Corona, Natural Light and Pabst Challenge White Claw

Who will dethrone the hard seltzer king? Image: Veronica Winters / Shutterstock

Flavored malt beverages and hard seltzer have grabbed the attention of Big Beer brewers.

This doesn’t come as a huge surprise. According to Nielsen, hard seltzer sales alone totaled more than $585 million from March 2018 to March 2019.

That number represents category growth of 185 percent, with no signs of flattening. Hard seltzer is, of course, a subcategory of the flavored malt beverage (FMB) category, itself part of the beer/cider/FMB category.

It makes sense, then, that Big Beer wants in on a popular, growing and profitable beverage trend.

The week of July 4 is crucial to overall beer sales. This year, overall growth of the beer/cider/FMB category during that timeframe was nearly five percent. FMBs grew about 37 percent in terms of overall dollar sales, and hard seltzer made up almost 40 percent of those sales.

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When people hear or read the words “hard seltzer,” it’s safe to assume the first brand that comes to mind is White Claw. Compared to last year’s July 4 week, White Claw dollar sales grew by over 205 percent.

A few Big Beer brands are taking aim at White Claw’s dominance. They may never topple the hard seltzer behemoth, but they’d like to be part of the conversation and grab some market share.

Corona, Pabst and Natural Light have each thrown their hats into the FMB/hard seltzer ring. The summer—and beyond—is that much more fun for their efforts.

The number-one import beer brand according to IRI Worldwide data, Corona has jumped into the FMB category with spiked, sparkling Corona Refresca. There are three lime-based tropical flavors available: Coconut Lime, Guava Lime, and Passionfruit Lime. Each of these Corona FMBs is 4.5 percent ABV and just 199 calories per 12-ounce slim-can.

Anheuser-Busch brand Natural Light has launched what their marketing as, “The seltzer you never saw coming.” Natural Light Seltzer—or Natty Seltzer, colloquially—is available in two summertime flavors: Catalina Lime Mixer, and Aloha Beaches. The former features flavors of black cherry and lime. The latter, mango and peach.

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Both Natty Seltzers flavors are 6 percent ABV and 133 calories per 12-ounce serving. That ABV is of particular note—it’s higher than Natural Light’s standard light lager and White Claw’s. Like Natty Light’s wildly popular Naturdays strawberry and lemonade shandy-style lager, Catalina Lime Mixer and Aloha Beaches are packaged in more traditional beer cans rather than slim-cans.

Pabst has had a big year of innovating and product announcements in 2019. The brewer has released Pabst Blue Ribbon Extra (6.5 percent ABV compared to the original’s 4.8 percent) and Non-Alc (0.5 percent ABV). The brand also launched Pabst Blue Ribbon Whiskey (80-proof white whiskey) and Hard Coffee (5 percent ABV). These products join Pabst’s 2018 innovation, Pabst Blue Ribbon Easy, a low-calorie, 3.8 percent ABV light lager.

And now, Pabst has entered the FMB category with a hard seltzer of their own. Pabst Blue Ribbon Stronger Seltzer features natural lime flavors, is higher ABV than White Claw and Natty Seltzer at 8 percent (hence “Stronger” in the name), and has just one gram of sugar. Pabst is currently being tested in Arizona, California, Montana, and Texas, but with the popularity and growth of the FMB category it’s reasonable to assume that footprint will expand significantly soon.

It’s also reasonable to predict that more Big Beer brands are poised to release products intended to leverage the popularity—and profitability—of hard seltzers and other FMBs.

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