Dear Mr. Peter Coors,
Sitting in a beer store in New York City’s East Village, I outlined the thoughts in this letter over a pint of India Pale Ale. This particular store does not carry your products because they disagree with your business practices. I find that fact a shame, and I hope this letter can help. You see, while you do not know me, I am a beer drinker, lover, and consumer. As a single 30-something caucasian male living and working in an urban center, I probably lie within many of your advertising campaigns’ target demographics. And like many Americans, I celebrated our recent national Independence Day this past 4th of July with a Coors Light. But unlike most of the consumers drinking beers that evening from the MillerCoors portfolio, I drank a bottle of your company’s top-selling beer after a party with friends that involved a “craft beer” tasting. To this group of friends, “craft beer” means something other than MillerCoors and all the beers the company makes. So when I recently saw a conversation you had with Darren Rovell of CNBC in March during which you stated that “Blue Moon is the biggest craft beer in America,” I wondered why you might label your product Blue Moon as “craft”#.
It got me thinking, and I decided that since you must be a beer lover to run the #2 beer company in the United States, we should try to define – in good faith and in the spirit of beer – exactly what craft beer might be. Of course the Brewers Association, an organization that represents over 1,900 breweries, already has a definition. They label craft by three categories: small, independent and traditional#. “Small” is defined as annual production of 6 million barrels or less, and includes a focus on keeping the beer local. Your company sold almost 60 million barrels in 2011, with national distribution#. “Independent” is tough to fit into, as MillerCoors is part Molson Coors and part SABMiller, and your company has publicly traded shares held worldwide. But where one of MillerCoors’s products, Blue Moon, has some ground to stand on is in tradition. While products like the wildly popular Coors Light use non-traditional adjuncts such as corn in the beer, Blue Moon, the beer consistently labeled by you as being in the “craft” category#, is brewed with malted barley, white wheat, and oats – ingredients that are traditional for a Belgian wheat ale#.
So it appears, Mr. Coors, that Blue Moon fits into one of the three categories necessary to be labeled craft beer by the Brewers Association, while MillerCoors itself definitely cannot be considered a craft brewery. As you mentioned in your interview, Blue Moon Brewing company may be the name you put on the bottle of Blue Moon beer, but MillerCoors owns 100% of it. How then with these Brewers Association definitions, can we consider Blue Moon a craft beer when it is not made by a craft brewer?
The answer lies in disregarding the Brewers Association. That group, while it has moved mountains for the progress of taste in this country craft beer, does not represent all interests. Despite its representation of the numerical majority of breweries in the nation, to be certain, it doesn’t represent Budweiser, or Miller, or Coors. And likely you would agree with Peter Marino, spokesman for MillerCoors, who states, “We don’t concern ourselves with what the Brewers Association defines as a craft brewer, we make beers for the enjoyment of consumers”#. So perhaps simply adhering to traditional brewing is enough for certain beer products, like Blue Moon, to be considered “craft” by a wider audience. You might say that other beers from the same brewery, such as Coors or Miller Lite, should not be judged and lumped in the pile; they are different; they are economic engines of MillerCoors, while Blue Moon represents the art of the brewers working for your company. If you suggested such, your witbier and others like it would certainly fit in with the products of many craft brewers, based on how those brewers talk about their beer. John Mallett, manager of Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan, seems to think that staying small is “about trying to maximize the quality of the product” and that brewers are “trying to get into the essence that is beer”#. Ray Daniels, a professor at the Siebel Institute of Technology would agree, as he believes that “craft beer is about flavor.” So maybe it is about taste after all.
And it does seem that these types of platitudes are familiar for your company. Blue Moon’s tagline “Artfully Crafted” suggests nothing less#. Plus, while the 600+ user-reviewers of the two largest beer review databases on the web, RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com, have labeled some MillerCoors products such as Keystone Light as one of the worst beers on the market#, they have also scored (at least on BeerAdvocate) Blue Moon Belgian White a 78 out of 100#; a score that puts it in the same category (“average”) as a few of John Mallet’s Bell’s Brewery beers#.
And so while it is clear then, that by any definition we cannot label MillerCoors, the world’s second-largest beer producer, and its subsidiaries, a “craft” brewery#, we can still ask the question, can a particular beer be considered “craft” if the company that brews it is not? Is “craft” merely an aesthetic, and nothing else? Perhaps taste, tradition, and aesthetic appeal are the reasons that you labeled Blue Moon Belgian White as craft in front of a national audience. If so, then on taste alone, I, as a consumer, accept Blue Moon as an average craft beer.
