Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

December 9, 2007

Beer Diary:

The Two Faces Of Faux Craft Beer

They might not be flat-out lying to you, but big beer sure is being disingenuous when it comes to promoting their “craft” beers.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
dis·in·gen·u·ous: lacking in candor; also: giving a false appearance of simple frankness; calculating

Most beer dorks are aware of the fact that the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin is wholly owned by the Miller Brewing Company, and has been since 1988. Miraculously, over the last two decades Miller has left their subsidiary pretty much alone. Unlike most of the contributors, I don’t have an MBA, but my guess as to why Miller let them essentially be is probably because the Leinenkugel’s brand was already extremely strong in northern Wisconsin and it only took a little enhancement of their marketing strategy (the rustic tranquility and beauty of the Northwoods) coupled with Miller’s massive distribution channels to turn an essentially local brewery into a strong regional brand virtually overnight.

Within the last two or three years, though, this non-tinkering has changed. Miller has increasingly started to use the Leinenkugel’s label as a way to horn in on the craft beer boom without altering consumer perceptions of their main brands—indistinguishable swill like Lite, Genuine Draft, High Life, etc. Until recently, this has consisted mainly of the creation of gimmick beers like Apple Spice and Summer Shandy or lowest common denominator crap like Sunset Wheat. But in the last year, they’ve come up with their “Big Eddy” line of beers, without a doubt aimed directly at the beer dork crowd. Their first offering was the sensational Big Eddy Imperial IPA, followed up in the last month or so by Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout.

Although not nearly as good as the IPA, this is a decent beer. It comes in four packs with a brochure outlining a short history of the Russian imperial stout style, along with a layout of Leinenkugel’s other beers and some promo copy about where the name Big Eddy comes from:
“Big Eddy. At first glance, it seems like yet another clever moniker dreamed up by some so-called marketing savant—a witty character to stand out in a sea of tap handles. But behind the noteworthy name lies the secret to more than 140 years of genuine brewing heritage. Is the name itself unusual? Absolutely. But Big Eddy is anything but contrived. Since 1867, the Big Eddy Springs has been the lifeline of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company.

Once dubbed “the purest water in the world,” the Big Eddy runs through the heart of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, carrying in its flow the long-standing tradition of quality folks have come to expect and enjoy from us. We were found on the Big Eddy Springs, its water guiding us through five generations of family brewing success. And with a legacy as rich and mighty as this, one can only imagine the character of the beer that bears its name.”
The only problem with this little essay is the fact that not one drop of Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout is brewed using water from the Big Eddy Springs. The beer’s entire run was brewed at the Miller plant in Milwaukee. In fact, since the beer is only available in Madison and Milwaukee, you can’t even buy it in Chippewa Falls!

To be fair, never in the promotional copy above does it say that Big Eddy is actually brewed in Chippewa Falls. So they aren’t outright lying about where the beer is made, but at best they are being today’s word: disingenuous. It’s basically a flowery dissertation aimed at diverting our attention away from the fact that Leinenkugel’s is nothing more than a brand in the industrialized machine of big beer. Words like “heritage” and “springs” and “the purest water in the world” conjure images of, well, Chippewa Falls, a gorgeous, small city in semi-northern Wisconsin, where the Leinenkugel’s brewery does in fact sit along a bend in the Chippewa River. Not once would the reader think about municipal Milwaukee tap water pumped out of polluted Lake Michigan.

[A quick disclaimer here. Thanks to modern technology, all water used in industrial brewing—whether it comes from a pristine spring or a polluted river—is purified through microfiltering and is mineralized (or demineralized) to create the appropriate pH levels for the beer being brewed, so the provenance of the water really is a non-issue when it comes to beer quality. Talking up water purity in modern brewing is nothing more than marketing bullshit.]

Nowhere in any of the company’s marketing materials does it say that this beer—and the majority of beers bearing the Leinie’s label—is not hand-crafted in the rustic Northwoods, but churned out in the gargantuan fermenting vats that normally bubble over with Miller Lite, MGD, or maybe even Red Dog.

This doesn’t mean that these Big Eddy beers are therefore bad. But—and I don’t know about you—I really don’t like being lied to, even if it is a “non-lie”; it’s still not the truth. But this is exactly what happens when industrial beer tries to pose as a craft brew. Sometimes the disingenuousness is downright palpable.

Following on the heels of the Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout release was some more marketing spin done over at If you aren’t familiar with the site, is dedicated to good beer, with news, articles, and a very good forum. It isn’t nearly as extensive as BeerAdvocate, but in some ways the beer conversations are more informed, and a whole lot more polite, at Realbeer.

In the midst of a forum discussion about Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat, a marketing person for the brewery spammed the forum with some junk about mixing beers (you can read the entire forum thread here). One of the site’s senior members e-mailed Leinenkugel’s about it and actually got a call from the company’s VP of sales and marketing, Dick Leinenkugel, to apologize:
“… Dick Leinenkugel calling, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. Thanks for bringing to my attention what was happening on I have asked our digital agency support who we work with to ‘cease and desist’ in terms of doing that. It was renegade, done by one of their guys who thought it would be a good idea to do that, and it was not approved by us in advance. So, we have stopped doing that; and I appreciate you bringing it to our attention. Thank you very much.”
Needless to say, a classy—if totally business-driven—move by Mr. Leinenkugel to make amends for annoying crap like that. But it just highlights the fact that breweries (ahem, brands) like Leinenkugel’s can’t be two things at once. You can’t mingle with the beer dork crowd while your ad agency is writing deceiving marketing copy or posing as beer forum members to send spam. You can’t proudly claim to be humble-but-proud brewers of small-batch beers if those beers are being mass-produced and shoved down the public’s throat via a giant distribution system. And, lastly, you can’t present your product as a craft beer while the CEO of your parent company says things about the craft beer industry like “I think it’s going to fade. It’s inevitable.

I don’t mean to be picking on Leinenkugel’s alone, since both Coors and Anheuser-Busch do the same things. Coors with their deafeningly quiet ownership of the Blue Moon brand and A-B’s refusal to claim Stone Mill Pale Ale, Wild Hop Ale, and Redbridge (among many other labels) as their own, or their downright insulting “crafting a better beer” ads for shitty-ass Michelob.

All these little anecdotes add up to why you should always drink as local as possible. It’s easy to be disingenuous to a million people through a TV ad, but it’s tough to do it to a customer’s face across the bar while you pour your hand-crafted beer from tap to glass.

So the next time you’re in the liquor store and see a four-pack of Big Eddy sitting next to, say, some Lake Louie Mr. Mephisto’s Imperial Stout, keep this in mind: Lake Louie’s owner and brewer, Tom Porter, probably hand-delivered that beer himself. It was made in the brewery across the driveway from his house. And his digital ad agency hasn’t spammed any beer sites lately. At least as far as I know.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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