The Art of the Copycat Beer: The Fine Line Between Tribute and Rip-Off

October 30, 2018

By Aaron Goldfarb, October 30, 2018

For every action in the beer industry, every big trend, there is an equal and opposite reactionary trend. So, while one of the top debates today is about the legitimacy of so-called “crafty” beer—conglomerate-owned brews sold under the guise of being small and independent—the reverse has also started to occur. That is, small, independent craft breweries producing light (or, perhaps “lite”) lagers meant as a wink-wink tribute, if not downright rip-off of the iconic beers that made Adolphus Busch, Frederick Miller and Adolph Coors household names and a zillion bucks.

“I will proudly admit, that even with so many good craft beers in Denver, at the end of a long day, any brewer would be lying if he said he doesn’t enjoy a Banquet,” claims Jon Cross, referencing Coors’ flagship golden lager, so dubbed with its lofty name in 1937. “I just think it's a phenomenally crafted beer.”

Cross is the co-founder of Call to Arms Brewing Company, a Denver-area craft brewery he and two friends started in 2015 with an ethos of being a “brewer’s brewery”—that is, a place where other brewers would want to come and drink beer after work. The dirty little secret in the industry is that brewers are often completely happy drinking light, industrial lagers like Banquet. In fact, Cross and his co-founders adore that beer so much they decided to brew their own.

“It led us to asking a friend—who I cannot name—who has worked at Coors for forty years, ‘Hey, how do you brew Banquet?’” explains Cross. “He couldn’t really be forthcoming on the exact details, the raw materials, but if we asked the right questions, he’d say, ‘That sounds about right.’”

Armed with enough info, in early 2016, Call to Arms released a tap-only offering they cheekily called Khores Ballroom Beer. The reference the Denver brewery was making was obvious to most consumers and, if you didn’t catch it on name alone, the marketing copy could clue you in even more so as it lampooned much of Coors long-time advertising claims: “This all-grain American classic is brewed with 100% Rocky Mountain Water for pure lager refreshment. The train’s in the station, hop on and taste the Rockies.”

They knew we weren’t trying to be jerks and that it’s just an homage to our favorite shift beer.”

Now you’re probably thinking Ballroom is just a nicer version of Banquet, you know, quality grains instead of rice and corn filler. But you’d probably be surprised to learn, as I was, that Banquet is actually made of 100% malt. In fact, Cross claims it’s the only surviving large domestic lager still going that route.

Coors uses 100% Moravian pilsner malt, which Cross says is very difficult for a smaller brewery like them to source. Call to Arms thus uses 100% German pilsner malt instead. Cross believes his brewery probably use better hops than Coors, but admits that doesn’t really matter in a 9 IBU beer. Both beers are 5% ABV.  Cross believes the yeast is the biggest difference. While Banquet uses Coors’ own off-limits proprietary yeast—whose isoamyl acetate adds a slight banana back-note—Call to Arms uses a house Czech lager yeast which is less estery and much cleaner.

Drinkers were onto Call to Arms’ schtick immediately, with an early BeerAdvocate reviewer writing: “The name is funny but the beer is good, like an improved banquet beer, seemingly all malt but still super light, just the lightest sweetness to it and a crisp finish. It’s refreshing and crushable, and I bet it sells well for them.”

It did, becoming one of Call to Arms’ fastest movers in their tap room and at several bars and restaurants around town. It is now one of the core beers in their portfolio. It is also underwent a name change, now merely named Ballroom Beer, after Coors sent in the suits.

“Pete Coors’ nephew, he actually comes into the [tap room] quite a bit,” Cross says. “So he knew about our beer well before anyone at the brewery did. They knew we weren’t trying to be jerks and that it’s just an homage to our favorite shift beer.” Nevertheless, once Call to Arms starting canning the beer, Coors ordered they remove the “Khores” part of the name and cease on displaying certain bar posters that mocked their “Rocky Mountains” advertising puffery.

But Call to Arms’ homage hasn’t been completely benign. The brewery would troll Coors and the beer industry in general on April Fool’s Day of 2016, noting on Facebook that “Peat Coors” had “felt the beer was so delicious and true to the Coors Banquet recipe that he offered to buy Call to Arms” for a whopping $1,000,000,001. They even displayed a giant novelty check. Later, they crashed the giant brewery and had to be escorted off the property by security.

“Everybody at Coors thinks it’s funny,” Cross insists. “I always joke it’s literally a Coors approved knock-off of Coors.”

Maybe Coors’ legal department just has their hands too full to take things any further, as craft breweries seem particularly enamored with spoofing Banquet. It’s other doppel-lägers including Oxbow Wedding Lager, Lonerider Goldie’s Banquet Lager and Station 26’s Danquet Beer—a heavily double dry-hopped take. But Banquet isn’t the only beer with craft tributes.

“Pretty much everywhere I travel these days, I’m seeing these macro homages,” Cross says.

You want a Corona copycat? Try 21st Amendment El Sully. If you’re looking for a Presidente send-up, there’s El Pres, a recent collaboration between Brooklyn’s Interboro and several local Dominican-American bar owners. In the late summer of 2017, Marz Community Brewing Company out of Chicago released Chug Life, an obvious sardonic take on the “champagne of beers,” right down to the champagne-shaped bottles with their understated, mostly-white labels dotted with gold, red, and green lettering.

Just like Ballroom Beer, this 5.5% ABV “sparkling” lager was made from 100% grains (as opposed to Miller’s extracts), and utilized traditional European lager yeast as opposed to Miller’s so-called factory “super” yeast. Despite the craft bonafides, this was nevertheless still a beer designed to chug straight from the bottle. You wouldn’t put Miller High Life in delicate TeKu stemware, nor should do it for Chug Life.

“More and more often we would see brewers and brewery staff at events and at bars drinking their macro yellow-fizzy water of choice,” Eric Olson, Marz’s co-founder, says. “Why? It’s a beer that doesn’t demand one’s undivided attention or analysis. It’s a beer for drinking.”

Despite such a blatant, uh, tribute, MillerCoors was even more chill when it came to Marz. A High Life brand rep simply sent the brewery a note with some cases of his beer. Explains Marz co-founder Ed Marszewski: “They said thanks for making it ‘tasty and tasteful.’”

After Banquet, Miller High Life seems to be the macro second-most revered by the craft cognoscenti. In fact, one decided that better than spoof them, why not fully collaborate with them? In 2016 the critically-renowned Chicagoland brewery Off Color Brewing teamed up with MillerCoors to brew Eeek!. The American wild ale was made with High Life ingredients, but fermented using Off Color’s mixed yeast strain. It quickly became a viral sensation amongst geekier factions.

“High Life is just one of those real classic beers,” Off Color co-founder John Laffler said in an interview. “It’s perfect every time. It’s delicate, it’s nuanced. As a brewer you can really respect the art that goes into it… [Eeek!] is a different way at looking at this real classic product.”

Meanwhile, Call to Arms’ is continuing to find “different” ways of looking at classic products and more knock-offs of other macro icons are currently in the works. The brewery has already released The Ballroom Light Lime in clear bottles—a play on Bud Light Lime. There was The Ballroom Fiesta, a spoof on Corona. At this year’s GABF they even offered 150 special bottles of something they called Biernoff Ice, a collaboration with Boulder’s Upslope Brewing that was a shockingly accurate craft interpretation of the acidic and sugary bro-beloved malt beverage. The clear bottles were, no surprise, a big hit on Instagram.

“We definitely always plan on poking the big beer bear. Every four to six months we need to do something subversive to anger folks,” claims Cross, though he quickly notes: “But it’s not intended to be malicious or a middle finger to macro breweries. It’s all in good fun.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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