The Geography of Lite Beer

Eno Sarris, March 01, 2016

Maybe you don't give a lot of thought to the bad beer you like, maybe because you do give a lot of thought to the good beer you like, and you think that it's not so important what you drink when you are forced to drink bad light beer. Anyway, if that's how you feel, than I feel you. 

But there might not be a more marketed phenomenon than the light beer. Craft Beer is an ethos (at least), and it has it's marketing techniques, but in terms of money spent... Big Beer a fast moving consumer good, which is traditionally the largest part of the advertising market (see the Nielsen pie chart depicting global ad spending below), and it's one of the most recognizable of those goods. 

So light beer is heavily marketed, and even if you only have it rarely, that decision has probably been affected -- at some point in the formation of your opinions on Big Beer -- by those dollars. Even if you, like me, think that you are a steel fortress against the beer ad. 

But then I saw this Geography of Lite Beer infographic which came to my attention from Scott Lindholm. And I suddenly felt utterly predictable. 

This was taken from a textbook called the Geography of Beer, by Kennesaw State University geography professors Mark Patterson and Nancy Hoalst Pullen, and highlighted by a Popular Science blog post. In it, the authors took tweets about light beer in order to creat a heat map of lite beer preferences. 

I don't tweet about lite beer much, but I drink Coors Light when forced into a corner, and lookie there, I live in Coors Light country. 

I'm a bit floored by this. I know that I've never done a BeerSport type battle of the light beers, but I imagined myself a cultured drinker that made decisions based on, you know, the taste of the beer. Instead, something about where I've lived has obviously helped make the decision for me. 

Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on myself. For one, Budweiser would be the marketing victory over the autonomy of my taste buds. And I spent plenty of time in the South and Northeast -- combined, more time than I've spent on the West Coast. So if it was peer pressure, it was only effective for a small slice of my life. Possible, but still weird. 

Turns out, geography is a big reason for this, more than marketing and distribution patterns. They all get distributed everywhere now, anyway. But, before there really was craft beer, the now-national brands weren't all national.

Remember Smoky and the Bandit? They had a car full of beer (Coors Banquet!) and were in a hurry to get it somewhere. Why? This excellent post on Boing Boing uncovered a really interesting section about Coors from a 1974 Time Magazine article: 

Gerald Ford had a case of it tucked away in his luggage when he returned to Washington last month from a vice-presidential skiing trip to Colorado. President Eisenhower had his own steady supply airlifted to the White House aboard an Air Force plane. Actor Paul Newman refuses to be seen drinking any other brand on the screen. Until a court made him stop, Frederick Amon, 24, used to drive a refrigerated truckload every week from Denver to Charlotte, N.C., where he sold it to restaurants and country clubs for as much as $1 a can, better than triple the retail price of about $1.50 a sixpack.

The object of that foaming frenzy is Coors Banquet Beer, brewed from the waters of the 70 to 80 springs around Golden, Colo., 15 miles west of Denver. Unlike most U.S. beers, Coors contains no preservatives or stabilizers and is not pasteurized; if left unrefrigerated and allowed to get warm, it will spoil in a week. It is probably the only beer that is kept cold from the brewery to the customer. But its lack of additives and its brewing process greatly enhance its taste. For many connoisseurs, Coors is the Château Haut-Brion of American beers.

Now it's time to feel better. It's not so much that Coors has marketed it's way into my gut. It's more that their decision to not to pasteurize or preserve their beer early on created a distribution pattern that has remnants to this day. That part is not immediately obvious, and maybe the authors spend some time on it, or maybe it's just the inertia of cultural patterning -- if not your father, one of your friend's fathers was a Coors Banquet guy, and suddenly you're pounding Coors Lite at a game of flip cup in college.

And remember this the next time you trade beer. You're basically the Bandit, rushing beer from one part of the country to another in order to get it onto someone else's tastebuds before it goes bad. Just without the sweet car, probably.