On May 8, 1996, Buzz Beer was born.
The first-season finale of The Drew Carey Show, titled “Buzz Beer,” presented a dramatic synopsis: a Dutch company was on the verge of buying Drew’s longtime employer Winfred-Louder. Panicked, Drew searched for ways to make money.
It just so happened that Drew and his friends were hobby homebrewers, and while tasting a bunch of duds, conceived a mix of beer and coffee called Buzz Beer. The episode ended with Drew singing about Buzz Beer while his friends passed out bottles to Warsaw Tavern customers.
Before Buzz Beer, few brewers were trying the then-audacious combination of beer and coffee. Heck, most brewers were wary about trying anything weird. For in 1996, craft brewing had been dealt a smackdown by macrobreweries who turned “bitter” into a bad word and bought up some of the most successful independent ventures.
As The Drew Carey Show informed millions about the passion of small-batch brewing, corporations were attempting to define craft. But today, craft brewers across America are redefining what it means to be craft, learning from the mistakes of the past.
According to the Brewers Association of America, annual volume growth of craft beer hit 58% in 1995, at that time an all-time high. It was the peak of a slow-growing movement that gained steam in the 1980s, as passionate microbreweries like Sierra Nevada and the Boston Beer Company set out to produce distinct product for their communities.
By 1995, there didn’t seem to be a slowdown. A 2015 article by allaboutbeer.com referenced around 600 craft breweries nationwide, and some of the larger ones like Sierra Nevada, Boston, and Celis Brewing, founded by Hoegaarden pioneer Pierre Celis, were distributing beyond their local borders.
“We were selling beer in 30 states,” said Christine Celis, daughter of Pierre Celis, who helped her father brew the family’s famous Belgian witbier, among others, starting when the brewery opened in Austin in 1992. Pierre Celis’ reputation as a Belgian brewmaster helped push Celis to become one of the largest craft breweries in America.
But Celis wanted to grow even bigger, and its 23,000-barrel capacity presented an immediate obstacle. The same thing was happening halfway across the country in Portland, Maine, where Shipyard Brewing Co. was hoping to increase its production capabilities.
And that’s when macro came calling. Miller Brewing brokered a deal to buy stake in both Celis and Shipyard in 1995.
“We’ll help you expand,” is what Celis said Miller told them.
But Miller and other macrobreweries weren’t just buying smaller micro outfits, they were also producing their own brands that reflected the independence of craft brewing but lived under the corporate banner. Miller introduced in 1993 the Miller Reserve brand, which included an amber and a red ale. Anheuser-Busch launched its American Originals banner, which claimed recipes from before Prohibition and in time included brands like Pacific Ridge Pale Ale, an American pale ale that aimed at the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale profile.
And in 1995. the Sandlot Brewery in Denver, Colorado, took a stab at nailing the Belgian witbier style Celis had introduced with Hoegaarden and continued to produce in Austin. A beer that clouded up like Hoegaarden, but came with an accessible decorative orange, Blue Moon was one of the attempts by Molson Coors to break into craft.
Most macrobreweries were attempting to vulture the American beer drinking market with either Belgian-style beers or “amber” beers, with amber being another word for “slightly hoppy.” That’s because hoppy was a bad word.
Let’s try to tell you that you don’t want better beer. It’s really a form of oppression.”
Even worse: bitter.
“You’re waiting for your blind date,” begins the narrator, as we see an average guy, about 30, stumbling to straighten himself out at a packed party. Then, to keep cool, he swigs a can labeled “BITTER BEER.”
“Larry?” asks the attractive blond. And Larry is suddenly an elderly man without teeth, his face twisted and swollen, a used catcher’s mitt.
“Whoa! Bitter beer face!” he screams at the canned swill. And a phenomenon is born.
The commercials promoting Keystone Light and decrying “bitter beer” were an instant hit for Molson Coors starting in 1996, and a punch to the gut of those bitter beer producers, the brewers who preferred hoppy pale ales over fizzy yellow macrobrews.
“Basically it was a misinformation campaign,” said Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone Brewing. “It was designed to tell the American public ‘You’re not sophisticated enough. Let’s try to tell you that you don’t want better beer. It’s really a form of oppression. There’s just nothing short of it.”
Koch and Steve Wagner opened Stone Brewing in 1996 to introduce drinkers to flavors they weren’t used to in mainstream American beer. Stone IPA was the flagship, the beer that helped pioneer the modern-day definition of an American pale ale. That and many of Stone’s offerings trend toward hop-forward flavor profiles.
Craft drinkers know that Stone unapologetically champions “bitter,” but nobody wanted it early on. “A very common comment from bar owners was ‘Nobody is drinking your beer,” said Koch. “Nobody wants this weird beer.’”
Stone ran into distribution obstacles as bar owners decided they had enough obscure styles, like Anheuser Busch’s Pacific Ridge Pale Ale and Coors’ Blue Moon. Koch likened the American Originals, other macro interpretations and contract beers of the era to 1990s saxophone star Kenny G.
“You want to turn somebody onto great jazz, you don’t do it with Kenny G,” he said, recalling how visitors to Stone would instantly hate one of his beers, finding it didn’t match up to one of the macro interpretations. “I’d go, ‘That’s not actually a real craft beer, that’s a contract beer. Essentially that’s a Kenny G. That’s why you don’t like it.’”
The purchases, contract beers and marketing campaigns paid off. Between 1997 and 2003 craft beer volume growth dipped between 1 and 5%, according to the Brewers Association of America.
Back to The Drew Carey Show. By 2000, Buzz Beer became a small success in Drew Carey’s little circle in Cleveland. He and his friends had been packaging and distributing the beer themselves. In “What’s Wrong With This Episode? III,” Buzz Beer’s growth caused his boss Mr. Soulard to inquire about a buyout.
Blinded by the thought of turning a quick profit, Drew agreed to sell Buzz Beer before consulting with his friends.
Meanwhile in reality, Celis was looking to grow when Miller came calling.
“We will be expanding rapidly,” said Scottt Barnum, general manager of Miller’s American Specialty/Craft Beer Co. subsidiary, in the 1995 AdAge article announcing the company’s majority stake purchase of Celis.
But expansion came at the mercy of flavor. In 1985, Pierre Celis’ Hoegaarden brewery was destroyed by fire, and a company named Interbrew offered to lend Celis the money to help rebuild his brewery. Christine Celis maintains Interbrew – known today as InBev – pressured her father to change the Hoegaarden recipe to increase its market appeal. She said the same thing happened to Celis after Miller purchased its share.
“They would modify recipes for what? For that one cent they’d be making on it?” said Celis. “Isn’t the quality more important?”
The Celis family became too frustrated and sold the entire brewery to Miller in 2000. A year later, as craft beer sales had stalled and the market shrank, Miller closed Celis. The Michigan Brewing Company bought it in 2002 and continued production under the Celis name with different recipes.
As for existing craft breweries, patience mattered most. After a few rocky years, Stone launched its own distribution network that helped grow its reputation as a pale ale pioneer. The bigger craft breweries like Sierra Nevada and the Boston Beer Company continued to grow. And an entire generation of men and women who drank Stone IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Sam Adams Boston Lager in college were becoming more interested in homebrewing and microbrewing themselves.
It turns out that education was essential to the craft renaissance.
“You gotta try to change the conversation,” said Koch. “They say ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’ But us? Let’s show you what’s inside. That’s a fundamental difference between quantity and the artisanal. One hides the truth and the other likes to share the truth.”
After selling Buzz Beer to Mr. Soulard, Drew realized he not only hurt the integrity of his coffee-flavored homebrew, but the feelings of his friends who helped make the beer a success. So Drew bought back the beer, but for a steep price.
Christine Celis wasn’t so lucky. She could only watch as the Michigan Beer Company rolled out an altered Celis witbier to drinkers nationwide.
“I didn’t think it was going to affect me as much as it did,” Celis said. “It was like a piece was missing.”
The Michigan Brewing Company closed in 2012, and its assets were sold at auction. There, a Japanese filmmaker named Sushil Tyagi bought the rights to the Celis brand, adding it to his company CraftBev International Amalgamated.
Simultaneously, Christine Celis was working to launch Flemish Fox Brewery & Craftworks in Austin, in partnership with Atwater Brewing of Detroit. Pierre Celis died in 2011, and his daughter wanted to resurrect the family business of crafting authentic Belgian witbier.
But one thing was missing: the Celis name.
I don’t want to make the same mistakes.”
“It’s hard to justify making a beer with someone else’s last name when other people are involved,” Celis said about the past permutations of the family brand.
It took years to get the name back, but on Feb. 10, the Celis family closed on a deal with CraftBev International Amalgamated to take it. With the final piece in place, Celis is re-launching the Celis Brewery. The 50,000-barrel-capacity brewery with 12 fermenters, modern German brewing technology, and attached taproom is scheduled to open in April.
Celis will start with an East Coast IPA and a straight-ahead IPA with Belgian yeast strain. Then it’ll begin rolling out Celis White and other Belgian styles. Pierre Celis’ own 19th century copper kettle will be there, too, and will be used twice a year to brew the witbier and Celis’ classic grand cru.
Christine Celis hopes to sell 10,000 barrels in the first year with ambitions of distributing throughout Texas. Growth beyond that? She has learned from the past.
“I don’t want to make the same mistakes,” she said. “I’m going to be focusing on brewing the best beer, and nothing else is going to come in its way.”
AB InBev is an investor in October through its venture capital arm, Zx Ventures