It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: One is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.—Frank Zappa
This will be my last column, as the Mayans have predicted that we are all to experience a painful death in December 2012. Unless the Mayans are lying, we’re dying. But then again the Mayans weren’t the most trustworthy bunch. Did they really predict the end of the world? No matter, if this is it, I sure as hell ain’t going to be banging out any more articles. I’ll be too busy immersing myself in a sort of Bacchanalian revelry. Caligula will have nothing on me. Bring me my bottle of Infinium and my jewel-encrusted chalice and release the dancing girls. What, no jewel-encrusted chalice or dancing girls? Well, just bring me my 1998 Anheuser-Busch commemorative mug, a can of Steel Reserve and my long-suffering wife.
As the end draws near, it brings on bouts of reflection. Which naturally beget regret and a few points of light. As I look back on my 20-plus-year career in the beer industry, I ask myself what my enduring legacy will be. Mmm. Not much, I fear. I haven’t produced any good beer, erected any fermenters, owned any distribution trucks or sold any beer at retail. I’ve drunk an awful lot of beer and made an awful lot of friends. Urine? And laughs. That counts for something, I guess.
I’d say the main legacy that I’ve left behind is a big honking block of beer writing, chronicling the beer industry’s change five days a week since 1998 in Beer Business Daily. Assuming 250 workdays a year, and an average issue of BBD is 2.5-page long, that’s 8,750 pages of beer trade writing. It’s exhausting just writing that sentence. That’s the equivalent of about 40 novels.
Of course, when I started writing about this industry, it was much different. The players were different, the number of players was different, and the power each player wielded was different. Back then, it was Miller Brewing Co., Coors Brewing Co., Anheuser-Busch and a few regional and craft brewers and importers who didn’t amount to much. In fact, when I got into the beer business in 1991, craft beers had less than one market share point. The largest three brewers (A-B, Miller and Coors) had 80 share points and growing. The regionals (Pabst, G. Heileman, Stroh, Schlitz) were gasping to hold onto their 15 share points, and the imports only had 5 share points and were not growing.
The hot topic that year was the doubling of the federal excise tax on beer, and whether Coors was going to buy Stroh or when Heineken was going to start using more beer distributors instead of wine and spirits distributors. Budweiser was starting to feel softness, but was still by far the largest beer brand in the United States, selling 2.5 times as much as the next-largest brand, Miller Lite. Amazing as it sounds today, Bud Light and Coors Light were selling about the same amount of beer. Corona sold less than a million barrels. Heineken was twice the size of Corona. Pabst Blue Ribbon was in a free fall and would lose half its volume in the next 10 years.
Bud Light now sells more than twice as much as Budweiser, Coors Light outsells Miller Lite, and PBR is back to what it was selling in 1991. And crafts are inching up on seven share points and growing like gangbusters.
The structure of the industry has changed as well. We now have what I’d call a duopoly, with AB InBev and MillerCoors eating up about 80 share points. Both are owned by multinational conglomerates. Craft brewers have sprung up in virtually every town, and some have grown to be national or regional brewers. Yuengling and Boston Beer, which were barely on the radar screen in 1991, are now large players with more than one share point a piece. Stroh, Schlitz and G. Heileman, once players, are gone as breweries. And yet some former big brands are making a comeback. PBR is the big one, but you also have Genny, Lone Star, Rainier, Narragansett and others. Even Budweiser is starting to turn around. My, have times changed and continue to change. But of course, it all won’t matter come December, 2012. If you can’t find any dancing girls, just bring me a turkey leg.