Big Beer

Mike Konczal points out that the market share for the big beer producers has actually grown since deregulation, with craft brews making up only about 4% of total market share, and the top four beer producers claiming about 91% of market share (in 2002).

I’m still not sure this proves that deregulation is a poor response to the situation at hand. For one thing, bizarre alcohol regulations still exist all across the country which make it fairly easy for big producers to gain an upper hand over small competitors. It’s also not as if the big players are going to lose market share over night. They have decades of a head start over smaller competitors, lots of cash, and the ability to keep buying up small brewers to keep competition to a minimum.

I doubt that any of these factors would exist today if not for prohibition and the various post-prohibition regulations that have plagued the beer industry. That’s the trick with deregulation. Depending on where you start from, it can take all sorts of different shapes. It can be really hard to break a monopoly or an oligopoly through deregulation alone if the industry has been too highly concentrated already, and can outspend and out regulate new entrants. Mike makes some very good points about the difficulty small competitors have getting into big box stores and retailers. But again, these big retailers who work closely with the big beer producers are also beneficiaries of government intervention.

Finally, a change in beer drinking habits is going to be largely about a change in personal taste. People who drank Budweiser before deregulation aren’t necessarily going to just switch over to something new and more expensive overnight. The big producers spend gads of money making sure that kids are hooked on their beer long before they reach drinking age.

Is all this indicative of a failure of neoliberalism? I think it’s indicative of the shortcomings of deregulating a heavily regulated market and expecting much to change very quickly. In some cases, I think this shortcoming leaves room for action on the part of the state to actively undo harm it has itself created – breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, for instance. In other cases, I think it points more to a wait-and-see approach. With beer, plenty of regulatory hurdles still exist that hurt small producers all across the country. But I think the big producers will start to see market share losses over time nonetheless. In many ways, this is the first generation of microbrew drinkers. The tide is turning, it hasn’t turned all the way yet.

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47 thoughts on “Big Beer

  1. Interesting take. A few questions linger…

    1.) Does the market share of “big beer” include the micro brews they’ve bought up? While, obviously, that represents beer they sell and revenue they take it, it doesn’t necessarily represent the success of “big beer” beer… only the big beer corp. Now, some companies have been known to buy out microbrews, using the name attached to their own facsimile of the original beer, but some do actually sell the beer itself. It’d be more interesting to look at the change in the types of beer being bought, not just who is reaping the profits.
    2.) Has the total amount of beer sold, regardless of who manufactures it, changed much in this time?
    3.) What evidence will we need to see that the “micro brew revolution” was a true revolution and not just a bad?

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  2. Besides the ascendance of craft brews something else happened on the beer aisle of grocery stores in my part of the country after deregulation; moderately priced regional brews pretty much disappeared. Here in the great Pacific Northwest Ranier, Olympia, Lucky, even generic and other offshoots are either gone or exist in name only. They were comparable in quality to the Bud/Miller/Coors axis but a bit cheaper.

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      • Yeah, it’s the great death of the middle regional brand. You’re either a small micro-business or a massive corporation. There’s no room in modern America for a regional-sized businesses when they have competition from a national competitor.

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        • None at all? Are you sure about this or is it just an assertion? There are many regional grocery chains, regional insurers, regional fast food companies. Besides, breweries like New Belgium or Sam Adams (Boston Brewing Company) are sold nationally. Many craft brews are. Is it also possible that the regional beers just weren’t very good?

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          • There is always Pabst if you want the “classic” American lager without paying for the ad campaign. But I think a brewer had to choose to go the Pabst route (no ads and go for price point alone) or try to compete with the ads of Bud. If the price point wasn’t very different, then the one with the big Madison Avenue money will win out in the long run.
            But I’ve been pleasantly surprised with some of the supermarket selections lately; even a dogfish head 90 ipa (along with a few other craft/micros, and big-beer faux micros).
            I will take the world where dogfish is at the supermarket over Ranier.

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      • My point was more along the lines of, if you wanted cheap beer you could choose something like Oly or Ranier and even save two bits compared to the price of Bud (and if supporting a regional business was important to you there was that). If you were a truly destitute college student you could even get a case of Rheinlander for little more than what you could scrounge out of pay phone coin slots. Ah, memories.

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          • Read your labels closer. Every “brand” you just mentioned is now owned by one of the megabrewery shops.

