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Beer and Now: Macro in Craft Clothing

Feb 29

This column appears on page 16 of the February 2011 issue. 

MACRO IN CRAFT CLOTHING – With tricky marketing, larger breweries attempt to disguise beer origin

A few months back, I got an e-mail from the public relations company representing MillerCoors about a “pre-Prohibition style lager,” Batch 19, before its launch on draft in the San Diego area. I was offered a sample of the beer along with some promotional materials, and although I’ve never been one to drink the macro lagers (because my intro to drinking was in college with the likes of Stone Pale Ale and Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale), who am I to turn down a free drink? Weeks later a package arrived with two bottles of Batch 19 and some marketing gimmicks, including an old-timey quill style pen and a deck of branded playing cards. The beer, which I didn’t have high hopes for, was actually pretty good, but what struck me the most was its marketing. The bottles appear to be custom-made with embossed features and fancy labels that don’t prominently mention Coors. In San Diego, however, Batch 19 is only available on draft, and the tap handles at bars don’t mention Coors at all. If someone wants to find out who makes Batch 19, it’s not too difficult to discover who’s behind it, but they’re certainly not advertising the fact.Blue Moon, brewed by Coors Brewing Company, has been the long time “sheep in wolves clothing” in the beer industry. It’s a wit beer and different enough from Coors’ usual bland lagers, and combined with its “Blue Moon Brewing Company” branding, can be misleading for consumers. They even go so far as to use the phrase “Artfully Crafted” in some of their promotional material to further push the issue.

Coors Brewing Company isn’t the only big brewer to capitalize on the increasing demand for craft beer. Anheuser-Busch InBev also produces Shock Top, and last year purchased Goose Island, a Chicago brewery founded in 1988, for close to 40 million dollars. Reactions in the beer industry to the sale were mixed, but many craft beer drinkers I’ve spoken to say they will no longer buy the former craft brewery’s beers. According to the Brewers Association, Goose Island is no longer a craft brewer because it’s owned by an “alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.”

One of Goose Island’s most popular beers is 312 Urban Wheat Ale, named after Chicago’s area code. Shortly after its acquisition, AB InBev applied for federal trademarks of other popular area codes– including 619. It’s not yet known what AB InBev plans to use these trademarks for, but some speculate that they may release and market beers specific to each of the cities to appear as if they were brewed locally. The thought of a beer with 619 in its name, brewed nowhere near San Diego by a multinational corporation, isn’t a pleasant thought.

It’s that idea of origin that I find so important when it comes to macro produced beers masquerading as craft beers. Most of the big brewers aren’t branding their pseudo craft beers in a way that easily identifies them to consumers. Stone Brewing Company Co-founder and CEO Greg Koch explained this idea of origin and deceit to the Chicago beer blog Chitown on Tap, and while he was discussing only the Goose Island purchase, I think his words ring true with regards to area code beers as well:

“What I don’t like is when the public is misled or not given accurate information so that they can make their own educated choice. So if you think a beer is being produced in one area and it’s really being produced somewhere else, or you think a beer is being produced by a given company but it’s really being produced by another one. I call foul. That to me is the delineator. It’s not so much whether you want to call it craft. For me, I’m asking: Is the message accurate? Does it mesh with reality? As a consumer, I don’t like to be misled. I want the truth to be easy to understand and not require special knowledge. Is that too much to ask?”

Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing Company recently re-branded one of their beers, a blonde ale usually named by each Central Coast bar it’s served in, as 805 Blonde Ale. A nod to its brewing origins, the release of 805 Blonde Ale, complete with locally-sourced tap handles at 75-100 locations in the first quarter, may or may not be in response to AB InBev’s possible plans for other area code beers. It’s not bad timing.

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5 Responses to “Beer and Now: Macro in Craft Clothing”

  1. Luke Ventura

    My problem with the term “craft” has always been with the image it conjures up.That small group of zealots coming together in an attempt to bring back a simpler, purer time when our food was made from basic ingredients and love.
    Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Dogfish Head, Lagunitas Boston Brewing and many more were part of this group of zealots. They opened our eyes and our palates to another way of thinking.
    But these breweries have taken their businesses to another level.Yes, they are still just a pimple on the rear end of the true macros.But they are now beginning to be more “Crafty” than “Craft”.
    Let’s be honest,for a moment. Nobody makes the style of beer the macros choose to make better than the macros.The quality and consistency is a miracle of modern manufacturing.
    This is the level the “Crafty” brewers has reached.They still make great beer. Add to this their increasing production and you realize they have reached a point where they have some level of security.They have some economy of scale. They now get subsidies and assistance that the “Craft” brewer will never see.They sit as Presidents of Brewing Associations, knowing that they do this only to protect their own best interests at the expense of their “Craft” brethren.
    The liquor market, historically, has been a finite market. If sales go up in one area, they drop in another.For these “Crafty” brewers to sell all the beer that will come from their massive expansions, my guess is that the little guy, the “Craft” brewer, is going to suffer.
    Finally, if you choose to believe that farming is still the way it is portrayed on the wall around the grocery store, then the term “Craft” and sight of 50,000 bottles per hour coming down the line every day of the year should give you the same warm fuzzy.

  2. Hey, we’ve still got 858 and 760, right? Kudos on the diss to dishonest corporate pseudo-craft beer. Can we get a loud stance on this at a big beer event like GABF, something along the lines of that guy from Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver declaring at the San Diego Music Awards many moons ago (not Blue Moons), that “Stone Temple Pilots are NOT a San Diego band!!!!”

  3. AK

    I agree with a lot of this up until a point. Misleading advertising and marketing is bush league, and should be identified as such. Pseudo-craft beers have the long-term effect of people associating “craft beer” as an inferior product to what it really is, and expecting a lower price point for it. All around, it undermines the process of popularizing craft beer.

    However, I don’t fully agree with the BA’s determination that Goose is no longer a craft beer maker, at least not for the reason they state.

    It’s important to remember why it’s offensive when large scale brewers market themselves as craft brewers, or hide the origin of one of their products: people took great pains to make a great product, and its disingenuous to capitalize on it without the same effort and care. That is, it’s supposed to be about the liquid, as Scot Blair might say.

    But Goose Island *did* put forward a great deal of sweat equity to making a great product that people cared about. Then, InBev swooped in and bought them up. But as far as I know, they retained the same brewing team and have allowed them to continue pursuing an excellent product. If that’s no longer true– if the new ownership has compromised the product and is coasting on the label– then THAT’S the reason they shouldn’t be considered a craft brew anymore, and that’s the development I’m interested in hearing. I haven’t heard that about Goose Island yet, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    To define craft beer based on ownership is to commit the same sin that macro-swill processors commit when they market one of their products as something it isn’t: it’s to forget that the quality of the beer is all that matters.

    • Rich the beer guy

      While I understand the frustration some people may have as to what they may feel is deceptive labeling, I suggest we review some more facts. Many craft beers are contract brewed by large breweries, under an Alternate Premises brewing agreement. Does anyone remember the fight back in the mid 1990′s when craft brewers were having their beer produced (and still are) by large regional breweries, such as the Old Style brewery in La Crosse, WI, and by Hudepohl in Cincinnati? What is now the Big 2 were arguing that where the beer is brewed and by whom should be on the label. Would the largest craft brewer have been readily embraced by beer geeks if they knew it came off the same production line as Old Style? The Big 2 lost that battle. Should we toss out Unibroue because it is owned by Sapporo?

      Shall we take this battle to the distributor level? If it is distributed by one of the Big 2 (Arguably the best overall distribution systems – Fresher Beer, deeper pockets, more touches at retail), shoud we turn away from it? Do any of you remember the crap shoot on buying Pilsner Urquell before it went into Miler houses?

      IMHO, the liquid in the vessel is the most important thing. Do I like that liquid? If so, I support it with my dollars. From the outside, the romance of of the microbrewery draws in us beer geeks. On the inside, the hard work, cash flow concerns, personnel requirements, and the future all are considered. What if your children want to be doctors instead of brewers? They should be allowed to retire some day if they want.

      A-B is the best brewer in the world. I rarely drink their flagship brands, but I won’t turn down a free one. They are the best brewer because they are able to make the exact same beer all over the world again and again. I have been homebrewing for over 18 years, and comprehend that challenge!

      Do we quit buying artisanal breads and cheeses because they are now produced by the large grocery chains? When the Macrobrewers fail to meet the needs of a certain niche of consumers, that is where the enterpreneur comes in. Hey, vote with your dollars, and the market will follow.

      • AK

        I think we’re saying largely the same thing. Protest with your wallet based on quality, not ownership or financial structure alone.

        Well, that’s not necessarily fair for me to say. If you’re more comfortable supporting an independently owned, brewed and distributed product, by all means do so. But for me, I’ll support the companies that provide the best product. It just so happens that by and large, those also happen to be the companies that are independently owned.