The brewery giant’s new products are pale imitations of the brands it is copying

IF IMITATION is the sincerest form of flattery, the boys in St. Louis have been blowing a lot of smoke up their competitors’ bungs.

Anheuser-Busch, the world’s biggest beermaker, hires the best brewers, runs the finest equipment, has the biggest marketing departments and the most efficient distribution network in the world.

And yet, when it comes to developing new products, lately it’s been doing little more than playing copycat.

Other than the fabulously successful Michelob Ultra, every one of the new brews it’s released in the past five years has been a knockoff, concocted and priced to compete specifically with other successful brands.

These brands – Guinness and Corona, for example – own important segments of the import beer market. They were obviously ripe targets, so it’s no surprise A-B went after them.

Yet, the industry leader has exhibited almost a total lack of original thought behind these new beers.

Consider its latest repro, a so-called continental pilsner called Anheuser World Select.

A-B says it came up with the recipe for the perfect pilsner by bringing together “the expertise of brewmasters in 10 countries,” including such famed beer-making centers as Korea and Spain.

Maybe it’s Monday morning quarterbacking, but somebody should’ve invited an 11th brewer from the Czech Republic, where pilsner (not to mention Budweiser itself) was invented.

Instead, what we get is a pilsner in name only. In this case, the name is Heineken.

Or maybe Beck’s. Or St. Pauli Girl.

It’s a slick knockoff of a random European pils, complete with green bottle. Presumably if you let it sit in the light long enough, you should also recognize Heiney’s familiar funky twang of eau de skunk.

But A-B, always scrupulous about freshness, delivered a case that was fresher than anything from Holland. The taste? Well, the best my poker buddies could say was that it drank like unwatered-down Bud.

Of course, the taste is secondary.

This beer is priced to sell in the same range as a European import. And it’ll get scarfed up by the same crew who always order the most expensive plate on the menu, just to impress their dates.

Which is exactly why A-B brewed this beer.

It has almost nothing to do with flavor – if it did, A-B would throw more than a handful of Saaz hops into the kettle and blow those insipid German industrial lagers right out of the ocean. Instead, its mimicry is all about trying to chew back a valuable piece of real estate.

Why else, for example, would it have decided – after a mere 140 years of brewing golden lagers – to suddenly produce a stout? Could it have something to do with the fact that Guinness gets in the front door of every Irish bar in America?

You don’t even need to take a sip of A-B’s Bare Knuckle Stout. Just check out its creamy head, those tightly fizzing bubbles, and you’ve got your answer.

Of course, the trend really isn’t anything new.

Three years ago, it hopped on the malternative bandwagon with Bacardi Silver, a clear, boozy pop that ripped off half of Smirnoff Ice’s DNA.

In Texas, it sells ZiegenBock Amber to cut into some of the Shiner Bock’s territory.

In the West, its Pacific Ridge Pale Ale is a hopped-down version of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Elk Mountain Amber Ale, Bud Dry, LA, Killarney’s, even Bud Light – A-B launched them all as knockoffs, hoping to hook onto the latest beer trend.

There’s no doubt – they’re technical geniuses, able to brew almost identical clones. But like mad scientists from some bad sci-fi movie, they forgot to include any soul.

The brews, dreamed up by numbers-crunchers, are tasted and retasted by countless focus groups till the brewers are left with a recipe that produces the blandest, lowest-common-denominator version of an otherwise decent beer.

They’re dead before they get stamped with a born-on date.

   SIDEBAR

Uncertain what that St. Louis product is supposed to be? Clip and save:

Killarney’s Red Lager = Killian’s Red.

Tequiza = Corona + Lime.

ZiegenBock Amber = Shiner Bock – Bock.

Aruba Red = Red Stripe – Dreadlocks.

Anheuser World Select = Heineken – 1/2 Skunk/Budweiser.

Bare Knuckle Stout = Guinness Stout x George Bush in that Air Force pilot uniform.

   Beer radar

Looks like Magic Hat beers are finally coming to town. The highly regarded Vermont brewery had skipped past Pennsylvania for years, forcing local fans to travel down to Maryland for a taste. Penn Distributing, the Philadelphia Bud house, is handling the pallets in the city . . .

Compared to Miller Lite’s infamous “Catfight” commercial, the latest from Labatt’s Blue Lite is late-night Cinemax. The spot, aired during the Canadian TV ‘s broadcast of the Super Bowl, features a pair of women who share their lip gloss with one very meaningful tongue-kiss. Beer.com has the download . . .

   Coming next

Joe Sixpack is headed to Vienna this weekend with Victory Brewing’s Bill Covaleski. We’re going to eat sausages and show the Austrians how to brew HopDevil.

If you’re in the Baltimore-Washington area this weekend, listen to a live report tomorrow morning on Beer Radio (105.7 FM). Otherwise, look for a report here in coming weeks.

   Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale.

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