In a new book, Family Reins, Billy Busch, one of the Anheuser-Busch heirs, gives his perspective on how the famous local family built its beer dynasty, survived Prohibition, amassed its fortune—and then sold the brewing business. Busch recounts growing up on Grant’s Farm, the beloved family attraction that his father, Gussie Busch, popularized by opening to the public. But when Billy’s 8-year-old sister Christina died in 1974 from injuries that she sustained in a car crash, it was the start of the fall of Camelot. In 1975, his half-brother ousted their father in a boardroom coup. In 2008, InBev launched a hostile takeover of A-B. The year 2016 saw Busch and his siblings in a well-documented fight over Grant’s Farm. He says he hasn’t set foot on the property since 2017. But just as things hum along on Grant’s Farm, Busch is working on his own next act.
Why write this book now?
There’s never been a book about the Busch family published by a Busch. I thought, There’s been so many things written about our family from outsiders, so many things in the media. But none of them tell the true story of what it was like growing up in the Busch family. I had read a lot of old letters that my father left behind. My wife and I went through boxes and boxes of relics. There was one book about the company that really stood out—it wasn’t a published book but written more for the employees. It was called Making Friends Is Our Business. I read that book, and I came to a realization that this is such incredible history and that my ancestors worked so hard to build a dynasty. My grandfather kept the company going during 13 years of Prohibition, and he kept all 2,000 employees working. My father ran the brewery when I was a kid, and it was probably the time of the brewery’s greatest growth. I saw the principles he used to make the company successful. I then got a better understanding of where he got these principles—from his father, whom I never knew.
What were those principles?
That in order to understand the business, in order to do anything, you don’t come in and take it over. You have to know every department, whether it’s the bottling line or the canning line, the brew house or the grain room, in the warehouse, whatever it is. You have to know exactly what goes on in those departments and what employees are dealing with, and then you can make a decision. My dad was great about that. And he, of course, made us muck out stalls and clean the pigpens on Grant’s Farm. We’d build fences and bale hay in the summer and do everything it took right alongside the other employees. We loved it, but it was all very hard work. And we were expected to do just as well…actually, we were expected to do it better than anybody else. There was more expected of us. The saying in the Bible that “to whom much is given, much is required” really resonated in my family.
Have you repaired relations with your siblings after the disagreement over the future of Grant’s Farm?
As far as the relationship I have with my family right now, it’s not a good one. We really aren’t talking. I think Grant’s Farm might have been the final straw. Whether we can get back together after all these years, I don’t know. It would be great if we could.
Could the book be a catalyst for healing those relationships? What do you think your siblings’ reactions would be if they read it?
As far as how they’re going to react to the book, hopefully they read it. They’re going to be reminded of some really wonderful times growing up, some really sad times growing up, and of how difficult our lives were. We never were able to communicate correctly. We never were able to show emotions. We were like soldiers to our father, who treated us like employees in a lot of ways. We had to always put on this show for Anheuser-Busch. That’s why we took care of Grant’s Farm. Because that was a priority, I think it took away some real family life, family feelings that we were never able to express. I will say that I learned a lot from that. I understand it much better in my life. With Christi and our kids, it’s all about communication, because the last thing I would ever want to happen is for my kids to fall into that same vicious circle of not being close to their siblings and Mom and I.
I can’t guarantee that things won’t go bad sometimes with my immediate family members, but I hope and pray that we can always sit down at the end of the day and talk things through, which I didn’t do as a kid.
One of the most heartbreaking parts of the book is the death of your younger sister, Christina. Did reliving that part of your childhood soften you toward your siblings? You’ve been through a lot of really hard times together.
It gave me a stronger understanding of why we’re where we are today. I think I’m much more aware of what caused the separation, the division in the family. I think losing Christina and not talking about it was the beginning of the end of our family as I knew it. When Christina died, my father became distraught. He called Christina his honeybee. She was his youngest child of 11, and he was crazy about her. She made the whole family light up, whether it was at the dinner table or when we were out riding horses or herding cattle. Losing her was such a difficult thing for my father, and my mom couldn’t show emotion. So my dad cried, and my mom had to be very stoic. It was difficult for us all, watching my mom and dad fight like cats and dogs from then on out.
It’s sort of remarkable how closely your family history mirrors the HBO show Succession.
I’ve never watched that show. I heard about it, and people have told me that the book does sound a lot like Succession. From what I understand, that show went off well, right? People loved watching it?
They’re calling it one of the best shows to ever be made.
I think that will help the book.
What else are you working on?
We have the book coming out in August, and it looks like we’re going to be opening a brewery/distillery in August, too. I love the beer business. I grew up around it. It’s a great history and tradition in my family, and I feel somebody in the family needs to keep it going. Why not me? When InBev took over Anheuser-Busch, it gave me the opportunity to start the William K. Busch Brewing Company. We couldn’t make ends meet with that company, so we’ve decided as a family to go in a different direction and build our own brewery. Eventually, we’ll build the distillery. It’s going to be right here on our beautiful farm in Defiance, in St. Charles County, so people can come out, enjoy the farm life, see the hop fields growing and the Clydesdales, and get a bit of the history of where the family comes from and why we’re continuing this rich tradition of brewing. I grew up opening up our farm to the public, so it’s really nothing different from what I’m used to. The company is called Busch Family Brewing and Distilling, and the name of the farm will be Busch Farm. So this will be Busch Farm instead of Grant’s Farm.
I was going to say, you seem passionate about the brewing business, but you seem really passionate about Grant’s Farm and its animals. That comes through clearly in the book. Will Busch Farm have a petting zoo like at Grant’s Farm?
Eventually, we’d like to continue adding on, similar to what my dad did with Grant’s Farm. Grant’s Farm started off kind of modest, but people really enjoyed it. Phase I will be just the brewery. The land itself is beautiful, so I don’t want to take away from how pretty things are. It has a long driveway going back to the brewery and the hospitality area with a restaurant and a bar. We’ll have our own whiskey right at the beginning. You’ll get to drink beer at our place, and you’ll have food to eat. It’s going to be very much a farm-to-glass and farm-to-table type of atmosphere. Just a great place to unwind, unplug, and relax. It’s going to be great for everybody, though, a family kind of place because we will have the Clydesdales there.
The Kräftig beer that you brewed under William K. Busch Brewing Company won a lot of awards. Any hope of a revival on Busch Farm?
We’re going to have Kräftig lager there, as well as the Adolphus Pilsner and the Gussie Bavarian beer. We’re going to have probably 10–12 different styles of beer and also seasonal beers. Around Halloween, we’ll have pumpkin beer made with our own pumpkins that grow right out there. And we’re going to have events—we’ll cut mazes into the cornfields so the kids can run through them. At Christmastime, we plan on having lights and a Santa, maybe some reindeer.