When Big Beer Goes Small – The Rising Number of Big Breweries Tapping into the Craft Beer Segment

When you think of “big beer”, you think of names like Budweiser, Michelob, Heineken, Coors and the like. You think of names that have been around for a long time, and have a national or even international presence. That’s made it easier for newcomers to the world of craft beer to avoid mass-produced brews and go for options made by small brewers. However, there’s a chance that bottle you’re holding actually isn’t from a craft brewery. More and more big beer companies are tapping into the craft brew market with savvy marketing techniques, new names and the strategic purchasing of actual small breweries. What should the self-respecting craft beer lover know?

A Look at Some Not-So-Craft Breweries

Blue Moon – Blue Moon has a craft brew “slant” and puts out a range of tasty options that you won’t find available through most big breweries. The Belgian White is the mainstay here, but you’ll find a ton of other flavors and styles put out throughout the year. That’s pretty in-line with what a craft brewery would do, right? If you think Blue Moon is a craft brewery, you need to think again. It’s actually part of the “craft arm” of MillerCoors – a brand developed from within the beer giant and designed specifically to target craft beer lovers. 

Does that make Blue Moon unworthy of a tasting or two? There are some excellent beers on offer, and in fact, Blue Moon might be one of the better entry points into the world of craft beer for someone who’s unsure just how far from the “norm” they want to go right off the bat. 

Leinenkugel – It’s a tough one to pronounce, and it’s not that well known outside the boundaries of the Midwest, but Leinenkugel has been drawing more and more attention recently. That’s thanks in large part to the company’s line of shandy-style beers, as well as to some very smart marketing decisions made in the last year or so. For those not acquainted with what a shandy is, it’s essentially a blend of beer and fruit juice. Leinenkugel’s most prominent shandy is their summer lemonade-flavored brew. They’ve got other options available as well, including orange and a lemon berry combination. 

Now, Leinenkugel is a bit different from Blue Moon – it began as a brewery in its own right, and still operates as an independent entity in most respects. However, the company is owned by MillerCoors (just like Blue Moon). This is an example of a growing trend in the world of big beer – buying up independent brewers that have a decent fan base and adding them to a portfolio. 

Goose Island – Goose Island made a name for itself as an innovative craft brewer dedicated to putting out some excellent beers. In many ways, Goose Island is still a craft brewery. The company operates as it sees fit (for the most part), and dictates what beers it brews. It still maintains its unique culture and character, too. However, it’s now owned by AB InBev (and has been since 2011). 

This is another example of craft breweries being snapped up and added to the portfolio of big beer producers. Whether you’re for or against that particular trend, the fact remains that it’s worked out very well for Goose Island (and AB InBev, of course). The brewery has much wider distribution now, and because the parent company is pretty hands-off in dealing with Goose Island, it’s only nominally part of the big beer world.

Shock Top – Shock Top has been around for a few years, and has built a following with some beer drinkers, mostly those who want to try something that’s a little different from what you’ll find in a can of Budweiser. Shock Top has put out a few different options to date, although the company’s most innovative offering might be the End of the World Midnight Wheat brewed with chili. Sounds pretty “crafty” doesn’t it? Well, think again. Shock Top is in-line with Blue Moon, although it’s a “craft” brand developed in house at AB InBev rather than being another addition to MillerCoors’ growing portfolio. Shock Top was never an independent brewery, and is basically just part of the craft arm developed by the largest beer company in the world.

Why Are Big Beer Companies Tapping Into the World of Craft Beer?

So, why are companies like AB InBev and MillerCoors going to such great lengths to integrate themselves into the world of craft brewing? There are quite a few different reasons. The first, and probably the most obvious is the fact that big beer has been losing money while craft beer sales are skyrocketing. Leinenkugel’s 10% growth in 2013 is a perfect example of that. Another reason is the shifting perceptions of beer drinkers. While “Joe Six-Pack” is still out there (the guy who religiously buys a case of Bud Lite for the weekend), more and more consumers are coming to think of craft beer as being synonymous with higher quality, innovation and better taste. 

Those changing perceptions have led to seismic shifts in what beer is sold and where. As craft brew becomes more and more popular, fewer drinkers are buying big beer and are instead concentrating their efforts on exploring the new options available to them. It’s a wise business move for big breweries to make sure they have a stake in that new world. 

By building up in-house craft brands and through the outright purchase of craft breweries with a proven track record, they give themselves a way to do exactly that. While some drinkers might cry foul about the somewhat deceptive nature of the practice, the fact remains that it’s actually a testament to the power and bright future of the craft beer world. If even mighty AB InBev recognizes the wisdom of building up the company’s craft portfolio, you can bet that independent brewers are doing something right. 

Poto Cervesia, 
Dustin Canestorp