"They were dumping money into these events, and every time they did, boycotters would show up."

The Fingers interview with Allyson Brantley, Ph.D., on the historic Coors boycott, the pitfalls of consumer activism without endpoints, and more

Welcome to Fingers, a newsletter by me, Dave Infante, about drinking culture, being online, and beyond. If you haven’t already, please sign up for future dispatches, OK?
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Programming note: I’ll be joining reporters Jessica Infante (Brewbound) and Kate Bernot (Good Beer Hunting/Craft Beer & Brewing) on Clubhouse this Wednesday (3/31) at 7pm EST to talk about the beer industry’s latest headlines, trends, and whatever else comes up. Join us then for the first-ever edition of Beer Byliners!

Late last year, as coronavirus cases were surging across the country, a trade publication called Beer Business Daily published a letter to the editor advocating for business owners to defy operating restrictions. “They [bars and restaurants] all need to open up. The civil authorities won’t be able to lock them all up, and they can simply refuse to pay fines or penalties,” wrote the author under the headline “The Coming Lockdown Backlash.” “If people are scared to go to a restaurant, stay home. If the virus spreads … well, it is spreading anyway.” Very cool!

The December 2020 letter was/is paywalled, and I didn’t bother tracking down the full text because as a rule I try not to waste my time on the red-assed musings of business-brain reactionaries when I could be doing literally anything else. But what set this particular item apart from the anti-mask din we’ve all been subject to for the past year was speculation about its author, who was allowed to publish this take pseudonymously as “a prominent beer industry exec… [whose] name rhymes with Eat Doors.”

Juvenile as this riddle was, it wasn’t difficult to untangle, and many quickly concluded that the letter’s author was Pete Coors, the scion of the same-named Colorado brewing dynasty. In addition to having a name that rhymes with “eat doors” and being a fairly prominent beer business executive (he’s currently a vice chairman of Molson Coors’ board), Coors is a well-known right-winger who ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 with an anti-gay marriage stance, and more recently both fundraised and personally funded Trump’s 2020 campaign. He’s also a vice chairman of the board at the American Enterprise Institute, a prominent conservative think tank. Hmmm! At the time, Coors refused to comment when Kate Bernot at Good Beer Hunting asked him point-blank if he wrote the letter, which lol, sure, whatever.

RELATED: Hard seltzer, “soft math,” and campaign cash

If the letter was written by our man Pete, it would certainly track with the research of one Allyson Brantley, Ph.D. “This kind of libertarianism & quiet political activism is very on-brand for the Coors family,” Brantley, an assistant professor of history at southern California’s University of La Verne, told me. “Since statewide Prohibition began in Colorado in 1916, the family has seen itself as besieged by an activist and oppressive state… Honestly, I would have been surprised if a Coors had not come out against lockdowns and business restrictions.”

Brantley should know. The historian is the author of a new book, Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism, which explores how the Golden, CO firm’s conservative politics and policies—many of which were direct extensions of the Coors families’ own right-wing worldview—put it at the center of a three-decade consumer boycott led by a broad front that included labor unions, Black and Chicano activists, feminists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, Native Americans… and the list goes on. “This combination of labor, racial justice, and anti-conservatism come together to create a boycott that really extends to the furthest reaches of Coors’ distribution by the ‘80s,” said the historian.

Of course, plenty has changed since the ‘80s (just ask Eat Doors.) So Fingers spoke with Brantley earlier this year about the legacy of the Coors boycott: how it came to be, how it pushed the company into unlikely early efforts at corporate social responsibility, what lessons (if any) today’s beer drinkers can learn from the work of yesterday’s activists, and much more.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. Brianna Weikel contributed transcribing to this interview.

Meet Allyson Brantley, Ph.D., author of Brewing a Boycott

Dave Infante, Fingers: Allyson, thank you very much for making the time. Tell me about yourself and tell me about how you came to this project.

Allyson Brantley, Ph.D.: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and my parents are both from the Midwest. My dad still loves Coors Light. It's this beer that, for them growing up in the Midwest in the ‘70s, he couldn't access, because their distribution market was pretty limited. [For me] growing up in Colorado, at least before the wave of craft brewing, Coors sort of has this mystique, it's a symbol of the state. So it was familiar to me in the background.

Then, when I went to grad school at Yale, I was reading a random book and something came up about the Coors boycott and I was like, “What? I’ve never heard of this.” I decided to start digging and I found an immense amount of information about it. Originally, I didn't think it would be much [of a saga] at all. I thought it'd be a one-year boycott, but what I found in my research is that this boycott lasted for 30 years and spread across the country. It really shapes the way that Coors does business.

For someone who's never heard of this before, what was the scope of this boycott? What was it about?

