Hopslam: How Big Beer Is Trying to Stop a Craft Beer Revolution

A long-brewing fight between big beer and craft brewers is spilling over to Capitol Hill.

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During Super Bowl XLVII, Anheuser-Busch InBev was the only beer company to get advertising time, spending more than $20 million on ads that introduced a sophisticated new beer called "Black Crown."

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Nick Anderson, a prominent beer buyer at neighborhood liquor store Arrowine in Arlington, Va., says the ads were another indication that big beer wants a piece of the action surrounding craft beer.

"They're calling it 'Black Crown' golden amber lager. To me, that just smacks of putting a bunch of buzzwords in a bin and pouring it out. They're thinking: 'What will people just discovering beer respond to? Let's just call it that,'" he says.

The Beer Institute—acting as the voice for the big beer conglomerates—says craft brewers' complaints are ironic because they're doing so well.

Data released by the Beer Institute last month shows the number of brewers in the U.S. has reached a historic high of 2,751—and more than half of the new breweries are craft.

"Beer drinkers have more choice than at any time in American history. Where's the evidence of their argument?" says Thorne. "Ultimately, this is a time to celebrate among young brewers because we have so many choices."

Big Beer Gets Crafty

Craft brewers also say big beer uses a number of deceptive tactics to make consumers think they have more choice than they actually do.

Perhaps the most slippery of these attempts is the mimicking of craft beers' style. Blue Moon, Shock Top and Leinenkugel are all flavorful beers that are marketed to Americans as craft beers. They are also all enormously popular: Blue Moon sold 2 million barrels last year, while Shock Top and Leinenkugel each sold more than 500,000.

But they aren't craft, at least by the Brewers Association definition. Blue Moon and Leinenkugel are made by MillerCoors. Shock Top is made by Anheuser-Busch Inbev. And their labels often don't say that.

The Brewers Association has a somewhat derogatory name for these beers: "crafty." Craft brewers say big beer is being deliberately opaque, because they like consumers to think the beers are made by independent entrepreneurs.

Blue Moon brewmaster Keith Villa, for example, often talks about his early days selling the Belgian white-style beer, when he traversed the U.S. to explain why a cloudy beer was worth drinking, and that like wine, beer can also be paired with food.

But Calagione says that creation story doesn't jive with reality. "It was never this thing funded by a guy in a bike shop—like [craft beer] Sierra Nevada, or in a restaurant— like I did at 25. It was always started and grown by Coors Brewery. This is not how the people at MillerCoors are choosing to tell their story."

In a December piece in the trade publication Beer Business Daily, Villa pushes back against that sentiment, saying he deserves credit for "introducing the beer drinking masses in America to Belgian-style beer."

Villa also suggests craft brewers should be more grateful for big beer's help, noting that he helped craft brewery the New Belgium Brewing Company—which makes the popular amber ale Fat Tire—get their start, including helping culture their yeast and working with immigration offices to bring in Belgian brewmasters.

But brewers like New Belgium may have a reason to be upset with big beer. One of the most bitter complaints of craft brewers is that big beer wins consumers by introducing beers whose names resemble the names of actual independent beers. After New Belgium came out with a popular beer called Sunshine Wheat, MillerCoors, through its Leinenkugel brand, came out with a beer called Sunset Wheat. The beer even had a similar yellow label, which says that the beer is "carefully brewed by the Leinenkugel family for five generations."

From Brewer To Consumer

The Beer Institute says it is puzzled by many of the frustrations voiced by craft brewers. The group's president, Joe McClain, believes that the three-tier system of alcohol distribution—which has kept producers, distributors, and retailers independent and separate since Prohibition—is currently working.