I’ve been to a lot of places in my line of work, most of them train wrecks. One thing I’ve learned in my ramble across Hell’s half acre is that whenever overbearing governments or corporations make appeals to patriotism it’s because they want you to do something in their interest, not yours. So this summer Budweiser is changing its name to “America.” The move lacks subtlety, but it’s far cheaper and only slightly less shameful than customizing every can with the name of your dear sainted grandmother.
What is interesting is that the appeal didn’t happen in the summer of 2008, when Anheuser-Busch was bought by the Belgian conglomerate, InBev. At the time, I recall, there was a tremendous outcry that “America’s beer” had been taken over by foreigners from a nation with a track record of international takeovers that includes Belgian Congo – which also re-branded, and look how that turned out.
The outcry was short lived. Even before this trend in beer you can taste reached its tipping point, the common theory was that the only thing the Belgians were likely to do to “America’s Beer” would be improve it.
So why the sudden flag-wrap? Is it a tribute to America’s sensible, dignified and transparent political process of late? Or is it because craft-brewers are at a whopping 15% of the beer market and growing? Miller has got a fair chunk of the market, and for generations the two giants have been trying to chase the same taste profile. The craft brewers are a different sort of adversary all together: a patchwork of guerilla products finding niches, innovating at the local level, as well as fostering a sense of community pride and ownership in the local brew.
It isn’t that Budweiser hasn’t tried new things – those of us of a certain age remember Bud Ice and Bud Dry, those attempts to address the “micro-brews” by offering more variety. After spending millions on market launches, Anheuser-Busch realized the public didn’t really want to choose between half a dozen beers that tasted like slightly more terrible versions of each other.
Having learned their lesson about trying new things, Budweiser has retreated to the marketing department. After a two-drink minimum, those guys have come up with the notion that, like apple pie, to not like Budweiser is to not like America. And to diverge from that storied beer we all know and tolerate is somehow un-American. Which is a hell of a thing to say about a cheap knock off of a German national treasure named after a city in the Czech Republic, or Slovakia, or one of those countries that went disappeared about the same time as the Seattle grunge scene.
On the other hand, perhaps I’m being uncharitable. It’s hard to deny that Anheuser-Busch is an American success story: started by an immigrant, using clever marketing and technology to get ahead, manipulating nonsensical government attempts at social engineering to undercut the competition and create a quasi-monopoly with a product that pulls all tastes to a center of a bland, watered down Gaussian bell-curve. What the hell is more American than that?
Well, there may be a craft beer revolution afoot – our forefathers would be proud –but remember that these things tend to work up a thirst.