(Update 5/26/2019: A Wisconsin federal judge has ordered Anheuser-Busch to halt some advertisements suggesting MillerCoors uses corn syrup without “giving more context.”)
Anheuser-Busch has revived an age-old marketing tactic in American brewing, even though it might be a bad idea. The nation’s largest brewer repeatedly uses high-profile Super Bowl ads to premiere bold narratives about its brands—such as differentiating Budweiser from craft beer or touting their support for disaster relief—and this year didn’t disappoint. During the 2019 Super Bowl, two Bud Light ads criticized its biggest rivals for using corn syrup in their brewing process, and it was classic misdirection.
While technically correct, Anheuser-Busch neglected to mention the mostly benign and commonplace uses of corn syrup in brewing, and that they happen to use rice for the same basic purpose. They counted on the general public to mistake corn syrup for the less popular high fructose corn syrup, then blanche reflexively.
Competitors, notably MillerCoors, are incensed. They responded with a full page rejoinder in the New York Times, a social media frenzy, and most recently by pulling out of negotiations for a major cooperative ad campaign designed to lull back market share from spirits, wine, and craft beer. Amidst the melee, Miller executive Anup Shah told the Chicago Tribune, “I thought it was an act of desperation from Bud Light. It was trying to drive the connection between high-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup, which I think is misleading.”
But the most important quote came later in that article when Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University, said that “whether [corn syrup] is bad or not doesn’t really matter. The issue is, do people think it’s bad.”
Sure, expecting 100% truth in advertising is naïve, but debates over beer have specifically manipulated public perception about the brewing process for the last 150 years. In fact, the Bud Light ads’ approach is a time-tested and effective tactic in the history of American beer and speaks to the hazy place of alcohol in our conversations about health, food safety, and corporate responsibility.
Brewers and other interest groups have long used claims about ingredients, production methods, and (back when they could legally do so) the perceived healthfulness of beer to try and discredit their competitors. These assertions could be honest or dishonest. Most often (as with Anheuser-Busch this year) they blended the two, relying on consumer ignorance to manipulate public perceptions of what beer is and ought to be.
Whatever the form, the practice goes back just about as far as the brewing in the United States. Originally, many used beer’s low alcohol content relative to distilled spirits to tout it as a moderate and even healthy beverage. But those debates evolved when German immigrants introduced lager beer to the U.S. during the 1840s.
Lagers were not just beer to Germans. It was an expression of their entire ethnocultural identity, and that identity considered beer to be literal nourishment, a “poor man’s bread” thanks to its hearty all-barley malts and lower alcohol content. As Germans steadily co-opted the American brewing industry during the mid-1800s (indeed, 80% of people working in the industry by 1880 were German immigrants, or else their children), they expanded the debate about what American beer is and ought to be. It didn’t take long for rebuttals to emerge.
Some Americans considered immigrants—and their beer—to be a dangerous foreign element. Temperance reformers likewise saw lager beer as a threat to their crusade against alcohol, and found that one of the most effective ways to attack beer was to claim it was dangerous.
In the late 1850s, a popular temperance magazine claimed that lager “stultifies, stupefies, and brutalizes,” causing the Germans who drink it to “vibrate between human beings and brutes.” Pressing further, reformers claimed that lager brewers carelessly added a “medley of poisons” to their beer, including chalk, opium, oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid), and even strychnine. These accusations were deliberately misleading, but hardly random. Activists would selectively read discussions of brewing methods in trade magazines, tear the substances from their context, and present them to readers as though they were direct ingredients, listed alongside barley or hops in some insidious recipe.
Outlandish claims about relative safety, nutrition, or danger reflected the period’s dearth of scientific understanding about beer as much as the political agendas. Investigations into the chemistry and microbiology surrounding the brewing process were just gaining momentum. Both science and politics evolved such that by the mid-1870s, both anti-alcohol advocates and competing industrial breweries in the U.S. were wielding the same question toward highly divergent ends—the question of adulteration.
On one side of the adulteration debate were temperance reformers and concerned consumers worried about tainted product and inferior ingredients. These weren’t baseless fears—this was an era without meaningful food safety regulations. Beer fell under the same scrutinous eye as unpasteurized milk, notorious meatpacking operations in cities like Chicago, and ever-industrializing foods like white bread and margarine. Some early scares were merely ignorant—Cincinnati’s beer supply, for example, was erroneously blamed for spreading cholera in 1866—but the narrative evolved alongside the science of brewing over the last quarter of the century.
