Last CallAugust 14, 2013
Industry giants are threatening to swallow up America’s carefully regulated alcohol industry, and remake America in the image of booze-soaked Britain.
By Tim Heffernan
England has a drinking problem. Since 1990, teenage alcohol consumption has doubled. Since World War II, alcohol intake for the population as a whole has doubled, with a third of that increase occurring since just 1995. The United Kingdom has very high rates of binge and heavy drinking, with the average Brit consuming the equivalent of nearly ten liters of pure ethanol per year.
It’s apparent in their hospitals, where since the 1970s rates of cirrhosis and other liver diseases among the middle-aged have increased by eightfold for men and sevenfold for women. And it’s apparent in their streets, where the carousing, violent “lager lout” is as much a symbol of modern Britain as Adele, Andy Murray, and the London Eye. Busting a bottle across someone’s face in a bar is a bona fide cultural phenomenon—so notorious that it has its own slang term, “glassing,” and so common that at one point the Manchester police called for bottles and beer mugs to be replaced with more shatter-resistant material. In every detail but the style of dress, the alleys of London on a typical Saturday night look like the scenes in William Hogarth’s famous pro-temperance print Gin Lane. It was released in 1751.
The United States, although no stranger to alcohol abuse problems, is in comparatively better shape. A third of the country does not drink, and teenage drinking is at a historic low. The rate of alcohol use among seniors in high school has fallen 25 percentage points since 1980. Glassing is something that happens in movies, not at the corner bar.
Why has the United States, so similar to Great Britain in everything from language to pop culture trends, managed to avoid the huge spike of alcohol abuse that has gripped the UK? The reasons are many, but one stands out above all: the market in Great Britain is rigged to foster excessive alcohol consumption in ways it is not in the United States—at least not yet.
Monopolistic enterprises control the flow of drink in England at every step—starting with the breweries and distilleries where it’s produced and down the channels through which it reaches consumers in pubs and supermarkets. These vertically integrated monopolies are very “efficient” in the economist’s sense, in that they do a very good job of minimizing the price and thereby maximizing the consumption of alcohol.
The United States, too, has seen vast consolidation of its alcohol industry, but as of yet, not the kind of complete vertical integration seen in the UK. One big reason is a little-known legacy of our experience with Prohibition. From civics class, you may remember that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution formally ended Prohibition in 1933. But while the amendment made it once again legal to sell and produce alcohol, it also contained a measure designed to ensure that America would never again have the horrible drinking problem it had before, which led to the passage of Prohibition in the first place.
Specifically, the 21st Amendment grants state and local governments express power to regulate liquor sales within their own borders. Thus, the existence of dry counties and blue laws; of states where liquor is only retailed in government-run stores, as in New Hampshire; and of states like Arkansas where you can buy booze in drive-through liquor marts. More significantly, state and local regulation also extends to the wholesale distribution of liquor, creating a further barrier to the kind of vertical monopolies that dominated the United States before Prohibition and are now wreaking havoc in Britain.
Since the repeal of Prohibition, such constraints on vertical integration in the liquor business have also been backed by federal law, which, as it’s interpreted by most states, requires that the alcohol industry be organized according to the so-called three-tier system. The idea is that brewers and distillers, the first tier, have to distribute their product through independent wholesalers, the second tier. And wholesalers, in turn, have to sell only to retailers, the third tier, and not directly to the public. By deliberately hindering economies of scale and protecting middlemen in the booze business, America’s system of regulation was designed to be willfully inefficient, thereby making the cost of producing, distributing, and retailing alcohol higher than it would otherwise be and checking the political power of the industry.
When these laws were passed, America was a century closer to its English roots, and lawmakers remembered very clearly the effects that a vertically integrated alcohol industry had on pre-Prohibition America (and that it still has in the UK today). In the 1920s, Americans had learned the hard way that flat out banning drinking empowered the likes of Al Capone and was, on balance, unworkable. But it made no sense either to go back to the world of pre-Prohibition America, in which big, politically powerful liquor producers owned their own saloons and were therefore free to pour cheap booze into communities coast to coast, sweetening the doses with enticements ranging from rebates on drinks to cash loans, and frequently tolerating in-bar gambling and prostitution.
