Friday, July 31, 2009

Budweiser Light Beer: Like America Itself, A Triumph Of Image Over Quality

You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
It is fitting that Harvard prof Skip Gates and Cambridge Police Sergeant Jim Crowley joined Barry Obama for a Bud Light at the White House yesterday to smooth over their own and a nation's bruised egos and hurt feelings.

This is because as one of the best selling beers, Bud Light is very much representative of the country that so adores it: A triumph of image over quality.

Bud Light is colored and fermented water with a trace of beer taste cosseted in gadzillion dollar advertising campaigns that market it as the way to pull frat house pranks and do the wild thing with big-boobed babes. The brew's current ad campaign promotes its "drinkability," which I take to mean that you don't need a lobster bib to imbibe it, or something.

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Obama's teachable moment is another opportunity to flaunt my beer snobbery, which is to say I prefer beers that actually taste like beer, so here goes:

The $90 billion-a-year domestic beer market dominated by Anheuser Bush, Miller and Coors is nothing to sniff at. It's just that my taste buds respond far better to imported beers (about 7-8 percent of the market), which include Gates' preferred Red Stripe, the Jamaican brew, and craft beers (about 3-4 percent), which include Crowley's preferred Blue Moon, a Belgian-style wheat brew made in Denver.

(As it turned out, the prez did indeed sip a Bud Light, Gates a Massachusetts-brewed Sam Adams Light, Crowley a Blue Moon, and that party crashing Joe Biden a non-alcoholic Bucklers.)

American brewers did not always have to air TV commercials featuring golden retrievers wearing sunglasses to market their beers.

Prior to the advent of Prohibition in 1919, most American cities had at least one brewery with beers and ales that compared favorably to their counterparts in the Old Country, most often Germany. This is because the owners and brewmasters were direct from the Old Country, or were first or second generation Americans.

But a funny thing happened in the years after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Brewery owners who survived the shakeout as shuttered breweries began to get back on their feet realized they had a big marketing problem: There wasn't a ready-made way to increase sales.

But with millions of beer drinkers returning home at the end of World War II, brewers stumbled on an idea startling for its simplicity and ingenuity: If their products were watered down, people would drink more of them.

As Joe Sixpack, an old friend and award-winning beer blogger (it's great work if you can get it), explains:

"After the war it wasn't just beer getting dumbed down. It also was in all the food we were eating, the way we were living. This was more a product of where Americans were headed. This was the age of being bland, of TV dinners and the suburbs."

Mr. Sixpack and I share the view that what makes a beer good are the edges -- the robust flavors that vary so much from one good brand to another.

He says that post-war beer lost those edges because brewers began watering it down as well as using cheaper grains and other ingredients, in part because there was a premium on supplies.

Surprisingly, Mr. Sixpack notes that the precedent for the move toward lighter beers was in Germany, of all places, with the advent of lagers (my day-to-day staple) that are much less dense and flavorful than dark beers and ales (which I occasionally imbibe but fill up on quickly.)

Nevertheless, American lagers just don't compare to their cousins from Germany, Holland and Belgium. That can be attributed to American taste.

And what, pray tell, is American taste? Beers that are indeed watered down, explains Mr. Sixpack, but not because they are made wrong.

Playing to my contention, he says that:

"It's all based on image. It's human nature that we associate ourselves with specific brands. AB has two completely different markets for Bud and Bud Light. That's why people drive the car they drive. And some people do not like being seen with an imported bottle in their hand at a bar."

As it is, there has been a shakeout in the imported beer market.

Heineken, which ditched its traditional formula in the late 1970s for a more mainstream American taste that is reflected in its Bud Lite-like advertising, has ceded its longtime title as the best-selling import to Corona, a Mexican beer, which is ironic considering that many Americans want to tighten their southern border at a time when Mexican and Latin American foods, beers and other products have never been more popular.

Notes Mr. Sixpack:

"Sure, some Mexican beers are being consumed by immigrants, but the majority of drinkers are born-and-bred U.S. residents. Heck, sales of tortilla chips are now growing faster than potato chips. Isn't that sort of a contradiction?"

Well, yes. But what could be more moronically American that loving to eat and drink stuff made by people they fear and hate?

Having lost the cachet of being a "special" import, Heineken is trying to cash in on the popularity of Mexican brews by buying the marketing rights to Tecate and Dos Equis.

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While many red-blooded Americans will applaud their president's choice of beers in an effort to chill things out race wise, how many know that Bud Light and the other AB brews are now owned by a Belgian-Brazilian beverage conglomerate?

You know, countries with universal health care.

I couldn't give a rat's ass, but would Frank Zappa approve?

Top photograph by Stephen Crowley/The New York Times


Unknown said...

Blue Moon is brewed by Coors and it's a watered down version of the Belgian witte style. Hoegaarden is a widely distributed Belgian witte and there are a number of craft brewers who brew a witte.

Corona is owned by Anheuser-Busch. So the most popular imported beer is an A-B product.

The A-B sale to the Belgian InBev had nothing to do with beer and was a business move made due to the weak dollar at the time.

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