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Beers and Queers

Author Dan Baum investigates America's most controversial brewers, the Coors family

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Some things never change, it seems, so it should be no surprise that there is yet another controversy over the gay community's relationship with Coors Brewing Co., this time spurred by the Human Rights Campaign's rejection of a large cash contribution by the long-boycotted Colorado brewer.

Agess ago, the gay community polarized into two factions vis--vis Coors: One side points to the company's recent sponsorship of openly queer events and organizations and such progressive workplace policies as domestic partner benefits (adopted well in advance of much of corporate America) and says, "They're our friends now. Let go of old grudges." The other side points to the Coors family's far-right politics and its continuing use of brewery-generated wealth to support ultra-conservative, anti-gay groups and politicians and answers, "They haven't really changed, and every time you buy a Coors beer you're giving money to our enemies."

Both camps will find interesting ammunition in Dan Baum's intriguing new book, Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty. The former Wall Street Journal staff reporter and former Boulder resident traces the Coors story -- from Adolph Coors' 1868 journey to the United States as a stowaway from Germany to his 20th-century struggles to lead his company through crippling boycotts by Latinos, labor, African-Americans and gays and the challenges posed by modernized marketing techniques. It is a story of business, family dysfunction and right-wing politics so closely intertwined it's sometimes hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.

It is also a story that Baum had to write with little cooperation from his subjects. "I wrote to them the day I signed the contract to write the book, requesting access," he recalls. Over the next year he wrote about three dozen letters to the Coors family in an attempt to persuade them to sit down with him.

He didn't get much for his troubles. "I did get a two-hour meeting with Bill, Peter, Jeff and Joe Jr. [the family members most heavily involved in company's affairs] in the mansion, all four together," Baum recalls. "To his credit, their PR guy, Joe Fuentes, tells me, 'This is the only time you're going to get to talk to them, so ask your toughest questions now.' I didn't believe it. I thought, 'If I go in there and make my case, they'll give me access.' So, hoping a gentler tack would get him more access to the family's extensive records, he held back, holding some of the most provocative questions in reserve. It didn't help. Though Baum bent over backwards to be accommodating -- even offering to print out his notes at the conclusion of every interview and mail them to the Coorses for review -- they neither met with him again nor let him see their archives. As a result, his account is pulled together from the recollections of employees, colleagues and adversaries as well as court records and other public documents. "It's just typical Bill Coors saying, 'I will not participate in anything I don't want to participate in. I will not participate in anything I can't control," Baum says.

Baum expects the family to dislike much of his book.

And yet he came out of two years of immersion in the lives of these autocratic, ultra-right-wingers feeling some admiration for them. "However you feel about the Coorses' politics, there is something admirable about them," Baum says. Coors is a family business in the day of global multinationals.

He came away convinced that the Coors clan really does care about the quality of its product in a way that most companies don't: "I buy it. I believe it. I think it was in part almost their downfall, and that's one of the tragedies of the book."

The family seems like a bundle of contradictions -- offering domestic partner benefits while funding homophobes, railing against government interference in individual liberty while conducting an anti-drug crusade that ventured far beyond the confines of the company and allegedly included a private undercover operation that conducted illegal wiretaps, money laundering and all manner of bizarre and intrusive activities.

Baum now finds none of this surprising. "The Coorses believe they live by their own rules," he observes. "It is not inconsistent for Bill Coors to talk about the magnificent web of life that is the earth and how we must preserve it, and also pollute the water he uses to brew his beer because Bill Coors believes himself fundamentally above the rules that the rest of us have to live by. And you see this over and over. It goes with the marketing thing: He believed he could live by Bill Coors' rules in a shark tank with Anheuser-Busch and Miller, and he got his ass handed to him."

What there is no doubt about is the family's politics. "What struck me about the Coorses is how explicit and proud and open they are about waging class warfare," Baum says. And though Adolph Coors was a penniless immigrant when he came to America, "they don't see any similarity between themselves and poor people." Even Peter Coors, the supposedly mellower member of the family's fourth generation who now serves as the brewery's vice chairman and CEO, is "a mouth-foaming right-winger," Baum says.

Still, he thinks progressives should count the Coors boycott as a triumph. "This is a big victory for the left," Baum argues. "The left organized well on the Coors boycott and the left beat the shit out of the Adolph Coors Company, and forced the Adolph Coors Company to adopt policies that are fundamentally abhorrent to many of the members of that family. ... They became a progressive corporation -- and they're progressive on all kinds of issues now -- because they got beat up. ... I think something the left has to learn how to do is recognize a victory.

"On the other hand," he continues, "the Coorses do continue to give a lot of money to people who would put gays in camps. And if I were gay, I'm not sure I'd want to accept the olive branch from Coors. It's a tough one."

Indeed, support of anti-gay conservatives by both the Coorses and their brewery continues. The family's Castle Rock Foundation continues to send six-figure checks every year to an array of anti-gay groups like the Free Congress Foundation and the Heritage Foundation. And both the Coors family, the company's political action committee (Political Action Coors Employees or PACE) and the brewery itself continue to fund homophobic Republican candidates in a big way.

Within Colorado, Republican Gov. Bill Owens has been a major recipient of Coors largesse. Elected in 1998 on a platform that included support for a measure to ban recognition of same-sex marriages, Owens recently refused an invitation to meet with the gay Catholic group Dignity, despite the fact that several other local politicians accepted.

Bruce Mirken is a California-based freelance writer.

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