As we head into December, people in the beer industry start to wonder how their respective channels performed during the year. Overall, it appears that craft beer has weathered the economic downturn pretty well, albeit with an expected decrease in sales compared to recent year juggernauts. While increased sales and volume are two important ways of measuring the craft beer industry’s performance, they are not the only measuring sticks. How the craft beer industry’s competitors have responded to its performance is another way to judge how well it is doing.
Take for instance the recently unveiled website for MillerCoors, the joint venture between the American brewing divisions of SABMiller and Molson Coors. After getting through its buggy age verification system (took me four tries over a three week period to finally gain entrance), I perused the Our Beers section, which breaks down the company’s brands into four curious categories. The first category, Domestic, is pretty self-explanatory. The second, Import, is a little more unusual and a sign of how global the brewing industry has become and how involved these two powerhouse corporations have become. The final two categories caught my attention. Under the heading of Craft, the website promotes the Blue Moon, Henry Weinhard’s, and Leinenkugel’s line of beers. The final catchall category, titled Specialty, includes other brands such as Killian’s Irish Red, Fosters, and the recently departed Zima.
The website doesn’t detail the distinctions to be drawn between the final three categories and they remain a bit of a curiosity. I’m not at all clear of how the company defines ‘craft’ or ‘specialty’, why Killian’s qualifies as a specialty brand while Blue Moon is a craft, and why Fosters isn’t an import. I could make some educated guesses on these points (Killian’s was once an Irish brand purchased and long-produced by Coors in the United States, while Blue Moon was created by Coors and Foster’s is brewed in Canada and brought into the United States as opposed to being brewed outside of North America).
I’m also not sure how I feel about the brazen use of the word ‘craft’ to promote its products. While this attempt at co-opting the cool of craft is no new trick, the Big Two have given up on any pretense of trying to muscle in on the success of craft beer. This is a bit ironic considering the underwhelming public response to Budweiser American Ale and to the suspended Miller Lite Brewers Collection a line of “craft-style” beers.
With that said, these beers continue to do well at the Great American Beer Festival and excluding their numbers from consideration considerably undersells the growing popularity of craft beer, better beer, or however you want to define the consumptive phenomenon.
I also notice on the new MillerCoors website (which I, too, have a hard time getting through the age verification page- tho’ sometimes it’ll let me in *without* even filling it out- just hit “enter”) that the new section on reading their dates codes – “Nutrition and Codes” – omits the shelf life they give their beers- they only explain how to read the “pull date”.
The old Miller site explained that they gave their beers (as well as the Pabst’s brands) 17 weeks of shelf life and gave their imports 9 months (somewhat unusual- most imports have 1 year shelf life- too long in my opinion for light lager styles). The conflicting codes on the packages on Pilsner Urquel was the reason I was at the site to begin with- apparently one of the codes (4 pack can wrapper) was “week of the year” and the other, on the can/bottle, was the Miller-style code.
As for the craft/specialty confusion, note that Miller now brews Fosters in the US (in their Texas brewery, IIRC, under the dba of “Oil Can Brewing Co.”). That deal (I guess a license with Fosters?) was the excuse MolsonCoors gave for closing a brewery in Canada not too long ago. Of course, that was before the Miller-Coors US jv.
Killian’s, too, technically is a license deal- at least it was in the beginning- between Coors and not only the Geo. Killian Lett heirs, but also with Pelforth (the French brewery that also brews a “Killian” branded ale- now owned by Heineken IIRC). So, apparently, domestically brewed, licensed foreign brands are “specialty” beers?