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POINT of BREW ----- Michael J. Lewis

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The Corn-Syrup War Continues.

We crossed the Bay Bridge into San Francisco on Saturday morning on our way to see a play at ACT, to do a little shopping and to enjoy a nice dinner that evening. We stayed at the Hilton where I enjoyed a draft craft beer in the bar in exchange for $10, which I thought was a bit rich even for San Francisco.               

But that’s not the story. As we entered the city the first things we saw were two giant blue billboards on our left. One was emblazoned with the breathless message that “Bud Light has 100% less corn syrup than Miller Lite.” The other had a similar message: “Bud Light has 100% less corn syrup than Coors Light.”            

I was astonished to realize that Anheuser-Busch-Inbev was still playing this silly tune on this daft instrument. In my last column I explained that this really is an un-thing, a non-thing, a no-thing and the expenditure of large sums to make it into a thing-thing, a some-thing, is ludicrous.

This advertising campaign has been widely criticized by leaders in the industry with blunt words. Bill Hackett, the former president of Constellation Brands, does not mince words when describing this AB-I messaging. Speaking at a recent industry forum he called the advertising strategy “Bullsh*t.”

Representatives of the craft industry currently have their own problems; that segment shows signs of reaching its zenith with excess capacity and many operations shedding employees and limiting future plans. Craft representatives wryly point out the corn syrup war is of little interest to them as craft brewers. Craft brewers use 100% malts and no adjuncts, as unmalted materials like corn or rice, or syrups derive from them, are known.             

Last time, I pointed out that this was not merely a non-thing but the advertising violated a long-standing tradition of not criticizing the product, that is implying that there could be something wrong with beer itself. Perhaps it is for this reason that the continuation of this message disappoints me. It’s not just mindless it’s rude.

Furthermore, the message is starting to say more about AB-I than it does about its main competitors. AB-I now sounds whiny and petty and needy and desperate. They no longer project power and strength and grace and even beauty as part of their brand strategy that has been built up over many decades. I’m referring of course to Anheuser-Busch (pre-Inbev) ads that featured their own attention to detail and quality approach and often featured interior views of their spectacular breweries and of course legendary images of the famous Clydesdales.               

You notice that MillerCoors is absent from this field of contention. No counter-ads. There is an old adage that you should never get in the way while your competition is self-destructing.               

The problem with this advertising strategy goes even further. The implication to me of the corn-syrup accusation is that AB-I has no respect for the intelligence of those who would buy their beer.

Beer drinkers are a reasonably canny lot. The migration away from the major brands to craft products suggests that there is a good deal of thinking and decision-making going on in the brains of beer drinkers. They know a good deal more about beer and how it’s made and what they consider to be quality, than beer drinkers of yesteryear. This crowd has become much more sophisticated in its approach to beer than AB-I give it credit for.

I wonder how many modern drinkers feel usefully informed by this corn-syrup information and how many feel insulted?  

Adjunct materials such as corn grits or rice grits or syrups derived from them, have a long and necessary history in making the major beer brands of this country. Adjuncts make beers crisper and more snappy, less filling or satiating and easier to drink. This last idea, drinkability, is a brewer’s mantra.

American brewers have developed special brewing strategies to use these adjunct materials effectively and efficiently. Using them is not new nor are adjuncts secret ingredients. However, all regular beers contain calorie-bearing dextrins, derived from the starch of malt and adjunct, that survive the brewing process.

Thus, when making low-calorie or light beers a special technology is needed to prevent or remove dextrins and their calories from the finished beers. The same challenges face all brewers of low-calorie beers.

Using a fully fermentable corn syrup, as part of a strategy to avoid dextrins, makes sense, but an additional enzyme technology is also needed. In this way brewers can make a beer with near normal alcohol content but only about 100 calories instead of maybe 150 calories of a regular beer.

Having pointed out how MillerCoors makes low-calorie beers I think it is high time AB-I let us know how Bud Light is made. After all they are the ones who have called for this comparison. So in Part-II of the corn syrup war let us hear about that.

Michael J Lewis MUG Picmonkey

Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.

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