Can a Master Cicerone Convince American Drinkers to Buy Anheuser-Busch’s Craft Brews?

In new video series, beer expert Ryan Daley extolls the virtues of ... beer

Daley is a Master Cicerone. YouTube: AnheuserBuschCorp

“Ah, good ol’ trustworthy beer,” a well-known cultural figure once said. “My love for you will never die.”

It wasn’t a pro athlete, politician or rock star who uttered those approbative words—it was Homer Simpson. But you’re probably not surprised. As we all know, beer is the American workingman’s drink, the libation of choice for fraternity boys, sports-bar denizens and Homers everywhere.

Thing is, that’s also beer’s problem: It might be a crowd pleaser, but its image is hardly a refined one. Connoisseurs, the reasoning goes, have their wines and single-malt Scotches. Those of us in T-shits and flip-flops have our beer.

Well, some of that may be about to change today. Brewing behemoth Anheuser-Busch maker of Budweiser and, of late, a slew of craft brands, is debuting a trio of videos it’s calling the “Thinking Beer” series. The idea, according to company’s head of craft brews, Felipe Szpigel, is to cater to “consumers who are curious to learn more about beer.”

“With the videos, we’re arming people with basic principles … ensuring that each time they have a beer experience it’s as good as it can be,” Szpigel said.

Maybe that doesn’t sound terribly ambitious, but these videos are clearly on a mission to uplift and refine the humble glass of suds. To that end, they have a star—a fearsomely knowledgeable beer expert named Ryan Daley, who with humor and aplomb walks viewers through beer attributes like color, clarity, foam, aroma and, of course, flavor. Daley also teaches how to buy beer that’s fresh (turns out, beer does expire) and even the finer points of choosing the right glassware.

Daley is what’s called a Cicerone (who is to beer what a sommelier is to wine). He is, in fact, a Master Cicerone who studied for years to pass the tests required to get where he is. That makes him a swell guy to lift a glass with—and an inarguably gifted teacher.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have a base level of knowledge for beer,” Daley said. “That’s the start of what we’re trying to do: arm people with basic principles they can employ when they purchase.”

Make that if they purchase. The fact is that people are just not buying beer the way they used to, which probably explains not just why Anheuser-Busch is launching these videos now, but why the content focuses on craft brews over the gut-filling mass brands.

Beer is still the alcoholic beverage of choice in America, with 40 percent of drinkers selecting it, according to a 2017 Gallup Poll. Even so, those who prefer wine (30 percent) and spirits (26 percent) collectively make up a greater number of people.

In addition, a separate Gallup Poll conducted in 2015 found that while beer has retained its popularity with lower-income drinkers, college-educated “status drinkers” prefer wine.

What’s more, all beers are not created—or regarded—equally. According to data from market-research firm IRI, while total domestic beer sales have remained flat through July, craft-beer sales rose 4.4 percent.

Drinkers in general, and millennial drinkers in particular, exhibit a growing taste for boutique brands.

Since 2011, AB InBev has assembled a small stable of craft breweries.

That trend has borne itself out in the company’s own fiscals. In 2017, Bud Light suffered its largest-ever volume drop, declining 5.7 percent. In the first quarter of 2018, the company’s North American sales volume fell by 4.1 percent, mostly because of declining sales for Budweiser and Bud Light.

Little wonder, then, that the company began buying up independent brewers starting with its 2011 acquisition of Goose Island. Since then, Anheuser-Busch has added names like Blue Point, Four Peaks and Wicked Weed—craft brews all. In an earnings call in May, Felipe Dutra, CFO of parent AB InBev, spoke of the company’s ongoing efforts to persuade customers to trade up within the company’s offerings. That means upscale line extensions such as Bud Light Lime and Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, and also its stable of 11 craft brews.

Now, with the help of Master Cicerone Daley, it’s teaching the finer points of enjoying those craft brews. The videos live on Anheuser-Busch’s Elevate platform, an information and education site the company launched in 2017 aimed at “lifting up the beer category,” in the company’s words.

But don’t expect to find Anheuser-Busch labels in the videos themselves because they’re not there. In a curious move, corporate has decided to keep Daley’s focus on craft beer in general, as opposed to pushing the house brands. (Though if you look closely, a tap handle for Blue Point makes a cameo, as does a six-pack of Goose Island.) “I don’t think the series is ultimately about promoting Anheuser-Busch beers,” Daley said. “It’s promoting brand beer—freshness, glassware. That doesn’t apply to our beers, but to all beer.”

In other words, a rising tide will lift all boats—or fill all mugs. “Any information we can share with people [will] build that level of passion, and [they’ll] come back to beer again and again,” Daley said, “regardless of who’s brewing it.”

Don’t miss Brandweek, coming up September 23-25 in Palm Springs. No panels, no sales pitches—just three days of interactive discussion, problem-solving, entertainment and networking. Learn more here.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.