. “Even if no jobs are lost, some of it’s just a point of pride.”

Witness the fact that the Silverleaf carries mostly A-B products: Bud, Bud Light, Bud Select, Michelob Light and Mich Ultra Light and Bud Light Lime. And low-carb Miller Lite in cans – “but that’s just for the diabetics,” Damery said.

“A-B is such an important thing to St. Louis and the surrounding areas,” Wood chimed in. “A-B is everywhere. What’s opening day baseball without Budweiser? What’s the Rose Bowl without the Clydesdales?”

Those concerns echoed in barrooms elsewhere.

“Old man Busch would turn over in his grave,” said Larnell Abby, 58, an armored truck driver, as he sat with a mug of Bud Light at Sadie’s Cocktail Lounge in Jennings. A neon Budweiser bowtie sign flickered outside. Abby had just gotten off work and wanted a cold one.

“I don’t care if they say they’ll keep it the same,” said Ted Williams, 75, the bartender who handed Abby his next round. “A buyout means change. That’s why they want it. To change it.”

Down in Soulard at Crabby’s Cream, almost in the shadow of the A-B brewing complex, bartender John Borrowman, 54, said his fear is that InBev will shutter the historic brewery despite any promises to the contrary. What happens then to a beer town if the iconic brewer is no more?

“People think of St. Louis, they think of the Arch, the Cardinals and the brewery, right?” Borrowman asked a customer as they both stared at a TV tuned to CNBC, looking for A-B’s stock price on the ticker. “Every once in a while, someone comes in and asks if we’ve got Miller Lite or Corona or something. I always say, ‘Look down the street. You think we have anything else?’ ”

“We’re just a Bud town,” said Rick Hastings, 42, a construction worker.

Borrowman and Hastings both reminisced about their first visit to Grant’s Farm, the Busch family estate. They remembered their first brewery tour as teenagers. Neither could recall the first time they actually had a Budweiser.

They worry about the economics of the whole thing. What happens to the employees? Corporate mergers are supposed to be good for stockholders, noted Borrowman, who was a computer programmer for A.G. Edwards and retired a few years before it was bought out by Wachovia. “It’s all about the stock value.”

“What about the regular guy,” Hastings said, “trying to pay bills and keep gas in his truck?”

And then some silence. Borrowman cracked open a couple of more beers. Bud Light, for the record.

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