In the wake of my very straight-talking – you can also spell that R-U-D-E, which is exactly what I intended – post on the sale of Elysian Brewing to the Borg Collective that is Anheuser Busch (or, as they call themselves these days “AB/InBev”) I was beset by a succession of people who fancy themselves either A) too cool and industry-savvy to experience something as plebeian as anger about a great Northwest Craft brewery being sold out to a company which openly advocates and works toward the downfall of craft brewing, and B) clueless dorks who never bothered to inform themselves about the heinous, exclusionary, amoral business practices that AB has employed for over 100 years, now, to make damned sure that they have the final say on what matters in American brewing. One guy harangued me all day about that post. He came into the “discussion” demanding an apology, then engaged in personal insults, and finally sulked about it, saying, “It wasn’t even as much what you said as the way you said it!”
In those same responses was an admonition from a friend of his, a woman who scolded me by saying, “You’re not being a good spokesman for craft beer!”
And she’s right. I’m not. So, let me make one thing absolutely clear, here…
I am NOT a spokesman for the craft beer industry. That is not my job. That’s not what “critics”, if you want to use that label, do. My job is to celebrate excellence in the making of beers, wines, and spirits and to acknowledge those who make them. It’s also my job to react honestly when I see things that threaten to diminish or even destroy those three cultures, whether it’s selling-out to a corporate golem like AB or one brewery suing another over an imagined infringement that’s all in their heads or to chastise the brewery that does infringe and then tries to say it didn’t. Doing the bidding of or kowtowing to brewers or winemakers or distillers or the people who employ them is NOT my job. I love, unreservedly, craft beer and the culture that’s evolved around it. I cheer-lead for it constantly. I advocate for it, as in my three-year battle with the Seattle Seahawks stadium management to get them to take some of those hundreds of Budweiser taps and give some to local and regional craft breweries. I’ve made four trips to Olympia to try to get Washington’s legislature to draft a law requiring publicly-funded facilities to devote at least 30% of all their beer and wine offerings to Washington-produced products. I didn’t do that as a spokesman for craft beer. I did it as a pissed-off taxpayer of the state of Washington who is appalled by seeing our dollars used to pay for projects like CenturyLink Field, whose tenants or even our own state government(!) then sniffily fail to reciprocate our support. That’s my right as a citizen. And…YOURS.
And that wasted day accomplished nothing because I’m not retracting a thing. I did, happily, write a follow-up when I learned from a Seattle colleague that Elysian brewmaster and co-owner Dick Cantwell had, in fact, objected to the sale and was not being at all quiet about his displeasure but the guy with the complaints has ignored that fact. His badgering aside, what really bothered me most about his response was that he sees absolutely nothing at all bad about selling a craft brewery to AB.
His basic thesis was that AB’s not that bad and a man’s got a right to profit from his labors. Well, no argument with the second part of that statement. If only his buds at Bud adhered to a similar philosophy. In AB’s history, it has never been enough for them to “make a living“. They had to be Top Dog, Number One, the “King of Beers”. And that success also had to mean that the other guy, the upstart competitor, was not making a living; was, in fact, ruined or driven out of business. I don’t have an exact figure but I’d be astounded if the number of people thrown out of work as AB bought out and shuttered their smaller breweries didn’t run well over 1,000. The concepts of “level playing field” and “marketplace fairness” were seen as weak, silly anachronisms by the folks in St. Lou, and the largest challenge to their hegemony ever is craft beer, the one segment of brewing competition that they’ve not been capable of simply buying out and closing down or – so far, anyway, though not if folks keep on casting them as “misunderstood” – ridiculing and scorning out of existence.
But, if nothing else serves to tell all the Uber-Cools and The Oblivious what Bud really thinks about this marvelous culture that’s grown up around craft beer, thirty seconds during the third quarter of this Super Bowl XLIX should have removed all doubt. It won’t, of course, because all those folks who weren’t bothered or weren’t clear about AB’s intentions are pretty much impervious to logic. But for anyone whose brain is engaged and who has any doubts about what the geniuses at AB/InBev think of you and your preference for beers with flavors, body, and character, this ad should have removed all doubt.
I’m late to the tsunami of derision this ad unleashed against the Bud Collective but I have to say that I’m a little less actively offended by the ad – in the sense of being shocked that it happened – than a lot of people seem to be because, really, it’s nothing new. AB’s entire history is littered with examples of them heaping scorn upon other breweries and, lately, strategies specifically aimed at craft brewing. You’ve probably seen this ad already (if you haven’t, you can watch it below, courtesy of our pals at YouTube) and noted that the main subject of their lofty scorn was the now-infamous “Pumpkin Peach Ale”, which AB spokespuppet, Brian Perkins called “a fabricated, ludicrous flavor combination.” Apparently, Perky was unaware that this very beer – augmented with the even more ludicrous addition of some toasted pecans – was made recently. It was called “Gourdia on My Mind“. The producer was Elysian Brewing…which Perkins’ own employer now owns.
