(This is the first post in a series of theoretical end-of-world scenarios probably resulting from my reading too much dystopian science fiction. The series will cover how the people, places, markets, and beer of the United States would change if Anheuser Busch and SABMiller just up and vanished. I’m not playing apologist or anything, just having fun with what-ifs. #longread warning)
The unifying craft cry resounds obvious and singular: big beer is bad.
It’s bad because it doesn’t taste good. It’s bad because it’s corporate. It’s bad because compared to modern beer, it’s adjunct junk. Repeat ad nauseum.
What the claim lacks in tangible, objective proof, it makes up for in passion and consistency. The rising tide of local, independent beer would stop at nothing to push the current market share nearer and nearer 100%, completing a role reversal that would radically change the definition of “American beer” for good, and for better. At least that’s the common assumption.
Given the money involved, these giants would not go quietly in the night, nor would they go alone. If smaller, local breweries do eventually take over a majority of the market, it will be the result of a slow and steady decline; an empire falling from internal Cran-Brrr-Rita centered conflict, backlash from fed up citizenry, and other really poor decisions. It will be years – decades even! – of lost battles, attempts to retake old ground or stake flags in new, maybe even resulting in the transformation of the big beer companies as we know them as they finally decide the only way to compete is to brew for beer, not brew for money.
But let’s just say that small beer fans got what they wanted, and for the sake of this piece, they got what they wanted overnight. That by some divine stroke or extraterrestrial intervention, Anheuser Busch, SABMiller, and all their corporate subsidiaries just went poof. Eaten by zombies. Spirited away by cosmic horrors in the midnight deep. Vaporized in a hellish post-nuclear landscape.
What would the United States look like without “big” beer?
(To keep things more simple, I’ll focus on the two beer behemoths only, as they do represent 68.2% of the overall US beer market.)
First things first, a lot of people would be waking up to get ready for jobs they no longer had. Even after Carlos Brito’s “fat-trimming” during the InBev take over in 2008, Anheuser Busch alone employs nearly ~14,000 people nationwide. SABMiller employs another ~10,000 (as a point of reference, Apple employs ~98,000, but that includes on-site Apple Store employees). When flooded by ideas from the media, it’s easy to think of corporations as executives; suits and yearly bonuses and unnecessary salaries. But behind the overly designed blue and red and chrome of crushable cans, a football stadium’s capacity of people need and rely on the companies to pay their mortgages, feed their kid, live their lives.
If you included the entirety of the international parent companies in my made-up scenario, the loss of big beer would put over 200,000 people out of work. While that may seem like a drop in the bucket when considering the global population, it would seriously, negatively impact areas and cities in direct proximity to the breweries (like St. Loius, which homes nearly ~4,200 of the aforementioned ~14,000).
And that’s just people employed directly by the breweries. The beer industry relies on a massive logistical network of distributors and transporters. It’s difficult to pin down exact numbers because the three tier distribution systems splits the labor of moving and selling beer too minutely to easily research metrics. But if nearly 70% of the beer made and sold in the country disappeared, it’s safe to assume there would be significantly less need for industry support staff, at least initially.
Distributors would need fewer salespeople. Trucking companies fewer drivers. In states where beer can’t be sold at gas stations or grocery stores, we’d see a sharp decline in the number of in-liquor-store employees needed; a direct result of stores losing money from flagship macro sales. Those sales might rebound as other breweries flood into the ginormous AB/MC shaped hole, but it would take time to build consumer confidence and physically brew and ship enough beer to meet demands.
While accurate, all these numbers omit those people on the economic periphery who might indirectly rely on the sales of macro lager: tiny, local bars in small towns who depend on alcohol sales to stay afloat, the bartenders and wait staff they employee, the landlords who rent the space to the bar. If a very popular drink (41% of drinkers prefer beer over wine or spirits) suddenly vanished, the bar would either have to make up sales by selling other beer (that its blue-collar based clientele might not like, or more importantly, be able to afford), or other liquors. My guess is many would close, leaving large social and economic dents in places that are already swirling the recessional drain of middle America.
Price would remain paramount. “Big” beer is cheap, while “craft” beer is expensive, partly due to economies of scale. Without the ubiquitous macro lager, drinkers would either be forced to pay a premium for beer (until smaller breweries managed to speed-brew lagers on a cheaper, more sprawling scale), or drink something else. At the behest of stretched wallets, expensive “craft” beer could indirectly lead to a rise in sales of cheaper spirits in the 75.42% of the population who make less than $50,000 a year. Assuming not everyone wanted neat whiskey or vodka or rum, the preferred drink may manifest mixed, soda or juice to cut the harshness of lower tier spirits. Soft drink companies (who also own juice and water brands) like Coca Cola would drink up those new found profits gladly.
It’s also worth noting that the directly displaced employees would have to go back into a highly competitive, noticeably limited job market. The beer industry is expanding rapidly, but smaller breweries have smaller staffing needs, and might not be prepared for the additional space or money needed to bring in quality assurance, marketing, and financial personnel. While the best brewers from AB and MC might find new jobs at Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium, the “craft” section of the industry might not be able to fully (or properly) integrate all these additional resources, either forcing people to seek entirely new careers, fight tooth and nail for positions in smaller breweries that probably pay less (and would probably require relocation), or start their own breweries in a densely packed, ever bloating market.
The ripples of losing ~$80 billion in big beer sales would eventually hit every corner of the country, causing financial chaos and social displacement. It’s easy to bully big beer for their group-thunk terrible marketing ideas, or for just not tasting anywhere near as good as the other options we have today, but we can’t forget how many people actually rely on the fizzy yellow stuff to make ends meet.
Up next in the series we’ll look at the brewing infrastructure that would go fallow in: The World After Big Beer – Abandoned Places.