Strange Brew 

A Missoulian plumbs the peculiar history of the Coors family

The story of the Adolph Coors Family and Company is practically the stuff of legends. It testifies to the mythological American virtues of stubborn hard work and ingenuity and a time before marketing—when making a good product, and not a killer ad campaign, was the secret to success. It is also a deeply problematical story because as former Missoulian Dan Baum explains: “The family’s adherence to handshake-integrity and old-style craftsmanship were coupled with some less universally admired ideals from the nineteenth century: that disparity of wealth is not only inevitable but proper, that efforts to achieve social equality—especially by government are illegitimate, that the Bible is the rule book for intimate conduct, and that capital must never bow to labor.”

And it is about beer, which is just an inherently interesting subject whether being marketed to teenagers (Mr. Coors told the first marketer he hired that America was too Puritanical, that in Germany mothers served beer to their children at breakfast) or outlawed by Constitutional Amendment.

Most of all there is a deep irony worthy of either of the two Elsinores in the way that the story plays out. From lowly immigrant beginnings, the Coorses become fabulously wealthy; they run their brewery like a medieval German kingdom, but will not change with the times and are almost annihilated by the adherence to the selfsame beliefs (and some far out idiosyncrasies) that made them great in the first place. Former Independent writer Dan Baum has not written the first or the last book on the Coors family, but it reads like an excellent if not exhaustive piece of investigative journalism that distinguishes itself by focusing on the most recent Coorses—Bill, Joe and Peter—the advent of marketing, the beer and labor wars from the ’60 to the ’80s and the Coors’ involvement in the rise of conservatism.

Fifteen years after stowing away on a ship from his native Prussia, Adolph Coors, who was orphaned as a child, was in 1890 a millionaire brewer. Most of what got Adolph to where he was in Golden, Colo., was his obsessive nature, a force so great that some of the bizarre manifestations of his will, known as “Coors culture,” are still in place at Coors today. Baum writes: “Adolph Coors was indeed an ass-kicker: a brooding, taciturn man who demanded uncomplaining performance equally from brewery foreman and youngest grandchild. … He had no hobbies, played no sports, sought no learning beyond his craft. … He would finally kill himself, leaving behind $2 million, a unique dedication to quality above profit, and a family tradition of frosty obedience that stifled intellect, fostered rebellion, and occasioned a second suicide.”

One scenario that well illustrates both Coors ingenuity and hatred for organized labor: When striking coal miners interrupted the production of power for the brewery, Adolph’s grandson Bill Coors put three men up on the hill behind the brewery with a bulldozer to mine coal out of their own land, and they were soon producing enough coal to be self-sufficient. When the union leaders threatened to organize the coal diggers, Coors purchased a natural gas field 30 miles away, laid the pipe, and re-powered the factory. That investment would expand into Coors Energy Company, “a multimillion-dollar subsidiary that owned coal and gas fields all over the Southwest.”

But a good thing that came of one of the family’s obsessive fears was the aluminum can. When most breweries switched from bottles to steel cans and roadside litter accumulated, the Coorses feared that beer can litter would turn the tide of temperance against them. Also hating the fact that the solder on the steel cans gave an off taste to their “fine light” beer, they spent $10 million to create from scratch a hot slug aluminum can-making process making them “the first American beverage company to fill aluminum cans, let alone manufacture them.” Their process was so superior that they undercut industry giant Alcoa and won a contract to produce speedometer tubes for General Motors.

Of the old accusations against Coors, Baum has much to say: Discrimination against blacks, gays, Hispanics, women, and unions were de rigeur at Coors during the dark days of Elsinore. The boycott by the AFL-CIO was one of the longest-lived and most effective leftovers from the time when labor and unions meant something in this country. Today apparently Coors has pretty much cleaned up its act—the book ends in 1993 when Coors hired the first non-family member to be the chief operating officer at Coors. But, if you find yourself pausing over a glass of their beer, it is worth noting that Joe Coors was one of Reagan’s earliest and most generous supporters, and it was Coors money that bankrolled the genesis of the ultra-conservative Washington think tank, the Heritage Foundation, which has never been known to be a friend to the Left.

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