Corn and rice had been used in brewing for decades already, but in the 1870s their reputation as industrialized adjuncts was just forming. Some brewers began to use corn-based glucose, a syrup made from soaking the grain and adding sulfuric acid to convert the starches into sugar, as an aid in fermentation. Others, like Anheuser-Busch, preferred rice instead of corn. News of this spurred anti-alcohol groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to accuse brewers of selling tainted products filled with dangerous chemicals. As historian Maureen Ogle points out in her book, Ambitious Brew, anyone with a basic understanding of chemistry would see how absurd this notion was, but the general public didn’t. The tactic proved effective.
These types of claims were just the tip of the iceberg. Advocacy groups, journalists, and at times even government agencies scoured beer samples and hounded brewers, searching for signs of cut corners and adulterated beer. Little evidence of danger was ever found but the investigations made for scandalous headlines. Even when their fears of contaminants or poisonous additives were assuaged, concerns remained about what actual ingredients and processes were being used by brewers. Adulteration, to the chagrin of brewers, often meant adjuncts and benign production techniques, too.
Newspaper reports could be brutal, making periodic sensational claims that beer and many other foodstuffs were dangerously adulterated. During the 1890s, for example, Washington D.C.’s Morning Times proclaimed it “a fact” that beer was commonly adulterated by the “free use” of burnt sugar, coriander, artificially-injected carbonic gas, glucose, and “grains other than barley” in the brewing process. Beyond making beer “exceedingly unpalatable,” the paper implied that adulterated beer caused suicide. That same year, a bill was introduced to the House of Representatives seeking to tax and regulate adulterated beer, defined as beer made with corn, rice, wheat, or any other substances “used as a substitute or in place of pure barley malt, hops or hop extract.” The bill did not need to pass to demonstrate the traction that even spurious adulteration claims could gain.
On the other side were individual breweries and industry groups like the United States Brewers Association, who maintained the Germanic position that beer was a “wholesome and nutritious beverage” that promoted public health and presented no social dangers whatsoever. Faced with the rhetorical specter of adulterated beer tainted by adjuncts and new production techniques, industry leaders might have seen an opportunity to band together, engage with consumers, and improve their products.
And they did…in a defensive, haughty sort of way. Through individual ads, trade articles, and via groups like the USBA, brewers insisted that their products, methods, and ingredients were pure. They asked—and, indeed, felt entitled to—the public’s trust, maintaining that no matter what type of beer they made or how they made it, the result would be a high quality, safe, and beneficial product. It was an attitude long calcified by German-American control of the industry. They considered themselves stewards of a benevolent national beverage.
But with ethnicity came economics. Brewers were also businessmen. Though they rarely went so far as to call any lager beer unsafe (lest they face blowback on their own products), they nevertheless seized on public speculation and naivete to brand their competitors ingredients or production methods as inferior to their own. As with the temperance crusaders and food safety muckrakers, the truth of their statements could be entirely incidental.
“I have no desire to say anything for or against beer manufactured by other brewers,” August A. Busch told the St. Louis Sunday Mirror in 1891. “Corn, or corn preparations, used by so many breweries, never enter the gates of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association. The secret of the success of our beer is due to the fact that we use nothing but the finest malt and the choicest hops and allow the beer to thoroughly mature before it enters into consumption. Hence, our beer is not only the best and the healthiest beverage, but also the highest-priced beer offered to the public. Beer made of corn and of corn preparations is naturally cheap, and the quality is cheap accordingly.”
Busch went on, explicitly distinguishing between beers made from malts besides barley and the concept of adulteration. His point, rather, was that beers made with corn were “cheap and of lower grade” than all-barley beers, and that the consumer “has the right to demand of all brewers beer as good as the best.” Never mind that Budweiser was made with rice.
Breweries made such statements throughout the late 19th century. In 1879, for example, Chicago’s Conrad Seipp Brewing Company touted its “wholesome, slowly and properly seasoned brew” as inherently superior to the “harmful,” “hurriedly mixed, artificially fermented concoction[s]” of his competitors. Two years earlier, Cincinnati brewer George Weber had publicly insinuated that every brewery in the city except his own was adulterated with “chemical preparations,” “poisonous ingredients,” and adjuncts. In a town that takes its beer as seriously as Cincinnati, this naturally incited the local competition into a heated argument that newspapers shrewdly dubbed the “Beer War.” Weber promptly offered a $5,000 prize to “any one who should detect the use of any poisonous drugs in the Weber beer, or who could prove the use of corn, rice, grape sugar, or any cheapening article in its manufacture.”
