Who Is Behind The Beer You Drink, And Does It Matter?

This seems like a simple and straightforward question. As with the craft of making good beer, things can sometimes become difficult. In the first half of 2010, U.S. beer sales were down 2.7%. At the same time, craft beer was up 9% by volume, and 12% by retail dollars. Things have been trending this way for a few years now. The beer industry as a whole has been flat, if not in decline. The steady and constant growth in the craft segment shows people are moving away from the big three, and embracing what the world of craft beer has to offer. Now before you all start getting those warm fuzzies and break out your guitar for a hippy-dippy Kumbaya moment, we need to step back and face some hard facts. In 2009 Craft beer sales comprised 4.3% of the total volume of beer sold in the U.S.. Nearly 1600 craft breweries collectively made up less than 5% of the total volume sold last year. While this craft growth is great, it’s still a tiny fish in a much larger ocean. Despite the small market segment though, the big boys have noticed. In increasing numbers, the big boys are finding ways to get on board with the craft growth. Whether its “craft” offerings, craft distribution deals, or even partial ownerships, the brewing giants of the world are trying to cash in on craft.

Lets face it, we devotees of the better brewed pint have collectively decided to support the little guy. At least we think they are the little guys. In increasing numbers it’s becoming hard to determine who the little guys really are. The marketing execs at these mega breweries understand these things. Take for example Coors’ Blue Moon line. The flagship Blue Moon is an underwhelming-but-better-than-macro Belgian style wit. To many non craft regulars this beer is tasty slice of Belgium. This brew has been quite successful for Coors. Yet at the same time they downplay it as one of their own. The marketing makes little to no references to Coors. The marketers are trying to create the image that the Blue Moon line is part of an independent, craft, brewery. Fact is most craft devotees wouldn’t step foot near Blue Moon if it proudly proclaimed to be brewed by Coors. Anheuser Busch has gone down a similar road. They have a few seasonal offerings that are aimed and marketed at the craft world. They also have their Michelob line of beers. In the past Michelob was marketed as simply a premium beer. These days it has been turned into a “craft” line. The marketing has more directly tried to separate Michelob from Anheuser Busch. The offerings under the Michelob brand have grown to include some craft style staples. In these cases we are offered beers brewed directly by the big boys. Their reach extends beyond a handful of craft style brews.

Their reach outside the walls of their own breweries is where things can get tricky. It’s here where normal ordinary folks turn into Glenn Beck style lunatics. Ok maybe they aren’t that bad…but still….They whip out pseudo chalkboards and play the Glenn Beck version of six degrees of separation. Still trying to figure out how Anheuser Busch, Chairman Mao, and Obama are directly linked…wait…wait…That may be what Glenn Beck is trying to do… Ok maybe that’s a bit extreme and skewed. Lets face it you don’t need six degrees. These beer ties are usually one degree or less. Anheuser Busch owns 35% of Redhook Brewery. They also hold stakes in Widmer Bros and Goose Island. While they earn some profit off of these companies, its mainly a distribution boost for the breweries involved. Now to make something simple complicated! Redhook, Widmer Bros, Kona Brewing Company, and Goose Island merged to form the Craft Brewers Alliance. The beers are still brewed, sold, and marketed under the original breweries’ names. AB still holds their stakes but does it now reach to Kona as well? Moving away from Anheuser Busch, we come to the Leinenkugel brewery. Leinenkugel is a once independent brewery now wholly owned by SABMiller. Leinenkugel expanded from being just a regional brewery, to entering into the world of craft beers during the eighties. Miller bought the brewery in 1988. Leinenkugel has done well with their craft offerings over the years, of course benefiting Miller in the process…..Hmmm Miller successfully running a craft brewery….good for them……too bad they couldn’t do it here…..from all the beer geeks that call Texas home here’s a collective FUCK YOU for running the Celis brewery into the ground back in the day…….ok side rant over, lets get back on topic. These breweries and the beer they make have remained the same. This ties are just another way for the big boys to make more money.

All of this brings up the important question at hand. Does it matter who is behind the beer in your glass? As someone who considers themselves an advocate of beer, I want to believe what I say I believe – If it’s good drink it. Its easy to apply this mantra to the craft breweries. What about the big boys? In the purest essence of beer advocacy, a tasty porter remains so regardless of which brewery made it. That said each dollar given to the big three, is one not given to a true craft brewery. With that another great craft brewery could go under. Many people boycott the big three for this reason. Should this same boycott apply to the folks using the the big three for their brewery’s gain? Ultimately I believe, in this country at least, it really doesn’t matter to me who brews it. Lets face it craft drinkers lack the brand loyalty the big three thrive on. If someone gets turned onto better beer because of AB, Coors, or Miller I suppose its a good thing. Those folks will likely lose their brand loyalty in pursuit of a better pint. In the end craft beer will continue to grow.

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~ by thebrewgeek on Friday, September 3, 2010.

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