Microbrewing Gains Attention — and a Following
When craft brewers (also known as microbrewers) first came on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, just about everyone ignored them. Consumers didn’t take them very seriously, and as far as the big brewers were concerned, well, they weren’t concerned. Early craft brewers were like a gnat on an elephant’s backside; when the elephant swishes his tail, though, the gnat knows it has the elephant’s attention.
Exactly when big brewers started taking microbrewers seriously is open to debate, but the contract brewing companies likely had something to do with it. A contract brewer is a company that doesn’t own any brewing equipment of its own; it hires a real brewery to brew its beer for it on contract.
A few contract brewers succeeded and eventually opened their own brewing facilities, but most of them failed and faded into oblivion. The one thing that contract brewers succeeded in doing was rapidly expanding the craft beer market, getting the attention of both the consumers and the big corporate brewers, like Miller, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch.
When microbrewing became a hot concept, just about everyone and his grandmother started a craft-brewing operation. Scores of new brands hit the market with regularity. That’s about the time the elephant started noticing the gnat.
The Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller Brewing companies sent a message industry-wide when they began introducing their own new specialty brands to the market (from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s). The message was twofold:
They weren’t giving up shelf space to a bunch of snot-nosed upstarts.
They could produce craft beers quicker and better than any small brewery. (At least they were right about the quicker part.)
Several national and regional breweries tried to get in on the craft beer movement by attempting to produce craft beers of their own. Some brewers genuinely understood the notion of artisanal beer and did their best to emulate it, while others missed the concept by a country mile. These guys did little more than put a mediocre-tasting beer in a brown bottle and dress it up with a cool label and a funky name. They thought it’d pass for a microbrew. It didn’t.
When enough of these pretenders failed, the big boys decided to take a different tack. They set their sights on buying their way into the craft beer movement by purchasing smaller breweries — either whole or in part. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Some of the big brewers’ more notable forays into craft beer ownership include the following:
Anheuser-Busch got involved with Seattle’s Redhook Ale Brewery, Portland’s Widmer Brothers Brewing Company, Honolulu’s Kona Brewing Company, and Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company (known collectively as the Craft Brewers Alliance, Inc.). Anheuser-Busch opened a brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in order to brew the Redhook, Widmer, Kona, and, more recently, Goose Island Beers there to more easily distribute those brands on the East Coast.
Miller invested heavily in the former family-owned Wisconsin regional Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company and built that brand nationally.
Coors was a little stealthier when it formed the surreptitious Blue Moon Brewing Company — a little-known Coors subsidiary that has fared quite well. (In 2010, Coors also announced the creation of Tenth and Blake Beer Company, a new company focused on craft and import beers.)
Even today, as production and sales numbers for the largest brewers in North America are either flat or declining, overall barrelage is still on the rise. Credit the craft brewers.