Food & Drink

An oral history of the (savage, sexy, semi-sexist) beer industry in the '80s

Besides playing beer pong and hating on the Kardashians, there are few pastimes more American than talking about your job while drinking beer. And here's the thing: due to factors including pervasive narcissism, awful comedic timing, and this life not being just one prolonged Bill Brasky skit, most stories about most jobs are boring. But not in the '80s, and not if your job was in the beer industry.

As proof, I give you this oral history of what it was like to sell beer "back then". See, I grew up hearing tales from my father (who marketed & promoted for Labatt, St. Pauli Girl, Rolling Rock, and the like), and through him contacted four beer-industry veterans he knows from decades past. I also got in touch with a Redditor who worked during that era. Once I agreed to keep everyone's real names out of it (these guys are mostly retired), the war stories flowed like... well, beer. A lot of beer.

From sex-filled ads, to loading-dock brawls, to the ever-growing threat of premium import competition, this is your anecdotal glimpse at the American beer landscape in all its pre-craft '80s glory. Drink it in.

The fall of regional players...

“Schaefer was in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn on Kent Street -- not far from Peter Luger's. My first year [I worked there]. In the morning I'd see Schaefer drivers come out of the warehouse with a load of beer [in their trucks] and 16oz Schaefer cans in their hands.”

"Old Milwaukee was marketed as a premium brand (to compete with Bud and Miller) but at a value price. Alas, the lack of margins on Old Milwaukee created the problem with resources for Stroh’s expansion, and the rest is history.”

I met Hank Aaron at a release party for Stroh's Rose, our girlie calendar.

“This was a time when people would drive halfway across the country to bring some Coors back [to a market in which it wasn’t available]. It was going to be a race for national distribution between Stroh and Coors. Stroh went faster, but didn’t have the resources to sustain the marketing. Coors went slower and eventually the Silver Bullet prevailed.”

"After the merger with Schlitz in ’82, Stroh was the third-largest beer company in the US, behind Anheuser-Busch and Miller. Stroh was a regional company (mostly around the Great Lakes) and Schlitz was still a big company with brewing facilities across the country. Peter Stroh (who was a gentleman, by the way) had the vision that they needed to go national and fast, or we'd get wiped out like the other regional breweries.”

... and the rise of domestic dynasties

“Bud was a powerful brand that would eventually crush Schaefer, Schlitz, and many domestic brands. Anheuser-Busch also had one of the greatest images [in the industry, plus] profitable brands in Michelob, and they line-extended to Michelob Light. In the mid-1980s, the Michelob brands probably sold 50% more beer than all imported beers combined."

“Premium meant premium pricing -- Bud and Miller. Super-premium was Michelob & Lowenbrau. Philip Morris tried to fight Michelob with a domestically made Lowenbrau, which failed."

You were expected to be a comedian, mathematician, and a functional alcoholic.

"Light beers were a failure before Miller Lite. In 1967, Gablinger's by Rheingold was the first big effort into the light (low-calorie) beer market, and it failed. The conventional wisdom at that time was that light beer (‘a diet beer’) would never sell to male beer drinkers. However, Philip Morris had bought Miller Brewing in 1969, and their strong marketing personnel didn't buy the conventional wisdom. Lite was test-marketed, then introduced nationally in 1975 with the ‘Great Taste...Less Filling!’ advertising campaign. I recall being at the ski jump event at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics where 'Great Taste' was chanted on one side of the stadium while the other side came back with 'Less Filling'."

“Phillip Morris took all that expertise selling cigarettes and just applied it to beer. Anheuser didn’t catch on for a while, but they realized -- in 1985 or so -- that they needed to modernize. And holy hell, they did it with a vengeance. After five years of sitting around doing nothing, they got themselves right back into the game.”

“[Back then] the big rivalry was Anheuser-Busch (Bud) versus Philip Morris (Miller). When Coors came East in the 1980s, they became a strong player, especially with Coors Light. [Later in the decade,] Samuel Adams started to show high growth potential."

