What if a good friend wrote you a letter…and in this letter, your friend said that he or she needed your help; would possibly suffer without it? What if that friend was facing a profound injustice. Would you stand up with them and say, “This Far and No Farther!” What if it were even simpler than that? What if they just had their roof damaged in a big windstorm and you wanted to help. Would you grab that hammer, climb the ladder, lend them a tarp, bring a dinner plate so they’d know you’re there for them?
That’s exactly, literally, what’s happening in the American brewing culture today. For over 100 years, Anheuser Busch used every shady, questionable tactic imaginable within our national beer markets to maintain a position of dominance that was not at all earned by the quality of their products. It was bought and paid for by a profoundly cynical German immigrant, Adolphus Busch, whose deep pockets enabled him to start a brewery at which – based on his firm conviction that Americans don’t know anything about beer and would drink anything they were told to – he and some hired brewers concocted the cheapest possible thing he could make that would answer the definition of the term “beer”. It was loosely based on the great German and Czech lagers that Busch drank as a young man but using cheaper ingredients at every stage of the process. Corn and rice, which were plentiful and cheap, were substituted for the much pricier barley and rye. Brewing time was shortened, cheaper yeasts and hops were used and the hops were barely a part of the beer, anyway. Sugars were added to speed fermentation, and, because Busch knew of our American fondness for sweets, to make the beer more like the soda pop that was our national obsession and less like the bone-dry Euro lagers on which Bud was based. (Even the name and label were “borrowed” from European breweries. The original “Budweiser” was a wheat beer made in the Czech town of Budvar.) Every corner that could be cut, was. And that cheap imitation was shoved upon retailers using tactics ranging from agreeing to pay the rent for tavern owners who would promise to sell only Budweiser to hiring union goons to dump competing beers off trucks to paying package retailers to give their products the most visible shelf space, to relentless lobbying of state legislators to pass laws that favored Anheuser Busch and made it harder and harder to compete. Any brewery that managed to sell enough product locally, anywhere in the country, became a target for an AB buy-out, and the Busch family threw thousands of Americans out of work by buying up smaller breweries and forcing their staffs into the unemployment lines.
Anheuser Busch always defended their actions by saying, “Well, this is free enterprise and we’re just better at it than everybody else” or that immortal refuge of scoundrels since the first time goods changed hands for money, “It’s just Business.”
Adolphus Busch himself, who knew quite well what a great German-style lager tastes like, refused to drink his own product, referring to it, in his thick German accent, as “Dot Schlop“…translation: “That slop“. Bud became famous because of ONE thing: the systematic destruction of any and all breweries who dared to mount a serious challenge to Bud’s market share, anywhere in the United States. Their slogan, “The King of Beers” was not a title bestowed upon them by judges or a grateful public. Their marketing department came up with it and they used it relentlessly until it stuck. And as the decades rolled by, the playing field, which was always tilted by Busch’s family fortune and the massive sales of the brand, became a field upon which almost no other breweries could play. In a country in which we have ferocious laws to discourage monopolies, we harbored this one, virtually unquestioned, for almost 150 years.
In 2008, when they were becoming seriously alarmed, the Busch family entered into a merger with two foreign brewing conglomerates: Interbrew, a Leuven, Belgium-based mega-brewer, and AmBev, a Brazilian company which brewed most of the beer consumed in the southern half of the Western Hemisphere. The new Frankenstein was dubbed “AB/InBev” and, as I was told by one former AB executive, was at least in part a strategem used by AB to set themselves up against the growing Craft Beer threat. In typical uber-corporate fashion, the AB management actually believed that the fact of their becoming the world’s largest brewer would cause young American drinkers to equate size with quality and come back from their silly love affair with what they privately referred to as “amateur brewing“. To say that it was faulty logic vastly undersells the sheer stupidity of the idea. Americans have a traditional and almost inbred mistrust of huge corporations and even more young drinkers were turned away from the new AB/InBev by the knowledge that now, besides being made by a gigantic, faceless conglomerate, Budweiser was not even an American beer, anymore. The company’s offices and management are located in Leuven, not St. Louis, and the top-tier corporate executives work out of São Paulo, Brazil. The money spent on Bud and its associated brands goes to those countries. Only a fraction remains as a part of the US economy.
Which brings me to this: American craft brewing is the second most dynamic business phenomenon in American history, after only the computer/internet boom. It’s a business class in which almost 94% of all breweries which manage to open their doors stay in operation for more than five years. By contrast, my old line of work, restaurants, fail within two years at a rate of almost 90%. We now have a tad over 4,200 breweries in operation in the US, the largest number since the previous peak, 1873, just before the founding of Anheuser Busch, when American supported 4,044 brewers. The population of the entire country back then was about 38 million. That worked out to one brewery for every 9,500 citizens. Today, we are a nation of 320 million and there is a brewery for every 76,500 people. Simple arithmetic suggests that we can still support more breweries. And they’re coming, new ones every week, because an entire generation (a couple, actually) of beer fans have now found out that having Choices – instead of having ten or twenty beers that were all basically the same – is a Good Thing…and we are not EVER going back.
But to this day, the only message out there in the marketplace, when it comes to beer, is coming from AB/InBev. Now that they have absorbed Miller and Coors, their vast fortunes allow them to continue to tilt the playing field against craft brewers, which are now a serious threat to their fortunes. The market share of the mega-brewers continues to erode at an ever-increasing pace, while craft brewing gains substantial share every year. The global presence and dominance will undoubtedly mean that craft brewing taking over the market from Bud and Miller and Coors will not happen in my lifetime and I’m okay with that. But it disturbs me greatly that there are still so many people who just refuse to get why continuing to give their dollars to AB/InBev is such a truly bad idea. Yes, their brands do support individual families whose members work for them but there are now thousands more families who work for craft breweries. That is the story I alluded to at the start of this…
The people who are hurt by the sleazy business practices and the gangs of attorneys and legislative wheelin’ ‘n’ dealin’ of AB’s corporate philosophy are real. They are NOT an abstraction. They are not nameless, faceless, remote figures who are easily dismissed and consigned to that compartment of our brains which aches vaguely for the victims of earthquakes in Tibet or starvation in the Sudan. Those people who get hurt by Ab/InBev’s ploys and smirky asides are US. They are your neighbor in the next block. They’re the guy who sits in the next cubicle and moonlights at his new brewery. It’s the woman at the hardware store who hangs up her orange apron every afternoon and spends the next six hours brewing beer and yanking pints for her customers. It’s the cousin in Seattle you haven’t seen for a few years, who’s now a partner in a rising new brewery, watching the daily task of getting tavern owners to pour his kegs and grocery managers to find shelf space for his bottles become incrementally harder, every time AB pays a legislator or lobbyist to shove through some anti-craft legislation. They’re the circle of friends you used to hang with before you moved to LA, who pooled their resources and gambled it all, not at some craps table in Las Vegas, but on tanks and taps and bottles and hoses and labels and started a brave new business, while everyone they knew said, “Are you out of your f__king mind?” and worried that they were about to wind up living in a 1978 Volkswagen van.
Craft brewing is so large and geographically dispersed, now, that you probably know at least one person with some connection to a local brewery; maybe even several. Craft beer is not the product of some obscure, urban gang of effete artist types or egghead chemistry majors, anymore. In some American towns, there are as many brewers as there are dentists and accountants. They’re everywhere and when you meet one, you’re meeting a bright, motivated, visionary entrepreneur; someone who has, in many cases, traded a comfortable and certain profession to chase a dream and take a chance at making something which will employ, delight, entertain, and tangibly benefit even more real Americans beyond themselves. For me, starting businesses (and I did it a LOT) was my version of hang gliding or bungee jumping: a daredevil act that took guts and smarts and real work, on a scale that most people cannot even imagine. That guy down the street, who owns or even just works at that brewery is that neighbor whose roof just blew off. They’re the friend who’s facing a real injustice, standing in front of a tank called Budweiser and risking getting run into the ground by an amoral international conglomerate for whom that person, that independent brewer, is just a statistic. And the damned thing is…the real, literal, tangible shame of it all is that even the majority of those who drink Bud and join in heaping scorn upon the very idea that anybody would want to drink those “weird, bitter beers“, would probably get behind the truth and the story of craft brewing…if only it were being told on even 5% of the scale that AB/InBev’s is.
