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Beer Attacks Continue

Less than two weeks after the newest Gallup poll showed that beer is indeed the most popular alcoholic beverage reversing last year’s poll which suggested wine was more popular, another attack on beer took place. This despite the fact that beer outsells wine 4-to-1, and has for decades if not longer. Today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a story in the business section entitled Beer sales falling flat as wine, other beverages grow in popularity. Business writer Len Boselovic begins by offering that if the term “Sophisticated Beer Drinker” “leaves an oxymoronic aftertaste on your palate, you have an idea of what beer makers are up against.” That’s his knee-slapping way of acknowledging that his paper along with almost every mainstream media source in the country have been doing an embarrassingly bad job of educating their readers about beer. For some reason his little joke just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s like he’s saying “ha ha, we suck at covering beer and now breweries are having trouble getting people to take beer seriously. Isn’t that funny?” Not when it’s partly your fault, you sanctimonious halfwit. Yeah, I know I lack perspective on this, but I’m just sick to death of the way the media treats beer so badly time and time again and then wonders why it has a poor image.

For support for the piece’s title, Boselovic offers the following:

U.S. beer shipments last year were flatter than a stale ale, falling 0.1 percent according to the Beer Institute. The industry group says shipments to the U.S. market — which accounted for about 86 percent of overall business — declined 2.2 percent to 178.8 million barrels. The drop was offset by a 7.2 percent increase in imports and an 8 percent increase in exports.

Meanwhile, the Wine Institute reports wine consumption grew 5.2 percent in 2005 while the Distilled Spirits Council says sales rose 2.9 percent based on the volume of alcohol sold.

But Boselovic barely mentions that craft beer has shown positive growth near 10% for the past two years and appears to be on track to threepeat this year.

The article also offers the following chart:


In it the author makes the blanket statement that “brewers have been losing customers in recent years,” by which he means the big brewers. Craft brewers have not only NOT been losing customers but have been slowly building their business over the last decade. But to mainstream media, especially the bigger outlets covering national or regional areas, the craft brewers are hardly ever on their radar at all. Fourteen hundred individual brewers in countless markets making 65+ different styles of beer and they hardly even rate a mention and are not even taken into account when discussing the beer business as a whole. But notice how every little boutique winery merits a full page profile as the next “it” business and it’s no wonder I’m pulling my hair out.

Apparently so-called “marketing experts” believe the cause of big beer’s decline is “changing consumer tastes” and they say “[d]rinkers are more sophisticated, willing to try something new, and looking for different beverages that are appropriate for different occasions.” Yet the craft beer segment of the industry is literally filled with complex, sophisticated beers in dozens of distinct styles perfect for the ideal circumstance, weather, food, event, holiday, etc. But the mainstream media repeatedly ignores this fact and turns instead to wine and spirits whenever the talk turns to sophistication. So it’s no wonder people can’t connect the two.

Auburn University professor Michael R. Solomon, who specializes in “consumer behavior” trots out this old saw. “When you drink a lot of wine, you’re refined. When you drink a lot of beer, you’re just a beer drinker.” And while he correctly points out that this problem is a perceptual one, he fails to notice that it was the media itself that helped to create this perception and continues to perpetuate it today.

While it’s certainly true that advertising by the major beer companies has done much of the damage to the perception of beer over many decades, the media has certainly been in collusion through the way they’ve ignored craft beer while embracing wine. So it’s really no surprise when this article does in fact suggest that it’s beer advertising that’s at fault and it’s only now that the big breweries are realizing what craft brewers have know for twenty-five years, that consumers “don’t want to be seen as a guzzler, a dumb guy, six-pack drinker. They want to be seen as a connoisseur.”

Jim Forrest, VP of Synovate, a market research firm, states that wine and distilled spirits producers have done a good job of fashioning strategies around occasions to consume their products.” He even mentions that “craft and import beer producers have done the same” yet neither he nor the article’s author mention that the media has all but ignored these “strategies around occasions to consume” with regard to beer while scarcely a holiday goes by without being inundated with stories on the right wine pairing or spirit needed to properly celebrate.

They all show remarkable restraint at ignoring their own role in the poor perception beer has after decades of neglect by everyone but a small, loyal cadre of connoisseurs.

Toward the end of the article, things turn decidedly rife with the unintentionally funny. To wit:

The industry hopes to capitalize on more discriminating palates through its Here’s To Beer campaign, an initiative spearheaded largely by Anheuser-Busch. Advertising features Spike Lee and other famous people describing who they’d like to share a beer with.

The Here’s to Beer campaign was, of course, solely created by Anheuser-Busch, not “spearheaded largely by” them as the article incorrectly claims. Originally, the trade organization The Beer Institute was involved but removed their support right after the initial ad ran on Super Bowl Sunday. The other brewers A-B approached about participating in the Here’s to Beer campaign all famously declined.

Judy Ramberg of Iconoculture has the following to say:

Anheuser-Busch realizes it has to grow by increasing its portfolio of specialty products, not by getting more people to drink its flagship brands. The danger is that the specialty brands will lose some of their appeal if drinkers realize who’s making them. “If beer drinkers find out they’re involved in some of these craft beers, they’ll lose all of their cachet,” says Ms. Ramberg, a Heineken drinker.

Well Judy, they’re taking your advice with many of their products, most notably their new organic beer, Wild Hop Lager, which fails to disclose it’s an A-B product on the label. But that’s also a problem for A-B since back in 1997 they stated publicly that “beer drinkers have the right to know who really brews their beer. We, along with many other traditional brewers and beer enthusiasts, object to those who mislead consumers by marketing their beers as ‘craft brewed,’ when in fact their beers are made in large breweries.” Oh, and Judy, Heineken is a terrible choice for a favorite beer. I don’t know why you volunteered that information or why the author included it, perhaps it was to show you were no shill for the domestic beer companies. People who like it generally — at least in my opinion — prefer the illusion of sophistication without going through the long, drawn-out process of actually being sophisticated enough to know how bad it is. So that’s at least in part why I have a hard time accepting your version of reality. But it’s interesting to note that their marketing campaign has worked on even a “marketing expert.”

On the other hand:

Mr. Forrest disagrees, arguing many drinkers don’t connect the dots. He says many people in the industry don’t realize Blue Moon Belgian White is made by Molson Coors, the world’s fifth-largest brewer. Protests from diehard Rolling Rock aficionados notwithstanding, the iconic brew should give Anheuser-Busch a buzz. “From a consumer standpoint, as long as they stay true to what that brand represents … they’ll still have the following,” Mr. Forrest says.

Jim, baby, I don’t know who you’re talking to but I don’t know anybody in the industry (including most beer connoisseurs) who isn’t aware that Blue Moon is a Coors product. It’s only been around for over ten years, so you must think the people in the beer industry are all pretty stupid. I’m surprised you’d condescend to speak to us lower forms of life. Oh, wait, you didn’t. You’re just sharing the results of having studied us mere mortals.

And please Jim, please, explain to me how from any point of view moving Rolling Rock’s production to New Jersey while continuing to say on the label “from the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe” yet listing the point of origin as St. Louis is staying “true to what that brand represents?” Perhaps that’s how things look in the ivory tower you’ve constructed for yourself, but here on Earth … not so much, Jimbo.

It’s pretty hard not to read these so-called “business experts” without feeling disgusted. I know market research is like the way sausage is made, the less you know the better. My skin crawls every time one of these yahoos claims some insight into the beer industry after floating a few polls or studying some data points they’ve collected. Time and time again the business press reports on beer as if they actually know what they’re talking about but, rarely, if ever, interviews actual people in the industry preferring instead to use analysts as their sources. And if this is how they report on an industry I have some familiarity with, why should I trust anything they have to say on ones I know nothing about? It’s enough to drive me to drink, if I wasn’t already sitting here with a pint of something yummy. Oh, and it’s not Blue Moon. Did you know Coors makes that?

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