The duplicitous cavalcade of arguments over quality joined the price wars, pay-to-play style distribution practices, and corruption characteristic of Gilded Age brewing, and did the industry few favors. When Prohibition loomed and the brewers most needed the public’s trust, industry infighting had helped the WCTU and Anti-Saloon League rob them of it.
Little changed even after Prohibition. Self-proclaimed consumer advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest still periodically hounded brewers over ingredients and production methods. In 1971 the CPSI, which is quoted in Ambitious Brew as being “proud about finding something wrong with practically everything,” criticized brewers for using additives like gum arabic, enzymes, seaweed extract, and caramel during production. They were technically correct but like the temperance reformers of the last century, he presented the information out of context so as to paint these beers as a hazardous ploy on consumers.
To be clear, some innovations by macro brewers were detrimental regardless of any controversy surrounding adjuncts. Both in the 1890s and the 1970s, stiff competition and outright price wars drove the nation’s largest brewers to cut costs wherever possible, with Schlitz serving as the ultimate cautionary tale. A one-time titan in American brewing history, Schlitz wrestled with Anheuser-Busch for the title of top-selling American brand from the end of Prohibition until the late 1950s, when it fell into a firm second place.
In an effort to compensate, the brewery began cutting costs in the early 1970s. Corn syrup replaced some of the malted barley, and fresh hops were swapped out for cheaper pellets. An accelerated fermentation system was installed that churned out Schlitz beer in as few as 15 days (compared to Budweiser’s 40 days). The various shortcuts necessitated stabilizers and silica gel to keep the beer looking like, well, beer. Consumers noticed anyway, and so did Anheuser-Busch.
Schlitz, like Seipp’s competitors a century before, was lambasted for pushing out “green” or premature beer. The corn syrup substitutes had lightened the beer and drastically reduced flavor. Meanwhile, big time competitors were pushing in the opposite direction. Coors, then a relative newcomer to the national stage, emphasized its natural Rocky Mountain origins while Anheuser-Busch referred to the high cost of their ingredients as evidence of quality and, in one ad, reaffirmed its “concern and regard for traditions worth preserving.” By the time Schlitz reverted back to its original formula in 1978, the damage was done.
Every macro brewer in that era worked to minimize cost, fiddled with recipes, and implemented new production methods that, however benign, might raise an eyebrow if consumers learned how the sausage was really made. But whereas 19th century brewers had utilized sufficiently similar methods to keep their infighting vague, Schlitz strayed far enough from the pack become tangled in the maelstrom of capitalist brewing practices, imperfect consumer knowledge, suggestive puffery, and legitimately questionable activity.
Things changed during the 1980s. In the wake of new scientific research and social problems like drunk driving, consumer initiatives like Mothers Against Drunk Driving were able to make more sophisticated claims about the deleterious effects of alcohol than ever before. Meanwhile, dominant macro brewers dissolved their competitive criticism into a broader emphasis on lifestyle branding, masculinity, sex appeal, sports, and eventually criticisms of craft beer.
Bud Light’s 2019 Super Bowl ad now resumes the century-old game. The preliminary results, given MillerCoors’s and the public’s response, seem to be a mixed bag. Given that the Corn Syrup War is now jeopardizing Big Beer’s efforts to stop the hemorrhaging of market share to craft beer, wine, spirits, and weed, perhaps it’s a tactic best left behind.
On a more fundamental level, Anheuser-Busch may not want Big Beer’s optimized and industrialized production methods put under the microscope. With today’s growing emphasis on locally and ethically sourced ingredients, artisanal craft brewing, and budding farm-to-table operations, does a macro brewery really want to start a conversation about the relative merits of corn or rice adjuncts compared with all-barley malts? As their sorry-not-sorry response to Miller and American corn-growers shows, it’s difficult to have one part of this conversation without the others.
Brewers will always know more about their work than consumers, but consumers will act on what they know and, by extension, what’s presented to them. Beer occupies a contentious enough political and cultural space that we can expect many conflicting claims about what beer is and ought to be—even dishonest ones. As historian Amy Mittelman observes in her book, Brewing Battles, the “public image of beer” has often come “in conflict with the actual process of making it.”
That, excuse the pun, is putting it lightly. As the history shows, assertions about the brewing process that shift away from educating consumers and instead rely on preconception, misconception, or outright misdirection are risky and difficult to control. At worst, they’re a race to the bottom.
Mike Stein contributed research to this article.
Benbow, Mark. “German Immigrants in the United States Brewing Industry.” In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, Volume 2. Edited by William J. Hausman. German Historical Institute.
Amy Mittelman, Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer