Industry giants are threatening to swallow up America's carefully regulated alcohol industry, and remake America in the image of booze-soaked Britain.
No longer required to set across-the-board prices for their goods, breweries learned that they could manipulate the much smaller wholesalers to extract more favorable terms, brand support, and profit by offering lower prices to those that did their bidding. The threat of higher prices could be used to force a wholesaler to drop competing brands. Conversely, lower prices might be offered to a wholesaler who promised to push a given brand more forcefully. This ability to use pricing to “discriminate” among wholesalers gave producers another valuable return: detailed knowledge of their wholesalers’ acceptable margins. That could be used to extract profit right up to the maximum feasible limit.
Something of a countertrend to consolidation seemed to appear in the 1980s, which saw a boom in small independent craft brewers. Examples include the founding (among others) of such well-known brands as Sierra Nevada (1980), Sam Adams (1984), and Harpoon (1986). Smaller brands and brewpubs added to the mix. But few of these brewers succeeded in gaining significant market share, or even in maintaining their independence. Since big brewers had been freed up to use price discrimination to reward and punish wholesalers, they could passively pressure wholesalers into keeping competitors—particularly small, independent brewers—off the market. Meanwhile, after the election of Ronald Reagan, the Justice Department cut back sharply on enforcement of U.S. antitrust law, setting in motion an unparalleled period of consolidation across virtually all American industries, including the beer industry.
In 1980, forty-eight breweries served the fifty states, and the largest of them had only a quarter of the market. Today, again, the market is overwhelmingly dominated by two: Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.
Here’s how it went down:
Stroh Brewery Company, founded in 1850, entered the 1980s as the eighth-largest brewery in the nation. But after a sleepy first 130 years, during which it marketed a single brand, director Peter Stroh had come to recognize that “it’s either grow or go.” Released from antitrust constraints by the new Reagan regime, grow they would. In 1981, Stroh bought Schaefer, a big New York regional, and moved to seventh. Two years later, Stroh took over Schlitz, leaping and to fourth place. By the mid-’90s, the company had also swallowed up Augsburger and G. Heileman, then the fifth-largest brewer in America.
Coors, famously secretive in its business dealings, began the Reagan era as the fourth-largest brewer in America, with a reputation for high quality and an almost chic image in the vast East Coast market as a great beer you could only buy west of the Mississippi. Then, in 1981, Coors crossed the river, crashed through the East Coast, and hurdled across the Atlantic. In 1994, Coors purchased El Aguila in Spain and founded Jinro-Coors in South Korea. And in 1997, Molson, Foster’s, and Coors partnered to bring the Silver Bullet to Canada for the first time. Coors was now number three.
Miller entered the 1980s riding the tremendous success of its innovative Miller Lite brand. Already the second-largest brewer in America, the company set its sights on expanding, purchasing Jacob Leinenkugel in 1988, and in 1992 bought distribution rights to 20 percent of Canada’s Molson. Distribution rights to Foster’s and several other top imports followed later in the decade. With a market share of 21 percent, Miller had solidified its position as number two.
Anheuser-Busch, like Coors, was run by a family famous for its intensely private control of its business. The company entered the Reagan era as the number one brewer in America, and spent the next decade consolidating that position by leveraging its size, mostly via internal brand diversification, and by aggressively expanding its presence abroad. As the 1990s drew to a close, Anheuser-Busch remained by far the top brewer in the United States, with nearly 50 percent of the market, and one of the biggest brewers in the world. It is a testament to the size of the global beer market that even those eye-popping mergers left vast opportunities for other companies to play the same game. Three are of interest here:
In 1987, two of Belgium’s leading brewers, Artois and Piedboeuf, joined together as Interbrew. For fifteen years they quietly ate up dozens of other brands, and by 2001 they were the second-largest brewer on the planet.
In 1999, Brazil’s two largest brewers, Antarctica and Brahma, joined forces as AmBev, instantly dominating that country’s market and moving quickly to buy up smaller brands throughout South America.
And during the 1990s, South African Breweries, virtual monopolists at home with 98 percent of market, moved decisively into eastern Europe, Russia, India, and China, establishing a formidable position on three continents.
So the 1990s drew to a close with four major players in America and three abroad—seven giant brewing conglomerates for six billion people. The contest to own the world’s beer market had entered its endgame.
In 1999, Stroh was split up and sold off.
In 2002, South African Breweries bought Miller, creating SABMiller.
In 2004, Interbrew and AmBev merged, forming InBev.
In 2005, Coors and Molson merged to form Molson Coors.
In 2007, Molson Coors and SABMiller created the joint venture MillerCoors to produce and distribute their products in the United States as a single entity.
Two and a half.
And in 2008, in a blockbuster $52 billion deal, InBev bought Anheuser-Busch to form Anheuser-Busch InBev. At the stroke of a pen, half the U.S. beer industry came under the control of an even more powerful firm—one with a huge inventory of international brands ready to ride Budweiser’s coattails into the American market. Then, in June 2012, Anheuser-Busch InBev announced plans to pay $20 billion to acquire the 50 percent of Grupo Modelo that it does not already own.
And soon one?
Industry analysis have recently floated the idea that Anheuser-Busch InBev might purchase MillerCoors. But even in the lax antitrust environment that currently prevails, it is almost impossible to imagine a single company being allowed to control—overtly—80 percent or more of the domestic beer market. This means both Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have, for all intents, reached the limit of their horizontal expansion. As in the UK, the only direction to go now is vertical, with the first target being the wholesalers—the second tier of the three-tier system.
Prior to the 2008 takeover, Anheuser-Busch generally accepted the regulatory regime that had governed the U.S. alcohol industry since the repeal of Prohibition. It didn’t attack the independent wholesalers in control of its supply chain, and generally treated them well. “Tough but fair” is a phrase used by several wholesale-business sources to describe their dealings with the Busch family dynasty. Everyone was making money; there was no need to rock the boat.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.