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The Long Con: ABI, Marketing and the Myth of Authenticity

Miles Liebtag, February 09, 2015 -   
And of course we suffer, we the capitalized, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy, nor that what you think you can offer us as a remedy - for what? - does not disgust us, even more. We abhor therapeutics and its vaseline, we prefer to burst under the quantitative excesses that you judge the most stupid. 
- Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy   
 
And it’s a story that might bore you but you don’t have to listen: I once had a boss in beer, widely and unjustifiably respected, who scolded me for wearing a tie. “We're not fuckin’ grape sniffers,” he wheezed, probably unaware that fleshy neckbeards such as himself would be lampooned in strikingly similar language by Anheuser-Bush InBev in a Super Bowl spot not two years hence. The distinction between wine and beer drinkers is an archetypal American class signifier, but even the pretentious and effeminate craft beer drinker is not so unmanly as the tie-wearing smeller of grapes. My former boss was socialized to a narrative that put him above the macro-swilling plebs but separate, apart from and more “real” than wine drinkers.
 
Similarly, Budweiser’s “Brewed the Hard Way” spot contributes to a tradition of class stratification among American alcohol consumers. The sorting of consumers into groups according to their perceived (often self-perceived) class affiliations and mores is not always (nor even usually) a process imposed from outside; as in the anecdote above, people are generally happy to identify themselves with this or that group according to their social, cultural and economic predilections.
 
Budweiser’s ad rhetorically splits beer drinkers into two camps: craft drinkers, and everyone else (everyone else, incidentally, drinks Budweiser). The genius of “Brewed the Hard Way” is not in its seemingly obvious and explicit argument — Budweiser is unpretentious, honest, American, masculine and authentic — but in its barely subtextual antagonism: craft is effete, ridiculous, pompous and bourgeois. That antagonism is empty posturing, however, as the ad’s true audience is not the Budweiser drinker, but the craft drinker. 
 
“Brewed the Hard Way" isn’t meant simply to tell you what Budweiser is not, but what craft is. It stresses the masculine straightforwardness of macro beer while also assuring craft drinkers that they are participants in a movement and a lifestyle that is being assailed by large and implacable forces, an evil empire of Yellow Fizzies against which constant vigilance must be maintained.
 
Many were quick to point out the seeming rank hypocrisy of ABI’s “insult” to the craft world in the wake of the conglomerate's own recent craft acquisitions (10 Barrel, Elysian), but of course hypocrisy has nothing to do with it. The ad is a conscious and successful attempt to both put the macro/craft dichotomy back at the center of a conversation that had (largely, rightly) passed it by, while at the same time interpellating craft drinkers not as consumers, but as connoisseurs, part of a movement that values taste and authenticity and is easily identifiable by the very fact that they do not drink Budweiser.
 
And of course ABI, while fighting sluggish growth in its monster flagships brands, has a very vested interest in making sure that the craft consumer remains invested in the image of herself as a fusser, a dissecter, an effete beer-sniffer, because it has recently spent very large amounts of money to acquire brands that communicate authenticity and quality to just such a consumer.
 
We do not experience ideology as a forcible brainwashing, but rather as something in which we willingly, perhaps gleefully participate, in order to declare our independence from that which we believe would subjugate us. This week, while craft brewery after craft brewery proudly churns out social media-ready image macros that cheekily proclaim their products to be “brewed hard” or “worth fussing over,” the acquisitions team at ABI need only look to Twitter or Facebook to determine which breweries and brands command the most cultural capital in terms of perceived authenticity among the coveted millennial consumer class. Meanwhile, you are encouraged to buy Pumpkin Peach Ale homebrew kits, and use branded hastags to show that you "stand with the craft beer community."
 
The narrative of craft is one of authenticity; by willingly positioning a brand like Budweiser as the rhetorical and symbolic antithesis of that authenticity myth, ABI capitalizes on a dialectic that sorts potential consumers into appropriate camps and burnishes the bona fides of its acquired craft brands. The authenticity of craft is irreducible only insofar as it is irreproducible; in the dystopian beer world of tomorrow, Bourbon County Stout will be made in a lab in six hours and for pennies an ounce, and its exchange value will exist not in the liquid, but on the label. 
 
Authenticity is a lie that makes one believe that a beer that came out of a PET fermenter in a repurposed warehouse two towns over is somehow innately superior to one that was created through insanely advanced technological alchemy in a sparkling modern production facility. And it is a valuable marketing tool for local craft brewers and hegemonic beverage cartels alike.      
 
Opprobrium and self righteous anger directed at this ad doesn't hurt Budweiser any more than it helps craft beer. What it does is point to the fact that craft in itself is, and always has been, an empty signifier, one that can be filled up with whatever and by whomever. For a beer to be authentically craft, it need only be juxtaposed with something large, corporate, macro—and one needn’t look further than the ever-shifting and sometimes self-contradictory definition of craft as promulgated by the Brewer’s Association for an indication of just how nebulous the appellation has become. As ABI acquires more and more supposedly authentic craft labels, that juxtaposition helps them more than it hurts them.
 
To say that with this ad ABI has "declared war" on craft beer is patently ludicrous. To believe the notion that ABI has any interest whatsoever in suppressing the "craft movement" is also to believe that the craft movement is not in itself a business. ABI has interest only in acquiring market share, maximizing efficiency and profits, and doing what every other business under Western capitalism seeks to do: grow infinitely.
 
To believe that craft beer  somehow operates outside of the logic of the market, and is a culture rather than an economy of goods, is to essentially capitulate to ABI and their ultimate hegemony. If ABI or SABMiller or any other multinational cartel is able to eradicate craft beer as we know it today, it will not be due to the failure of the craft partisans, or the success of the macro empire. It will be because the market works as it has been devised to do so.
 
Craft beer, as we think of it today, will only thrive and persist if it adopts the same market mentality driving global companies like ABI to make ads like “Brewed the Hard Way." Of course, what we think of as craft is historically contingent, temporary, and ephemeral. “Brewed the Hard Way” underlines some of the inherent contradictions of late capitalism, yes; so does the craft ethos’ insistence that it is foremost a community and thus not subject to the violent and unseemly vagaries of market competition.
 
But good news, everyone: craft _is_ a business, and it’s run by business people. Your favorite regional craft brewery has boots on the ground in new markets, and they are jockeying for space on overcrowded shelves and one more draft handle at your local sports bar. They are evaluating their seasonal package numbers and looking ahead to Christmas 2015. And they are counting on you to keep them safe from the ABIs of the world, because they need to grow. Forever. 
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