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And you thought bootleggers all drove Fords…

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1931 Chevrolet Panel Truck delivers bootlegging baking supplies to a St. Louis, Missouri bakery. Image from the writer’s collection.

With prohibition, breweries like Anheuser-Busch had to figure out how to turn their beer-making facilities into factories for non-alcoholic products. Many did not and closed forever.

Anheuser-Busch tried several products in its bid for survival: Like a grape soda called Grape Bouquet, Anheuser-Busch Ginger Ale, Kaffo (a carbonated coffee) and Buschtee, a carbonated tea. Best remembered are the “cereal beverages,” like Bevo and Malt Nutrine. Malt Nutrine was sold as a digestive aid that “rests the brain and quiets the nerves” and marketed toward nursing mothers. Bevo, meanwhile, was often injected with pure grain alcohol to make a product called “needle beer.”

But what was the biggest factor in survival? “Baking products.” Anheuser-Busch created Budweiser Barley Malt Syrup, which it advertised as an essential ingredient in bread and cookies. Then Superintendent of Brewing Operations, and later company president August Anheuser “Gussie” Busch, Jr. called the resulting “malt syrup cookies” too bitter to eat.

In 1927 Anheuser-Busch began marketing its yeast as well. It has been suggested that malt cookies were an acquired taste, but bakers soon learned that Barley Malt Syrup, could be combined with Anheuser-Busch yeast, fermented and turned into a palatable substitute for Budweiser Lager.

Anheuser-Busch, eager to survive America’s “Noble Experiment”, turned a blind eye toward unusually large sales of its baking products, although Gussie Busch later admitted “We ended up as the biggest bootlegging supply house in the United States.”

So what’s going on behind that storefront in the ad above? And more interestingly, why did General Motors decide to highlight that connection in an ad for the 1931 Chevrolet truck? Were bootleggers a significant customer base for GM too?