And so, for eighty years, the kind of vertical integration seen in pre-Prohibition America has not existed in the U.S. But now, that’s beginning to change. The careful balance that has governed liquor laws in the U.S. since the repeal of Prohibition is under assault in ways few Americans are remotely aware of. Over the last few years, two giant companies—Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which together control 80 percent of beer sales in the United States—have been working, along with giant retailers, led by Costco, to undermine the existing system in the name of efficiency and low prices. If they succeed, America’s alcohol market will begin to look a lot more like England’s: a vertically integrated pipeline for cheap drink, flooding the gutters of our own Gin Lane.
A moment’s thought makes it obvious that alcohol is different from, say, apples. Apples don’t form addicts. Apples don’t foster disease. Society doesn’t bear the cost of excessive apple consumption. Society does bear the cost of alcoholism, drink-related illness, and drunken violence and crime. The fact that alcohol is habit forming and life threatening among a substantial share of those who use it (and kills or damages the lives of many who don’t) means that a market for it inevitably imposes steep costs on society.
It was the recognition of this plain truth that led post-Prohibition America to regulate the alcohol market as a rancher might fetter a horse—letting it roam freely within certain confines, neither as far nor as fast as it might choose.
The UK, by contrast, spent most of the last eighty years fussing with the barn door while the beast ran wild. It made sure that every pub closed at the appointed hour, that every glass of ale contained a full Queen’s pint, that every dram of whiskey was doled out in increments precise to the milliliter—and simultaneously allowed the industry to adopt virtually any tactic that could get more young people to start drinking and keep at it throughout their lives. It is no coincidence that one of the first major studies to prompt a shift in Britain’s approach to liquor regulation, published in 2003, is titled Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity.
The UK’s modern drinking problem started appearing in the years following World War II. Some of the developments were natural. Peace reigned; people wanted to have fun again; there was an understandable push toward relaxing wartime restrictions and loosening puritan attitudes left over from the more temperance-minded prewar years.
But other changes were happening that deserved, but did not get, a dose of caution. As the nation shifted to a service and banking economy, and from agricultural and industrial towns to modern cities and suburbs, social life moved from pubs to private homes and shopping moved from the local grocer, butcher, and fishmonger to the all-in-one supermarket. In the 1960s, loosened regulations led to a boom in the off-license sale of alcohol—that is, store-based sale for private consumption, as opposed to on-license sale in public drinking establishments. But whereas pubs were required to meet certain responsibilities (such as refusing to serve the inebriated), and had their hours of operation strictly regulated (for example, having to close their doors temporarily in the afternoon, to prevent all-day drinking), few limits were placed on off-licenses.
Supermarkets, in particular, profited from the new regime. They were free to stock wine, beer, and liquor alongside other consumables, making alcohol as convenient to purchase as marmalade. They were free, also, to offer discounts on bulk sales, and to use alcoholic beverages as so-called loss leaders, selling them below cost to lure customers into their stores and recouping the losses through increased overall sales. Very quickly, cheap booze became little more than a force multiplier for groceries.
When the supermarkets themselves subsequently underwent a wave of consolidation, the multiplier only increased. Four major chains—Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, and Morrisons—now enjoy near-total dominance in the UK, and their vast purchasing power lets them cut alcohol prices even further. Relative to disposable income, alcohol today costs 40 percent less than it did in 1980. The country is awash in a river of cheap drink, available on seemingly every corner.
Part of the problem, too, was that Britain’s “tied houses”—drinking establishments that are owned by liquor producers—have remained, in one form or another, a dominant part of the country’s drinking landscape. From the time brewing industrialized in the late 1700s, brewers were permitted to operate their own pubs, which they owned outright or whose owners signed exclusive retail agreements with them in exchange for inventory discounts, no-interest loans, and other assistance. The result of this system, which also existed in the U.S. before Prohibition, was a glut of pubs, since each brewer needed its own tied house in a given neighborhood, and a race to the bottom ensued, with each pub competing to offer lower prices and lure customers in with extras like gambling and prostitutes. The problem of this beer-fueled mayhem—of the lager louts smashing up storefronts, beating up foreigners, and glassing one another—became so acute in the 1980s that Parliament finally acted to break up the tied houses, passing legislation in 1991 known as the Beer Orders.
