Bats, Baseball, Beers & Bucks

Photo by Flickr User: Andrew Malone

Professional baseball’s spring training is underway, and it isn’t too early to begin considering the prospects for locally brewed craft beer at Louisville Slugger Field in 2012. The Louisville Bats begin play in April, and only then will we know if the fragile, halting forward progress of craft beer availability during the past three years will be repeated this season.

I shan’t be holding my breath, but as usual, I hope I’m mistaken.

Since the inception of Louisville Slugger Field, a facility constructed with monies generated by local tax revenue, the Triple-A Louisville Bats have remained slavishly beholden to the narrow interests of Anheuser-Busch (now multi-nationalized into AB-INBEV), dooming generations of local baseball fans to the lowest common denominator of insipid multinational yellow lager, even as the ballclub continues to insist that the Louisville Slugger Field experience is purely “local” in aim.

In 2009, I wrote a piece in LEO, and this excerpt aptly conveys the perennial disconnect between what Bats management says it will do and what it actually proceeds to do – a state of affairs dating to the last Clinton administration.

According to Gary Ulmer, President of the Louisville Bats, this season a rotating Browning’s beer will be on tap at one of the portable stands along the concourse in the area behind third base.

 

Courtesy of Ulmer, here are the other beers being served at Louisville Slugger Field:

 

Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Coors Light, Bud Light Lime, Michelob Ultra, Michelob Amber and Light, Amber Bock, Shock Top, Landshark, Red Stripe, Smithwick’s, Rolling Rock, Red Hook IPA, Sam Adams, Sam Adams Brown Ale, Beck’s, New Castle, Harbin, Bass, Stella, Labatt’s Blue, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Tiger, Heineken, Peroni, St. Pauli and Corona.

 

Browning’s is a start, although if you’re keeping score, that’s 30 non-local to 1 local.

The way these matters work in the real world is fairly well understood. An entity such as AB-INBEV spreads advertising cash throughout the back alleys of the stadium authority, or in this case, the team itself, which is the day-to-day operator of Louisville’s taxpayer-funded baseball venue.

Centerplate, chosen monopolistic concessionaire of the Bats and so many other sporting operators, then miraculously ensures that AB-INBEV’s product placement will is done. There is no direct, necessary connection between one and the other, in the same way there is no provable link between anniversary gifts and the state of happiness in your marriage. Shit just somehow happens, kaka occurs, and mass-market swill enjoys a leaden grip on the palates of the baseball watching public.

Sporadic offerings from Browning’s were welcomed in the past, of course, but Browning’s tended to be on life support at the best of times. In 2010, NABC initiated a discussion with Centerplate that led to a remarkable occurrence: Via the River City Distributing wholesaler, and evidently absent indirect payola or onerous advertising terms, two craft draft handles magnanimously would be permitted to pour, as surreptitiously hidden behind the “hot roasted peanuts” bin at the concession stand along the concourse by Section 115.

Naturally, there could be no banners or signage larger than table tents normally sized for cocktail bar use, because Daddy Big Busch Bucks would be gravely insulted, but it was a big step forward. NABC Beak’s Best and Alltech’s Kentucky Ale went on tap, albeit briefly, presumably owing to “personal” reasons; in short, because I was designated for ritualistic scourging, having had the temerity to publicly discuss the naked truth about the Bats and Centerplate’s odious practices all these years.

(Oddly, Centerplate subsequently told our wholesaler that Kentucky Ale would not be returning because it “isn’t local,” even though Alltech was in the process of inking a substantial sponsorship deal to have its beers in the Yum Center just blocks down the street, and of course, despite the location of AB-INBEV’s world headquarters somewhere within the European Union. They’re not the sharpest pair of spikes in the locker room, are they?)

However, Centerplate’s act of retaliation against NABC and Alltech was to put BBC APA and Cumberland Red next to the peanuts for the remainder of 2010 and all of 2011. NABC and Alltech may have lost the battle, but craft beer won the war, at least for a little while, and I definitely could live with that.

The question in 2012 is whether BBC’s and Cumberland’s tenuous keg placements will survive shifting variables.

Two larger factors have changed since the 2011 season ended. First, the positive one: Browning’s finally faded into history and was replaced by Against the Grain. ATG’s energy and enthusiasm might well alter the balance within the yard’s turnstiles, adding more choices to the two crafts already in place. Even if not, there’ll be great beer quite close at hand at ATG. This could be a win-win.

Second, the negative development: AB-INBEV completed its acquisition of Goose Island. Overnight, Goose Island ceased to be a craft beer in any meaningful sense, and instead became AB-INBEV’s probable nuclear weapon of choice in the war for shelf space at the targeted expense of legitimate locally-owned craft brewers.

It takes little imagination to gauge this scenario: AB-INBEV pitches Goose Island to the Bats as the “craft” beer portfolio it is able to both abundantly supply and profusely support with ad money. Up go their banners, out go the newspaper ads for Goose Island Craft Beer Night … and away go the two local brewery taps, because AB-INBEV’s not doling out the dollars for a genuinely free market, is it?

I’ve no way of knowing whether this scenario might come to pass, although it is highly unlikely that AB-INBEV ever would have swallowed Goose Island whole without imagining bait-and-switch “craft” tactics just like these, guaranteed to give its foreign-based upper brand managers the first sans-Viagra erections they’ve welcomed in decades.

In baseball as in beer, it’s always useful to follow the money.

  1. “Big Beer” has gotten huge and it looks like no end’s in sight – except to put the pressure (as we can) with our $$$.
    Good luck to all local breweries.

    Cheers,

    David
    Black Bucket Brew Inbox Magazine Editor

    Reply
  2. If it tastes good, it’s craft. Nuff said.

    Reply
  3. Roger is such a moron…

    Reply
  4. Agreed. He clearly doesn’t understand what craft means. This isn’t an industry based on volume, it’s based on flavor contribution. Deal with it.

    Reply
  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, this is the same guy who claimed he would no longer serve Sierra b/c they brew outside of where they began…and we’re talking about, without a doubt, one of the highest quality brands in the world! Any state would be lucky to have such a presence and this guy denies it b/c it’s not under his definition of a “revolution”. I will never listen to what this guy has to say.

    Reply
    • Then tell me your definition of a revolution. Tell me your definition of craft. You’ve thought about such matters, right? No one argues that Sierra is an example of excellence. It is a legitimate question to ask whether sparkling wine produced outside a certain region of France can be called champagne, and it is equally legitimate to ask how a brewery relying on California imagery for 30+ years explains the change.

      Reply
  6. Roger has his opinion…though usually wrong…it’s still his opinion.

    Reply
    • Define your opinion for me. What I’m seeing in these comments is this: I like what I like and don’t care where it comes from. Sweatshop workers in China are happy to hear that you feel that way. Does it matter how Wal-Mart made that price so low?

      Reply
  7. Caught this through beernews…makes some good points regarding shelf/tap space. Yes, his opinion of what is craft is genuinely wrong though.

    Reply
    • Yeah, those thirty years I’ve spent in the good beer business have taught me nothing. What I’m saying is this: The way of brewing we came to know as “craft” arose because it was different from the way of brewing practiced by multinationals. If a Multinational buys a craft brewery lock stock and barrel, can it still be craft, and what of the multinational uses if to blockade other breweries with a more honest definition of craft? It would seem that people emotionally invested in 100% AB-Inbev-owned Goose Island (and Sierra) cannot bring themselves to question premises or define terms. They can barely bring themselves to have a discussion. Is that what we’ve come to? You tell me.

      Reply
  8. Roger, great thoughts on the state of what beer we get at Slugger. I can honestly say that you have a great point regarding the possibility of ‘a bait and switch’. While I have no disdain for the multinational and certainly different AB-INBEV/GI. I can see this being an interesting and potentially telling situation for why they were the ‘chosen one’. Being so close to home, it can be a bit unsettling. But I feel like, with the ground work laid by the generation before in craft beer and the momentum we have now…we will be fine. Quality and the ability to innovate (or better…turn on a dime) has and will be our champion. In a case like this, its nice to be small and versatile.
    This is not to say that we should rest on our laurels though. So I stand beside you in the fight, Ive just got my sights on a different target.

    Reply
  9. It’s a damn shame that a “local” ballpark doesn’t have local beers, no matter if you define them as “craft”, “artisnal”, or however the hell that you want to define them. The same dynamic is at work in my industry (cigars) and for us, if a “boutique” manufacturer is bought by one of the InBevs of our industry it is no longer “boutique”. Period.

    Reply
  10. Adam

    Keep it up, Roger. We (obviously) don’t agree on everything. Mostly because that would be boring. I’m glad you’re still laying it out and starting conversations, though. Viva la revolucion, whatever it may be.

    Reply
  11. […] Read the full post in Baylor on Beer at Louisville Beer dot com. Categories: From the Publican's Pen / Click on a tab to select how you'd like to leave your comment WordPressTwitterFacebookGoogleLoginLoginLogin  […]

    Reply
  12. I love baseball and craft beer. Looking forward to buying two tix to a bats game so i can enjoy against the grain before game and at some point during game. Extra ticket in case i need to see end of game.

    I would be shocked if atg gets a tap in stadium. For one, they do not brew same beer twice. And two, different beers would require 6 min of extra training to a centerplate employee who only knows dark and miller lite.

    Reply
  13. “it is highly unlikely that AB-INBEV ever would have swallowed Goose Island whole without imagining bait-and-switch “craft” tactics” – Why, oh why, do people invent drivel such as this and on it base an argument? That a craft brewer, whose very hallmark should be authenticity, foisters such nonsense is deeply ironic. Please come visit Goose Island in Chicago to get a grasp on reality.

    Reply
    • Er, Tony — if you’ve read far enough to quote a passage, here’s a thought: Reply to the passage itself, and not “drivel” that you’ve read into it.

      Reading comprehension — what a concept.

      Reply
  14. A lot of the critical comments seem to be about Roger Baylor rather than about the issues he’s raising. He and I are probably as far as the east is from the west on political issues, but I respect and admire his championing of local artisans and products. AB-INVEV is out to make money, period. That’s what its investors (who can include pension funds, retirement funds, and other “99%” investors) want it to do. Its financial officers are smart businessmen (and women). Of course they thought about the “bait-switch” possibilities – that’s their job. Roger’s absolutely right. AB-INBEV killed the Goose Island sheep to put on its “sheep’s clothing” and claim that it’s now a sheep, too.

    Reply
  15. I always wondered why when Brownings had the brewery at the ballpark that there wasn’t a stand with a lineup of their beers. And I reckon I would still be wondering that since ATG is brewing there now. To me, it just seems like it would be common sense as well as cool as heck to feature a beer stand with craft beer that is brewed right there on the premises, throw in a few rotating taps of other local craft brews and you would have something truly unique for Slugger Field.
    It is unfortunate that, as always this is another example of money talks and the little guy walks. I don’t know how contracts, advertising, here’s some free stuff, don’t sell that stuff all works. I try to live life as simply as I can, use common sense, help folks when I can and watch out for shysters. Perhaps this is approach is naïve, but for the past 20 of my almost 52 years it’s worked out okay for me. So I really don’t see the harm in a dedicated craft brew stand, if it makes big beer guy angry, so be it. Let ‘em pull out if they want, some other big beer company would step in. Take a stand for the local brew team. The only bump in the road with selling craft brews at Slugger Field may be price. There would be some sticker shock in the beginning, but then again they already sell the mass produced beer at unreasonable prices so that may not be an issue after all.
    As far as AB-INBEV and product placement in stores, well…they’re gonna win that one. But from my experience I think folks heading into stores already know what they want and they know where it’s located. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone walk down the craft beer aisle carrying a 12 pack of swill light and suddenly set it down and select a 4 pack of craft beer instead. I may be wrong, but just saying.
    Roger, keep up the good work, writing and brewing. I should really say to all the local/regional brewers to keep up the brewing.

    Reply

What's your take? Please comment below.