When it comes to domestic beer consumption, light dominates: About 1.5 billion 2.25-gallon cases of light beer were consumed in 2012, according to the Beverage Information Group (the research unit of Cheers’ parent company). The light category claims more than half (51.7%) of the domestic beer share.
In terms of growth, however, it’s all about craft. The craft beer category grew 14.6% from 2011 to 2012, reaching 205 million cases last year. Its share edged up to 7.3%, about the same as the popular brands’ share of the domestic beer market. Craft brews are clearly the biggest trend in American beer, but not the only trend. Here are seven things happening now in domestic beer.
The website of Boston Beer Co.’s Samuel Adams brand proclaims: “Seasons change, so do tastes. We covered both.” The seasonal-flavor beer trend is “huge,” says Blake Rohrabaugh, beverage director for casual restaurant chain Bar Louie. Samuel Adams laid the groundwork for that with seasonal offerings such as Oktoberfest, Winter Lager and Summer Ale, he notes, “and they’re still doing a great job.”
With 75 locations currently and 40 projected new openings for 2013 and 2014, Bar Louie is in a lot of markets “where it’s really hot in the summer and really cold in the winter,” Rohrabaugh says. “You don’t want to drink the same beer year round.” Changing out seasonal offerings is a logistical challenge with all the Bar Louie locations, he admits, but it helps keep the beer menu fresh and vibrant, he says.
Although they have just 1.7% of the share of domestic beer, FMBs have showed impressed growth of 7.8% from 2011 to 2012, according to Beverage Information Group data. Popular FMBs include Diageo’s Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Boston Beer Co.’s Twisted Tea
Anheuser-Busch InBev in particular is riding the FMB wave with its highly successful Bud Light Lime-a-Rita. Launched just last year, Bud Light Lime-a-Rita is a margarita-flavored malt beverage with an 8% ABV. The company, which released Bud Light Straw-Ber-Rita this past spring, is now unveiling Bud Light Lime Cran-Berr-Rita, a winter seasonal that will be available in November and December.
Many beer drinkers used to shun cans because they imparted a metallic taste; plus some had the perception that better beer came in bottles. But starting with Oskar Blues Brewery’s Dale’s Pale Ale in 2002, craft beers have been popping up in can form.
It helps that can technology has advanced radically in recent years, not only addressing the funky taste issue, but with engineering improvements that improve the canned-beer drinking experience. For instance, Boston Beer Co. earlier this year introduced its Samuel Adams “Sam can” with an extended lip and hourglass ridge at the top to enhance aromatics and expel carbonation. Pottstown, PA-based Sly Fox in April unveiled a beer can with a removable lid, similar to the pull-tab top of a soup can.
Among the big domestic beer brands, Miller Lite last year introduced its punch-top cans that have a second hole to be opened with objects such as a key. Budweiser in May rolled out a bowtie-shaped beer can.
As craft beer’s popularity grows, interest is shifting from regional brews to hyper-local brands. Also, many light-beer drinkers today are opting for local offerings, Rohrabaugh says. Bar Louie has many locations in touristy areas, he says, “and guests always want to know about the local beer offering.” Local beers can be a good introduction to craft brews, he notes.
While Bar Louie mandates that locations must carry certain brands, “the general manager can make the decision on the rest of the beers to carry,” Rohrabaugh says. “So the beer menu in Michigan is very different from the one in Texas.”
Bar Louie locations now have a local beer menu that changes every six months. Before that, only the mandated beers appeared on the menu, with a note to ask the server for the local selections, he adds.
Boulder, CO-based causing dining chain Old Chicago in June announced a major brand redesign, part of which is redefining its commitment to offering local craft beers. Each restaurant now offers 36 craft beers on tap, with a rotating schedule featuring local beers from microbreweries.
The company earlier this year hired Daniel Imdieke as nationwide manager of beer operations; Imdieke comes from craft-beer-centric chain Yard House Restaurants.
As craft beer becomes more mainstream, some believe that the “craft” distinction isn’t necessary. Along the same lines, it no longer makes sense to organize your beer menu by “domestic” and “imports,” says beer expert Jason Stone, account manager at food and beverage sales promotion agency MarkeTeam and a Certified Cicerone. Rather, you should classify your beer selection by style, such as lager, India Pale Ale, Belgian-style, and so on.
It helps to get your beer list into five or six style categories, Stone says. This also makes it easier to train servers on the styles of beer with talking points, such as “pale lagers are light and refreshing,” or “stouts are dark beers with a rich, toasty flavor.”
Stone says he was recently impressed by a young server in a California Pizza Kitchen location. “She didn’t know her beer that well, but she knew at least one thing about each beer style,” he says. This approach is much more helpful to guests than the server simply rattling off 15 beer brands, Stone adds.
“Hoptails” really got their start a few years ago with inventive mixologists experimenting with craft brews and spirits. But with the chain restaurants and big brands teaming up on specialty beer drinks, the trend has more legs than some thought.
Gourmet burger chain Red Robin was an early adopter with its Oktoberfest “beershake” in 2012, which mixed soft-serve ice cream with Samuel Adams Oktoberfest draft, vanilla and caramel. This past summer Red Robin partnered with MillerCoors on two summer beer cocktails, one made with Coors Light, ginger liqueur, lemonade and fresh lemon juice, the other mixing Blue Moon Belgian White ale, Svedka Clementine vodka, orange juice and fresh lime juice.
What’s more, the drinks were served in branded aluminum beer can cups that guests could purchase the cans for $5 (the drinks alone were $4). Red Robin’s master mixologist Donna Ruch told Cheers in June that the chain is working on some new possibilities for can cups and cocktails.
Bar Louie this year ran a concept-wide promotion in which it had bartenders submit drink recipes that used 1 oz. of beverage alcohol and 1 oz. of Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard hard cider. The chain received 350 recipes and narrowed it down to three; a winner was chosen in a competition at Boston Beer headquarters. The winning cider drink will make its debut on Bar Louie’s winter menu starting in December, Rohrabaugh says.
The good news about the craft beer explosion is that “people are more willing to try stuff than they used to be,” says Rohrabaugh. There are so many new breweries, beer styles and flavors that consumers are getting much more adventuresome.
The down side to this is that there’s little beer brand loyalty among consumers today, Stone notes. “What they want to try is what they haven’t had before,” he says. ·