Super Bowl ad shows Budweiser is afraid of craft beer

Let me get this straight: Budweiser bashes craft beer lovers as “fussy,” then Budweiser boasts of their own “beechwood aging.” Feels like it’s 2005 again, and I’m listening to Pope Benedict loudly oppose gay relationships while wearing faaaaaaabulous red Prada shoes. Fortunately for us, there’s a new Pope, and a surging number of beer drinkers are wise enough to know the difference between real craft beer and beechwood-aged “beer.”

By now you probably know that Budweiser proudly declared how unafraid they are of the craft beer industry by constructing a massive straw man and lighting it aflame in a Super Bowl ad. “Craft beer lovers only like weird flavors like peach pumpkin ale! Craft beer lovers only fuss over beer instead of drinking it!”

It’s been fascinating to watch the backlash, followed by the backlash to the backlash. You can find thoughtful pieces dissecting just how awful the Budweiser ad was here, here, and here. But then came the indignation. The Foaming Head, an online “beer encyclopedia” that features consulting services, has bashed its own kind on twitter.

The next day, The Foaming Head tweeted, “Craft beer little brother complex is still in full effect.”

With apologies to the Foaming Head, it’s time to get into the fray. It’s not helpful to declare yourself – in remarkably condescending fashion – above the fray. Right now, the fray is where the future of American beer is being decided. Craft beer doesn’t need an internecine war.

Budweiser deserves to be scared. The Wall Street Journal reminds us that in 2003, Budweiser shipped nearly 30 million barrels of beer. By 2013, that number plunged to 16 million barrels, a 45% decline. What was rising in Bud’s place? Among other things, craft beer. From 6 million barrels in 2003, craft beer finally edged out Bud with 16.1 million in 2013.

beerflightIt’s funny what happens when Americans discover flavor. I don’t mean that to be a smug comment about beer, the kind that Bud might put in an ad. I mean that very seriously. Coors, for example, constantly reminds us in ads that their beer is capable of getting really, really cold. Wonderful. Well, wonderful for us: the colder a drink gets, the harder it becomes to taste it.

Budweiser might remind us that they’re not Coors; hell, as I mentioned, Budweiser boasts of their own unique process called “beechwood aging.” I don’t know a single person who knows what that is, or cares, but Bud doesn’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to lampoon craft beer lovers as “fussy” and then act all fussy yourself. You don’t get to claim you make beer “the hard way” when the hard way consists of leveraging your massive power as a brand and slashing jobs. The hard way is starting small without the benefit of handouts or tax breaks. The hard way IS craft beer.

The sales numbers indicate that consumers are figuring out the game: beechwood aging means nothing, and beer with no flavor is no fun to drink. But Budweiser is choosing this moment to try to push back the craft beer movement. And here’s where some in the craft beer scene get it wrong.

“What’s the big deal?” they ask. “That Super Bowl ad was only targeted at Bud customers. Brand reinforcement. There isn’t a single Budweiser drinker who would drink craft beer, so it’s harmless.”

This is flat-out wrong, and it’s an ignorant attitude for a community that has had to work so hard to gain market share. Budweiser knows there are millions of customers who are curious about real flavor. They see more friends drinking craft beer. They’re persuadable.

Bud is choosing to plant an image in their mind: Craft beer is about lame, joyless poseurs, and by the way, craft beer is all namby-pamby sweet drivel. Peach and pumpkin? Ha!

The ad is, in other words, an actual threat. The craft beer scene should not allow itself to be defined by a massive company that would love to carve market share back. Scoffing and looking the other way lets Budweiser set the terms.

So what to do? It starts with pieces like this one by Carla Jean Lauter, the Beer Babe. Lauter writes, “It might make a consumer… a little shy of going to a trendy gastropub. And every time that happens, AB-InBev benefits, and non-macro beer suffers. I hope we can use this ad as a dialogue, as a starting point, and focus our responses towards making our own industry stronger.”

Beyond that, I wonder if the ridiculous legal drinking age contributes to the success of big-brand, junk beers like Budweiser. Adults go to college, can’t buy alcohol legally, and what do they do? They binge on the cheapest stuff they can find. They are not doing so as a way of discerning quality. They’re getting drunk. Big beer companies target the young crowd, and it’s a savvy move.

So if some of the craft beer reaction to the Budweiser ad was petulant, I won’t criticize. It’s long past time that we speak the truth about food and drink. If McDonald’s wants you to call a loved one, tell that loved on that the best thing they can do is never eat McDonald’s. If Coors wants to boast that their beer can get really cold, remind them that freezing sewage is a good way to eliminate the odor. And if Bud wants to attack the craft beer movement, tell them they’ve made the wrong move. They’ve been losing market share, and their recourse could have been to invest in a better product. Instead, they’re attacking the people who risk their careers to make the best beer they can. Don’t let Budweiser smear them.