On September 14 of 2011, I woke in a hot sweat and found, via a Facebook link, a post from 247wallst.com. In that post, they laid out the first serious signs of decline from Anheuser Busch, the “beer” colossus which now calls itself AB/InBev. A day later, I idly checked Facebook reposts on the Seattle P-I blog’s counter and was shocked to see it sitting on 785. The normal number of shares for The Pour Fool entries was around 140 – 50. As that weekend went on, with me out of town and allegedly “on vacation” (whatever that means), that number rose insanely and this went on for a solid ten days(!). Since then, that little post, which had been stewing in my subconscious for about six years, has been seen by something in excess of 2,000,000 people, the point at which I stopped checking on it. I’m told by reliable authorities, that it was one of the top three blog posts on the subject of beer in the history of the internet. I’m still shocked, every time I think about it.
So, I decided to revisit it and bring it from its P-I pastures into this website. Some of the data in it – most notably the figures quoted on the actual loss of marketplace profits for all AB products – is outdated and it gives me great pleasure to tell you that Bud and Bud Light and especially the hapless Michelob continue to erode, while craft beer continues its meteoric rise, even with many of its supposed supporters stupidly doing their best to kill it. Here, then, is that post which got me buried in a virtual avalanche of abuse from pissed-off Bud freaks and generated comment from all corners of the internet, including my all-time favorite comment from a beer blogger in Novosibirsk, Russia…
“Finally, an American beer geek identifies the real Great Satan. Iraquis please take note: the US government is not the one trying to take over your country. That’s Anheuser Busch, whose watery, mildew-smelling beer has already conquered most of your people…”
I don’t do a lot of blatant op-ed pieces here in The Pour Fool (Author’s Note: Well NOW I do.), although , to put a fine point on it, the entire thing is my opinions. But as far as telling you that you should do this or think that, I stay as far away from that as possible.
But today I’m making an exception.
I don’t drink Budweiser and never have. I’ve tasted it three times (a total of about 3 ounces), first while at the University of Maryland, once again in Myrtle Beach, SC, in 1984, and then again in Seattle, in 2005, at the urging of their distributor’s rep, who – correctly – observed that tasting a thing 21 years ago wasn’t giving it a fair shake. It tasted exactly the same: like a wet piece of the cardboard that comes in new dress shirts – and that’s not an original observation. I first read it on the website of the world’s foremost beer critic, Britain’s Michael Jackson. He had almost nothing positive to say about Bud. I don’t either.
Budweiser has always been far more about marketing than beer. The founder of Anheuser Busch, Adolphus Busch, refused to drink his own brew, calling it “that slop” (he was German, of course, so it came out “dot schlop”) and stuck to wine. AB first made its massive incursion into every American beer market not because Americans were clamoring for the fantastic beer but because the uber-financed new St. Louis brewery actually paid the rent for tavern owners who agreed to sell Bud and kick out all their competitors. (The source for all this – principally, along with a ton of my own research – is an article from Chicago journalist and author Edward McCleland, writing in Salon.com, which you can read here.) When AB was just moving into its ascendance, there were over 100 small breweries making virtually the same beer as Bud, the mild, aggressively-inoffensive, watery Pilsner, a style that originated in Czechoslovakia; a wimpy alternative for the delicate palates of proper Czech ladies who couldn’t stand the big German Alts and Lagers or the muscular Belgian ales.
In 1960, the number of other regional beer producers peaked out at 175. When Bud dumped mega-millions into the emerging steamroller of television, it was the death knell for all those regional breweries. By 2005, that number of “traditional American breweries” was 21. Today, it’s shrunk further, with over 80% of all tavern sales of those “All American” Pilsners controlled by AB, Coors, and Miller, now merged into Miller/Coors. TWO companies selling 4/5 of all American Pilsners. Competition? A doomed effort from the git-go, especially when AB was quite willing to seek out any whiff of copyright infringement and eager to invest millions to swat any new trad brewery that dared to become successful.
But yesterday morning, courtesy of a one-line link posted on Google News, I got what amounts to, for me, Christmas In September. Msnbc. com reposted an article from 24/7wallst.com entitledDrink”, a listing of brews whose market shares have declined radically in recent years. For those of you not inclined to follow the link, here’s the list and how much market share they’ve lost:
1. Michelob: down a whoppin’ SEVENTY-TWO PERCENT from 2006 to 2010
2. Michelob Light: down 64% for the same period
3. Bud Select: down 60%, same period
4. Milwaukee’s Best: down 53%, same period
5. Old Milwaukee: down 52%, same period
6. Miller Genuine Draft: down 51%, same period
7. Milwaukee’s Best Light: down 34%, same period
8. BUDWEISER(!): down 30% for the same period
What does this list really say? That Americans are rejecting mass-produced crap beers in record numbers. Miller/Coors, at least, is perceived as still being an American company, although that, too, is a smoke screen. The parent company is SABMiller, based in London, England, an arrangement that was quietly consummated a few years back. Anheuser Busch was loudly and publicly sold to InBev, a massive Belgian beer conglomerate, about five years ago, which means that the exact percentage of our 80%-dominant “traditional” American pilsners, those tavern staples, still owned by firms in the good ol’ USA is…zero.
