Session #50: How Do They Make Me Buy The Beer?

Our 50th Session is hosted by Alan McLeod from A Good Beer Blog, and is the second of our third hosting by the three original Session hosts on our fourth anniversary of Beer Blogging Friday. The topic he’s chosen is How Do They Make Me Buy Their Beer?, by which Alan means:

What makes you buy someone’s beer? Elemental. Multi-faceted. Maybe even interesting.

  • Buying beer. I mean takeaway. From the shelf to you glass. What rules are dumb? Who gives the best service? What does good service mean to you? Please avoid “my favorite bar references” however wonderful. I am not talking about taverns as the third space. Unless you really really need to and contextualize it into the moment of transaction at the bar. If you can crystallize that moment of “yes” when the bartender is, in fact, tender go for it.
  • What doesn’t work? What fad or ad turned you off what had previously been turned on about some beer’s appeal? When does a beer jump the shark? When does a beer store fail or soar? When does a brewery lose your pennies or earn your dimes?
  • Go micro rather than macro. You may want to explore when you got tired of “extreme” or “lite” or “Belgian-style” but think about it in terms of your relationship with one brewery rather than some sort of internet wave of slag … like that ever happens.
  • What is the most you paid for a great beer? More importantly – because this is not about being negative – what is the least? I don’t mean a gift. What compels you you to say this is the quality price ratio (“QPR”) that works best for you? When does a beer scream “you would have paid 27% more for me but you didn’t need to!”?


As an old curmudgeon who’s been alive and drinking before there was a craft beer industry — at least in practice, if not entirely legally — my earliest memories of the beer available where I lived were the more or less local regional brands. I grew up in medium-sized east coast industrial town — Reading, Pennsylvania — and our local brewery closed my junior year of high school — 1976. Before that, I vividly recall accompanying my stepfather to the beer distributor to pick up beer and soda. He didn’t always choose Reading Premium, but he did gravitate toward the more local and regional brands (in this case, mostly from Philadelphia, eastern Pennsylvania and New York).

The funny thing about that is nobody talked about “buying local” as a concept and the word “locavore” was decades from being coined. But that’s what people did. They patronized local businesses. We bought almost all of our produce from the local farmer’s market, along with some of our meat and other food. It was open every Friday in an indoor setting where each person rented a stall that was the same from week to week, and they were more or less permanent with cash registers, refrigerated cases, etc. But they were the local farmers, butchers, food purveyors, etc. We knew them all by name. They were a part of the community. About every six months or so, my parents bought a side of beef from a butcher, had it cut into numerous packages — ground beef, steak, etc. — and stored it in a deep freezer in our basement. All the meat came from the same cow, it wasn’t from an assembly line meat-packing plant. For bread, we went to the local baker. Milk was delivered to our doorstep twice a week. Charles Chips even made potato chip deliveries, though I preferred Good’s Chips in the Blue Can, which we bought every week at the farmer’s market. Good’s were made by a Mennonite family on their farm in nearby Reinholds. I visited the chip farm once. It was a simple operation, but it worked. The chips themselves were even simpler. The label read: potatoes, fried in lard, salt added. They were the best chips … ever.

And beer was just the same. I remember when I was little, my Mom liked Sunshine beer, another label from the Reading Brewing Co. Then there were the Philly brands: Schmidt’s, Ortlieb’s, etc. Everyone drank Ballantine when visiting my aunt and uncle in New Jersey. There were other regional Pennsylvania and New York brands: Yuengling, Genesee Cream Ale, Schaefer and Fyfe & Drum Extra Lyte Beer (their slogan: less filling … more refreshing). I seem to recall a lot of Carling Black Label in our house, too. I think it was on sale a lot, though I don’t remember where it was brewed back then. The point is I don’t even remember seeing a national brand until I was well into my teens. I first started being aware of Budweiser in junior high, Lite Beer from Miller when they started advertising nationally in the mid-1970s or so, and Coors once I started driving in high school. It became “cool” to get a Coors iron-on t-shirt down the shore at Ocean City or Wildwood, our preferred weekend getaway towns.


