Craft beer has become so embedded in our drinking culture that TGI Fridays sells Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas sponsors This American Life, and your dipshit coworker's last batch of homebrew was actually kinda good, in a way, if you're into chipotle märzens.
So congratulations, my tasteful comrades, we've finally done it. We discerning Davids and our slingshots full of hops have finally vanquished the fizzy yellow Goliaths that dominated the American beer market for several dull decades after a huge wave of post-WWII brewing-industry consolidation killed the stylistic diversity and market competition that makes for great beer. There were fewer than 100 American breweries left by the late 1970s, but now we're back up over 2,500, and the new ones are almost universally superior to the holdovers from the Carter-era nadir of American suds production. The age of shitty corporate beer has finally passed!
Well, except that the 10 best-selling domestic beers in 2013 were all made by the same two companies, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev. You know how Sam Adams is so ubiquitous that you're surprised when you can't get one from the break-room vending machine? You might guess that Bud Light still outsells it nearly 30 to 1, but did you realize that friggin' Busch Light laps it five times? If you're thinking, "I didn't even realize they still made Busch Light," then congratulations for having your head in the delicious-craft-beer sand. Seriously, there's something to be said for removing yourself so completely from the crappy macrobrew mainstream that you can pretend it's dried up.
We craft drinkers have carved out a safe little island in the ocean of half-assed adjunct lagers, so does it really matter if we're surrounded on all sides by mediocre beer? At what point does it become unseemly to keep yelling at Uncle Ricky to stock a better beer in his lawn-mowing helmet? It's his tongue, after all, and we've finally arrived at a comfortably inclusive place where there's room for both his Coors Light and whatever double IPA we waited in line for at some farm in Vermont.
Some hardcore craft-beer enthusiasts claim we must stay vigilant, by which they mean aggressively judgmental of poor Uncle Ricky, lest Big Beer simply buy and kill all the craft brewers the way oil companies are conspiracy-theorized to have gobbled up alternative-fuel patents. Their Exhibit A is Chicago's erstwhile craft darling Goose Island, which sold out to A-B InBev in 2011; Goose Island still makes excellent beer for now, but it's not unreasonable to fear that nothing good-tasting comes from an alliance with the brains behind Natty Daddy.
While I wouldn't advocate for rampant consolidation in any industry and therefore agree that the situation is worth keeping an eye on, I gathered you all here today for a more joyful reason. Rather than mourn the loss of a handful of craft breweries' independence, let's instead celebrate the ways in which good new beers have influenced the macro-swill manufacturers to improve their own existing brands.
For the first decade of craft brewing's most recent revival (which followed a brief downturn after the boom-and-bust 1990s), the conglomerates mostly ignored the higher end of the market as they continued to fatten up on light beers. They iced a few, limed or raspberried others, and turned some extra light, but for the most part, their limited innovations had nothing to do with actually improving their beer's quality. This could have just been sluggishness, but it may also have stemmed from a stubborn refusal to accept that a beer could be better than a nice, cold Budweiser.
But the craft movement, while still representing only 7.8 percent of American beer sales by volume, grew by 18 and 15 percent in 2013 and 2012, respectively, and the behemoths are finally starting to react in a consumer-friendly way. Rather than buy up the little guys or flood the market with Bud-a-Rita bullshit, both A-B InBev and MillerCoors have recently introduced beers that are marketed less as gimmicks or "alternatives" and more as honest attempts to improve upon their base models.
Budweiser Black Crown and Miller Fortune weren't designed to impress the craft crowd; their job is to stem the defection away from Bud and Miller High Life, which experienced sales dips of 2.5 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively, in 2013. The new brands, which cost about a buck more per sixer than their predecessors, were rolled out to make money, not to enrich America's drinking life, but motives don't matter if Uncle Ricky ends up with a better brewski on the back deck. So which—if either—of these new deals should he stockpile in the garage fridge?
BUDWEISER BLACK CROWN
Budweiser Black Crown debuted last winter with a series of flashy ads and an aggressive PR campaign that involved metallic briefcases stuffed with beer samples and vials of beechwood chips and some other nuggets of brewerania, hops or barley or bumper stickers or something—I forget, since they ignored the beer shill's golden rule that I might have occasion to wear a free t-shirt to the gym, but I'm never going to take your metallic briefcase or grain vials out in public.
The beer itself is quite a bit less ambitious, but it's still a welcome departure from Bud Basic's trademark one-note style. The original downplays distinct and complementary attributes of malt and hops and instead just shoves everything together into a package presented as a Unified Theory of Beer as Beer; Bud Black brings a bit of complexity.
It pours a nice, deep copper with a fluffy white head; I'm not overly concerned with how handsome a beer is, but it's worth noting that the Black Crown looks better than just another A-B product. And it is! It resembles a middle-of-the-road amber lager, with a faint nose of grainy cereal malt that gives way to a pleasant, slightly fruity caramel character on the midpalate before finishing with, ugh, that tell-tale wet-cardboard Bud-funk. Tough finish notwithstanding, Black Crown is the best version of Budweiser I've tried, and at six percent alcohol by volume, the 20-percent price increase is countered by an equal rise in strength.
This is another matter altogether. This 6.9 percent ABV amber lager's only been around for a few months, and the marketing push has been both less intense and also less focused. Whereas Budweiser clearly positioned Black Crown as "Just like regular lawnmower beer, but better!" Miller seems to be aiming for a bit more mystique—or to be less charitable, they're not sure what the hell they're doing. This is being touted as a beer that will appeal to fans of both spirits and craft beer, but the only thing spirited about it is the goosed-up ABV, and there's nothing craft-like about it other than the increased price.
It shares Black Crown's pretty color, strong head, and lively carbonation, and it smells okay—a bit of lemony hops underneath a vivid but not unpleasant wave of THIS IS AMERICAN MACRO LAGER. But things go way downhill as soon as you let your mouth in on the action. It opens with a decent blast of bready malt, but that almost instantly disappears into a morass of soggy dog and burning hay. After it sat in the glass for a few minutes, the worst of it had blown over enough to show an astringent caramel flavor that's probably supposed to suggest complexity or balance but succeeds only in sucking a bit less than the dog-hay opening act. I will accept that Miller Fortune was an honest attempt at higher-end brewing, but it is bad beer.
So when you head over to Uncle Ricky's Memorial Day barbecue, consider bringing along a six-pack of Budweiser Black Crown. It'll be a nice gesture that demonstrates you want him to drink a little bit better than he's accustomed to, but also that you respect his boundaries.
WINNER: BUDWEISER BLACK CROWN
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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