Yeah. So, the boycott, or we could say it's multiple boycotts, lasts roughly from 1957 to 1987. Those are kind of the official dates. To my knowledge, it’s one of the longest-running consumer boycotts in American history. It’s structured around three major points. It really begins as part of an organized labor struggle against Coors. Coors is notoriously anti-union; they basically always have been across the 20th century. And so, unions, of course when they were there, they were pretty weak. so they used the boycott as a way to pressure Coors. This is sort of how it begins. Then, in the second wave of the boycott (and they all kind of come together over time), we have African Americans and Mexican Americans in Colorado who start boycotting Coors because [they allege] the company is discriminatory in its hiring practices. People of color apply for a job at Coors in the ‘60s, and they’d be funneled into unskilled janitorial positions. They’d never be on the brew floor. Those are kind of the two specific, sort of labor-oriented boycott narratives.

The really the big thing that kind of gives this the most steam is a boycott that brings in a lot of different groups to target Coors for the Coors family’s politics. They’re very conservative, and by the 1980s they're very connected to Ronald Reagan. So, for a lot of activists from the late ‘70s onward, they see their boycott as a political statement, and a way to push back against conservatism. So it’s this combination of labor, racial justice, and anti-conservatism that come together to create a boycott that really extends to the furthest reaches of Coors’ distribution by the ‘80s.

Very few people I talked to would say the boycott was a failure, even though Coors still exists.

I'm sure this is not an easy question to answer, but did you find that this was a successful boycott? You said it shaped the way Coors does business even to this day. Can you tell me about some of the things that the boycott was asking for at its various stages, and whether it accomplished that?

Yeah. This is a hard question to answer. It's hard to measure success for a consumer boycott, because the issue with the Coors boycott too is… this [happened during the notorious beer wars period of the late 20th century, where these big companies are consolidating. So they're facing competition. 

So this was a precarious moment for Coors as a company for lots of different reasons, not just because of this boycott.

Yeah, so they're facing pressure, they're always number three or number four up against the big national breweries so if you're purely looking at profits, it's hard to pull out whether or not the boycott is successful because they're facing all these other sorts of external pressures. But in smaller markets, we do see Coors sales go down, especially in California throughout the 1970s. Coors is number one for quite some time, especially in Southern California, and its standing drops. So does [the boycott] hurt the company? In some instances, but I would hesitate to say it really harms the company broadly because it adapts over time. 

What does that adaptation look like from the company? How do they roll with the punches in a way that lessens the boycott’s impact?

Right. So, initially in the boycott, Coors is basically like “screw you, this isn't gonna impact us because consumers like the way our beer tastes.” I would say for the first 15 years of the boycott they don't make many adaptations, except for maligning boycotters. Over time they see that more and more people are joining the boycott. The gay community in California is really strongly behind the boycott by the late ‘70s. So Coors can't [successfully] enter into that market. So what they do is they start spending more money on advertising. For a long time they spent the least amount of money per barrel on advertising. [But then] they hire more public relations people, and they start to do a lot more outreach to the community in terms of either committing to financial support for, say, the Latino community, or segmenting their marketing to actually directly appeal to, say, gay consumers.

So what we see is a company that kind of realizes over time that the boycott is serious. They adapt the way they market their product. They do that both through superficial, kind of cutesy marketing campaigns, and through committing actually hundreds of millions of dollars to communities of color, to women’s organizations, even to the gay community during the AIDS crisis. So, we see a company that actually eventually pivots the way that it deals with the community boycotters. {The boycotters] mostly see that as, in their words, “bullshit,” as a mostly cosmetic shift. But Coors really leads the way in these kinds of community engagement efforts by the 1980s.

What’s your take on their effort? Was it genuine? Does Coors deserve any due for the work they were doing to route money into these organizations?

I think it's important to recognize that what they were doing was sort of at the forefront of corporate social responsibility. The company claims they were doing this because they decided they wanted to on their own terms. Boycotters are pressing them to recognize that they may have a problem in hiring or they have a problem in terms of their image, so the company shifts. But what a lot of boycotters would also say is that the company is not actually responding to any of their critiques. It's just dumping money into communities but, let's say for the labor movement who wanted robust contracts and collective bargaining for the guys who worked in packaging, the company's not doing anything with relation to that. So they're putting on a good face, but they're not actually negotiating with labor unions. In fact they got rid of their labor union in the late 1970s.

Tell me a little about the coalition-building that happened here. I mean it seems like the LGBTQ+ community was a big piece of the puzzle and sort of catalyzed the broader response. But it sounds like it started in labor and racial justice circles. Was it unusual at the time for this sort of intersectionality to arise in a consumer boycott?