But the greed and consumerism that seemed to mark the 80s also sounded the death knell for local, and even healthy, food in general. High-fructose corn syrup began it meteoric rise around 1975 but really hit its stride in the 1980s. Giant grocery store chains dominated and the locally owned ones disappeared, paving the way for the big national food processors to likewise dominate stores shelves (they were the only ones who could afford the slotting fees that should be illegal, but curiously are not when it comes to food).

Pennsylvania grocery stores couldn’t sell beer (and still can’t) so I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what happened to grocery sets during that time, but I can only assume what happened with food, also happened with beer. At that time, I started moving around for work — Virginia, New York, back to Pennsylvania, North Carolina and then, finally, California in 1985. By the time I arrived in California — thirsty for good beer, sparked by my time in NYC — there was the chain of Liquor Barns that carried a wide selection of both imported beer and the new micros, but grocery stores were still almost exclusively national and international brands, with just a few exceptions. Bars, too, carried a very small number of beers, and very few, if any micros. It slowly got better, but even in 1991, when I visited over 550 bars in four months to write The Bars of Silicon Valley: A Beer Drinker’s Guide to Silicon Valley, very few carried anything beyond the Big 3 and a few imports (usually Heineken, Corona, or if the bar was Irish or British-themed: Guinness).

So what does all this nostalgia have to do with Alan’s topic? How does any of that make me buy a particular beer, or choose one over another? As the Peter Allen song claims, “Everything Old Is New Again,” and so it is with buying locally. What once was taken for granted as not so much buying locally, but simply “buying,” people are again purchasing locally made or grown goods, the only difference is this time it’s on purpose. It’s a decision, based on a growing understanding that doing so is beneficial on several fronts. It’s good for the planet because the closer the food is to the consumer, the shorter distance is as to travel, meaning it uses less fossil fuels, and as a bonus it’s usually fresher, too. It’s also good for the local economy because it creates local jobs, but more importantly the money stays in circulation locally, too. It isn’t shipped back to a corporate headquarters somewhere else, which is just one of the reasons Wal-Mart is so bad for local economies.

The dirty little secret in brewing is that many of the ingredients for making beer come from far afield, and there isn’t much that can be done about that. Barley and hops don’t grow everywhere, and certain types that are necessary for certain kinds of beers can’t be obtained from local sources in many, many places. More and more breweries, both large and small, are trying to make “estate” beers or beers made using only relatively local ingredients. Sierra Nevada is making an estate beer using their own locally grown barley and hops, and the San Francisco brewpub, Thirsty Bear, recently made a beer using all organic ingredients from northern California farmers. But that’s hard to do, especially in certain locations where the agriculture just isn’t available. I applaud such efforts, but it simply isn’t feasible for everybody. Hops is starting to be grown in more locations than the Pacific Northwest, but most efforts will not be able to replace the Willamette or the Yakima Valleys, only supplement the supply, not to mention hop varieties from abroad — England, Germany, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, etc.

So the brewing industry, for the most part, will have to continue to hang its hat on local production, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, just the reality of how beer is made. But with over 1700 breweries in the U.S. — and 618 in planning — finding locally brewed beer is getting easier and easier. In a sense, we’re returning to a time when it was local and regional breweries that held sway. In the late 19th century, America peaked at just over 4,000 breweries. It was a time when beer didn’t travel or age very well and so every locale needed a brewery. Even many small and mid-sized towns had multiple breweries. Then it was out of necessity, but today an increasing number of people are choosing smaller, local beers over the national brands. It’s happening very slowly — too slowly for my personal tastes — but it is moving in the right direction. The big brands, both foreign and domestic, are flat or down in some cases, while the smaller breweries are for the most part up, and up a lot in many cases. And that’s played out over ten plus years, a sufficiently long enough period of time that I think we can safely call it a trend.

I continue to believe that distribution will be the single most important aspect of continuing that growth and finding, finally, a tipping point, where better local beer becomes the norm. And that’s one worrying counter-trend. The number of distributors continues to shrink, and that will be bad, I think, if a work around can’t be found, especially in states where self-distribution is not legal, where franchise laws are particularly strong, and where it’s difficult for alternative new distribution models to emerge.


So what causes me to make a particular purchase decision? How Do They Make Me Buy The Beer? Well, firstly, I’m not a typical consumer. If you write a beer blog, chances are you’re not either, even if you believe otherwise. Because you and I will will try almost any new beer. That’s just who we are. Typical consumers, I’d argue, don’t. The only evidence I need for that is the fact most breweries have a flagship beer that accounts for 60%, 70% or even 80% of their total production. Somebody is buying all that beer, if it’s not you and me. Although, the fact that seasonal beer is the fastest growing category in grocery stores does suggest that many people are buying something different along with the flagship beer, too.

But secondly, if I’m not buying beer to sample for work, if I’m just picking up beer to watch a game with friends, or for a party or just to have a good time, I’ll buy something brewed locally. Usually, I know all the beers on a typical grocery or liquor store’s shelves — occupational hazard — so once I get past the novelty of something new, factoring in the weather and/or what I’m eating, the decision comes down to location, location, location.


Busch Jumps On Cold Indicator Label Bandwagon

For many years, Coors has been the brewery obsessed with cold. But that may be changing, as Anheuser-Busch InBev is debuting their own cold-activated labels on bottles of Busch Light. ABI is calling their version of the cold-activated label an “ice-cold easy indicator.”


According to an article today by AdAge:

An “ice-cold easy indicator” thermometer turns blue when the temperature is just right, an Anheuser-Busch spokesman told Ad Age, noting that the special packaging has already hit some stores. The innovation resembles what competitor MillerCoors has done with its Coors Light bottles, which feature mountains that turn blue “when it’s as cold as the Rockies.”

“Thermochromatic ink on beer [bottles]? I’ve heard that’s been done before,” said a MillerCoors spokesman.

Coors Light is one of the few big beer brands whose sales are growing, albeit slowly, and the cold-activated bottles are a focal point of its advertising. It is unclear if A-B plans a big promotional push for its new Busch Light bottles. The sub-premium brand traditionally gets less advertising attention than Budweiser and Bud Light.

As far as I’m concerned, the only good reason to make sure either of these beers are cold enough to turn the label blue is so they’re cold enough to numb your taste buds so you can no longer taste them. But it’s that reliance on marketing gimmicks instead of making products people actually want that makes this such a bad idea to me.


ABI’s Free Beer Gambit

USA Today is reporting that Anheuser-Busch InBev‘s plan to reverse slumping sales trends is to give away their beer. Not all of it, of course, but part of a new marketing barrage to begin next Monday includes stepping up sampling significantly, to record levels of free beer giveaways.

According to the article, Latest ad strategy to freshen Budweiser’s image: Free beer, by Bruce Horovitz, ABI is poised to “announce plans to push free beer and a hipper Bud image to younger beer drinkers over the next several weeks” in an effort to reach the under-30 crowd growing up under the influence of the more flavorful and more local craft beer segment.

The new marketing campaign will feature the tagline Grab Some Buds, a phrase ABI has applied to trademark, and starting Monday, Budweiser “will unleash its biggest-ever national free-sample effort in trendy bars and eateries.”

From the USA Today article:

The hype culminates on Sept. 29, when the brand hosts the “Budweiser National Happy Hour,” a bid by Bud to nudge folks to at least try a free brewski. The free samples for those 21 and up range from 6 ounces to 12 ounces, depending on state and local rules.

At issue: a brand that’s lost mojo. Bud unit sales were down 9% last year and are down the same this year, says Beverage Marketing Corp. Beer drinkers have lost loyalty to Bud for the past seven years, research firm Brand Keys reports. Bud’s ranking among national product brands slipped from 16th in 2003 to 220th in 2010.

