Miller Lite Surpasses Budweiser As Second Most Popular American Beer Brand

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There are several interesting stories buried beneath the surface of the recent numbers release from Information Resources Inc. (IRI). Compiling statistics from a data set that includes more than 15,000 grocery and convenience store retailers around the United States, IRI’s releases offer a picture of how the larger industry players, including the biggest craft brewers, are performing at any given time. I’ll write a short piece in the near future about IRI’s 2007 stats on the craft beer industry, but it is the macro numbers that caught my eye.

According to the release, which documents sales in these outlets during 2007, the top 15 beer brands accounted for more than 63-percent of sales in the United States. Of these brands, Bud Light remains the dominant brand, with nearly $1.3 billion in sales in 2007, a 3.2-percent increase. The surprising part came with the revelation of the second best-selling brand (in terms of dollar sales): Miller Lite, which enjoyed more than $670 million in sales, a 3.4-percent increase. Rounding out the top three was the dethroned King of Beers, Budweiser, with $636 million in sales, a 3.7-percent decrease.

Now there are a lot of variables and unknowns (at least for me without access to further numbers) at play here, including volume totals and sales in other channels, but as grocery and convenience stores comprise a significant percentage of total beer sales (IRI’s website suggests that beer sales in package/liquor stores make up only 10-percent of its total sales), this is a big advancement for Miller ‘s rejuvenated Lite brand. It’s also a sign of the continued strength of the light beer segment.

IRI’s numbers for the industry’s largest craft beer players are also almost uniformly excellent (with the exception being A-B’s partner, Redhook).

All data is for the 52-week period ending December 30, 2007.

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The Politics of Defining Craft Beer…

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It’s time for a beer pop quiz. What do Brewery Ommegang, Mendocino Brewing, and Yuengling have in common with Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors? Alright, pencils down. If you answered that none of them are craft brewers, then congratulations on winning your beer geek merit badge.

Americans love to define things, drawing lines between themselves and their chosen groups, to the exclusion of others. The same attitude has slowly crept into the beer industry. From the earliest days of microbreweries, an upstart generation of brewers wanted to distinguish themselves from the large, corporate breweries. As the new brewers’ beers were clearly different from homogenized American lagers, their goal made some sense.

In trying to inform the public about their new beers, brewers quickly learned the public relations value of giving a name to their efforts. Despite agreement on this point, the brewers could never agree on the right phrasing. Were they boutique, cottage, artisanal, or specialty breweries? Due to their small size, many brewers identified themselves as ‘microbrewers.’ After restricting membership to breweries that produced fewer than 3000 barrels a year, the microbrewers quickly realized that success was eventually going to force some people out of the club. Despite increasing the production limit to ten and then fifteen-thousand barrels, the stunning growth of the 1990s burned the microbrewers’ first clubhouse to the ground.

A decade after abandoning ‘microbrewer’ in favor of ‘craft brewer,’ brewers are still arguing over what the latter means. This existential debate recently took on new life when the Brewers Association’s governing board established that an “American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.? While few complained about the small and traditional components, a budding controversy centered on the association’s definition of ‘independent,’ which requires that less than 25-percent of the brewery be owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol company that is not itself a craft brewer. Suddenly, breweries such as Ommegang and Mendocino (owned by foreign breweries), Leinenkugel’s (owned by Miller), and Widmer, Redhook, Goose Island, and Old Dominion (partly owned by Anheuser-Busch) no longer qualified as craft brewers.

While outcast breweries and a handful of their supporters complained, many craft brewers didn’t see much of a reason to object. Some believed that the breweries that partnered with larger breweries had turned their backs on the craft beer movement, while others simply didn’t care about a dispute over labels. For its part, the Brewers Association believed the definition was necessary to protect the legislative and economic interests of its members.

For the brewers, writers, and consumers who reject the Brewers Association’s controversial definition, the craft beer industry’s identity crisis remains a difficult subject to tackle. For one, what other definition can we fashion to decide which breweries qualify as craft breweries? When consumers talk about craft beer, they generally mean beers produced by someone other than the big three. The value of the craft label quickly degrades, however, when applied to imported beers, such as Bass, Guinness, Hoegaarden, and Franziskaner, which are also brewed by corporate behemoths. Alternatively, how do we decide when a brewer stops being ‘craft’? Should we exclude the craft breweries manned by stuffed shirt, corporate types who do nothing but churn out thousands of barrels of bland pale and amber ales?

