Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Beware the "Stealth" Microbrewery



$100 to the person who can find
 "Anheuser-Busch" above.
A little while ago, I picked up a six-pack of Stone Mill Organic Pale Ale, ostensibly brewed by the Green Valley Brewing Co. A typical American pale ale, not particularly notable. However, when I looked for more information on the company, I was surprised to find out that Green Valley Brewing is simply a creation of beer giant Anheuser-Busch. 

With the rustic words "Stone Mill," the organic certification and the pastoral "Green Valley Brewing" company name, it's pretty obvious this is an attempt to target the green market. And it's not the first time the big brewers have tried to slip into the craft brewer market: consider Killian's Red or Blue Moon, both products of Coors, although you'd never know it from the bottle.

I ranted about this at the time on Facebook, and a friend responded with "So what? Isn't it a good thing to have these big companies making better beer?" I don't have a problem with a big company making a better product, and I refuse to buy into the whole "smaller is better" argument: growth is inevitable if a company is successful so why would I not want to see a successful product sold to more people? But I don't think the intent of the major brewers is to brew better beer. It's not like they're going to change how they make and market their mainstream brands. They're just trying to make up for flat sales in their major products by entering the one segment of the beer market that's growing: craft brewing.

My problem with this is two-fold. First, the large brewers engage in highly non-competitive practices. They often have exclusive arrangements with the big distributors in each state (and those distributors in turn often have fairly strict control over their local markets through cozy arrangements with state legislators). As a result, smaller brewers face a real struggle even getting their products on the shelves, and often pay more for the privilege.

Second, if the big brewers want to brew better beer, great, but be honest about it. Don't hide behind quaint "craft-brew" names. Create a separate division for their craft beers, but be clear about this on the label. (For example, "Green Valley Brewing, the Craft Brew division of Anheuser-Busch.) And extend this honesty to all their products. (Ever wonder why beer is one of the only food products not required to list ingredients? That's because the big brewers don't want you to know how much corn, rice and other stuff goes into their beers.)

By the way, it's not that I hate the products from these companies. I actually love a cold Bud or, my local favorite, Narragansett on a hot day. The trick is to fool my taste buds by telling them I'm not drinking a "beer": it's just a barley-flavored beverage that's particularly refreshing.

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