So the Internet exploded yesterday with news that Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgo-Brazilian monster brewing company that owns the Budweiser brand, wants to replace “Budweiser” on the labels of its U.S. flagship beer with “America.” Early reports that the application had merely been made to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau were replaced later in the day by news that approval has apparently been granted and the change will be allowed to go ahead.
A lot of commentators, particularly from within the ranks of the craft beer world, were vocal about how pandering and cynical they found this move to be, many citing the fact that, in terms of ownership, at least, Budweiser isn’t even a truly American brand of beer. Others noted that the move seems to be a clearly opportunistic way in which to capitalize on the same sort of jingoistic sentiments that have been propelling the Drumpf campaign since its start.
Me, I think it’s even more insidious than that.
You may not have noticed, but over the last few years AB InBev has been gradually fomenting an “us vs. them” relationship between mainstream lager drinkers and craft beer fans. It started even before the famous Super Bowl ad – you remember, the one about the pumpkin peach beer that aired shortly after the company had bought a brewery that once produced a pumpkin peach beer – but that was perhaps where it swung into full gear. It continued this year, of course, with another ad which directly, though perhaps less combatively, disparaged craft beer.
During this whole period, a “craft vs. mainstream” dialogue has not coincidentally arisen in the media, with anti-major brewery sentiment positioned as “snobbery,” mainstream lagers redefined as “real beers,” and craft beer appreciation derided as pinky-in-the-air elitism. Some of the craft beer press has itself been complicit in this, sometimes standing up for “well-made” mainstream lagers like Budweiser and defending brewery owners who choose to sell to larger companies like AB InBev.
If approved, the “America” branding of Bud may well be the next step in this oppositional positioning of mainstream beer. By literally wrapping the beer in the flag, Budweiser marketers are, I believe, attempting to make any criticism of the brand or the company behind it synonymous with criticism of America itself, which is just a short step from questioning the patriotism of anyone who might prefer to drink a different brand of beer. Thus, craft beer drinkers become anti-Americans and Bud drinkers are cast as the true patriots.
(For those who would hold AB InBev’s craft brewery ownership as a reason for questioning the above thesis, remember that all of the company’s craft possessions combined still represent but a fraction of the sales and profits generated by the Budweiser line. It is my contention that AB InBev would shelve its craft properties in a minute if doing so would staunch the bleeding that has beset the Budweiser family for the last decade or more.)
In any other summer, this move might elicit little more than a chuckle and a sigh – if, indeed, the company even bothered with it at all. But in the highly charged political atmosphere of 2016, make no mistake, I see this as a very large and heavy gauntlet being thrown directly in the face of the craft brewing industry. It will be most interesting to see how it all plays out.