The top-selling beer in America is Bud Light. One out of every two beers sold in America is manufactured by Anheuser-Busch. Another 25 percent of those beers come from MillerCoors (the two companies combined their distribution operations in 2007, and also distribute PBR). In many bars in America, beers produced by Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors are the only options you are given. If you go to a grocery store, most — if not all — of the shelf space is devoted to beers from these companies. Is it because those companies create the best beers? If you’ve ever had a Bud Light, a Coors, a Miller Light, or a PBR, you already know the answer to that. They taste like toilet water.
The beer industry is a lot like the movie industry (and a lot like a lot of industries, I suspect): It’s not about quality, it’s about who has the bigger advertising budget, about who has the largest distribution capabilities. Anheuser-Busch spends $1.5 billion in advertising and marketing each year, and the truth is, it has to in order to convince anyone to drink their beers. Americans buy Bud Light because it’s a name they recognize, because they associate it with the frogs or the horses or the half-naked women. And because, in many cases, it’s all that’s available. It’s certainly not because it’s better tasting or less filling.
Given the advertising resources of the bigger companies, the smaller breweries really don’t have a chance.
The 2009 documentary Beer Wars (available on Netflix Instant), produced and directed by Anat Baron (who used to run Mike’s Hard Lemonade), explores why it is so difficult for smaller breweries to break into the beer industry, the monopoly that the large beer companies have, and why it is that so many Americans choose lesser beers over better ones. It’s a decent documentary that explores the beer industry largely through the efforts of two beer entrepreneurs — Sam Calagione (who runs Dogfish Brewery) and Rhonda Kallman (who at the time was attempting to launch a new caffeinated beer, MoonShot, which has since ceased production due to a federal ban on combining caffeine and alcohol).
It’s not just about advertising and marketing. Beer Wars also takes us through the myriad of obstacles that stand in the way of smaller breweries and craft beers trying to enter the market. The 40,000 state and federal laws that regulate the beer industry, for instance. Or the fact that Bud/Miller/Coors owns a monopoly on grocery store shelves. Whenever they feel that their space is being encroached upon by a smaller brewery, they just create another beer or another size to take up more space. That’s the reason, for instance, that Budweiser Selects exists — it’s not because it taste different than Bud (in fact, there’s very little discernible taste between Bud, Miller, and Coors) — it’s because it allowed Budweiser to take up another six feet of shelf space. That’s also why you can get Bud products in cases, 12 packs, six packs, cans, bottles, and even mini-cans: because it takes up more space. That’s why you have to spend 10 minutes searching your grocery store shelves to find the better beers, if they exist at all. There’s also the massive beer lobby, which is bigger than the gun and tobacco lobbies combined, which works diligently to assure that the status quo remains.
Beer Wars is very much in the Michael Moore style of documentary, and Anat Baron interjects herself into the doc frequently (for better or, mostly, worse). It’s typically one-sided, a nice bit of microbrewery and craft beer agitprop. And it’s effective, to a point. I was enjoying my own (relatively mild) beer-smug buzz up until the end, when it’s revealed that many of the labels I’d consider small beers are actually owned by InBev (which now owns Anheuser-Busch) or MillerCoors. InBev, in fact, owns a minority stake in the brewery that manufactures many of my beer preferences (Widmer). It does not own a stake in two of my favorite regional beers, Allagash and Shiner, but chances are, it eventually will. That is to say, before you trumpet your own beer self-righteousness, check your beer label first.
It still doesn’t explain the popularity of Bud Light.