As the year winds down yet again — wow, I’m feeling a weird sense of Deja Vu. Didn’t I just say that last year? — everybody and his brother has a top ten list for the year and I’m still no different. It helps, I think, to stop and reflect on what happened over the previous year which puts the whole year in perspective and makes it easier to prepare for the coming one. So here are my choices for the top ten beer stories of 2008.
Retro Beers’ Return: While this has been going on before, two high-profile old beers returned this year, both courtesy of Pabst trying to recreate the success they’ve had with Pabst Blue Ribbon. In January, they revived Hawaii’s iconic Primo. Later they resurrected bottled Schlitz in the Chicago area, with plans to roll it out wider. As one of the biggest beer brands in American brewing history, this one seemed like a no-brainer, but I haven’t heard of it taking on the kind of mystique that PBR has achieved. Also, a brewery in my Pennsylvania hometown brought back Reading Premium, which I confess did fill me with nostalgia.
Beer On Television: There were an unprecedented number of shows either airing on television or in development this year. From Dirty Jobs going to Yakima, Washington to pick hops to How Stuff Works breezily covering beer, at least TV started to pay attention to its huge audience of beer drinkers. I personally was involved with the shooting of two shows this year, one for Sacramento PBS and the other for Reason TV, plus consulted in varying degrees on at least three other television projects in development. That suggests to me that there are many more also being developed, too. And one that was shot last year, I understand is still shopping for a buyer.
Saranac Brewery Fire: Brewery fires in the 19th century were a fact of life, the sort of thing that was more “when” than “if.” They happened with alarming frequency but became relegated to the history books by modern architecture, new building codes and materials that were less flammable. When New York’s F.X. Matt Brewery in Utica caught fire due to a welding incident, it was a potent reminder how fragile these old structures really still are.
Philly Beer Week: My friends at Philly Beer Week showed us all how it could be done, when they impressively launched their series of events in March. There are now countless more “beer weeks” taking place or being planned across the country, at least in Indiana, Ohio, New York, Oregon, Syracuse, and San Francisco, not to mention the all-encompassing American Craft Ber Week. And Chicago and Colorado are rumored to be developing their own celebratory beer weeks. With 52 weeks in a year, there’s still plenty of room for more beer weeks. While some of these pre-dated Philly’s efforts, what the City of Brotherly Love did was take it to a new level, get unprecedented media attention and support and impress the hell out of anyone who witnessed it.
Budweiser American Ale: After years of double-digit growth by craft brewers and a slowing growth rate for the macro lagers, Anheuser-Busch launched its biggest assault to date, a nationwide rollout of an ale under the Budweiser brand name. Having tried it several times, it’s an inoffensive beer with only slightly more flavor than regular Budweiser, not something I’d choose to drink. But with A-B’s marketing muscle and ability to get their products distributed and place on store shelves, this one has the potential to steal sales from actual craft beer. I say actual, because the most insidious facet of the American Ale’s marketing barrage, along with Michelob, is the tagline “Crafting A Better Beer,” which to me seems like their trying to steal the perception of these beers being made by actual craft brewers. If you use the typical meaning of “craft” as something made by hand or involving small and artistic manufacture, then it’s hard to see how beers made in vats the size of Montana could ever be considered being “crafted.”
Neo-Prohibitionists Tactics Turn More Aggressive: I’ve long thought Neo-Prohibitionists to be capable of all manner of unsavory tactics with the goal more important than the means used to realize it. This year I think they really showed that “by any means necessary” approach to be true as they bullied their way into attacking alcopops, University Deans, state legislatures and even Santa Claus. In at least thirty states, they’re trying hard to raise the excise tax on beer. They’re unrelenting, well-funded and out of their gourds; a lethal combination. Now they’re showing themselves to be aggressive bullies and thugs, too.
The 75th Anniversary of Prohibition’s Repeal: With the Neo-Prohibitionists at the gate, the 75th Anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition was an important opportunity to celebrate what we’re all fighting to keep from happening again. The mainstream media ran countless stories about Prohibition’s repeal and there were many Op-Ed pieces about it, too. All year long, the beer industry used it to remind everybody that responsible beer drinking is a cherished part of society and to prohibit it completely would be as much of a mistake today as it was almost a century ago.
Beer in Politics: With a high profile Presidential election, every candidate tried to be the one ordinary citizens would want to sit down and have a beer with. There were numerous photo ops of candidates doing just that in neighborhood bars all over the country. Several craft brewers took it a step farther, creating special beers for the election. But with John McCain’s wife owning an A-B distributorship — indeed, most of their wealth came from this source — beer in politics became the subject of much speculation and scrutiny.
Merger Mania: It’s the way of big business, and this year it his the beer industry hard. One of last year’s biggest stories, the merger of Miller Brewing and Coors was approved by the Federal government on June 5 and the U.S. was down to two giant beer companies. In late January, a consortium of Carlsberg and Heineken bid on Scottish & Newcastle (itself the product of an earlier merger) and in March it was approved by shareholders. At the end of April, Magic Hat and Pyramid Breweries also merged.
InBev Buys Anheuser-Busch: One merger outstripped all of the others combined and there’s little doubt this was the story of the year. Rumored as early as February (and really for a year or more before that), InBev made their first bid June 11, and the media attention took off and has hardly stopped yet. We heard from very part of society on this one, from opportunist politicians to blue collar jingoists and even editorial cartoonists. Everyone had an opinion about this one, and, surprisingly, many thought it wouldn’t effect them at all, but this story will continue to have a ripple effect through every aspect of the beer industry for years to come. It’s over, yet it’s not over. Just before Christmas, the new A-B InBev started laying off employees in St. Louis. Distributor shakeups are still ongoing. We’ll be hearing about this one for some time to come.
And what will next year bring? See tomorrow’s post with my predictions for the beer industry in 2009.