Americans today are looking for types of brews suitable for the warm weather, and lately they’ve been able to choose from among a growing crop of light, flavorful or low-carb offerings that better suit their lifestyles.
In fact, about 40% of consumers say they will try low-carb diets in 2004, according to a survey released by the Grocery Manufacturers of America. According to a recent ACNielsen Home Survey, 17 percent of American households include someone who is currently following some form of a low-carb diet.
The low-carb brews appear to be cannibalizing light beer sales to some degree, yet light beers have turned the tables by promoting the fact that, as light beers, they are already low in carbs.
The big three low-carbs thus far are Michelob Ultra, Rolling Rock’s Green Light and Coors’ Aspen Edge. Miller Lite has countered with its own low-carb claims. New York’s regional brewer FX Matt has added its low-carb Accel, and others are expected to follow soon.
Imported light beers are up across the board, while domestic lights are a mixed bag. More craft lights and low-carb beers are certainly on the way. Among light brews, Sam Adams Light has grown quickly, other craft brewers like Shipyard, Portland, ME, have joined the light bandwagon, and seasonals like Sam Adams Summer Ale also do well. Many other craft brewers now market a pilsner or summer/light brew.
While not necessarily low calorie or low carb, classic wheat beers and their yeasty cousins, hefeweizens, are gaining traction as a lightly flavorful and summery alternative; American hefeweizens like Pyramid and Widmer, and imports like Paulaner, see surges in the warmer months. The cateogry is growing; Samuel Adams just added a hefeweizen, and each week, it seems, a new domestic or imported hefeweizen or wheat beer appears in shops and restaurants. A recent unscientific survey of a NYC grocery store found at least 20 wheat and hefeweizens stocked.
LOW CARB LEGS?
Despite the low-carb explosion, however, one question lingers among restaurant and bar operators. How long will the low-carb craze last?
“I don’t like to predict the future,” says Kip Snider, corporate beverage manager for the soon-to-be eight-unit Yard House Restaurants. Low-carb beer, he adds, “might be a fad; it might come and go with people who are sticking to their diets. I just don’t have a large call for the new ones coming out. Whatever is on tap is what the guests are looking for. But Michelob Ultra sells quite well.”
“Certainly it’s the hot topic in the brewing industry right now,” agrees David Richter, director of brewing for Hops Grillhouse & Brewery, Madison, GA. “I just got back from the Craft Brewing Conference in San Diego. There are craft brewers who are doing bigger styles and things like that, but people were talking about low-carb products.”
Richter is another who believes the low-carbs are going to be around for a while. “I don’t think that just because of all the low-carb foods that have come out recently,” he explains. “I think it’s a very similar phenomenon to low-fat foods, which was the hot thing a few years ago. This is kind of following in those footsteps, with the Atkins and South Beach Diets being pretty popular.”
Hops units have been given permission to add Michelob Ultra to their menus. Thus far, only about one-third have, by Richter’s estimate. In the last week of April, 61 Hops breweries introduced a proprietary new low-carb beer called Love Handles Low-Carb Ale. Says Richter, “We’re having a lot of fun with it. It’s a little bit of poking fun at it. I mean c’mon, it’s beer, let’s not get too serious about it.”
“We’ve actually been studying and watching the carb trend, with our menu as well as our beverage department,” says Kirk Aardahl, vice president of beverages for RAM International LLC, Tacoma, WA. “We have always seen a light beer trend come around in the summertime. We watch light beer, we watch our own beers.”
The company, which sells its own brews as well as mass-produced beers, places greater emphasis during the hot months on light beers than, say, the heavier ambers, bocks and porters, which are big in the wintertime. “Our corporate brewer ups the par, you might say,” he notes, “just getting ready for the summertime.
“When you look at the low-carb beers right now, we haven’t seen a decline in the craft brewing industry,” notes Aardahl. “We have seen a decline in light beer sales. They seem to be trading — people who drink Bud or Miller Light seem to be going to the low-carb beer, and they’re even pulling sales from themselves, it looks like.”
RAM serves Coor’s Aspen Edge as well as Michelob Ultra. “If you look at sales we’re selling thousands and thousands of cases of them, but we’re not selling more domestic beer, per se. It seems to be taking from domestic beer sales rather than the craft brewing sales,” explains Aardahl.
Indeed, he adds, RAM executives have seen a rise in bottled beer sales at the expense of draft sales, and for a very simple reason. “The low-carb beers are only bottled. A Bud drinker on draft who is going to the low-carb beer has got to grab a bottle of it.”
Aardahl estimates that fully 70% of his customers who ask for low-carb brews are female. The rest are “guys who are not necessarily trying to lose (weight) but have lost it and want to keep it off. I would tend to think the guys who are looking to lose weight are going from a domestic beer to a domestic light beer. It seems to me it’s kind of a baby-step program, where you’re not going to go from eating a candy bar to eating a rice cake. They’re just going to tone it down a little bit.”
Anheuser-Busch’s introduction of Michelob Ultra was followed by what Dave Alexander, owner of The Brickskeller in Washington, DC, terms a “war with Miller Lite. Now you’ve got Rolling Rock doing Green Light, and Coors doing Aspen Edge low-carb. The word has gotten out that all light beers are low-carb, so you’re starting to see Budweiser doing a commercial where Bud Light is actually on the defensive, which to me is astonishing. Well, of course, all light beers are low carb, but none of them can say they’ve got the taste of Bud Light.”
The Brick, a former Cheers Award for Beverage Excellence winner, carries more international bottled beers than any other U.S. bar at last count. But Alexander and his chef wife Diane also own and operate a multi-tap restaurant near the MCI Center in downtown D.C. called Regional Food and Drink (RFD). Michelob Ultra is selling “pretty well” at both of Alexander’s bars, while Green Light and Aspen Edge are “struggling for a place in the market.”
“In Southern California, where we’re mostly based, we don’t see a lot of seasonal change,” reports the Yardhouse’s Snider. So-called summer beers like hefeweizers adorn the beer menu regardless of the time of year. Michelob Ultra is the only low-carb entrant that Yard House stocks, and Snider says sales of it have increased “dramatically” in the year and a half since its debut. Yard House restaurants seat 260, with an average per-person dinner tab of $20.
NEW YORK LIGHT
Restaurant Associates’ Beer Bar in the MetLife Building in New York City carries Michelob Ultra, which bar manager Wayne Spearnak says has “probably taken a little bit away from Bud Light. Anheuser-Busch was pleasantly surprised, though, with the marketshare they were getting when they introduced Ultra. They didn’t think it would do so well, but it hooked in with this Atkins Diet thing and it was just good timing. Steakhouses started carrying it because people on the Atkins Diet could drink something.”
The Beer Bar also does a strong seasonal business in wheat beers, according to Spearnak. “You’ll see, as the weather gets warmer your sales pick up. It’s kind of like soft-shell crabs that bring out a whole crowd of people when they’re there in season. You get the same kind of thing with wheat beers. We still have them afterward, but they tail off in sales during the colder months. During the summer you can see the sales of different wheat beers go up.”
The bottom line is that, unlike other “innovations” in beer that came and went before the suds subsided, light and low-carb brews bring something substantial to the table, and thus should become a staple.
“They have a niche now,” Spearnak points out, referring to the low-carb entrants. “It will probably be there. Maybe if some new diet comes along, that may hurt it; or if the Atkins Diet gets a little knock and people get off it for a while. Miller Lite created the whole ‘lite beer thing’ with that campaign with the athletes. Will it stay? I think it might hang around.”
In the low-carb sweepstakes, Michelob Ultra promises only 95 calories, 4.2% alcohol by volume and 2.6 grams of carbohydrates per 12-oz. serving. Regular 12-oz. bottles of beer typically have 150 calories and 5 grams of carbs. Rock Green Light has 2.6 grams of carbs and 91 calories. Michelob Ultra advertises 2.6 grams of carbs and 95 calories. Aspen Edge is a lager with 2.6 grams of carbs and 94 calories, according to Coors.
