How the Bandit, Coors and a bunch of Makers changed the course of booze history


So last night, while attempting to explain the plot of Smokey and the Bandit to my husband, it occurred to me that I didn't really understand the back story that spawned this, one of my favorite childhood films. Why did Bandit and Snowman (and Fred) have a long way to go and a short time to get there? There was beer in most parts of Georgia by the 1970s. And even if you were trying to get booze to a dry county, why start in Texas and only give yourself 28 hours?

Thanks to Wikipedia and the very helpful Stephan Zielinski, I discovered the awful truth—Smokey and the Bandit is centered around America's brief love affair with Coors Banquet Beer.

All that work, for Coors? It's true. Wikipedia explained that the beer wasn't available East of Oklahoma at the time. But I didn't get the full extent of what was really going on until I read a 1974 Time magazine article sent to me by Zielinski. If, like me, you didn't begin drinking until the late 1990s, this is going to come as a shock, but, once upon a time, Coors was apparently the best American breweries had to offer.

Gerald Ford had a case of it tucked away in his luggage when he returned to Washington last month from a vice-presidential skiing trip to Colorado. President Eisenhower had his own steady supply airlifted to the White House aboard an Air Force plane. Actor Paul Newman refuses to be seen drinking any other brand on the screen. Until a court made him stop, Frederick Amon, 24, used to drive a refrigerated truckload every week from Denver to Charlotte, N.C., where he sold it to restaurants and country clubs for as much as $1 a can, better than triple the retail price of about $1.50 a sixpack.

The object of that foaming frenzy is Coors Banquet Beer, brewed from the waters of the 70 to 80 springs around Golden, Colo., 15 miles west of Denver. Unlike most U.S. beers, Coors contains no preservatives or stabilizers and is not pasteurized; if left unrefrigerated and allowed to get warm, it will spoil in a week. It is probably the only beer that is kept cold from the brewery to the customer. But its lack of additives and its brewing process greatly enhance its taste. For many connoisseurs, Coors is the Château Haut-Brion of American beers.

There were connoisseurs of Coors, y'all. Let that sink in.

Besides explaining why that truckload of unpasteurized, preservative-free Coors had to get from Texas to Georgia so damn fast, the Time article also spent a few inches discussing the Coors family's business plan and predicted trends in the American beer industry.

It's easy to forget, with the variety available today, but craft beer is a pretty recent thing. From Prohibition through the 1970s, America's breweries were consolidating, and choice was shrinking. In 1974, there were only 60 breweries left in America, with most of them making the same style. 660 breweries had gone out of business since 1934. And nobody expected that ever-narrowing path to diverge. In fact, Bill Coors told Time that there would only be three major breweries left in the United States by 1990. His plan was for Coors to be one of them. At the time this article was written, it was clear to everybody that mediocre, watered-down pilsner was the way of the future.

And yet, here I sit, more than 35 years later, with a tall glass of Belgian-style black ale. Ironically, from Colorado.

I have Makers to thank for this change of tipsy fortune—people who wanted to make their own beer at home, just because they liked that sort of thing. They're the ones who got Prohibition-era laws changed, opening opportunities for bars and small companies to make their own beer, in a wide variety of styles. It was slow going. Places like Kansas didn't legalize brew pubs until the late 1980s. It wasn't until 2009 that the good folks at Free the Hops managed to convince the state of Alabama to legalize beer with an alcohol volume above 6%. (You'd be surprised how much good stuff the old laws banned.)

But I have to wonder: How many of those Makers were inspired to brew something amazing when they discovered that "not terrible" was a possibility? After all, Smokey and the Bandit was one of the most popular movies of 1977. After that, it was no secret that beer could be at least slightly better. Within three years, brewery consolidation had ground to a halt and begun to reverse. Today, there are more than 1400 breweries in the United States. Even Coors—successfully the third largest brewer in America—sells a selection of craft beers under different labels. I don't drink Coors Banquet Beer, but I suspect I owe it a toast or two. It, the DIY community, and an old rascal called The Bandit.

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