Earlier this year, the parent company of Anheuser-Busch, AB InBev, started snatching up small craft breweries all across the country. In fact, InBev bought another one just yesterday, the same day the Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate announced the redesign of its own flagship light beer, Bud Light.
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First, lest you think this tale is being whispered to you by the hoppy breath of a beer snob who only drinks astringently unpleasant double-IPAs, let it be known that I hail from St. Louis, Missouri, home of Anheuser-Busch. I have downed many a Bud Light whilst cheering on the Cardinals or lazily meandering down the Meramec River. I am solidly pro-Anheuser-Busch. One might say that Budweiser helped to create our contemporary beer-drinking culture. It once was a small craft beer as well.
Bud Light cans from 1990, 2003 and 2014. Gone is the swoop. Every brand went through its swoopy phase.
So back to the can. The new Bud Light design by Wieden+Kennedy is being heralded as throwback, and maybe it is, a little. It most evokes the 90’s era can, right after it shortened its name from Budweiser Light. I actually think it looks good—it looks more like it belongs on the shelf next to big brother Budweiser now.
But other changes are afoot, too. This redesign will also signal an end to Bud Light’s “Whatever” campaign, which bluewashed the town of Crested Butte, Colorado into a raging frat party, and point the “best selling beer” in the US towards a different promotional fate, to be revealed, quietly, I’m sure, at the Super Bowl. I’m just guessing it will be a little more sophisticated and a little less bro. It’s the same way that many other mass-produced beers are trying to “indie up.”
Why? Because we’re in a golden moment when it comes to beer. Right now the country has a record-high number of independent breweries operating, providing Americans with an astoundingly diverse array of alcoholic beverage choices. No wonder big beers want to seem small.
We’ve come a long way since 1983, when there were only 80 breweries operating in the US—half of them large beer conglomerates. But just in the last 12 months something really disturbing has happened—the choices are narrowing again. Earlier this year AB InBev added a few more letters to its name in a merger with SABMiller. Now AB InBev SABMiller owns over 400 beer labels, including eight out 10 of America’s top brands. One in every three beers consumed anywhere on the planet is being sold to you by the same giant company.
The fact that a single powerful corporation is gobbling up craft breweries might not affect the taste of your favorite small-run beer (yet), but it does make it harder for another independent brewer to break into the market. Bud Light’s new design is probably not going to convert many beer drinkers into blue can fans. But the attention it will get from refreshing its branding will keep AB InBev SABMiller flush with the cash it needs to buy the next little brewery down the street.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA