With the announcement last week that Coors is moving its headquarters from Denver to Chicago, there was another end, or the middle of the end, to the brewery’s long saga with Colorado and the West. Of course, it was an announcement that Molson Coors is leaving, the name the company has had since it merged with Molson in 2004.
It’s as though Coors is being slowly diluted. Head office jobs and executives will go east now, but the brewery in Golden remains the largest in the U.S. and Molson Coors is still the third largest brewing company in the world. And it still carries the legend “Born in the Rockies,” but its story is even richer and more circular.
In 1868, Adolph Kohrs, a 21-year-old apprentice brewer, stowed away on a transatlantic liner departing Hamburg, and made his way to Chicago, where he worked as a brewer, a laborer and a brewery foreman. In 1872, he moved to territorial Denver, where he hoped to make beer using high creek water. He bought a bottling firm and, in 1873, after purchasing a recipe for a Pilsner beer from a Czech immigrant, he founded the Golden Brewery. In 1880, the name became the Adolph Coors Golden Brewery.
Adolph was a cold man for such an adventurer. He had no hobbies or pastimes. He disliked sports. He was a “taciturn, deeply unpleasant, deeply unhappy guy,” said biographer Dan Baum.
The brewery survived Prohibition by making near beer, called Manna, and malted milk, which it sold to the Mars candy company, in Minneapolis. Adolph didn’t live to see Prohibition’s repeal; he killed himself in 1929, age 82, by leaping from a sixth-floor window of a resort hotel in Virginia Beach.
His values were transmitted through the second and third generations of the brewing dynasty. Beer production hummed along nicely enough, with distribution limited to 11 Western states. It gained novelty cachet on the East Coast.
Some of the family’s profits went to the Republican Party, and to conservative causes such as the Heritage Foundation, co-founded by Adolph’s grandson Joseph Coors in 1973.
The Coors company resisted hiring women, blacks or Hispanics at the brewery late into the 1970s and was the object of boycotts. Employees had to submit to lie-detector tests to screen out homosexuals. Adolph’s progeny, Baum writes in “Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty,” “were really committed to the idea that they wouldn’t take part in the 20th century.”
And they nearly ran the company into the ground. They eschewed advertising, even as Anheuser Busch eclipsed them with titanic marketing. One of Coors’s rare, hit ads featured “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” for Halloween – until Adolph’s great-grandson, Jeff, a born-again Christian, put the kibosh on it because he thought it satanic.
The company went public in 1975. It only brought a light beer to market in 1978. By 1990, earnings had fallen to just a penny for every dollar of beer sold. And Coors managed to contaminate Golden’s Clear Creek, which was why the brewery was in Golden in the first place.
When the company bought the naming rights to Coors Field in perpetuity in 1995 for $30 million, some thought it was an act of contrition. It also might have been the best marketing deal it ever made.
In the last decade, it has lost significant market share by volume, and has just reported a third-quarter loss of about $402 million.
Coors has been slipping away from Colorado for decades – dribbling away. For a long time, it was an integral part of the state in the public imagination, especially for its association with “pure Rocky Mountain spring water.” But like Clear Creek, nothing is forever, and that probably goes double for family dynasties and mass-produced beer.