Miller versus Bud

Miller-Coors is suing Anheuser-Busch over its advertising which  targets Miller for supposedly using corn syrup in its beer. As the author of this article rightly points out, the Miller and Busch products taste remarkably similar and their real competition is from 700 craft brewers and changing tastes among young people.

This scenario where the largest brewers are battling each other has happened before. Here  are some excerpts from my book, Brewing Battles about those earlier struggles.

In 1978, Phillip Morris, the parent company of Miller Brewing, opened an office in Washington. Miller Brewing simultaneously withdrew its membership from the USBA. Although the USBA had been located in Washington, D.C. since 1970, Miller wanted to be able to pursue its own agenda separate from the unity and cooperation a trade association such as the USBA would promote. G. Heileman Brewing Company, the nation’s fifth largest brewer, undertook a similar move. Miller’s animosity toward the USBA may have stemmed from disputes with Anheuser–Busch over the label issue.[1]

In 1978, when Miller left, the USBA had field representatives in all fifty states, as well as five regional vice-presidents and legal counsel in every state. Prior to Prohibition, there had been many active state organizations that mirrored the USBA on a more local level. By 1978 very few still existed — Wisconsin may have been the only one. Thus the USBA, along with the much smaller Brewers Association of America, represented the brewing industry. In 1970, the USBA moved its headquarters from its historic home in New York to Washington, where individual breweries did not have representation.[2]

The USBA represented the brewing industry on trade issues prior to 1978 and continued to pursue such representation after Miller and Heileman left the organization. The trade association’s ability to continue such work was severely limited due to a reduced budget and staff. Assessments based on barrel production of the members provided the budget of the USBA; losing two of the top five producers hurt.[3]

Donald Shea, the USBA vice president for alcohol programs, succeeded Henry King. According to Shea, his appointment was itself an indication of the reduced status of the organization. His first priority as the head of the USBA was to bring Miller and Heileman back to the fold. He was not successful. Miller  met his attempts at reconciliation with derision. At a meeting to discuss Miller rejoining the USBA, Miller executives referred to the venerable trade association as the Anheuser–Busch association. Shea deemed such behavior “juvenile.”[4]

As president of the USBA, Shea focused on the issue of drunk driving and social issues. Shea also spent time during his presidency reading the minutes and other documents from previous administrations of the USBA. The USBA library located in Washington, D.C. had the records going back to 1862. Many of the documents were in “Hoch Deutsch.” It was a unique historical trove.[5]

Following meetings among various parties, in February 1986, Miller and the other large brewers announced they would join in a new organization called the Beer Institute. Miller seemed to feel it was necessary to start over, so the USBA had to be dissolved. Shea received the dissolution of the USBA as a fait accompli. Miller so wanted a new face and shape for the brewing industry it was trying to lead that it dismantled the over one hundred-year-old library, and moved to new offices.[6]

A measure of how far the USBA had traveled from the center of the brewing industry, and how changed the industry was came in the reaction to the ending of the USBA and the beginning of the Beer Institute. Only a few journals noted the events, and most analysts felt it was for the best. In March 1987, Modern Brewery Age, a trade journal that dated back to Prohibition, bemoaned the demise of the USBA, but felt that the diminished membership had “crippled its resources as well as its clout.”[7]

The journal was hopeful that the new organization would “represent the entire domestic brewing industry. . . . The realization that the top five could indeed join forces to fight off industry opposition and promote the benefits of malt beverages was long needed.”[8]

Although observers blamed the demise of the USBA, the nation’s oldest trade association, on internal factors such as a “slow moving bureaucracy,” it is clear that marketing rivalries between Miller and Anheuser–Busch led to the organization’s dissolution. When brewers got together outside of the USBA to work on issues such as the “alcoholic ad ban, neo-Prohibitionism and alcohol abuse,” they were duplicating much of the long standing work of the venerable association.[9] The fact that Miller and the others established a new organization reflected the necessity of trade associations in the modern world of big business. Ironically, Frederick Lauer and others had recognized the importance of industry-wide organization when they first founded the USBA.


[1] “8 Trade Groups Are Leaving City,” New York Times, February 20, 1970 1; Sara Fitzgerald, “Washington Update: People; the Washington Office,” The National Journal, vol. 10, no. 50, Dec. 16, 1987, 2037; “USBA Dissolve,” Beverage Industry,  April 1986, 14; Van Munching, Beer Blast, 56.

[2] Shea Interview, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “USBA Takes New Direction with Shea at the Helm,” Beverage Industry, October 1983, 20-25; Shea interview, 2005.

[5] Shea Interview, 2005.

[6] Washington Post, Feb 3, 1986, 19; Shea interview, 2005. Some of the volumes from the USBA library wound up in the Anheuser-Busch archives.

[7] Modern Brewery Age, March 16, 1987, 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Marty Westerman, “USBA Dissolved,” Beverage Industry, April 1986, 14.