The mass market is definitionally the thing people buy the most of. Wonder was the king of breads once; now its parent company is bankrupt. Since prohibition, very light, sweetish lagers have been the mass market style, but they're slipping. One of the ways big beer companies have responded (aside from the constant stream of gimmick products and packaging changes) is to enter the "craft" segment and beat the insurgents at their own game. But this has the effect of hastening the demise of their extraordinarily valuable base brands. The other option? Double down and keep the mass market right where it is. Beer companies that want to own that segment are doing it by moving toward stronger, more flavorful beers--the opposite direction they've been going in the last forty years.
This year marked Budweiser's extremely high-profile roll-out of Black Crown, very much a legacy product. There are a couple other recent entrants that are a little lower-profile. One finally made it to my grocery store shelves this year: Coors Batch 19. Looking for a way to make a fuller-flavor beer that is still recognizably Coors, the brewery started digging around the archives and found a beer from 1919--the last gasp before Prohibition--that was to their liking. What they found in basement logs was reworked to become Batch 19.
It was a beer made with Chevalier barley, an English type that was grown in California in the 19th century. It was apparently not a great barley and was almost commercially extinct by 1919. One source compares it to Scottish bere/bygg, a landrace variety optimized to grow on the sides of crags in the Scottish moors (I kid ... slightly). The varieties of hops, which might well still be available, were not listed. Coors maestro Keith Villa, in an interview with Lew Bryson, said, "Hops, we didn’t know what they were using. They didn’t note the variety of hops until the 1940s... The hops were only noted as 'imported' and 'domestic.'" The domestic hops were almost surely Clusters, which are still available, but not prized. Imported could be anything, but if they came from Germany, they would still be available or, if not, decent substitutes could probably be found. Coors didn't go that direction. If you look at the label, you'll see Hersbrucker and Strisselspalt. Lew, doing some nice reporting, got Villa to admit there's a bit more, too: "I stuck in a little bit of Cascade to round out the fruitiness. There’s a little Mt. Hood, and some Hallertauer Select. They added hops at the beginning, towards the end of the boil, and right before the end of the boil."
The beer Coors made would definitely never be confused with a typical mass market lager. (In the accompanying photo, we compared it to Pabst. You see the difference. While I'm huddling here in the safety of this parenthetical, I'll explain why we were drinking Pabst. Sally has been mentioning our great mass market tastings and everyone kept asking about Pabst, which I didn't include. So we got one so she could try it. Pabst is ... basic.) The malts are the most characteristic. Villa calls his malt "Moravian," but it's not only grown in Idaho, it's "improved every year." Well, it tastes American to me: husky and rough. This is a seriously full-bodied beer. That is, of course, what the geek wants, but I'm not a fan. Perhaps Germany spoiled me, but to my palate rough malts are bad malts. Nevertheless, it does taste very American, and my guess is it does probably taste a bit of the old Chevalier. This is a beer designed to both appeal to a craft-compromised palate and also keep the focus firmly on American lagers. The rollout has been slow and deliberate, and it will be most interesting to see if it succeeds.
The next product is every bit as fascinating. One of the famous Busch family has opened a new brewery to make exactly the kind of beers his family has always made. William K. (Billy) Busch is one of the sons of August "Gussie" Busch Jr. He only worked briefly for the family brewery and then was part-owner of a distributorship in the 90s. He sold his portion, though, and was therefore not party to the non-compete clause signed by the Busch family when InBev took over Anheuser-Busch in 2008. Which means he can proudly link his new beer, Kräftig, to the family heritage. There are two beers and although they are brewed to the standards of Reinheitsgebot--no cereal grains--they are firmly in the American mainstream. It's currently contract-brewed in La Crosse, WI, but Busch plans to build a large production brewery in St. Louis. Kräftig is a 5% lager with 13 IBUs, and Kräftig Light is 4.2% (exactly standard) and 9 IBUs. This video pretty much lays out every talking point in the business plan--including some not-so-subtle shots at the guys across town.
So what's at stake? Anheuser-Busch brews 15 million barrels of beer at their St. Louis
plant--more than all the craft beer produced at the 2000+ craft
breweries in the country. They have 20 plants in North America. Then you have MillerCoors, which adds tens of millions of barrels more to the equation. Mass market lager is huge business. If you have this kind of volume, you really don't want the market to turn to IPAs because your brand is not IPA. I have long expected mass market lagers to become more flavorful as they compete in a market where people expect flavor. These are just the two data points, but it looks like the big companies are thinking the same thing, too. They need to save the segment they dominate. And they ain't gonna do that by brewing IPAs, shandies, or witbier.