Before we get around to this next week of The Pour Fool, in which I pucker up and plant huge kisses on the company rump of Stone Brewing – and, oooh, you can bet I’m gonna because it’s Arrgoant Bastard Season, 2015! – I want to say a brief word about a small string of barbecue restaurants back in my home state.
Bryan Meredith owns a chainlet of three barbecue joints in and around Charlotte, North Carolina. They’re called Queen City Q, because Charlotte, named after the English queen, calls itself “The Queen City“. So do a lot of other places, most notably Cincinatti, which has been locking horns with Charlotte for decades about which is, I dunno, queenier, I guess. Interestingly, my own home ‘hood, Seattle-freakin’-Washington, used “Queen City” as its official nickname from 1869 until 1982, which I didn’t know until I researched this post. (I think we’re far queenier than either Cincy or Charlotte…but I digress) Charlotte seems to have prevailed in this Queen-off, so Bryan named his BBQ joints accordingly. For those not well-versed, as I am, in the smoked pork machinations of the state of North Carolina, Meredith’s 2012 debut of his new restaurant was a bold move, mainly because Charlotte – in a state in which barbecue is more of a religion than a food option – was really badly behind the curve in smoked pig flesh acumen. Bryan and his partners changed all that and, along with the great ‘Q, Queen City brought a fervent devotion to craft beer. In Charlotte, in 2012, there was not a ton of craft beer but in the past three years, Charlotte-Mecklenberg has whelped a slew of new beer possibilities and Meredith’s tap roster grew to a robust forty-four selections, half of those from the local producers.
For those three years, in recognition of the percentage of their customers have not yet moved off the watery, highly-questionable splendor of pap like BudMillerCoorsPabst, Meredith maintained taps of some of those beers, more as a courtesy than any sort of desire to taint his food with their skeevy flavors. On December 15th, though, Meredith hit the wall. He happened upon a story in The Wall Street Journal from earlier this month that suggested AB InBev is rebating and incentivizing local distributors who promote their products while limiting supply from craft brewers. AB/InBev sells the “program” by saying that participating distributors could receive an average annual benefit of as much as $200,000 each. That, my friends, is Incentive. That, my friends, is shady business practices – not the part about offering monetary incentives for pushing their brands. Every big business has some sort of program that rewards increased sales. But making the incentives contingent upon muscling out craft beers, that’s Vintage Anheuser Busch, a company that has, for 139 years, defined “success” as not just their own sales but as real tangible harm to anyone who dares to compete.
Put off – as countless retailers across the country (and, I’m sure, the planet) have routinely been by AB’s smug arrogance and presumption that no one can operate any sort of beer sales without their crap products – for one final time by his growing awareness of AB’s underhanded business practices and their ill-disguised efforts to hamstring craft beer in distribution and retail sales, Bryan Meredith said, “Enough!“, and summarily kicked the seamy giant to the curb. No more Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob, Shock Top or any of the other foreign juggernaut’s questionable beers, a move which now, of course, also means no Blue Point, no Elysian, no Golden Road (not that anybody much wanted their stuff, in the first place), no more 10 Barrel and, presumably, no Widmer, Red Hook, Kona, or the dreadful Omission. More significantly, in NC, it also knocks out Goose Island, a label which was one of the early brands to make its bones in the NC craft scene, back when it was owned by the Hall family.
In the company’s statement announcing the move, Meredith said that AB/InBev is “intentionally and willfully harming the craft beer industry“, which Queen City Q has long supported, and said that his restaurants won’t do business with companies who act “like bullies.”
“In the grand scheme of things, I’m sure Anheuser-Busch could care less about me,” Meredith went on to say, “I don’t sell enough to even be a blip on their radar. The message I hope they get is if 100 other people like me do this, they’re going to notice it at some point.”
Bryan Meredith is now my hero. Not that he’s the first to banish AB’s schlocky products (I’ve done it myself, at three different retailers, and countless pubs and alehouses across the country routinely forgo Bud’s nonsense) but he is, by a mile, the most public and vocal about it and the one guy who made it clear that his actions were motivated by his real concern – and the indisputable fact – that AB’s palliative statements about being a “friend of brewers everywhere” are outed as devious bullshit by their ongoing attempts to manipulate distributors, vendors, and state governments to their advantage. His decision cements his popularity with North Carolina’s booming craft beer culture and sends a message that, as it turns out, actually did make AB sit up and take notice. In a statement on QCQ’s defection, Bob Tallentt, the AB VP of business and wholesaler development said, “Nothing in the program prevents distribution of other brands. This program simply incentivizes our distributors for focus and performance in today’s already highly competitive market.”
