So why do it? Because, since 2002, Miller hasn't been "American" at all. It was purchased that year by former South African Brewer SAB and took its place in the SABMiller portfolio in London. It's only further diluted here in the states, where SABMiller's joint partnership with Molson Coors (TAP) puts Canadian ownership into the MillerCoors mix. There's still a brewing facility and some beer caves that you can tour in Milwaukee -- where Major League Baseball's Milwaukee Brewers still play at Miller Park -- but any revenue from Miller sales there or anywhere else goes to a company that's about as American as Queen Elizabeth or Wayne Rooney.
Even small, regional brewers walk a fine line when they wave the flag from their beer cans. Genesee Brewing Company has been making beer in Rochester, N.Y. since 1878, but was swallowed up by KPS Capital Partners and its North American Breweries in 2009 and added to a portfolio that already included regional brewer Dundee and craft brewers Pyramid and Magic Hat. In 2012, North American Breweries was sold to Florida Ice and Farm Co., which is based in Heredia, Costa Rica.
Keep in mind that absolutely none of this is in compliance with U.S. code regarding the flag, commonly known as the "flag code." Brewers get around this by insisting that their designs only emulate the flag and aren't actual representations of it, but sticklers for the rules could find fault with those flag cans under the following subsection:
(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.
That's fairly clear, through multinational brewers struggling to maintain a connection between their U.S. past and present-day drinkers shouldn't be faulted for trying. Back in 1988, all-American Budweiser accounted for 25% of all beer consumed in the United States -- which is roughly the same U.S. market share that all of MillerCoors holds now. Its production has plummeted more than 60% from that peak of 50 million barrels and, in 2011, it lost its spot as the No. 2 beer in the U.S. to Coors Light. Miller High Life, meanwhile, saw a brief resurgence in the early 2000s dwindle quickly after the recession. Production dropped by nearly 1 million barrels since 2010 and its 2.1% market share is lower that that of budget brands Busch, Busch Light and Natural Light.
Still, playing marketing games with a nation's flag has consequences, particularly when that flag isn't the one flying over your corporate headquarters. Last year, MillerCoors found itself in a whole lot of trouble for stamping an image of the Puerto Rican flag on its cans and selling them to promote its sponsorship of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. Activists and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman expressed concern about using both the flag and the parade to sell beer, especially when the theme of that year's parade was Celebrating Your Health. A year earlier, MillerCoors pulled an ad with the word "emboricuate," or "make yourself Puerto Rican" next to bunch of beer bottles.
If brewers want to be as American as possible this Independence Day, they may want to consider moving their corporate headquarters here and hiring more U.S. workers. Failing that, they could use the same strategy as actual U.S.-based brewers: Stand behind a quality beer instead of hiding it behind a flag.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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