Every great story needs a turning point or three, and one of the biggest turning points in the story of American craft beer came on Oct. 13, 1996. That was the Sunday when NBC, at 7 pm Eastern time, aired its Dateline segment titled “Brew-Haha.” Hard to imagine in our DVR era of 1,000-channel cable packages, but Dateline was an immensely influential prime-time news show, even if it was running a distant second to 60 Minutes, the CBS series it was designed to best. Millions of people back then tuned in for network shows at specific times, and Dateline was one of them.
The “Brew-Haha” segment dealt with what was then still a largely nascent craft-beer movement. Nascent in the sense that it was growing by leaps and bounds, but, even 31 years after Fritz Maytag took control of Anchor, it was still largely unknown to most of the nation. Ostensibly about shining a light on this fast-growing slice of the American brewing industry, the Dateline segment was actually about throwing cold water on it. How? By zeroing in on the practice of contract brewing.
In particular, correspondent Chris Hansen, who would the following decade attain a sprinkle of television immortality as the host of the Dateline spinoff To Catch a Predator, confronted Boston Beer‘s Jim Koch about his company’s practice of then brewing most brands like Samuel Adams Boston Lager nowhere near the city of Boston. Here was Hansen’s intro for his Koch interview:
[T]he bottle invites you to visit their small traditional brewery in Boston. So we did, and found a small brick building, a photo tribute to previous generations of Koch brewers, and, just as you see in the Sam Adams commercials, the small copper kettles and equipment used to brew the beer. But there’s one small problem with this picture: At least 95 percent of all Sam Adams beer isn’t brewed here—or anywhere even near Boston, for that matter.
The interview that followed showed Koch on the defensive. Improbably—astoundingly—Hansen’s segment also painted Anheuser-Busch as an aggrieved party, with a brewery representative sighing over the fact that contract-brewed craft-beer brands like Sam Adams and Pete’s Wicked didn’t clearly demarcate where they were created. The world’s biggest brewer was just looking out for the consumers, you see, a zymurgical Ralph Nader; A-B was not at all trying to put the kibosh on its scrappy competition. (Never mind that Anheuser-Busch was then a partner with NBC parent General Electric in the Redhook brewery and a major advertiser on the network, particularly during the Olympics.)
More portentously, the Dateline segment threw a national spotlight on the fissures then rending the craft-beer movement. Hansen interviewed critics of contract brewing, and, through that and through A-B’s lamentations, cast more than a shadow of a doubt on the entire movement. Viewers could be forgiven for asking at the commercial break if the beer behind all those colorful craft-beer labels was really worth the premium. Doubt cast upon Sam Adams and Pete’s Wicked was doubt cast upon every craft-beer brand, contract-brewed or otherwise.
While researching The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, several key players in the craft-beer movement, both those who were veterans by then and those who were just coming up, cited the Oct. 13, 1996 Dateline segment as a turning point in the movement. The segment by itself was not the cause of the subsequent shakeout that saw one-third of the craft-beer operations in the U.S. close in the late 1990s, but it was certainly one of the causes. And the fissures laid bare by it took a long time to heal.
But heal they largely did. The unintentionally salubrious side effect of the Dateline segment was that it helped unite the American craft-beer movement by focusing its attention on its true marketplace adversary: not fellow craft brewers, but Big Beer operations like Anheuser-Busch, which, as I’ve noted, were well into their efforts by 1996 to derail what had become one of the most lucrative, and certainly most interesting, culinary movements of post-war America.
· Actually, Yes, Big Beer Did Manipulate the Market and Prohibition Did Affect Smaller Breweries [TomAcitelli.com]