Foreign = Fancy

There was Heineken...
“Heineken was by far the Number One import player in the ‘80s, with Molson second. At the end of the ‘80s, Corona might have been close to number two.”

“Domestic brewers didn’t pay much attention to imports because of the small volume. The thinking was that Heineken and other import drinkers were upscale guys that wore a white shirt and a tie. This conflicted with my observations of watching young guys in T-shirts drinking Heineken that they had smuggled into the Schaefer Music Festival.”

We were drunk with success and thought anything we did would sell. Wrong!

... and everyone else

“Heineken was the price leader, back then about $4 per six-pack. The rest of us geniuses that were trying to sell Euro beer deliberately priced ourselves right at Heineken. To price lower would be to admit we weren’t as good."

“The guys at Guinness were really different. Grizzled beer guys, a lot of them [actually] from Ireland.”

“There were dozens of imported beers available in the ‘80s, and the foreign breweries were putting big money behind trying to cash in on the surge. Dinkelacker ("Drink a Dink”), DAB (“Grab a Dab”), Dortmunder Union, Spaten, Paulaner, Moosehead, Damm, Kronenbourg, Tiger, Singha... the list goes on."

“Never would [you] drink an import out of a glass, 'cause sex appeal was huge. Something like 90% of imported beer was sold/drunk by 18-27-year-old guys. The imports made them look ‘cool’ -- green glass, long necks, foil around the neck, etc. -- and they were on it."

"[Import bottles] had to be green glass. Foil necks were nice, long necks too. The Brits could get away with brown glass because they were ‘different’. You had to have regular six-pack carriers, too. Not shrink-wrapped, boxed, or corrugated."

“Corona came on strong in the '80s by playing off beach life. [That] clear bottle dressed with a lime was a competitive advantage."

Sex, meet beer. Beer, sex.

“Get scantily clad girls, and the guys will come and drink the beer. The best (worst?) example of straightforward, leave-nothing-to-imagination marketing was a leggy girl sitting down with her legs open. She was holding a baseball bat -- I kid you not -- at her crotch, and the headline above said, ‘Grab a Dab’. Brilliant! [scoffs] But that was the ‘80s. Also, Tecate went nuts with the cheerleader girls [and the slogan] ‘I Tecate my body’. What the hell did that mean? Who cares!”

“The fold out of the St. Pauli Girl in Playboy in 1980... was a promotion that helped jump start the brand. It was the first time the wholesalers had a program/promotion to sell St. Pauli Girl with.”

They chanted 'Great Taste!' & 'Less Filling' in the stadium at the '88 Calgary Olympics.

“Beer promotion in the '80s was simple: drink imported beer, let the ladies see you drinking imported beer, and then the ladies would let you take them home. At least that’s what the ads would have us believe.”

“We had Old Milwaukee, which was the fourth-largest selling beer in the country at that time. The TV campaign was ‘It doesn’t get any better than this’. This was before the Swedish bikini team."

“My first beer job was St. Pauli Girl. The slogan was the double entendre ‘You never forget your first Girl’. Classic."

“It was all about manliness. 'Miller Time’ was rugged, hard-working guys; Bud responded with ‘This Bud's for You’. Miller Lite was humor with retired athletes, [and] Molson [channeled] the Canadian outdoors.”

“We had a promotion called the ‘Stroh’s Rose’ [in which] ladies competed to be on [a promo] calendar. It culminated in a big event with celebrities, politicians, etc. That's where I met Hank Aaron.”

"We lost $10 million on that": failures to launch

“Nordik Wolf Light (‘Run with the Wolf’) was a great product from the Pripps brewery in Sweden. I think we missed because the brand was too contrived, and not an authentic beer sold in Sweden.”

“It was a great beer, just the wrong time with little-to-no backing financially. Amstel had the market and we couldn't crack it, but Nordik Wolf Light was a great beer.”

"Nordik was a light beer ahead of its time -- it had body, it was robust. If you were drinking light beer back then, it was usually because you didn't like the taste of beer-beer. People weren't ready for it."

Let the ladies see you drink imported beer, and you'd take the ladies home.

"[Another tough sell] was Captain Morgan Gold. We had just finished our first year with Smirnoff Ice, the most successful launch in 50 years. We were drunk with success and thought anything we did would sell. Wrong! It had a great bottle, great label, great advertising... and a lousy product that wasn't tested. We lost something like $10 million on that, and we came perilously close to harming the rum franchise. Lots of lessons learned there, like test the product!”

"Kronenbourg, from France's Alsace region on the German border, tried to come [to the US] around 1980. They hired high-level execs and a bunch of ad guys, and it all went nowhere. Supposedly, they ran a lot of TV commercials before they even had distribution in stores... that was a huge no-no back then."

“In 1984, a prince from the family that had ownership in Stella Artois visited Carlton Importing asking if we’d carry [it]. Stella had failed in a couple markets in the late ‘70s. We (and I guess all the other importers) turned him down."

"There were [already] many European imported beers in the market. At that time, a beer from Belgium seemed a much harder sell than one from Germany. We [sold] St. Pauli Girl from the Beck's Brewery, so we had no interest in Stella. My guess is that they decided not to try the US on their own, because no top importers wanted them, most likely. Stella concentrated on building a business in England in the 1990s. Their popularity in England may have given them confidence to try the US.”

"That's one of the great mysteries of life: what happened to Michelob?"

“At a liquor store once, I overheard another rep trying to place Stella. He was giving the pitch -- "It's been around for this long!", "It's huge in Europe!", "It'll do better than Heineken for you!" -- and it was nothing-doing. They were one of many, and they just could not break in. Belgium didn’t have the well-known brewing tradition like Germany & Austria... They struggled for a long time."

Cans? Can't do it.
"We all know price points and how important it was to ‘keep the image’. Well Moosehead started to make cans, and they were sitting. We were offered $3 per case to try and get them moving. Well the distributor and I had this great idea: we put it all into the price (along with his portion), and we were selling them for $7.99/case to the retailer with a $9.99 price to consumer. Needless to say, we took all the cans Moosehead could supply us. We liquidated the country and ruined the brand for good. The price-to-retailer should have been $16.99. We sold over 40,000 cases of cans. Great for us, lousy for the brand. We [got rid of] Moosehead shortly after that. So did the distributor.”

vintage beer picture
Mary Beth Infante

Vice was nice

“You were expected to be a comedian, mathematician, and a functional alcoholic.”

“Maybe 10% of the industry were drunks, but they drank vodka and/or whiskey, not beer. [This was] before widespread pot and coke.”

"There was a steady decline over the years in the amount of beer drinking by brewery personnel in regard to work situations."

At night, they'd throw empty cans into the streets to make the brand seem popular.

"It was hardcore -- fights constantly and a terrific time. Most guys from back then were on marriage three or four. Not sure why they continued to marry, but they did.”

Of course, gambling was encouraged...
“When I was the new marketing guy in Stroh's marketing department, the brand was introduced in Texas with elaborate kickoff meetings. I got to ride on the Stroh corporate jet (we had two) with four veteran beer salespeople from the old school, including two 300-pounders who ran the sales force with unmistakable authority. The dialogue, as I remember it, went something like this:

Wanna play cards?
No.
How much money do you have?
I have $23.
Let’s see it. Sit down.
I don’t want to play cards.
Sit.

About 10 minutes later, my $23 was gone. Two days later, we flew home with a different mix of people. No cards. Before we landed, one of the 300lb sales directors came over to me and said, ‘... Okay kid, here’s how you put this on your expense report.’ And proceeded to advance my education.”

st. pauli girl 80s ad
Nick Infante

"Things could be fudged": rule-bending 101

“Having everything recorded on paper did have its advantages for the sales community. Things could be fudged or smeared. Documents altered; reports doctored. You could turn a 100,000 month into a 150,000 month and hit that big [REDACTED] bonus, when in turn [REDACTED] reported 200,000 to their suppliers. A lot of funny business went on, which led to a lot of money exchanging hands beneath the table.”

