A Not-So Nefarious History of Craft and Crafty Beer

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Coors Brewing Co. forms UniBev, Ltd.

To Coors Brewing Co.’s credit, they made inroads in the specialty beer market well before Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. The brewery had produced Killian’s Irish Red since 1981, and in 1994 that beer would be the nation’s best-selling in the specialty beer category.

The brewery formed its own specialty line, called UniBev, Ltd., in 1993. The next year, they announced plans to open the SandLot Brewery in Denver’s Coors Field baseball stadium. It was here that Blue Moon Belgian White was born, though the beer would go on to be contract brewed by F.X. Matt in Utica, New York, as well as Hudepohl-Schoenling of Cincinnati, Ohio. These breweries brewed for a variety of brands at the time, including Boston Beer Co.

In addition to the witbier, the Blue Moon Brewing Co. had contract brewed the following labels: Blue Moon Nut Brown Ale, Blue Moon Raspberry Cream Ale and Blue Moon Abbey Ale. As you can imagine, though, the Belgian White was the most popular. In 1997, the beer was distributed throughout all 50 states. Coors also added new labels under the Killian’s line, with George Killian’s Wilde Honey Ale and Wilde Honey Draught coming online in 1996.

Regional Brewers Did It, Too

Adding specialty lines and labels was not limited to just “the big three” — a host of larger regional breweries also started offering new brands. Genesee Brewing Co., for instance, produced J.W. Dundee’s Honey Brown Lager as well as the Michael Shea’s line of beers. Not to be outdone by their bigger brothers, they created their own umbrella label called the HighFalls Brewing Co., which introduced an India pale ale in 1996. Genesee, like so many other breweries at the time, also contract brewed for Boston Beer Co.

Latrobe Brewing Co., a division of Labatt U.S.A. at the time, was most well known for Rolling Rock. In November of 1996, however, the brand also introduced Latrobe Bavarian Black, American Pale and Bohemian Pilsner.

The Response to Stealth Brewers

Today, when a brewery attempts to misguide consumers as to a brand’s ownership, we call them crafty brewers. In the mid ’90s, when the term craft was used interchangeably with specialty, they called such misleading businesses stealth brewers (this seems to have been coined by Celebrator Beer News in 1993). Back then, Blue Moon’s beers didn’t say they were produced by Coors, but that they were “under special license, Cincinnati, Ohio.” Nor did the Killian’s beers, which said they were produced by UniBev, Ltd. out of Golden, Colorado. Red Dog and Icehouse were popular offerings from Miller, yet the packaging only listed Plank Road Brewery, which didn’t exist.

One of the loudest voices against such practices came not from the nation’s small brewers, but from its biggest. Anheuser-Busch created table tents and scratch-off cards asking bar patrons, “Who Really Brews These Beers?” On this material were the logos of brands like Sam Adam’s, Pete’s Brewing Co., Red Dog, Killian’s and more.

They even featured a quiz on their website imploring visitors to see if they knew who produced these brands. In this section, they seemed to fire a shot across the bow at Red Dog, brewed by Miller but labeled as a Plank Road product: “The Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group is proud to brew Red Wolf … in fact, we put our name right on the label. We just don’t understand why the other brands don’t do the same???”

Even more direct a shot came in the aforementioned “Ask the Brewmaster” section, when someone wrote in asking what the difference was between Red Wolf and Red Dog.

Red Wolf Red Dog.png

Poring over these old Q&A questions, I was struck by two things: the direct and honest way that these brewers responded to questions (some that were negative in nature), and that these brewers—especially Steele—genuinely seemed to enjoy these specialty beers. In one response, the brewers advised someone to “look for an IPA from us maybe next year.” I’m not sure if Steele ever brewed an IPA at Anheuser-Busch, but he certainly brews them at Stone Brewing Co. And he literally wrote the book on the style in 2012.

Reading from today’s vantage point makes the exchanges even more interesting. One hop-head wrote in encouraging the brewery to brew an ale with a Chico yeast and some of the Elk Mountain hops before putting it in Bud cans. The brewers suggested they check out their Elk Mountain Amber Ale, which was dry-hopped with Cascade. As for the Bud cans, they had this response: “Putting the beer in cans? Most specialty beer drinkers don’t want canned beer, but maybe we can start a trend.”

Another person wrote in to ask what Anheuser-Busch learned from Miller’s short-lived Reserve line. The brewers’ response was surprisingly astute and as apt today as it was in the mid ’90s:

“Specialty beer buyers are not all that interested in Big Brewers efforts in the area, UNLESS there’s information given out about how we make the beers, or the beers tell a story. There is a fine balance between over-marketing these beers and not marketing them enough, and legitimizing these beers with the consumers is difficult. I don’t think Miller did enough to sell these beers, and I think they gave up on them too quickly. These beers need time to develop the kind of sales that would make Miller happy, they’ll never take the country by storm as soon as they are introduced.”

Early Attempts at Defining Craft Beer

Anheuser-Busch pulled no punches in their response to stealth brewers, but what were others saying of such misleading practices? And just what was craft beer? In one of his columns from All About Beer magazine from 1997 called “What is ‘craft’ beer?,” longtime beer writer Fred Eckhardt, a very respected advocate for beer both then and now, attempted to answer that question by polling the brewers themselves.

Eckhardt wrote that the term “craft beer” was first used in Vince Cottone’s 1986 book, Good Beer Guide: Breweries and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest. Cottone’s own definition was “a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally (and is) True Beer.”

Anchor Brewing’s founder Fritz Maytag, who many credit with starting the craft beer movement, had this to say: “There is too much gratuitous defining and categorizing going on in the brewing industry for our own good. Let the brewers brew and label and create on their own!”

Pete Schlosberg, founder of Pete’s Brewing Co., didn’t care for the term either. “I don’t like this word,” he was quoted as saying. “(I) believe most, if not all, brewers have craft, even AB, Miller, Coors, Stroh, etc. What we are producing are special beers; I (call them) ‘specialty beers.’”

And Rogue Brewing Co.’s Jack Joyce, who passed away this year, had this to say: “For Rogue, it means artisans of integrity. The original meaning has been successfully appropriated by crafty marketeers, copying the friendlier aspects of the term undeterred by integrity, with no interest in fueling the flame. The world can do without any more government rules. We will rely on the famous definition of pornography: ‘You know it when you see it.’”

Even in the 1990s, brewers, writers and drinkers had trouble defining craft beer. It was clear that Fred Eckhardt had more thoughts on the subject though, many of which were brought to light in his article “The Budweiser menace” from the March 1997 issue of All About Beer. The piece was inspired by an NBC Dateline segment in which Anheuser-Busch campaigned for “honesty and truth in labeling.” Most of the jabs were directed at Boston Beer Co., who at the time relied on many contract breweries from around the nation.

Eckhardt criticized Anheuser-Busch’s brewing techniques as well as the way they went after contract breweries, which he suggested were very important to the industry. He ended the piece with these words:

“What really counts, for us consumers, is what’s inside the bottle and our choices of that. Choice is the issue. All brewers lose when some lie about their product. (Coors and Miller, pay attention: Plank Road and Blue Moon exist only on Fantasy Island.) Our small brewing industry needs to tolerate—even encourage—its wondrous diversity.”

In an afterword, Eckhardt also noted that he would no longer buy any brands associated with Anheuser-Busch. “I won’t miss Bud, Michelob, or Red Wolf, but I will miss Redhook,” Eckhardt wrote. “I hope they can get off the tiger someday, because this is a bad tiger to ride.”

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