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.
"[We] have opposed any effort to dismantle or weaken this system precisely because it has worked so well," McClain wrote in an E-mailed statement. "Our position is that a healthy three-tier system requires balance between the tiers, meaning that brewers and importers maintain some oversight, within federal and state regulatory codes, over how their beer is marketed by distributors."
But some of the lines of the three-tier system have begun to blur. Several smaller craft brewers are lobbying for the right to self-distribute. Both Anheuser and MillerCoors own their own distribution companies. And Anheuser recently signed distribution agreements with two craft brewers, the Seattle-based Red Hook Ale Brewery and Hawaiian Kona Brewing Company. It has also taken steps to possess its own craft breweries, with the most high profile acquisition happening in May 2011, when it bought Chicago-based craft brewery Goose Island for $40 million.