Bud, Miller and Coors—aka, the “Big Three”—may be sitting pretty at the top of the beer chain, but they certainly didn’t get there alone: President Truman, a rugged Mark Harmon and a stick figure named Albert helped pave the way to the top. Bud, Miller, Coors—Where did they come from?
By Don Russell
Ubiquitous on TV and in the corner taproom, they’re an essential part of American life, like baseball or “The Simpsons.” Nearly nine out of every 10 beers made in America are labeled with their logos. They have so thoroughly big-footed the beer scene, you’d be excused if you thought that they were always there on top of the heap, boasting that they are the King of Beers! The Champagne of Bottled Beer! The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous!
Wait a sec.
That last one was actually a Schlitz slogan that left its mark in Milwaukee and every other town in America. Fifty years ago, it was bigger than Bud; it was bigger than everybody.
Well, how about “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one?” That’s gotta be one of the Big Three. No, that would be Schaefer, which until the 1960s, was bigger than Miller and Coors combined.
Mom, apple pie and Chevrolet might have always been part of the American scene, but when it comes to beer, until about 30 years ago there was no such thing as the Big Three.
Just a generation ago—back when the current president was still drinking at Yale—a host of names shared the scene. Big regional breweries like Falstaff and Duquesne and Hamm produced millions of barrels in hulking plants. They’re gone now; their slogans fading with time. And now we’ve got Bud, Miller and Coors.
So, how’d it happen?
Louis Pasteur. Pasteur is the 19th-century microbiologist who discovered how to stop beer from going sour, which led to better packaging, which led to long-distance shipping, which led to more advertising, which led to the growth of large national breweries, which led to price wars, which led to the failure of small breweries, which led to consolidation, which led to more price wars, which led to the failure of midsize breweries, which led to a bigger market share for the survivors, which left us with two of the Big Three. Coors actually never pasteurized its beer, and wasn’t available too far east until refrigerated trucks came on the scene.
Prohibition. When the government enacts a constitutional amendment to criminalize your livelihood, of course it’s going to put a dent in your income. Half of America’s breweries folded before the 21st Amendment ended that whole debacle—you know the story. But in addition to winnowing out weaker companies, the 13-year beer hiatus had other less noticeable but more fundamental effects. Christopher B. O’Hara, author of “Great American Beer: 50 Brands that Shaped the 20th Century” notes, for example, that breweries shifted to nonalcoholic malt beverages during Prohibition and emulated soda producers in their bottling operations. When they got back to brewing, they continued bottling and cut back on kegs. The shift expanded long-range shipments and the growth of national breweries.
Cheapskates. There are a thousand ways to save money on beer, like using corn syrup instead of malt, hop extract instead of pellets, and shorter fermentation stages. As midsized brewers found themselves losing market share in the ’60s, some cheapened their products to save a buck. And almost every one of them went into the tank.
Albert the Stick Man. On Feb. 8, 1947, KSD-TV went on the air in St. Louis and became the first TV station to air a beer commercial. The brewery was Hyde Park and its spokesman was Albert the Stick Man, a cartoon character (sounds like he was easy to draw!). Albert was the predecessor of Bert & Harry of Piels, Mabel from Carling Black Label and the Hamm’s bear—all sweet, lovable figures who championed the flavor of their favorite brew. But as beer advertising grew nationally, Albert’s progeny turned: The characters doing the shilling became bigger than the beer itself. Millions were spent on artfully orchestrated promotional and merchandising campaigns. After the 1970s, viewers cared less about hops and malt and more about Spuds MacKenzie and the Coors Twins.
Carrie Nation. The ax-wielding temperance nut successfully focused the 19th-century anti-alcohol movement on saloons, those sodden dens of iniquity. When Prohibition ended in 1933, we got our beer back, but not our taverns. Many new alcohol laws curtailed tavern drinking with early closing hours, drink limits and ownership regulations, which led to the closure of thousands of old haunts. With consumption moved out of the barroom and into the home, there was less demand for locally brewed draft beer.
Gottfried Krueger. Who? Actually, this is a cheap shot, because ol’ Gottfried was already dead and buried in 1933 when his company committed what some have argued is the single biggest sin in the history of American beer: the invention of the beer can. Whether or not it tasted any worse, beer in those steel cans was easier to ship, leading to the national distribution of megabrands. Modern technology, however, has put cans back in style: Today’s aluminum cans preserve all of the flavor and quality of our current brews.
John Nichols. In 1978, sales were down at Coors, and its stock was tanking. It was facing its worst crisis since Prohibition. That year, though, Adolf Coors’ heirs brought in Nichols to take over the marketing department, and he remade its entire image. Dan Baum, author of “Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty” credits the adman with everything from new bottles to new brands, plus the brewery’s first professional marketing effort: a campaign that permanently identified Coors as the fresh, manly beer of the Rockies.
Hitler. Yes, even the Nazis had something to do with the beer we drink today. After all, they started World War II, which put 16 million American men and women into uniform. And what did they drink in the foxhole? Canned beer from the era’s biggest shippers: Bud, Pabst and Schlitz. When the soldiers returned to the homefront, they never went back to their local favorites. Between the end of the war and 1970, three quarters of America’s breweries went out of business.
