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Wild Hop Lager: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

I’m walking through my local independent grocery store this afternoon, trying to get everything on my list when I realize I’m in the beer aisle. Old habits die hard, so I survey what’s there and notice a beer I’ve not heard of before: Wild Hop Lager. I pick up the six-pack carrier and pull out a bottle. Green Valley Brewing Company? Ever heard of them? Me neither. Now I’m only human but it’s not often that I’m stumped. I don’t usually run into completely new breweries I’ve never heard of. So I take a closer look at the packaging and read everything on the label. It’s supposedly organic certified by the UDSA? But in the back of my head I’m thinking it was a different organization that certified organic status. Didn’t I read that somewhere in connection with Wolaver’s a few years ago? The packaging looks good, almost too good. It’s slick and well done and even uses printed crowns, unusual for a start-up brewery. I’m becoming suspicious, I can’t even say why at this point. There’s a web address on the carrier, but there’s no brewery information on the label. No address, apart from Fairfield, California. Uh-oh. I pull a bottle out of the carrier again and examine it more closely. Only one more clue, but it’s a compelling one. There at the bottom of the bottom, on the left hand side, is a freshness date. That’s also a curious thing for a new brewery to have on their label. I feel like Sherlock Holmes and things aren’t adding up. But I’ve got a hunch, and it’s a pretty good one, too, I think, as I head home to check it out.

When I get home, I type in the website URL and wait for it to load, which doesn’t take too long. It has an age verification check, and it’s feeding my hunch, too. How many small breweries have those? The webpage itself is only one page, with no clickable links anywhere, just a message “Check back soon for more on Wild Hop Lager.”

The entire website consists of a picture of the bottle and the following text:

Let the Good Times Grow

Wild Hop Lager is made with 100% organic barley malt, giving this certified USDA Organic brew a hearty taste that is rich and flavorful. Plus, with every purchase of Wild Hop Lager, a donation will be made to the Organic Farming Research Foundation to improve and educate people on organic farming practices. Together we can set a better example for future generations.

Organic … and they donate to charity. This is getting better and better. So I do a whois search to find out who is the owner of the domain name and — I’m almost giddy when I see it — I’m right. It belongs to Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis, Missouri. I dig a little further and discover the Maltlog on the website for the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. On February 6, 2006, A-B applied to register “Wild Hop Lager” and “Harbin Lager” and both were granted on February 10. Ohio similarly approved the name on February 14 of this year.

Now this isn’t the first time Anheuser-Busch has tried to make a microbrew. Anybody remember Pacific Ridge Pale Ale? As far as I know, they’re still making kegs of it at the Fairfield plant and selling it to restaurants and bars as their own private label craft beer. But there’s one distinct difference between Wild Hop Lager and Pacific Ridge. On all the Pacific Ridge packaging, it was clearly disclosed that it was an Anheuser-Busch package. With Wild Hop Lager, no such disclosure is made. In fact, it appears downright designed to appear to be a real craft brewed beer, not that that’s new either. There never was a Plank Road Brewery (it was Miller) or a Blue Moon Brewery (that one was Coors), either.

This is just the latest attempt to regain flagging sales. With good growth in the craft beer segment, it’s hardly surprising that they’d try to make their own craft beer-like product. It’s their modus operandi, after all, to infiltrate any segement of the market they can and either dominate it or shut it down. That this was so clandestine is a little surprising and most consumers, I fear, won’t realize they’re being duped. I’m perfectly okay with Anheuser-Busch making a better beer, but I’d be a lot more comfortable with it if they didn’t go about it in such a way that seems so underhanded and deceitful.

Anheuser-Busch’s new macro-micro on the shelves of my local grocer.

UPDATE: Several people on various forums have commented that they would have liked to see tasting notes for the beer here. While I was unwilling to part with the $8 necessary to provide tasting notes, the San Francisco Chronicle did a blind tasting of the beer as a part of their coverage of this story on March 30.

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