Sort of both, I guess. One of the things I argue in the book is that this is a really good example of activist’s efforts to build real coalitions even into the 1970s and 1980s. Boycotters themselves saw this as a really innovative effort: bringing together brash, hardhat Teamsters working alongside gay activists, Chicano activists, and feminists. They really believed that what they were doing was innovative. I think it's actually more representative of more far-reaching efforts across a lot of these kinds of leftist communities to come together in this period, which we tend to overlook. The Coors boycott is a good example that we do have some robust efforts at alliance-building.

Coors workers saw themselves as factory workers, so it was easier for them to identify with the labor movement.

What are there wins or lessons to be learned that can be applied to successful organizing going forward? Are there other things that are worth repeating? Was it overall, something that was a good idea, but failed in execution? Tell me about its legacy. 

I absolutely think there are important lessons to be learned. I mean, people who participated in the boycott really valued that participation, they don't necessarily see it as a failure. Very few people I talked to would say it's an outright failure, even though Coors, still exists and turns a pretty good profit.

It’s still fairly conservative, at least the Coors family is. I mean obviously it's been sanitized by their corporate face to the point where you don't have family members throwing money around on behalf of the company, but the Coors family is still doing their thing.

Even if we set that aside, this is a really positive example of the ways in which communities that often don't see themselves as having much in common can work together and recognize commonalities and make commitments to each other over a long period of time. So the Coors boycott isn't just a coalition in name only. They're actually working together and committing resources to various groups over time. So the best example is in this weird alliance between Teamsters and gay activists in California. Gay activists really show up for the Coors boycott, and then in subsequent battles against anti-gay legislation in California, the labor movement shows up for the gay community. 

So you have these instructive and inspiring examples of people coming together. One of the things that sticks out to me about the failures of the boycott is that when you have all these people coming together, it's awesome, but nobody really agrees on the actual objective of the boycott. I think that's actually where it kind of falls apart, because if you can't agree, together, that the boycott’s goal is to [for example] bring the labor union back into the brewery, then some people are satisfied when the company donates $50,000 to an AIDS Walk. 

If you can't agree on an endpoint, it's easy for the company to divide people and kind of co-opt the language of it. So that's kind of a cautionary tale in that, yeah it's really amazing to have a boycott that brings people together, but you can't just jump into a boycott without thinking about the endpoint. 

I see that a lot today with people. We had lots of boycotts on Trump-affiliated businesses and people are super jazzed about it for a week on Twitter, but nobody can agree on the endpoint. Is it to get the company to divest? Is it to stop donating to the Trump campaign? Is it to put the company out of business?

Those kinds of conversations are important because at some point in the history of the Coors boycott, people do have those conversations, and they're kind of revelatory. We see people really considering the overall impact of their actions. But it's not something that translates to the bigger movement in the end.

Yeah, well that strikes me as a classic challenge with coalition-building, right? At some point, the center cannot hold and the common cause is just too stretched to resist a corporate backlash against it.

One of the things that's important to keep in mind is that in the end, the greatest threat to coalition-building isn't the people in the coalition. It's the corporation. They have more money, they have a much better ability to understand who's in the coalition and how to peel people away. It's easy to say “oh, the people who are organizing the boycott don't have it together, it's their fault that it fell apart.” But they're up against an enemy that outmatches them, dollar for dollar.

The Coors boycott reshaped the way we talk about consumer activism.

In the time since this boycott took place, basically since it concluded in ‘87, there's been an enormous explosion of the craft beer industry that drew momentum, often explicitly, from its opposition to “corporate” brewers like Coors, or Anheuser Busch, or Miller. There have been craft brewers who have done some pretty bad things in terms of social justice and union-busting and things of this nature. Yet we don't see a broad coalition response to it in the way that you found with the Coors boycott. Why do you think that is?

I think part of the thing that worked for Coors boycotters is that the name was on the can. You knew if you were buying a can of Coors based on the celebrity of the Coors family, there was an automatic response. Organizers didn't have to do that much to convince consumers that the company was bad. When you have a proliferation of craft breweries… I mean it’s such a [fragmented, saturated] market, I think that probably does lend itself toward less opposition…

Just because it’s not as simple as, like, “this is Coors, the Coors family owns, the beer is named Coors, and once you have bought it you are supporting the Coors family” type of thing?

Yeah, exactly. So many of the appeals that people made [during the Coors boycott] were not really about the beer. They very rarely are talking about the actual beer. But they want to make this argument that if you buy Coors, your money doesn't just go to the company, it goes to the family who spends money on anti-gay initiatives that hurt you in the end. It's harder to make that argument if the company is less well known. An analogy I like is that it’s hard to point out anything related to the Koch brothers because it's harder to make the connection between the product and the family. 

