America’s largest commercial breweries have long had a love-hate relationship with craft beer. Often run by families with long brewing pedigrees, the macro brewers took serious offense at suggestions that their beers-pictures of consistency and efficiency-were somehow inferior to those produced by the bands of ragtag, scraggly haired, tattooed wannabes. The big brewers didn’t view the newcomers so much as competitors, but curious interlopers riding a brief fad.
In response to the early rise of craft brewers, Anheuser-Busch developed and released a series of half-hearted, faux-craft brands that tried to co-opt craft’s cool while simultaneously portraying the trend as cartoonish. Over at SABMiller, CEO Graham Mackay flippantly gave Fortune Magazine as late as 2007 his thoughts on craft beer. “I think it’s going to fade. It’s inevitable.”
With the explosive and long-sustained success of craft beer over the past decade, even through the terrible economy of the last two years, Mackay’s comical statements likely signify the last time a big brewery CEO doubted craft beer’s staying power. The only question remains, where do the nation’s biggest breweries go from here?
Having purchased substantial stakes in several craft breweries, from Redhook to Old Dominion, A-B InBev’s future in the better beer segment remains an open question. With the company’s primary focus on developing its core brands and its massive outstanding debt, it seems unlikely that future purchases and partnerships will occur. Add in the company’s dedication to premium brand building, and not to cultivating smaller craft brands, and the situation leaves a decided air of uncertainty hovering over companies such as Goose Island and Widmer. Within its own portfolio, A-B’s more flavorful beers also appear to be on the outside compared to Stella and its bland brethren.
With craft beer continuing to grow in dollar and market share, the big guys can’t be expected to sit back and watch their brands get ridiculed and become culturally irrelevant. After nearly two decades of flat out denying that consumers would switch from interchangeable beer widgets to characterful ales and lagers, macro brewers face some very difficult choices. Do they focus on foreign markets and continue to follow the old playbook in the United States? With the slow growth of craft beer from Scandinavia to Italy and Brazil, this seems like a poor response. Buying a stake in or taking over aging craft brewers also hasn’t panned out for the big guys as savvy beer consumers tend to hold such alliances against them. And when not taken seriously, their own organic products have tended to be resounding failures.
For its part, Coors appears to be the only big brewer to have not taken the upstart flavorful beer segment for granted, having developed and supported the now category leading Blue Moon brand despite some uncertainty along the way. And while some beer geeks may slam down their pints in anger when Blue Moon advertises on the Discovery Channel’s Brew Masters show, the new MillerCoors has doubled down on the better beer segment with its recent formation of the Tenth and Blake brewing outfit. The division’s new president, Tom Cardella, recently admitted to a Milwaukee newspaper that “[y]ou are seeing a tremendous amount of consumers gravitating to craft beer. Consumers are being more discerning about beer.”
A watershed moment in the history of craft brewing, it’s time for the macro brewers to acknowledge the new role flavorful beer plays in this nation, the strength of its future prospects, and help raise the bar for beer in America. Instead of trying to demean, ignore, or dismiss characterful beer, A-B InBev and MillerCoors should endeavor to help usher in the next era of great American beer. Because one thing remains clear for the big guys in the midst of all this uncertainty: those meddling craft brewers aren’t going anywhere.
–Article appeared in Issue 48 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.