Did you guys see that? That jet’s chemtrails totally spelled out my name for a second there. I swear.
Anyways, by now you’ve heard (and are sick of) the news. Blah blah, AB InBev bought Goose Island, and 10-Barrel, and Elysian. It happened. It was no big deal. Or a really big deal. Or sort of bad. Or really good?
Jury’s still out (but not on my case, I’ve been upgraded from “trespassing” to “pending psychological evaluation”).
While news like this always shocks, appearing as if by spontaneous generation from the social media feeds of brewers we’ve long imbibed, it’s an inevitability. AB InBev (and to a slightly lesser extent their conglomerate peers at SABMiller) is losing the beer war one brewery battle at a time. Bud sales continue to roll downhill, and the flat bottom or an upward turn seem impossibly distant. They’ve tried throwing fistfuls of hundreds at the problem, tried marketing, tried gimmicks, tried to tap into a generation that for the most part, doesn’t care at all about their corporate messaging or demographic targeting.
But they’re losing. Slowly maybe, but still losing. And losing money. That has to chap some suit-covered asses.
Every time I think about this situation, my mind wanders back around to the beer itself: if AB InBev concedes ground where it comes down to quality, why don’t they just invest some of their massive resources to brew a beer that appeals to those drinkers cutting into their market? Why not fight fire with fire, dry-hopping with dry-hopping, exotic yeast with exotic yeast? It seems like a no-brainer from the sidelines, and I can never quite lift the baffling fog of why they haven’t at least tried in the modern beer world (we’ll ignore Budweiser American Ale for now because that’s convenient to my argument).
Aside from the obvious image problem AB InBev has with younger drinkers, that’s not how a massive, multinational corporation rolls. Walmart doesn’t really care if Target’s good and services are better, they only care that their prices are cheap enough to get shoppers in the door. TimeWarner doesn’t care if your internet is slow or a jackalope has made a nest in your modem, they only care that it works well enough that you pay your monthly bill. Much the same, AB InBev doesn’t appear to be in the game of making beer people want to drink, they appear to be in the game of making money by producing beer that is 1) “acceptable enough that the consumer buys it” while also being 2) “made as cheaply as possible to meet requirement 1.”
That’s it. They don’t care if we like the beer, they only care if we buy it (as an aside, I think this is the crux of the defintion debate in “craft:” indie brewers let beer drive the money while big brewers let money drive the beer).
Why would they try to compete directly with any of the very highly rated and well-loved breweries in the country when that amounts to a big, risky expenditure of resources and a crap load of work? It’s much easier for them to buy existing large breweries and assimilate their fan base instead, thereby making the previously independent brewery’s success AB InBev’s by managerial association. Way less work, no direct competition with pesky things like “consumer satisfaction,” and all that juicy profit sharing.
But none of this is really news, or part of any conspiracy. It’s Capitalism doing what Capitalism does. No, the conspiracy hides behind the kerfuffle of beer dudes arguing over whether Elysian is still craft or not (guilty as charged), and in clandestine meetings under the cover of public din:
Big beer is buying up large breweries as a smokescreen for changing distribution and manipulating the way beer is sold in this country.
Chris Barnes of I Think About Beer notes that AB InBev spends a pretty penny on lawyers and lobbyist, and have snatched up distributors in the states where it’s legal to do so, all to mold how beer is sold and distributed in various states. While Big Beer purchasing a single brewery might cause that brewery to lose some favor, or (potentially) decline in quality over time as ingredients are (potentially) changed, that’s not the end of the world. Sucks for said brewery and its fans, but that won’t spell the end of independent brewing alone.
But if AB-InBev manages to monopolize the distribution chain, or dramatically change how the three-tier system works, they can then control what beers show up in what bars, what bottles on what shelves, and ultimately, what liquid goes down your, my, and everyone’s gullet. They can stymie the growth of smaller, independent breweries by lobbying to keep barrel threshold caps low, and keep breweries from directly selling to their consumers. They’ll twist and mangle the wreckage of the distribution networks so that local breweries can’t sell anything, anywhere without AB InBev having a hand in their business (and their wallets).
That’s where their financial power and underhanded business practices start to get scary. They don’t even plan to fight “good” beer head-to-head, because they know they’ll lose in terms of taste and consumer interest. Instead they’re changing the battlefield, methodically working to make sure consumers can’t even buy “good” beer through wanton destruction of competition. But at the same time, they’re not stupid, and recognize a growing number of people won’t buy Bud, even if it’s the only option. They’ll buy up enough breweries to keep the 10% “craft portion” sedated with a heavy dose of hops, and then do everything in their power to wrestle back the market share they’ve lost by making sure that when any person buys a beer, their only option is to buy an AB InBev beer.
So while we squabble and wail at the defilement of our culture, the gears clunk and shift in the background. We’re being fleeced by the cool and calm Carlos Brito, lead to believe this is a war of philosophy and ethics, of “us vs. them” binaries, when it’s really a war of preserving our freedom of choice. It’s about one player controlling the whole board, but convincing you that Park Place and Boardwalk are still great places to visit while they line their pockets with all those fat tourism dollars.
Pass me my tinfoil hat (it’s over there, next to that cast of the Sasquatch foot I paid $1000 for on eBay because it’s totally legit); I’ll whirl us even further down Alice’s LSD spiked rabbit hole of Dystopian beer future.
If this trend continues, and AB-InBev gets its way, we’ll see a “Walmartization” of all American beer, where the few products they sling are so affordable and so readily available (but just tasty enough) that most people buy them out of laziness and cheapness. We’ll see large, chained, retail stores that sell AB InBev products and nothing else, and they’ll be so successful that any small breweries who want to compete will have to “pay-to-play” to get on the shelves. And then, as we’re all still bickering on Twitter, the beer industry will slip back to the post-Prohibition number of breweries because no little guy can compete, and eventually, given enough time and market control, degrade to a situation where all beer is generic, cheaply made barley-identifiable-as-beer liquid that sells really well because no one knows any better but still want to get drunk.
Wait a second…
Oh, no, we’re OK. I thought I those chemtrails were making death threats.
The next time AB InBev buys up a brewery (and they will buy others), take a look at what else they’re doing. I wouldn’t be shocked if oh so coincidentally, at the very same time, bills were being voted on, people were being elected, or policy was being reviewed. Even if they start to posture, put out commercials that claim they care about beer, remember that in the Brito bubble, beer = money. Don’t be fooled into thinking that AB InBev is going to fight chivalrously. If they ever show up to duel, it’ll be with poisoned spear tips and snipers in the crowds.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go clean a Jackalope nest out of my modem.