Sunday, December 2, 2012

Caveat Emptor (or: Invasion of the Body Snatchers)

I evangelize a lot about craft beer. After all, it has more or less rescued the American drinking public from the homogeneity of dull, mass-produced light lagers. But of course the craft movement did not invent flavor in beer; it merely restored what the mass producers had stripped out. And prior to the 1990s, imported beer was always there to remind us, by contrast, of the wan quality of our domestics.

Back then, whenever I had the chance I drank beers from England and Germany -- motherlands of the brewing traditions that immigrated to the United States and thrived prior to Prohibition. It seemed to me that these countries still treated beer as a flavorful, traditional beverage, not a commodity to be produced at as high a volume and as low a cost as could be worked out by a planning committee.

But it's a good thing the craft beer movement did take hold here in the U.S., because the inexorable expansion of a few multinational beverage corporations seems to be overtaking every great and venerable European label we once knew. Among the dozens of formerly independent brands that have been gobbled up by the world's largest beer concern, Anheuser-Busch InBev: Bass, Becks, Boddingtons, Franziskaner, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Löwenbräu, St.Pauli Girl, Spaten, and Stella Artois.

A few of those really sting for me. Sure, the original brewing arrangements remain intact in some of these cases, but the bottom line is that A-B InBev controls the brands and can do with them as it pleases. And they have already made some changes that clearly do not benefit the beer as much as they do the parent corporation.

Take for example the Bass Brewery, founded in 1777 by William Bass in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, and one of the most important players in England's storied history of brewing. The brewery was purchased by Molson Coors in 2000, and the Bass brand was later sold to the mega-conglomerate A-B InBev. Beers bearing the Bass imprint are now brewed for the American market at the Anheuser-Busch plant in Baldwinsville, NY. (The facility has an annual production capacity of 7.6 million barrels.)

The Bass label now says "Brewed in the tradition of William Bass Brewers Limited." Not sure exactly what that is intended to mean, but it can't possibly be true beyond a very superficial point, since the Burton Union fermentation system originally used by Bass survives to this day at only one brewery in the world, and it is not in Baldwinsville, New York.

This is the essence of what can happen when a juggernaut corporation buys up historic breweries for their "brand cachet." After the acquisition, decisions are based on the balance sheet, not the quality of the beer, but consumers are expected to hold the products in the same fond regard.

Selling out to a global beverage corporation may, unfortunately, hold an allure for some American craft breweries, too. Many have rapidly grown to the limits of their production capacity, and they'd love to have more fermenting tanks or wider distribution than they can afford on their own.

In a move that generated lots of conversation in the craft beer community, Chicago-based independent Goose Island sold itself to A-B InBev in 2011, and its flagship beer, 312 Urban Wheat, is now brewed in -- you guessed it -- Baldwinsville, NY.  A-B InBev also holds non-controlling stakes in, among other breweries, Georgia's Terrapin Beer Company and Delaware's tiny Coastal Brewing Company, which produces the Fordham and Old Dominion brands.

The multinationals are also using their distribution leverage to steal precious shelf space from legitimate craft breweries. Under the guise of independent and ostensibly "crafty" companies, MillerCoors makes Blue Moon and A-B InBev markets the Shock Top and the less-known Blue Dawg brands. These are but a few examples from what is likely to become a pernicious trend.

It's all bad for the beer drinker, in my opinion. But in the big picture, the most insidious practice of all is to cash in on brand loyalty built through decades (sometimes centuries) of conscientious craftsmanship by selling the hollowed-out husks of formerly great beers. What is lost can never be replaced.


Recommended reading:

The Plot to Destroy America's Beer
Big Beer dresses up in craft brewers' clothing

Recommended viewing:

Beer Wars

1 comment:

  1. Hey, check out this St. Louis Post-Dispatch (published today, I might add) by none less than one of the homebrewing movement's patron saints, Charlie Papazian.