Slate.com, which has been doing a really admirable job of chronicling the evolution of the craft beer business, recently published a post in which they revealed that Budweiser, the erstwhile “King of Beers”, has now lost enough market share that American Craft Beer – which three years ago accounted for less than 5% of all domestic beer sales – has now surpassed Bud in total sales. Now, it bears noting that this is an entire beer industry versus one brand of beer (and that the Number One brand in the US is still Bud Light, which is waaaay ahead of craft’s numbers) but it’s telling and, the way I see it, tangible proof of a theory that I’ve put out there a couple of times, already.
Back in 2011, much to my dismay, a hurry-up post that I dashed off for the original version of this blog – the one that appears in the pages of the online Seattle P-I – went viral…in a HUGE way. “Why I don’t Drink Budweiser…And Why I’m Not Alone” became, as I’m informed by people who follow and understand these things, one of three largest blog posts on the subject of beer ever, in the history of the internet. I was stunned and gratified, mainly because the chickens seemed to finally be coming home to roost for one of the most aggressive and overtly malicious businesses entities the US has ever harbored. I’ve continued to take swings at AB/InBev, the Belgian/Brazilian mega-corp that now owns and operates Anheuser Busch, mainly because I don’t do snark in The Pour Fool at any other time and I sorta enjoy it, but also because it’s kept me thinking about the nature and health of craft brewing and spawned a Theory. In a subsequent post, – entitled, ” ‘We Won Here’: The Slow-Rolling, Low-Tech War That Budweiser Has Already Lost” – this theory made it out of my head and into the aethers…
“But, finally, starting in the early 80s (yes, some breweries started earlier but the craft movement got into gear in the 80s), a phenomenon began for which AB simply had no answer: small craft brewers springing up in garages and warehouses and vacant storefronts in cities and small towns all over the country, most abandoning the “traditional” American beers in favor of the robust ale styles of Belgium, Great Britain, Scotland, and other parts of Europe. The beers were stronger, higher in alcohol, far hoppier, and – most of all – simply light years more flavorful.
The generation of kids who began to come of drinking age in the late 90s were the first in over 100 years to reach their majority without the slam-dunk presumption that they’d just select one of the major brands and meekly settle into a life-long beer rut without question or prejudice. These kids, many of them, never saw Daddy or Mommy with a Bud or Miller or Coors or Pabst in their hand and far more of today’s kids will have the same experience. They see Deschutes and Anchor and Boulder and Rogue or any one of an exploding number of other all-American, small-producer, artisan, properly-made, for-love-not-money beers bearing unstuffy, unpretentious labels, rowdy or irreverent names, and booming flavors too numerous to even catalog. These beers could be anything and these kids come to adulthood fully aware that “Beer” can mean anything you can conceive and concoct from grains, yeast, hops, and God Knows what else, and get into a container.”
To the Budweiser VP who stated rather definitively, at the first sales convention after AB acquired Goose Island Brewing (as dutifully reported by Goose staffers who were required to attend), that “we cannot allow the paradigm to change…“, let me restate the obvious: the paradigm has already changed. It changed, in fact, when said VP was in middle school and there is absolutely nothing that AB/InBev can do to counter it. That “paradigm” he spoke of was that young drinkers, coming of age for choosing beers, traditionally had Bud and maybe five other domestic beers, all of the same style, to choose from. It was all they saw in their parents’ fridges and they saw those handful of beers as what the word “beer” means. That has all changed and, here in 2014, craft beer now accounts for 14% – and climbing! – of all domestic beer sales. From Slate.com:
– Jordan Weissman, from slate.com
This from uk.businessinisder.com: “Budweiser is quickly losing its status as the most iconic beer brand in America….Budweiser is the third-most-popular beer brand in America, behind Bud Light and Coors Light. It has recently also been challenged by craft beer, which is hugely popular with the millennial set…At the brand’s peak in 1988, it was selling 50 million barrels of beer a year. That number has declined to 16 million barrels. (emphasis mine) To “stop the free fall,” the company has decided to double down and advertise only to millennials…”It means February’s Super Bowl ads will feature something more current than last year’s Fleetwood Mac,” Mickle writes. “It means less baseball and more raves with DJ group Cash Cash.”
