Consumers are Loko for Malt Beverages

Image of Four Loko Camo cans provided by author.

Flavored malt beverages are getting stronger and stronger, and consumers are thirsty for more.


Many years after its brand became a household name synonymous with irresponsible product, the fruity and potent Four Loko brand is making a serious dent in the high-ABV malt beverage scene.

Four Loko grew in the US by 4.6% to $154 million in the 52 weeks ending October 8, according to market research company IRI. This growth is significant when compared to the 4.8% decline for all brands of flavored malt beverages. And now, Four Loko is launching its first TV ad.

Why should this matter to nightclub, bar and restaurant operators? After all, only barley wines, imperial stouts and some other high-ABV, small-production brews make any kind of impact in most operations, and even then it’s a tiny niche. The answer is that there’s something up with American drinking habits. When not only craft brewers are capable of grabbing share from Big Beer but sweet and potent alcohol delivery systems like Four Loko can do the same, we need to pay attention.

Four Loko’s growth has not gone unnoticed. AB InBev and MillerCoors are launching more higher-alcohol flavored malt beverage products. Specifically, AB InBev is rolling out a Natural Light line extension called Natty Rush to challenge Four Loko. The new line will include flavors such as Hurricane Punch, Watermelon Smash and Blue Frostbite, all at 8% ABV. A 12% ABV version is planned for some markets.

The FDA labeled Four Loko unsafe in 2010 due to its mixture of high levels of alcohol and caffeine. In response, Four Loko producer Phusion Projects removed the caffeine but kept the alcohol, as much as 14% ABV. Considering that the average light beer comes in at 4.2% ABV, Four Loko’s alcohol by volume is nothing to sneeze at.

Four Loko’s brand owners have doubled down on the image of the somewhat infamous malt beverage. Launched earlier this year, Four Loko Shots is aimed squarely at the bar business. Screw Ball, Dragon's Breath and Green Tornado come packaged in blaringly bright neon bottles. In addition, perhaps with tongues firmly in cheeks, the company launched the Bartender Series of ready-to-drink, malt-based canned cocktails. Promotions copy states that these beverages are “Taken straight from the creations of professional bartenders from around the country,” and that the new line “is about creating personalized experiences that are bold and unexpected.” The names of those bartender inspired cocktails? Blue Mofo, Purple Hooter and Pink Scorpion.

According to Beer Marketer’s INSIGHTS, Inc., the top 100 brands for convenience stores in the latest IRI research ending October 8, 18 have an ABV of 8% or higher. Of those 18 brands, 12 are growing volume this year, with half posting double digits. Anheuser-Busch, for example, has Hurricane High Gravity, Natty Daddy, Straw-Ber-Rita, and Lime-A-Rita, all growing well above standard Big Beer brands. MillerCoors has Steel Reserve 211 Alloy Hard Pineapple and Icehouse Edge, both up more than 9 percent. Mike’s Hard Lemonade extension Mike’s Harder, all 8% ABV beverages, are uniformly growing at a speedy rate, and the brand is readying a 12% offering of its own called MXD Cocktail.

Few if any of these products will migrate far into the on-premise scene. Perhaps one or two will be found at beachside bars, mom-and-pop restaurants or event locations. However, operators of the latter are increasingly concerned about overconsumption, and selling 16-ounce cans of 12% ABV beverages at concerts or sporting events promises unpleasant results of all kinds. But the popularity of these types of beverages does show how bored most American malt beverage consumers are with the standard selections they are finding at stores, and partially explains why the older brothers and sisters of their fans are gravitating toward cocktails and wine these days.

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