The sinister politics of pouring beers for dead troops
Plus: whiskey workers on strike, ABI's Bud Light problem, new zine + more
Editor’s note: For more original reporting on the booze business, labor, and beyond, please subscribe to Fingers now. I’m running a sale on annual subscriptions through 10/22/21:
Thanks for supporting independent journalism.—Dave
Late last month, restaurants, breweries, and bars around the country began putting out 13 full pints of beer to honor 13 American soldiers who were killed in a bombing in Kabul as the U.S. war machine withdrew from Afghanistan. One bar owner told USAToday that:
[T]he community reaction has been overwhelming; customers have seen the 13 beers and asked where and how they can help other military families. Some have offered donations, while others have thanked and hugged local veterans.
"These families, the sacrifices and those soldiers who died deserve to be seen. So in our small way, we put our 13 beers to honor them, which isn't half of what they deserve. But it's something," Russell said.
It is something, that’s for sure. But what, exactly? There’s a longstanding tradition of U.S. veterans ordering beers and shots for fallen and POW/MIA comrades they’ve lost. That’s a deeply personal and intimate act, whereas this practice seems to have sprung up in response to a specific, highly politicized attack on U.S. troops to whom the participating businesses have more indirect connections.
It also seems precision-engineered to harvest attention social media, unlike, say, organizing to oust the politicians who would gladly march us into another intractable conflict for the sake of flowing untold billions to the defense contractors that they plan on “consulting” for as soon as they leave office.
Maybe these businesses are doing that, in which case, great! But it still wouldn’t answer why this is “a thing” now. The U.S. military was in Afghanistan for 20 years, and while 13 American soldiers dead is indeed a tragedy, it pales in scope to the 2,500 U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan since 2001. (Not to mention the 66,000 Afghan troops and 50,000 Afghan civilians killed in the conflict; no beers for them, I guess.) Have bars been doing this for the entire duration of the war, and I just missed it?
A couple Friends of Fingers sent me this story (thanks Pete J. and Justin G.), and I was flummoxed, so I put that question out on Twitter. From what I can tell, none of my followers have seen this either. A lot of people chimed in about individual vets buying drinks for fallen friends, or restaurants setting a missing man table. But again, those seem like distinct rituals from this one, in which for-profit businesses use perishable liquid in highly choreographed responses to a discrete news story.So, assuming this is new: why, and why now?
Sure, there’s a Democrat in the White House these days. But partisan politics alone don’t explain this. The GOP flogged the 2012 Benghazi attack into a bumbling, interminable congressional investigation, an entire feature film starring John Krasinski, and one of the first mainstream political memes. I don’t remember conservative bar owners wasting beer to own the libs on Facebook back then, or following other fatal attacks on Americans in the back half of last decade once the platform had red-pilled a critical mass of users beyond recovery.
Unfortunately, USAToday never got around to asking those business owners about this discrepancy. Neither did the Today Show or Fox News or any of the other mainstream outlets that ran with this as a feel-good story. But Kelsey D. Atherton, writer of the newsletter Wars of Future Past, offered me a very plausible answer on Twitter: “I don't know about the empty table with full glasses specifically, but it's part of the broader ritual of honoring the dead by pretending their deaths were wholly apolitical.”
Ah yes: doing politics by refusing to Do Politics. A classic! Atherton linked me to a piece he published in late August (just before the pint thing hit headlines) that details the popular feint of “limiting coverage of the dead to the impressions shared by public mourners [and] flattening expressions of grief into a reaffirmation that questioning the war means dishonoring the dead.” That certainly tracks here, and reminds me of something Luke O’Neil over at Welcome To Hell World wrote awhile back:
I was trying to figure out why the patriotic people in America love dead troops so much but don’t seem to care about the living ones… I guess it’s a lot like how they love the unborn. A dead troop and an unborn baby aren’t actual people you have to take care of anymore or yet they’re just an idea you can do whatever you want with and what the fuck are they going to say about it anyway their bones aren’t even moving.
O’Neil was writing about a memorial involving flags, but beer is actually an ideal beverage for this washing down the bloody consequences of American politicians’ devotion to waging war. It’s an approachable, available commodity that also doubles as a symbol of friendship and community and common ground, which is why centrist types like to wring their hands that Democrats and Republicans can’t simply set asides their differences and have a beer with each other as Americans.(Ironically, some of the only common ground both parties can still find these days is spending trillions on unnecessary wars.) It’s relatively cheap, so bars have no problem spending some of it for this observance. Best of all, most American drinkers like beer, and don’t want to think about it as politics, which they hate.
Considering all that, setting out pints for dead troops reads like a somber (albeit vaguely commercial) sacrifice at an altar. Like I said, it’s a nice enough idea… except in this allegory, the altar is built to an American experience where it’s normal, even expected, to have dead troops to honor with Facebook beer homages. To accept this schtick as dogma (as we already have with so many other performative liturgies of Troop Respecting™) and spread it like the gospel on social media is to embrace the political orthodoxy that keeps getting American soldiers killed in the first place. Look, maybe all these bar and restaurant owners began putting pints out for dead soldiers in good faith. But divested of broader historical context and pumped out across Americans’ newsfeeds, it looks a lot more like bad religion.
📬 Good post alert
🚫 Whiskey workers strike for a better contract
As of midnight this past Saturday morning, production workers at Heaven Hill Distillery, Inc.’s Bardstown, Kentucky plant are on strike over the company’s efforts to bake “non-traditional” work shifts into their new union contract. (The old contract, ratified in 2016 by 66% of workers, expired Friday at 11:59pm. United Food and Commercial Workers represents the 420 workers, 96% of which voted to authorize this strike.)
“During the pandemic and all that, the company has told us, we'll remember you all during contract time. Well, contract planning is here… They have showed us no appreciation,” foreman Jerry Newton told WDRB, a Louisville news station. (Sounds familiar!) Mark Gillespie of industry blog WhiskyCast reported that workers are particularly angered by the company’s efforts to force them to regularly work weekends, rather than the typical Monday-Friday production schedule. “They’re family-owned and ‘hey, we want to treat everyone like family,’ they’re not treating these members like family,” UFCW Local 23-D president Matt Aubrey informed WhiskyCast.
The striking workers plan to picket at the company’s sprawling headquarters, home to a popular visitors center that Heaven Hill recently renovated to the tune of $19 million. The company, which makes a bunch of bourbons (Evan Williams, Elijiah Craig, Old Fitzgerald, McKenna, Larceny…), plus Rittenhouse rye, Lunazul tequila, Deep Eddy vodka, and other spirits brands, told WhiskyCast in a statement that it “will continue to collaborate with UFCW leadership toward passage of this top-of-class workforce package.”
To avoid embarrassment and international attention, they’ll need to find a compromise on the quick: Bardstown’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which draws 50,000 brown liquor fans from around the world and a ~$4 million economic impact for the area, starts this Thursday. Stay tuned. (And thanks to labor reporter and pal Kim Kelly for the heads up on this.)
💸 A Bud Light-sized hole in the balance sheet
Close your eyes and imagine the world’s biggest beer company preserved in amber for the past five years. OK, now open your eyes.
Rabobank beverage researcher Jim Watson tweeted this graph of a couple Anheuser-Busch InBev valuation metrics that suggest the company’s North American division has basically been treading water for the last half-decade. This is obviously an extremely narrow snapshot of the massive multinational’s books, and I am obviously not a finance guy, so grain of salt and all that. But as Watson (obviously a finance guy!) pointed out, ABI’s biggest brand, Bud Light, has been losing market share and volume for years in the U.S., and Budweiser is so much of an afterthought here sales-wise that the firm didn’t even bother doing a Super Bowl ad for its one-time King this past February. That that spells trouble, and not just for the North American division.
