A few months back, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article entitled “The Plot to Destroy America’s Beer” which outlined the drastic cost (and as a result, quality) cutting measures enacted by CEO Carlos Brito for many products under the AB InBev banner. It isn’t any news to craft beer lovers that their beer is sub par, but according to this article, one time fans of their product are starting to notice it too and it isn’t sitting well with them. In addition to cutting costs by using cheaper materials on things like cardboard and glass, AB InBev’s cost cutting measures have also extended to raw ingredients, the quality of rice for example, as well as leaving long time providers of hops and beechwood, opting for a cheaper and seemingly inferior providers. I won’t harp on about the article, but it is a great read for anyone interested in how the beer business works and how the quality of ingredients and profit are sometimes inversely related.
Not long after this article was published, Budweiser released it’s first real attempt at a foray into craft beer, the “Project Twelve” collection, boasting “Twelve Cities, Twelve Brewmasters. 3 Limited edition beers.” The challenge to the brewmasters at each of their 12 US breweries was to “create a new, unique beer worthy of the Budweiser name. There was only one rule: each new recipe must pay homage to Budweiser’s signature clean and crisp taste by using the proprietary yeast directly descended from the original Budweiser yeast culture used by Adolphus Busch in 1876 and still used today.” I picked up a 12 pack one weekend out of sheer curiosity (and for research) and wasn’t particularly blown away by any of the offerings. It’s no secret that we Aleheads are not fond of Budweiser, but these so called “experimental” and “unique” beers tasted at their core, like normal Budweiser. One of the beers, batch #91406 (named after the zip code for lovely Van Nuys, CA) was selected to become Budweiser’s latest market offering since the Bud Light Platinum, Budweiser Black Crown. It wouldn’t be a proper AB InBev release without the ubiquitous high budget Super Bowl commercial, this one featuring an attractive and diverse cast of Brett Easton-Ellis novel types who look like they’ve never had a beer in their life. “Here’s to our beer” the Don Draper doppelgänger proclaims while the fashionable masses cheer for the latest in “great beer.” Problem is, who the “our” in the statement is becoming more and more vague.
So what does Black Crown mean for AB InBev and the beer community in general? Well, some may see it as Budweiser’s first serious attempt at a branded craft beer and a possible threat to the independent breweries that you and I love so dearly. Others, such as Derek Thompson of the Atlantic, see it as their attempt to catch up to a market that is rapidly turning away from mass produced beer. It is no secret that craft beer is growing like never before, at a rate the likes of which we haven’t seen since Prohibition and I don’t put it past AB InBev to throw out a few hail Mary’s on their way down. However, after the recent and drastic cost cutting measures and alienation of long time consumers, Budweiser is going to need a lot more than another flashy commercial and slick bottle to undo the damage that craft brewing has already instilled upon them. Brewing isn’t a cheap undertaking, but few craft brewers are willing to put the quality of their product on the line for the sake of cost cutting the way that AB InBev has and this is exactly why Macro-brewers are struggling to stay relevant. You can’t build a better mousetrap by cutting corners and you certainly cannot brew a superior beer when you don’t care about the quality of what goes into it. Is this the tipping point that signifies the true downturn of the once mighty Budweiser? We Aleheads sure hope so.