US. Brewers tap creativity to boost sales

  • Reading time:4 min(s) read

Those are three new brews Anheuser- Busch is readying to roll out this spring, the latest salvos in a bid by the brewing giant and other big brewers to prop up sagging beer sales with new products that are, well, not quite beer.

It’s no secret that beer sales are slipping, especially sales of the traditional light American lagers that are the stock-in-trade of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. Both companies saw U.S. sales fall more than 3 percent last year, while wine and liquor continued to grow. Combined, wine and spirits now make up 46 percent of the U.S. alcohol market, up from less than 41 percent in 2000.

“Someone else is eating our lunch in the alcohol space,” Molson Coors Chief Executive Peter Swinburn told analysts last week.

Now the big boys are pushing back with a new round of flavored beverages that, while malt-based like beer, in some ways have more in common with cocktails.

Coors last week announced it will launch a new iced-tea flavored brew, first in Canada and then potentially the U.S. Sam Adams parent Boston Beer Co. plans to roll out its Twisted Tea in 15 more states this year. (It’s in 35 states now.) MillerCoors last month bought Crispin, the nation’s third-biggest brewer of hard cider.

And Anheuser-Busch is planning an April rollout for Bud Lite Lime-A-Rita, a margarita-inspired beer that will build off 4-year-old Bud Light Lime. After that will come seasonal launches of Michelob Ultra Light Cider, which Anheuser-Busch hopes will broaden the growing cider market, and pint cans of Ultra 19th Hole, a tea-and-lemonade-flavored brew modeled after the Arnold Palmer drink.

“It’ll be easy to drink in the summertime,” said Pat McGauley, Anheuser- Busch’s vice president of innovation. “It fits well under the Michelob Ultra nameplate.”

Unlike Miller’s Crispin purchase, for instance, all three of Anheuser- Busch’s new brews build on existing brands — Bud Light and the steadily growing Michelob Ultra. That helps with name recognition, McGauley said, and creates “an expectation of quality.”

At the same time it helps to keep those brands in line with changing tastes, said Paul Chibe, Anheuser- Busch’s vice president of marketing.

“Many consumers want more flavor. They want sweeter,” Chibe said. “Being where consumer preferences are is really important.”

The new brews come on the heels of the February launch of Bud Light Platinum. The blue-bottled version of Bud Light has more alcohol and a sweeter taste profile, and is designed to compete more directly with spirits. It has started strong, the company says, claiming more than 1 percent of all beer sales in its first month amid heavy marketing.

These extensions make sense for Anheuser-Busch InBev, said Benj Steinman, publisher of the trade newsletter Beer Marketer’s Insights. The integration of Anheuser-Busch and InBev is complete, and now the

brewer is focused on growing revenue.

“Part of that is by ramping up innovation,” Steinman said. “They have what I’d characterize as a robust pipeline. They’re coming at the market in a lot of different directions.”

Of course, we’ve been here before. Remember Zima?

Coors launched the original “malternative” to much fanfare in 1993, and Zima made a dent in the U.S. beer market before winning the mockery of late-night comics and gradually fading into obscurity. It was discontinued in 2008. Anheuser- Busch’s Tequiza, made with agave nectar and a hint of lime, met a similar fate, minus the mockery, before being largely replaced by Bud Light Lime.

Then, in the early 2000s, a new round took off, led by Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice. Anheuser-Busch partnered with Bacardi on the rum-flavored Bacardi Silver. They’ve carved a niche. Last year, flavored malt beverages (FMBs) made up 2.4 percent of beer sales, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights. Now the sector is heating up again as a new generation experiments with different tastes.

That means new drinks, and lots of them.

“The [FMB] segment is very fickle. Brands switch around a lot,” Steinman said. “You have to have new products more often in FMBs than in other segments, really.”