The Beer Guy

Within beer circles there are now public personalities in ways unimaginable a generation ago. Many brewers are celebrities, some like Sam Calagione become media figures. There are revered saviours, like Fritz Maytag or Michael Jackson. Sages too, like Ken Grossman. Or outspoken campaigners, like Roger Protz. Yet, my friend Dan Rosenbluth, who died recently after a short illness, was largely unknown in the broader beer world, despite being universally popular and loved amongst his considerable circle of peers and friends. Dan had an impact as significant as that of these names and many more – but, typical of him, it was perfectly understated. He was, to use his phrase (although he never applied it to himself), a beer guy through and through. More than this, he remained a beer guy in the increasingly un-beery world of multinational, corporate brewers. Some feat.

Dan was born in California, although he was raised in Florida and that’s where his heart was; a man of the South yet, set against the ill-informed stereotype of the ‘Confederate Redneck’, Dan was broad-minded, liberal and outward looking. These values, underpinned by his unblinking fairness and generosity made him a mentor to many and a role model to more.

In the world of multi-national brewers, the competitive focus isn’t just on their peers. It’s on consumer goods businesses: marketing-led companies, FMCG companies. Companies where the consumers is King and bottom line profit is the whispering Councillor behind the throne. The product happens to beer, but the focus, the driver, the end game is money. Just money. Oh, they’ll deny it. But it’s the truth: because the behaviour of these businesses reveals it. The brewer is no longer the hero. The accountant rules the roost. The beer itself may be carefully brewed, but uniform consistency is the only mantra; the reverence has gone. The rules of accounting say high gravity brewing; two day lagering (if any); ‘precision’ brewing, adjunct mashes, pasteurisation. Such tools are the name of the Accountant-brewer’s game, because without them, in such a cut-throat environment they believe, you won’t survive. And the Queen of these companies is the marketeer. I was a Marketing Queen and I’m proud of it. But I’m proud of it because I loved beer and for me, the science of marketing was there to support the art, the passion, the reverence of and for brewing.

Dan was the same, yet more so. He worked at Coors in Golden, Colorado, at a time when Anheuser Busch, still independent, were dictating the agenda of the market. If your beer wasn’t light, it wasn’t right. If your beer didn’t have IBUs below 10, you were doomed. Coors, particularly before the days of the joint venture with SAB (Miller Coors), did have a brewing heart. Pete Coors was a brewing meddler (in a good way) and even had – has still, in fact – a small-scale brewery where he would ‘try things’ (Barman Pilsner probably being the most successful). And much against modern multinational practise, he would also support initiatives from people like Keith Villa to try experiments, to have a go. One such experiment was a beer that ultimately became called Blue Moon.

Dan came into the marketing team at a time when craft was growing but not ripping up trees. Blue Moon had tickled along for a decade, largely going nowhere. He was asked to review its performance with a view to ‘rationalising’ it. The pressure on him was severe because, when he looked at the numbers, he could clearly see why he was being asked. The volumes were small. The beer was complex to brew. The profit delivery was modest. In Coors terms, it got lost in the rounding.

Yet Dan was a beer guy. He could feel the opportunity. He could see it was ahead of its time. He implicitly understood who might drink Blue Moon, why and when. The way he told the story involved some benevolent fudging of numbers and some heartfelt groveling. But he won the day. They tightened what the beer was about (‘artfully crafted’) and stuck with the programme (such as existed): the right serve; the right glass. Simple stuff, executed well. Today, Blue Moon Belgian White is the single largest craft brand in the U.S.

And there’s the rub isn’t it? How can a ‘craft’ brand be from a multinational giant like Molson Coors / Miller Coors? Without getting in to the argument which is a well-trod and frankly rather dull tale now, the point is, Blue Moon is a watershed brand in U.S. brewing. It is the brand that changed the paradigm both of the big brewers – they quickly came to see that flavourful beers could be business drivers for them – and smaller brewers too – because they got the benefit of a major player opening up ‘craft’ with retailers in a way that alone, would be more difficult to do.

The argument around brands like Blue Moon being / not being craft is perfectly legitimate. In due course, when the pain of Dan’s passing has subsided somewhat, I may even join in. But more than anything else, every time I see that distinctive blue label, that luminescent, cream coloured moon, I shall think of my good friend and the role he played in helping to change the attitudes of the big US brewers towards craft beer and ultimately, the benefits that had for all.

In Memoriam. William Daniel Rosenbluth. August 1969 – July 2015. A Beer Guy.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015