Originally Published in Our "Members Only" Section, November 26th, 2014
Spin Magazine once explained what it took to be considered a "Budweiser Band." When you think of a band that's the physical manifestation of the most populist and unexceptional beer in America, you probably imagine either a country act like the Zac Brown Band or maybe some post-grunge shit like Three Doors Down. But that's not really what Spin was going for. What it called a Budweiser Band was a band that would drink basically any high-end beer you put in front of it but would just as soon drink Bud. In other words, the magazine wasn't really praising Budweiser or insulting it, merely acknowledging its existence as a beer that, in fact, could be drunk and could get you drunk. In other words, beer was a workmanlike form of alcohol that wasn't the kind of thing you stressed over, particularly not if you were drinking it for the correct reason.
Late last week a story began circulating that Budweiser would be ditching its famous Clydesdales this holiday season and for the upcoming Super Bowl in favor of going in a new advertising direction and after a new target audience: Millennials. In place of the brand icons, the beer maker reportedly planned to begin sponsoring Jay-Z concerts and promoting "zombie parties" (because you know how the kids love 44-year-old guys and cultural trends that are well into their downward slide). This news, of course, created a sudden efflorescence of angry purists who took to social media to decry the move, which is probably exactly what Budweiser had hoped for by allowing the story to gain traction. I say that because, of course, the whole thing turned out to be bullshit. Budweiser's Clydesdales aren't going anywhere. In fact, Budweiser just released a new holiday commercial that manages to combine both the legendary horses and Millennials (tragically not in the way you might have hoped, with the latter being trampled by the former as they attempt to tweet what's happening to them).
What started the rumor that Bud was parting company with its horses, besides the misreading of a headline at the Wall Street Journal, was a -- pardon the pun -- sobering statistic. According to Anheuser-Busch's own research, 44% of 21-to-27-year-old drinkers have never tried Budweiser. That's legitimately tough to imagine, unless everyone mysteriously stopped going to college at some point over the last 20 years. But the rise in popularity of craft beers and the sheer number of different beers in existence these days -- as well as the easy availability of this immense variety -- was bound to cut into Budweiser's market share. What's unfortunate, though, to say nothing of unfair, is some of the predictable snobbery that's accompanied this news, coming of course from the supposed beer connoisseurs for whom Budweiser is nothing more than "piss-flavored swill."
Ragging on American beer, and Budweiser in particular if only for its ubiquity, is practically a pastime among the urbanite set. Oh sure, hipsters will drink the shit out of PBR without even thinking twice because for some inexplicable reason there's vintage cultural cachet in that. (Pair it with Tater Tots and it makes every asshole with an usual mustache and a closet full of plaid shirts feel like he's just spent a long day on the assembly line rather than a casual afternoon thumbing through import vinyl in Williamsburg.) But Bud just doesn't carry with it any sort of ironically lo-fi prestige. It's a standard beer made by a big domestic company, a beer with a long history and an easy association with working class America. So why is one beloved by Millennials while another is shunned? The answer is probably that for decades Budweiser has continued to be inextricably tied to sports and popular culture, and therefore "mainstream," while Pabst had to fade into obscurity so that it could be revived by douchebags who'd feel like they were drinking something unusual.
Make no mistake, though: PBR and Bud taste pretty much the same. Neither can be called small-batch, artisanal or whatever other silly buzzword makes some drinkers feel like they're going to drink it out of the Holy Grail or go home and take a rosewater bath in the stuff, but taste-wise they're equally unremarkable. Which is to say that they're equally decent. Budweiser understands its predicament, though, which is probably why the concession it really is making to Millennials is a new holiday campaign that recreates the Budweiser beer labels of old. The move was a no-brainer: change the packaging so that it reminds young people that Bud has been around so long that it can be called "vintage," that it too is the granddad's-old-musty-cardigan of beers. It won't make Bud taste like Grassroots Legitimacy IPA, but it'll make it look cool and that's all that really matters to a lot of people. Thing is, Budweiser doesn't need to change its taste. It's beer. It tastes like beer. In other words, it tastes just fine.
Now I think I'll go have a longneck Bud and a shot of Jack. That's supposedly what John Bonham used to drink, when he wasn't drinking something else. Guess that makes Zeppelin a Budweiser Band.