FEATURED ARTICLE | Light Beer Remains the Heavyweight Brew

Light beer is big, and it may be getting bigger. While much is said and written about the growth of craft brews and the excitement in high-end Belgians and other imports — and with many operators lavishing attention on both categories — light beer is not giving up market share to these upstarts.

In fact, light beer held 48.7 percent share of the total U.S. beer market in 2008, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a research firm based in New York City. What’s more, it grew 2.1 percent in 2008, the only category tracked by Beverage Marketing Corp. other than specialty beer to post a gain. Message to profit-seeking bar operators: Ignore light beer at your own peril.

Even those operators running establishments that cater to beer aficionados with more full-bodied brews know they need to carry selections from the lighter side. “Absolutely, people come in and ask for light beers,” says Ryan Dorchak, co-owner of Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell, N.J. IPAs and Belgians are current favorites among Cloverleaf’s beer-savvy clientele, but Coors Light and Miller Lite are always on tap and Heineken Premium Light in bottles moves well.

The draw, says Dorchak, is the word “light.” He observes that his light-drinking guests, who are primarily female, are looking to “do themselves a favor by drinking a beer they consider to have less calories.”

“The two hottest trends in light beer are super-low calorie — in particular MGD 64 — and Bud Light Lime,” observes Harry Schuhmacher, editor and publisher of Beer Business Daily. “Both brands have wildly exceeded expectations for their respective brewers and are continuing to grow.”

The two categories of light beers that have disappointed, he says, are craft and import light beers, most notably represented by Sam Adams Light and Heineken Premium Light. While both beers exploded onto the scene with lots of consumer trial, ultimately they faded into the tapestry of their respective flagship brands, according to Schuhmacher. “[Light beer] is definitely something our guests seek,” says Mark Bailey, director of ballpark operations at FOX Sports Grill, a six-location chain of upscale sports restaurants based in Westlake Village, Calif., that has three more locations opening this year. “We sell more light beer in some markets than others, but all markets have a demand for the product. It’s a decision motivated by [interest in] consuming less calories than found in a regular beer. They may have the perception that light beer is healthier, or they can enjoy their beer without putting on the excess weight. Less calories, lighter taste, less filling are key factors when ordering light beer.”

FOX Sports Grill locations satisfy the primarily male guests’ thirst for light brews with Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light, Heineken Light, Corona Light and Amstel Light.

Bright Spot

With the economy in the throes of a recession, the trading up trend that had been bolstering sales of imports, crafts and specialty brews at the bar is now giving way to a return to tried and true domestic brews by some price-conscious patrons. Light beer, which is dominated by domestic brands, stands to benefit.

“With light beer, affordability plays a huge factor in its popularity,” says Cloverleaf’s Dorchak. “It’s less expensive than imports or crafts, and we can give it a more attractive price-value positioning during happy hours than some other products.” Coors Light and Miller Lite are priced at $2 on draft during Cloverleaf’s happy hour, whereas other brands are discounted by $1.

“Light beers run the gamut from high end to lower end, but the premiumization trend that was running through all segments is abating a bit,” observes Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing Corp. “Imports have been soft; specialties did OK last year. The economy is impacting most segments, but light beer should fare well this year.”

Other recent happenings also fuel Hemphill’s optimism. Remember the early days of light beer, when Miller Lite’s “Tastes Great, Less Filling” debate filled the airwaves? The category looks much different today, with more brands now available to tempt the patron with a hankering for fewer calories in their brew. While the category remains dominated by the Big Three — Bud Light, the powerhouse brand that generates more than a third of total category sales, Coors Light and Miller Lite — other players are making noise, and plenty of it.

Heineken Premium Light took the market by storm when it launched in 2007, attracting light beer, import and premium fans, and Sam Adams Light also quenches craft brew fans’ thirst for something light. Bud Light Lime’s debut in 2008 also caused a stir, adding a flavored option to the mix. And Corona Light continues to grow and capitalize on its appeal during the summer months, kicking off the season with Cinco de Mayo promotions in May.

Marketing, promotions and advertising to support light beer brands remains a focus for the major brewers, as does innovation. The Cold Activated Can joined the Cold Activated Bottle for Coors Light in May; the iconic mountains on the label turn blue when the beer is cold enough to drink and the can’s Vented Wide Mouth is 8 percent wider than the norm for a “smoother, draft-like drinking experience,” according to brand management.

“We have seen some pickup in the premium lights we carry, such as Corona Light and Heineken Light, in terms of sales, but Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite are still our top selling light beers, hands down,” says FOX Sports Grill’s Bailey.

Bailey and other operators are finding that stocking and promoting light beers may just be the key to seeing pickup in overall sales this year. NCB


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