December 6, 2012

What Ales You: Big brewers won't get far tapping the craft market

Local brewers have their fingers on the pulse of their market and can more easily figure out what will sell in their areas.

By TOM ATWELL

There is an old joke that Anheuser-Busch spills more beer than Boston Beer Co. makes. Boston Beer is the brewer of Samuel Adams and America's top-selling craft beer.

63118 St. Louis beer is among three regional craft beers that Anheuser-Busch has produced.

But Anheuser-Busch -- maker of Budweiser and more, and now part of InBev, the huge European beer conglomerate -- and MillerCoors, the No. 2 brewer in the world, are paying attention to craft beers.

Overall beer sales are declining, while craft beer sales are growing, eating into the sales of the big brands. And craft beer brings higher prices, and potentially higher profits, than the standard beers they sell so much of.

The latest sign of Budweiser's concern is Project 12, the results of which I found while grocery shopping a couple of weeks ago.

According to the information in the mixed 12-pack I bought for $11.99, Budweiser had the head brewer in each of its 12 national breweries create a new beer using the yeast descended from the original 1876 Budweiser yeast culture. Each of these beers "would pay homage to Budweiser's quality, tradition and clean, crisp taste."

The brewers cut the list of beers to six, and then over the summer, tastings were held in which the offerings were reduced to three. Those beers, named for the zip code where they were created, are 63118, created in St. Louis; 23185, created in Williamsburg, Va.; and 91406, created in Los Angeles.

Five family members assisted me in tasting these beers on Veterans Day.

The St. Louis beer was described as being a deep gold color at 6 percent alcohol, brewed with Hallertau and Tettnang hops. The aroma was very mild and the overall flavor was sweet with very mild hops, but it did have a higher viscosity than the traditional Budweiser.

"This is a stronger Budweiser," son Zachary said. "It has all the same characteristics, magnified."

The Virginia beer was described as a light amber at 5.5 percent alcohol, aged on bourbon barrel staves and vanilla beans. It had a caramel flavor and a little less carbonation than the other two, but the flavor from the bourbon barrels did not come through at all.

The Los Angeles beer was 6 percent alcohol. It was described as being deep amber, but was about the same color as light amber, and was brewed with four types of hops. It was not as sweet as the other two beers, and overall was just milder with less aroma and flavor.

I think these beers will not make much of a dent in craft beer sales. But they are not the first attempts by the big brewers to capture part of the craft beer market, and they won't be the last.

In 2008, Budweiser debuted its American Ale, which son-in-law Christian and I actually thought was quite good -- something we thought we would never say about an Anheuser-Busch product. It introduced Shock Top -- a series of Belgian-style wheat beers --  in 2007, and I liked those a lot less.

MillerCoors has the Blue Moon line of beers, which are older than Shock Top and generally a little better. MillerCoors also produces Killian's, an Irish red ale designed to cut into the craft market.

In addition to creating craft-beer lines, the big breweries buy craft beer companies. Anheuser-Busch now owns Goose Island from Chicago and is part owner of Red Hook. MillerCoors now owns the old Wisconsin brand Leinenkugel's.

So the big breweries want to convert some craft beer drinkers to their brands. It may work to an extent for two reasons: People always want to check out something new, and the big brewers know how to brew beer. And the normal watery pilsner to the contrary, they know how to brew good beer.

But I think local craft beers will outpace them. The local brewers have their fingers on the pulse of their market, and can more easily figure out what will sell in their areas. 

And more people like to buy local. They go to farm stands because the vegetables produced at local farms are better. They go to local shops because it keeps the economy moving.

Buying local beer works the same way -- it is usually better, and it keeps local brewers employed.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth.  He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

tomatwell@me.com


Correction: This story was revised at 11:05 a.m., Dec. 6, 2012, to state that MillerCoors now owns the old Wisconsin brand Leinenkugel's.

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