Craft Beer and Astroturf

by Ben Perreira

As someone who enjoys an occasional alcoholic beverage and studying the way consumers interact with producers (i.e. economics), I’ve found the craft beer explosion over the past several years pretty fascinating.

MillerCoors announced today that it would be producing and selling a beer that tastes like bourbon in an attempt to reach 21-27 year olds who are keen on the flavor of whiskey.

Now, whiskey and beer are my two favorite nighttime drinks, but for different reasons. Beer’s cold effervescence is refreshing on warm days, the likes of which are many in Los Angeles. Whiskey, on the other hand, warms the body and soul with its spiciness (rye) or its sweetness (bourbon), its potency causing it to linger on one’s palate. I like to talk about rituals as one way to understand how people consume things and experiences. The rituals attached to whiskey and beer are very different.

I do not think MillerCoors’ whiskey beer, dubbed “Miller Fortune”, will be a commercial success. Aside from having to do a substantial amount of shaping of rituals, which is certainly possible from a marketing standpoint, I think that we can look at craft beer success and failures as a guide.

In the world of craft beer, Sierra Nevada is king. How much so? The upper limit of what a brewer may produce and still be described as a “craft” or “micro” brewer is frequently raised to account for Sierra Nevada’s growth. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is far from the easiest beer to drink. Its bitterness takes time to appreciate and the closest thing to sweetness is a floral finish.

Last year a few friends opened a craft brewery in San Diego. As a fan of Kolsch style beers (blonde ales), I found theirs to be phenomenal. It is light and crisp yet smooth, an uncommon feat among lighter colored beers. The company’s branding was also excellent. The problem they faced was that their IPA (India pale ale) was not top notch.

Who cares how their IPA is, one may ask, when they make other great beers and the market is flooded with great IPAs? Craft beer drinkers care. You could make the best Kolsch in the world and 90% of people who drink beer wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between that and a Budweiser poured into the same glass. IPAs are the litmus test for craft brewers.

IPAs are distinctive in flavor and color. One Central California brewer put “quadruple hopped!” on a label and saw sales skyrocket. Hops mean bitterness; enjoyment of their flavors and aromas means savviness. Savvy drinkers despise anything yellow and fizzy. They also love the stories of creation, struggle and triumph that come along with their favorite craft brewers.

Whiskey drinkers are the same way. They want to know the story behind what they’re drinking. It goes well beyond the simple flavor notes that can be blended into beer for some Dr. Frankenstein hybrid.

Let’s return to the story of Miller Fortune. Like Coors has done to some success with Shock Top and A-B InBev did less successfully with Budweiser Black Crown, MillerCoors will market Fortune to craft beer drinkers. “Fortune favors the bold” will be a central message. “You take chances in life. This is the beer for you.”

Beer lovers love to take risks. They know that trying new craft beers is critical to finding a new favorite. They also know that the big guys are trying to produce beers that mimic what craft brewers are doing. This is called astroturfing.

And those 21-27 year olds? They either know their beer and want something unique or don’t care and “gimme a Miller Lite.” Same goes for whiskey. It’s unlikely they care/ know enough about beer to want something unique, but care/ know little enough to be comfortable drinking a whiskey-flavored beer made by the second largest producer of beer in the world with no authentic story attached.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m thirsty and I need to decide between Woodford Reserve and Pliny the Elder.

(Full disclosure: I’ll drink any kind of beer.)