Fred Grimm

Beware, beer drinkers: Craft labels are not as they seem

Luis C. Brignoni and wife Maria M. Iguina toast the opening of Wynwood Brewing Co., Miami’s first craft brewery, in 2013. Brignoni says the multinationals haven’t made a play for the brewery — yet.
Luis C. Brignoni and wife Maria M. Iguina toast the opening of Wynwood Brewing Co., Miami’s first craft brewery, in 2013. Brignoni says the multinationals haven’t made a play for the brewery — yet. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

I was a beer-drinking revolutionary, defying the mighty corporate machine by sucking down all those damn Blue Moons.

What I didn’t notice, as I stormed the ramparts with my supposed microbrew in hand, was that the Blue Moon Brewing Co. actually belongs to MillerCoors, which was sold to Molson Coors by SABMiller last year so the Justice Department would look kindly on the SABMiller’s giant merger with Anheuser-Busch InBev. And all that.

Not that the label on a bottle of Blue Moon suggested anything other than that I was gulping down an authentic craft beer. I’ve been an unwitting consumer of America’s leading anti-craft beer, taken in by an international conglomerate’s ploy to fend off these upstart microbreweries.

So Big Beer has been hawking faux craft beers, with crafty-sounding names like Blue Moon, Shock Top, Landshark, Wild Blue. In 2014, The Beer Advocate published internal advertising documents from Labatt’s, another subsidiary of AB InBev, happily noting that 75 percent of consumers wrongly assumed that Shock Top was bottled by a “small/unknown brewer.”

Meanwhile, the big boys have been snatching up sure-enough craft brewers. AB InBev, for example, purchased iconic brands like California’s Golden Road, Oregon-based 10 Barrel, Long Island’s Blue Point, Virginia’s Devils Backbone, Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery and Chicago’s Goose Island. One wonders, now that AB InBev has purchased Elysian Brewing Co. in Seattle, whether Elysian’s Loser Pale Ale will keep its famous motto, “corporate beer sucks.”

You’ve got to worry. How about our authentic, home-brewed crafts down there in South Florida? “Due South has been approached in the past by parties interested in purchasing our business. The answer is always the same — Due South is not for sale,” Mike Halker, of Due South Brewing in Boynton Beach, assured me via email. “We make real, independent beer and our intention is to continue doing so.”

Over in Tampa, Florida’s pioneer craft brewer, Cigar City, rejected an offer from AB InBev last year but then accepted a deal for less money with Fireman Capital, a Boston-based private equity firm, that reportedly will allow founder Joey Redner to maintain control of the operation.

Luis Brignoni said the giant multinationals haven’t made a play for his Wynwood Brewing in Miami. Not yet.

Both Halker and Brignoni were bothered by the faux crafts peddled by Big Beer. Along with the Brewers Association, a national trade association of craft brewers, which has issued a statement complaining, “The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.”

“I think it’s a defense mechanism by the corporate brewers,” Brignoni said, also via email. “It’s no secret that overall beer consumption is flat at best. However, craft sales continue to increase by double digits. So something is giving way, and that’s the major multinational breweries.

“The faux brands are a way for them to stay competitive and an attempt to attract the young millennial consumer who is looking for something with flavor and doesn’t mind paying a little more for it,” Brignoni added.

He noted that the true provenance of some conglomerate faux crafts “are impossible to find out by the label.” Halker was similarly bothered. “It’s unfortunate the macros are trying to sell big beer disguised as craft, but it makes sense if their market share is declining and ours is increasing.”

The weird thing is that even as AB InBev has been buying up craft brewers, its flagship brand, Budweiser, has been running an advertising campaign mocking craft beer drinkers. “Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale. We’ll be brewing us some golden suds.”

Except America is clearly losing its taste for the light, watery lager that once dominated the domestic beer market. Budweiser’s latest marketing ploy has been to temporarily rename the beer “America.” Which prompted Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me to mock the unAmerican company (AB InBev is a Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate): “So as a marketing gimmick, why not change its name to America? That was the No. 2 solution they came up with to help with sales after they rejected No. 1 — make it taste good.”

Halker wasn’t worried about Big Beer’s mendacious marketing tactics. “Fortunately the average craft consumer is becoming more educated every day and they’re seeing through the fake brands.”

Maybe that’s true for the average craft consumer. But before this unwitting chump figured out that he was supporting some corporate behemoth, a whole damn galaxy of Blue Moons had already gone down my gullet.