That aspect of “American Made” has, frankly, never meant that much to me as a consumer. I drive Volvos and drink Spanish wine and love me a good Belhaven Wee Heavy. But in terms of my own beliefs, I think American small business is the very beating heart of our society. In 1980, there were about a half-dozen American craft breweries. That number is now almost 1,500. And this is that small-business paradigm that, I firmly believe, is the eventual antidote to all questions of economic down-turns. Free enterprise doesn’t work unless everybody can dream and have a reasonable hope their dreams can come true. It was categorically impossible for any American brewery to compete, on anything like a level playing field, with AB and Miller/Coors. So our country’s aspiring craft brewers simply didn’t try. They embraced their own wildly creative interpretations of virtually every other style of lager or ale produced anywhere else on the planet. They ceded the ground of wimpy, fizzy yellow Pilsner to the mega-brewers and concentrated on…everything else.
It was, after 80+ years of AB’s ruthless suppression of every brewer who threatened to grown beyond local appeal, the one strategy for which AB and Miller/Coors had no answer. AB/InBev has tried, God Knows, whelping a bizzarre and increasingly-desperate roster of faux-craft beers, investing in minority ownership in both Red Hook and Widmer, and securing primary distribution for Kona, Goose Island, Fordham, and Old Dominion breweries. They produced their first ale, a few years back, after focus groups told them Americans were abandoning lagers in record numbers. It’s an okay ale but nothing that would even crack the Top Fifty lists of anybody’s Pale Ales faves.
Their most successful attempt to compete in our new, craft-centric beer world competes, oddly enough, not with the nation’s craft brewers but with their biggest mass-producer rival. Shock Top Belgian-Style White is a direct challange to MillerCoors’ long-time favorite, Blue Moon, the first of many faux-Belgian spiced ales to gain a toe-hold in the US. Shock Top, predictably, takes the idea behind Blue Moon and goes it one worse. I’m certain that some marketing exec at AB-InBev reasoned that, if people like Blue Moon’s spice character, they’d like it, uh, more if it was…more spicy! We’re Americans, after all: Less is NOT more – More is More. In this case, however, that thinking misses the point. Blue Moon is subtly and appropriately spicy. Shock Top is like drinking a Christmas fruit cake – one that’s been regifted a few times.
I’ve been on a personal crusade for locally-produced craft beer, dating back to the first conversation I had with Levy Restaurants, the concessionaire at what is now called “Century Link Field” – Seahawks Stadium, in other words – about the fact that 98% of their available beer taps at the stadium pumped AB products. They were almost rabidly aggressive in trying to tell me, at first, that they did have local craft beers, and finally getting surly about it and trotting out their non-AB beers – almost all of which were either imported or produced somewhere outside this state. I wasn’t even trying to get rid of the Budettes. I think people who enjoy Bud should be able to drink it at ballgames. But I don’t think it’s gonna kill them to walk an extra fifty feet, past all those evil “strong” beers, to get a bucketful. I think that public facilities built with our dollars should support our local producers in all areas of the food service, in at least some significant way. Simple. What I proposed – and eventually wound up down in Olympia to seek, was 30% of all taps at any Washington publicly-funded facility be devoted to Washington-produced beers. But AB’s hold on the NFL and Levy is black-hole-ish in its power. Today, the stadium does offer craft beers, maybe 10% of all taps…sold right beside Shock Top, in what I can only assume is the ongoing effort to win back some cred for InBev.
This list above is a slammin’ validation that the winds of change are blowing hard in American beer. Craft-beer detractors and InBev apologists will say, of course, “So? Even losing 30% market share, Bud is still waaaaaay more popular than any craft beer.” Quite true. But the trend toward craft brewing is moving forward at an amazing pace, while mass-producers are moving backward almost as fast. In Washington, we average a new brewery license application at a rate of slightly more than one a week. Back East, where the artisan beer movement has been slower to develop, new brewers are popping up even faster. And, as opposed to most other industries – even in a recession – breweries are failing at a much slower rate. Beer, after all, is a commodity that people want and can easily afford in recessionary times. Fine wine has taken a hit. Liquor sales have slumped in premium categories. Beer sails on.
It’s Christmas In September at my house, folks. Of all the social mythos that’s arisen around our “traditional” beers, the “manliness” aspect is easily the most puzzling and blindly irrational. It’s always been part of the strategies of BudMillerCoorsPabst to insinuate that microbrew drinkers are effete, artsy snobs who like “bitter beers”, and to more sutbly question the patriotism of those who would abandon “our American beer”. How it’s “manly” to refer, as Bud fans always do, to craft beers as “too strong” is beyond me. And, thanks to the ultimate greed and bottom-line avarice of the owners of our mega-producers and their stockholders, they’ve managed to remove their own “American Made” claim altogether. When you drink any of those tavern staple beers, your dollars end up in England or Belgium. They may “trickle down” a bit to workers here but the real dollars are building the economies of Great Britain and Belgium, NOT Wisconsin, Missouri, Colorado, and Washington.
But even all those reasons are not why I don’t drink Budweiser. I don’t drink Budweiser because it’s BAD BEER. Period. Adolphus Busch knew it. I know it. And if you don’t know it…you’ve never sampled what Honest American Beer is really all about: small producers making great beer.