These questions are only going to grow more difficult to answer in the coming years. Can Boston Beer or Sierra Nevada still be considered ‘small’ when they exceed the two million barrel mark? Is there a difference between Full Sail Brewing, which brews beers for Miller and has accepted money from the brewing giant to update its facilities, and those craft breweries that enter into partnership deals with larger breweries? And what about the full flavored beers produced by the big brewers? While many consumers and enthusiasts deny that such beers qualify as craft, I’d bet money that they couldn’t single out the Michelob Porter, Miller 1880 Barley Wine, or Coors Barmen Pilsner as pariahs in a blind tasting.

In a conciliatory gesture, some brewers believe that we should call these products ‘better beers.’ But better than what, American premium lagers of Bud, Miller, and Coors? This awkward phrasing sounds a lot like a twist on Potter Stewart’s opinion on pornography, “I know a better beer when I taste it.?

In the end, the argument over which breweries qualify as craft is as pointless as debating whether somebody is punk enough to be punk rock. When beer develops into a game of us versus them, then the craft label becomes a meaningless political term. Instead of constantly redefining membership terms, we should focus more on the quality of the flavors and aromas in our pints and less on classifying the breweries that make them.

Article appeared in November 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Media Draft – Is Charlie Papazian Trying to Put Beer Writers Out of Work?

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I was recently perusing the soon-to-be published titles list on Amazon the other day when I came across this little page on the 365 Bottles of Beer for the Year Page-A-Day Calendar for 2009.

CalendarThe ubiquitous calendar, which can be found on the desk of every beer lover and half the fathers in America, has long been written by writer Bob Klein. Klein, whose controversial Beer Lover’s Rating Guide: Revised Edition has been the subject of almost as many 1 star pans as 5 star praise reviews on Amazon, is sort of a mysterious figure in the beer industry. He wrote the guide, which was last updated in 2000, and the calendar and that was about all most beer enthusiasts knew about him. In all my travels in the industry, I’ve never met him, seen him, or know anyone who has met or seen him. For all I know, Bob Klein is Charlie Papazian’s nom de plume, which brings me back to my original point and the outlandish headline on this piece.

Charlie PapazianPapazian’s name is well-known to beer lovers as the author of several books, including the seminal ‘Complete Joy of Homebrewing.’ He is also the founder and president of the Brewers Association, a trade organization which represents thousands of smaller American breweries. In his spare time, Papazian also writes magazine and newspaper articles for a variety of publications, including a bi-monthly column in Draft Magazine. From the Amazon release, it appears that Papazian has now taken over for Klein as the editor of the beer desk calendar. While I’m curious about how this came to be, a review of the publisher’s website (Workman) doesn’t provide much of an opportunity for inquiring media to contact the PR department. If I were the editor of the Celebrator or Ale Street News, I’d keep an eye over my shoulder. Charlie’s the kind of guy who apparently knows how to multi-task….

I look forward to seeing how his style and contributions shape the revised calendar. Cheers.


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Media Draft – Beer Magazine

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Wow, there sure is a lot to loathe about Beer Magazine. Published by Think Omnimedia LLC, creator of such illustrious titles as Xtreme RC Cars and RC Heli Magazines, this full-gloss, bi-monthly mag is the newest addition to the increasingly crowded beer magazine niche. The editorial trick with Beer Magazine appears to be a marriage of beer and Maxim Magazine, just without the latter’s occasional revelations of smart writing and quick quips.

Led by executive editor Derek Buono, the premiere issue (Nov/Dec 2007) reads a bit like a primer on how to disrespect beer. The best I can say about Beer Magazine is that there is no false advertising here. If you buy this magazine and expect even remotely serious or respectful treatment of beer, it’d be like wandering into a frat house and expecting white linen table service.

beermag.jpgLet’s start with the cover, which featured a bleach blond bimbette (nice eyebrows) in a low cut top attempting to bite the top of a Pyramid hefeweizen. While I’m sure that beer loving dentists everywhere are excited about the prospect of the cover model’s ensuing bridge work, it’s a pretty ridiculous teaser for a lame feature topic, namely ‘7 Ways to Open a Beer.’ For those bookstore browsers considering whether to buy the magazine, you may be enticed by the cover’s offer of a “Great American Beer Challenge,? where you can learn whether the editors preferred Budweiser, Coors, or Schlitz. That doesn’t do it for you? Well, the editors all promise ratings for a whopping ’12 Beers.’ The last cover tag makes me want to track down the editors, the publisher, and their respective influences and drown them all in a bottomless vat of Aspen Edge. The coup de grace, “Toilet Paper Wipeout – Which Paper Treats You Best?? You really can’t make this stuff up.

Beyond the crude cover, the table of contents lets you know the company you’re about to keep for $4.99 an issue. In two spread pages, we get to see 1) close-ups of cans of Budweiser, Coors, PBR, Olympia, Miller High Life and Genuine Draft, Schlitz, Milwaukee’s Best, and Hamms, 2) three bikinied broads playing beer pong, and 3) someone opening a beer with their sandal. If you love good beer and still bought it, smack yourself for the considerable lapse in judgment.

In the heart of the magazine, I’m a little disturbed to see the number of craft brewers who have ponied up precious funds to support this troubling publication (please tell me the first issue was comped). The magazine is such an affront to what most craft brewers are trying to accomplish that I feel compelled to list the names of full page advertisers (Shiner, Bridgeport, Widmer, Dogfish Head, Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, Brewery Ommegang, Flying Dog, Alaskan, the Brewers Association, Redhook, and Trumer). If any of these breweries have ads running in the next issue, I’m personally going to take a break from their beers for a while in silent protest.

The letter from executive editor Buono promises that the magazine will be “putting the fu back into beer.? From the accompanying photo, I’m not sure if Buono is the guy dressed as the keg, the gay pirate giving me the finger, or the guy with the AC/DC T-shirt, mullet, plaid vest, showing his derivative of the ‘hang loose’ and ‘shocker’ hand gestures. Buono tells his readers that when he reviewed the existing publications on the subject, he felt something was missing and he wanted to create a magazine that really connected with how he “genuinely felt about beer.? Beer Magazine is his well-considered magnus opus. It’s a college aged guy’s guide to beer and one he advises readers to “put in the bathroom.?

The hodge-podge nature of the design can make your head spin after a few pages. One of my personal favorite parts of the magazine, which screams, ‘Shit, dude, we totally need to run two extra pages of shit here, what are we going to do?,? is the bi-monthly calendar. A measly dozen or so beer-related events over two months are listed in nearly unreadable 6 point, while full color photos inform readers about the coming of National Cake Day, National Ring Noodle Day, Walt Disney’s Birthday, Tanzania Independence Day, along with the birthdays of a half-dozen, half-clad female celebrities. Keep up the good work, boys.

The Beer Anatomy section details the history, ingredients, and brewing process behind the pilsener style. While the basic information is passable, the selected examples (Heineken and Labatt Blue among them) make you wonder whether anyone on the staff actually knows about the craft beer revolution. The tenor of the article is refreshingly respectful and even-handed. The article’s author, Mike Velez, who is also the magazine’s publisher, continues with a more light-hearted take on how to properly store beer. With this article, you can begin to see how the magazine could find a niche in the crowded beer magazine market place. The lead (which tries to relate beer storage to a character from Pulp Fiction) is clearly designed to appeal to the Maxim/frat crowd. The information is user-friendly and humorously presented for the targeted audience.