Consider this: an entire industry that’s owned by the people who walk in the door, every day, and do the work. There are no lackeys, no go-fers, no management strata. If the floor needs to be mopped after a brewing session, the person pushing the suds around is probably the owner.
After a time, that owner may be able to hire some help and that adds jobs to the community. As the brewery grows, so does the amount of money put into the local economy. So does the amount of tax dollars that are contributed to the state’s coffers, helping make possible all the police and fire and roads and parks and ferries and social services and the vast infrastructure that is necessary to protect all our many and varied interests. The return on that owner’s investment helps us ALL, from employees’ paychecks to what he or she spends to get the big-ticket brewing equipment and utilities and glassware and brewing supplies and label printing and office supplies and bottles and printable apparel that promotes the brand…not to mention the broad appeal of breweries, a business which will draw tourists from other areas in a way that a dentist office or an auto shop or an attorney seldom ever will. Great breweries raise the profile of their communities. They promote the town’s name and bring in dollars from visitors and those who would never have seen the community at all. And some, venturing in just to taste those beers, may well wind up living there because they came and saw and fell in love.
Here’s a 100% American-owned business that sends NO dollars overseas, generates revenues for their state and city, writes a great story of good ol’ American ingenuity and initiative every single day, helps create and sustain other businesses – grain brokerages, yeast labs, hops suppliers, label printers, bottle sellers, screen printers, restaurant supply houses, accessory vendors – and serves as a living, tangible testament to American entrepreneurism and small business. Breweries spark the imagination and, best of all, they are an American phenomenon which we are spreading to the rest of the world every day, as interest in the craft brewing culture grows and imbues aspiring small business owners everywhere with a manageable idea that’s both doable and inspiring and fun. Would you rather sit in your cubicle, every day, running numbers and reading thick-as-mud reports…or would you rather hoist those grain sacks into the boil tank and add the hops and fill bottles and wind up with something that puts a smile on the faces of everyone who comes to visit and taste? Would you rather have your name mentioned as a Young Brewer To Watch…or as the fifth accountant from the left on the third floor or a second-year associate who fetches coffee for the partners?
Would you rather be known as a person with the capacity, smarts, and gumption to create something which has never existed before or as just another hired hand in a warehouse, whose very existence continues at the whim of some bored, miserable lower-management type whose own life feels very much like what hamsters feel when slogging away on a treadmill? Would you rather support and enhance and advance your own town’s fortunes and those of this country…or would you rather send your dollars off to some anonymous numbered bank account in Zurich, to be used by people whose only connection to you is that of a bean-counter to a minor line on a spreadsheet? Would you rather help that friend with the busted roof…or contribute to yet another Italian villa for some amoral corporate zombie in a corner office in Brazil?
