From a campaign season already close to blasting beyond parody comes another twist, courtesy of the nation’s biggest brewer: Anheuser-Busch InBev announced Tuesday that it would rebrand its 12-ounce bottles and cans of Budweiser as “America” through the November elections.
“We thought nothing was more iconic than Budweiser and nothing was more iconic than America,” the creative director behind the rebranding told Fast Company’s Co.Design, which broke the news.
Yes, it’s hard to argue with the iconic nature of Bud, the country’s best-selling non-light beer brand and one of the top sellers on Earth. Harder still to argue with the stature of the U. S. of A. And frankly, from a marketing standpoint, it’s freakishly brilliant, however shameless: Who wouldn’t want a refreshing gulp of America during the sweltering summer months?
Peel back the label, though, and the whole thing looks a bit thin. Why? Because Budweiser is about as American these days as a successful Green Party or ample paid maternity leave. So many other, smaller — and when it comes to flavor, better — beers scream “America” much more loudly.
The maker of Bud, of course, is no longer an American company. Early this century, major shareholders in what was then Anheuser-Busch began pressing the ruling Busch family to sell the firm, whose roots stretched to the 1860s. Its stock wasn’t doing well, and the world’s bigger breweries were consolidating. South African Breweries took over Miller in 2002, then SABMiller and Molson Coors combined their U.S. operations in a joint venture. In 2004, Belgium’s Interbrew merged with Brazil’s AmBev to become InBev, maker of brands such as Beck’s and Stella Artois.
August Adolphus Busch IV declared in an April 2008 speech to distributors that the brewery his great-great-grandfather had founded would never be sold “on my watch.” But shareholders such as Barclays and Berkshire Hathaway proved a little stronger than clannish pride, and in July 2008, the Busch family nodded to the inevitable: An all-cash deal valued at nearly $52 billion rendered Anheuser-Busch a wholly owned subsidiary of InBev. While the conglomerate’s North American headquarters remains in AB’s longtime St. Louis home, the shots from then on have really been called from InBev’s top offices in Leuven, Belgium.
Anheuser-Busch InBev operates a dozen breweries in the United States, as well as businesses that feed into commercial brewing, including a glass-manufacturing plant and hop farms. The company employs thousands of Americans, who produce brands such as Budweiser that have been phenomenally popular since at least the early 1970s, when AB accounted for about one-fourth of all domestic beer sales. Today, AB InBev accounts for nearly half.
Nevertheless, of all the bibulous candidates to claim some kind of uber-patriotic mantle as the nation gropes for its next leader, AB InBev is the least convincing. Not because it’s foreign-controlled — lots of firms operating in the U.S. market are. What really disqualifies AB InBev is the relentless mass production of its beers, that flagship Budweiser in particular. Watery, soda-pop fizzy and ruthlessly inoffensive, if not slightly alkaline, in its flavor, the beer tastes the same wherever it’s made and however far it’s shipped. An engineering marvel, no doubt, but it’s not the way beer was meant to be made and served.
Beer was once an intensely local thing in the United States, with thousands of breweries dotting the landscape. Cities such as St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston and New York boasted dozens each by the early 1900s. Where beer came from mattered, and idiosyncratic styles abounded.
Two realities spawned such a local focus. First, the influx of German immigrants throughout the middle and late 19th century (including Donald Trump’s paternal grandfather) created a demand for beer in a nation best known, libation-wise, for whiskey. Second, beer tastes best fresh, and shipping it all that far just wasn’t an option before innovations such as the aluminum can, refrigeration and the interstate highway system, never mind the preservatives now used by macro-producers.
America lost this focus on freshly made, locally distinct beer beginning with Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s. The picture became even fuzzier after repeal, which launched an arms race among the biggest surviving breweries, including Anheuser-Busch. By the 1970s, it and four other breweries produced more than half of the nation’s beer. Analysts were predicting that only one or two American breweries would remain by 2000.
That, of course, did not happen. Right around the time AB and its nearest competitors were starting to carve up the national beer market like a game of Risk, much smaller operations (call them craft or micro) began arising — first in California, then in Colorado and New York state, then everywhere.
Some of this happened because of a sharp per-barrel excise tax cut in 1976, some because of the legalization of home-brewing two years later. A lot of breweries also appeared because pockets of Americans were simply getting fed up with the tepid fizz that AB and its rivals were cranking out. Many a home-brewer has turned pro since the 1970s.
Today, there are more breweries in the United States than ever before — more than 4,100— making a kaleidoscope of styles and style iterations. The vast majority brew fewer than 6 million barrels annually (a barrel equals about two full-size kegs). Even larger micro or craft breweries such as Yuengling and the Boston Beer Co., which makes Sam Adams, produce far less each year than the tens of millions of barrels AB InBev produces just for the United States.
Many beermakers brew only for their surrounding markets, a return to the local focus AB InBev did so much to dismantle (it is still doing so, with a recent spate of craft-brewery acquisitions and subsequent expansions of those brands’ reach). All brew using more traditional ingredients and techniques. More often than not, the resultant beers are bold, distinct and strong.
In other words: American.
This column originally appeared in the Washington Post’s Post Everything blog.