When we get to the first feature, I begin to sense that it may be Buono who is bringing down the ship. The editor and his staff inevitably had months if not a year or more to plan the big first feature. And what do they come up with? The “Great American Beer Shootout: Blue Collar Beer.? It’s a blind tasting of nine macro beers, how creative. Now for full disclosure, I don’t dislike this article simply because I’m pissed that MGD came in dead last in ninth place (why there weren’t ten brands, I have no idea). Let’s be clear on that. The seven-page spread feature, with close up photos of each entry’s can next to a full pint of the beer (with the uniform color of the background pint, I’m pretty sure they just used the same beer in each shot), is just so tired. But it pales in comparison to…

…the next feature, ‘7 Ways to Open a Beer Bottle.’ Wow, I can’t believe we made it 38 pages without bikinis and implants. Apparently, these ladies know some party tricks. You can too with this five-page spread. Buono does better with his article on beer glasses, which attempts to transition college kids from plastic cups to proper glassware. The article on homebrewing is expected and achieves its limited goals, while the features on the 10 funniest beer commercials on Youtube and How to Get a Free Beer seem well-suited and topical paeans to the magazine’s audience. As promised, the magazine contains 12 well-chosen reviews of better beers, including Firestone Double Barrel Ale, Sierra Nevada Porter, and Deschutes Pale Ale. The reviews use a 100-point scale, give a useful graphic map of where the beers are available in the United States, and suggest proper serving temperatures. The magazine, of course, wouldn’t be complete without an illustrated article on the rules and regulations of beer pong.

And finally, the toilet paper feature. Sigh. Derek Buono, did you wait until the very last minute to brainstorm the content of the magazine? Did half of your writers suddenly quit or call in to work hungover? With such choice sidebars as the “Softness to Dingle Ratio,? if this is ‘beer lifestyle,’ then count me out. I’ll save you the $5 cover charge, Angel Soft won the battle, besting Charmin. We do learn on the last page of the magazine, in its Tapped Out department, that the article was a last minute addition. And that dingleberry is actually one word, not two. Valuable insights, to be sure.

Beer Magazine is published every other month with an eye towards eventual monthly publishing. The editor is quick to note that entertainment is the publication’s first and main goal. I imagine that if Fred ‘The Ogre’ Palowakski from Revenge of the Nerds could read, he’d love the magazine. Reading Beer Magazine is kind of like watching a really awful David Hasselhoff movie or reading Jewel’s Poetry. It can be fun for a few minutes, but then you start to feel really sorry for the person behind it.

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Media Draft – Beer Northwest Magazine

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For a while, I’ve wanted to do a media criticism feature on to comment on the various magazines, newspapers, websites, films, and television programs that cover our beloved subject. Media is very close to my heart and I have long believed it is important that writers, editors, bloggers, publishers, and visual producers treat beer with both respect and a critical eye. In the trade, we have a number of publications that serve little purpose but to puff-up their advertisers and friends. These publications play a role in promoting the craft beer scene but they can hardly be looked upon for serious or reliable commentary on beer. Other publications, which allows their writers to go by various ridiculous pseudonyms (‘Monkey Boy’ and ‘the Beer Bitch’ sound like credible sources, right?) or take craft beers and infuse them with various ‘bad beers’ such as Schlitz for ‘tasteless’ panels, do little but give beer a black eye and reinforce the frat or fat boy reputation beer has suffered from for so long. With that said, beer should be accessible and the process of enjoying it fun, not high-browed and pinky waving. There can be a middle ground and I hope this feature will in some small part allow its readers to stop and think about the various media publications that cover beer.

In the last year, the beer industry has seen a significant increase in media outlets either covering the subject or exclusively focusing on it. My somewhat recent trip to the Great American Beer Festival gave me the opportunity to collect a large number of these publications. So when the second issue of Beer Northwest magazine arrived today, I decided it was time to clear out some of the clutter in my office and start the occasional series I call ‘Media Draft.’

