In Sunday's Super Bowl, Budweiser ran an ad with a cute puppy being threatened by a slavering wolf, but it was the giant beer company's other ad, which ran in the third quarter, that was the really scary one. In Budweiser’s “Brewed the Hard Way” spot, the brewery took off the gloves and challenged the craft beer industry.
Whether you think the ad was an on-message defense of a venerable American brand, or a thinly-veiled assault on small breweries, all of the claims that Budweiser made in the bombastic commercial are true. Let’s take a look at each of the claims:
“Brewed the hard way”
While the all-caps type proclaiming that the “king of beers” is brewed the hard way doesn’t come until the second half of the ad, we’ll start with this claim, as it's not only the title of the 60-second spot, but it’s one of the statements that generated the most incredulous response on social media from craft fans.
Apart from the impossibility of quantifying the statement, it does have a ring of truth to it. Not only is Budweiser making a style of beer that’s notoriously a difficult style to brew well, but it is making it in nearly unfathomable quantities.
The “American light lager” -- the official beer-nerd term for the ubiquitous “golden suds” of Miller, Coors and Anheuser Busch -- is time-consuming to make, and the trademark approachable, inoffensive flavor means that any mistakes, flaws or inefficiencies in the brewing process are obvious in the finished product.
There’s no big malt body, bold hop flavor or punchy alcohol kick for off-flavors to hide behind. Furthermore, the skilled brewers at Anheuser Busch’s gargantuan breweries achieve a level of consistency that any craft brewer should envy. Every Budweiser will taste the same as every other Budweiser, even if they are made at breweries 1,000 miles apart. That is no easy feat.
“Budweiser. Proudly a macro beer”
The spot starts off with a shot of Budweiser's historic St. Louis brewery while drums pound and synths blare. Then the big all-caps sans-serif type pulsates over shots of hops, malt and brewery equipment and declares the brand’s pride in a label that has long been applied as an epithet: macro.
Back when “craft beer” was still called “micro brew,” the macro brewery term was applied to all the big breweries who controlled the vast majority of the beer market in the United States. It was a term of derision that pointed out that the beers Anheuser Busch, et al., were making were commodity products aimed at the lowest common denominator of taste.
Now, Budweiser, and its Belgium-based parent company, has reclaimed the macro designation as a point of pride, while simultaneously -- and not very subtly -- calling out craft beer drinkers as pretentious, “fussy” and laughable.
FOR THE RECORD
4:11 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said that Budweiser's parent company was based in Brazil. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Budweiser, is an American-Belgian-Brazilian company, and is headquartered in Belgium.
“It’s not brewed to be fussed over -- it’s brewed for a crisp smooth finish” and “There’s only one Budweiser. It’s brewed for drinking, not dissecting”
Here’s where the ad takes off the gloves. While the caricature of a hipster beer geek (complete with curled mustache) sniffs a black beer from a delicate tulip glass, the ad conflates appreciating flavor with pretentiousness while touting the Bud’s “crisp, smooth finish.”
The “crisp” and “smooth” marketing speak accurately describes the flavor profile of the American light lagers that are “crisp” because they’re lagers that don’t have the more pronounced fruity esters found in ales, and have a “smooth” finish because there are very little hops used to bitter the beer (compared with most other beer styles).
This makes Bud an easy beer to pick up and drink without having to think about what you’re tasting. It is truly a beer made to quench the thirst, and not to appease finicky craft beer fans' desire to actually taste their chosen beverages. The lack of flavor in American light lager isn’t something to deride -- it’s the whole point of that style.
“This is the only beer beechwood aged since 1879”
It’s true! And while the efficacy of the technique is up for debate, the brewmasters at Anheuser Busch go to great lengths (and expense) to continue the process of conditioning their beer in “chip tanks” containing a lattice of beechwood strips.
Though it imparts no flavor, the wood provides additional surface area for the still-active yeast to settle out of the beer during the lagering phase. In the all-things-beer primer “Tasting Beer,” author Randy Mosher says the beechwood slats are “stripped of any wood character” and that the process is a “nice nod to tradition.”
“The people who drink our beer are the people who like to drink beer”
Notice that the ad doesn’t say the beer is for people who like to taste beer. The statement is true, but it might be more true if the clause “...and don’t care about flavor” was added. Which isn’t to say that a preference for a near-flavorless macro brew over craft beer is invalid, but rather that craft-brewing is about flavor first and foremost. However, if a beer consumer is less interested in flavor than in intoxication, the macro brewers offer ideal products.
“Let them sip their pumpkin peach ales. We’ll be brewing us some golden suds”
Another back-handed swing at the consumers who choose flavorful craft beer over macro brews, this decree was responsible for much social media outrage last night. While the tone of the whole spot, and this barb in particular, seems firmly leveled at the craft beer industry, Budweiser Vice President Brian Perkins says that isn’t so.
In an interview with Advertising Age, Perkins said: "This is not an attack on craft beer, this is not an attack on competition. The only other beer that we reference in the spot is a fabricated, ludicrous flavor combination of pumpkin peach ale."
Demonstrating more irony than even the beer-flight sniffing hipster characters in the ad, Perkins was evidently unaware that there actually is a real-deal pumpkin peach ale. And that the “ludicrous” beer was made by Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company -- a brewery that happens to be the newest acquisition by Budweiser's parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev.
The purchase of Elysian was the biggest news from the beer industry in January, with many pundits warning it would be the first of a new wave of acquisitions of craft operations as the macro breweries attempt to combat their shrinking market share (and perhaps, their shrinking relevancy).
The rest of Perkins' statement is true though: The ad is not an attack on craft beer or craft breweries. As is demonstrated by the condescending tone of the spot and the way that craft drinkers are portrayed in the ad, “Brewed the Hard Way” is actually an attack on craft drinkers and on their desire for choice and flavor in the marketplace, an attack on the same drinkers that Anheuser Busch so desperately covets, and an attack that cost the macro brewery some $9 million.
It’s a slickly produced, well-written and effective advertisement that was seen by millions-upon-millions of people. And while the ad might not convert “fussy” craft fans to Bud drinkers, it provides consumers who identify with macro-brewed beers over precious craft brands a message to rally behind. And that’s OK. Not everyone needs to want the flavorful and diverse offerings from craft breweries. Craft drinkers have dismissed macro beer and have been openly condescending to its fans for years; turnabout is certainly fair play.