By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Beer is said to be the beverage of the American worker — an ice-cold reward for a hard day’s work, steeped in heritage and pride for the place it was made. Half the beer in America sports images of a bald eagle, verbiage about tradition, or a red-white-and-blue label. But look past the marketing and you find an industry profoundly reshaped by corporate consolidation and globalization in the last three decades. Today, 10 of the 10 best-selling beer brands in the United States come from just two companies, both of which are foreign-owned.
This story began as a quest to find union-made beer. But it turns out it’s not easy to identify what beer is made by union workers. There’s no union label on beer today, and accurate, up-to-date information isn’t easy to come by. To produce this guide, the Labor Press spent days poring through government databases and corporate annual reports, hounding union and corporate press officers, and cold-calling local union officers. Here’s what we found: Two massive and mostly unionized companies, one big beer company that doesn’t make any beer, several smaller unionized breweries, and a fast-growing and almost entirely nonunion craft brewery sector.
Everyone knows Anheuser-Busch was started in St. Louis, Missouri in 1876. But since 2008, it’s been a wholly-owned subsidiary of the world’s largest brewer, the Belgian-Brazilian multinational that now calls itself AB InBev, headquartered in Leuven, Belgium and Sao Paulo, Brazil. With over 200 brands, AB InBev has a quarter of the world beer market, and 47.6 percent of the U.S. market.
In the United States, all of the company’s domestic brands are union-made by members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, in 12 massive company-owned breweries around the country. In April, they ratified a new five-year union contract, which contains a pledge not to close any breweries. So all varieties of Budweiser, Busch, Natural Light, Michelob, Rolling Rock, O’Doul’s non-alcoholic, Shock Top Belgian-Style wheat ale, and Hurricane and King Cobra malt liquors are union-made. A company web page lists which brands are brewed at each brewery for which area of the country, so if you’re drinking a Budweiser in Oregon, for example, you can tell that it was brewed in Fort Collins, Colorado or Fairfield, California.
The can says “since 1855, Milwaukee, WI” but today, Miller is one of over 150 brands in the world’s second largest beer company, SABMiller, headquartered in London.
In the United States, SABMiller owns a 58 percent stake in a joint venture with Molson Coors (Canada’s Molson and Denver’s Coors having merged in 2005). The joint venture, MillerCoors, functions as a single company, brewing, marketing, and distributing the brands of its two parent companies, totaling about 28 percent of the U.S. beer market. The six former Miller breweries are union. The two former Coors breweries are not.
At the MillerCoors breweries in Irwindale, California; Fort Worth, Texas; and Eden, North Carolina, workers are represented by the Teamsters. In Trenton, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it’s the United Auto Workers (UAW). And in Albany, Georgia, it’s the International Association of Machinists.
MillerCoors’ largest facility is the flagship Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado. Workers there were union-represented for 44 years, but Coors famously busted the union after permanently replacing workers who went on strike in 1977. That led to a 10-year boycott of Coors by the AFL-CIO, until Coors agreed to give union organizers a shot. But workers voted down the Teamsters in 1988. Today, five members of Operating Engineers Local 9 are the only union-represented workers among the brewery’s 1,100 employees.
Meanwhile, Coors’ newer Shenandoah brewery, which opened in 2007 in Elkton, Virginia, has never been union: Teamsters campaigned there in 2009 and again in 2012 and 2013, losing all three elections, the third of which was a rerun election ordered by the National Labor Relations Board after it found management’s anti-union campaign broke labor law in multiple instances.
Since two of MillerCoors’ eight breweries are nonunion, it’s not easy to know which products were union-made. John Drew, Milwaukee regional representative for the United Auto Workers, says UAW considers any Miller products to be union-made. That includes top-selling Miller Light and Miller High Life, but not Coors Light or Keystone Light, even though those are also brewed at the former Miller breweries. Teamsters take the opposite tack, listing Coors as union-made, even though the former Coors breweries are nonunion.
SABMiller does have an upper-Midwest regional subsidiary that’s all-union: Leinenkugel’s, brewed by Teamsters in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and by members of UAW in Milwaukee.
Pabst Brewing Company
The red-white-and-blue label says “Established in Milwaukee, 1844.” It should also say, “left town, 1996.” Pabst Brewing Company calls itself the largest American-owned brewery — because its larger competitors AB InBev and SABMiller are foreign-owned. But that’s only half true. Pabst is American-owned — by a Greek-born billionaire who lives in Connecticut. But it’s not a brewery. It’s a collection of over 30 beer trademarks and secret recipes, plus marketing and sales. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pabst bought up a succession of beloved local breweries, closed them, and contracted out brewing to other companies. Today the company headquarters is in Los Angeles. The original Pabst brewery, closed in 1996, is now a LEED-Platinum-certified seven-block mixed-use development in downtown Milwaukee. And Pabst beer brands are brewed, packaged and shipped by competitor MillerCoors, in a contract that extends to June 2020.
So it’s a double irony that Pabst Blue Ribbon experienced a resurgence among younger drinkers in the last decade who adopted it as a marker of working class authenticity. Pabst is the leading outsourcer of its industry, a beer company that makes no beer. And in the city where it was born, it’s considered “beer non grata” for closing up shop and trying to skip out on its pension obligations on the way out of town.
Pabst’s brand portfolio includes many national and regional beers: Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Rainier, Olympia, Stroh’s, Lone Star, Colt 45, and St. Ides. So when Pabst brands appear on a union-made list, it’s because some of the facilities that make Pabst beers are union-represented, including the UAW-represented MillerCoors brewery in Milwaukee.
Contract Brewers with a union contract
The Labor Press also found several unionized contract breweries, which brew beers on contract for other companies. City Brewing Company owns the former Latrobe brewery (which originated Rolling Rock) in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, which employs members of Communications Workers of America. It also has a brewery in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where workers are represented by the Teamsters. Teamsters also represent employees of the Minhas Craft Brewery in Monroe, Wisconsin; the Matt Brewing Company in Utica, New York; and the Genesee Brewing Company in Rochester, New York. Genesee brews its own line of beers as well as other brands.
Union Craft Breweries: Good Luck
Beer sales as a whole are actually declining in the United States. Older drinkers are turning to wine. Younger drinkers are increasingly consuming distilled spirits. But one category of beer has experienced rapid growth, and that’s the craft beer segment that began among home brewers and small independent microbreweries. Today, craft beer accounts for about 7 percent of U.S. beer sales. Unfortunately for would-be drinkers of union-made beer, craft beer is almost entirely nonunion.
The Labor Press was able to identify just one unionized craft brewery: Mendocino Brewing Co., which makes Butte Creek organic beers and Talon Double IPA at a facility in Ukiah, California, where workers are represented by the Teamsters.
[NOTE TO READERS: Beer is an industry in a state of constant ferment, and with hundreds of new, mostly small craft breweries opening each year, it’s possible we missed one or more union shops. If you know of any unionized breweries not identified in this article, please let us know by email or in the comments. We’ll look into it, and update this list.]