A King of Beers?

Concentration of Power Over America's Alcohol Markets is Bad for Consumers. It Also Imperils Constitutional and Moral Balances.
Policy Paper
Dec. 12, 2012

In some respects, America’s market for beer has never looked healthier. Where fewer than a hundred brewers operated a generation ago, we now can count more than 2,000, producing a mind-boggling variety of beers. Yet just below this drinkers’ paradise, we see a market that has never been more closed. Two giant firms — Anheuser-Busch Inbev and MillerCoors — now control some 90 percent of production. At the same time, a few giant retailers — led by Costco — are rolling up control over sales. This concentration is already diminishing real variety in much of the country. Worse, the giants are breaking down a decades-old regulatory regime designed to ensure local control over alcohol sales and to prevent big companies from pushing cheap alcohol onto society.

These changes hurt almost all Americans. For consumers, it will become harder to get that special craft beer. For independent brewers, it will become harder to get to market and to scale up business. For society, it will become harder to control where, when, how, and to whom beer and liquor is sold, and at what price. Almost 80 years ago, after the grand failure of Prohibition, the American people carefully designed a practical way to regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol. Citizens wrote this balanced approach — which promoted responsibility in the community and in the individual — right into the Constitution, in the form of the 21st Amendment. Now, a few immensely powerful corporations have taken it upon themselves to reengineer these balances, in order to better serve their private interests. We therefore believe the time has come for federal, state, and local authorities to address this concentration of power and to protect the three-tier system.

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