For a while now, I’ve been thinking about evolutionary biology. My understanding of the subject is not perfect, since it’s informed mostly by Stephen Jay Gould’s book Bully for Brontosaurus, the film Jurassic Park and Grade 12 biology. It’s probably because of this loose understanding of the subject that I feel comfortable applying a model for evolutionary biology to large breweries.
Consider, for a moment, the Elephant. The Elephant didn’t start out as a huge plains dwelling mammal. In fact, it’s closely related to the hyrax. The theory is that Elephants were at one time quite small mammals, about the size of pigs. They were called Moeritheres. I don’t have a picture of the Moerithere, because it’s long since extinct. It’s probable that there are a number of evolutionary dead ends between the Moerithere and the Paleomastodon, but all you need to know in order to understand the transition from Moerithere and Paleomastodon is that at some point it must have been advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint for these antecendents of the Elephant to become quite large.
It probably had to do with the environment in which they lived. Maybe there was a lack of predators. Maybe a number of other creatures of similar size in their environment became extinct, creating a larger amount of resources for the growth of the Paleomastodon. It doesn’t really matter. What we know is that they thrived and got larger and eventually, the amount of biodiversity within the Proboscidea line grew smaller.
In the last million years or so, there became fewer actual species. The American Mastodon is now extinct, as is the Stegodon. The Mammoth was probably killed off by human hunters about 5000 years ago.
We’re left with two Elephants: African and Indian. They’re extraordinarily large land dwelling mammals. They require a huge number of resources to be able to sustain themselves. It takes a lot of land to feed an Elephant. They’re the size they are because it was, at some point, evolutionarily advantageous to be that size.
Evolution takes a long time, so any threat to the environment of the Elephant like other species encroaching on their territory or a lack of food source won’t have any immediate visible effect, other than maybe causing some unfortunate safari member to get trampled while taking a nice close up shot with a DSLR. If the Elephant adapts, it will not stop being an Elephant. It will just become a different type of Elephant in order to try and take advantage of its surroundings.
At least, such is my understanding.
In this analogy, it helps to envision large brewers as organisms.
Initially, in North America at least, there were a number of very small breweries. There wasn’t a huge transport network, so small breweries existed by supplying beer to local areas. Small breweries thrived. They did really well for a long time, getting sustenance from sales.
Then, there was an extinction level event in the form of prohibition. Some of the breweries adapted to their environment by selling malt extract or making other products. A number of them closed their doors forever; evolutionary dead ends due to a lack of adaptability.
Following the repeal of prohibition, the breweries that survived grew immensely due to the fact that there was less competition from an evolutionary perspective. They became large regional breweries in many cases, and the amount of biodiversity in the beer world shrank.
In the last fifty years or so, due in part to magnates like E.P. Taylor, the number of different breweries shrank as the larger ones purchased the smaller ones. It was evolutionarily advantageous for the larger brewery-organisms to grow. Mass production meant that profits soared. We reached the point where there are only three species of large brewery roaming the plains, trumpeting their victory and sharpening their tusks: AB In-Bev, Molson Coors and SAB Miller. They are, like the African and Indian Elephants, quite similar to each other genetically.
The problem, then, for the large breweries is two-fold:
1) There are only a finite number of resources (customers) to supply them with sustenance, which means that continued growth is no longer desirable or even possible from an evolutionary standpoint even though it is demanded by shareholders.
2) The environment is changing and microbreweries are competing for those resources. It is helpful here to think of microbreweries as an entirely different species encroaching on the territory of the large breweries. Perhaps something in a Neanderthal.
I told you that so I could tell you this:
Bud Light Platinum is the newest release from AB In-Bev.
It is, according to the L.A. Times, going to be 6% alcohol and contain 137 calories.
It’s an offshoot of Bud Light, which is problematic when you consider that it contains more alcohol than regular Budweiser. It’s not a light beer at 6% alcohol. In Ontario, it would be classified as a strong beer. At 137 calories, it contains slightly fewer calories than regular Budweiser. It will apparently be slightly sweeter, though. I imagine that they are using the descriptor “platinum” because some bright spark in the marketing department said “Hey! That’s one better than gold. My Amex card is platinum.” All of this makes my head hurt.
For some reason, this is being touted as the magic bullet that will stop the decline of the Budweiser brand and gain acceptance with the craft beer people. It won’t.
Let me explain: It’s the same Elephant, but with a racing stripe. It’s an attempt at evolutionary diversity. The problem is that the new brand is going to be fighting for the same resources as the existing brand. The only people who are going to drink Bud Light Platinum are the people who already drink Bud or Bud Light. What is going to happen here is that there will be a sudden surge of interest in the product during its launch, which, given that the schedule calls for January 30th, will be heavily promoted during the week before the Superbowl on February 5th.
Sales will be brisk initially due to the novelty factor and the timing. Following the launch, it will simply compete against Budweiser, Bud Light and Bud Light Lime. In short, instead of reviving the brand, it will actively decrease the customer base of the other brands in the family as it competes for the same customers. To me, it seems like a bid for a brief influx of cash in the face of declining North American shipping; Especially when you look at the Q3 report.
You might ask yourself why, if they want to crack the craft beer market, are they doing this? The people who already drink craft beer are not going to respond well to it. They will probably scoff derisively. Why don’t they just sink some of the talent and resources that they clearly possess into creating and marketing a new brand of craft lager or pale ale?
I’ll tell you why: like the Elephant needs a huge amount of food, large breweries need a certain amount of profit growth to continue existing in the form into which they have evolved. The behavior being exhibited in launching something like Bud Light Platinum recurs across a number of markets. It’s an attempt at diversification of the existing species in an ongoing evolutionary sense, but it’s all based on the same DNA. The Elephant can’t simply stop being an Elephant and be something else.
In the meantime, the Neanderthals are learning how to make spears.