Written by Ken Carman
The topic for this edition of The Brew Biz: Marketing the Majors as Micros
So many homebrewers try to sell others on, “It’s all about the beer.” If only that were true in marketing…
By now you’ve probably seen the packages in the stores. They look like a new Micro is on the market. The first time I saw “Plank Road Brewery” I sensed something amiss. A “new” Micro? No, not really: Miller using a new marketing tool. The past few years I started seeing packaging that seemed a little too, too: an obvious attempt to appear to be a Micro. (As in “a small, independent brewer,” to use an incomplete, but somewhat adequate, definition.) To give the big brewers a little credit first, some have gone where they usually “neglected” to go before: like producing a sorghum-based beer. (AB)
The first time I ran into this product: racked next to the Micros, I was puzzled. Who are these new brewers with packaging so sincere only a disco queen or king dressed in pure polyester might wear it? I lifted the six, turned it all around: nothing. Finally… I looked where Joe Sixpack; finally deciding to try Micro, would probably never bother to look: underneath the six pack. Who was “Green Valley Brewing?” None other than behemoth, AB. This was their Pale Ale, and they also do a Wild Hop Lager. Some of their more recent ventures into this field are, thankfully, a little less deceptive: including AB’s name on the label… admittedly in a hard to read font: needs to be bigger and more contrast. I would assume that this is intentional, except the packaging looks about as sincere as “I love you” sounds when said by a horny disco king during the first dance during the 70s. Why would a company with deeper pockets than half the craft industry combined offer schlock packaging? I can only surmise they still don’t take the Micro industry all that seriously, or they used a time travel machine: snatching John Travolta’s character right out of some disco movie, to design them.
Well, at least putting their moniker on the packages where it can (almost) be easily seen is a move in the right direction.
I suppose those of us who not only have been homebrewers for many years, but have bought, appreciated, and collected thousands of micro-brewed beer for over thirty years should feel honored. After all, one of the biggest behemoths in brewing has finally come a lot closer to recognized there’s something to this trend they demonized for many years: brewing beer that tastes like something other than acidic fizzy water.
So why does it only annoy me even more?
Because it took them so damn long, in part. And something else…
Various pro-brewers I have known over the years: like Steve Fried from Pensacola, or Tim Rastetter from both Kentucky and Ohio, for example… have filled me with stories of just how damn hard it is to market beer when AB, Miller and, to a slightly lesser extent, Coors, have dominated the market so long. (I am not counting companies that now own long standing Micros with established names, bought by them, but who pretty much kept as they were. That’s a somewhat different topic for another edition of The Brew Biz: Werts and All.)
If this was all just the market at work, I would only sigh in sadness: that’s the society we live in. Better than, “Comrades, you will drink Lenin’s Lager, and you vil like it. Never mind it’s just over carbonated, unpurified, cesspool swill!” But over the years; while I have heard no horror stories regarding reps for Coors, I have read, heard, and been told many first hand stories by brewers just trying to find a small niche in the market while AB and Miller reps tell distributors: “If you carry… (the Micros) …you will lose AB… or Miller.” Obviously, this is something few distributors could afford to do back when Micros were just starting: even these days, very unwise to forego carrying AB/Miller. It’s all so mafioso: “Hey, yous guys better get on the big beer wagon or you’ll be brewing ‘Horse Head Beer.” Thankfully, Bluegrass Brewing; in Louisville, KY, has already offered that product: their answer to the swill AB/Miller offered for so many years… no kidding… is Horse Piss Beer. I want the bottle for my collection, what I’ll do with the beer I’m still not quite sure.
Coors has been, perhaps, the most deceptive with their “Sandlot Brewery,” started at a ballpark, which turned into Blue Moon. While they top my list in “why the hell don’t you admit who you are and be proud of it instead of trying to deceived buyers into buying ‘Micro,’” their packaging makes Miller/AB look pathetic in comparison. Plus, I have heard few stories of gang-like tactics when it comes to Coors. I hope that’s true; and not just ignorance on my part.
And how about AB and Miller reps pushing for laws that favored marketing their products over others? Do you think some of these laws have severely limited, even crushed, the small professional brewer? You bet your bippy: or the ghosts of Rowen and Martin. Examples: “no growler” rule like in states like Florida, no 22 ouncers, or severely limited abv (alcohol)… knowing that many unique styles that would provide a niche’ for micros are more alcoholic because it’s a necessary part of the profile. Lawmakers with fattened wallets and pocketbooks too often complied and passed whatever big brew wanted. Essentially the attempt here is to make other brewers brew, bottle and only sell beer just like the biggies or go away.
Look, if a company wants to compete: I’m all for it… and that certainly includes big ones. But to behave like reverse Robin Hoods, asking pols to to skew laws regarding distribution to favor their product? More like…
“Unhand Ye, little brewers, your right to compete to the Sheriff of Nottingham.”
This is far bigger problem than just brew world, if you think about advantages given companies like Walmart. Special tax breaks, corporate welfare only for the big corporations, foregoing regulations in hope that big biz will bring jobs… and then doing nothing when they use this unfair advantage against the small guys with mafioso tactics “stock only us or else?” Then, to add insult to both idiocy and arrogance: to pick the pockets of these very same small business men and women via taxes to provide these advantage?
None of this, in my opinion, qualifies as, “free market.” More like an odd form of both fascism and socialism where a few big businesses become the chosen ones at the expense of us all. Why do you think: amongst other reasons, it took so long to get beyond there being only three or four taps in most bars: and they all were the same styles; tasted about the same?
They insisted the public didn’t want anything but slightly sulfuric, over carbonated water. I think, by now, we’ve proven that claim bogus.
Laws had to be changed. Reps had to be told they can’t threaten distributors. Customers had to at least have the chance to taste the difference, and see if they liked it. I know I thought I disliked beer until I had some of the first products out there like Prior Double Dark or Guinness before I realized I liked beer: I just didn’t like slightly acidic tasting, overly carbonated, water.
If Bud, or Miller, wants to compete in the micro-brew biz, then they should put their names, proudly, in bold, on the bottles… and the cartons… and the cases. Please, no fictional brewery names. You would think that would be embarrassing. They might want to update the packaging too. Disco is dead, and poor packaging probably should be buried with it. Unless you really do think, in addition to all the songs like Disco Duck, Disco Moose and Disco Aardvark, we need Disco Beer.
(Like a .357 Magnum hole in the head.)
Well, maybe if it were a song, it at least might have a strong beat, though it certainly would lack…taste.
The Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to review, discuss and comment on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer, reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer.