Josh Noel

Josh Noel is the author of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business" and writes about travel and beer for the Chicago Tribune.

Anheuser-Busch media outlet just so happens to love Anheuser-Busch beer … which is so very Anheuser-Busch

The first one raised eyebrows.

The second got an eye roll.

By the third one, it was getting funny — in a disconcerting sort of way.

The fourth? No mistaking what was happening.

And by the fifth? Well … what was left to say?

The remarkable thing about Anheuser-Busch’s push into craft beer hasn’t just been the 10 U.S. breweries it has bought during the last eight-plus years; it only makes sense that a massive company encountering headwinds would diversify its approach.

What’s astonishing has been the depth of the effort. Among Anheuser-Busch’s attempt to have a hand in all things craft beer has been an opaque entry into beer media. Want to control the message? Be the messenger.

The current effort rests in the hands of October, a website that spent the second half of December noting its favorite beers of 2018. In each of five categories, October listed its five favorite beers. And wouldn’t you know it — an Anheuser-Busch beer appeared on nearly every list, mixed in with many of the industry’s buzziest names: Half Acre, Toppling Goliath, Allagash, Westbrook, Maine Beer Co. and so on.

Among the year’s five best IPAs? Golden Road’s Wolf Pup.

Best craft lager? Blue Point’s Toasted Lager.

Best barrel-aged beers of 2018? Goose Island’s Islay.

Best sour beers? 10 Barrel’s Raspberry Crush.

Even the list of “best brews to ring in 2019” included one of their own: Goose Island’s Reserve Bourbon County Stout.

Of course, Golden Road, Blue Point, 10 Barrel and Goose Island all happen to be among those 10 breweries Anheuser-Busch has bought during the last eight years. It might not shock you to know that there was no clarity about the fact that Anheuser-Busch both owns those breweries and October — in short that it was quietly promoting its own products.

As explained in Chapter 27 of “Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out,” Anheuser-Busch’s push into beer media has long been shrouded in murk. The effort began two years ago, with the now-defunct Beer Necessities website, which professed to be “celebrating beer” and “unifying the industry” in a “post‐craft world” where “great beer is great beer.”

To some industry onlookers, the rah-rah sentiments raised skepticism. Gabe Gordon, founder of the well-regarded Beachwood Brewing, agreed to be profiled by The Beer Necessities when approached by a freelance writer — but only until he understood the hidden hand guiding the website. When he learned of Anheuser-Busch’s involvement, Gordon asked that the profile be taken down. He later wrote on Facebook:

As an independent brewery that has fought hard against the predatory business practices of macro beer for almost a decade, we wholly reject this free promotion and all that it stands for. We don’t want it. We don’t need it. And if we knew that it would be used, in our opinion, to help AB-InBev (the parent company of Anheuser-Busch) in their intensifying quest to dilute the definition of ‘craft,’ we certainly would have refused participation. ...

We also never in a million years would have thought that a multi-national corporation such as AB-InBev would be entering the blogging business. The fact that they have shows the lengths that big beer is willing to go to fool you, the consumer, into thinking that their acquired ‘craft’ brands are truly craft beer and that they (AB-InBev) have somehow come to share the values of independent breweries.

Anheuser-Busch shut down The Beer Necessities at the end of 2017 to focus on October, which offers far more lucrative opportunities. Anheuser-Busch has built October into not just a media outlet, but a beer brand of its own — an experiential one that includes the music-and-beer festival OctFest, which happens to have its own questions about consumer transparency.

So what is October? Is it journalism? Is it marketing? The answer is a bit of both. However, I’d argue that marketing is like pregnancy. You can’t be a little bit pregnant and you can’t be a little bit marketing. Amid some smart, nuanced work, it’s impossible to know what is Anheuser-Busch public relations and what’s not. One look at the best beers of 2018 makes that clear.

Why would October tear at its own credibility with such self promotion? The obvious answer is that the string-pullers behind the web site — not the daily laborers, but the corporate folks making sure it is funded — don’t ultimately care about credibility. They care about influencing your shopping decisions.

(Side note: An October freelance writer pitched a Q&A with me upon the release of my book that editors accepted. Using an Anheuser-Busch vehicle to promote a book that features some criticisms of Anheuser-Busch — I give them credit for that, and appreciate the opportunity. As I said two paragraphs above, they do some quality work and have some talented people involved.)

The point here is ultimately not so much about October itself. The issue is Anheuser-Busch’s broader goals, and the tools it employs to position itself as the nation’s dominant craft beer company. (Spoiler: the plan is working.)

The world’s largest beer company has accessed unrivaled resources during its march to the top of a craft beer industry that had long eluded it. Those resources have vaulted beyond Anheuser-Busch’s traditional advantages — size and scale, distribution, marketing and advertising — to include an entirely new front: buying craft breweries in the U.S., buying craft breweries abroad, buying a popular home-brew supply store, buying an influential beer ratings web site, buying a leading British beer distributor and retailer (which just so happens to sell a disproportionate amount of Goose Island) and, well, buying a bunch of other stuff, too.

And now, it is infiltrating media.

Soon after the October “best of” lists, an online tizzy erupted over a clumsy Anheuser-Busch social media post on behalf of another of those 10 acquisitions, Wicked Weed Brewing.

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It was a sloppy effort to be sure. The implication that sour beers have only recently “arrived” in the U.S. is false; they’ve been made here consistently since at least the 1990s. Lactobacillus is bacteria, not yeast. And Brettanomyces doesn’t sour beer; it adds character that can best be described as “funky.”

But despite the post’s inaccuracies and self-aggrandizement, it wasn’t ultimately worth much more than a smirk and a shrug. It was an example of a gargantuan company struggling for authenticity in an industry that depends on authenticity. It was par for the course.

Far more revealing was what transpired at October at the end of December. Landing its beers in “best of” lists shows the extreme deftness with which the world’s largest beer company is achieving its goals.