Great Taste, Less Indie

Is your favorite artisan beer made by a megabrewer?

| April 19, 2007

Many of us try to launch tiny rebellions against big corporations by shelling out a bit of extra cash for our favorite niche items. But our small, independent, and organic products are rapidly going the way of Chuck Taylor shoes and Odwalla juices -- that is, they're falling into the hands of mammoth corporations like Nike and Coca-Cola. This trend has now overtaken some of our most beloved friends: the lagers, pale ales, and specialty beers that provide us with color and taste in a frothy sea of bland brand-name beers.

Beer aficionado Barry Schlacter recently reported for the McClatchy wire that small-craft brewers have grown significantly in popularity, more so than their imported and industrial brewer counterparts. According to the Brewers Association, which represents independent brewers, small-craft breweries increased distribution by 11.7 percent in 2006. Their success, Schlacter writes, is due to their thicker flavor profiles and their refusal 'to use cheaper adjunct ingredients such as rice and corn that have given some big US brands an international reputation as yellow fizzy water.'

Industrial brewers are now looking to tap into the niche market's success by adopting a more authentic feel, usually by donning beer bottles with an indie or organic label that gives no hint of the corporate power behind it. Oligopoly Watch, a blog that tracks the mergers and acquisitions of large companies, notes that the megabrewer Anheuser-Busch is test-marketing two organic brews, Wild Hops and Stone Mill Pale Ale, that are being promoted under the label of Green Valley Brewing Company. The name is essentially a pseudonym, the blog reports, and the beers are brewed in existing Anheuser-Busch facilities.

Jeff Ostrowski of the Palm Beach Post reports that the trend of large corporate brewers hiding their involvement in craft beers is more challenging to conscientious consumers who wish to make an 'anti-corporate statement with their beer.'

Adding to the complexity behind the label, some megabrewers don't waste time on fabricating names; as Ostrowski reports, they simply sink their teeth into the market by buying out small-craft breweries. For instance, Miller Brewing Co. owns Leinenkugel's, and Molson Coors Co. sets the 'gold standard for stealth with Blue Moon, a Belgian-style beer that has been selling well as a craft brew.'

In another sign of the changing times, Schlacter notes that Anheuser-Busch, which also owns a stake in craft breweries Widmer and Redhook, announced that its line of Michelob lagers will now be 'all malt' -- a common designation used by craft breweries. While such shifts may lead to tastier industrial brews, we have yet to see how the trend of corporate takeovers will impact the independent beer market. Oligopoly Watch's prediction is a bleak one: the marketing and distribution power of the likes of Anheuser-Busch could muscle the independent organic beers off the shelf.

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