But is stopping at that point fair to small, independent craft brewers? Does that build a balanced conversation? Is calling Blue Moon craft just done to highlight its taste? When it was founded in 1995 was it labeled as such? Was it ever labeled as a microbrewery? Were you not referencing it on a conversation about markets on CNBC – a business news channel? Is it about taste, or is craft beer just an economically convenient term? One that is used to position a product into part of a growing market? As Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Company suggests#, craft beer is absolutely more profitable to bars because of the clientele that it attracts. And although Mr. Marino’s opinion of the Brewers Association may not be high, it is their own report that points to a 15% growth in sales in the craft beer market over 2011#. This report, I should remind you, highlights what you label in conversation with Darren Rovell, as the “growth engine of the market”#. It also highlights a significant trend over the last few years of craft brewers slowly edging into the beverage marketplace, even during a downturn for beer sales in the United States overall.
Let us not forget for a second what is at stake for your company here. Definitions of craft be damned. There are shareholders in London, South Africa, and the United States demanding value, a 2 million dollar lobbying network to be paid for#, and nationwide distribution systems to influence. Molson Coors share prices have stagnated for three years#. As was seen in the recent heated New York State debate over a tax-break on craft beer that importers had successfully fought to repeal, lobbying can have an enormous effect on the market#. And although there is a 3-tier distribution system in the United States that separates brewer, wholesaler, and retailer, we both know that the largest producers have the most market power in terms of incentivizing distributors and retailers to sell their products. In 1997, Budweiser even created a “exclusivity incentive program” for distributors that rewarded carrying exclusively Anheuser-Busch products with lines of credit and deep discounts#. It took a year for the United States Justice Department to shut it down. MillerCoors is not Anheuser-Busch/InBev, but as a sensible consumer, can I assume the company you chair has not thought about doing the same thing? As director Anat Baron describes in her 2009 documentary Beer Wars, breweries such as yours dominate grocery store shelves by more than just brewing the most popular brands. Creating multiple formats of the same beer – six bottle packs, 12-packs, cans, tall cans, 18 packs, 24 packs, 30 packs – you pressure stores to accommodate all these options, which pushes smaller breweries’ beers out of the picture#. And as Steve Hoch, professor at Wharton Business School at University of Pennsylvania notes in the same film, “Bottom line is, if a big player wants to get some shelf space, they’re gonna get it.” Perhaps this is why Blue Moon is such a fast growing brand, and why its sales in 2011 alone grossed as much as the entire product line of Sierra Nevada, the second-largest Brewers Association-defined craft brewery#? Is it perhaps, not because of how Blue Moon tastes?
And while we can call Blue Moon craft, there is certainly a disparity from how the local and independent producers market their beers and from how MillerCoors markets theirs. Opposed to the word of mouth and local sponserships that drive many craft breweries’ marketing efforts, Tenth & Blake Beer Company, MillerCoors’ new conglomerate of beer brands (of which Blue Moon Brewing on Blake Street is a part)#, spent $5.6 million in the first half of 2010 on marketing, according to Kantar Media and Advertising Age#. That’s more money on marketing in six months than most craft breweries earn in a year. Perhaps marketing, then, is why Blue Moon is such a fast growing brand? Not because of how Blue Moon tastes?
And I cannot help but also note, Mr. Coors, that Tenth and Blake Beer Company has recently acquired Crispin Cider, and that Anheuser-Busch InBev has acquired Modelo and its subsidiaries, and that even my beloved Goose Island Beer Company has now been sold, and that the world of these breweries conglomerating and companies ascending towards monopoly continues to skew the market as the big versus the small, even in face of the furious growth of those small breweries. But maybe is it because of this furious growth that MillerCoors continues to buy out its competitors? Is it fear? Is it about dollars, cents, and profit, and so much more than taste and a brewer’s art?
Perhaps it is. Because while Blue Moon Belgian White can be compared in scoring to Bell’s Pale Ale, John Mallet’s Pale Ale is the worst rated and the worst reviewed out of his offerings. Bell’s also have several brands rated in the 90’s on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, and Hopslam, their Double India Pale Ale, is rated as world class on every beer review site to be found. Several breweries’ worst beers are rated above nearly every product in the MillerCoors portfolio, Tenth & Blake, Blue Moon or otherwise#. From the looks of it then, taste it seems, is not the primary motivation of labeling Blue Moon as “Artfully Crafted” and “craft beer”, whether or not the label fits.