Georgia-Pacific doesn’t have “Koch” in its name… and yet.

Right. By the end of the 1980s, as you see consolidation in the brewing industry… Coors in particular is basically able to defang organized labor. And we start to see the weakening of labor in the brewing industry. I think as we see sort of the rise of smaller craft or even microbreweries, it's much harder for organized labor to really step in, and in part it’s because the labor movement in the brewing industry was so weakened by the time you see the rise of craft brewing.

And Coors, it sounds like, was instrumental in that weakening, based on your research.

Yeah, I mean, Anheuser-Busch and Miller have both always been unionized. I know guys who are Teamsters who've worked at the Miller brewery here in Southern California. Because they have so many workers and have big bargaining units, they can still really push for things. But I don’t know… I haven’t seen quite the same organizing drives for smaller operations. 

There have been a few, but the drives are challenging for all the typical reasons: small bargaining units, specialized labor that's usually pretty economically enfranchised and of a class that is, if not hostile to organized labor as an idea, certainly not necessarily amenable to it by default. It is happening, just in fits and starts. 

Yeah, I mean one thing that strikes me is just how much the actual, physical labor of brewing has changed as we've seen the industry change. A lot of people I interviewed who worked at Coors, they had no love for brewing. They worked on a bottling line sighting 75 bottles a minute. They were cleaning the brewing tags. Many of them never really had any role in the actual brewing process. For them, they saw themselves as factory workers, and so it's easier for them to maybe identify with the [labor] movement.

Right, right. That definitely squares with some of my reporting. What else should I know about the book? What were you most excited about when you put this together and what should people be excited about to pick it up when it's on shelves?

The thing that I was kind of most excited to see emerge as an argument was the way in which this long effort of organizers actually reshaped the way that people think about boycotts. Over time, the boycott became a tool by which you could sort of link an individual person, like Joe Coors, with the product. The boycott became this vector for political activism. We’ve seen those boycotts become more prevalent today. So all these people who sometimes threw together small little actions in the ‘70s to boycott a Coors-sponsored event, I think [they] reshaped the way we talk about consumer activism, and provided some good lessons for the way that you do that.

But is there a way, in our current moment, for consumer boycotts to be successful, whether in brewing or any sector? Do you think they’re a viable tool today?

We can measure success based on how people who participate in them understand their impact. It's less about measuring the success of whether or not it puts a company out of business, or gets [an owner] to change their politics. But that is a way for people to come together, and it's a way for people to, sort of, express their politics in an accessible manner. Social movement activists talk about this a lot: it's about the community value of the boycott, so you measure success in how it creates community. So then maybe it matters a little bit less, whether there’s “endpoint” success. It’s a little bit of a dodge but I think that's an important way of also seeing these things. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, a lot of people who didn't really know how to push back against Reaganism found community in this boycott.

I don't think it's a dodge, it’s just that viewing it as a solidarity exercise, by necessity, forces you to take a very long view of how success can be earned, right?

Yeah. So another thing that came out of this… and I should say, I was not able to access any of Coors’ archives. So, the book is not really about Coors. It's about the people who built the boycott, and it covers the points where they overlapped and intersected with the company's history. One of the things that I'm really proud of is, because of the way all these different coalitions come together, I'm able to touch on a lot of different histories of activism in the late 20th century. So you've got labor you've got the gay/lesbian movement, you've got Chicano activists. And if you're interested in the history of Coors, or the beer wars, there are a lot of sort of funny missteps and attempts by the company to push back against boycotters.

By the 1980s, Coors was sponsoring every imaginable event in an attempt to gain consumer trust. So they would sponsor what they would call “chug-a-lug” parties at colleges, or different bike races, or sporting events. They would sponsor menudo cooking contests in the American West! They were dumping money into these things, and every time they did, boycotters would show up. Like, even in Ohio, as they tried to expand their market, there would be boycotters at their events. So there were these constant clashes and altercations and funny things that happen because of this.

The bottom shelf

  • ICYMI, last week Fingers published the pilot episode of Ain’t Nothin’ But A Family Thing, a joint podcast with Meredith Haggerty of the wonderful Heir Mail newsletter exploring the wealth, history, and family drama of the world's biggest beverage dynasties. Please listen to it here, and subscribe to Heir Mail, thank you.

  • Your fearless Fingers editor had another piece in Welcome To Hell World this past week detailing what I’ve chosen to call South Carolina lawmakers’ “pain-and-suffering speedrun to legislate the last few ounces of compassion out of the code of law here in the Palmetto State.” Fun! It’s only glancingly booze-related but if you want to check it out I think that’d be pretty cool. And as always, I highly encourage you to subscribe to WTHW, I do.

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