Perkins tried to defuse the storm of criticism Bud has received in the wake of their smarmy commercial by taking to the social media and saying, rather disingenuously, “We’re not anti-craft, just pro-Bud“…to which the social media response was instantaneous and wholly indicative of the general view…
And, this couplet of succinct expressions…
Jim Vorel, writing at pastemagazine.com, summed up Perkins’ self-deluded handling of the backlash beautifully and succinctly:
“The actual intention of his quotes are to defuse a little tension, if possible. There’s only one group of people who would ever conceivably end up reading those posts on the internet, and that’s angry craft beer drinkers. Budweiser consumers will simply see the ad’s obvious message: “Craft beer is for pretentious fools, Budweiser is for real people” and presumably let confirmation bias do the rest of the work. Meanwhile, the company can simultaneously deny the surface message of their own content in an effort to placate at least a portion of the people pissed off by the ad. It won’t work, but there’s no reason for them not to try. They don’t have to worry about the two segments crossing, because by and large they won’t. Once again, it’s a strategy that hinges entirely on the ignorance of their core consumers.”
So, is Bud calling its own consumers stupid? Of course they are. They’ve been doing it for most of the modern history of television. Watch any of Bud’s “funny” ads for any of their brands and the main character is usually some guy like the one in the famous “I Love You Man!” Bud Light spots – a moron-level, monosyllabic buffoon who, instead of doing what any sensible adult would do and just ask his friend for a Bud Light, devises an imbecilic strategy to wheedle one out of him. In the course of one thirty-second ad, Bud managed to portray their own customers as dumb, shallow, devious, passive-aggressive, insincere, and phony. And that portrayal of the average Bud drinker has been restated over and over again by the St. Louis Mothership and its advertising minions. Bud’s massive popularity has always been predicated on blocking the Average Joe’s perception that they have any choices. Before craft beer was their target, it was imported beers, with their 30-weight body and “weird” flavors. They heaped scorn upon imports for decades and still do, in some markets. Imported beers, which certainly provided the early template for craft brewers, are included in sourpuss slurs like “Let them sip their peach pumpkin ale“. The original inspiration for those infused ales came from Belgium and they’ve been around for as long as beer has been imported to the US.
This ad is – or should be, unless one’s head is wedged firmly up one’s fundamental orifice – just one of the more overt pieces of evidence about AB’s duplicity in buying up craft breweries. Craft beer is the one challenge that AB never found an answer for, a phenomenon they couldn’t throw money at or scoff at convincingly because Americans Like Choices and, for their entire history, AB never offered any. Lager, lager, lager, lager, lager…and cheaply-made lagers, at that. It doesn’t seem to penetrate their corporate Hive Mind that people are just sick of them, have seen their entire bag of tricks before, and have simply Moved On.
We may have gas shortages and grain embargoes and an energy crisis but the one resource America will never run even a tad short of is stupidity. Bud’s smarmy, two-faced, desperate ad WILL appeal to a certain segment of the public: that which, when asked about “values”, will respond with “Uh…gettin’ down with my buds, buyin’ a jet ski, hangin’ down at the pub, and gettin’ that glass pack for my ’78 Camaro.” There are plenty of people who drink without thought and upon whom anything with actual flavor and body and character and imagination would be totally wasted. Possibly even sadder is that segment of the population which is so much a product of their upbringing and their parents’ preferences that they just never stopped to ask if there was something better out there to drink. They’re genuinely put off by hoppiness and bold flavors and anything that falls too far outside the BudMillerCoorsPabst Pablum Zone. I know several of these folks and have long since stopped trying to convert them to craft beer. They’re not even stupid. They just don’t like the hoppiness and roastiness and varied flavors of craft beer. It confuses them and falls too far outside their expectations. The aggressively stupid and those with these timid palates are the proper audience for Budweiser and its “family” of undistinguished crap beers, and there’s not a thing wrong with people drinking what they like…unless you’re one of that arrogant, deluded brain-trust in St. Louis who genuinely believe that no one should ever want any more than what AB gives them and that craft beer is just one more temporary speed bump that they will eventually overcome by scorn and by buying the beer cred they have no clue as to how to achieve on their own. All Anheuser Busch and now AB/InBev have ever had going for them is the habitual nature of below-average drinkers and their own vast coffers, so shoveling money at problems is their tried ‘n’ true remedy for everything that ails them. This wildly expensive :30 on national air time is nothing more than the sort of lofty attempted dismissal they’ve been using for their whole history; that smarmy presumption that, “Hey, we all know what REAL beer is, right? It’s Bud and all this other weird, funny-tasting crap is not for us Real Americans!” It was a strategy that worked for as long as Americans didn’t realize that they had other flavors and styles and colors to choose from. Now that craft beer is exploding everywhere, AB’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink smarm just seems quaint and tired and desperate. They’ve already lost the war, in fact, but they’ll continue to swing fecklessly, as with this pathetic, cross-purposed ad, and continue to think they’re smarter than the rest of us, right up until the time when craft beer overtakes them in domestic sales, which it absolutely will do, as more and more kids find Rogue and Fort George and Devil’s Backbone and Sweetwater and Jester King in their parents’ fridge and realize that they CAN find flavor and skill and real imagination in a beer container and not just The Same Old Thing.