The Brew TM_BR_BIGBREW_FI_001

Blue Moon Rising

It's no secret that macro brewers are getting crafty. But why — and what it means — is less obvious than you think.

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Visiting the Coors Brewery has about the same feel as getting on an amusement park ride. A line forms just outside the main gates of the largest single-site brewery in the world guided by the familiar zig-zag of a metal railing. When you’ve reached the front of the line, a small tour bus driven by an enthusiastic retiree picks you up and gives you a grand tour of the two-stoplight town of Golden, Colorado, from its gold rush heritage to Adolph Coors’ decision to open up a brewery there. The bus then drops you at the visitor’s entrance where you’re greeted by local kids working part-time jobs. They ask you to put on a cowboy hat made of beer cans and pose for a photo in front of a Coors-themed backdrop. From here, you are free to wander through the tour area listening to a self-guided tour recording (not in Sam Elliot’s voice, unfortunately) and getting a peek at some of the inner workings of the brewery.

The company’s chairman, Pete Coors, is having a hard time understanding the recent craft beer boom. In an interview earlier this year with the Denver Post, he states that he’s “baffled” by it. Whereas craft beer brands grew 7% last year, light beers like Coors Light showed no growth and bargain brands like his Keystone showed negative numbers. Coors is then quoted: “In this economy that is difficult to understand.”

In fact, his company has gone to great lengths to show that it’s better to have their beer on tap. “People stay in their seats an average of 18 minutes longer when they have a light premium beer on tap. That means they are spending more money, leaving bigger tips. We have a little algorithm and an app that we give to our distributors to evaluate and analyze these businesses and bars,” he’s quoted as saying. I had these sentiments still fresh in my mind during the tour of Coors’ headquarters I took while on a recent Rocky Mountain beer trip.

While the theatrical introduction is certainly noteworthy, it was the end of the tour that really got my attention. It concludes in a cafeteria where you’re gifted five generous pours of whatever Coors product you’d like from their selection of six tap handles. Sure, Coors Banquet and Coors Light were represented, but the other four options were direct attempts at taking a bite into that pricy craft beer and import market that Mr. Coors doesn’t understand. This included, as the Denver Post quotes Coors, “the No. 1 selling ‘craft beer’ in the country,” Blue Moon. The other options were comprised of an early-American style lager called Batch 19, faux-import Killian’s Irish Red, and a hoppy amber lager made entirely of local ingredients called Colorado Native. Now, it’s no secret that Coors and the other big brewers have been working for some time to get into the craft beer market, but the overt display of it, especially at one of the holiest temples of corporate brewing, really proved its importance to the company. Pete Coors may not completely understand why pricy smaller batch beer is booming but he’s well aware that to sell more beer, he’s going to have to play the craft game.

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This first became apparent four years ago, when Coors parent conglomerate MillerCoors created a subdivision, known as Tenth & Blake Beer Company, to consolidate its craftier and imported acquisitions. In addition to the labels listed above, the crafty brands Leinenkugel’s and Henry Weinhard’s and imports Peroni, Pilsner Urquell, and Grolsch were brought under the Tenth & Blake umbrella. Since then, they’ve gone on to acquire the Crispin and Fox Barrel cider brands and a minority stake in Georgia craft brewer Terrapin. And they likely won’t stop there. Pete Coors has previously stated that just investing in a minority stake of a craft brewery hasn’t been their best move and isn’t working. Coors hasn’t hidden that it has considered acquiring wholly established craft breweries if the right opportunity arises. Budweiser boss AB-InBev, of course, has already taken that leap, both in 2011 when it purchased Goose Island and earlier this year when it purchased Blue Point. So should we, as craft beer enthusiasts, be worried about a brewery-by-brewery corporate takeover of our beloved little industry? Three years ago people thought so, but today I’m not so sure.

