All in the Family

Not very long ago, Coors was a cult beer, a product that turned otherwise law-abiding citizens into petty smugglers and black marketeers. Today, it's available everywhere in America. Sad to say, it has become just another mass-produced lager.

After reading Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty, I'm surprised Coors beer is around at all. Written by veteran journalist Dan Baum, Citizen Coors tells the tragicomic story of the Coors family's refusal to play by the brewing industry's new rules, and the price they paid for their obstinacy.

This book is not about a brewery, but rather the family that owned it. The Coorses are a fascinating--and often repellent--cast of characters. The patriarch, Adolph Sr., was an industrialist in the Henry Ford mold: a paternalistic, mule-headed control freak. He kept his brewery going by sheer force of will, once saving it from a flood by literally diverting the flow of water onto land he'd hurriedly bought from neighbors.

At home, Adolph Sr. ruled with an iron fist. He expected women to be subservient and children absolutely obedient--traditions carried on by later generations of Coors men. Breaking a family rule, like marrying while still in college, meant financial excommunication. As one family member observed, "There are more kinds of child abuse than the ones you usually hear about."

Cold-blooded as they were at home, the Coorses were scrupulously fair to their customers and respectful of the environment. They continued brewing an honest beer long after doing so became unprofitable. And they were so protective of their beer that they once asked President Ford not to bring it home from his Colorado vacations.

Not even the president's love of the beer could reverse the decline of the Coors empire. After World War II, Coors dominated every market it entered. But when the Sixties divided America, the Coorses spent their energy fighting social change instead of rival brewers. Their battles hurt the brewery's bottom line, and provoked a damaging consumer backlash as well.

Organized labor was anathema to the Coorses, who fought unions with the intensity of nineteenth-century robber barons. They succeeded in breaking a strike at the brewery, but their victory proved Pyrrhic; the AFL-CIO launched a boycott of Coors beer. As products go, beer is relatively easy to boycott: it's cheap, and there are plenty of alternative brands.

Once underway, the Coors boycott took on a life of its own, turning into a referendum on President Reagan's policies, which the Coorses enthusiastically backed. Joseph Coors, the family's political activist, donated millions of dollars to conservative causes, including the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank responsible for much of the Reagan agenda.

While Joe Coors reaped big political dividends, his family's business had become a losing investment. The Coorses brought most of their woes on themselves; they dragged their feet on bringing a light beer to market, and clung to a management structure better suited to a mom-and-pop store than giant brewery.

But what hurt the family most was its antipathy toward marketing. The Coorses feared, with good reason, that advertising beer would bring on a reprise of Prohibition; and they still believed their product was good enough to sell itself. They eventually figured out they couldn't survive without marketing. By then, however, Coors had fallen hopelessly behind Anheuser-Busch and Miller.

Coors has survived, of course. And Pete Coors still turns up on television, delivering homespun messages from somewhere in the Rockies. But the Coors saga effectively ended in 1993, when an outsider to both the Coors family and the beer industry was named president and chief operating officer. Coors, like America's other big brewers, would henceforth be run by MBA's and dance to Wall Street's tune.

Baum has written a fascinating study of the decline and fall of an American dynasty. It's fast-paced, crisply written, and largely free of cliches. While he's more interested in labor and business issues than beer, he cogently explains why American beer has become an image-driven commodity. Baum dwells a bit much on Coors's labor problems and the beer boycott, and loses focus toward the end, but these complaints are--pun intended--small beer. Citizen Coors is worthy of its formidable subject.