And is this not savvy business? In the words of Mr. Marino, “if there is energy behind a certain segment and we’ve got the ability to brew great products and consumers are looking for more flavorful or higher-strength products, we’ll certainly look at that”#. So apply a different looking label from Coors, establish a front of a Blue Moon Brewing Company in Denver, and fool the average consumer who might otherwise judge a product for its presence that might just be based on easy market dominance. Profit. Maybe taste and tradition are the reasons that you can call Blue Moon “craft”, but let us not mistake the motivation. My guess is that when you answered Darren Rovell’s question about labeling Blue Moon as a Coors product, these motivations were in your mind as you acknowledged that Blue Moon’s origin is “a mystery to most people” but that your business model, “seems to be working just fine”#.
But can this work forever? As the craft sector grows, won’t people such as myself find out and seek authenticity in a pint of someone else’s beer? Won’t more craft-beer-centric stores like the shop in the East Village stop carrying your brands? And can’t there be something else connected to what makes a beer craft, something intrinsic in how a brewer approaches the beer? You may not have heard of him, but Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont, recently named by MSN Local as one of the “buzziest young brewers”#, has gone so far as to say that in brewing he “honors eight generations of Greensboro ancestry by thoughtfully engaging with our heritage and with the spirit of our artisanal farmhouse ales,” and that “our beer … is also quite literally our entire ‘life’”#. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art”#. And if a brewer’s life can be invested in his beer, and taste is its pinnacle, then how are educated consumers to view your business models that only pay lip-service to art?
Anyone can cite the recession of the past few years as a reason for the declining sales of the beverage industry, but this logic does not explain why people are spending more money than ever on more expensive brands of craft beer. As more millennials reach drinking age, sales of large brands such as Budweiser and Coors Light will continue to decline, and craft will continue to grow because these consumers care about where their beer is produced, and whether it says something about who they are. So it is not just about taste.
If it is your intent to disregard “small” and “independent” as part of the conversation about craft, to disregard the Brewers Association, to disregard the movement that is growing from barstools and beer fests, to disregard better information for consumers through MillerCoors’ clouded ownership of brands like “Blue Moon Brewing Company” and “Tenth and Blake Beer Company”, to muddle the infusion of advertising dollars from the parent company in an increasingly competitive craft beer market, to muddle the practice of undercutting truly independent and small brands in beer stores and on tap handles, and to disregard the efforts of local brewers by exploiting a distribution powerhouse that the world’s number-two beer manufacturing company provides, and to then label a product as craft because it represents a growth sector, then how can anyone who cares about what they drink support you?
Mr. Coors, you are playing with fire that exists well-outside the brew kettle. We live in a nation that tweets more about beer than it does about church#, and beer drinkers are connected. If you were using the power of $104 million dollars in Blue Moon sales# to drive development of new Blue Moon products that taste better and offer consumers better options with an honest label, or even to bring innovation to the beer industry, I might reconsider. And while it seems on a course of big-business that will eventually run awry of a focus on what is more important, I do have sincere hope for the prospect of new brews from your Tenth & Blake line of products. But not without acknowledging where the dollars come from. Craft beer needs passion, it needs art, and while without question it needs taste, its drinkers also demand respect. Both for their intelligence and for the craft beer marketplace that brings them the products they love.
There is a storm coming for big beer. Even while the dark clouds build, I know this letter still finds you in position to grow the craft beer market. There are benefits that arise for smaller brewers from the growth of Blue Moon. As more consumers taste Blue Moon and realize it tastes better than Coors Light, new potential craft beer drinkers are born#. As Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company, the country’s largest craft brewery, stated about large breweries recently on MSNBC’s Morning Joe segment, “they have Goose Island, Blue Moon, and Shock Top, but they are good beers, and it’s good beer for all.#”
But what I do not know is whether you want to embrace the meaning of craft that implies ownership, aesthetic-appeal, care, attention, independence, taste and passion. Because that is not Blue Moon at present, and as such, any labeling of Blue Moon as “craft” leaves a badly bitter taste in the mouth of the educated consumer. At the moment, because of the business practices that MillerCoors employs, I cannot have your beer at this busy store. I said much earlier, that is a shame. There are world-class brewers at MillerCoors. Can they not contribute to the busy environment of community that surrounds me as I make these notes? I’m sure these brewers can. But when they do, please get us those products through clear information, ethical business, and not through fighting the small and independent companies that built brands on taste. These companies built this growth sector of beer lovers on their sweat and grassroots efforts, and they brought the United States to be known worldwide for its creativity in craft beer. As the late beer critic and hunter Michael Jackson once observed, “The worldwide tide of bland beers will soon have come as far as it can. After that, it can only ebb to reveal the slow brews of lasting character”#. Mr. Coors, we have reached that point. The divide has arrived. It appears your company has a long road to hoe if its future is to be secure. Please begin on that path, and please take part responsibly.