Yesterday, Doc sent out an e-mail to the Aleheads asking if any of us had sampled Batch 19 yet. During a recent trip to VA, Doc was half in the bag after tucking into some delicious Bell’s Two Hearted and HopSlam pints. His bartender, taking pity on him, apparently suggested he scale back on his ABV intake by partaking in a Batch 19 instead. Doc said he enjoyed the beer…until the next morning when he discovered that Batch 19 is brewed by Tenth and Blake (the “craft” division of MillerCoors). That didn’t change his enjoyment of the beer from the night before. But it did add some context that made him question the experience.
This morning, the Czar forwarded the rest of the Aleheads an excellent article from the West Coaster (an on-line publication representing the San Diego craft beer scene). In it, the author compellingly argues against the current practice in which Big Beer markets their “craft” products without giving any indication of who is actually brewing the beer. Blue Moon is the best/worst example. Their beers are wholly brewed by Coors, but their bottles claim they’re produced by the “Blue Moon Brewing Company”. Doc had no idea who made Batch 19, and indeed, as the West Coaster author notes, neither the Batch 19 bottles nor the tap handles mention that they are brewed by a huge multi-national.
This brings up a crucial point…does it matter WHO brews your beer if you enjoy it? Should the fact that Coors made the beer have really affected Doc’s enjoyment of the Batch 19? The beer is getting decent reviews amongst beer bloggers and Doc, whose opinion holds a lot of weight amongst the Aleheads, clearly liked it. So does it matter?
Well, if you’re a regular Aleheads reader, you probably know what I’m about to say…
YES! Yes, it absolutely does matter who brews your beer. Coors’ involvement in the production of Batch 19 SHOULD play a role in whether or not Doc enjoys said beer. Now, I don’t hold anything against Doc for drinking it. Many an Alehead has been duped into consuming a macro beer from time to time thanks to their use of duplicitious marketing. Hell, Doc and I drank Blue Moon by the case back in high school (in our defense, we were 16…we were also drinking Aftershock and Goldschlager).
But why? If what’s inside the bottle is good, who gives a damn where it comes from?
It matters for reasons that Sam Calagione articulated in his recent interview with the Better Beer Authority. He noted:
I get very concerned when seeing a Blue Moon or a Shock Top growing because they don’t have the same challenges as an independent family-owned business. They don’t have the same access to market challenges or the same access to ingredient challenges. So when they go into a retailer and charge $30 less for a keg but tell the retailer that they can charge the same as Dogfish Head or Lagunitas or whatever, that is not a karmic playing field. I want to see large brewers not lose market share but I want to see the small breweries own [the market share of] what defines a craft brewery.
Couldn’t have put it better myself, Sam. In an older piece about Tenth and Blake, I likened their involvement with the Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, GA as something akin to a steroids injection. Tenth and Blake may not mess with Terrapin’s beers…and they will most likely taste as good tomorrow as they did yesterday. BUT, Terrapin getting in bed with Tenth and Blake/MillerCoors allows them to play a different game than their peers. As Calagione notes, the Big Boys can undersell the craft brewers because their economies of scale are VASTLY different than those faced by the little guys. They might not mess with Terrapin’s products, but they can give Terrapin access to capital, volume, distribution, and logistics that a similarly-sized craft brewer doesn’t have. They can quickly expand Terrapin and begin flooding the market with their products like Anheuser-Busch is doing with Goose Island. Indeed, Terrapin just announced a massive expansion that will double their capacity…thanks to the equity stake sale to MillerCoors.
As a thought experiment, imagine a top-of-the-line steakhouse opens in your hometown. The food is excellent. The prices are on par with other similar eateries. Reviews have been great. Now imagine they day after eating there and enjoying your meal, you learned that the restaurant was wholly-owned and operated by McDonald’s? How would that affect your experience after the fact? Maybe with McDonald’s vast capital resources, they are able to source and ship the meat for far cheaper than the local competition. Maybe their immense marketing budget allows them to buy up magazine and billboard ads in your hometown that the local places could never afford. Wouldn’t that bother you? If not, then you probably also don’t care that MillerCoors is making Batch 19 or Anheuser-Busch is making Honker’s Pale Ale. But I think a lot of people…perhaps even MOST people, would care.