But intense industry lobbying quickly watered down these reforms, and the result was a bitter farce. In the end, brewers were allowed to keep many of their tied houses, and wound up effectively controlling the rest through exclusive retail agreements and other corporate maneuvers. Some brewers simply split in two, with one side retaining the brewing operations and the other responsible for sales. Many other brewers instead sold off their brewing operations and repurposed themselves as giant landlords-cum-barkeepers, while continuing to enjoy exclusive—and lucrative—relations with their former partners. The Beer Orders thus had the unintended consequence of actually catalyzing comprehensive conglomeration and vertical integration, as a handful of giant firms snapped up thousands of independent pubs. This “rationalization” of the industry delivered economies of scale previously unknown, and soon drinkers in England found that booze was even easier to come by than it had been before. Far from vanquished, the lager lout had entered his heyday.
In the United States, the problem so far has not been one of vertical integration like that found in the UK. Here, the story so far has been mostly about horizontal integration—of one brewer buying another.
To be sure, the typical American beer drinker might have a hard time realizing the extent of horizontal consolidation that has already occurred. The shelves of your average gas-station convenience store offer not just Bud and Busch and Miller and Coors but Stella and Hoegaarden and Shock Top and Rolling Rock. At any decent grocery, Kirin of Japan sits beside Boddingtons of Ireland, Peroni of Italy beside Pilsner Urquell of the Czech Republic. Basses shadow Red Hooks in the lea of Goose Islands. Blue Moon shines down on it all.
But all is not as it appears. Two giant companies— Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors—own, bankroll, produce, control, or have distribution rights to all of these brands and hundreds more. The truly independent brewers in the nation—there are about 2,000 of them, from tiny local outfits to national brands like Samuel Adams—account for just 6 percent of the market.
Almost all the rest belongs to Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which now together capture nearly 80 percent of beer sales in this country. Smaller conglomerates including Pabst, Heineken, and Diageo (owner of Guinness) take up much of the remainder, but even this doesn’t capture how consolidated the market has become. Pabst, for example, does not brew its own beer: that process is contracted out to Miller.
The market forces that eventually led to this massive consolidation among American brewers took root in the mid-1970s with the passage of the Consumer Goods Pricing Act of 1975, which made it illegal for producers to set minimum prices for their goods at retail. This was ostensibly “pro-consumer” legislation: the practice of allowing producers to set their own prices limited certain types of price competition, and so could be viewed as “hurting” consumers in an economic sense. But, of course, in this case we’re talking about consumers of alcohol and not apples, and when it comes to alcohol, cheaper is not necessarily better.
No longer required to set across-the-board prices for their goods, breweries learned that they could manipulate the much smaller wholesalers to extract more favorable terms, brand support, and profit by offering lower prices to those that did their bidding. The threat of higher prices could be used to force a wholesaler to drop competing brands. Conversely, lower prices might be offered to a wholesaler who promised to push a given brand more forcefully. This ability to use pricing to “discriminate” among wholesalers gave producers another valuable return: detailed knowledge of their wholesalers’ acceptable margins. That could be used to extract profit right up to the maximum feasible limit.
Something of a countertrend to consolidation seemed to appear in the 1980s, which saw a boom in small independent craft brewers. Examples include the founding (among others) of such well-known brands as Sierra Nevada (1980), Sam Adams (1984), and Harpoon (1986). Smaller brands and brewpubs added to the mix. But few of these brewers succeeded in gaining significant market share, or even in maintaining their independence. Since big brewers had been freed up to use price discrimination to reward and punish wholesalers, they could passively pressure wholesalers into keeping competitors—particularly small, independent brewers—off the market. Meanwhile, after the election of Ronald Reagan, the Justice Department cut back sharply on enforcement of U.S. antitrust law, setting in motion an unparalleled period of consolidation across virtually all American industries, including the beer industry.
In 1980, forty-eight breweries served the fifty states, and the largest of them had only a quarter of the market. Today, again, the market is overwhelmingly dominated by two: Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.