Here’s their four-prong approach:

  1. Sampling. A-B will hand out 500,000 samples by mid-October.
  2. Facebook. Bud plans to partner with Facebook so folks turning age 22 and up can get a free beer on birthdays.
  3. New ads. Ads air Saturday about anticipating good times with Bud.
  4. Focus. A-B will focus 95% of TV ad time on Bud Sept. 25 to Oct. 3.

The article concludes doubtfully, with “Brand consultant Robert Passikoff [expressing] serious doubts about Budweiser’s effort. ‘They’re in trouble because they don’t know how to talk to consumers,’ he says. ‘They no longer know how to create an emotional bond.'”

Frankly, I think they’re in trouble because they’re not keeping up with what customers want. All their “fixes” for dwindling sales (though to be fair sales are still ginormous) involve the same old tried and true marketing tricks that have seen them through the last half-century. Sampling, new ads and more TV spending are hardly revolutionary, and neither is finally trying to figure out how to use Facebook.

ABI is losing the battle for customers perceiving them as a patriotically American company, however jingoistic and emotional that is. They’ve also taken hits for the way they’ve treated employees — laying off hundreds (is it thousands yet?) — and keeping the remaining ones fearful for the next round of layoffs and working many jobs and too many hours. They’ve also taken a hit for asking suppliers to wait as long as four months to be paid.

ABI could produce beer every bit as flavorful as the best craft beer, but they wouldn’t know how to sell it. It’s not their business model. ABI president Dave Peacock thinks sampling will work, of course. “‘When we get the trial, we find we have a positive result,’ Peacock says.” But I honestly can’t see how sampling will be a positive experience for young people that recognize there are more flavorful alternatives to mass-produced American-style light lagers.

I think the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, provides a useful analogy. If we think of flavor as clothing, sampling young people on Budweiser will only serve to reinforce that indeed the Emperor has no clothes.

What (Pete) Brown Can Do For You

Okay, I’m just having a bit of fun with UPS’ slogan and Pete Brown, UK beer writer. But today Pete has a nice overview of each of the big six beer companies that do business in the UK, entitled The Big Boys. It’s definitely worth a read. He talks primarily about their marketing efforts in the UK, but you get a sense of how he feels about the pros and cons of each company and the overall feeling that they’re not all the same.

Bavaria Beer Marketing Terrorists Strike Again

You may recall that during the last World Cup in 2006, The Dutch brewery brand Bavaria got themselves in hot wort by stealth marketing their brand during a match where fans wore orange lederhosen with the brewery’s logo on them, an item they sold online at the brewery’s website. I wrote about it then under the title Beer Marketing In Your Underwear? The official beer sponsor, Anheuser-Busch, got their lederhosen in a bunch because they were the “official” beer of the World Cup, ruffling more than a few feathers in Germany with it’s own rich beer history.

Fast forward four years to the World Cup in South Africa and nobody seems to have learned a damn thing from history, except perhaps the Bavaria Brewery. This year, during the match between the Netherlands and Denmark, 36 women were arrested for wearing plain orange dresses in a block of seats. I’m fairly certain it was indeed stealth marketing on the part of the brewery, but they broke no laws. There was no branding on the dresses and orange is the national color of Holland. Bavaria Beer has an entire Flickr gallery devoted to pictures of women wearing their plain orange dresses.


But FIFA stepped in to protect its revenue stream for the millions paid by Anheuser-Busch InBev to be the “official,” and more importantly exclusive, beer of the World Cup. The women were ejected from the game and “arrested under the Contravention of Merchandise Marks Act, which prevents companies benefiting from an event without paying for advertising.” FIFA in a statement said they “view ambush marketing in a very serious light” and called the act of wearing an orange dress an “illicit activity.” The police in South Africa have opened a “criminal investigation,” according to the UK’s newspaper, the Guardian.