            Meanwhile, thanks to fucked up alcohol laws in the USA, it’s easier for me to buy beer from germany than milwaukee, rum from jamaica than from massachusetts, wine from france than oregon, and so forth.

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          • We need to make a few fine distinctions. There is cheap beer such as Bud/Miller/Coors, and Ranier/Oly occupied that same niche. Then there’s absolute pisswater, and these were mostly sub-brands of the regional brews. Nowadays you can still find some of these brand names getting a small slot at the store but they’re owned by the big boys and all taste like Bud with varying levels of wateriness.

            Look, I’m by no means claiming Ranier and Oly were anything great, but they did have distinctive tastes and occupied a niche that does not exist anymore for practical purposes. You can still buy something called Ranier, but it’s not brewed in that building on I-5 with the big R on top anymore, it’s only one or two slots at the store, and it doesn’t taste quite the same. It’s no great loss, but it is something that’s mostly gone away. The good news is, now that I’m a grownup and can afford it, there are many more craft brews to choose from.

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      • I’m late to this conversation, but the post you link to strikes me as missing the market segmentation that has occurred between largely indistinguishable lagers and craft beers. The market consolidation has been in the former and this gives the large firms that buy up regional lagers a much larger market share. This is compatible with simultaneous growth in the craft beer segment, which is obviously thriving.

        There are other concerns about big firms buying up microbreweries or regulatory barriers to entry, but treating the beer industry as one generic market really misses the growth in craft beer. You have to try really hard to look at the current market and view it as bad for craft.

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      • Actually Pabst bought up all of those small regional brews. You can still get Olympia, Rainer, Lonestar, Primo, St Ides, Shlitz, Strohs, Schmidt, Old Style, and tons more. Pabst Brewing Company has been buying them all up and using nostalgia and irony to market them. I’d be curious to know if they mucked with the formulas at all. It wouldn’t surprise me much if many of the beers were exactly the same save the label.

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      • Yeah, Yuengling’s actually grown in recent years – they bought out the old AB brewery in Tampa, and now are basically in every store and bar in Florida, but of course it does taste slightly different from what you’d get in the Northeast.

        Genessee’s still around too, for that matter.

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        • Of course, these are both better and a smidge more expensive than Bud or Miller – priced about the same as the non-lagers from the big beer companies (eg Amber Bock or Blue Moon), but much less than any of the craft beers or imports.

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  3. As you may know, Colorado is the most awesome micro-brewery state in the Union… but, until recently, we had blue laws that prevented liquor sales on Sunday and we still have laws that prevent the sale of anything over 3.2 by grocery stores.

    So when I went back to Michigan, it was a real eye-opener. I went into the CVS (think Walgreens) and saw a wine section. More than that, the wine section was *BETTER* than most of the stores that I have back here in Colorado. On top of *THAT*, the *PRICES* were better. “This bottle costs me $12 back home and I’m pleased to pay that”, I said, holding an $8 bottle of wine.

    So we went into the refrigerated beer section and… it was a desert. The only beers were the huge ones. Budweiser. Miller Genuine Draft. Coors. Lite versions of the above. They also had a couple sixes of Sam Adams and a couple sixes of Blue Moon. As much selection as the wine section had, there was the opposite of that in the cooler.

    “Where’s the Fat Tire? Where’s the 1554? Where’s New Belgium?”

    “It doesn’t sell here, man”, my cousin told me. “We’ve got Guinness” and he pointed to the Guinness.

    Which, sure, ain’t nothing. It’s Guinness. But still.

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  4. I think that, to some extent, it’s an image issue. The notion of beer as an aesthetic experience like wine is something completely incomprehensible to the average American, whose idea of beer goes along with a shirtless man waving a giant foam finger and bellowing. The general assumption is that if you’re drinking beer you’re primarily interested in quantity.

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  5. I propose that we evaluate our economic system based on whether it delivers my own preferences to me. Preferably to my doorstep, and for free. And never mind about anyone else’s.

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    • Exactly. Deregulation has created an environment in which niche producers can survive and even thrive in the face of declining market share. Consumes have options, and that’s what matters. If you can’t handle the fact that they still choose to buy Budweiser and Coors, that’s between you and your therapist.

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      • I am thinking a lot of people really do happen to prefer ice cold, yellowish beer that they can see through.

