"Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water" isn't just a marketer's phrase; it is the ingredient that fueled Adolph Coors' dream of owning his own brewery in the 1870s, and then went on to make Coors the third largest brewing company in the United States. It might seem easy to dismiss Coors as just another brewery, but Coors has achieved what many other companies—beer or otherwise—would cherish: a mystique that reaches out to more than just beer drinkers.
Adolph Coors (1847-1929) was born in Barmen, Prussia, and worked as an apprentice at the Henry Wenker Brewery in Dortmund, Germany. In 1868, he fled a war-ravaged Germany to the United States as a stowaway on a ship, and in 1872 he arrived in Denver, Colorado, anxious to pursue his dream of owning a brewery. In Golden, Colorado, along the banks of Clear Creek, he found the water that he believed would make the finest tasting beer. Establishing his brewery on the site it still inhabits today, Adolph Coors soon began supplying beer to miners. During Prohibition, which began in Colorado in 1916, Coors kept the business alive by selling malted milk, a near-beer called Mannah, and the porcelain products that Coors still produces.
With the death of Adolph Coors in 1929, Coor's son Adolph Jr. took over operations and, after Prohibition was repealed, he expanded the market to ten Western states. In 1941, Coors introduced Coors Light, but government restrictions due to World War II forced Coors to limit product offerings. In 1959, Coors introduced the country's first all-aluminum can and got a jump on the ecologists by offering a penny for each can returned for recycling. The mid-1970s brought unrest and decline for the Coors company when Local Union #366 demanded a boycott of Coors beer. Sales dropped and, for the first time in its history, employees were laid off. Although contract negotiations revolved around wages and benefits, the company was affected by bad press about Coors' policy of making potential employees submit to polygraph testing. Workers went on strike on April 5, 1977. The strike officially lasted a little over a year; unofficially it lasted much longer as the company continued to suffer from bad press regarding its treatment of minorities and women, as well as the breakup of the union. These allegations ultimately proved untrue, and Coors was vindicated in 1982 when 60 Minutes inter-viewed Coors executives and employees. Coors received a rare favorable report from 60 Minutes and the judgment that it had been the victim of a smear campaign by the AFL-CIO. An agreement between Coors and the AFL-CIO finally was reached in 1987.
By the late 1970s, consumers were clamoring for a product with fewer calories. In 1978, Coors reintroduced Coors Light, the beer destined to become their number one product and one of the bestselling beers in the country, creating a larger demand for Coors in every state. In 1981, Coors expanded across the Mississippi and by 1991 had reached all 50 states. Operations were expanded to include two new breweries—one in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the other in Memphis, Tennessee—both acclaimed for the high-quality water that the Coors family would not compromise.
Coors achieved legendary, even cult, status in the 1960s and 1970s. This "mystique madness" may have started during World War II. Believing that beer would help the morale of the troops, the U.S. government subsidized breweries' materials and costs. Coors allocated half of its production to go overseas. When the war ended and soldiers returned, the Coors beer they had become accustomed to drinking was found in only the Western states, leaving soldiers to pine over what they had left behind. A visit to Colorado eventually became a way to smuggle the Rocky Mountain brew home. Former U.S. President Gerald Ford was known to return to the White House with several cases of Coors aboard Air Force One, as would his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Actor Paul Newman was often seen at functions with a Coors in hand. The mystique of Coors beer was featured in the movie Smokey and the Bandit, starring Burt Reynolds. In the story line, Reynolds is challenged to smuggle a truckload of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta in 28 hours for a reward of $80,000.
What began as a German immigrant's dream in 1873 is now one of the largest and most ethical corporations in America. Its philanthropic endeavors include environmental activities, start-up businesses run by minorities, literacy programs, and veteran affairs. Not content to limit these endeavors to outside interests, Coors also supports better environments for its employees, such as its parental leave policy, its Wellness Center, and its health benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees. But even though it is one of the largest corporations in the country, the employees at Coors still talk about its "family feel." The mystique lives on.
—Cheryl A. Smith
Banham, Russ. Coors: A Rocky Mountain Legend. Lyme, Connecticut, Greenwich Publishing Group, Inc., 1998.
Van Munching, Philip. Beer Blast: The Inside Story of the Brewing Industry's Bizarre Battles for Your Money. New York, Random House, 1997.