Here’s how it went down:
Stroh Brewery Company, founded in 1850, entered the 1980s as the eighth-largest brewery in the nation. But after a sleepy first 130 years, during which it marketed a single brand, director Peter Stroh had come to recognize that “it’s either grow or go.” Released from antitrust constraints by the new Reagan regime, grow they would. In 1981, Stroh bought Schaefer, a big New York regional, and moved to seventh. Two years later, Stroh took over Schlitz, leaping and to fourth place. By the mid-’90s, the company had also swallowed up Augsburger and G. Heileman, then the fifth-largest brewer in America. Coors, famously secretive in its business dealings, began the Reagan era as the fourth-largest brewer in America, with a reputation for high quality and an almost chic image in the vast East Coast market as a great beer you could only buy west of the Mississippi. Then, in 1981, Coors crossed the river, crashed through the East Coast, and hurdled across the Atlantic. In 1994, Coors purchased El Aguila in Spain and founded Jinro-Coors in South Korea. And in 1997, Molson, Foster’s, and Coors partnered to bring the Silver Bullet to Canada for the first time. Coors was now number three.
Miller entered the 1980s riding the tremendous success of its innovative Miller Lite brand. Already the second-largest brewer in America, the company set its sights on expanding, purchasing Jacob Leinenkugel in 1988, and in 1992 bought distribution rights to 20 percent of Canada’s Molson. Distribution rights to Foster’s and several other top imports followed later in the decade. With a market share of 21 percent, Miller had solidified its position as number two.
Anheuser-Busch, like Coors, was run by a family famous for its intensely private control of its business. The company entered the Reagan era as the number one brewer in America, and spent the next decade consolidating that position by leveraging its size, mostly via internal brand diversification, and by aggressively expanding its presence abroad. As the 1990s drew to a close, Anheuser-Busch remained by far the top brewer in the United States, with nearly 50 percent of the market, and one of the biggest brewers in the world. It is a testament to the size of the global beer market that even those eye-popping mergers left vast opportunities for other companies to play the same game. Three are of interest here:
In 1987, two of Belgium’s leading brewers, Artois and Piedboeuf, joined together as Interbrew. For fifteen years they quietly ate up dozens of other brands, and by 2001 they were the second-largest brewer on the planet.
In 1999, Brazil’s two largest brewers, Antarctica and Brahma, joined forces as AmBev, instantly dominating that country’s market and moving quickly to buy up smaller brands throughout South America.
And during the 1990s, South African Breweries, virtual monopolists at home with 98 percent of market, moved decisively into eastern Europe, Russia, India, and China, establishing a formidable position on three continents.
So the 1990s drew to a close with four major players in America and three abroad—seven giant brewing conglomerates for six billion people. The contest to own the world’s beer market had entered its endgame.
In 1999, Stroh was split up and sold off.
In 2002, South African Breweries bought Miller, creating SABMiller.
In 2004, Interbrew and AmBev merged, forming InBev.
In 2005, Coors and Molson merged to form Molson Coors.
In 2007, Molson Coors and SABMiller created the joint venture MillerCoors to produce and distribute their products in the United States as a single entity.
Two and a half.
And in 2008, in a blockbuster $52 billion deal, InBev bought Anheuser-Busch to form Anheuser-Busch InBev. At the stroke of a pen, half the U.S. beer industry came under the control of an even more powerful firm—one with a huge inventory of international brands ready to ride Budweiser’s coattails into the American market. Then, in June 2012, Anheuser-Busch InBev announced plans to pay $20 billion to acquire the 50 percent of Grupo Modelo that it does not already own.
And soon one?
Industry analysis have recently floated the idea that Anheuser-Busch InBev might purchase MillerCoors. But even in the lax antitrust environment that currently prevails, it is almost impossible to imagine a single company being allowed to control—overtly—80 percent or more of the domestic beer market. This means both Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have, for all intents, reached the limit of their horizontal expansion. As in the UK, the only direction to go now is vertical, with the first target being the wholesalers—the second tier of the three-tier system.