It’s telling to me that the Big Boys are going out of their way to distance their “craft” products from the rest of their line-ups. If you looked closely at a Shock Top bottle or can, you wouldn’t know they were brewed by Anheuser-Busch. I remember Wifey McHops and Mrs. Sixpack buying a sixer of Wild Blue Lager during a trip to the Florida coast two years ago. Slouch and I had never heard of the Blue Dawg Brewery that made the beer and we were a little confused by the cartoon bulldog on the label that was clearly sketched in such a way as to mimic the iconic, Ralph Steadman-created Flying Dog labels. After some quick on-line research, it became apparent that the Blue Dawg Brewery is a fictitious company. Like Shock Top Brewing, Blue Dawg is just an Anheuser-Busch shell. Despite the fact that Budweiser is brewing the beer, there is nothing on the label to indicate that. Also, the beer was fucking terrible.
If your company is releasing a product and you are INTENTIONALLY trying to trick people into thinking it’s made by someone else, that seems problematic to me. You can argue that it shouldn’t matter who makes a beer as long as it tastes good to you, but Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors know that’s bullshit. They know that people DO care about who makes the products they put into their bodies and they’re trying to pull a fast one on you. Why would you want to support a company that lies to you? Take a look at ShockTop’s website. Do you see AB InBev’s logo anywhere? Click around…the whole thing is designed to obfuscate the fact that the beer is made by a massive, international conglomerate. That’s true of Blue Moon and Batch 19 as well (though at least the latter has “Coors Archive Brewing” in small print in the footer of the site). I can’t be the only one who finds this behavior somewhat unethical.
As for the beer itself, I haven’t consumed Batch 19, nor will I. I don’t drink Goose Island’s products anymore and I haven’t picked up a Terrapin bottle since MillerCoors got involved with them. That’s a personal choice and I’ve heard many, many people call me an idiot (and worse) for taking such a recalcitrant, hard-line stance to Big Beer’s inevitable power-grab in the world of craft beer. For me, the beer itself is certainly the most important thing…but there are other issues as well. If you taste a Blue Moon (or Shock Top) and compare them to an Allagash White or Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca…there’s, well, no comparison. The macro-produced beers are “dumbed down” versions of the classic Belgian White style. They taste like the beerly equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster that went through too many focus groups. AB and MC make their money on volume…so they need to make sure their beers appeal to the masses in a way that a more complex, “true” version of the Belgian White style (like the Allagash) might not. There’s a reason people jam orange and lemon wedges into Blue Moon and Shock Top…they just don’t taste like much without them.
Now, of course, MillerCoors isn’t going to “dumb down” Terrapin like they did with Blue Moon. And Anheuser-Busch has not (so far), adulterated Goose Island’s recipes. My point isn’t that you should worry about Big Beer turning your favorite craft brands into watery approximations of their former selves. My point is that if you look at Big Beer’s track record: Sexist marketing. Fighting pro-craft legislation at every turn. Creating insipid versions of classic beer styles. Hiding their true selves behind fake, craft “brands”…then I simply don’t see how you can support those companies.
I know…this is easily the 100th rambling essay I’ve written that bashes Big Beer. And yes, you should probably prepare yourself for at least 100 more. But this is important. The continued health and growth of the industry depends on your support of the little guys (even the big, little guys like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Bell’s). By purchasing a Batch 19, or a Blue Moon, or a Shock Top, or a Blue Dawg (god forbid), you’re putting money into the coffers of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. You’re telling them that it’s OK to deceitfully market their products. You’re telling them it’s OK to hide an international conglomerate behind a faux-craft shell. You’re telling them you don’t mind being played the fool.
Well, I mind. I will never willingly support Big Beer. I will never willingly purchase their products. And we at Aleheads will make a solemn vow to you:
Whenever Big Beer buys out a craft brewery, we’ll be there. Whenever Big Beer buys an equity stake or invests in a craft brewery, we’ll be there. Whenever Big Beer spins off another faux-craft “brewery” and attempts to fool consumers by not telling you who actually brews the beer, we’ll be there. Whenever you see a bottle of beer in a package store and have to spend 10 minutes trying to figure out just who the hell makes it, we’ll be there.
Don’t be duped by Big Beer. If you keep supporting them, before you know it, your package store shelves will be filled with 100 different beers…all made by the same company. Be careful out there.