If you managed to stay awake for the Super Bowl (no shame if you didn’t, it was a snoozefest) you might have noticed AB-InBev pull out their claws and go for the throat. They specifically called out both Miller Lite and Coors Light for using corn syrup in a series of Bud Light ads throughout the night. How will this play out for Bud Light and ABI? In my opinion, not well.
In the current age of instant fact checking, people quickly realized, while Bud Light might not use corn syrup, many other ABI brands do. So, technically, they aren’t lying when they say Bud Light doesn’t, but it’s a bad look to call out a competitors ingredient that you also use.
This post from the Mad Fermentationist was posted at 4:38PM (Pacific Time), in other words, DURING the game.
Jeff Alworth’s Beervana Blog offered a quick recap posted later that night, AB InBev’s Weird Super Bowl Message, which also points out that ABI makes more than just Bud Light, including a beer that also got a Super Bowl spot, Stella Artois which uses corn as an ingredient.
The Beer Business Daily newsletter published on Monday morning did not pull any punches. A couple things popped out to me while I was reading it. This was the first.
“One of the first rules they teach you in marketing school is you never, ever, under any circumstances, name your competitors when they are smaller than you. Second, if you do, don’t disparage them because it makes you appear to be a bully. ” BBD 2-4-19
I hadn’t really thought about the bullying angle. I had always heard, the leader in a category doesn’t mention it’s competitors in ads because it doesn’t have too. Take Coke for example. Pepsi is running ads about how Pepsi is consistently ranked higher than Coke in blind taste tests, while Coke is running ads about polar bears drinking Coke. Pepsi has to try to PROVE it’s better. This is what makes this so wild. ABI isn’t acting like the industry leader. They are acting like a wounded animal, lashing out violently but randomly. They seem to be acting out of fear.
The next thing that struck me is this (emphasis mine):
“IS IT FAIR? Well, all is fair in love and war, and this is war. A-B knew it could leverage it’s huge audience without the majority of consumers checking the fine print. High fructose corn syrup, of course, has been widely publicized as an evil ingredient in most products. I’m sure A-B tested for that. But no MillerCoors products are brewed with HFCS.
Many beer brands brew with regular corn syrup, which includes ABI’s second largest brand outside the U.S., Corona. But not sure the average consumer gets the distinction. And of course, in brewing, the vast majority of the corn syrup is fermented anyway into ethanol and carbon dioxide, just as any starch, including rice. But that is lost on the majority of the public.” BBD 2-4-19
This cuts to the heart of not what they are doing, but why. Throw out a dirty word that the public hates (sliding by on the lack of distinction between HFCS and CS) and pin your opponents name to it. Unfortunately, nowadays this will most likely have the opposite effect of focusing people on Bud Light and asking, so what’s in YOUR beer that you don’t want us to know about? This drives me mad with Coors Light commercials all the time. They make huge bold statements (COLD FILTERED, COLD PACKAGED) that, while they are true, are not unique to Coors Light. Every beer on the planet (save perhaps bottle conditioned Belgians) is cold aged, cold filtered and cold packaged. You can’t filter or package warm beer. But, the majority of the public doesn’t know that, Coors is the only one to put it in their ads and therefore Coors is special. That’s what ABI is doing here as well, it’s an advertising sleight of hand. “It’s not that we DON’T use Corn syrup…. but they DO!” It’s not lying, but….
So, let’s talk about sugar here for a minute. Maltose (the sugar from Malted Barley) is a disaccharide (two sugars) formed from two glucose molecules. Dextrose (usually refered to as Corn Sugar) is a single glucose molecule. Yeast break down the maltose into single glucoses (dextrose) and from that point on they are identical. Sucrose (sugar from cane or beets, common granulated sugar) is a disaccharide formed from one glucose and one fructose. Fructose is commonly referred to as fruit sugar since it was likely first discovered in fruits, but these different configurations of carbon structures exist in all starch/sugar containing foods. Corn Syrup is made by treating corn starch with enzymes to break down the long chains into dextrose and double glucoses still referred to as (you guessed it) maltose. They are chemically identical whether they come from barley or corn. The yeast cannot tell a difference. High Fructose Corn Syrup has a bad wrap mostly because it’s in everything that’s bad for you, soda, cakes, cookies, etc. But here’s the thing, it’s identical to sucrose. HFCS is corn syrup that’s been treated with enzymes to convert some of the glucose to fructose. How much you ask? About 42% fructose to 50-52% glucose and the rest longer chain starches, which is the exact same formulation as sucrose. That’s intentional. Fructose “tastes” sweeter than glucose, which means corn syrup isn’t as “sweet”, so HFCS has been modified to have the same flavor profile as table sugar. Now, I’m not saying it’s good for you, but it’s no worse than sucrose. The new sodas made “Without HFCS” and “Made with REAL sugar” etc are implying that regular sugar is better for you. Of course, legally they can’t make that claim, so they expect the consumer to make that jump, which most do. This beer ad does the same thing. “We can’t say it’s bad, but you know it’s bad so you’ll do that math for us.”
Miller Lite of course fired back with a full page ad in the New York Times which was not surprising, and also not surprisingly they play off the corn syrup vs HFCS trope as well saying: “What might have gotten a little lost […] is the distinction between “corn syrup” and High Fructose Corn Syrup”
As far as our bodies are concerned, sucrose and HFCS are chemically identical. Any implication that one tastes better (or even different for that matter) is bogus and any implication that one is better or worse for your body is bogus. We all know sugar of any kind in large quantities is bad for you. The type of sugar honestly doesn’t matter. Your body converts all of it to glucose.
This holds true for brewing as well. Whether the sugar comes from wheat, barley, corn, rice or cane sugar, in the end it all gets converted into ethanol and carbon dioxide. It really doesn’t matter. To try to claim rice is better than corn is foolish. And yes, lets acknowledge the fact that a lot of this “rice and corn bashing” in macro beers is coming from the same people who will happily drink a beer with lactose (milk sugar) and/or actual Lucky Charms in the mash tun. Hypocrisy is not a good look for anyone. I have the same reactions when “craft” people bash regular beer.
The last caveat I’ll add to this is the same I would for any such post about a single ingredient in a larger mix. This is alcohol we’re talking about, which is (in the wrong doses) a poison. Now, surely if you’re reading this you know I’m not anti-alcohol. I’m a homebrewer and work in a brewery, an avid consumer of both beer and whiskey, I play on both sides of the beverage alcohol industry, production and consumption, but lets be real for a moment. We all know (or should) the dangers of alcohol consumption. In too high of volumes or for too long a period of time it can be detrimental to your health, up to and including death. Maybe we shouldn’t be too terribly concerned about what form of sugar is used to make our poison? I see similar posts about artificial flavors in tobacco products (such as certain brands being listed as “All Natural”) and just shake my head. It’s not the cherry flavor in tobacco that’s going to kill you.
AB InBev is playing a dangerous game and I don’t think it’s going to play well for them at all.