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Inside The Vacant Caverns Of St. Louis' Other Beer Baron


The fact that the name Anheuser-Busch is still in use at all is a tribute to its old owners, the Busch family. When August Busch Jr. addressed the American people by radio in 1933, he personified a remarkable piece of corporate survival - the survival of 13 years of prohibition.


AUGUST BUSCH JR.: April the 7 is here, and it's a real occasion for thankfulness, marking a newfound freedom for the American people, made possible by the wisdom, foresight and courage of a great president, with the corporation of an understanding Congress. There is a song in our hearts. Happy days are here again.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This Bud's for you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) This Bud's for you.

SIEGEL: It took a clever brewer to survive the national ban on alcohol. From the start, the Busch family had acted with confidence that it would outlast the 18th Amendment. They diversified into soft drinks and refrigerated railroad cars. They brewed low-alcohol beer and Budweiser barley malt syrup. More on that in a moment. I saw one measure of Anheuser-Busch's cleverness. I saw what happened to the local competition that wasn't so confident or clever.

Let your Gothic imagination run wild. We are deep underground in dank caves and basements that could be the set of a horror movie. Not far from Anheuser-Busch headquarters in St. Louis is where the Lemp family used to brew Falstaff beer. And last year, we were given a rare tour of the caves and chambers underneath the complex which hasn't produced beer since Prohibition began. Before artificial regeneration, this is where lager beer was kept chilled.

SHASHI PALAMAND: So we're headed into the third basement of building five, which is the oldest building in the complex and was used, basically, for the heart of the operation, which was the actual brewing of the beer.

SIEGEL: Shashi Palamand is the current owner of what's left of the Lemp Brewery complex - 23 buildings. The place has been shut down since the family gave up brewing. In 1922, the president, William J. Lemp Jr., shot and killed himself. Lemp's father had shot himself 18 years earlier. His sister shot herself, and years later, his brother would do the same. In the years before Prohibition, the Lemp's were among the richest beer barons in St. Louis.

PALAMAND: So these are the old lagering chambers. This area we're in was part of the natural caves but has been heavily modified.

SIEGEL: These are virtually semi-circular chambers that run down - oh, my gosh - it must be 40 yards or so.

PALAMAND: Barrel vault - that's the best way to describe them.

SIEGEL: The Lemps even turned one part of a cave right under their mansion into a luxurious recreation center.

PALAMAND: This was a natural chamber that was converted into a theater for entertainment of the Lemp family and their friends. There's a door in the back there you can see, and that led to a spiral staircase that goes to the surface, which was the location of the first Lemp mansion. And back in the days when there was really no air conditioning in houses, the Lemp family, I'm sure, entertained the high-powered people of St. Louis and decided to - after their dinner, perhaps - to retire to this nice and cool chamber. And they would have plays down here. And you can see the evidence of the lights - the old light fixtures here. And the debris you see is actually not debris. It was old sets.

SIEGEL: The Lemp Brewery ended up looking like a maze of vacant catacombs under a mansion that the locals declared haunted. Meanwhile, Budweiser became a national favorite. One especially shrewd piece of diversification by Anheuser-Busch was that corn malt syrup. It was sold together with baker's yeast, and the label said this. Warning - do not add the yeast to the other ingredients or risk fermentation. Needless to say, many took the warning for exactly what it was - instructions to brew your own. And needless to say, it sold well and helped keep Anheuser-Busch in business until Prohibition was over. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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