There are relatively few philanthropists you can identify by their last name, but the Coors family is among them. The Coors family has created America’s third largest brewer, and set Coors Brewing on a path to success in an age when its competitors have either become multinational giants or collapsed.
But it’s the Coors family giving that has made it a subject of vilification on the left and the brew of choice whenever right-wingers gather around a keg. For it was Joseph Coors’s grants that enabled the Heritage Foundation to get off the ground in the 1970s. And it’s Coors’s grantmaking that ultimately inspired Dan Baum to produce this occasionally interesting and mostly peevish treatise, the first book-length examination of the Coors family.
Baum explains in his acknowledgements that “among the myths that guide the Coors family is a belief that the press is out to get them.” But based on what Baum wrote, the Coors family was justified in keeping Baum at arm’s length. Here, for example, is what Baum has to say in his conclusion about the Coors family:
For many people, granting health benefits to a handful of gay employees’ partners is less significant than giving $150,000 a year to the Free Congress Foundation, which supports candidates who consider homosexuality “an infamous crime against nature.” For many people, finally naming a Mexican American to the board of directors is outweighed by enthusiastic support for the Heritage Foundation, which backs anti-immigration and English-only initiatives. For many people, a black company vice-president does not counterbalance millions given to fight affirmative action, welfare, and civil-rights enforcement.
This passage shows some of the problems with Baum’s reporting. We do not know what Free Congress Foundation publication (if any) denounced gays, because Baum’s book has no citations. Nor does Baum offer any evidence that the Heritage Foundation is anti-immigrant. (In fact, Heritage has tended to encourage immigrants who are entrepreneurial while taking no position on English-only initiatives.)
Much of the book is told in a novelistic, you-are-there style, while describing places that Baum could not possibly have been, such as witnessing Bill Coors getting his master’s degree in 1939. At the event, we are told, Bill Coors’s father, Adolph Coors Jr., wanted his son to work in the Coors plant. “There would be no warm smile today, Bill suddenly knew, and no long-awaited hug. The face was worn, his lips pursed, the eyes dull. Quotation marks of worry cleaved the aging man’s forehead.”
Nor is there a genealogy, which would be useful in a book which covers five generations of one family and describes people named Adolph Coors I, II, III, IV, and V (one of whom was nicknamed “Ad” and one “Shane”). As a result, it’s very hard for readers to keep track of how third-generation Coors cousins are related to each other.
But despite Citizen Coors’s many flaws, it is nonetheless the only book on the Coors family. Even discounting Baum’s evident bias, it’s possible to learn from him about how Coors giving evolved.
The Coors family, like many Western entrepreneurs, was conservative with a strong faith in the free enterprise system. They were also skeptical of the state, seeing Prohibition as a government plot to destroy successful businesses like theirs. But it wasn’t until Joseph Coors (born in 1915) found a copy of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in 1953 that he became a movement conservative.
For the next two decades, according to Baum, Joseph Coors tried to figure out ways to advance the conservative cause. Coors Brewing sponsored radio broadcasts produced by Ronald Reagan in the mid–1960s. Joseph Coors also served a contentious term as a regent of the University of Colorado in the late 1960s, and attempted to combat campus radicalism.
But after his adventure in university politics, Coors decided that life in the political arena was not for him. He wrote to one of his senators, Republican Gordon Allott, offering to support conservative groups. The letter landed on the desk of Allott’s press secretary, Paul Weyrich, who definitely had some ideas.
Weyrich, in partnership with James Lucier Sr., was trying without success to start an action-oriented think tank that would be a conservative counterweight to the Brookings Institution. Coors gave the nascent organization—soon to become known as the Heritage Foundation—$250,000, plus another $300,000 for a new building. Further grants, Coors promised, were coming. Coors’s support, Baum writes, involved “a breathtaking amount of money for 1973. It gave the new institute instant legitimacy and the power to attract further donations.”
In 1977, Joseph Coors’s money was used to create a second conservative nonprofit, the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a public-interest law firm that has specialized in affirmative-action and environmental cases.
While Joseph Coors was building nonprofits, Coors Brewing was entering a tumultuous period. It expanded its distribution to the East Coast. It perfected Coors Light, which has since become the brewery’s flagship brand. And Joseph and Bill Coors achieved a longstanding goal: they had rid Coors Brewing of its last union after a vicious strike in 1977-78.
But the Coors brothers’ triumph over unionism would prove pyrrhic, as disgruntled union activists launched a national boycott. The corporation’s detractors were particularly enraged by Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, when Joseph Coors served in President Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet,” while Mountain States Legal Foundation president James Watt became Secretary of the Interior.
Thus, stalwart liberals of the 1980s upheld their political faith by not drinking Coors products. The Coors boycott, according to Baum, ultimately was “about the Coors family’s support for organizations that hurt women, gays, minorities, and working people and the family’s self-identification as right-wing antiunionists. It was about organizing the left under a single banner.”
But what ultimately weakened the Coors boycott was, of all things, “60 Minutes.” In an on-camera interview with Mike Wallace in 1983, boycott leader David Sickler admitted that he could not prove any Coors Brewing abuses since the union was kicked out. Moreover, Coors employees told Wallace that they were treated fairly and had plenty of chances to advance.
Shortly thereafter, Coors Brewing president Peter Coors (son of Joseph Coors) met with the number three man at the AFL-CIO, Thomas Donahue, and agreed both to allow union workers at a new Coors plant in Virginia, and not to interfere with attempts by unions to organize in Colorado. The AFL-CIO then lifted the Coors boycott. (Union attempts to organize Coors Brewing’s Colorado facility never got off the ground.)
Since 1985, the Coors family has continued to give to conservative causes through the Castle Rock Foundation. But according to Baum, Coors Brewing, which now only has a few family members on its board, lavishes its corporate giving on groups like the NAACP, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and other multicultural organizations. The firm at one point even hired Dick Cheney’s daughter, Mary Cheney, to help dispense largesse to gay rights organizations.
The company’s policies have marched leftward, but many of the institutions nurtured by its founders remain strong. Last year, for instance, the Heritage Foundation successfully completed a $100 million endowment drive.
Martin Morse Wooster is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.