But despite the rhetoric, they’re not exactly terrorists. They were all wearing plain orange dresses. Period. Arresting them gave the Bavaria beer brand more publicity than leaving them alone would have. And it does nothing to dispel the image of FIFA and ABIB as thugs who’ll do whatever they like to protect revenue streams above all else, human rights be damned.

As Pete Brown concludes in his own rant over this incident:

Let’s be realistic: even though Bavaria have denied involvement, of course it was a marketing stunt: why else would forty identically dressed women turn up in one block? But it’s a brilliant stunt: once again, Bavaria has had acres of free press coverage, and Fifa and Bud have been made to look really quite sinister and scary.

But that’s because they are. We all know it’s a marketing stunt, but it doesn’t break any rules. The rules prohibit competitive beer branding around the stadium. There was no branding. End of.

As the Bavaria spokesperson says, Fifa don’t have a trade mark on the colour orange. This is an astonishing abuse of human rights — admittedly a trivial one in the context of South Africa’s recent history, but still deeply disturbing, because it’s all about protecting the commercial rights of a beer brand. No brand should have the power to do something like this. If Fifa and Bud are to remain consistent in this policy, we should expect them to eject and detain any England fan with a St George’s cross flag, T-shirt or face paint, because this is a device used extensively in marketing by Bombardier, a competitive beer brand to Budweiser. That would be utterly absurd, outrageous and unacceptable of course. But then so is this.

How A-B InBev think this ugly, bullying behaviour helps enhance Budweiser’s reputation is beyond me.

I know it’s naive to think that any international sporting event should be just about the game, but I continue to hold out hope. But this is one more potent reminder of how the world really works. What Bavaria did may be technically against FIFA’s “policy” (which is very different from a “law”) yet they treated the policy-breakers like terrorists and used police powers essentially to carry out and punish people for breaking the rules of a corporation, reminding me chillingly of the way the military and police have been used to break up strikers. Money and power increasingly call the shots while human beings and small enterprise get trampled. I, for one, am going to start wearing a lot more orange.


UPDATE: A few more worthwhile articles about the incident have popped up. These include another Guardian piece, Another triumph for Fifa’s chillingly efficient rights protection team, by Marina Hyde, and Central State Asylum has a nice post from a legal standpoint. But perhaps most hilarious, someone has set up a Facebook page, I’ll buy Bavaria for the match to annoy FIFA.


UPDATE 6.19: Apparently the gals in orange did show up for the game versus Japan on June 19.

ABIB Restructures The Marketing Departments

For those of you following the transformation of Anheuser-Busch into Anheuser-Busch InBev, today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch had an interesting article about a “shake-up in its marketing department.” Essentially, it “divides responsibility for beer brands along consumer-segment lines and places greater importance on developing new products and reaching multi-cultural consumers.” A few more of the proposed 450 lay-offs will come out of this reorganization of its marketing efforts, but no specifics were disclosed.

Brookston Beer Quiz #4

Here is quiz number four. This one is without images, because there were problems last time (see below). For this quiz, there is a beer slogan that is or was used for a particular beer or brewery. See how many you can get right. Good luck. Let me know how you did.

If you missed any previous quizzes, they can all be found on the beer quiz page.

NOTE: A number of people in the last quiz told me they couldn’t see the images. If you were one of those people, please send me the name of the browser you were using so I can try to see what’s going wrong. I tested it using Firefox and Safari and it worked fine. Perhaps it’s Microsoft Explorer or other browsers that is the problem?

Brookston Beer Quiz #3

Here is quiz number three. This one is like the first, using the first letter of a beer brand name or the brewery. Your job is simply to figure out which beer or brewery it’s from. Good luck. Let me know how you did.

If you missed any previous quizzes, they can all be found on the beer quiz page.

Brookston Beer Quiz #2

Here is my second beer quiz. This one uses elements of brewery’s logos and labels. Your job is simply to figure out which brewery they come from. Good luck. Let me know how you did.

If you missed any previous quizzes, they can all be found on the beer quiz page.