Beer
5:04 am
Fri November 8, 2013

Where Does Anheuser-Busch Fit In St. Louis' Changing Beer Scene?

The beer industry has been transformed by the rise of craft brews in recent years, and St. Louis is no exception; it’s home to microbreweries like Schlafly, Four Hands, and Urban Chestnut.

Now St. Louis mainstay Anheuser-Busch, after being bought by Inbev, is pushing to retain its dominance in the U.S. among a new generation of beer connoisseurs—people like Jeff Wolf and Kelly McKee.

Kelly MacNeil reports.

Looking over a beer menu at the International Tap House recently, Wolf explained that he prefers Belgian-style beers and enjoys microbrews. McKee prefers IPAs, the hoppier the better. It goes without saying, the two don’t drink Budweiser.

"You know exactly what it’s going to taste like; you’ve had it a million times. And to me, it reminds me of college and fraternity parties," McKee said. "It’s not a bad thing, but I feel like my palate has changed."

Wolf agreed. "I feel a little more adult and refined when I have a good craft brew," he said.

Craft beer is booming in the U.S.: in the first six months of this year, sales were up by 15 percent.  Maybe that explains the ad from Budweiser that’s been running on TV. It claims, with its twelve breweries around the U.S., that "you might even say we’re America’s largest local brewer."

Imitation And Acquisition

Recently, big beer producers, like Anheuser-Busch InBev, have imitated, even bought up, craft beers like Chicago’s Goose Island. Here in St. Louis, A-B Inbev is now embracing the city's beer-fan culture with its new biergarten. It’s also put up billboards for Bud Select with the tagline: "Not a craft brew, just brewed with craft."

So, is Budweiser nervous?

Vice President Brian Perkins says absolutely not.

"We welcome variety in the market, and we welcome the types of conversations that are going on in the beer market now and amongst beer drinkers right now," Perkins said. "If people want to know more about where beers come from and how they’re brewed, that’s fantastic because we have some incredible stories and incredible truths to tell about where our beers come from and where they’re brewed."

A Changing Market And Local Loyalties

The market is changing. Overall beer sales have been down over the last few years, and craft brews, among other drinks, are splintering the market. Analysts say that means Budweiser’s marketing job isn’t as simple as it used to be.

"There’s no question that the craft segment, that relies heavily on a more local appeal, a more flavorful appeal, has affected the image of the mainstream beers and has created more of a challenge for them to put forth a unique proposition," Eric Shepherd said. Shepherd is the executive editor of industry publication Beer Marketer’s Insights. "But the craft industry is still dwarfed by the mainstream industry."

It’s true: Microbrews are still only about 6.5 percent of the beer market. Locally, Anheuser-Busch alone still grabs over 60 percent of the sales.

Emily Ganschinietz of Collinsville, Ill. typifies some of the considerations that keep Bud drinkers loyal.

"I grew up here; Anheuser-Busch is here, and to drink Bud Light—I feel maybe  it’s sometimes looked down upon if you don’t drink a Bud product," Ganschinietz said as she shared a bucket of Bud Lights with some friends. "I like Schlafly, but I feel like craft beers are a little heavier to drink, where Bud Light or the lighter beers are easier to drink, and you don’t feel so bogged down or full on them."

That complaint, along with a higher price point, helps explain why craft beers aren’t consumed in such big quantities, and why a case of Bud Light is more likely to appear at parties. 

At any rate, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s fate is no longer tied so closely to the success of its flagship brand, Budweiser. It’s having success with other, pricier products like the Bud Light Lime-a-Rita malt beverage. And now, as a more global company, its eyes are on the markets in China, Brazil and Europe. Maybe being the “King of Beers” in America just isn’t the fiefdom it used to be.