Prior to the 2008 takeover, Anheuser-Busch generally accepted the regulatory regime that had governed the U.S. alcohol industry since the repeal of Prohibition. It didn’t attack the independent wholesalers in control of its supply chain, and generally treated them well. “Tough but fair” is a phrase used by several wholesale-business sources to describe their dealings with the Busch family dynasty. Everyone was making money; there was no need to rock the boat.
All that changed quickly after Anheuser-Busch lost its independence. The executives from InBev who took over the company did things quite differently. During the negotiations to buy Anheuser-Busch, InBev made it clear that the Busch family would have to go, and at the old headquarters in St. Louis other changes soon followed. Executive offices were literally torn out and replaced by an open floor with matching desks. The private-jet fleet was put on the block. Company cars disappeared. So did 1,400 jobs, retiree life insurance, and contributions to the employee pension plan. Managerial pay was reduced to equal or less than the average for similar jobs in other industries, with bonuses tied strictly to performance. Salaried workers lost little perks like free beer every month, and hundreds of staff BlackBerrys were recalled. Cost cutting was the new imperative.
Then, after eliminating everything it could at home, the new regime turned to squeezing more out of its increasingly nervous partners, the wholesalers. And, today, with only one remaining real competitor, MillerCoors, the pressure it can put on its wholesalers is extraordinary. A wholesaler who loses its account with either company loses one of its two largest customers, and cannot offer his retail clients the name-brand beers that form the backbone of the market. The Big Two in effect have a captive system by which to bring their goods to market.
Here’s how it works in practice. In 2011, Anheuser-Busch InBev (“A-B”) sent out a Wholesaler Family Consolidation Guide to each of its contractors. The language is blunt:
Do you share the same vision as A-B on issues of importance to the industry, including support on legislation that can affect our competitive position? …
Are you selling competitive products in a fellow A-B wholesaler’s territory?
The introduction to the guide begins:
We ask all wholesalers to use the guide’s self assessment tool to objectively consider their capabilities and goals. Wholesalers who aspire to be an Anchor Wholesaler can identify any gaps they have in these qualities and build a plan to address them. Some wholesalers might remain committed to their current market, but realize further acquisitions are not right for their business. Others might decide now is the best time to consider whether a sale is in their best interest.
There are many aspects of an aligned wholesaler, and an explicit focus on our portfolio of brands is paramount. Those who are aligned with us only acquire brands that compete in segments underserved by our current portfolio and that bring incremental sales, not brands that have a negative impact on the A-B portfolio.
The guide emphasizes the last point: an aligned wholesaler is one who “shares the company’s long-term vision for how to operate successfully and grow business in conjunction with Anheuser-Busch InBev’s strategy.” So distributors are caught in an impossible bind: they either do the brewer’s bidding, including selling their businesses to favored “Anchor Wholesalers,” or they lose Anheuser-Busch InBev as a client.
And if the wholesalers try to push back? Anheuser-Busch InBev will get rough. In Arkansas, to take a prime example, a state inquiry revealed that the company was charging as much as $5 more per case (a huge margin against the average price of around $15) to some wholesalers, an obvious effort to run them out of business. In addition, through a second practice called reachback pricing, the company retroactively reset the value of its wholesale contracts once its wholesaler’s retail terms were known. The technique allowed it to reduce wholesalers’ profit margins. And when the state legislature took up a bill to make these practices illegal, Anheuser-Busch InBev filed a letter of protest “on behalf” of its wholesalers, in effect forcing those who disagreed with its practices to identify themselves if they chose to give the motion their public support.
Anheuser-Busch InBev’s efforts failed in this instance; the bill passed. But the door is open for similar behavior in other states. All that’s required is to get their legislatures to fall for familiar Chamber of Commerce arguments about regulation “hurting” businesses and consumers. Moreover, in some big states (notably California and New York, home to almost one in five Americans) brewers have already succeeded in finding loopholes that allow them to own wholesalers directly, giving them the chance to make vertical integration cut-and-dried rather than just a matter of strong-arm business practices. And given other trends toward consolidation at the retail level of American economy, there is, as we’ll see, every indication they will do just that.
