04 November 2005

Big Beer Companies

Over at Beer Advocate.com, a common complaint on the message board is that people who drink Budweiser, Miller, and Coors products (i.e. the Big Three brewers in the United States, accounting for more than 95% of the U.S. beer market by volume) are brainwashed, have no taste for anything good, et cetera. And, of course, that those of us who drink better beer should easily be able to convert all the swill-drinkers of the world to drinking Russian Imperial Stouts (they're beerlicious!) and the like, if only the marketing campaigns of those Big Three (hereafter referred to as BMC) weren't so insidious.

To which I say, bullshit.

Look, I'm a huge craft beer fanatic, and I rarely dare to stoop to lesser-quality macrobrews. But what I look for in a beer (a new taste experience combined with a mild alcohol tinge that leads slowly to drunkeness when desired) is not anything at all like what most BMC drinkers seek. Beer, for most people, is quite simply an alcohol-delivery system, and all that a beer has to be to be "good" is to be cold and easy to pound -- most craft beers actually get in the way of this process with their sensory depths and generally warmer serving temperatures.

And, to be honest, I don't think that there's anything at all wrong with that. BMC sells a product that people like, that people want to drink, and they make a bundle doing it. So long as their advertising is honest, it's not a big deal -- I drink what I like, and those who drink BMC products can drink what they like.

(Which isn't to say that I don't think it's absurd when Miller Lite bases the whole of its marketing on being a "great tasting" beer compared with Bud Light -- I don't think I could even tell the difference between the two, if pressed at a blind taste-test. Even compared to a medium-level beer like Samuel Adams, though, Bud, Miller, and Coors fall way behind on the taste factor -- Sam Adams has some.)

It does lead to the question, though, of why BMC has such a high percentage of the beer market (Anheiser-Busch itself has more than half of US beers under its belt) with literally thousands of smaller brewers making up the remaining four percent or so. Another of the common refrains on BA is that the Big Three maintain their market dominance by hooking consumers when they're young, and deliberately keeping their products dumbed down so that most beer drinkers won't try anything better.

To which I say, well duh.

It's something of a truism today, but marketing isn't really about selling a product, it's selling a lifestyle. The millions of horny young guys who couldn't care less how they smell normally wouldn't spend more than a buck for underarm spray, but they all want to have the irresistible influence over hot young babes that only Axe Deodorant bodyspray can give them. Don't go to McDonald's to buy grease-laden fries and burgers, go because you're a trendy young urbanite looking for some soulsista comfort. And don't drink Coors Light because it tastes good, but because that bitchin' babe at the party drinks Coors, and you're lookin' for some hot poon.

What's more, the conglomeration of beer companies into a massive ogliopoly is not an isolated incident. I think many of those who seek to determine why it is that BMC is so large compared with smaller breweries commit the error of reification, they thingify what they are studying and give unreal phantoms true relevance. In other words, the monolithic nature of BMC is a fact, but that this has a definite cause in and of itself is probably not true.

Instead, I submit that the Big Three brewers are merely a symptom in an ever-growing world of decreasing-in-number monolithic choices in our day-to-day life. How many of us visit anything locally-owned anymore? The easy transportation of goods and services across the country and the world, combined with the increased speed of communication over the last century or so, and the strange accidents of history that led to corporations having real rights as individuals under the Constitution with few of the responsibilities inherent in personhood, has led to a world in which we have a choice of Wal-Mart, Target, or Sears, but not a locally-owned clothier around the block.

There are very solid reasons for all this, and there is a lot of good to go with the bad, but my point is that craft beer enthusiasts (and, for that matter, Linux users) should stop talking about the stupidity of the masses and realize that people go for what works for them, and that while the lack of popular appearance of choice is demoralizing, that being in the minority can be exhilirating in and of itself.

So long as I can run my Fedora box and drink my Mackeson XXX, I'll leave those Windows CDs and Budweiser cans to those who want them.


Peter said...

Tell it, man! But don’t diss the mass-market crowd too much. After all, with out them, how would we beer connoisseurs be able to feel superior?

蔡依林Jolin said...
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