Craft brewers crying foul over big brewers’ ‘crafty’ marketing

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a knock-down, drag-out, hair-pulling craft-fight brewing, and some of the nation’s small beer producers are in a froth over what they see as the dishonest tactics of corporate giants like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch.

The spat is focused on the craft beer market, which is growing at a healthy clip even as total beer sales tick down. In other words, the beer-drinking public has signaled that it wants more than just mass-produced lagers, and the big boys have responded by promoting what industry insiders have dubbed “crafty” beers – brands like Shock Top and Blue Moon that look and feel like craft beers but owe their ascendance to old-fashioned marketing and distribution muscle.

Put it this way. We’re all familiar with celebrities who are famous just for being famous. Well, some craft brewers might tell you that Shock Top is the Kim Kardashian of beers. At the very least, she didn’t pay her dues, and it’s hard to argue that she got where she is based on merit. But at least people know her 15 minutes were bought and paid for. What’s got some craft brewers worked up these days is what they see as a concerted effort among top brewers to fool consumers.

The trend is worrying enough to small brewers that it’s prompted an official response of sorts. Last month, the Brewers Association, a craft-brewing trade group, issued a statement critical of the “crafty beer” trend and the big brewers’ marketing efforts:

“The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking.”

Local small brewers have also noticed the trend, and some are none too happy about it.

Otto Dilba, co-founder of Madison’s Ale Asylum, said the rise of “crafty” beer options is unlikely to significantly slow craft brewers’ momentum – “over time, good beer always wins,” he says – but he does think larger brewers should be more honest in their approach.

“Absolutely. Big breweries are being disingenuous or outright lying through their teeth when they say ‘let the consumer decide,’” stated Dilba. “If this were truly their position, why hide the fact of who is really making the beer? They may want to let the consumer decide, but they don’t want the consumer to have the facts to make an educated decision. Instead, they disguise the origins of the ‘craft’ beer they put out. If they really had the consumers’ bests interests at heart, they’d be more forthright.”

To Dilba, the issue goes beyond just the beer industry. At its heart, he says, it comes back to a broader discussion on the best approach to markets and even capitalism itself.

“If you make a product or perform a service you’re proud of, and your stated goal is respect for the consumer, then why not be honest with them?” asked Dilba. “Phrases like ‘let the consumer decide’ are really code for ‘we don’t care what the consumer thinks, we just want to siphon as much cash from them as possible.’ They can say all the right things and use all the PR techniques they want, but that’s the bottom line.”

But while all craft brewers are potentially affected by the crafty-beer trend, they don’t appear to be equally affronted.

“Honesty is not really the question,” said Tom Porter, owner and founder of Arena’s Lake Louie Brewing. “This is alcohol marketing. Traditionally, the craft market has been fairly upfront about the hands-on methods required to produce their product, but Sam Adams’ TV commercials show a couple of bearded brewers standing around a small brew house drinking beer. Sam Adams puts out over a million barrels of product a year. I seriously doubt that they are making all that at a 20- to 30-barrel brew house. And Sam Adams is considered ‘craft.’ The term craft has been diluted to the point that a brewer making a million barrels is still a little guy.”

Carl Nolen, founder of the soon-to-be-launched Wisconsin Brewing Co., said part of the reason big brewers are getting into the craft game is to maintain their hold on retailers’ store shelves, which are often separated by category. But in some ways, says Nolen, the larger producers may actually be helping craft brewers.

 

“In the short term, I think Anheuser-Busch, Miller with Leinenkugel’s, Coors with Blue Moon, I think they’re actually doing the small craft brewer a favor,” said Nolen. “They’re introducing people to brands that are different, and they have the strength to put those products into the market. A little craft brewer would have a hell of a time getting a craft beer into Lambeau Field, let’s say, but Miller has no problem getting Leinie Lodges built all over the place. And now a consumer is drinking products from Leinenkugel’s at Lambeau Field, and now all of a sudden, wait a second, what about beers from Titletown and Green Bay Brewing Co.? And then all of a sudden the door’s open.”

Regardless of how successful Anheuser-Busch’s and MillerCoors’ “crafty” campaigns end up being, however, Dilba, Porter, and Nolen all agree that the consumers who are primarily driving the craft beer craze are sure to see through the big brewers’ marketing efforts.

“I think the truly eager beer consumer will not be fooled – those we affectionately refer to as beer geeks,” said Dilba. “These people are interested in craft beer on such a level that they actively seek information about the industry. It’s the casual consumer who is, and will continue to be, fooled. Not everyone, mind you, but a large percentage. The good news is that most of the ‘crafty’ beers can’t hold a candle to true craft beer.”

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