Joseph Coors, 85; Heir to Brewing Fortune Served as Advisor to Reagan

Times Staff Writer

Joseph Coors, the Colorado beer baron who was a key member of Ronald Reagan’s advisory “kitchen cabinet” and the financial force behind the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, has died. He was 85.

Coors, grandson of Adolph Coors, who founded the family brewery in 1873, died early Saturday in his sleep at his Rancho Mirage, Calif., home. The cause was lymphatic cancer, although he had also suffered from heart problems.

A director of what he helped build into the nation’s third-largest brewery from 1946 until 2000, Coors was named company president in 1977, chief operating officer in 1980 and vice chairman in 1985. He left daily operations to older brother, Bill, and son Peter in 1987 and retired to his desert California estate.

It was in Palm Springs that Coors met Reagan in 1967. Carefully nurtured by his family in free enterprise, Coors had embraced the conservative political movement after reading Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana” in 1953 and saw Reagan as the perfect candidate to promote his goals.

He saw to it that Coors Brewery sponsored a series of radio broadcasts by Reagan in the mid-1960s. Along with Holmes Tuttle, Alfred Bloomingdale and Justin Dart, among others, Coors formed the nucleus of the original “kitchen cabinet.” The wealthy businessmen and Republican contributors helped elect and advise Reagan through his two terms as California governor and two terms as president.


In 1984, conservative colleagues urged Reagan to install Coors as White House counselor to replace Edwin Meese III when Meese became attorney general, but the post was left vacant. Coors remained loyal to Reagan, even though he said in a 1988 interview that Reagan as president was “way too influenced by Nancy,” a reference to First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Coors was so supportive of Reagan that he even wired $65,000 to a Swiss banking account, at the suggestion of former CIA Director William J. Casey and White House aide Oliver L. North, to buy a small cargo plane for Nicaraguan rebels. Coors testified before congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987 that North had subsequently showed him a photograph of the plane he paid for.

Reagan was not the first president to benefit from Coors’ financial largesse and advice. In return for his help, both Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford nominated Coors, who always objected to what he viewed as a liberal bias in the news media, to serve on the 15-member board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The board oversees policy and disburses federal funds for public television and radio.

Labor, public interest and civil rights groups fought the nomination, contending that Coors discriminated against women and minorities and had a conflict of interest as chief executive of the short-lived Television News Inc.

On Oct. 30, 1975, the Senate Commerce Committee refused to confirm the nomination.

Coors in 1973 provided funding -- $250,000 initially and another $300,000 annually for several years afterward -- for Paul Weyrich to create the Heritage Foundation. The Washington, D.C., conservative think tank created policy papers forming the basis of several Reagan presidential projects, including the “Star Wars” space-based defense initiative, “trickle-down” economics and massive budget cuts.

“Without Joe Coors, the Heritage Foundation wouldn’t exist -- and the conservative movement it nurtures would be immeasurably poorer,” Edwin Feulner, foundation president, said in a prepared statement. “Fortunately, he thought the Heritage Foundation -- a think tank that would aggressively counterattack liberal thinking in Washington with solid, timely research on public policy issues -- was a good idea. The rest, as they say, is history.”

In 1977, Coors also funded the Mountain States Legal Foundation -- initially headed by James G. Watt, who became Reagan’s controversial Interior secretary -- to fight environmental restrictions and affirmative action requirements Coors felt interfered with business operations.

Coors actively contributed to the campaigns of conservative Republicans, including Bill Simon Jr. in his recent bid to unseat Gov. Gray Davis.

“He was very principled and dedicated. But we got along a lot better if we didn’t talk politics,” said his brother, Bill. “He was as conservative as they come. I mean, he was a little bit right of Attila the Hun.”

Bill Coors did, however, credit his brother with good business instincts and said together they had kept the company going, despite fights with their late father, Adolph Coors II, who disparaged growth as a danger to product quality.

Coors was born Nov. 12, 1917, in Golden, Colo., and with brothers Bill and Adolph III (killed in 1960 in a kidnapping) grew up in the 22-room mansion built by their grandfather, Prussian immigrant Adolph Herman Joseph Coors, near his brewery on Clear Creek.

Coors’ first job was in the clay pits outside Golden, eking out the raw material for the Coors Porcelain Co. The manufacture of porcelain products for chemical and scientific uses, along with switching brewery production to alcohol-free beer, medical alcohol and malted milk, had sustained the company through Prohibition, which in Colorado lasted 17 years.

Coors earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering at Cornell University and worked at DuPont and another chemical company until brother Bill asked him to join the family company after World War II.

Applying his chemical engineering expertise, Coors helped create and refine the brewer’s cold-filtered beer manufacturing system.

The brewery initiated one of the earliest large-scale recycling programs in 1959 by offering customers a 1-cent refund to return aluminum beer cans.

But Coors also ran afoul of labor unions who accused the company of trying to crush union representation, violating labor and environmental laws, and discriminating against gays and minorities.

An 18-month strike, which encompassed the bombing of a Coors warehouse in California and a death threat to Joseph Coors, led to a 10-year boycott spearheaded by the AFL-CIO.

The boycott ended only in 1987 when Coors’ son Peter, as new president of Adolph Coors Co., negotiated an agreement permitting unions to have an election at the Golden plant and organize at any new Coors facilities.

Joseph Coors also helped oversee expansion of the brewery from its original 11 Western states to a nationwide sales base when forced to do so in the mid-1970s by competitive Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing.

Coors was divorced in 1987 from socialite Edith Holland “Holly” Hanson after 46 years of marriage.

He is survived by his second wife, Anne; five sons, Peter, Joseph Jr., Jeffrey, John and Grover; and brother William, all of Golden, Colo.; one sister, Mary Louise Tooker of Highland Beach, Fla.; 27 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.