On the premiere episode of “Taplines” host Dave Infante is joined by Maureen Ogle, historian and author of “Ambitious Brew,” to discuss the Light Beer Wars. It’s a tale of low calories, high stakes, and huge egos — and, of course, a reappraisal of the iconic gauntlet August Busch III famously threw down to his Phillip Morris-backed rivals at Miller Brewing Company as they came for the King of Beers in the mid-70s. Tune in for more.

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Dave Infante: Welcome to the podcast, Maureen Ogle.

Maureen Ogle: Thanks for having me, Dave. Thanks very much.

D: Maureen. It’s so great to have you on “Taplines.” You and I go back a little ways in this big, interesting beat that we’re both on of beer and beer industry history. Maureen, where are you joining us from today?

M: I live in Ames, Iowa, which is in the center of a deep red MAGA state.

D: What about the beer scene in Ames, Iowa?

M: There are two breweries in town. One’s about a mile away and one’s downtown. They’re not open very often. I think they both can their beer but I’m not sure, because I never see it on a shelf, so I suspect that they don’t, but there are two breweries in town. The brewery I’m writing about now, August Schell Brewing in Newell, Minn., is 180 miles away but I actually can’t get their beer. This is in the middle of Iowa and there’s beer but there’s beer in Iowa. Yes, there is. I think there are like 60 breweries in Iowa, maybe total, something like that. Two here in Ames.

D: It’s not by any means leading the charge in terms of breweries per capita at a statewide level?

M: No, it is not. I don’t know how many breweries there are per capita in Iowa, but it’s not Minnesota, that’s for sure. No, which has a livelier beer scene, or Wisconsin, or Illinois.

D: Well, that’s well beyond the purview of our purposes here today on “Taplines.” I asked you on the show both because I adore every opportunity I get to have a conversation with you about beer history, and also because we have a matter at hand to discuss that’s very specific, very near and dear, I think to the hearts of many people who pay mind to the colorful history of the beer industry. We’re going to get into that in just a second but, Maureen, do you know which light beer was the best selling light beer in the country in 1974?

M: In 1974, it was probably Gablinger’s, but I could be wrong about that.

D: It’s an excellent guess. Truthfully, I don’t have the answer to this because I looked it up in or I tried to look it up in, what is the name? “The US Brewing Industry,” the big reference tome, and I wasn’t even able to find a definitive answer because in 1974, the American beer industry really didn’t have much of a defined light beer segment. You mentioned Gablinger’s. Schlitz was advertising a little bit around the idea of sort of real gusto and a great light beer. Meister Bräu, which we’ll talk about a little bit. These were kind of all these early entry points to a segment that was still coalescing. It was taking shape, and we didn’t really know as the major juggernaut it would become, but everything was going to change that next year, in 1975. That’s what we’re here to talk about today, which is the beginning of a period that would come to be known as “the Light Beer Wars.” Obviously, today light beer is just a fact of life. In fact, it’s a fact of life that may be receding in 2023. Light beer is a struggling category, but for a time, for many decades, starting in 1975 and rolling straight through the early 21st century, light beer was the dominant style of beer that Americans drank. Maureen, what happens in 1975 that brings this nascent, this sort of coalescing style, pseudo style of beer into the mainstream, into the limelight?

M: What happens in 1975, very early, like late January, early February, very early in 1975, Miller Brewing Company, and that is a whole story that is part of this.

D: We’ll get right into that.

M: That’s why it was them and not into some other place, some other company three years earlier had bought the Meister Bräu light brand from a failing brewery in Chicago, and they worked on it. Miller worked on it for a couple of years, and in early 1975 rolled out Miller Lite spelled L-I-T-E, and that’s a very important point. Miller Lite beer. Two years later, Miller Lite owned 10 percent of the entire beer market in the United States.

D: Whoa.

M: Light beer as a category, by the end of the decade had become this juggernaut that was definitely roiling the beer industry. Yes, a low-calorie beer. Lite, L-I-T-E.

D: Roiling not just in terms of selling and stirring the pot, in terms of economic gain, but also in terms of self-definition and attitude of the major brewers towards this product and towards the people who drink, and man, echoes of that still ring through the beer industry today as we talk about how craft brewers have come to see themselves in the marketplace versus what drinkers actually want from brewers and the attitudes towards that type of liquid, but let’s not roll forward before we unpack what’s going on in 1975. Miller Brewing Company, I think certainly to a listener who is not as familiar with the trials and tribulations of American beer through the years, might not be aware, but there was a time when Miller was not doing so well, and we are kind of right at that moment. Miller was struggling for a long time. What was the fate of Miller Brewing Company as it was leaving the ’60s and headed into the decade of the ’70s? It was not looking so hot.

M: It was not. Miller, there’s enough relevant sort of longer history. Miller Brewing was founded in the 1850s by a German immigrant and his wife, remained a family owned brewery, reopened after Prohibition ended. That’s the operative factor. They managed to make it through the depression mainly because the Miller family was obsessed with not investing in the stock market, because they were worried about the Bolshies causing a revolution, and so they mostly invested in real estate. They got through the 1930s, and as soon as beer became legal again, the Miller family set to, and in the late 1940s, Fred Miller Jr. who was a grandson of the original founder, took on the reins of the company and set off on a huge expansion. Miller was a completely small potatoes regional brewer at the time, nothing to get excited about, and Fred Miller Jr. who played for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame and was a true alpha male, decided he wanted to really turn the family business into a big deal, and he succeeded by pretty much breaking every rule available. He advertised in women’s magazines, which brewers had never done, to speak of. He advertised in the off-season. Most brewers only advertised in the summer, and it worked. The company grew exponentially in the 1950s. Fred Miller Jr. died in a plane crash in 1954, and the company was then taken over by — they were his cousins — by two of his cousins. In the early 1960s, both cousins, for various reasons, decided they wanted to sell the family company after all this time, 100 and whatever, 10 years at that point, and they sold the company to Peter Grace, who was on their board and whose family owned one of those big companies that does a lot of importing and exporting and they don’t really make anything, except a lot of money. He was a friend of the family because of his relationship with them through the Catholic Church, and felt this would add to our portfolio at Grace Enterprises, and after about four years, he just threw up his hands and said, forget it. The remaining family shares, they’re a pain. I don’t want to do this, and he called the president, the CEO then of Philip Morris Company, which in the late 1960s, 1969, was an enormous conglomerate that got its start in the ’30s with a family that sold and distributed nicotine products, cigarettes, and cigars. They sold the company in the 1950s to Philip Morris, and then Philip Morris kind of took that and just ran with it, and they had tons of cash and they were constantly looking for things to invest in. So Peter Grace calls Philip Morris’s CEO, who took the call at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, and two days later, Philip Morris owned Miller Brewing Company.

D: Hold that thought right there, Maureen. I want to take that, and that was a really great little bit of backstory on the Miller Company, on the Miller Brewing Company. What else was going on? The landscape at this time, Miller was not doing so well, but at this time, there were two major breweries that were slugging it out for supremacy in this sort of consolidating, but then expanding in different ways, industry. Who were the big players at that moment as Miller was-

M: In the 1950s, the two biggies were back and forth a little bit, Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch until Anheuser-Busch simply flattened everybody at the end of the 1950s. Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz were these two behemoths. Their strategy was to build lots of regional breweries. In the 1960’s they built breweries all over the country, and they built extremely modern high-tech breweries that could make tons of beer at a very low cost. Truth be told, there was too much capacity in the business going into the 1960s and it was even worse at the end of the 1960s. Miller was not really even on anyone’s radar because these two breweries really dominated the market, and in the 1960s I think there were still maybe 120 breweries still left, but most of them were tiny companies. I think Miller was maybe the 11th or 12th biggest brewery in the country, if even that big, when Fred died. They only sold one beer, that was the weird thing. Schlitz and AB both had lots of brands of beer. They’re coating the market with all kinds of brands of beer. Miller only has one beer, Miller High Life. When Philip Morris bought it, they’re walking into this atmosphere where there were two giants and nobody else really matters. If you’re Miller and Philip Morris now owns you, what’s your strategy for trying to knock off these two kingpins without getting killed in the process?

D: There was also, there is a moment I think in the mid-’60s that you cover in “Ambitious Brew” that foregrounds or backgrounds, excuse me, a lot of what will come, which is, in 1966 the Supreme Court says, “No more acquisitions, there’s too much consolidation going on. If you want to grow, you’ve got to go out and build and develop your own breweries, innovate your own products, find your own growth because you two big guys, AB and Schlitz, you can’t consolidate any further for the time being.” I think that’s an interesting detail that maybe doesn’t directly inform what’s going on at Miller in 1975 when Phillip Morris, the person they installed this guy named, I think John Murphy, right? John Murphy S.

M: Yes, John Murphy.

D: When he takes them to the next level and figures out that lite beer’s going to be a thing, but this idea of the big brewers have to innovate their way to growth rather than acquire growth from other smaller companies or other regional segments is one that may be influential in this idea of developing new segments which was at that point, this idea of segmentation and fragmentation was itself coming to the beer industry, right?

M: That’s right, and it barely even — brewers were very resistant to the segmentation. In the 1950s after World War II, there is absolutely no doubt that especially in the food and beverage industry in the United States, there was enormous growth for a number of reasons, for demographic reasons, the population shot up, blah, blah, and big corporations like Philip Morris was developing products for various niches. Philip Morris would have a cigarette, Benson & Hedges was for women, people are looking for niches to sell in.

D: Sure.

M: The brewing industry was surprisingly resistant to that well into the 1960s, that in a beer maker’s mind, everyone was selling the same beer or lager. Short of using different bottles or fancier labels, there’s not a whole lot of differentiation. For example, in the early 1960s, August Busch decided that he would jazz up, Michelob

D: Michelob, right.

M: -which Anheuser-Busch had been brewing for years. Michelob was heavier, I have no idea what Michelob’s like now, but it was a lager with basically more malt and more hops than a conventional American lager. Anheuser-Busch put this very fancy foil lid on it and jazzed up the label so they could sell it as more of a premium beer. That’s about as far as they went. Also in the 1950s and definitely relevant, some brewers, not Anheuser-Busch and not Schlitz, decided that they would try to tap into Americans’ passion for dieting and calorie counting, which Americans were maniacal about in the 1950s. There were a handful of beers that were introduced to try to extend the market for beer. For example, a company in Omaha introduced seven-ounce cans which had a pink ribbon around them for women. The Piel brothers in Brooklyn introduced Red Letter Beer, which was a low-calorie beer, as did Rheingold with its Gablinger’s beer. The idea about these is, they will appeal to people who diet. Frankly, it was kind of a dumb idea because generally speaking, people who dieted didn’t drink beer anyway. No one was going to really be drawn into this, but-

D: If I could interject, and yet there were some green shoots of a good idea there that they were, maybe for the wrong reasons, but they had stumbled across what an MBA would call an important insight about the industry, right?

M: That’s right.

D: There was opportunity here and they didn’t quite tap into it. They didn’t really get it right in terms of, again, another MBA term, product market fit. Doesn’t that sound important? Product market fit. They had this idea that was not entirely wrong, either.

M: No, it totally wasn’t. This was absolutely in their best interest, but Anheuser-Busch, in particular, really dragged its heels at this, They had a very sophisticated marketing department and computer guys all over the place by the late 1950s, but they were stayed in a way. The companies that were innovating were these smaller regional, almost local companies that are trying to find a niche for themselves. The problem was, the federal government in the 1950s was unhappy with the idea that brewers were trying to sell a beer as something that could help with weight loss. By the end of the 1950s, there were a lot of restrictions about how you could sell a so-called low-calorie beer, which was one of the few innovations going on. The other innovation which is worth mentioning here is, this is when imported beer started to become important in the United States. That showed American brewers that people will drink something else if they can get a hold of it.

D: For more money, too.

M: Going into the 1960s, the two biggest brewers were mostly just intent on breaking everybody’s kneecaps. They didn’t really see the need to innovate with the beer, they just figured they could keep steamrolling their way through with these new very high-capacity, very efficient breweries that made beer at a much lower cost than say the people at August Schell Brewing Company. There’s no doubt that they were, and they were dumping lots of money into advertising. In the ’60s, there’s so much innovation in other food and beverages at the time, brewers just, they were laggards, which I think is one reason why Miller Lite hit with this punch that it hit with-

D: Like a sledgehammer.

M: -because it really — yes.

D: They were lager laggards is what you’re saying?

M: Something like that. Yes.

D: I think it would be helpful to, certainly for me and certainly for our listeners, why was that, Maureen? In your estimation, obviously, you’ve done an enormous amount of work to try to understand what’s going on in the beer industry at this time and other periods in our history. Where does that attitude come from? I mean, it’s not that they were lazy, it’s not that they were resistant to change in some ways, but in terms of changing the liquid, they were very resistant. Where does that come from? Is that a family thing? Is that arrogance? What would you attribute it to?

M: I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, especially, World War II was really difficult because there were shortages of raw materials for making beer, and everybody struggled through that. In the years just immediately after the war, there was enthusiasm for, “Maybe we need to rethink our beer so we don’t get caught up again with shortages should that happen,” but also beer sales never picked up. The key demographic in beer sales is ages 18 to 30, and there were not many people in that age group in the 1950s because, during the Great Depression, the birth rate dropped considerably. Here’s the fallout from that. Brewers, they’re struggling already, even Anheuser-Busch. There are labor strikes, all of the big ones got hit by labor strikes that really kept the market dynamics going. For a while, Anheuser-Busch, during one prolonged strike was basically missing most of the market and so Schlitz would go in and try to take over. Interestingly, the Miller family during this period refused, absolutely refused to think of having more than one brewery. They were convinced they could stay in Milwaukee even as Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch were building them all over the country. The small brewers in the ‘50s that tried to innovate, like Piel, or like Schaefer, Ruppert.

D: Rheingold, whatever, yes.

M: Yes, they didn’t get a whole lot of return on it, and certainly not enough return to protect them against these two juggernauts that have no reason to innovate. They’re already winning the world. Big innovation of the big beer industry in the 1950s was embracing professional sports, and using television and professional sports to advertise beer. That was their big innovation. For example, in the Busch family, I think there was a certain amount of, “We don’t really need to do this.” I’ll just say to jump the story ahead, when Miller introduced lite beer, L-I-T-E, in 1975, Anheuser-Busch said, “No, we are not going to do this.”

D: They had looked down their noses at it. It was embarrassing.

M: Yes. Very much so.

D: How could you ever sell something like — Budweiser was light enough. Anyone can drink Budweiser. Everyone loves it a lot.

M: Yes. Schlitz lost its way in the ‘60s because, again, the Uihlein family was resisting any moves that might affect their shares.

D: Their fat dividend.

M: Their income from shares of the brewery. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it is true that during the ‘50s there was very little interest in innovation, and even during the 1960s, the innovators were never the big breweries. It was always someone at the bottom who’s trying to figure out some way to stay in business and protect themselves from the big guys.

D: Those little guys never had the economies of scale, they never had the access-

M: No.

D: -to distribution that the big guys did. Some things change, some things remain the same in the beer industry. If you’re coming at this in 2023 with an understanding of the way the modern, contemporary beer industry works, certainly there’s an enormous amount of difference, but some things remain, which is access to markets and economies of scale, and marketing, as you mentioned. National television marketing remained the name of the game this whole way through, so there are some parallels there. We’ve talked about the small guys. We’ve talked about the background that led us to this moment, but now I want to focus in, and I’m sure our listeners want to focus in on this moment midway through the ‘70s. It’s 1975, Philip Morris owns the Miller Brewing Company. They acquire, I think, the outstanding 50 percent or 47 percent of the company they didn’t already own in 1970, so now they fully own the company. As you mentioned, Philip Morris, unlike the big brewers at the time, was a major conglomerate that already understood, I think in your book you refer to it as Procter & Gamble-izing a market. They understand segmentation. They say, “We’re going to sell you this type of toothpaste, but you’re another type of person, so we’re going to sell you another type of toothpaste.” Right?

M: Right.

D: This is the modernization of consumer-packaged goods and Philip Morris is much more on the front lines of that certainly than the Miller Brewing Company, but also than the Anheuser-Busch, than Schlitz, than any of the other big brewers. What’s the dynamic when Philip Morris takes control of the Miller Brewing Company? Is this like the slick guys and the suits rolling into a tired old brewery? Tell me a little bit about how they set about turning around this company that they now own.

M: It was a tired company in, I think, 1958 or ‘59 the very, very long time second in command at Miller died and it was clear that the cousins weren’t interested. The manager was not a member of the family and the company was definitely drifting. As I say, they only had one product. They had Miller High Life. That was it. That was the beginning and that occupied a very specific niche. It was the champagne of bottled beer, so it was always been marketed to a particular income level or particular-

D: Socioeconomic, that’s right.

M: -kind of person. Yes. It was going nowhere fast. Somebody else would’ve bought it eventually, that is 100 percent sure. They had a decent facility, I will say, because Fred Miller Jr. before he died had built a very modern, state-of-the-art facility, but there was no one in charge to figure out what to do with it. In comes Philip Morris, and they send John Murphy. John Murphy had been working for Philip Morris for about 10 years at that time. He was a tax attorney. He started at Philip Morris as a tax attorney. The current CEO, not the CEO, he would have been the president, was a guy named Weissman, who’d been with Philip Morrison since the 1950s. He was a public relations guy. He understood marketing and PR. Together these two guys start thinking, “Now we’ve got this brewery.” They all know, Philip Morris owns a lot of stuff, so they’re not — John Murphy’s view was, “This is just another agricultural product, just like cigarettes.” You just make a lot of them, and sell a lot of them, and you’ll make money on them. That’s what they set out to do. They came completely from the outside, so they’re not freighted by any of the angst that the 1950s had instilled in other brewers. They’re coming at this from a fresh start. In either 1970 or 1971, Weissman and Murphy were in Europe doing Philip Morris business because one of them at that time was also vice president of global operations or something like that. They were in Germany.

D: That’s how much they cared about Miller. They had other responsibilities. Miller was just another asset that they had to manage.

M: That’s right. No, it’s another asset. Phillip Morris spent the 1950s going from being a little dinky cigarette company that nobody had really ever heard of, to turning itself into an absolute behemoth in the space of 10 years, so yes, these guys are ready to go. 1970 or ‘71, Weisman and Murphy go to Germany. They’re in Germany on business, they’re at a restaurant. Weissman had diabetes in his family and he had always been interested in the idea of a beer that would have less carbohydrates, and would be friendlier to a diabetic. Germans had had a diet beer since the 1930s for that very reason. The people who developed it in Germany in the 1930s, they owned a brewery, and they had diabetes in their family. This beer had been for sale in Europe for about 20 years by the time Weissman and Murphy had come across it. They’re drinking this and the light bulb goes on.

D: Sure.

M: They look around and they find Meister Bräu in Chicago, which had been launched in 1968, I think.

D: Yes, ‘67 or ‘68.

M: ‘67 or ’68, Meister Bräu one of these struggling small breweries. It had been the Peter Hand Company, and then it got bought out by a bunch of investors, and they had this brand called Meister Bräu Lite which they wanted to go national with. That’s easier said than done, especially if you’re a beer maker, and you’re not Anheuser-Busch, and you’re not Schlitz. No surprise, within a few years the company is teetering on bankruptcies. Miller or Philip Morris didn’t want the company. All they wanted was that recipe and that brand, because they were going to use that to, very intentionally, create a new market niche. Their reasoning is very simple, he who creates and holds on to this niche is going to be the winner in the end. It worked.

D: Meister Bräu, the slogan was, “Meet the Beer You Need and Hold Back On,” I think.

M: Yes.

D: It’s introduced in 1960. Right at the end of the ‘60s, either ‘67 or ‘68. Did people like the liquid? Maybe it wasn’t marketed well. It sounds like the business infrastructure behind the beer wasn’t very good and the investors didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t know how to go national. Were people drinking Meister Bräu?

M: Apparently not enough of them and certainly not enough nationally, but they had the one — all of the companies that tinkered with a low-calorie beer from 1950 on, it was always like, “How can we make something that won’t be as fattening, but will still have flavor?” It’s harder than it sounds. You talk to any beer maker and they’ll tell you it’s a tricky balance. Meister Bräu had hired serious brains to develop the recipe, which is why Miller bought it. The idea was solid, but the investors who currently owned that company — I don’t know why in the heck anybody would’ve bought Peter Hand Brewing in 1967 or ‘68, because it’s never going to go anywhere breweries were hardly good investments, but Miller could see the value. Remember, these guys are coming from Philip Morris. They understand market niches. They understand market fragmentation. They understand how to cater to these niches.

D: They understand advertising.

M: They’re just trying to find one, and it just happened to be they were inspired by this diet beer they drank in Germany, and these two guys said, “Let’s go for it.”

D: There’s this company right down the road.

M: Right after that is when Miller bought the Meister Bräu brand.

D: Miller buys the Meister Bräu brand, and they know that they have this thesis that they’d developed in Europe, in Germany when they go and drink the German’s version of what would eventually become American light beer that, “Man, there could be a market for this. We have the know-how, we have the money, crucially. What do we do with this Meister Bräu beer?” What happens next? Meister Bräu eventually is the recipe that they tweak and fiddle with to make the Miller Lite that hits the beer industry like a freight train in 1975. How did they do it?

M: One thing is, I need to stress this, because I think of everything that came out of this episode far and away, the real biggie is that Philip Morris brought so much money. That was the part that was just leaving people reeling. In the 1960s, Schlitz could come in with one of its new factories and blow a handful of regional brewers out of the water. Suddenly Miller is spending unheard of amounts of money not just to develop the beer, but then also to market it and distribute it. At one point, I can’t remember if it was Anheuser-Busch or Schlitz, but they both asked for federal — one of them or both of them asked for federal protection. They said, “Is it really legal for Philip Morris to come in here and dump all this money?” It’s like the Elon Musk thing now? Can Elon Musk take money out of Tesla to prop up Twitter? That is what Philip Morris was doing. They were just funneling money in there, but they also, because they were so savvy about marketing and market niche, had said, how exactly do you persuade people to drink a beer that spelled L-I-T-E? In the past, many brewers opposed low calorie beer, because it implies that regular beer is fattening.

D: The lower calorie stuff’s going to have less flavor.

M: That somehow it’s not going to taste as good, and it’s not manly. The brains at Philip Morris/Miller looked at all this and said, “The big factor here is to promote this with as many macho men as we possibly can find.” They rounded up all these mostly retired professional athletes who were well known at the time. You probably wouldn’t know who any of them are now, retired because at the time you couldn’t really use a professional player for these kinds of projects.

D: An active player, yes.

M: They rollout this rather astonishing marketing campaign that on the one hand has Bubba Smith who was an NFL player, “This is how I open a can of Miller Lite,” and he twists the top of the can off. It’s a pull top can, but on camera, he just twists it off. The commercials just oozed testosterone. The additional genius was that people wouldn’t forget that this was a light beer, they introduced a commercial that I think ran for 20 years. One side of a stadium yelling, “Tastes great.” The other side of the stadium is yelling “Less filling.” This is a great-tasting beer and if you don’t want to get filled up, you can drink it, but if you don’t care about that, no one’s going to make fun of you, and you can drink this to your heart’s content.

D: Crucially, not less calories, less filling. Men get filled up with a big meal, but if you don’t want to get as full, “That’s OK. Here’s a light beer.” Not less calories, watch your figure. Less filling, you can right away, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you can drink more of these.

M: That’s right. That’s exactly right. That was the importance of the L-I-T-E, because for the previous 20 years, L-I-G-H-T beers, light beers, had always been marketed, either as something that’s not dark and heavy.

D: In color.

M: Budweiser is a lighter beer than Michelob, or they had been overtly marketed as being not fattening, which again, is a dead end for marketing. These people who worry about their diet probably aren’t going to drink it, but anyway. The people from Philip Morris just shoved that all out of the way. Again, they’re not beer makers, they’re marketers. They came in here and came up with this genuinely brilliant marketing plan.

D: It hits the air in 1975. Miller Lite hits beer shelves across the country. Was it national right away? Were they able to-

M: Yes. I think they did a brief rollout, perhaps in Chicago, but no, it went national very, very quickly.

D: They go national with it. The beer is selling well. Like you said, they carve out 10 percent of the overall U.S. beer market by the time the ‘70s are through. I think one of the things that people don’t maybe understand or realize is that there was not an immediate reaction from the bigs, the AB and the Schlitz, over what would become a very big problem for them. What did they do initially? You described this a little bit earlier in our conversation. There was a little bit of a thumbing of the nose or the looking down at this product as lesser-than, right?

M: Again, from a brewer’s perspective, it’s like in the meat industry of some markets there. Beef as all-natural or organic, it implies that all other beef is inorganic and unnatural. There was resistance. Anheuser-Busch, they just utterly dismissed it. Ortlieb in Philadelphia, a long-time family-owned brewery that still existed, they ran ads locally with the owner Joe Ortlieb standing in front of a table with a glass of water — a pitcher of water — and a bottle of Ortlieb beer. Half the glass is filled with a beer, and then Joe says, “This is how we make light beer,” and he pours the water into the beer, and then he says, “This is why we don’t make it.” There is resistance to it. On the other hand, Schlitz did come out fairly quickly, not just with the light beer, but also, James Coburn, a name probably no one would recognize today. He was an actor at the time. He always played really macho roles. Schlitz hired him, and their version of, “This beer is good enough for men,” was so teetering on violence and threat that in the industry, the marketing campaign was known as, “Drink Schlitz, or we’ll kill you.” There is some response, but it took two years before everybody else said, “Oh, hey, maybe we better come up with something.” When Anheuser-Busch finally did in, I believe 1978, their answer was natural light, because of course, they’re Anheuser-Busch, so they’ve got to have a twist to this light beer thing. Theirs is organic and all natural because the counter-cuisine was becoming mainstream at the time. That was Anheuser-Busch’s initial contribution, and frankly it didn’t do well at all. AB didn’t really catch up at all with the Lite market until 1982 when they introduced Bud Light. That’s quick, do the math, five, seven years after the fact, which is astonishing when you think of how well Miller Lite was doing. It just took Anheuser-Busch a long time.

D: When Anheuser-Busch finally gets seriously in the game into the light beer segment, was it already considered a segment by the time they backed into it?

M: Yes.

D: In other instances, we talk about the big macros finally rolling out product into a segment which legitimizes the idea of the segment. You saw it with wine coolers, you saw it with a bunch of other products throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. This was not one of those cases. Anheuser-Busch stumbled into the segment after it had already been accepted by consumers and the rest of the industry.

M: That’s right.

D: They were late to the game.

M: Oh, they were very late in the interim for reasons that had nothing to do with it. Schlitz effectively committed suicide.

D: Corporate suicide.

M: All on its very own. By the end of the 1970s, the two giants in the country are, in fact, Miller Brewing with its one brewery and its two beer brands, Miller Lite and Miller High Life. That’s all they got, and the behemoth Anheuser-Busch. In the space of less than a decade, Miller did what Fred Miller wanted to do. They became a giant killer.

D: He just wasn’t around to see it.

M: Thanks to Philip Morris and its buckets and buckets of money. I cannot stress how shocking the money was to people. There had never been money like this poured into the beer industry. That is the thing that just sent people reeling.

D: This touched off what would come to be known as “The Light Beer Wars,” because as you mentioned, Schlitz committed a corporate form of suicide by, and this is an infamous moment in the beer industry worthy of its own “Taplines” episode. I suspect we’ll be covering it at some point on this podcast. But in brief, what they did was they tried to shortcut on ingredients. They used hop extracts in order to cut down on costs. It was a disaster. The liquid wasn’t up to snuff. It was a disaster. They couldn’t course-correct in time. That’s where it all came unglued for Schlitz. They never recovered from it.

M: Never. No.

D: Maureen, our listeners today, in 2023, they know three light beers that sit at the top of the American pantheon for that segment. One is Bud Light, of course, the best-selling beer in the country for another few years. Maybe we’ll see how long they hold on. Then of course, there’s Miller Lite, which we’ve talked about, L-I-T-E, the original light beer from Miller was how they tagged it in 1975 is off to the races and it touched off “The Light Beer Wars.” There’s a third player who we haven’t mentioned yet. It’s a little concern out of Golden, Colo. I’m talking of course about those Coors, boys. Where is Coors in all of this? The Silver Bullet, we know it now as one of the big three light beers. Where was it? What was going on?

M: What happened with Coors, which is a parallel story. Coors had been in business since, I think, 1867 — always owned by the same family. Their thing was they made one beer, and they made it for the climate they lived in. They made it for the arid, temperate West. That was truly a light beer. Not because it was low in calories, but because it’s very drinkable. It’s what generations later would call a good session beer. They also only marketed it west of the Rockies. They never made any attempt to go national. Unfortunately, thanks to baby boomers in the early 1970s when I was off doing all my drugs, Coors became this very chic beer. It had this mystique. There’s a wonderful story of a fraternity in Tennessee at a University in Tennessee that they picked two of the younger fraternity brothers and ordered them to drive to Colorado and bring back as much beer as you can stuff into that car and they got stopped on the way, unfortunately. Gerald Ford flew it into the White House for taco night. Paul Newman loved Coors beer. The Coors Brothers who were running the company in the ‘70s said, “My God, we have something here. Let’s take it and run. Let’s try to knock Anheuser-Busch off.” If the whole cache of your beer its inaccessibility, and the water-

D: The mountain water.

M: -the Rocky Mountain water, if you’re going to suddenly build a brewery in Virginia, how much cache do you have left? It did not go particularly well for Coors. It did mark the beginning of the end of the family ownership. They did fine. They were not going to topple Anheuser-Busch. They didn’t have Philip Morris’s money, but they were smart enough to turn out a light beer, and you’re right, by 1990, the three biggies were those three light beers. What they tasted like, I have no idea, because I’ve never tasted a light beer so tease me.

D: As a matter of professional ethics.

M: I don’t see the point, frankly. I don’t get, what’s the point in drinking a beer if you’re — yes, I just don’t get it.

D: That brings us to, one of the main pejoratives or the classic craft brewer jokes that comes about in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. What do making love in a canoe and drinking a light beer have in common? It’s f*cking close to water, right? This is where that comes from, this idea.

M: Actually, it doesn’t. It comes from the 1970s.

D: Is that right?

M: Believe it or not, I heard that joke when I was in — and it was Coors.

D: It was always Coors that was-

M: It was bashing Coors. Yes. Coors was like drinking f*cking water. Yes. It was Coors. It has had its variance over the years.

D: This is why we have you on “Taplines,” Maureen, to correct the historical record so I don’t get myself in too much trouble. Because I’m just out here spewing disinformation.

M: Fake news.

D: It’s fake news here on Tap. I thought I’d never see the day. How ashamed I am. But no, thanks, there you go. Yes, Coors was dry. It was light, but to some people it was too light. It didn’t make the grade. When they finally introduced the Coors Light, the actual Coors Light brand, that was over the protestations of Joe Coors, if I remember correctly. Pete Coors, who’s still alive and still owns shares in the company and still a figurehead on the C-suite over there or whatever. He was there. John Murphy, who was like, “We got to do something, guys. We got to turn this thing around. Please let me introduce a new beer. Let me introduce a new style of management, yada, yada, yada,” and Silver Bullet eventually came to be. They were able to sneak into what was then a pretty hardening top three. There was a moment where Coors might have been boxed out, and they got in right under the wire there.

M: They really did. Again, had they not had their own version of John Murphy, they would’ve been just hung out to dry because Anheuser-Busch was never going to let them get away with it. Yes, they did get in. By 1990, there’s three big breweries.

D: Light beer made it so.

M: A bunch of, yes.

D: I want to end with — we’ve gone the distance here. We went from the 1950s all the way up to 1975 and then passed. We talked about the way “The Light Beer Wars” kicked off. The conditions, I like to think of them as small state skirmishes that were taking place before the great powers got involved, right? There was a famous quote, oh, I would say definitive quote for this era. The way the market took shape, the importance of marketing and advertising, the corporatization and competitiveness that all gets compressed into this light beer moment. It comes from August Busch III, right? We’re talking about the third. It comes from August Busch III. When Anheuser-Busch finally decides to get involved and realizes that light beer is not something that’s just going to go away, and holy smokes, now we have a legitimate competitor in this Miller Brewing Company backed by Philip Morris. What are we going to do? What we’re going to do is exactly what Philip Morris has been doing this whole time. We’re going to throw money at the problem. August Busch has this incredible quote that is the one that everyone — maybe one of the two or three that everyone remembers him by. Do you remember the quote? Would you like to deliver it?

M: Yes, of course. It was in 1976, a big BusinessWeek Magazine, multi-page article. Actually, it’s worth reading the whole thing, a great piece of journalism. “Tell Miller to come right along, but tell them to bring lots of money.”

D: Bravo. Well delivered. That’s a little bit of drama on which we can-

M: That’s a quote.

D: -close out the “Taplines” episode. Maureen, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always such a pleasure to talk to you, and thank you for taking us right up close and personal with this crucial, pivotal moment in American beer history.

M: Pleasure. It was a pleasure. Thank you.

D: All right. We’ll see you next time.

M: OK.

“Taplines” is recorded in Richmond, Va., and produced by yours truly and Darby Cicci, who along with the talented Shane Firek, composed our delightful soundtrack. Just listen to it. I also want to give a quick shout-out to the entire VinePair team, and especially co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin, editor-in-chief, Joanna Sciarrino, managing editor Tim McKirdy, and art director Danielle Grinberg, who designed our lovely “Taplines” logo. Of course, big thank you to you. Yes, you listener, for spending time with us week in and week out. We literally couldn’t do this without you. I’m Dave Infante and I’ll catch you next time.