Bud Beer Scandal Came to a Head, Went Flat

Least Favored in 2013: Featuring the year's shockers from Wall Street to Washington. Read Fed Policy shenanigans; Tech spies; SeaWorld tragedy; Caterpillar-China scandal; Bud Beer scandal; Bill Ackman's Herbalife; LIBOR rigging; Forex Scandal; and check out this video CEO Walk of Shame.
 


NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Wall Street has seen its fair share of bad headlines this year: The Federal Reserve's policy decisions, our fragile economy, the up and down market.

It's enough to drive you to drink -- which is why I'm focusing on beer.

Not just any beer, but one of the world's best-known beers, Budweiser, brewed by what is now known as Anheuser-Busch Inbev (BUD).

Anheuser-Busch made headines in February when it was accused of, gasp, watering down its beer. Media outlets picked up the story as beer drinkers reacted in horror. Multi-million-dollar lawsuits in California, Colorado, Ohio, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas, among others, resulted, accusing the company of cheating its customers out of the alcohol content stated on the labels.

A number of disgruntled employees, starting with James Clark, the former director of operations and support for Budweiser, alleged the company used excess water just before bottling process in an effort to maximize output and cut costs.

But it wasn't just The King of Beers whose alcohol content fell to 4.7% from the stated 5%. The additional water was also added to Bud Ice, Bud Light Platinum, Michelob, Michelob Ultra, Hurricane High Gravity Lager, King Cobra, Busch Ice, Natural Ice and Bud Light Lime.

Did you notice any difference?

According to the lawsuits, Anheuser-Busch has sophisticated equipment to measure the alcohol content of beer throughout the brewing process. This technology supposedly has the capabilities to accurately predict the alcohol content to within one-hundredth of a percent. However, the lawsuit claimed after the all-American Bud merged with the Belgian Inbev in 2008, the company utilized this technology to dilute its beer.

Anheuser denied this, of course. Peter Kraemer, vice president of brewing and supply, stated the company's "beers are in full compliance with all alcohol labeling laws. We proudly adhere to the highest standards in brewing our beers, which have made them the best-selling in the U.S. and the world,"

Well, that's all well and good. But BUD also wants to make a buck.

So Anheuser-Busch was quick to take advantage of this publicity for its marketing campaigns. The company published a full page ad in 10 major U.S. newspapers poking fun at the lawsuit. On the advertisement the company displays one of the 71 million cans of water donated to disaster relief at the time of publication. Above the can was a statement : "They must have tested one of these."

Did this "scandal" make a difference. Maybe in the short term but over the long term, I doubt it. Budweiser is as American as apple pie, lawsuits or no.

Whatever drinkers might have thought, shareholders were calmed, the controversy went away and the stock has been as heady as ever, up by more than 16% for the year to date. But top-line growth is flat as drinkers turn their thirst elsewhere.

Light beer drinkers have moved away from Budweiser and Coors, brewed by Molson Coors (TAP). There has been a trend towards craft beers with their unique flavors and complexity.

The Brewers Association reported mid-year 2013 growth of 15% in dollar sales and 13% in volume for craft beer. Should the shift towards craft beer continue, it will mark the fourth straight year of double-digit growth for craft. Even Anheuser-Busch has been trying to tap the craft beer market with acquisitions. 

But to really make a splash, it would need to buy one of the larger players in the craft beer space, such as Sierra Nevada. I expect the craft beer trend to continue as industry leaders have predicted the opening of thousands of breweries, all which will continue to put pressure on Anheuser-Busch's growth.

Don't worry about your supply of Bud, however. Anheuser-Busch will always be around, in the bars and on the shelves throughout America.

As for whistleblower James Clark, he was sued by his former employer, which claimed he "improperly used and misrepresented our confidential information to instigate these lawsuits, all for his personal gain."

Personally, I think this is just water over the dam.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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