Skip to main content

Don't let big brewers win beer wars

By Steve Hindy, Special to CNN
updated 10:52 AM EST, Wed December 12, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steve Hindy: Anheuser Busch aims to buy Modelo, Corona beer maker; craft brewers worry
  • Already MillerCoors and AB control most of U.S. beer market; deal would make it 80%
  • He says the duopoly has huge influence on beer distribution; leaves craft brewers struggling
  • Hindy: In other industries, like oil, antitrust rulings draw line for market share. Why not for beer?

Editor's note: Steve Hindy is co-founder, president and chairman of The Brooklyn Brewery. Brooklyn Brewery started in 1988 and is among America's top 15 craft breweries.

(CNN) -- The proposed purchase of Mexico's Modelo beer brands by the world's largest brewing conglomerate, Anheuser-Busch-InBev, is causing deep concern among America's craft brewers.

Anheuser-Busch already controls about 47% of the U.S. beer market. Adding Modelo's Corona beer and other brands would give it another 6%. MillerCoors, the other big player in the United States, controls about 30%.

If the Modelo deal goes through, a duopoly would control more than 80% of the U.S. beer market.

Steve Hindy
Steve Hindy

The concentration of market share in two global companies means they have tremendous influence over distributors and retailers. This gives an advantage to big brewer beer brands over small brands created by America's independent craft brewers. Ultimately, with limited choices, the beer consumer loses.

The Department of Justice is determining whether the sale would violate antitrust laws.

As I understand it, Anheuser-Busch claims it would have no say in the marketing or sale of Modelo brands in the United States. Those functions would be left to Crown Imports, the Chicago-based marketing and sales company that is owned by Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine company.

In 10 years, Anheuser-Busch would have the right to buy Crown.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It's hard to understand how a brewery could own another brewery and not have some control over sales and marketing. Doesn't the owner control the price of beer sold to the importer/marketer? Doesn't the owner contribute to the sales and marketing programs and costs of the importer/marketer? Doesn't the owner have some say over the hiring of personnel for the brewery it owns?

Eatocracy: Learn how to homebrew

And isn't the owner responsible to its shareholders to ensure the brewery is maximizing shareholder value?

America's small brewers have been on a roll in the past decade, claiming more than 6% of the U.S. beer market since the craft brewing revolution began in the early '80s. That 6% is divided by 2,400 small companies.

The duopoly already has tremendous influence over beer distribution in America.

In most markets, brewers have two choices, a so-called Blue and Silver distributor, who sells MillerCoors brands, or a Red distributor, who sells Anheuser-Busch brands. (The color codes describe the primary colors of the brewers' labels.)

Through so-called "equity contracts," the large brewers prescribe how much money distributors spend to sell and market their brands. In some cases, they have the right to approve or disapprove the manager of the distribution company. In some cases, they have the right to approve the succession plan of the distributor. In some cases, they have the right to approve the sale of a distributor.

Conan: 'I want my free Guinness already'
Catalan beer back from the dead

Craft brewers constantly struggle to get the attention of these distributors.

In the mid-1990s, the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, August Busch III, declared that he wanted "100% share of mind" from his wholesalers. Some Red distributors ejected non-Anheuser-Busch brands from their warehouses. Distributors who gave his 100% were given more favorable terms for their purchase of beer. August III is gone, but the new owners of Anheuser-Busch have called for distributors to get "aligned" with the brands they control.

Large brewers also have control over some retail sales of beer. Many chain supermarkets and stores appoint "category captains" to determine which beers are sold in refrigerated aisles and which beers go on the warm shelves. If the category captain is a Blue and Silver distributor, MillerCoors will play a key role in choosing which brands get sold where. If it is a Red distributor, Anheuser-Busch makes the calls.

This results in a tug-of-war between large brewers trying to get maximum placement of their brands and small brewers trying to get a spot. Obviously, a company that controls 53% of the U.S. beer market is going to have a better shot at shelf space than my company.

Both members of the duopoly have wholly owned brands like Shock Top and Goose Island that are presented as craft brands. They own large shares of some other breweries like Red Hook and Kona. There is concern that these brands would get greater attention from wholesalers than independent craft brands, like mine. This can greatly limit the beer consumer's choices.

In sports venues like arenas and stadiums, the large brewers monopolize space. They typically have advertising contracts with the venues, and this results in their having a dominant share of the beer taps and other beer placements. If you want a Brooklyn Lager at Yankee Stadium or CitiField or the new Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, you'd better be prepared to spend some time searching. Brooklyn Brewery is in those venues, but in a very limited way.

More beer news on Eatocracy

Those are my concerns, and the concerns of other craft brewers. Obviously, I am not an attorney. I know little about antitrust law. I recently read a couple of books about the oil industry and learned that antitrust rulings in that industry have drawn a line for defining a company with too much market share.

Given this, I am baffled by the state of the U.S. brewing industry. How did we ever get to a situation where two companies control 80%? And how can we allow them to control more?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Hindy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT