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Henry King: Another king of beers

This profile of Henry King was written in the fall of 2004 for New Brewer magazine, a publication for members of the Brewers Association. He died in May of 2005.

Henry King wasn’t present when Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi drew up the business plan for Sierra Nevada Brewing. He wasn’t around to help Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing in Maine hook up with the first distributor outside of his home state. He didn’t encourage Bert Grant’s short-lived attempt to list the nutritional value of his Scottish Ale on the bottle.

Yet when a definitive history of the beer industry in the back half of the twentieth century is written, the dark days of the 1960s for small brewers will turn brighter in the ’80s and ’90s because of King’s influence.

Many relatively new to the beer business don’t know the role he played in passage of the small brewers tax differential. Fewer still understand how small brewers have benefited from the stature of a man who August A. Busch Jr. would slap on the knee and say, “King, you’re alright.”

“There is no one that I have known in my business life for whom I have more respect,” Anchor Brewing president Fritz Maytag said a few years ago. “The brewing industry should get together and award Henry a ‘Brewer’s Gold Star’ to go with his Silver Star. There is no question he was in combat for the brewers. We won most of the battles, always coming out with more honor and respectability than we had gone in with, due overwhelmingly to Henry King.”

King, 83, was fighting his own battle at the beginning of October. Cancer in his throat and jaw for which he was first treated in 1996 returned early in 2004, this time stronger and more deadly. He was last able to swallow anything, beer or water, in April, and took nourishment through a tube in his stomach. Without saliva glands and using a small sponge to wet his throat, he found talking painful, yet still offered mesmerizing stories with rare enthusiasm and perspective.

In a note to his colleagues at Georgian Court University in New Jersey informing them his cancer was back, King alluded to his service in the Pacific during World War II, where he won a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and 14 combat decorations. He spoke of it in more detail during an interview in 1982.

“I got caught out on the deck of a landing craft on Aug. 15 and got strafed,” he said. “I just knew I was going to die. I didn’t get hit. They pulled up and they banked and they came back in. I had been so frightened, I couldn’t run and I knew I was going to die again, this time I got hit. That’s when I decided if they can’t kill ya, they can’t hurt ya.”

Brewers large and small benefited from that attitude for more than 30 years. King served as president of the United States Brewers Association for 22 years, leaving in 1983 a few years prior to its dissolution. He returned to the industry in 1992 as executive director of the Brewers Association of America, retiring in 1998.

“In everything he did, Henry applied himself with passion, gusto and brilliance,” said BAA president Daniel Bradford, whose organization is merging with the Association of Brewers to form the new Brewers Association. “He never held anything back. Because of this level of a commitment, Henry was very, very effective at his job. Consequently, he was respected throughout the industry. Henry demonstrated, professionally and personally, there is only one way to do things and that is full on, no holding back.”

Perhaps the small brewers tax differential eventually would have become law without King’s help, and perhaps the resurgence in American breweries – remember, there were fewer than 100 operating when the differential became law in 1976 – was destined to happen with or without the tax break. It’s probably just as well that we didn’t have to find out.

H.R. 3605 reduced the federal excise tax on beer from $9 to $7 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels produced, provided that brewery output was less than two million barrels per year. Equally important, the small brewer’s tax remained at $7 per barrel in 1990 when the federal government doubled the regular excise tax.

The BAA began pushing for tax relief for nearly 30 years before the law was passed, but proposals in Congress were always stopped at committee. In 1961 executive secretary Bill O’Shea said, “Hope has now vanished, as have so many of the small local brewers who needed this relief to stay in business.”

King modestly recalled his own role. “My job was to lead the political part. There were a number of (large) brewers who really went to work on it,” he said. Of course, it was King who proposed the USBA get behind the legislation, after “Bill O’Shea came to me and said ‘We won’t survive without tax relief.'”

King approached brewery leaders individually, starting with Jim Windham of Pabst. He called on friends in the labor movement, getting support from steelworkers and glassworkers. Financial backing came from diverse sources such as the milk industry, and the leaders at large breweries wrote personal checks.

After the measure passed Congress, Peter Stroh lobbied fellow Michigan resident Pres. Gerald Ford to quickly sign the bill without much publicity.

By 1976, King knew how to make the USBA work. He came to the job with experience at several executive posts in grocery and related businesses, but many brewery owners and others within the USBA were skeptical of his suggestions because he wasn’t a beer insider.

When he boldly warned industry leaders how changes in the political, social and economic climate presented potential hurdles for brewers many called him an upstart. He told them that he wouldn’t give them advice on how to sell beer and that they shouldn’t give him advice on how to run an industry organization.

If it wasn’t clear who was in charge after he’d been on the job four years, it was after one long three-day stretch in 1966. The deaths of 16 men where linked to cobalt salts that Quebec’s Dow brewery put in its beer to promote foam stability. That caused liver damage among frequent drinkers, the brewery’s best customers, and Dow ended up closing.

After King learned the deaths were related to cobalt, he spent 72 hours locked in his office, always on the phone, talking to every brewer in the United States.

“In retrospect, for what I did, I probably could have been sued,” he said. “We gave the brewing industry 72 hours to discontinue the use of cobalt in their products. We never asked a brewer whether he used it or not. We just made him give us an affidavit to give to the government that said on a given date 72 hours later, he was not using cobalt.

“We beat the federal government by seven weeks. We reported the cobalt problem, we were out of it and no longer had production seven weeks before the Food and Drug Administration even got their act together on it.”

He acted decisively not just because it was good for the beer industry, but because it was right. When the nitrosamine proved to be a carcinogen in the 1970s, King again moved swiftly. The USBA spent $1 million buying all 2,600 brands of the beer on the market and had each analyzed.

“Then I asked every brewmaster what they were using,” he said. “Three of them gave me false reports. I called the president of the brewery and told them that they had 36 hours to clean up their act. Boy, were they furious.”

By then, King had put a medical advisory committee into place. The same committee laid the foundation for the USBA’s Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation, of which King was particularly proud.

“Henry is a man who throughout his long career has sought to know what is right and honorable, and then found ways to accomplish that which is right and honorable, in a world filled with people who are not always honorable,” F.X. Matt II of the Matt Brewing Co. said before he died in 2001.

King began a new career in 1983, teaching business and law at Georgia Court College. He’d already reared 15 children with his first wife, Ottilie, who died in 1979, when he married his second wife, Patricia. They wanted to adopt, but because King was 63 they had to go to Honduras. The couple soon went back to adopt the boy’s brother, and began annual pilgrimages to the island, taking a volunteer team of doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists and high school student aids to provide free care to the poor in the region of Urraco, Sulaco and Olancho.

They built three orphanages and a rural medical clinic that provides emergency medical care for 25,000 people annual, primarily poor farmers.

Acting as BAA executive director was not a full-time job, but he immediately increased the organization’s visibility, and he quickly recruited major brewers to become contributing members.

“To be honest, I paid no attention to the micros when they started,” he said. “I thought that was a passing fancy.” He did his best in the 1990s to help them grow up healthy.

“I think they (large brewers) see that the entire industry has benefited from the rise of small breweries,” he said. “Microbrewers have generated more favorable publicity in a few short years than the brewing industry has had since Repeal. There is excitement, romance and image to the industry now.”

In some ways, it was like he’d stepped back into 1962. After 20 years with the USBA he said, “I think my role then was to try to come in with a fresh look, with no past experience, and hopefully, provide the brewers with a vision of where the industry was going.”

This time he had plenty of experience, and a man who didn’t play favorites between Pabst or Anheuser-Busch wasn’t about to start pulling punches. “My belief is that many microbrewers lack institutional memory,” he said in 1996. “They don’t know how big brewers have saved this industry.”

He spoke almost wherever and whenever he was asked, trying to provide that memory.

“What got me upset was to hear them referring to the big brewers as producing swill,” King said. “I told them the difference wasn’t quality, it was variety. Their attitude toward the big brewers was just terrible.”

He wasn’t just talking only about H.R. 3605. “For at least 30 years, Anheuser-Busch shared its science with the little brewer. Anything you wanted, Anheuser-Busch opened the doors for you. A lot of these brewers never knew that,” he said.

When King was still the executive director of the BAA, Bradford help set a speaking engagement at the Oldenberg Brewery Beer Camp, which was a long weekend of drinking and fun for specialty beer enthusiasts. “I wanted him to get in touch with the new beer drinker, the ones who were driving demand for a new product,” Bradford said. “I was trying to expose him to beer passion, which is beyond beer politics. In all honesty, I’m not sure he got it.”

King didn’t feel he needed to. In his early days at the USBA it was suggested he might appease insiders by learning to brew beer. He disagreed. “I never attended a technical brewing course. I never felt that was what I was there for,” he said. “I spent my time listening, learning what the USBA needed to get done.”

He appreciated what made microbrewed beer different, but he knew it was still part of the beer business. When he spoke to groups of new brewers he found “most didn’t know who their congressmen were. All they knew is they thought they made the best beer in the world.”

He spoke in glowing terms about some, such as Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing and Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing, not because of the beers their breweries produce. “They’ve got the extraordinary vision you expect in leaders,” he said. “They should be listened to.”

The same, of course, could be said of King.

“Henry has been a valuable asset to the brewing industry for many years and continues to be do this day,” August Busch III said in 2000. “As my father once said, ‘Henry walked the fine line between competitive brewers as though it were a four-lane highway.'”

King always treasured that description from the man he always called “the colonel” (August III he referred to as “young August”). “That was the nicest compliment I ever got,” he said.

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