Giant Beer and Liquor Companies Grasp for Local, ‘Small Batch’ Appeal

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Pay no attention to the fact that Budweiser and Absolut Vodka are massive, global brands. After tweaking their recipes and slapping new labels on bottles, some of the world’s largest beer and liquor brands are trying to convince communities that they’re the preferred local artisanal drink of choice.

Absolut Vodka is known to come in a dizzying variety of flavors, including cilantro, peach, ruby red, wild tea, and “raspberri.” A variety of Absolut that’s new to the market is described by the company as “rich and aromatic with intriguing herbal notes of rosemary and thyme in a harmonious blend with fresh green olives.” Its name? Absolut Chicago. The product, featuring an artist’s rendering of the skyline on the bottle, goes on sale this month for a limited-time only.

What does Absolut (made in Sweden) and this product’s special flavors (a far stretch from Chicago-style hot dogs and deep dish pizza) have to do with the Second City? Many locals are wondering the same thing. “Clearly, rosemary, thyme and olives don’t have anything at all to do with Chicago, do they?” a blogger at the local NBC station wrote:

I mean, no one ever tasted rosemary and suddenly imagined themselves on Lower Wacker Drive, right?

Or chomped into an olive and felt an urge to overpay for downtown parking. Or took a whiff of thyme and longed for a 100-degree afternoon in the bleachers at Wrigley, watching the Cubs blow anther late-inning lead.

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But the idea that a Chicago-themed vodka doesn’t seem to have much to do with Chicago probably doesn’t matter. Previous location-themed Absoluts, which have included Brooklyn and San Francisco, were also puzzlingly, vaguely “inspired” by the location, though they all feature imagery of their respective cities on the bottle.

The point, it seems, isn’t to create a drink that somehow tastes like a city, but to make locals feel thrilled that Absolut has honored them with a concoction specific to their hometown—and to also somehow foster the idea that they’re demonstrating local pride and supporting their community by purchasing fancy vodka made in Sweden.

Similarly, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, headquartered in Belgium, is producing “small batch Budweisers” that are named with a number correlating to a U.S. zip code—the three latest include Batch 94534 (Fairfield, Calif.), Batch 23185 (Williamsburg, Va.), and Batch 43229 (Columbus, Ohio). The special beers are made in the communities they’re named for, and each is supposed to have at least some hint of local flavor—North Pacific hops in the California brew, for instance.

Beyond wooing locals excited to see their zip codes on a bottle of Bud, the goal here is to attract drinkers—younger ones especially—who generally pass on mainstream, industrial beer in favor of richer, tastier, more interesting craft brews, often ones that are created by genuine local mom-and-pop entrepreneurs, not gigantic multinational corporations. While the big beer operations are trying out “local” brews in small batches, they are simultaneously buying and/or producing so-called “crafty beers” like Shock Top and Blue Moon, which are marketed as artisanal craft products even though the brands are owned by huge companies.

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Another interesting brew, Colorado Native Lager, which came on the market in 2010, is presented as both local (nearly 100% of ingredients come from Colorado) and craft. On Colorado Native’s packaging and website, A.C. Golden Brewing Company is listed as the brewer. For some reason, the fact that this operation is a subsidiary of MillerCoors—one of the world’s largest beer companies, owner of brands like Blue Moon, Killians, Keystone Light, and of course Miller and Coors—isn’t mentioned.