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Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty, by Dan Baum

Review by Steve Voynick

Colorado history – September 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty
By Dan BaumPublished in 2000 by William Morrow
ISBN: 0-688-15448-4

MENTION THE NAME “Coors” to a bartender and you’ll get a beer. Mention it to anyone else and you may get an argument, for few brand names can polarize public opinion quite like that of Coors. To some, the name stands for family, tradition, technological innovation, philanthropy, self-reliance, and similar flag-waving American virtues. But others equate Coors with union-busting, racism, paranoia, marketing blunders, and right-wing lunacy. The funny thing is that everyone is right.

In Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty, author Dan Baum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, looks at how the triumphs, tragedies, and idiosyncrasies of the Coors family have impacted the fortunes of the Coors Brewing Company (formerly the Adolph Coors Company).

Baum moves quickly from the 1876 founding of the Golden, Colorado-based Adolf Coors Company to 1970, when the company reached its zenith. Coors was then a vertically-integrated, debt-free, $350-million company with little tolerance for organized labor. Coors Banquet beer — two million barrels of it — was an overwhelming favorite in 11 western states.

Barely able to meet demand, Coors had no need for a marketing department and limited its advertising to photographs of bubbling Rocky Mountain streams, usually for barroom displays. The Coors family, represented by third-generation sons Joe and Bill, maintained absolute control of the company which focused on making beer, rather than selling beer.

Although the profits kept rolling in, Coors was already a corporate anachronism destined for big trouble.

Coors’ presence was felt across the West, including Central Colorado. In places like Leadville, CaƱon City, and Alamosa, the local Coors distributorships were among the most profitable independent businesses in town.

Coors contracted with San Luis Valley farmers who grew most of its barley — $8 million worth each year. In 1973, in a heavy-handed effort to help the crop, Bill Coors hired pilots to seed clouds to increase valley rainfall. While the cloud-seeding program was great for the barley, it infuriated valley ranchers who then had too much moisture to harvest their hay.

Despite its subtitle, Citizen Coors is not so much a tale of an American dynasty, but an account of how the Coors family was unprepared to cope with the sweeping beer-market changes of the 1970s and 1980s. While Budweiser and Miller rode television advertising and aggressive marketing to national prominence, Joe and Bill Coors entrenched themselves under Golden’s Castle Rock determined only to “brew the best beer possible.”

Oblivious to matters of image and public relations, the Coors family crushed unions, concealed environmental problems, refused to compete in the booming light- and premium-beer markets, engaged in anti-minority hiring practices, and subjected employees to mandatory lie-detector tests.

Meanwhile, Joe Coors, an outspoken supporter of ultra-conservative political causes, threw millions of dollars at everything from the John Birch Society and the Heritage Foundation to an ill-fated right-wing television news service. The bottom line was a sharp decline in sales as labor unions and various groups of environmentalists, feminists, Hispanics, blacks and gays boycotted Coors beer.

Baum essentially concludes his story in 1993, when Peter Coors, the fourth-generation heir to the Coors brewing empire, finally ended 117 years of tight family control by bringing in outside executives to run the company. Today, the Coors Brewing Company, lagging far behind Miller and Budweiser and still fighting lingering consumer boycotts and a tarnished image, is managing a steady recovery.

Unfortunately, the Coors family’s refusal to assist the author weakens the book. Despite conducting 150 interviews, Baum has told the Coors story from the outside looking in. Nevertheless, Citizen Coors provides fascinating glimpses into the Coors family, the Coors Brewing Company, and the American beer-drinking culture. At the very least, this book will change, for better or worse, the taste of your next glass of Coors.

— Steve Voynick