For a long time, brewers weren’t interested in distribution, because distribution was a challenging, tight-margin enterprise. Those who did it had to manage hundreds or thousands of accounts, maintain a fleet of delivery trucks, store products in expensively refrigerated warehouses, get new stock onto shelves and remove the expired stuff daily (usually eating the cost as they did so), and, in some cases, maintain the taps at their contracted bars and restaurants. In short, they ran a very complex show. But with the emergence of national chain retail stores, much of the complexity and cost of distribution has been eliminated.
Just as England’s four major supermarkets now dominate alcohol sales there, so major all-in-one box stores, like Walmart and Costco, now dominate beer sales in the U.S. And these stores typically manage their own logistics, gathering inventory at centralized distribution centers and stocking all their shelves in a region from there. So it would be no big task for Anheuser-Busch InBev to run a fleet of trucks from its breweries to the big-box distribution centers—and that is precisely the plan. Anheuser-Busch InBev’s CEO Carlos Brito openly declared it to investment analysts from UBS in 2009, saying that the company was aiming at making 50 percent of its sales directly to retailers. (Aware that at least some people believe that this would or should be illegal under federal law, spokespeople quickly claimed that his statement was being misinterpreted.)
But to Anheuser-Busch InBev, as well as to MillerCoors, achieving de facto if not actual vertical integration is too tempting a goal to give up. Such control allows for the elimination, in literal, physical terms, of almost all competing brands on store shelves. And if eliminating middlemen leads to greater “efficiencies” and therefore lower costs, both companies can build the market for alcoholic beverages by manipulating prices and more aggressively marketing to consumers—which is exactly what happened, with obviously disastrous effects, in the UK.
And so the onslaught continues, by direct and indirect means, with few Americans having even the vaguest idea of what’s going on. In Ohio, for example, MillerCoors tried unsuccessfully to negate the contracts that its component companies, SABMiller and Coors, had already signed with distributors, with the goal of forcing them to renegotiate terms with the more powerful merged venture. In California, the state attorney general declared MillerCoors’s efforts at wholesaler exclusivity a violation of state law. In Illinois, Anheuser-Busch InBev stands accused by the state’s distributors of holding an illegal interest in a top Chicago-area wholesaler. If Anheuser-Busch InBev wins the case, now being heard by the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, the company may be emboldened to argue for similar rights in other states. (On October 31, after this article went to press, the Commission ruled in favor of Anheuser-Busch InBev, effectively permitting beer makers to self-distribute in Illinois.)
In fact, by exploiting existing weaknesses in some states’ commerce laws, Anheuser-Busch InBev owns fourteen distributorships in ten states (New York and California, as mentioned above, plus New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts, Colorado, Oregon, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Hawaii) and is part owner of two more. The biggest beer producer in America, Anheuser-Busch InBev is now by volume the biggest beer distributor, too.
At times, the Big Two don’t even have to lead the fight. Costco spent $22 million last year in a successful ballot initiative campaign that allows them to stock their shelves directly from wholesale warehouses, effectively eliminating the protective inefficiencies of the second-tier distribution system. Such mutually beneficial efforts by big-box stores and the Big Two are no surprise: they all work on a high-volume, low-margin profit model. And though three-tier laws prohibit direct collaboration between them, it’s also no accident that in a March interview with the trade publication Beer Business Daily, Anheuser-Busch InBev Vice President Dave Almeida described in perfect detail how retailers can maximize their profits by replacing craft brews with “premium” beer—its term for its mass-produced light lager. Synergy: it’s coming to a store near you.
Horizontal integration of alcohol production. Vertical integration of distribution and retail. Loosened local regulations. National chain stores. Streamlined marketing. Volume pricing. Alcohol as an ordinary commodity. America resembles Britain more and more each passing day. How do you like them apples?
In recent years, the UK has started to reverse course as it struggles with its epidemic of alcoholism. After ten years of study and against vehement industry protest, a conservative, Tory-led Parliament now appears serious about passing reforms aimed at weakening vertical monopolies in the British alcohol industry and forcing the cost of drinking upward through minimum-price laws. Eighty years late, Great Britain is recognizing the hard-learned lesson that our forebears enshrined in the 21st Amendment: that alcohol truly is no ordinary commodity, and must be handled with care. We would do well to recall that wisdom ourselves.