The Goose Island purchase cast a long shadow in the craft world. Approximately 100% of all beer-related journalism for the two years following the purchase revolved around the looming corporate ruination of craft beer, or how to tell if you’re purchasing a true “craft beer,” or just a corporate-owned “crafty” knock-off. Beer enthusiasts vowed to shun Goose Island and never purchase their products again to avoid giving money to the evil Big Beer empire. This all lasted until Goose Island released the next set of their acclaimed Bourbon County Brand imperial stout variants and every beer geek in America hunted them down. This was followed by the release of Goose Island’s sour “sisters” series of wine-barrel aged, wild-yeast fermented fruit saisons. Doesn’t sound like a cousin of Budweiser, does it?

What the Goose Island purchase has shown us thus far is that selling your craft beer soul to the big corporate beer baddies doesn’t necessarily mean all of your products are going to turn into pale lagers. Though Goose Island’s core brands have mostly moved over to AB-InBev brewing facilities, the extra space at Goose Island’s main brewery has allowed them to expand both the scope and distribution of their more intricate and experimental barrel-aged offerings. AB-InBev doesn’t seem to think that maintaining 2,500 bourbon barrels filled with imperial stout is a waste of space and money (especially if it’ll instantly sell-out a full batch of $150 cases). There’s an important aspect of all of this corporate involvement that craft beer consumers should consider. At the heart of these big brewing conglomerates are breweries that are able to produce immense amounts of consistent beer. Though to a palate accustomed to robust stouts and bracingly hoppy IPAs these beers may not represent a “quality” product, they certainly represent the dictionary definition of the word. That takes a whole lot of brewing knowledge and skill and, with that, surely comes an appreciation for the more pioneering and cutting edge aspects of the art that craft brewers are selling. Could it really just be all about money? Sure, and that’s probably the driving factor, but I like to think that a genuine appreciation for the products of craft acquisitions like Goose Island does indeed exist.

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A particularly pertinent example of this is the recent resurrection of Ballantine India Pale Ale by Pabst, marking their first big foray into the craft beer world. Keep in mind that this is Pabst, the producers of virtually every regional bottom shelf beer brand known to man (Seriously. They brew PBR, Colt 45, Lone Star, Natty Boh, Old Milwaukee, Old Style, Schmidt, Stag, Stroh’s, etc.). If you believe press releases, Pabst master brewer Gregory Deuhs toiled away on his five gallon homebrew set-up to develop a modern version of the classic dry-hopped, oak-conditioned, hop oil-infused forbearer of the modern IPA. The fruit of his labors are just now beginning to show up in special edition 750mL bottles — a Pabst homegrown product in the same kind of packaging you’d see for a limited release from a local nanobrewery. For what it’s worth, it’s being received pretty enthusiastically by the craft scene.

So it seems like big beer’s interest in craft isn’t always bad for the beer itself, but what about for the overall craft beer industry? This is, of course, something only time will tell, but at the moment craft beer is still surging strong. It’s the only beer category posting positive numbers and small breweries keep popping up in what seems like every town across the country. Perhaps the strongest signs of growth are the number of craft brewers that are opening up secondary breweries to handle their increased demand. Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Lagunitas, Oskar Blues, and Stone have all built or proposed secondary breweries to increase their capacity and distribution footprint, pushing them well beyond what you could ever call a microbrewery. It’s creating a very interesting paradigm in the world of beer: the big corporate brewers are getting small while the small craft brewers are getting big. Plenty of questions have and will arise about these craft brewers being able to maintain high quality with high volume and at what point they end up in the just-another-big-brewer category.

For now though, we can just enjoy the wealth of beer we have available to us in modern times, whether it comes from Lagunitas’ brand new Chicago mega-brewery or AB-InBev’s old Goose Island barrelworks. I just hope that a Sierra Nevada brewery tour never entails putting on a cowboy hat made out of Torpedo cans and posing in front of a Northern California themed backdrop.

Lead image by Raniel Diaz via Flickr (Creative Commons). All other images by Frank DiGennaro.

Frank is a Biomedical Engineering major at Drexel University with a serious interest in the world of craft beer. When he’s not studying how to engineer solutions to human disease and injury, he can be found visiting breweries and bottle shops expanding his knowledge of brewing techniques, beer styles, and history.

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