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Big breweries' craft beers disappearing — but is that a good thing?

When you consider just how popular craft beer has grown in recent years, it's hard to believe that the macro beer market has remained relatively stagnant. While sales of big-name beers remained steady, beers from smaller, independent breweries enjoyed unprecedented success, with sales creeping upward every year.

The major domestic breweries took notice of this growing market years ago and, after it failed to show any signs of slowing, started flirting with the formula by putting out limited-release and seasonal beers with a few added bells and whistles to appeal to craft beer enthusiasts.

Whether this ploy was ultimately successful has become evident only recently, as many of these beers began to disappear from shelves, leaving behind only the big-name flagship brands of the parent companies that abandoned them.

I remember being excited when each year's winter seasonal 12-packs started popping up. One that I always picked up was the Michelob Holiday Sampler Pack. Laugh if you will, but I always got a kick out of the collector glassware and recipe cards that came with the seasonals — an ever-changing selection comprised of märzens, porters, pale ales and other niche styles, all brewed by one of the biggest breweries in the country. At one point, they even had a beer called the "All-Malt Lager," a laughable distinction for most craft beer drinkers (a beer made without adjunct grains — imagine that!), but in the early 2000s, it probably sounded prestigious.

More recently, a good friend and I became enamored with another Michelob seasonal, Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale. It was a sweetish brown ale aged on oak staves and complemented by an addition of vanilla beans. Although it was hardly a groundbreaking accomplishment in the world of brewing, I looked forward to picking up a six-pack at the local beer store.

Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale has since gone the way of Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale and the other Michelob seasonals, ill-fated — and sadly discontinued — attempts to capture some of the profits of a burgeoning craft beer industry. While many beer enthusiasts will write off these beers as flimsy attempts by faceless, corporate brewers to blend in with the cool kids, some of the beers weren't half bad. And some, such as Budweiser American Ale, a middle-of-the-road, gateway APA of sorts, are still available. In fact, Budweiser recently unveiled three new beers as part of its Project 12 series, which is clearly intended to compete in the craft beer arena.

But the big guys have also figured out a sneakier — and more effective — way to break into the craft scene, and the results have been much more successful this time around. Two of the biggest "craft" brands on the market right now are Shock Top and Blue Moon — both Belgian-style witbiers, and both possessing a completely self-contained branding, despite the fact that they're actually brewed by Anheuser-Busch and Coors, respectively.

By omitting all mention of an affiliation with major domestic beer players, Shock Top and Blue Moon have thrived where previous attempts have failed. A false polarization has taken place, where major-label beers and "craft" entries from the same companies stand on opposite sides of the spectrum. Objectively speaking, it's a pretty clever idea.

It's not all smoke and mirrors, either. By establishing these brands as independent entities, there also seems to be more room for experimentation, often resulting in some very interesting beers. Blue Moon had quite a lineup of experimental brews at this year's Great American Beer Festival, ranging from a Peanut Butter Ale to Pine in the Neck Double IPA, and I've been enjoying this year's batch of Winter Abbey Ale. Shock Top also did well with its Pumpkin Wheat seasonal, capitalizing on two combinations that aren't usually seen together (pumpkin and witbier), and while its newly-released End of the World Midnight Wheat — a beer brewed with chocolate malt, chili peppers and spices — would likely flop under the Budweiser name, it seems to be doing pretty well as a Shock Top entry.

When Michelob discontinued the majority of its seasonal line in 2010, it cited lack of interest. Personally, if I knew that the final six-pack of Winter Bourbon Cask Ale that I purchased would be my last, I would have purchased every case in the store. But those were simpler, more innocent times, before the line between macro and craft had been so firmly drawn in the sand. Since then, we've all learned that you just can't sell craft beer with a big, corporate name on it.

Or can you? —

Big breweries' craft beers disappearing — but is that a good thing? 11/29/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 4:16pm]
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