Make anything big enough, and eventually it’s going to collapse. You might have learned that in kindergarten when you tried to build a Play-Doh Washington Monument; build it too high, and it’s going to slump over and break. Hey, just ask the dinosaurs where huge got them.
It applies to beer sales sometimes, and imported beer is getting really big. Imports have been rising for years, albeit with most of them playing Jack to Corona’s beanstalk, as the amazing Mexican built sales higher than former top import Heineken had ever dreamed. Imports now account for over 11% of the U.S. beer market, numbers that haven’t been seen since maybe the War of 1812, and Corona is the country’s 5th best-selling beer.
But looking at last year’s imported beer numbers may make you wonder if it’s getting close to Play-Doh time for off-shore suds. Imports had their weakest year in a long time, growing by only 3.1%, according to Adams Handbook advance numbers. That’s not bad against a total beer market that actually dropped 0.6%.
But imports hardly showed the robust numbers we’ve seen over the past two decades. Imported beers have been taking share from domestic beers, whether the domestics were up or down. What happened?
There were a number of factors. The weather was one, with a long, cold, wet winter in the Northeast that drove down overall consumption. The war in Iraq kept things unsettled and vaguely disturbed. But these factors somehow lost their strength when it came to sales of wine and spirits, which both rose. What’s the key to the conundrum?
The big factor, the one that kept beer sales down while spirits and wine climbed, was a dead man and his diet: Atkins. With the booming popularity of the Atkins Diet and its trendy South Beach offshoot, America became obsessed with “carbs” in 2003 and even healthy foods like orange juice took a dip, tarred by their “glycemic index.”
Beer, of course, was quickly stigmatized as a big source of carbohydrates. Suddenly the calorie content of light beers was forgotten in a wave of questions like “Yes, but how many carbs does it have?” Anheuser-Busch looked like pure marketing genius with the brazenly low-carb Michelob Ultra in place and already advertised.
The small rise in import sales suddenly doesn’t look so bad in that light. (DAB Low Carb actually looks pretty hot; see sidebar.) Break out the numbers on individual brands, and you can still find some bright spots. It looks like clear glass still works its magic: Corona was up 5.3%, which on its base works out to a thumping 4.8 million cases more sold in 2003 than in 2002, half of the total category volume growth for the year.
Its stablemates did well also. Modelo Especial was up 19.5%, Corona Light swelled by 16.6%, Pacifico was up 12.7%, and even the black sheep of the family, Negro Modelo, posted 8.6% growth.
Mexican beer was hotter than a haba