Monday, July 20, 2009

Would You Know Me If You Saw Me?

When I saw this article about Starbucks creating new coffeeshops that would not be branded in any manner that would associate it with the controversial chain coffee stores, I immediately thought of Leinenkugels. Why did I think of Leinenkugel's? Well, in both cases we have a large, national brand attempting to take advantage of a movement in localization and at least some public fervor that holds its national brands in disregard. I'm sure in both cases there are numerous marketing studies to show that when unbranded people "love" Starbucks coffee, but by merely putting a Starbucks logo on the cup causes instant negative reactions.

I'm the sure the same is true of "Miller" - put Stone IPA into a Miller bottle and people who love Stone will hate it. Put Miller Lite into a Leinenkugel's bottle and the negative reaction goes away. It's just one way that large companies make money off of people that hate large corporations. See also: Chipotle vis-a-vis McDonald's.

It also presents an interesting dilemma. What's the difference between Leinie's owned by Miller and Leinie's NOT owned by Miller? Do these corporate associations really make a difference? If Starbucks makes good coffee, hires local people to run their coffee shops, and generally act as good citizens in their communities, why do we care if there are over a million stores and the coffee comes in a white cup from a green be-smocked barista?

On the other hand, we have to recognize that at such a grand, corporeal, corporate level the business is not about the customer, except to the extent that it helps to separate said customer from customer's dollar bills or add a tally on the minus side of said customer's bank account. The feeling is that Starbucks doesn't care about creating good coffee or even a good coffee experience; rather Starbucks is an expert at making the customer THINK they are getting good coffee and a good coffee experience while providing that thought for as little money as humanly possible. Miller wants you to THINK that you are getting handcrafted, artisan beer from Dick and Jake Leinenkugel even while making much of the product at a faceless facility in Milwaukee by people who probably don't even know that the product going through the tubes will end up in a Leinie's bottle.

But, if it's good beer ("good" being defined as: "you like it") who cares where or by whom it is made? How deceived do you feel knowing that the vast majority of Guinness, owned by spirits giant Diageo, is not made in Ireland - and to qualify as "imported" it's simply made in Canada and crosses our Northern border? Does it bother you to know that Blue Moon, a slice of orange heaven to many people, is owned by Coors? Would you continue drink and exalt Matilda if you knew that Goose Island and Anheuser-Busch have been in bed together for years?

And how is any of this different from Sam Adams? Sam Adams is the largest "independent" brewery in the United States. Not a single drop A tiny fraction of beer is made at a plant owned by Sam Adams; Sam Adams owns no breweries. In fact, at least as of a few years ago, much of the Sam Adams enjoyed here in the Midwest was made at the same facility that pukes out Mike's Hard Lemonade and LaCrosse Lager, City Brewery in LaCrosse, WI.

Of course, all of these make a mockery of the "local" product that many claim to be. Sam Adams is about as "Bostonian" as cream pie. Guinness is about as Irish as most of the revelers packing Claddagh on St. Patrick's Day. Leinenkugel's has as much to do with the Northwoods as the Chicago tourists who lord over the servant class there.

At the end of the day, to me at least, the question is: what do you like about drinking beer?

Are you merely looking for beer that you like? If so, then who cares where it's made? But, if you are looking for a producer that cares about their product, if you are looking for an artisan that wants their consumers to be enlightened, if you care about your dollars being spent on local products, if you value transparency and artistry over quantity and status, then a heavy weight is put against these marketing companies merely passing off the same old industrial lite beer as something new and exciting simply because they put lemon-syrup in it and call it "Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy."


  1. Boston Beer Company brews some of its own beer, both at a tiny brewery in Boston and a larger one in Cleveland. Not that it changes your point, though.

    I drank a Honey Moon the other day and was surprised by how good it was. If the fine print on their bottle labels say "brewed by Coors", I'd probably buy it in the future. If it says "brewed by Blue Moon", I probably wouldn't.

  2. Good coffee is good coffee, and crap coffee is crap coffee, just like beer. Starbucks makes crap coffee and Sam Adams makes good beer. I'll drink one and not the other based purely on personal tastes and preferences. At the end of the day you pour your beer into a nice frosty (or room temperature) mug and there is no label, so it has to stand or fall on its own merit.

  3. Interestingly, there's a pretty strong "buy independent" group out there that would put affiliation as a pretty strong weight against "taste". They see the overlord as a corrupting factor that even if it's "fine" now, eventually corners will get cut and quality will degrade. Not to mention that they don't see as a brewery that's willing to subrogate themselves to a larger power as containing the ideals necessary to truly run a "craft" (in the sense of "artisan") brewery. It's definitely a philosophy that I can get with - there's so much good beer out there that there's no reason to give InBev your money, when you can get something that not just tastes good but makes you feel warm and fuzzy, too.

    And, really, more than the platitudes, I can certainly understand wanting someone who is taking their time, and crafting a beer that is not just want they think you want to drink, but something that stimulates and furthers their own sense of artistic achievement.

    We don't like Founders, Jolly Pumpkin, New Glarus, Furthermore, Surly, etc, etc JUST because they make good beer (they do) but because they have a philosophy and sense of expression that we can get along with. Through their words and actions we get the idea that they aren't just trying to fill a marketing niche or cater to customer whims.

    I don't know if this makes any sense, it's a very difficult concept to put into words. So, hopefully this makes some amount of sense. I think there are some breweries for whom this doesn't make sense, in the past I've called it "chasing the dragon of craft beer" and it's a dangerous, expensive, potentially reputation-destroying game to play.

  4. If you have worked in the industry is very tough to go back to drinking anything corporate. That's really what it comes down to - local vs corporate. The cultures of the craft beer revolution have put the employee and the beer first, not the dollar signs and the mass advertising campaigns to satisfy shareholders. The craft beer industry is a family that supports each other. They don't push and shove, or buy thier way into a market, bar, chain restaurant. People drink their beer(s) because they like them, a, and, b, they like the people who make them. It's a family environment that superceeds the purchase of the beverage. Have we all watched Greg Koch's "I am a Craft Brewer."?

    Case in point: I worked for an immerging craft brewery for a little over three years. When we went to shows, not matter where we were, we made friends. One fest, I witnessed the Miller and Bud rep get into a fight about territorial restrictions for thier respective wholesalers. Umm ... That's the BMOC world in a nut shell.

  5. Interestingly, the only Leinie's I like is original. I was a huge fan of it and have generally been disappointed as SAB Miller née Miller brewing has used the name as a proxy to hide itself.

  6. Whoops, I meant Cincinnati instead of Cleveland. The phrase "there's so much good beer out there that there's no reason to give InBev your money" sums up my buying habits pretty nicely. However, I'd be happy to buy a uniquely excellent InBev product if it existed and they didn't try and trick me into buying it.

  7. I agree that a good beer is a good beer, no matter who makes it. But I also know that I vote for products or change with my dollars and I often refuse to support companies I don't believe in, even if their product is decent or even good. Sometimes that choice is very difficult to see through, but if I can't do it, I shouldn't expect anyone else to either. And if none of us care what happens to our food and drink, eventually we'll all be drinking Starbucks Beer, and eating Wal-Mart Sandwiches. No thanks.

    Also, I've personally noticed a drop in quality with Leinie's from from the first time I tried their beer a few years back. It was good then, not great, but good. The last time I had one it tasted like Miller Lite with a drop of honey flavoring. Not cool.


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