You’ve seen them on the shelves of your local beer store - a new brew to sample, never really heard of this one... who makes it? After scouring the label for a clue, you see it, in small type, maybe up the edge of the label: Anheuser-Busch. BMC (BudMillerCoors) is quietly moving farther into the craft beer world, and with good reason. While the macro brewers’ market share further slipped to other alcoholic beverages over the last year, the craft beer sector continued its growth, growing
another 12% in 2006, and now commanding 3.2% of the overall market share. While this does not sound like a lot, it is enough to make the big boys sit up and take notice. Over the last 10 years, there has been a slow reversal of the brewery consolidation of the ’70s. During that time, the “big three” brewers bought out the competition in the fizzy yellow sector rather than compete with them. A brief look at the Miller stable of brands tells the tale - over 1/3 of their beers have been obtained via acquisitions.
It is entirely possible that a similar consolidation occurs within the next decade, as the larger craft brewers retire or move on to other endeavors. In the meantime, BMC is not resting on their collective laurels. Molson-Coors has expanded their Blue Moon and George Killian’s offerings. AB has taken a two pronged approach - distribution agreements coupled with controlling interests, such as with Widmer, Red Hook and the recent stake purchased in Dominion - and by producing its own specialty beer lines, AKA “stealth” beers.
This is by no means AB’s first foray into the pseudo-craft beer arena. Past ventures such as Red Wolf and the diversification of he Michelob line have met with mixed results. These new products are different in one major respect. Past efforts were still prominently advertised as AB offerings, while the stealth beers are marked much more subtly, if at all. One has but to peruse the local beer aisle to find these brews, disguised carefully to keep the average consumer in the dark about their origins. Names like Bare Knuckle Stout, Redbridge and Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale are a far cry from the Bud/Bud Light/Bud Ice/Bud Dry/Bud Select school of naming thought, and nary a Clydesdale or AB shield to be found on the package. Every one has been carefully designed and marketed to steal some thunder from a craft brand, regardless of the quality of the product inside the bottle.
This leads to an obvious question - what about the stuff inside the bottle? The brewers have attempted an array of styles, and given the large distribution of AB, they are bound to sell quite a bit, mostly to curious consumers who might have heard about this “micro brew thing”. A regular swill drinker may find the cornucopia of cascading flavors in his Spring Heat Spiced Wheat a revelation. Of the stealth beers I have sampled, the best mark an experienced palate could give would be a resounding “marginal”. As usual, macro brewers are very good with quality control, but will sacrifice the level of quality for the bottom line.
This brings up one, final question - are these stealth beers a good thing or a bad thing to the craft beer community? I am of the opinion that they are a good thing. Any product that can sway a beer drinker away from the popular conception of what a beer should be - a fizzy, pale yellow, tasteless alcohol delivery system - is a good thing. They are like craft beer training wheels. I have approached people contemplating purchasing some of these stealth products at the local grocery store, and used them to strike up a conversation about beer, eventually trying to steer them towards a quality bottle. If a person is adventurous enough to try something different, they just might be bold enough to try something good.