Drink Magazine

9 Beers Americans No Longer Drink … and Why It’s a Bad Thing (Part 1)

By Bryan Roth @bryandroth

american-flag beer lineup

Note: This will be the first of two columns highlighting the bad – then good – side of America’s evolving beer tastes. Part two will run next week.

This week, 24/7 Wall Street released another annual list of brews Americans don’t want to drink. Or, simply aren’t drinking as much of any more. Naturally, the list is a who’s who of BMC options that craft beer lovers decry. It’s the usual suspects, including Michelob, Budweiser Select and Amstel Light. Try as he might, Will Farrell just can’t save Old Milwaukee.

The demise of these American lager mainstays is nothing new. Last year’s list by 24/7 Wall Street, almost entirely comprises this year’s list again. The one difference being regular, old Budweiser coming in as 2011′s #8 beer and not appearing on this year’s list at all.

Craft beer aficionados are fully aware of the rapid growth of this “niche” portion of the beer industry at the expense of the macros whose market share continues to slowly decline. Craft beer sales were up 13 percent in volume in 2011 while overall beer sales were down 1 percent. Craft beer is now 6 percent of the beer market. These beers we have all come to love are bucking the trend.

So if people are drinking more “good” beer and staying away from the “lousy” stuff, why is this bad? Why do I feel the need to use quotation marks around those adjectives? Why so many questions?

Let’s play devil’s advocate and try to answer these together and probably end up with a whole lot more after the jump.

For posterity’s sake, here’s the list of the beers Americans just can’t put up with (as much) any more:

9. Milwaukee’s Best Light

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 35.5%
  • Brewer: MillerCoors

8. Miller High Life Light

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 37.6%
  • Brewer: MillerCoors

7. Amstel Light

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 47.7%
  • Brewer: Heineken

6. Miller Genuine Draft

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 52.3%
  • Brewer: MillerCoors

5. Old Milwaukee

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 52.8%
  • Brewer: Pabst Brewing Company

4. Milwaukee’s Best

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 57.1%
  • Brewer: MillerCoors

3. Budweiser Select

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 60.8%
  • Brewer: Anheuser-Busch InBev

2. Michelob Light

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 66.3%
  • Brewer: Anheuser-Busch InBev

1. Michelob

  • Sales loss (2006-2011): 72.0%
  • Brewer: Anheuser-Busch InBev

Notice numbers one, two and three on this list – they’re all brands created by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the biggest scourge of craft beer fans’ hearts. Most recently, AB InBev has earned the ire of small beer fans through their acquisition of Chicago’s Goose Island and their ongoing macrofication of that brewery. Sure, the expansion of one of America’s great regional lines is a good thing – more people get exposed to good beer – and sales are up. New beer is enjoyed and shareholders are happy.

And this is a problem.

The issue comes down to this: As sales of the now slowly failing, tried-and-true American lagers continue to drop, Americans tastes evolve improve and those big, bad beer companies everyone loves to hate start huffing and puffing and blowing craft beer’s house down:

Everybody wants in. And so the macro-breweries have launched beers that approximate the craft taste profile (the popular Coors brand, Blue Moon), purchased stakes in some craft breweries (southeastern Terrapin Beer Company by MillerCoors), and snatched up others entirely (such as the recent acquisition of Goose Island Brewing by Anheuser-Busch).

AB InBev now has Goose Island and is close on buying Modelo and MillerCoors (owners of #4, 6, 8 and 9 on the above list) has Leinenkugel, Blue Moon and some of Terrapin. These are all popular brands that are great for Average Joe and Jane America because they can be exposed to the wonderful flavors and experience of “craft” beer – however you choose to define that term when the beer is coming from a giant macro corporation. At the end of the day, these beers act as a gateway. The companies know this, which is while their old macro brands are failing, they’re rushing to hop on the craft beer bandwagon by any means necessary.

These companies want to weasel their way into our pubs and refrigerators – through their mask of craft beer, but I don’t want the failure of their macro brews to encroach on the beauty and culture of our craft beer. There’s a reason why AB InBev has been called the “greatest enemy of craft beer in the history of this planet.” There’s also a reason why people love the expansion of breweries like Oskar Blues and New Belgium – they’re growing their own craft beer market without the process of taking over others.

Just as Blue Moon can act as a gateway to more craft beer for consumers, I see the ongoing decline of Michelob, Budweiser Select, Old Milwaukee, and Miller High Life as a gateway for these worldwide conglomerates. It pushes them to move into – or in some cases take over – the craft beer we hold so dear.

I believe the problem with all of this is that craft beer is defined by its culture. Craft beer is full of underdog stories of the Little Guy making it big like Jim Koch or Sam Calagione. Craft beer is full of consumers who want to know what goes into their beer because craft beer is increasingly much about who is making what and how.

Would MillerCoors and AB InBev still have entered the craft beer market without lagging sales? Absolutely – they’re run by astute business people who recognize the craft beer market is where money is now made. But because they’re run by these astute business people, they also know it makes sense to get into craft beer however they can, especially when they have lagging sales.

As craft beer grows and macro beer doesn’t, these macro companies are left with an obvious choice – adapt or “die.” But if that means the takeover of great lines like Goose Island, is it something we want? Or do we want Americans to stick to their guns and drink these failing light lager brands that don’t offer them the best beer but may help keep our favorite beer untouched? When is greed good – for companies or consumers? After all, there’s no shame in drinking whatever you please, so long as you do it responsibly. We should support the choices our beer-drinking brethren make, for good or for bad. If that means encouraging our friends to throw back some Michelob because they want low-calorie beer, then so be it.

So yes, I’m being a bit hypocritical here. I ultimately don’t care what you drink – I just want you to enjoy it and I don’t want that to dictate the future of what I enjoy to drink. I’m excited to get Goose Island here in North Carolina, but I’m not excited that I’m getting it at the expense of John Hall and John Laffler. I want Americans to get the absolute best beer they can find, which, let’s be honest, is craft beer. But I don’t want sagging corporate profit margins to be the downfall of beloved brands.
+Bryan Roth

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