Historical Tidbits: Beer. The “Rise” of Miller Brewing

It’s rare that the presence or absence of one person makes a historical difference (I said “rare,” not impossible). But I think that the death of Fred C. Miller in 1954 altered the course of American brewing. Miller was aggressive, ambitious, smart — all on a grand scale. He was the first beermaker to come along in decades who showed the potential to go head-to-head with the Busch family, particularly Gus Busch, who ran A-B from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s.

Miller became company president in 1947, and over the next few years, he shoved, pushed, prodded, and otherwise steered his family’s brewing company not-much-of-anything into the ranks of the top ten. But in late 1954, he died (in a plane crash) — and Miller Brewing lost its way.

As Miller faltered, A-B solidified its position as the dominant player in American brewing. Had Fred Miller not died, I believe the course of American brewing would have turned out differently: Fred Miller would have transformed his family’s company into a formidable powerhouse. He would have challenged A-B’s dominance. He would have been able to command-and-direct in a way that, for example, Bob Uihlein was not able to do at Schlitz during the same period.

Put another way, in the 1950s, Gus Busch met his match in Fred C. Miller. Things might have turned out differently had Miller lived

. I can’t prove that, of course, but hey — what’s all that research good for if I can’t express an informed opinion.

Anyway — consider the shifting brewery rankings and brewery outputs from the mid-1940s on:

1945:

  # 1 brewer: Anheuser-Busch (3.7 million bbl.)

# 16: Miller (729,000 bbl)

 

1946:

1: Pabst (3.3 million bbl)

17: Miller (644,000 bbl)

 

1947:

  1: Schlitz (3.9 million bbl)

20: Miller (806,000 bbl; Fred C. becomes company president)

 

1948:

1: Schlitz (4.2 million bbl)

19: Miller (911,000 bbl)

 

1949:

1: Schlitz (4.6 million)

11: Miller (1.3 million)

 

1950:

  1: Schlitz (5 million)

8: Miller (2.1 million)

 

1951:

1: Schlitz (5.7 million)

6: Miller (2.1 million)

 

1952:

: Anheuser-Busch (6 million)

5: Miller (3 million)

 

1953: 1

: A-B (6.7 million; A-B would hold onto number one rank into next century)

8: Miller (2.1 million; Fred’s one mistake: A strike during this year shut down his only plant; his major competitors all had multiple plants and could keep brewing.)

 

1957:

1: A-B (6.1 million)

10: Miller (2.3 million)

 

1958:

  1: A-B (6.9 million)

10: Miller (2.3 million)

 

1961:

1: A-B (8.5 million)

10: Miller (2.7 million)

 

1962:

1: A-B (9 million)

10: Miller (2.8 million)

 

1971:

  1. A-B (24.3 million)

6: Miller (5.2 million; Miller now wholly owned by Philip Morris, which dumped billions into the company

 

. 1972:

1: A-B: (26.5 million)

8: Miller: (5.4 million)

 

1975:

1. A-B (35.2 million)

4: Miller (12.9 million; in February, Miller introduced Miller Lite)

 

1978:

1: A-B (41.6 million; about what Miller made in 2007!)

2. Miller (31.2 million)

 

1980:

1: A-B (50.2 million)

2. Miller (37.3 million)

The rest, as they say, is history. By c. 2000, A-B was nearing 100 million barrels a year; Miller hovered around 40 million. In late 2007, Miller’s new parent company, SABMiller, and MolsonCoors, the parent of Coors Brewing, announced they would merge their North American operations in a joint venture called MillerCoors.

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