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Kräftig, not craft beer: the new Busch brewery aiming to compete with Budweiser

Crates of Kräftig Light Lager, one of the beers made by the new William K Busch Brewing Company, on the line in the brewery.
(via William K Busch Brewing Company)
Crates of Kräftig Light Lager, one of the beers made by the new William K Busch Brewing Company, on the line in the brewery.

If you've been driving on any of the highways around St. Louis lately you have probably noticed several new green billboards advertising Kräftig beer. Kräftig is brewed by the William K Busch Brewing Company, a new brewery started by Billy Busch, the great grandson of Adolphus Busch. As David Weinberg reports, Billy Busch is hoping his new business is start of the next chapter in the Busch family brewing legacy.

Going big

In 2008, when InBev purchased Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion it ended the nearly 150-year reign of the Busch family in the beer business. But Billy Busch, son of Augustus “Gussie” Busch, Jr. was not among the family members forced to sign a non-compete agreement in the takeover. After partnering with a St. Louis investor and hiring a seasoned management team that includes former Anheuser-Busch executives he founded the William K Busch Brewing Company.

"There hasn't been a new beer in the premium lager category for years and we've decided that if we're going to be a brewery let's go in the act of premium lager," Busch said. "So we decided to go big."

Ben Steinman, the editor of Beer Marketer's Insights, said that he's been at Beer Marketer's for 31 years and doesn't remember anything like this.

"It is very ambitious and well capitalized," Steinman said. "They are aiming right at the heart of the marketplace."

The William K Busch Brewing Company has made it very clear that they are not a micro-brewery. They intend to compete directly with lagers like Budweiser, Coors and Miller. They have already brewed more than 7,000 barrels of Kräftig and Kräftig Light, their flagship brands.

"We have a budget for 50,000 barrels and we hope to grow that to 200,000 to 300,000 in year five," Busch said.

The brews and their brewmaster

The recipes for Kräftig and Kräftig Light came form Germany but have been tweaked for the last two years by brewmaster Marc Gottfried. Gottfried is what you might call a beer brewing prodigy. He started making beer in his room at the age of 14. By 21 he was the full-fledged brewmaster of the Morgan Street Brewery at Laclede's Landing. Then, one day, out of the blue, he got a phone call from Billy Busch.

"I thought it was a prank call because nobody had my home number and the phone rings and it's like 'Mark, this is Billy Busch' and I pulled the phone away from my ear and I'm staring at it like 'is this for real?'," Gottfried said.

"We already had lined up the wonderful brewmasters in Germany to help us with the recipe and he jumped in on it," Busch said.

"The heritage that's in this town is what sparked me to become a brewer and to see the changes that took place over the last two years was heart wrenching for me," Gottfried said. "And for us to bring that back or just to take a shot at bringing that back is a chance at writing brewing history and it's an amazing feeling."

An informal taste test & local impact

One recent Monday night I stopped by Llywelyn's Pub in the Central West End, one of the bars in town that serves Kräftig and took an informal survey. Here were the responses:

Alec Hershman: "It was kind of like a spicier Budweiser. It was good."

Robert Whitehead: "Tastes like beer. Tastes like a beer that I would drink."

Jordan Jacks: "It's like a middling beer. I would drink it."

Weinberg: "Does it matter to you that this beer was brewed by a Busch?"

Jordan Jacks: "Uh, not really I wish it mattered to me but it doesn't."

Heather Overby: "Well normally when I think about St. Louis and beer I then think about the Belgians and I get sad (laughs). Belgians don't generally make me sad it's just this one situation."

Weinberg: "Does this counterbalance that?"

Overby: "Well, I am definitely excited about anything that brings jobs to St. Louis."

Kräftig is currently brewed under contract in La Crosse, Wisc. but the company hopes to break ground on a new brewing facility in St. Louis in the next year or two which could potentially bring hundreds of new jobs to the city. But in order for that to happen Busch says, sales have to grow outside the St. Louis region where it remains to be seen whether the rest of the country is thirsty for a new lager with the Busch name on it.