Gilbert and Clark Swanson. These brothers never brewed beer, but they did make frozen turkey dinners, the hallmark of what historian Maureen Ogle calls Bland America. In the 1950s, that’s what drinkers wanted in their beer—simplicity. They demanded, Ogle says in “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer,” “sexy, vibrant beer that went down as easily as instant mashed potatoes.”
Manifest destiny. It is the driving philosophy of America that this nation is destined to grow. Expansionism drove Adolphus Busch, unsatisfied with merely serving beer in St. Louis, to create a worldwide brewing juggernaut. And it’s a conviction—growth is good—that defines us to this day.
Mark Harmon. In the mid-1980s, after a series of labor disputes, Coors had successfully made amends with unions, but it was still trying to remake its image in the eyes of consumers. Author Philip Van Munching writes in “Beer Blast” that the ex-UCLA quarterback and star of “St. Elsewhere” changed that. In TV, billboard and magazine ads, the manly actor (once voted the “sexiest man alive”) became the face of Coors. Guys and gals loved the image and by the mid ’90s, the Colorado brewery pushed past Schlitz and Pabst and into the No. 3 spot.
Lorraine Mulberger. For 111 years, Miller Brewing, founded by Frederick Miller when he purchased the old Plank Road Brewery in Milwaukee, was a family-run business. But in 1966, teetotaler Lorraine—Miller’s own granddaughter—sold the company’s controlling stock to an outsider, who then sold it to Philip Morris. Miller, backed by the cigarette maker’s cash, began advertising and quickly moved from a smalltime player to the nation’s second-largest brewer.
Gussie Busch’s railroad car. In 1955, his brewery in second place behind Schlitz, the grandson of co-founder Adolphus, pushed off on a cross-country tour in a stainless steel railroad car outfitted with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The board of directors grumbled about the expense: $300,000. According to Peter Hernon and Terry Ganey in “Under the Influence: The Unauthorized Story of the Anheuser-Busch Dynasty,” Busch visited nearly all of the company’s 450 distributors in that car, urging them to beat Schlitz, who he called “the worst goddamn thieves.” It worked. Two years later, A-B pushed into first place in the nation and has stayed there for 50 consecutive years.
Chill-garde. Another cheap shot because this stuff, also known as silica hydrogel, is widely used (and quite successfully) to remove the haze that clouds up cold beer. Only when Schlitz switched to it in the 1970s did the material react badly with the lager’s foam stabilizer. The result was what Van Munching described as “apparently snot-ridden beer.” Schlitz, one of America’s great brewing dynasties, never lived it down.
Big Apple snobbery. There was a day when a big brewer could make a perfectly fine profit just serving America’s biggest city. After World War II, four of the nation’s top seven breweries (Ballantine, Schaefer, Rheingold and Ruppert) poured almost all of their beer in the five boroughs. Have you heard from any of them lately? They disappeared because they didn’t learn to sell beer in California till it was too late. By 1976, New York—once one of America’s great brewing cities—had not a single brewery.
The Super Bowl. In 1967, the price of a 30-second spot during Super Bowl I was $42,000. It sounds almost affordable, until you remember that, adjusted for inflation, it’s equivalent to about a quarter-million bucks in today’s cash. The point is, it’s always been expensive to advertise on national TV; only the biggest could afford it. If you didn’t have cash for advertising in the ’60s, you couldn’t make it into the ’70s.
Harry S. Truman. In 1958, Pabst sought to compete more strongly against Anheuser-Busch and others by purchasing one of its cross-town rivals, Blatz. The move was a huge success as Pabst grew to the nation’s third-largest brewery, setting sales and profit records. Until 1969, almost 11 years later, when a federal judge named Robert E. Tehan declared a “do-over,” and—calling the purchase a violation of federal antitrust laws—ordered Pabst to sell off Blatz. Pabst subsequently tanked, eventually shutting down its massive Milwaukee plant. So, why does President Truman get the blame? Because he appointed Tehan to the bench and, as Harry himself said, “the buck stops here.”
South Africans. In 2002, South African Brewing bought Miller Brewing, and the world had a new brewery sitting shotgun. With worldwide sales second only to European giant InBev, SABMiller now has more global market share than any other American brewery.
You. Yeah, you. The first time you picked up a beer, what was it? Of course it was one of the Big Three. Bud, Miller and Coors sustain their market share with new beer drinkers who, no matter how far they wander into craft-land, will still have an affinity for the very first beer they ever tasted. •
AMERICA’S BIGGEST BREWERS: To get a sense of how Bud, Miller and Coors have come to dominate, consider that in 1950, the top three brewers made about 17 percent of American beer. In 2006, the Big Three made about 88 percent. (Sources: 1950, the Beer Institute; 2006, Brewers Association)
Note: In 1950, Coors was the 65th largest brewery in America.
5. City Brewing Co.
6. D.G. Yuengling & Son
7. High Falls Brewing Co.
8. Boston Beer Co.
9. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
10. Pittsburgh Brewing Co.