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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2005 Buzz

May '05: Breathing Beer

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes

 

 

June, 2005

It's Miller Time

If you were expecting a Buzz about the recent Supreme Court decision on the legality of shipping wine (and probably beer and liquor), well, sorry. The decisionís very narrow, and does not appear to be the death knell of the three-tier system Ė although it is a crack in the dam face.

If youíre a whiskey fan and you were expecting a Buzz on the upcoming Allied Domecq/Pernod Ricard Ė Fortune Brands menage a trois (because it sure looks like thatís whoís going to end up in bed at this point) and what itís going to mean when Jim Beam gets its hands on Makerís Mark, well, sorry to you, too. Thatís an easy answer, too: not much Ė Makerís is a Money Makerís, and Jim Beam is smart enough to leave that cash cow in the pasture; Wild Turkeyís not big enough to figure in the picture. There may be some interesting fall-out on the Scotch whisky side, but I leave those angles to my man John "Malt Advocate" Hansell.

And if you were expecting a Buzz about the recent re-emergence of Dennyís Beer Barrel Pub onto the world competitive eating stage with the Eleven-Pound BurgerÖIím not even going to say sorry. All I can say is Dude, youíre way too wrapped up in the whole Pennsylvania bar thing, and me saying that should scare you. (But listen: Denny's has TrŲegs on draft now!)

No, this month the Buzz is about the fantastic return of Miller Brewing.

Why do I care about Miller? "Miller makes swill!" I can hear you all saying. Hear me saying: get over it. Miller makes beer, and they have apparently re-discovered that fact about their business, a revelation I cherish and applaud. SAB/Millerís shareholders are probably pretty happy about it as well, because that revelation drove growth of just over 10% in 2004, Millerís first positive year in quite a while.

Miller was the poster-child of Anheuser-Busch market domination in the years between 1990 and 2002, when their market share continued to slip under the assault of A-Bís menagerie of talking frogs and lizardsÖmay God have mercy on the brainless wads whose drinking decisions were made by those ads.

I have no mercy for the idiots at Miller who came up with the endless string of horrible ads that rode their brands into the dirt all those years. Do I even have to say it? Dick the Creative Genius? Sumo Rodeo? "Itís It, And Thatís That"? A-B didnít need the frogs and the lizards, Miller was screwing themselves blind. And never a word about the beer, except that Miller Genuine Draft was cold, and that Miller Lite was a fine pilsner beer. HAH! I couldnít wait till South African Brewing bought Miller and I could ask the owners of Pilsner Urquell about that one!

And it was the answer they gave that led me to believe that they might have a chance. Michael Hennick, director of communications for Miller at the time, e-mailed me to admit that "Pilsner Urquell is indeed the original Pilsner beer and the standard to which all pilsners are held. And while Miller Lite may not be one of the original European pilsners, it is a great American beer brewed in the pilsner tradition to be golden in color and slightly more hoppy in taste." While this didnít really answer the obvious question Ė why on earth did they say Miller Lite was a fine pilsner beer, when it wasnít Ė it did show both honesty and pride. That pride had been missing; all Iíd ever gotten out of Miller Brewing before that was arrogance.

The arrival of Norman Adami sealed the deal. Adami, the new head of Miller, was brought in by SAB headquarters to turn the company around, and he did it from top to bottom. Management deadwood was jettisoned in a flurry of rolling heads, and the entire company was forcibly reminded that Miller Brewing made beer. Adami actually went to the symbolic gesture of drinking a beer at a corporate meeting.

Miller has always been at the bottom of my list of megabrewers, largely because of that arrogance I mentioned, but that gesture grabbed me. This guy gets it, I thought, he sees that Miller has become a tool of the marketers, that the production people have become cogs, forgotten, cost centers. Adami took that crap and stood it on its head. Marketing must serve production, and a company must be proud of its products; a brewer must be proud of their beer.

So we got new ads: "I Canít Taste My Beer!" was a classic, and the "Good Call" series was funny and effective and made real points about the actual qualities of Millerís beer. These were beer ads about the beer, not the name of the beer, or the coldness of the beer, or the beautiful women who appear around the beer.

Why is that such a big deal? After all, put aside the "Mr. Fair To All Beer" persona Iíve been using so far, and Iíll admit: Millerís beer is not exactly Godzilla in the taste department. Itís more like the Geico gecko. 

It's a big deal because it's the first little baby step out of hell. If Miller's embracing of what they do takes the other big brewers further down that path, then maybe we'll see people thinking about what they're drinking. Maybe beer will be more than just a thing to do while you're getting a buzz. Maybe it will spell the end of the embarrassment beer has suffered for decades.  

But what I'm really hoping for is for Adami's example to spread. I'd like to see more emphasis on the beer in every ad campaign, from megabrewers to imports and crafts, brewpubs too. I'd like to see every bit of beer marketing talk about the beer, I'd like to see the public's attention focused on the taste of the beer. I'd like to teach the world to drink, in perfect harmony...

Sorry. I'd truly like to see the brewing industry focus on the beer, because spirits and wine are kicking our ass by focusing on the spirits and the wine. Actually, that's not quite true. Spirits are finally focusing on the fun and innovation of spirits, something that's been missing, and that's working for them in tandem with their traditional emphasis on heritage and luxury. But the wine industry's marketing is clearly focused on the wine, and it's working.

It's because they've been focused on the wine, and because they have wine with real flavor to focus on. The beer industry -- worldwide, not just in the U.S. -- has decided to focus on production of one fairly innocuous type of beer, and focus their marketing on every aspect of that beer except the flavor. This has worked so well that I recently saw a beer analyst say in public that beer was screwed in the competition against wine and spirits because, he said, beer was just beer, there were no other flavors of beer. (I'm trying to find the actual quote, because I'd love to expose this ding-dong to public ridicule: if you find it, let me know. FOUND! Thanks to Julie Bradford, editor of All About Beer magazine, it is now known that the guy who said "You can't come out with a new flavor beer. Beer is beer." was Eric Schmitt, a lead researcher with the Adams Beverage Group.)

Brewers: if an industry analyst knows so little about beer, you've failed in a big way. Or I suppose you could say that the megabrewers have succeeded in a terrible way. But I think Norman Adami may be able to lead the industry out of it. I suspect Adami knows where this kind of focus on flavor could lead, and he's not against it, especially judging from remarks he made at the last Brewers Association of America meeting in New Orleans last November. The core of the speech is this single sentence: 

"I believe the single biggest threat facing the American beer business today is the possibility that we will allow the American consumer to get bored with beer."

Stand up for your beer, Adami urged the small brewers, and it was a thrilling moment. He laid out five ideas on how not to bore the consumer, and they were great: One Ė get clear about who we are. Two Ė play to our strengths. Three Ė donít pretend to be something weíre not. Four Ė innovate every way we can. And five Ė give the distributor meaningful alternatives.

Now is not the time to give in and go bland to try to appeal to a wider range of drinkers. That's not what The Revolution was about. Now is not the time to go froo-froo malternative to try to make beer something it is not. Keep pushing the boundaries. Continue to work on the wholesaler-producer connection. 

And drinkers? Be demanding, be pushy. If you want bigger beers, ask for them. If you want session beers, ask for them. If the beer selection at a restaurant sucks, tell them. 

Most of all, talk about beer. Talk among yourselves, talk to friends. Challenge your friends about why they like their beer; not because yours is better (it may not be), but because thinking about it leads to enlightenment.

It's Miller Time. If Miller's come to their senses and started acting normal, while the small guys have been talking this way all along, well, be gracious and have them in to the party. As the Good Book says: "I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7) Amen.  

 

 
Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: August 02, 2005