Big Beer Hasn't Changed Plan

Eno Sarris, April 26, 2016

There was a first Craft Beer wave. It came in the late nineties and was spearheaded by Sierra Nevada and Stone and Sam Adams. It made Big Beer nervous. So Big Beer tried two tactics. One is obviously still going on. Is the other?

Tom Acitelli has an excellent history of beer post up on All About Beer right now, but I won't give you a title. Or really discuss the first, main thrust of the article, because that should come second. What comes first is treated as an aside in the article, but it really nails what's happening today. 

Along with these de facto knock-offs, A-B also tried to plant doubts in consumers’ minds about the origins of some of these smaller-batch beers. In particular, A-B took aim at Boston Beer, which in the 1990s brewed almost all of its saleable beer under contract at other breweries and not in its Boston headquarters.

Oh that's just rich. They targeted Boston Beer founder Jim Koch with radio and print ads that questioned his integrity. They made it a thing. It turned into a thing. Dateline blew it up and severely missed the point

Maybe this doesn't seem relevant today. At least not directly. As Acitelli finishes,  ABI "now just simply buys smaller breweries, rather than trying to undermine or ape them." Seems a different game. No need to give the smaller guys more free air time by creating faux controversies. 

But not when you read it the way Acitelli put it! A-B tried to plant doubts in consumer's minds about the origins of these beers! What seemingly ancillary benefit does buying all the craft breweries have?

Making it impossible to know what is craft and what isn't. 

Think this is crazy? I don't think so. I wrote just this month that I was ready to throw my hands up and just try to drink good beer. I am of two minds, and one those minds likes seeing craft breweries rewarded, and enjoys having craft beers in airports and baseball stadiums.

Part of that is a willingness to throw my hands up and give up. Yes, this beer-obsessed, on-top-of-it dude can't tell you every single brewery that was bought by a bigger brewery or had their ownership rejiggered for a finance group. I'd totally forgotten that something had happened to Logsdon! Was I supposed to not buy the Logsdon? I wanted to buy the Logsdon! 

But there I am, a high-information consumer, already willing to give up on really knowing the provenance of all my beers. By buying heavily, they've muddied the water to the point that I have doubts about the origins of all my beers. They're close to winning that first battle! 

The other, titular battle? That was for the hearts and minds of distributors. In what today may seem like archaicly forceful language, leader Busch had strong words for his wholesalers: 

“Each of you,” Busch told the crowd, “must exert your undivided attention and total efforts on Anheuser-Busch products. If you sell our competitors’ products, can you still give us your best efforts? I don’t think so.”     

Well then. If they weren't supposed to control the distribution literally, they were going to do so through mind games and unspoken threats. If you were a distributor with AIB beers, you better sell those, or you might lose all AIB products and that's too much of a risk. 

Since then, AIB has straight up bought distributors, which seems of questionable legality given the three-tier system. Anyway, this is functionally a won battle: AIB distributors are largely dedicated to AIB products, and then there are smaller wine and beer distributors bringing the craft things to our stores. Very few distributors are faced with this choice today, in that they made the choice when they signed up for AIB products.

Which, really just means AIB won both battles. 

Big Beer wrote up a game plan in 1996. It seemed over the top and aggressive at the time. It may have gotten a facelift since those days. But the game plan looks like it worked, in the end. Maybe only to re-prove the adage that all a plan needs to work is time and money. 

Header image from Flickr.