Let’s stop seeing the consequences of our continued support of beers like Budweiser and Coors and Miller and Pabst as abstractions. It is NOT. That six bucks you lay out for the mindless, knee-jerk purchase of that six-pack of Bud is six dollars tossed down a well that benefits only those nameless, faceless bean-counters. People say to me, when I deliver this little sermon in person – and about a dozen current and former AB employees have also tried to show me “the error of your (my) ways” – that AB also supports local distributors and their employees, puts dollars into the coffers of stores that sell Bud, and rakes in millions in tax dollars, too, just like craft brewers only moreso. And they are correct. But what they never cop to is the simple fact that there are more of us than there are of them. IF Budweiser were drastically reduced in size and influence, we have a virtual army of breweries, beers, and brands that stand ready to pump up those distributors and subsidiary businesses beyond even what Budweiser brings in. If all the effort and money that’s expended on maintaining the dominance of the AB brands were diverted to breweries owned by Americans, the earning potential for those breweries is almost unlimited. None of the Bud apologists ever has an answer when I ask what would take Bud’s place if they suddenly collapsed and went away. The answer is…we would. We, your neighbor, the woman at the hardware store, the guy in the next cubicle, the cousin in Seattle, your old circle of friends. It’s Americans. It’s a real, quotidian, slow-rolling triumph…or disaster. And the part of the story that’s the most vital is not written by the principals in this little soap opera. It’s not determined by the faceless Bud Minions or the legislators they sway with dollars and favors or the local distributors or even the people who own your local craft brewery. It’s going to be written – is written, daily – by US, by you and me and by where we chose to put our trust our preferences and our dollars. WE, the beer-buying American public, get to choose whether our own neighborhood businesses survive and thrive or whether fat cat foreigners just keep gettin’ fatter and fatter. I know which one I choose. There has never been any doubt.
It makes me struggle not to scream when someone defends AB/InBev and passes off craft beer as just some fad; denounces beers that they’ve never even tried or embraces their snooty preference for imported beers without having sampled enough craft beer to even make an informed choice. It kills me when people celebrate the acquisition of a great, emerging craft brewer by AB and pass off the chorus of condemnation as “just sour grapes“, all in the name of some faux sophistication and elitist condescension based on nothing more than their ravening need to feel superior. It infuriates me that people pass off AB’s back-stage manipulations and daily efforts to destroy craft brewing with a jaunty “It’s just business, man.” But, mostly, it makes me want to weep that we have among us so many, many people who genuinely cannot see the long view, that creepy, skeevy future that AB so desperately wants to impose upon us, in which we all march in lock-step into our local supermarket and look at the beer shelves and see nothing – once again, as it was for over 100 years – but ten or twelve different interpretations of the devolved, cheapened, undernourished imitation of what a greedy German immigrant decided would be “good enough for these American soda-pop drinkers.” And make NO mistake about it, that exactly what AB/InBev wants.
I firmly believe that, if there were anybody out there telling the real story of the immense benefit of drinking our own beers, made here by real American small business people, and keeping our own money in our own collective pockets, and thereby helping our neighbors to succeed and our own economy to thrive, those habitual Bud swillers would think about what that fizzy stuff falling into their glass is, beyond just something to quench their thirst on a hot day. I will continue to believe that the story of craft brewing is a far better tale than the shoddy, twisted history of greedheads from St, Louis and their 100 years of plotting and backroom bargaining. I will cling to the barest fact of all this: that, as more and more American children reach adulthood, having never seen a single can or bottle of BudMillerCoorsPabst in their family fridge, that century-long habit of “Gimme a Bud” will eventually fade from the American consciousness.
The absolute bottom-line factor in this whole David vs. Goliath dust-up is just simply this: Every single craft-brewed beer I have EVER tasted, from any independent brewery in this country – even the relatively mediocre ones – was significantly better and FAR more flavorful than Budweiser. Throughout its history, AB has sold Bud as a “manly” beer, an “All-American” beer, a lighter and less filling beer, and now as a Statement about blue collar values versus all the “artsy” craft beer types. There has been damned little discussion of the flavor virtues of Bud, which suggests that maybe AB knew that claim wouldn’t withstand scrutiny. But as all of us look around and see clearly that craft beer lovers are every bit as blue-collar, grounded, and patriotic as the Bud Hoardes, more and more of us hear the hollow clank at the heart of AB’s message. And we’re turning away from the old beer paradigm by the thousands, daily. It’s happening now and it cannot happen fast enough. It’s time, here in 2016, in a country which needs every drop of economic dynamism that it can muster, to close off the pipeline by which one of the world’s most cynical business entities continues to suck cash out of our marketplace and shove that money deep into our own pockets, with a januty, “No Mas, Bubba!“.
This is the real story of one of our all-time greatest American business phenomena and it’s going largely untold…while the creepy guys from Belgium and Brazil shout their slogans through a million-watt PA system from which no one can hide.