It’s been talked about since last fall. The world’s largest brewer started seeing the handwriting on the wall, and it said to them of their customers, “we want to drink something else.” To the folks that make Budweiser that meant not beer rather than not their beer. But I guess that’s what happens to you when you’ve been the 100-lb. gorilla for as long as they have. The original rumor about this project was that A-B would be partnering with the rest of the industry, which means Miller, Coors and maybe a handful of others. To them, the craft beer segment is merely an annoyance, like ants at a picnic. So I doubt if any were even approached. Apparently their coalition includes them and Poland — wait a minute — no, I mean the Beer Institute. The Beer Institute is a trade organization that was formed in 1986 to “represent the industry before Congress, state legislatures and public forums across the country.” In consists of around 90 breweries, microbreweries, distributors, beer importers and suppliers. There are approximately 1,368 breweries and brewpubs in the United States and if you remove the distributors, importers and suppliers you’re left with 54 breweries, or less than 4% of American breweries, at least by the numbers. So that’s hardly a coalition of the willing.
The stated goal of the coalition was to persuade consumers that drinking beer is a positive experience in their lives à la got milk?, eggs, give ‘em a break, or pork, the other white meat. But if it’s just the biggest brewery with falling revenue and one trade organization who’s more comfortable lobbying Congress than to me it seems more likely that this campgain will have all the subtlety of a galloping rhinoceros. It reeks of corporate desperation to get the share price up and little else. Frankly, I don’t believe that Anheuser-Busch is capable of extolling beer’s virtues simply because they stopped thinking of Budweiser as beer decades ago, if not longer. Like most large corporations, they sell a product. It could be widgets and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The business is about numbers and in particular that those numbers must keep climbing … no matter what. Now I don’t mean to suggest that smaller breweries don’t care about their numbers — they do. They too are in business and have a bottom line to watch. But the difference is that the bottom line is not the only thing that’s important to them. Equally, and in many cases more, important is the quality and artistry of the beer they brew. Spend enough time with craft brewers and you can quickly see the passion they bring to their work. It’s downright infectuous.
The funny thing is the overall idea of celebrating beer is a good one. Beer definitely needs a makeover. The wine industry did an excellent job of taking American wine from nothing too spectacular (from a world perspective) to world class acceptance of quality wines in a matter of a few decades, less than a generation. And along the way they managed to educate the public about what fine wine means, how to use the proper glass, what foods to pair with it, and on and on. Beer had an opportunity to do that beginning in the 1980s but ironically any efforts along these lines were quickly stymied by the big breweries, of which Anheuser-Busch stands out as most prominent. Year after year they spend more per barrel on propaganda than any other brewer by a wide margin. Their relentless advertising and deep pockets insured that their voice would be the only one heard. So much so that most consumers today don’t know the first thing about why craft beer is so much better than anything produced in “vats the size of Montana” as one of the big brewery ads proudly proclaimed. Most not only don’t know about why proper glassware is important but believe drinking out of the bottle or can makes no difference. Restaurants still proudly serve beer in frozen glasses and few people even complain because so few recognize the damage being done to their beer. My point here is that there is still much work to be done for the craft beer industry to raise the standing of beer in this country. In addition to the difficulties of changing people’s minds about anything there is the additional, and perhaps more difficult, hurdle of the persistent and contradictory propaganda of the big breweries that has helped form the very opinions that need changing for the craft beer industry to be successful in bringing down the beasts.
History has a few lessons for us here. Before the days of national corporation’s dominance in the marketplace and before transportation was practical on a national scale, small and regional breweries dotted the landscape. No one brewery was national. Television helped change this because for the first time products could be advertised to virtually the entire country. It’s no coincidence that in 1950 Anheuser-Busch was the first brewery to sponsor a national television show. So even after Prohibition wiped out hundreds of breweries, the number of breweries continued to fall steadily. And that continued for at least five decades, or half a century. But it didn’t necessarily have to happen. Look at beer’s cousin, bread. While there are national breads available — Wonder Bread springs to mind — few are taken seriously. The very nature of bread and it’s perishability makes small local and medium-sized regional bakeries far more able to deliver fresh bread to market. Ask the average person to name a good bread they’d serve at a special meal and it’s the rare person who’d name Wonder bread. They’d more likely name a small local bakery. But far more intriguing is that when you ask the same question about beer, you’re not likely to get the same logic in the answer. And why is that? My belief is that beer has been presented for so long by the propagandists in such a bad light that people’s perceptions of beer run contrary to common sense and their actual education level about it is staggeringly incomplete.