“I had my low moment with Moosehead as we captured taps by running a Moosehead Man for Life promo where you got a keychain, hat, T-shirt [and so forth] for the increments of drafts you ordered over time. Totally illegal, I might add. Well we took about 40 taps in Frederick, MD, and the distributor was pissed, to say the least. He turned me into the state, and I had to explain myself in front of the state administrator... Those taps didn't last very long.”

If you drank light beer, it was because you didn't like the taste of "beer" beer.

“People did shady sh*t all the time. Popped tires, loosened lug nuts, tacked delivery lots with caltrops. Beat down reps in combative accounts/territories. Some guys went as far as rubbing motor oil on competitors' bottles to turn customers off to the brands."

“When Stroh’s was trying to break into California around 1980, they would do these 'crew drives'. The distributors and beer reps would go get a big dinner, then they'd pile into cars and drive around the neighborhoods throwing empties of Stroh beer into the streets, all in an attempt to make it seem like people were already drinking it.”

"There was a regional supermarket exec in San Francisco, who was especially amenable to payoffs. The story went that a rep with [REDACTED] or [REDACTED] would walk into his office about once a month. The exec would just dangle his car keys at the rep, who'd grab ‘em and run down to the parking garage and put the new golf clubs he’d bought him into the guy’s trunk.”

The birth of craft beer

"The first I remember (1984 for me) was Anchor Steam. Fritz Maytag -- of the rich Maytag family -- rebuilt the small Anchor Steam Brewery in San Francisco and recreated the original Anchor Steam Beer. He had no interest in expanding the brand in the 1980s... I think Anchor Steam was his hobby."

"In the Fall of 1987, Labatt's USA acquired Rolling Rock. Some of the Rolling Rock wholesalers in the Northeast had Samuel Adams and told me that it was doing well for a small brand. Jim Koch [the eventual co-founder of Samuel Adams] is a very smart guy and emphasizes product quality. The next craft beer that I remember (maybe 1988) was Pete's Wicked Ale. The 'Pete' was Pete Slosberg, a friendly, beer-loving guy and a celebrity among homebrewers. He was also a smart guy. Both had good marketing instincts. Maytag, Koch, and Slosberg were the pioneers.”

People would drive halfway across the country just to get a case of Coors.

"In 1984 or so, Koch made the pilgrimage out to San Francisco to visit the Godfather of craft brews: Fritz Maytag. When Koch got back East he bad-mouthed Maytag for his small thinking, but Maytag was widely revered in the beer business, so it was Koch who came off as a petty guy. Old-school beer dudes did not like him [for that]. Also, he criticized European beers for being in green glass -- not nice."

"The decline of the Michelob brand in the late ‘80s and ‘90s freed up many ‘upscale’ drinkers to move to imports, Sam Adams, and craft beers. That’s one of the great mysteries of life: what happened to Michelob?"

Conclusion

The industry would never be the same after the '80s. Fueled by superior marketing & distribution, the domestic heavyweights (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and, later, Coors) ushered the demise of the independent midsize brewers before merging into the multinational mega-brewers they are today. Imports rode branding as far as it would take them before ceding cachet to the ascendant craft category in the '90s and Aughts. And of course, thanks to foodie culture, hipsterism, and widespread access to high-speed Internet, beer geekery & homebrewing became very much a "thing".

Times were a-changin', and the beer industry a-changed with 'em. But if you find yourself at a bar with a beer man from the '80s, order a drink, sit back, and let the war stories flow. You'll be glad you did.

[Ed. note: All responses have been edited for brevity & clarity. All sources are anonymous by request, but together these five contacts represent over 100 years combined experience in American beer marketing, sales, and distribution.]

Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist food & drink and a studious drinker of beer. Follow him on Twitter: @dinfontay.