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 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT