Beer has always been the drink of the people. It’s a truism now under question given craft beer and its hipster base, the spike in wine consumption in the last 30 years, and the onset of hard seltzer.
But in 1948, the truism never held firmer. A United Press story dated July 16, 1948 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel stated:
Brewers of the nation’s beer love the common man, Eberhard Anheuser of St. Louis said here [Seattle]. Anheuser, here for a meeting with fellow brewers, said his statistics show that persons earning less than $175 a month drunk 53 per cent of all the beer produced.
Another 32 per cent goes down the throats of wage earners of up to $400 monthly.
But as incomes go up, beer consumption drops to a trickle.
The upper middle classes and above, therefore, spent little on beer. Imported beer had a certain appeal, but sales were minor.
Yet, niche categories can make money, enough to justify their existence. This was Michelob’s space in the U.S. beer market.
I speak of course before Michelob Ultra, when apart a couple of variants – Michelob Light emerged in 1978 – Michelob meant a full-calorie beer with an emphasized European pedigree.
In July 1985 an article in Orange Coast magazine stated Michelob held 75% of the “super-premium” category. Super-premium meant the top domestic category, imports had their own category.
Would-be challenger Lowenbrau, then domestically made, had 10%.
But Michelob had a precipitous fall, as NBC News reported in December 2012:
From 2006 to 2011, sales declined from 500,000 barrels to 140,000, with a 20 percent drop between 2010 and 2011 alone. No other beer on this list sold less than Michelob. The next-lowest selling beer, Amstel Light, still sold 200,000 barrels more than Michelob last year. The brand has not always struggled …
Since then, Michelob qua brand has rebounded greatly via Michelob Ultra, released almost 20 years ago. While the trade mark Michelob is the connecting factor, the two beers, Michelob and Michelob Ultra, are almost separate products.
It’s a rare case where a name associated with richness, full flavour, and import quality becomes associated successfully with a rather different type of beer – light, hydrating, low-calorie, but this happened with Michelob.
Bud Light is not really the same thing, in my view, since full-calorie Budweiser was not known typically by the abbreviated name.
Bryan Roth of Good Beer Hunting explained how Michelob Ultra gained its outsize success in a podcast some years ago.
Regular, old-fashioned Michelob is still made, in fact was returned in 2007 to its original all-malt grist, but sales remain small. If we look back to its glory days, advertising for the brand evolved with the years.
In the 1960s laconic ad copy was a frequent gambit for consumer products like beer, 10-words or less that generally said little of product attributes. Fly now, pay later, say. I’d like to buy the world a Coke.
Jay Brooks compiled a series of late 60s-early 70s Michelob ads a few years ago, which you may see here. The headlines are often coy, e.g., “putting on the dog” with a barbecue in the backdrop.
One ad reads (1968), if you want to know about Michelob, you can get a beer book or speak to a brewmaster, but better to drink one and come to your own conclusions.
It used more words than the trend afoot, but in a way to separate the consumer from technical beer appraisal.
Today, a billboard ad for Michelob Ultra might read “Superior Light Beer”. Another, promoting a marathon in New York, shows the bottle and the words, “16.8 miles to beer”.
Anheuser-Busch took a more literal, earnest approach in the late 1930s, one craft brewers would use 50 years later. It talked about ingredients and skill, as many competitors did.
One ad disarmingly began: “What – who ever heard of tasting SKILL?”. Answering its own question (see poster for sale at ArtsDot.com), the ad stated:
CERTAINLY you can! Under a top hat of snowy foam . . . with a fragrant, elusive bouquet … a cool, gratifying taste . . . dancing, natural carbonation and brilliant, golden clarity! . . . Suppose that you outbid Anheuser-Busch and got the choice of the barley harvest. And, suppose you paid another premium price for richly scented hops from Saaz, which produces the costliest of Bohemia’s famous hops. Could you make Anheuser-Busch MICHELOB? Not unless you possessed another ingredient—experience . . .
It goes on for as many words again. This is polar opposite to advertising styles of today, which continue the brevity trend of the 1960s. If anything, headlines seem even briefer now given the demands, and influence, of online platforms.
Of course, the punchy ad slogan predates the 1960s, including for brewing. “Guinness is good for you” is an example. But the lapidary style seems largely to have replaced the extended narrative, especially for large-scale enterprise.
The beer judging prose of 1930s ads has not disappeared, but has relocated so to speak. It can be found in some company websites. Or consumer beer books, which barely existed in the 1930s.
Blogs and podcasts are another example. The rating service Beer Advocate reports drinkers’ opinions of Michelob Ultra and thousands of other beers.
Yet, at day’s end, the long lyrical 1930s ads have an ineffable quality. They were written by the best minds of Madison Avenue, and have a sophistication seemingly irretrievable.*
Michelob ads similar to the one quoted appeared in Country Life, a Doubleday magazine originally designed for rural dwellers. In the 1930s it pivoted to serve urbanites aspiring to a country lifestyle, hence the focus on interior design, architectural styles, and furnishings.
The readers were, in a word, an upscale group, one that could be expected, said the ad, to exercise discrimination in taste. Some may have attended events of nascent food and wine clubs.
Some may have been wine amateurs, and could see a similar opportunity for beer.
Michelob had literary imprimatur as well. Author, editor and critic Henry L. Mencken recalled the beer with sentiment in his 1920s Prejudices: a Selection:
… Michelob on warm Summer evenings, with the crowd singing “Throw out the Lifeline” …
For someone who considered real pilsener of Bohemia the lit beer of all time, that’s warm praise. (No puns intended).
Michelob wanted acceptance by the “bon ton” and largely succeeded, given the share of the super-premium market it gained by the 1980s.
Times change. Today, the upscale/plugged worry about health and lifestyle, not Mitteleuropa taste values. Michelob is still there to serve, but Ultra is a different beer than Michelob in the 1930s.
Part II follows.
*In the 1930s, and until the 1990s, Anheuser-Busch’s advertising agency was D’Arcy & Co. firm based in St. Louis. The firm had a New York office in the 1930s, but we use the term Madison Avenue broadly.