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Why the Light Beer Wars Will Never Return

There’s a scene in “Almost Famous” in which the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the late, great Lester Bangs, tells the aspiring young music reporter at the center of the film that he’s too late.

“Rock ‘n roll… it’s over,” he says. “You got here just in time for the death rattle, the last gasp, the last grope.”

“At least I’m here for that,” says the kid.

I know the feeling. Your humble Hop Take columnist grew up surrounded by posters and paraphernalia from the golden age of big-budget beer ads, owing to a parent’s brief stint marketing Rolling Rock, Labatt Blue, Guinness, and the like. These were the final days of the Light Beer Wars, and America’s last brewers standing were locked in a brutal battle royale, bludgeoning one another’s undifferentiated brands with billboards, broadcasts, broadsheet ads — you name it.

By the time I arrived on the beat last decade, those days were over. Bud Light volumes peaked in 2008, the same year savvy suits from Brazil pulled off a hostile takeover on the St. Louisian leviathan then known as Anheuser-Busch and began whipping its cult-ish, colorful, sometimes-profligate culture into shareholder-satisfying shape. Its rivals, one-time frenemies Miller Lite and Coors Light, tied up that same year in the joint venture that we now know as Molson Coors, and began sanitizing and downsizing their marketing ambitions accordingly. Craft beer was coming on strong, sure, but craft brewers were mostly hunky-dory with one another. This country’s beer culture was booming when I got my start, but the Light Beer Wars had long since rattled their last death rattle.

They’ll stay dead, and that’s probably for the best. Still, I find the Light Beer Wars fascinating as a counterpoint to today’s heavily corporatized Big Beer landscape, where media fragmentation, over-consolidation, and fear of “cancellation” have defanged major brands’ ads of their culture-making, competition-stoking, line-stepping legacy. So last year when we launched Taplines, the award-winning beer-history show I co-produce and host on the VinePair Podcast Network (please subscribe, thank you!), of course the very first episode was about the Light Beer Wars.

The “wars,” such as they were, began in the mid-’70s, but A-B wasn’t the company that fired the first shot. Far from it.

“In the 1950s, the two biggies were back and forth a little bit, Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch until Anheuser-Busch simply flattened everybody at the end of the 1950s,” said my guest, the brilliant and inimitable Maureen Ogle, author of the vital book “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.” The beer business got boring for about a decade and a half: While some regional breweries dabbled in so-called “diet beer,” nothing stuck. In 1970, a deep-pocketed tobacco giant bought a mid-major brewing company in Milwaukee, and the wheels of light beer conflict began to turn. Err… make that “Lite” beer conflict.

“When Philip Morris bought [Miller Brewing Company], they’re walking into this atmosphere where there were two giants and nobody else really matters,” said Ogle. “If you’re Miller and Philip Morris now owns you, what’s your strategy for trying to knock off these two kingpins without getting killed in the process?”

The short answer was “The Original Lite Beer from Miller,” which hit American beer aisles like a low-calorie hurricane in 1975. The long answer involves an auspicious executive junket to Germany, a defunct recipe for a beer called Meister Brau, and a shitload of Marlboro cash. “One thing is, I need to stress this, because I think of everything that came out of [The Light Beer Wars] far and away, the real biggie is that Philip Morris brought so much money,” said Ogle.

Cue high-dollar research and development to thread the “great taste/less filling” needle that no other brewery had yet managed to. Cue the slick cigarette admen bringing market segmentation and brand-building savvy to bear on the vexing problem of convincing men that light beer wasn’t frou-frou. Cue sleepy Miller rocketing from High Life has-not to lightning-struck Lite leviathan. It was Miller Time.

Lite had few serious adversaries off the rip. “Anheuser-Busch, they just utterly dismissed” the idea of light beer at first, said Ogle. August “Three Sticks” Busch III reportedly loathed the very idea and planned to simply bury the challenge from Milwaukee beneath piles of Budweiser money. “Tell Miller to come right along, but tell them to bring lots of money,” he told a reporter in the mid-’70s.

Miller, led by newly installed chief executive John Murphy (a former Philip Morris exec) and flush with a tobacco-stained fortune, did both. And it got personal, man. In his obituary in 2002, The New York Times reported that “[a]t the height of Miller’s battles with Anheuser-Busch, Mr. Murphy was said to have had a rug under his desk with the Anheuser-Busch logo, on which he wiped his feet.”

Schlitz tried to follow with a light beer of its own, but it flopped — thanks in part to the failure of an infamous campaign for the eponymous flagship, immortalized forever as “Drink Schlitz or I’ll Kill You.” Coors Brewing Company reluctantly launched its own competitor in 1978. Back then, though, the Colorado firm lacked national distribution, and its brand was subject to a broad consumer boycott on account of the Coors family’s arch-conservative politics.

Busch III eventually came around to the idea that light beer was no fad, and tiptoed into the fray with Natural Light in 1978. But “A-B didn’t really catch up at all with the Lite market until 1982 when they introduced Budweiser Light,” said Ogle. In 1984, Three Sticks & co. shortened the name to Bud Light. Then the Light Beer Wars began in earnest, with Phillip Morris-backed Miller and mighty A-B competing head-to-head for America’s low-calorie beer money. (Coors, for its part, rode the Silver Bullet to third place, eventually beating out Detroit’s Stroh Brewing Company and an imploding Schlitz.)

Cue Total Marketing, “the first comprehensive quantitative-qualitative marketing program in the industry” (or so A-B execs claimed at the time, as documented in William Knoedelseder’s company history, “Bitter Brew”). Cue Spuds McKenzie, a canine Bud Light mascot “that turned out to be so far more off the charts” than A-B expected upon his introduction at Spring Break 1985 said Ogle. Cue A-B’s zone-flooding sports ad buys, which led Miller to respond in kind, which led Sports Illustrated to describe the relationship between beer and sports broadcasts as “blessed chapter and verse in U.S. brewers’ bibles of marketing and advertising” in 1988. Miller Time? Meet the Miller Killers.

“By the early 1990s, light beer had taken over the entire American beer market,” said Ogle. In 1994, Bud Light overtook Miller Lite to become the segment’s best-seller. All the while, the companies had been fiercely fighting one another for supremacy in the court of public opinion (and sometimes in the courts, too.) “It became clear that Anheuser-Busch was determined to just grind Miller into the ground, and it’s not surprising that in 2002, Phillip Morris said ‘OK, OK’” and moved on, she said. Americans started moving on from light beer, too. By then, first-generation craft breweries had begun to persuade the American drinking public that the beverage didn’t have to taste “f*cking close to water.”

As a journalist, I’m not sentimental when it comes to the beer business. I think we’re better off that the Light Beer Wars are in history’s rearview mirror. Our drinking choices are better than ever. The industry is no longer totally in thrall to silver-spoon scions, right-wing cranks, and domineering maniacs. The monolithic media structure and straight-white-guy-centric corporate culture of that era engendered some embarrassing lowest-common-denominator advertising tropes that these same brands are still unwinding decades later. Some of that legacy is legitimately toxic, too. For a sense of just how much rot said tropes lodged in the brains of America’s chuds, look no further than Kid Rock shooting up Bud Light cases with an assault rifle last year, followed by the entire GOP cloaking rank transphobia beneath a thin veneer of lament that the brand had “abandoned” its “real” customers. Not subtle!

Yet also as a journalist, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been more fun to work this beat back then, before every executive had been media-trained to speak corporatese and “white-space innovation” had superseded simply hammering undifferentiated competitors into submission with esprit de corps, bajillions of dollars, and sheer force of will. Is there a C-suite left in the beverage-alcohol business where the rugs bear the logos of rival brands? Is there a macrobrewing exec still monomaniacal enough to goad the largest tobacco company in the world into an advertising arms race — and do it in the business press, no less? Why is the most colorful beverage executive of the past decade a wingnut energy drink inventor, rather than a strung-out failson of a withering brewing dynasty?

Tastes change, firms get sold, shareholders demand more and more consistent returns from mature industries. It was ever thus. The Light Beer Wars were never going to last forever. At least someone was there to record the death rattle.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

Earlier this week, NBC News reported that the Biden administration was moving forward with its long-signaled plan to reclassify cannabis from a Schedule I drug like heroin to a Schedule III drug like Tylenol with codeine. Even if this change makes it through the bureaucracy and withstands an all-but-certain challenge in the judiciary, it still would not mean federal legalization of recreational weed. But it’s a step in that direction, which means we’re one step closer to finding out how cannabis and alcohol interact in the American consumer marketplace at national scale. Pipe dream? In the short term, yes. But Tilray Brands’ Reddit-addled retail investors sure don’t think so: The canna-booze conglomerate’s stock surged ~25 percent on the news, and is trading more than 10 percent up from last week.

📈 Ups…

In the last four-week period, imports (Modelo et al.) surpassed domestic premiums (Bud Light et al.) as the most valuable segment in off-premise dollar sales… Congrats to Jack’s Abby Craft Ales and Wormtown Brewery on their new Massachusetts beer marriageKings & Convicts Brewing finally found somebody to take over Ballast Point’s massive Miramar brewery…

📉 …and downs

No-Li Brewhouse alleges Tilray Brands’ ripoff routine went a little too far in a just-filed trademark suit over the latter’s new “Big Juicy Ballard” beer from Redhook BreweryColorado’s governor is trying to carve out beer entirely from a controversial tax bill up for debate in DenverMolson Coors told investors it’s got striking Texas Teamsters handled, but even big buybacks couldn’t save its stock from stumbling after its Q1 earnings call

The article Why the Light Beer Wars Will Never Return appeared first on VinePair.

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