Fear Big Bad Beer?
Though I normally use this space to discuss theology or personal things, I wanted to use it today to talk about something close to me ... beer. My interests go beyond just drinking beer. I try to stay up on the latest news and developments in both Texas and USA brewing. There has been a lot to keep track of since big corporations have been purchasing regional "craft" brewers left and right. This confusion in the marketplace has made the word irrelevant. In response, the Brewers Association has developed a seal for independent breweries.
This effort by independently owned breweries to distinguish themselves makes recent news highly frustrating. Yesterday, the infamous Escondido-based Stone Brewing Company announced their lawsuit against MillerCoors for copyright infringement. And while the announcement video from Greg Koch is humorously dry, the subject matter is serious. Koch claims that MillerCoors has intentionally marketed their Keystone products in such a way as to confuse buyers. Plenty of people are accusing Koch of just trying to get Stone into the news again. Maybe those people are partially true, but this behavior from MillerCoors isn't being performed in a vacuum.
Owned by MillerCoors, Texas' own Revolver Brewing has begun a new can expansion certain to take up more shelf space with twelve packs (the article itself describes staggering success for the brewery in influencing the market). MillerCoors newest "label" TwoHats is running a "good cheap beer" campaign. Their twitter is currently promoting a tweet with the slogan "Fancy pants taste on an underpants budget." Why does this matter? Because at the same time as all these campaigns, MillerCoors has been dramatically re-advertising Keystone, its "economy brand," simply as "Stone"—something owned by Stone Brewing Company. In his video, Koch goes through many of the details and I won't reiterate them here. Yes, some of them are silly. The primary point here is MillerCoors' whole attitude of recent promotion has been to confuse or discourage the sales of independent beer through any means possible: takeover (Revolver), mockery (TwoHats), and deception (Keystone).
This is why important individuals like Koch, Jeffrey Stuffings (founder of Jester King Brewery) and unimportant people like myself have been vocal about the dangers of big beer. People continue to roll their eyes when I get ranting about big beer, but the recent stuff from MillerCoors has upset me yet again. Their recent promotions have been crafted specifically for the "who cares owns it as long as it tastes good?" crowd. Let me answer that question—the people who care are the ones having their copyright infringed or their shelf space removed. Let's review just a few developments from previous years, the US is still looking at Anheuser-Busch InBev for illegal distribution incentives. They've used various state laws to tie distributors to their beer as exclusively as possible—this includes owning distributions companies until a state representative brings a lawsuit. They've also bought up whole hops farms to limit distribution of materials to only their breweries.
Recently in Texas, a law was passed that was universally rejected by Independent owned Texas breweries that brought greater legal restrictions on their taprooms. Who was in support? Big beer distributors. And they knew how to market the law perfectly, "it will prevent big beer from buying small breweries." It didn't matter that small independent breweries pointed out the failure of the bill to supply what it promised. Josh Hare, the founder of Hops & Grain, has written about this beautifully. It didn't matter because Governor Abott and Lt Governor Patrick had already seen their pockets lined with $2 million in donations from distributors. In other words, big beer and the distributors who benefit from (or in some cases are owned by) them are breaking into "craft beer" and passing state legislation whenever possible to crush independent beer.
So yes, some of us are going to be pretty pissy about breweries that "sell out" and provide ammo that "tastes good" to corporations suitable for taking down independent breweries.
As a respite, I understand the perspective of many beer drinkers. If the beer is cheaper, tastes more or less the same, and is available, why shouldn't I drink it? Isn't this the obvious free-market choice? On the surface, the argument has value. But the shady business practices of big beer should change the scenery. It is one thing to argue for economy purchases when the products are similar (e.g. bread, milk, medicine). It's another thing altogether to promote "economy" or "it tastes the same" purchases when the business model for big beer is to use its money to keep its competitor off the shelves. They're using every imaginable loophole in the three-tier system against independent beer. But please, continue buying your economy beer.
Some might say I'm chicken little or making a "big bad wolf" of big beer. That's fine. But it's not going to stop me from ranting about it. Yes, I'll drink corporation beer if you buy it. But let's not pretend ... I'm definitely judging you.