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What’s a big brewery to do?

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Yesterday, the Denver Post ran a pretty interesting piece on Pete Coors—chairman of MillerCoors—and his thoughts on the increasing popularity of craft beer. In the interview, Coors ditched corporate speak and gave a candid view on the current state of beer in the United States. Put simply, he’s baffled, as the premium light segment continues to lose ground to craft:

“In this economy that is difficult to understand,” Coors said. “But people are staying at home now, not buying cars or houses. They have money to spend. They want to spend it on something that they think has more value…You talk about the millennials. The world is very different.”

True, the game is changing: macro-lager sales have slipped in recent years, while craft beer, cider and spirits are on the rise. Take a look at Portland, Ore., where craft beer isn’t just growing, it’s now out-selling beers from MillerCoors and AB-InBev.

So what’s a big brewery to do?

Beyond his candid thoughts on the slipping market, Coors was also pretty transparent about his company’s intent: If you can’t beat them, buy them. The Post reported that MillerCoors is currently seeking out potential craft breweries to buy, which will expand its craft portfolio beyond the minority share it holds in Terrapin Beer Co. (Interesting quote about that: “We are a minority interest, which isn’t working out the best. So we are learning about that.”)

I’ve always been impressed with MillerCoors’ more experimental ventures in beer, an opinion that might be taboo in some craft beer circles. Flip through past GABF winners, and you’re guaranteed to find a branch company on the list: Last year, AC Golden’s India pale lager took bronze and Blue Moon’s Chardonnay-aged Golden Knot took gold. Are these technically craft beers, as defined by the Brewers Association? No. Would I recommend either of them to a friend? Of course. The point: They can make a damn fine “craft” beer.

If Pete Coors looks at the current state of beer and feels a chill down his spine, so should craft brewers. The big guys seem to be realizing that the once-annoying segment called craft beer isn’t just drawing a few new customers each quarter, it’s reshaping the entire landscape. Coors has never been shy about making its experimental brands available to the public, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it begins to shift an even stronger focus onto those ventures.

That idea seems to be spreading.

Last year, I took a trip to Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis headquarters, where I toured its research-and-development facility, an isolated brewery in the middle of the campus where bizarre, non-Budweiser beers are brewed never to see the light of day (the mission there is basically, “let’s brew it just to see if we can”). While visiting, I sampled some of these beers inside the brewery’s corporate boardroom. The standout pour was a pretzel beer, which would draw a line of hundreds at GABF if a craft brewery offered one as good. Like all of the other experimental beers, I assumed this one was destined for the drain.

Then, last week, I swung by Total Wine’s growler station and, to my surprise, they just put on a tap that jogged my memory: Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat. I tasted it, and it was—like I remembered—delicious.

That should send a cold shiver down craft brewers’ spines.

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