        “I doubt that any of these factors would exist today if not for prohibition and the various post-prohibition regulations that have plagued the beer industry”

        I am not sure about this. I think good trucking and better refrigeration are what doomed the regional breweries. It happened a long time before Bob Euker became a pitchman. Besides, were the regionals all that great? It’s not like Natty Boh was a Belgian Ale with aftertones of raspberries and avocado.

        Either way, drink Straub.

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        • I’m pretty sure the refigeration/trucking explains the decline of regional beers almost entirely, but it wasn’t just beers, but the decline of all sorts of regional grocery brands.
          Once a big player or two could cheaply sell nationally, the remaining space for everyone else shrinks. And once it shrinks, stores want to sell something different than the big guys, so they turn to national specialty brands, not the also-ran that tastes pretty much the same but has a different label.

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  6. You might not have the answer to this, but are those numbers measuring beer sold in stores, beer sold in bars, or both? Because, at the local bars I visit, they seem to have roughly as many local small brewery beers on tap as big brands and, as far as I can tell, they’re not selling anything like 9 out of 10 pints from the two or three big labels. Now, if we’re looking at what sells in the grocery and convenience stores, I’d imagine that, yes, 90% of it is stuff like Budweiser and Coors. Maybe I shouldn’t have observed so many people drinking in bars!

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  7. “The big producers spend gads of money making sure that kids are hooked on their beer long before they reach drinking age.”

    This may be it. A while back over at Jaybird’s place we were all talking about our first legal drinks. I remember mine was at a steakhouse my parents took me to for my twenty-first birthday. I ordered a Budweiser. I don’t know why (It may have been marketing.), but I remember thinking at the time I didn’t want to order any Magic Hat or Sam Adams or any other hoity-toity crap.

    I don’t think that kind of culture exists anymore. Everyone I know making more than four dollars an hour and who likes beer spends the little extra for something nice. Granted, we’re not consuming the same quantity as we used to, so the night’s booze probably costs the same. Plus, there’s always PBR for the best (worst?) of both worlds.

    Anyways, the reason we always bought the cheap-grade Anheuser Busch, Coors, Miller, or even worse back in the day had more to do with cost than anything else. Thirties of Busch Light cost $9.99. Olde English 40s went for like $1.89 each. We were mostly unwilling to stoop to the level of Richard’s Wild Irish Rose, MD 20/20 or Aristocrat, so Big Beer represented the best value at the time.

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                • Lulz. Nice.

                  The recollection seems overly dreary
                  How a dude got prankticiously beery
                  and altered The Word
                  of a manifest turd,
                  But in the end it was really quite cheery.

                  Hey, we got limerick’s outa the deal, right?

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                  • Actually, there was an even more embarrassing dumb joke story from later that night. After a four hour nap, I’d sobered up enough to catch a cab to a DJ gig I had at a local rock bar where some serious rock legends were playing a gig. One of them was Dennis Dunaway who, when we were chatting, mentioned that he’d heard that I sing, so I thought he’d find it funny if I asked him, “Hey, man, are you trying to say you want to form a band with me?” Instead of laughing at that, he sort of nervously said, “Well… uh, Rufus, I guess you never know what might happen someday…” and slowly backed away from the apparent stalker. Hey, it was worth a shot though!

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                    • That’s a pretty big time move, on a big time musician. I’m sorta impressed you had him backing away in FEAR.

                      I met one of my guitar heroes once at a breakfast joint the morning after the gig. He walked past, I told him I loved the show the night before. He sat down. Then after an uncomfortable pause I said: ‘So, how long have you been playing the guitar?’ {head/denver omelet}

                      He quickly realized he had another table waiting for him.

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                    • Well, actually, it was more like backing away in discomfort! He was really nice though overall. I felt stupid because the joke fell like a lead balloon, but we talked some about other stuff beforehand. I don’t know if he really appreciated that I played the Pagans really obnoxious cover of I’m Eighteen, but he did catch that I played a song from the Battle Axe record. And you know, honestly, with old rockers, it’s hard to tell if they’re uncomfortable or just really burnt out. But, yeah, I’ve yet to meet one and impress them with how cool I am.

                      My friend Emily, however, actually pissed off Lars Ulrich when she met him at a flea market- not like that’s hard to do! She also bumped into Lou Reed on the sidewalk while leaving a cab and stood there stunned while he rolled his eyes with a look like “Yes, I know who I am”. That’s the worst. I did that to David Cronenberg in Toronto. He was trying to be polite to me and I just stared without being able to form words until he finally said, “Okay, have a nice day!”

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