This column appears on page 16 of the February 2011 issue.
MACRO IN CRAFT CLOTHING — With tricky marketing, larger breweries attempt to disguise beer origin
A few months back, I got an e-mail from the public relations company representing MillerCoors about a “pre-Prohibition style lager,” Batch 19, before its launch on draft in the San Diego area. I was offered a sample of the beer along with some promotional materials, and although I’ve never been one to drink the macro lagers (because my intro to drinking was in college with the likes of Stone Pale Ale and Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale), who am I to turn down a free drink? Weeks later a package arrived with two bottles of Batch 19 and some marketing gimmicks, including an old-timey quill style pen and a deck of branded playing cards. The beer, which I didn’t have high hopes for, was actually pretty good, but what struck me the most was its marketing. The bottles appear to be custom-made with embossed features and fancy labels that don’t prominently mention Coors. In San Diego, however, Batch 19 is only available on draft, and the tap handles at bars don’t mention Coors at all. If someone wants to find out who makes Batch 19, it’s not too difficult to discover who’s behind it, but they’re certainly not advertising the fact.Blue Moon, brewed by Coors Brewing Company, has been the long time “sheep in wolves clothing” in the beer industry. It’s a wit beer and different enough from Coors’ usual bland lagers, and combined with its “Blue Moon Brewing Company” branding, can be misleading for consumers. They even go so far as to use the phrase “Artfully Crafted” in some of their promotional material to further push the issue.
Coors Brewing Company isn’t the only big brewer to capitalize on the increasing demand for craft beer. Anheuser-Busch InBev also produces Shock Top, and last year purchased Goose Island, a Chicago brewery founded in 1988, for close to 40 million dollars. Reactions in the beer industry to the sale were mixed, but many craft beer drinkers I’ve spoken to say they will no longer buy the former craft brewery’s beers. According to the Brewers Association, Goose Island is no longer a craft brewer because it’s owned by an “alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.”
One of Goose Island’s most popular beers is 312 Urban Wheat Ale, named after Chicago’s area code. Shortly after its acquisition, AB InBev applied for federal trademarks of other popular area codes– including 619. It’s not yet known what AB InBev plans to use these trademarks for, but some speculate that they may release and market beers specific to each of the cities to appear as if they were brewed locally. The thought of a beer with 619 in its name, brewed nowhere near San Diego by a multinational corporation, isn’t a pleasant thought.
It’s that idea of origin that I find so important when it comes to macro produced beers masquerading as craft beers. Most of the big brewers aren’t branding their pseudo craft beers in a way that easily identifies them to consumers. Stone Brewing Company Co-founder and CEO Greg Koch explained this idea of origin and deceit to the Chicago beer blog Chitown on Tap, and while he was discussing only the Goose Island purchase, I think his words ring true with regards to area code beers as well:
“What I don’t like is when the public is misled or not given accurate information so that they can make their own educated choice. So if you think a beer is being produced in one area and it’s really being produced somewhere else, or you think a beer is being produced by a given company but it’s really being produced by another one. I call foul. That to me is the delineator. It’s not so much whether you want to call it craft. For me, I’m asking: Is the message accurate? Does it mesh with reality? As a consumer, I don’t like to be misled. I want the truth to be easy to understand and not require special knowledge. Is that too much to ask?”
Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing Company recently re-branded one of their beers, a blonde ale usually named by each Central Coast bar it’s served in, as 805 Blonde Ale. A nod to its brewing origins, the release of 805 Blonde Ale, complete with locally-sourced tap handles at 75-100 locations in the first quarter, may or may not be in response to AB InBev’s possible plans for other area code beers. It’s not bad timing.