Covering beer, food, and ‘lifestyle,’ Beer Northwest magazine covers the brewing scenes in Oregon, Washington State, and British Columbia. The new publication is the brainchild of editor and publisher Megan Flynn. At 24 years of age, Flynn is certainly the youngest publisher of a beer trade publication that I know of and she qualifies as one of the youngest non-blog based writers out there. In most circumstances, readers might be nervous that someone so young would hardly possess the experience to treat the subject of beer with both professionalism and respect, let alone master the complicated business prospect of publishing her own magazine. A review of the first two issues of Beer Northwest allays any such fears.

beernw.jpgIn its Winter 2008 issue, the magazine eschews the expected design feature of tying the issue back to its subject. In the interest of disclosure, I’m a writer, not a designer. While I certainly keep an eye on the design elements, I’m not likely to dwell on them in these reviews (unless they really add to or detract from the content). Instead, I intend to focus more on the substance of the various publications. Instead of running a photo of people clinking pints or glossy snaps of copper brew kettles on the cover, the magazine instead opts for a simple photo of Mt. Hood (taken by Flynn herself). It tells readers that the magazine is definitely not going to shy away from the ‘lifestyle’ angle that is so much the buzz in journalism schools and magazine board rooms in the last decade. Putting aside the issue of whether there is such a thing as a ‘beer lifestyle,’ which I will address in a future Media Draft, Beer Northwest remains focused on beer.

The lead features focus on a travel guide to beer near Mt. Hood, a travelogue of brewing establishments in Victoria, BC, and an interesting piece on eight female brewers. The mood of the editor’s note is refreshingly light, with Flynn vowing to do several beer-related things in 2008, including “find the guy who threw up on my booth at the Holiday Ale Festival.? The contributors include a range of young locals and the occasional seasoned reporter (award-winning writer Lisa Morrison has contributed to both of the first two issues).

For a regional publication, Beer Northwest is a surprisingly well-conceived and executed enterprise. It shies away from the hokey, poorly constructed blather that constitutes so much of local beer writing. Another refreshing aspect of the publication is its lack of the macho, beer-guzzling bravado that is celebrated in several other recently released beer magazines. Instead, recurring pieces, such as the Openings department, do well by smaller, lesser known beer outlets. Flynn does much of the writing for the magazine and this department, and it often does well by its subject, with short, informed, and to the point profiles accompanying slick photos. The features and shorter department pieces frequently reference and include food and cooking as means of adding value, not to mention the group of departments solely dedicated to food. The magazine also understands that the craft beer industry and its success is not simply about a good product, it’s about people. For a long time, beer publications simply reported business updates and gossiped about new releases, overlooking the industry’s greatest asset, its passionate talent. Beer Northwest frequently covers the human angle, with profiles and interviews of brewers, publicans, chefs, and other beer-related personalities.

The magazine also does a nice job, perhaps better than any other I’ve seen, in including the voices of women in the articles. Be they writers, brewers, chefs, or bar owners, women find equal play in the magazine without making a big deal over the achievement. True to its name, Beer Northwest never forgets the region it covers. Bikes, trails, and outdoor activities (perhaps this is the Pacific Northwest’s elusive ‘beer lifestyle’) show that beer drinking and enjoyment aren’t limited to the end of a smoky bar. The Watering Holes department features a bicycle-based pub tour conducted by a group of brewers in Eugene, Oregon. While the article doesn’t include a disclaimer warning about drinking and riding, its tone is respectful to the point that you just assume that such bad behavior just wouldn’t play in Eugene. Lisa Morrison’s feature on the role of women in brewing, along with its short profiles of eight women of beer, is a welcomed and impressive focus.

The quality of the coverage and simple yet well-done design is certainly helped by the fact that Beer Northwest is a quarterly magazine. Whether it can survive with the diminished advertising revenue that often trips up less frequent publications remains to be seen. At 72 pages, the magazine’s second issue is a substantial read and a step up from the premiere issue’s 64 pages. The design has also stabilized from the uneven, clip art-like offerings of the first issue. The editor has also dumped the borderline offensive cartoon strip, Suds, that appeared in the premiere. The cartoon in the magazine’s Last Call department attempted, without irony, to contrast wine tasting from beer tasting with the help of a stereotypically big, fat, and belching bald dude representing the beer faction. I’m glad to see the poor impressions this last page left me with have faded away with the new issue. Even though I’m stationed on the opposite coast, I look forward to receiving my Summer 2008 issue.

In the interest of full disclosure, I presently write for BeerAdvocate Magazine, where I pen the ‘Unfiltered’ column, and I also write a bi-monthly feature for Beverage Magazine. I occasionally also write for a series of other magazines, a list of which can be found on the ‘about Beerscribe’ page.

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