Three and a half years ago, when I wrote, “Why I Don’t Drink Budweiser…”, I figured that it would take another entire generation for Bud to be knocked off its perch in the catbird seat in the non-light beer category by craft as a whole. It took, in fact, just a hair over 1,000 days. And the Budweiser free-fall is only going to get faster. Recent layoffs at their St. Louis mothership and that telling stat above – “44 percent of Americans between the ages of 21 and 27 have never tried a regular old Budweiser” – show graphically what’s in store for not only Bud but for all beers of that adjunct lager style. Bud, Coors, Miller, Pabst…these are not low-calorie beers and their makers cannot simply change the recipes because, then, they’re no longer those beers. Their main problem is that they’re Old News. They were never as beautifully crafted, to begin with, as the stunning German lagers after which they were so loosely patterned, mainly because of the cynical attitudes of AB Founder, Adolphus Busch, who reasoned that Americans don’t know anything about beer, anyway, so why go to all the trouble to make a fine German/Czech-style Pilsner when making a half-assed imitation will suffice? Americans have always loved having choices, as is most starkly obvious when you accompany any person visiting from abroad into an American supermarket for their first visit. They are invariably stunned by the sheer numbers of different brands of bread and peanut butter and soda pop and beer on the shelves. We like to have options and, for over 100 years, when it came to the beer styles we could find and still keep our dollars in the American economy, we had, at one point, over 100 regional breweries, all making almost exactly the same beer. Take the quantum change of AB/InBev’s approach (and the sand-bagging of all those poor horses) for exactly what it is: utter desperation, a Hail Mary; the only ploy understood by a company which has always been FAR more about marketing and “message” than about beer.
So, here we sit, in late fall of 2014, and we see the landscape of beer as we have always known it undergoing tectonic shift, right beneath our feet. We see desperate ploys like AB/InBev’s recent purchase of Bend’s 10 Barrel Brewing, as they pathetically scramble to buy the credibility with the craft beer culture that they have always been – despite scores of lame and transparent attempts – simply unable to earn on their own merits. To gain even a scant toe-hold in “craft”, AB was forced to ape another Big Beer competitor, MillerCoors’ “Blue Moon” Belgian-style White Ale, but even failed at that, in every aspect but money, as their clumsy, over-spiced “Shock Top” has exactly zero of Blue Moon’s grace and style and drinkability. Blue Moon is a pretty good beer and it’s at least arguable that Belgian-style American beers all owe a debt to Blue Moon for being the first beer that actually celebrated its Belgian roots to gain significant acceptance with American beer lovers. But AB has shown a befuddled ineptitude with their faux-craft brands that borders on the comical. And, as a result, many of those no longer exist.
Despite the alarming few who responded to my posts about the 10 Barrel sale with “Just chill and drink a cold one, dude!“, there has been plenty of evidence since that those clueless types are a clear minority. Most American beer lovers do care – and care passionately – about who’s selling them their beer. The wholesale rejection of the mega-brew brands that’s taking place now – fueled by that vanishing reality of kids growing up watching Mom and Dad mindlessly swilling nothing but a tiresome succession of those carbon-copy watery Pilsners – is only going to continue and expand. Americans have found out, en masse, that they don’t require a huge mega-corp, working in 20,000 gallon batches, to get beer they can like and be excited about. And let’s be honest, Bud fans: when was the last time the sight of a can of Budweasel got you excited and intrigued about anything other than something cold on a hot day? That sense of discovery, the excitement of new experiences that is arguably the best part of craft beer, simply does not and has not – for many generations! – existed in the sprawl of adjunct Pilsners. We all know that sad, old tune note for note, backwards and forwards. There’s no discovery to be made. It’s beer that has always been about the safe and familiar and those folks who cling so desperately to BudMillerCoorsPabst are the same ones who get their panties in a knot if they have to eat KFC on Friday night because Friday, damnit, is pizza night!
AB/InBev will buy a few celebrities – rappers, country stars, maybe a has-been rocker or ten or even an action movie tough guy – and they’ll stand on camera and take the $$$ and sing about how Bud is the Mo’Fo of American beer…and they’ll be beating a horse so profoundly dead that the real question is how they got past the stank to lay the whip. The folks in Belgium and Brazil will trot out charts and research papers and sling a lot of verbiage about targeted demographics and market penetration and hatch complicated marketing strategies that they will all assure themselves “cannot miss!“…but their ultimate goal of hamstringing the growth of craft beer or controlling it to any significant degree is impossible to attain, because for every set of owners like the Cox Kids, who see only dollar signs and their overweening frenzy to be national-class movers ‘n’ shakers and feed their (apparently starved) egos and bank accounts, there are thousands of brewers and owners who would rather die than watch their life’s work, their passion, be assimilated into the BudBorg Collective. What made craft beer so popular in the first place – integrity, passion, and American pride in one’s craft – is what will save it from flesh-eating bacteria like AB/InBev…and there’s not a damned thing the mega-brewers can do to change it.