Translation: “We won’t punish you for carrying other brands but we’re not going to give you incentives for pushing our stuff if you don’t “focus” out the craft competition.”
So…what does it matter than one little three-shop chain of BBQ restaurants in Charlotte, North Carolina, has decided to crank up a noisy Bad Attitude about the world’s biggest Beer Bullies? Well, the first and most significant thing is the national attention it’s getting across the internet. Most retailers who decide to dump BudMillerCoorsPabst are just enough cowed by AB’s rep and $$$ that they won’t stand up and say, “Hell, yes, I dumped this crap and here’s why!” Bryan Meredith did and that, my friends, is NEWS. But what it really means, more importantly, is that AB’s devious maneuvers are no longer happening in the dark and heavily under wraps. There was a time, not that long ago, when Meredith’s decision to freeze out corporate crap from his $1 million annual sales of beers wouldn’t have evoked any response from the putative “King of Beers”. They would have simply scoffed at his chutzpah and gone on about their business. Now, with craft beer’s exponentially-rising sales and AB’d own decline, the Boys From Brazil are getting prickly and uber-sensitive to anything that promises to hasten their slide into American Beer Oblivion.
Here’s my Christmas Wish, as provoked by the singular outspoken nature of my fellow Carolinian, Bryan Meredith:
If you’re a retailer that’s already frozen out AB’s brands, stand up and say so. It doesn’t matter if you did it ten years ago. Draft a press release and send it to all the local media outlets. Post it all over your social media and anywhere else you can on the worldwide web/net thingy. Make it a statement of your reasons for dropping AB’s garbage. Doesn’t matter if your reason was simply that Bud detracted from your craft taps or if it’s a matter of conscience, like Meredith’s. Doesn’t even matter if you just think the beers are crap. What matters is that it gets said, publicly, emphatically, and repeatedly. It will generate some free pub for you and send the message that the days of Mega-Crap’s presumptive market dominance and omnipresence are over. It says that bars and restaurants and alehouses don’t really have to offer these cheap, cynical, low-ambition beers in order to survive. It says that principles – like supporting our own economy and not those of Belgium and Brazil, encouraging small businesses, “Drink Local”, state tax revenues, Real JOBS for Real Americans(!), and pride in our own, superior beers – DO matter in the marketplace, in the face of a public which is comprised, at least in part, of people who see absolutely nothing wrong with the sworn enemy of our craft brewing culture selling us bad beer while spitting in our faces.
And to those of you who do still run businesses that sell beer and still have these brands on tap, I IMPLORE you to get rid of them NOW. One restaurateur, whose name I’m going to withhold, actually did remove all AB brands and did it two years ago. On his menus, it says “Pilsner” under their beer offerings and they sell a rotating selection of local and craft-produced Pilsners to any customer who orders a Bud, Miller, or Coors. In that time, not one single patron has ever even questioned what they were served. One woman, a friend of his, did bet him, one slow evening, that the Bud in her glass tasted better than any of those “fancy beers”. When he told that she had, in fact, been drinking craft Pilsners for the past 18 months, she was speechless and then asked for some suggestions. “I thought the beer was really tasting a lot better,” she replied, “I just thought I was rediscovering my love of Budweiser again.”
If anybody tells you that Big Beer is just too big to ever be phased out of the American beer scene, they’re right in one sense and dead wrong in another: we will never kill off these brands – nor should we; some people really do prefer them to craft beers and they have the right to drink what they like – but we can relegate Budweiser – now owners of Miller and Coors, too – to a small curiosity section at the end of the craft beer aisle in your grocery store. We absolutely can demote The King of Beers to a mere serf; a vestige of a bygone era when Americans had no choices in beer and knew no better. The tide has already turned and every blow, like Bryan Meredith’s broadside, that lands upon the bloated carcass of Corporate Beer is a blow for OUR beers, OUR culture, OUR economy, and OUR enjoyment of the art of beer.