How are the three leading low-carb beer marketers–Coors, Rolling Rock and Michelob, going about talking to consumers about healthier beer? The answer is: differently.
STRESSING TASTE AND COLOR. Coors is running Aspen Edge TV spots called “Bar” and “BBQ” developed by Deutsch LA with Mahgeetah by My Morning Jacket providing the sound track. The tag line is ‘So good, it doesn’t even know it’s low carb.’ In the spots, we see a free-flowing trip through the world of Aspen Edge. Both open on “30-something Aspen Edge drinkers having a good time and enjoying Aspen Edge. We journey from one bottle of Aspen Edge to another, then into a bottle and the beer itself. Inside the beer, we are introduced to this remarkable and surprisingly great tasting, new low-carb lager from Coors Master Brewers. We pull out of the beer to reveal its beautiful golden color as seen in the pilsner glass into which it has been poured.”
POKING FUN. Rock Green Light’s marketing campaign tries to poke fun at consumers’ dedication to health. On the brand’s web site, for example, it presents what it calls “The Remote Workout,” which includes these steps:
A POINT REMOTE CONTROL AT TV
B BEGIN CHANGING CHANNELS BY PRESSING DOWN
C TAKE THE LONG WAY. IF YOU’RE ON CHANNEL 4 AND NEED TO GO TO
CHANNEL 7 GO BACKWARDS, SURFING THROUGH EVERY OTHER CHANNEL.
D YOU’VE GOT THE GREEN LIGHT!
Another section, termed “The Manly Door Pull,” instructs visitors to:
A STAND IN FRONT OF A DOOR
B EXTEND YOUR ARM OUT AS FAR AS THE DOOR CAN OPEN.
C FOR AN ADDITIONAL WORKOUT OF THE ARM, WAVE HELLO AS THE LADIES PASS THROUGH.
D YOU’VE GOT THE GREEN LIGHT!
RUNNING WITH ATHLETICS. Michelob Ultra is pushing athletic competition. Out door boards feature the tag line “Lose the Carbs, Not the Taste” and show photos of a young man and/or woman exercising, beside a blow-up of the bottle. The brand is also tied promotionally into events like the 2004 Michelob Ultra U.S. Olympic Team Sweepstakes, with prizes including an expense-paid round trip to Athens for the upcoming Olympic Games, hotel accommodations, and tickets for the winner and a guest to two track events. Another promotion, Take On the Tour, offers a chance to win a cycling tour in France. The package for two includes round-trip transportation, hotel accommodations for eight nights, bike rental, and three meals a day.
GLASSES AND LEMONS
Operators are also maximizing the look of their summer brews through their choice of glassware.
Many prefer 16.9- or 23-oz. tall and shapely glasses to show off the suspended yeast in an unfiltered hefeweizen beer. More experienced servers will stop pouring before the entire bottle is drained, leaving about an ounce in the bottle. He will then roll the bottle between his hands as if warming it. This sloshes the remaining beer, cleaning off and collecting the remaining yeast cells from the bottle’s sides and bottom.
The server will then dump the last bit into the center of the glass, creating a cloud with a surprising amount of taste. In Belgium, every beer is served in glasses with the brewery’s logo.
Adding a slice of lemon to a hefeweizen has become common in the U.S., says the Brickskeller’s Dave Alexander. “Some will say, ‘I’ve just been to Germany and they all do it,’ and others will say, ‘I’ve just been to Germany and they never do it.’ Actually, if the brewmaster sent that beer out of the brewery, he thought it was done. He thought he had finished the recipe, so the brewers tend not to do it.
“But the brewer will also be the first person to tell you, ‘You know, if you think it tastes good with lemon, then put the lemon in,’ because it’s actually a wonderfully refreshing summer beer,” says Alexander. “What they’ll do sometimes is, after the whole routine of pouring the beer, shaking the bottle up and pouring the sediment into the glass, they’ll take a wedge of lemon and stick it on the side of the glass.”