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Small Business, Big Capitalism, and Beer

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Message Daniel Vasey
Camden Town Brewery
Camden Town Brewery
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You vacation on a remote island, happy to escape the marketing deluge we call civilization. At a roadside stand you see a handpainted sign for Paradise Lager, a local brand. You stop for one, pulled from an ice bucket. On a hot day it's a welcome drink, with a refreshing hint of lime zest. Nearby, women and children sell coconuts and eggs. There are no brand names for those. Not yet.

Then you spot the billboards: Sony, Toyota, Coca-Cola, and Budweiser. You should have known. Multinational corporations reach everywhere, because they can, because they're big.

It's progress and inevitable, or so the corporations say.

Wrong. Sony and Toyota may be unavoidably huge, but Coke and Bud do not have to replace local products. They've grown big because marketing has shaped demand.

Corporate growth has many consequences, and I'll write about one, loss of choice and quality in beer. It happens in other commodities, but beer is what I know best.

Beer comes in well over a hundred styles. For the choice and the best among them, thank business: independent breweries who served local or regional markets, and modern craft brewers.

No thanks go to the global conglomerates, which use deceptive marketing and corporate muscle to battle the innovators. The worst offender is Anheuser-Busch InBev, but they are not alone.

Governments must limit mergers and acquisitions by the giants and prevent monopolistic control of beer distribution. The public should demand it, because anti-competitive control of any commodity encourages the spread of a business model that threatens everyone.

How America Loved Lucy and Lost Good Beers

Warning: I'm going to rant about the lost beers of my youth, and earlier. Stay tuned; it's a tale of how big corporations used marketing to stifle competition and kill beers that weren't fizzy, pale and bland. They almost succeeded. Nowadays they offer beer in varied styles, but competition from craft brewers forced them to do it; take away the craft brewers, and the conglomerates will again slash choice.

Five hundred breweries operated in 1945. Most had a loyal customer base and were large enough to produce beer economically.

Yet most soon failed. Big and little companies went under and sold off their brands. In 1950 the top brewers from one to ten were Schlitz, Anheuser-Busch, Ballantine, Pabst, Rheingold, Schaefer, Falstaff, Miller, Blatz, and Pfeiffer. Of them, only AB, Miller and Pabst survive. The bottom came in 1983, when 53 companies operated 80 breweries.

The massacre followed the rise of television advertising and a flood of beer ads in national magazines. Regional breweries could afford neither. Big breweries toppled when they lost the ad wars.

The winning ads featured chest hair and swagger. Out went domestic bliss, housewives bringing hubby beer. Out went sophistication: beer-sipping at cocktail parties, Ballantine's endorsements from John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. Miller showed how to sell beer; their "Miller time" ads starred race car drivers and oil workers.

Choice narrowed within brands. In the 1950s most had included at least three very different beers. Ballantine sold six. Then marketers decided that a brand should include only the flagship lager. In the 1970s a partial exception was made by adding a low-calorie Lite. As brands shrank, those of us who enjoyed the beers being dropped were flabbergasted, because sizable niche markets still existed.

Flavor lost out. The dropped beers had been flavorful styles, including malty bocks, creamy porters, and ales with bite. Even in the flagship lagers, companies reduced the malt and hops they used, thereby cutting flavor. Lites had even less.

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Dan Vasey is a home brewer and reformed academic, living in Australia and retired from teaching after stints in Colorado, Papua New Guinea and Iowa. An anthropologist and human ecologist, his research specialty has been population and agriculture. (more...)
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