As Good Beer Hunting’s Kate Bernot detailed in July 2021, ABI as a whole can’t seem to cook up a breakout hit in-house, and it’s staring down so much debt and regulatory scrutiny that it can’t easily buy growth by acquiring promising start-ups. (The dozen craft breweries ABI scooped up last decade are down 3% since last year; that portfolio is fine, but “it’s not going to be the engine that drives ABI out of its debt spiral,” guesses Bernot.) Michelob Ultra is a juggernaut, but not enough to plug the hole on its own. Mich Ultra’s hard seltzer extension, meanwhile, has done about as well as Bud Light Seltzer, which is to say, dece to sub-dece. And while the company has made inroads abroad, the U.S. market is still key to its growth for now. Making everything more urgent for the ABI c-suite, writes Bernot:
One of its minority owners, the tobacco conglomerate Altria, has the option to begin selling its stake in October. Whether or not Altria sells its 10% share in ABI—worth more than $13 billion—is considered a bellwether of investor confidence in the beer company.
In other words, ABI needs a hit, and fast. Something tells me pumpkin spice hard seltzer ain’t it.
📕 Party Rock, Vol. 1 ft. Fingers
My talented pal Molly O’Brien, cohost of the And Introducing, podcast, DM’d me this summer about her new passion project: “a print zine about ‘party rock’ (aka all things fun in the time of the mid '00s to early '10s).” She wanted to know if I had any “personal war stories” from that heady era that I might be willing to share for the project. Having just penned an essay on The Summer of Loko, I was in the ideal frame of mind to oblige. Now, the zine, Party Rock, Vol. 1, is here in all its late-Aughts glory:
Inside you’ll find an essay from Molly about ur-party rockers, LMFAO, plus two interviews: one with me, and another with Laura June Kirsch, the photographer and writer behind Romantic Lowlife Fantasies, a forthcoming “photographic retrospective of millennials in subcultures during the Obama Era.” (Kirsch’s photos, to which I was previously unacquainted, are absolutely electric. Her book is available for pre-order now.)
By the time you’re reading this, the first run of Party Rock, Vol. 1 may have sold out, but Molly confirmed she’ll be doing another run. So grab one now, or grab one then! And in the meantime, Molly dropped a video teaser of yours truly holding forth about Four Loko, Smirnoff Ice, and Sporties, which was when you drink an Olde English 800 forty halfway, then refilled it with Sparks, Miller Brewing Co.’s erstwhile malt liquor cum energy drink. Enjoy.
I sent the newsletter version of this story with an improperly truncated version of this sentence from a previous draft. I updated the story on the web so this sentence includes the clause “in which for-profit businesses use perishable liquid in highly choreographed responses to a discrete news story.” Sorry for any confusion, folks. The perils of publishing via email!
Remember the 2009 “beer summit” that then-President Obama orchestrated between a Black Harvard professor and the white policeman who arrested him for trying to get into his own house? 11 years later, the New York Times interviewed the professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., about that whole thing, and he basically told them it the White House stage-managed the whole thing to provide Obama what the NYT called “positive closure.” He claimed the administration told him not to wear a nice suit or fly in on a private plane because they didn’t want to make it “about class,” lolol. “The actual beer summit was us doing small talk,” said Gates. “The reason Joe Biden was there is that the Cambridge police had insisted that because there were going to be two black guys at the table, they wanted two white guys at the table!” Truly breathtaking stuff.
Your point about ABI treading water for the past half-decade in North America is spot on, as are Kate’s insights, but miss what I and many others see as the root of the problem: Carlos Brito -- for those who might not be familiar, the ex-ceo of AB InBev. As has been noted by many more industry analysts than just myself, Brito’s great strength was in cutting costs and trimming fat, even when some or much of the ‘fat’ was actually connective tissue, while he couldn’t be arsed to, or didn’t have the savvy to, build brands. This is what is at the core of the Bud family’s remarkable collapse, and with nothing new to replace its lost value, the company has repeatedly raised prices to staunch the bleeding, knowing full well all the time that such a strategy comes with a very firm expiration date.
I remember noting when Coors Light topped Bud in the hierarchy of US beer brands that the Busch family would never have stood for such a thing to pass, whereas Brito and co barely seemed to notice it.
I was waiting for this one!!!!!!!!!!