Before Carlos Brito captured all the beer biz's infinity stones
Plus: Corona hard seltzer lawsuit lols, Heaven Hill strike update, Underberg keeps on truckin' + more!
Editor’s note: Welcome to the 11 new readers who have joined the Fingers family since last week. We’re glad you’re here!
🧾 The Settle-Up
— What *Is* Hard Seltzer? That May Be Up to A Federal Judge: In February 2021, Anheuser-Busch InBev sued Constellation Brands (the macrobrewer that sells Corona in the U.S., plus many other beer and wine brands) over the introduction of Corona hard seltzer, alleging that it was a violation of a contract between the companies that allows the latter to sell Corona in this country. This is hilarious for a bunch of reasons:
Outside the United States, ABI owns the Corona brands via Grupo Modelo. The only reason Constellation controls their U.S. rights is because the Department of Justice made the world’s biggest beer company divest them when it wholly acquired Grupo Modelo in 2012. Maintaining a veneer of non-monopolistic market control in the all-important American beer market: it’s complicated!
If Anheuser-Busch had simply bought Grupo Modelo in 2008 when Inbev was circling—a course of action the company brass reportedly considered, then rejected—it’s possible that Carlos Brito never would have gotten his hands on all of the beer universe’s infinity stones in the first place, precluding our current reality from ever transpiring. (I haven’t seen all the Marvel movies and do not care if this textual analysis is inaccurate, don’t @ me.)
By most accounts, including Constellation’s own, Corona hard seltzer is not very good. In Q2 20212, the company took a $66M obsolescence charge on overproduced stores of its poor-performing FMB; it plans to reformulate the beverage. Best of luck!
Last but not least: hard seltzer has no legal definition. Beer is a malt-based beverage; so are flavored malt beverages. If this suit goes to trial, at issue will be whether there’s a meaningful legal difference between the two. If there is, Constellation loses, because it only has rights to Corona beer brands; if there isn’t, ABI loses, because Constellation has rights to Corona beer brands, which includes Corona hard seltzer.
Most recently, ABI moved to force Constellation to reveal whether its focus-group testers thought Corona Hard Seltzer was a beer or not. The suit is grinding towards a trial next year, setting up the funniest possible outcome: a federal judge with no brewing experience may be in charge of deciding what the fuck hard seltzer actually is (under U.S. law, at least.) Ideally, the Honorable Lewis A. Kaplan will come up with an insane ruling that fundamentally shifts the entire industry in a bizarre new direction. To that end, Fingers has an amicus curiae to file with hizzoner:
— Breweries Bail on Mikkeller Over Sexual Harassment Allegations: Following allegations of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination in May 2021, Mikkeller, a Danish brewery with a global footprint and cult status within the craft brewing business, made some vague overtures towards improving its internal culture, even while denying the allegations. Now, under pressure from activist groups, over two dozen breweries have dropped out of the company’s popular, influential, invitation-only festival, slated to take place this month in Copenhagen. This story is making major waves within the craft brewing industry, even though those waves almost certainly haven’t lapped up on the shores of the American drinking public. Follow Friend of Fingers and fellow Beer Byliner Kate Bernot for regular updates on this story, she’s been all over it from the jump.
— Your Fingers Editor Gets the TrueAnon Look: In 2019, I met Brace Belden, who was then working in the cellar, and working on a union drive, at San Francisco’s iconic Anchor Brewing Company. I broke the news of the drive for Splinter (RIP) as it went public, then covered the firm’s union-busting tactics in a folo for HuffPost. Belden was a big help connecting me with workers for both stories. Since then, Belden (with cohost, writer Liz Franzcak) has launched TrueAnon, a massively successful, Patreon-funded leftist podcast focused on the clandestine contours of political and social power amongst America’s ruling class. It’s a powerhouse show. Last week, right around the 1:00 mark of Episode 188, Belden namechecks my reporting on ABI:
Very cool Brace, thank you Brace. And thanks to all the tipsters who emailed/DM’d/texted me about this. Apparently a lot of the Fingers Fam listen to TrueAnon!
— Finding (and Acknowledging) Black Brewing History in Charleston: Earlier this year, Charleston, South Carolina native Jamaal Lemon published a lengthy trio of stories with Good Beer Hunting called Tek Cyear uh de Root, in which he dug into the mostly unknown brewing contributions of the Lowcountry’s Black enslaved and former-enslaved people. In one of Lemon’s pieces, he pointed out that one of the most popular/successful breweries in present-day Charleston, Edmund’s Oast, is named for a slaveholding, American Revolution-era “rebel brewer,” but makes no acknowledgment of the Black slaves who almost certainly did the actual brewing. Now, the brewery has committed to “actively continuing research in hopes that we can name [the] enslaved brewers,” and will release a collaborative charity beer with Lemon in early November. The power of the pen! (Thanks to Friend of Fingers and Charleston City Paper editor Sam Spence for the tip.)
— Why Is Arkansas the Driest State in America?: “In 2012, Walmart had thrown its weight behind a campaign to turn dry counties in its home state wet — and even with more money than God, it lost.” In fucking Arkansas. Independent journalist Alice Driver popped off a moving, alienating reported essay for The Bitter Southerner on the roots of her home state’s intractable alcohol laws, which have given The Land of Opportunity the dubious distinction of having more dry counties than any other.
— Horny Goat Weed, But Make It Adaptogenic Soda: Let’s check in on the wild world of non-alcoholic drinkable homeopathy, shall we? *Reads literally one headline about “horny sodas”* No, no, I don’t think we shall. Lol I don’t have much to add about the new cache of herbally infused, supposedly libido-enhancing soft drinks hitting the American market these days other than to note that many of these herbal remedies have been around for centuries, and have been presented to American consumers in other formats before, with varying degrees of success. (Like “horny goat weed” pills for example: long the province of truck stop checkout counters and late-night punchlines, the underlying herb, epimedium, has been in Western cultivation for around 150 years, and Chinese cultivation for much longer.) Will boutique beverages be a winning medium for introducing epimedium to the mainstream? Hmm.
— Workers at America’s Biggest Bourbon Producer Are Still on Strike: The Heaven Hill strike, which Fingers reported on last month, is still going strong, and getting nastier by the day. Workers at the family-owned distillery hit the picket line at midnight on September 11th over the company’s hard-line stance on health insurance premiums and 7-days-a-week “non-traditional” scheduling that they say will rob them of overtime and take them away from their families. The strike is getting nastier by the day: as soon as it began, the company cut striking workers off from their employer healthcare plan; on Wednesday, a non-union trucker carrying bulk bourbon from the Bardstown plant accidentally flipped his tanker after taking his hands off the wheel to make a “threatening gesture” at striking workers. This is dangerous as hell, but also a reminder that crossing a picket line always has consequences, even if they’re entirely self-inflicted.
— Vineyard Employees Form New York's First Farm Worker Union: Also in booze union news, a dozen number of workers at Long Island’s Pindar Vineyards are organizing for paid time off and sick days. I didn’t believe this at first because it seems insane, but this is the Empire State’s first farm laborers union; until the 2019 passage of the NY Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, ag workers in the state were legally barred from PTO, sick leave, and collective bargaining. Yeesh.
Please support independent journalism about drinking in America with a subscription to Fingers.
📬 Good post alert
This is very funny, but also not a joke! Sideways, featuring Paul Giamatti, Sandra Oh, Thomas Hayden Church, and Virginia Madsen, came out in 2004, winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay in 2005. Giamatti’s character hates Merlot because his ex-wife liked it, and that on-screen hatred from a fictional character actually probably exacerbated the varietal’s flagging popularity with U.S. drinkers.
Wine industry types call it the Sideways effect: from 2005-2008, Merlot sales were down 2%, while Pinot noir’s numbers (Giamatti’s preferred red) were up 16%. “Poor merlot… [it’s] one of the best grapes on the planet and the movie did some damage to its reputation,” one California winemaker told NPR in 2017. (Don’t worry, the varietal has since bounced back.) Underestimate Paul and/or pop culture at your peril, people!
🎙️ The Fingers Interview: Hanna Raskin, editor/publisher of The Food Section
On Wednesday I dropped a new episode of The Fingers Podcast featuring an interview with my friend, former editor, and fellow Charlestonian Hanna Raskin. Hanna is a James Beard award-winning reporter and food critic who worked for the past eight years at the local newspaper here in the Holy City before striking out on her own with a new project, The Food Section.
She and I caught up for a wide-ranging interview about her Amtrak-abetted summer whistle-stop tour of the Southeast, her vision of regional food criticism, South Carolina drinking rituals of yesteryear, and much more. Right now, these podcasts/transcriptions are available to all Fingers readers, but after 10/22/21 only paying subscribers will be able to access them. So if you haven’t yet, please consider buying a subscription to support this project!
Remember to subscribe to The Fingers Podcast on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss new episodes as I publish them. All previous episodes can be found on those platforms, or in The Fingers Podcast archive.
🔝 This week’s top comment
On Monday I published some highlights from the bar tab at my wedding reception. It included included five mini bottles of Underberg, a German digestif popular with American F&B types. Reader Scott S. had some constructive feedback:
genuinely upset at the low number of underbergs consumed at your wedding. That dining set is like 3200 caps, you're never gonna make it at this rate.
If you don’t know what he’s talking about, good for you, continue living your life. But for the rest of you sickos: Underberg has long run a cereal box top-style rewards program through which you can redeem caps from Underberg mini bottles as proof-of-purchase for all sorts of promotional prizes, including branded signage, playing cards, and yes, entire dining sets.
In this program, a mere five caps gets you exactly nothing, so Scott is absolutely right: my wife and I need to step it up. I asked Scott if he’d be willing to help us knock back some smallflower bitters between now and our first anniversary. He said he’s down (emphasis mine):
As a man who's dream it is to eventually own the little truck that holds like 6 underbergs, yes, absolutely, I am willing to get blackout drunk on Underberg to help. (fwiw, ive had a little jar where i collect my caps and it's taken me like 4 years to get to 60 caps. The road is long, but it's about the journey)
It truly is, Scott S. It truly is. This brings up three interesting questions:
How many mini bottles of Underberg would it take to get blackout drunk?
Who the fuck is drinking enough Underberg to earn these prizes?
Should the Fingers Fam pool resources and start a strategic Underberg cap reserve?
Much to think about. Meanwhile, remember that you can always reach your fearless Fingers editor directly with Underberg- and non-Underberg-related comments, queries, and effusive praise. I’d love to hear from you!
📲 Everyone’s favorite Fingers meme this week
Likely inspired by Kate Bernot’s ongoing reportage on the Mikkeller hot mess express, the Fingers Fam double-tapped this meme more than any other posted to the boozeletter’s official Instagram in the past seven days.
If you haven’t followed Fingers on Instagram yet, you’re missing out on free daily original content about the booze business. Don’t do that! Do this instead:
Your feed will thank you. (Not really, that would be weird. But you know what I mean.)