So for the most culpable cause of people’s ignorance about beer to take on the task of celebrating its virtues is a bit like the notion of self-regulation. There’s really no incentive for A-B to be truthful or do anything that might really educate consumers about beer, especially since most “truth” about beer reflects rather poorly on the food product they produce that they then pass off as beer. So I suspect they may actually be the least qualified company in the world to undertake this enterprise. The best we can hope for is that they do no harm, and that’s a sad commentary.
Here’s the press release for the Here’s to Beer campaign:
“Beer is about good times with good friends. It’s a social beverage that’s been a part of mankind’s history for more than 10,000 years, and it doesn’t carry the pretense of other alcohol drinks,” said Robert C. Lachky, executive vice president, global industry development, Anheuser-Busch, Inc. “This ad reinforces beer’s appeal around the world and celebrates beer as the beverage of sociability and fun.
Created by DDB Chicago, “Slainte” was shot on location in four countries — Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic and Kenya. Instead of using professional actors, the ad features local consumers raising a glass of beer to toast in their native languages. The ad’s tagline directs consumers to the Web site, which features information on beer’s history, different styles of beer, food pairings and the latest “Here’s To Beer” advertising.
This ad and Web site were created to celebrate beer — from its social value to the romance of the brewing process,” Lachky said. “Beer clearly remains America’s alcohol beverage of choice, accounting for nearly 60 percent of all alcohol beverage servings. However, it’s the responsibility of the brewing industry to make sure beer remains relevant and appealing to our consumers, and that’s the goal of the ‘Here’s To Beer’ ad and Web site.”
The “Here’s To Beer” ad and Web site will focus on the following areas:
— Reminding consumers of the social value of beer — it brings people together in an unpretentious way.
— Romancing the product and the art of brewing — reinforcing beer’s refreshment, all-natural ingredients and the beauty of its liquid.
— Encouraging consumers to view beer differently — giving them new ways to enjoy beer including ideas and recipes for pairing with food.
Toward the end of the press release, an A-B exec. is quoted as saying “it’s the responsibility of the brewing industry to make sure beer remains relevant and appealing to our consumers.” My OED defines relevant as “closely connected or appropriate to the matter in hand” and appealing as “attractive or interesting.” The latter one I understand, to a point. But the only brewers making attractive and interesting beers are the ones on the fringes. The craft brewers. As for relevancy, since the damage to beer’s reputation was largely due to large breweries’ indifference and downright condescension toward their customers, as evidenced by both the increasingly bland products they sold coupled with the propaganda employed to sell them, it’s pretty hard to take them seriously when they now decide to take responsibility for beer’s future. Large corporations care about one thing. The present quarter. Keeping growth alive and making the numbers for the quarter. And they’ll do anything to succeed. It’s a short-sighted system we live in but we may have one advantage. If their numbers rebound, the Here’s to Beer campaign will quickly disappear again and will once again leave the job of celebrating beer to those most qualified: the craft brewer, the dedicated beer enthusiast, the home brewer and, perhaps — just perhaps — the lowly beer writer. Wish us luck. We’re going to need it.
UPDATE (Feb. 3): As reported on just-drinks.com today, “Miller Brewing has said it has ‘very low expectations’ that an industry-wide marketing campaign for beer in the US – set to be launched on Sunday – will succeed.” I guess they’re not part of the coalition, although they are members of the Beer Institute.
UPDATE (Feb. 5): See my subsequent Initial Review