Even during the current dark economic times, light beer continues to shine, with several broad trends emerging. While health considerations may have been part of the initial driving force behind light beer’s popularity, today it is a combination of familiarity, comfort, appeal and its perceived value due to an often-lower price point. It’s these qualities that keep a light beer at the top of the list of virtually every operator’s best-selling beers.
Marc Sachs, corporate beverage director for the Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill, which has 165 locations in 25 states, notes that light beer continues to be popular because it has become “the standard taste profile.” Uno carries the top three brands—Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite—on draft along with bottles of light beer from other brands like Amstel, Corona, Heineken, Michelob and Samuel Adams, with pricing varying widely location to location.
The appeal of the familiar also comes through in the numbers, especially in the sub-premium category. By volume, low-calorie light beer continues to be more than half of the total beer market, roughly 52.5 percent of the whole, according to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company. Of that, the top three brands account for nearly two-thirds of all light beer sold, with the perennial leader—Bud Light—taking up a full third all by itself. In terms of numbers, of the 1.5 billion cases total of the light beer market, last year Bud light sales were just north of a half billion cases, with Miller Lite selling 228,000 and Coors light 250,000 cases.
Though overall light beer sales are down by 0.02%, that’s by far the smallest percentage dip for any segment apart from craft specialty beer, which has remained in the green. Of the top 15 light beers, only three are imports and only Corona Light has shown positive growth, up 4.9 percent. Heineken Premium Light dipped 9 percent in 2009 over 2008, with Amstel Light essentially holding its own.
The majority of the gains in the segment are coming from the sub-premiums and new line extensions, which are flattening out the overall picture. Category leader Bud Light is down slightly, but Busch Light is up 5 percent, Natural Light is up 3.1 percent and Bud Light Lime climbed 13.3 percent along with newcomers Select 55 and Bud Light Golden Wheat contributing to the overall health of light beers. While Miller Lite is losing ground and is down by 6.4 percent, Keystone Light is gaining and MGD 64 is likewise finding a toehold. Though MGD 64 is slightly less than 1 percent of the total light beer market, in its second full year it managed to sell 12.5 million cases, according to BIG’s 2010 Handbook Advance. It is one of several low-carb beers, including Michelob Ultra and Natural Light, which seem to be making something of a comeback.
The Comfort of the Familiar
The ease of the recognizable is an important factor driving interest in light beer for many operators and Sachs at Uno’s sees the trend “Bud Light is what everyday beer tastes like.” Explains Sachs. “Its flavor appeals to a large group of people because [of] its simple and mild [flavors].” He also notes that as Baby Boomers age and consumption decreases overall, they often decide that instead of having their usual three or four drinks, they might instead opt for only one or two, but trade up to a more flavorful, premium or craft beer selections. He does, however, continue to feature light beers during happy hour and snack hour promotions.
On a smaller scale, Matt Stuhl, a San Francisco-based regional director of food and beverage for Joie de Vivre Hotels—operating 24 restaurants and bars throughout the California chain—customizes his beer selection to each bar, depending on theme or local preference. Because each location has a limited number of beers, he chooses each selection carefully, generally carrying industry leader Bud Light, $3, which is almost always his number one or two best-selling beers. Most often he sees that “enough people aren’t interested in finding the new big beer, but take the easy road and go for the familiar.” He’s also observed that his customers choose light beer for two basic reasons: they represent a less expensive alternative, and “they provide a way to be social and be conscious of your intake.”
Likewise, Carmen Demarco of 32° Luxe Lounge, an upscale nightclub with locations in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, NJ, carries the top three light beers, priced at $5, along with Michelob Ultra, $5, and imports Heineken Premium Light and Amstel Light, both priced at $6. The value pricing of Miller Lite has made it their best-selling light beer, especially since they feature it for $3 every Friday from 9 to 11 p.m. They use their best seller by discounting it then “to draw more of an earlier crowd.” Light beer can offer the dual benefits of being more profitable for operators and more affordable for customers.
Innovative Pairings and Promotions
Solid marketing campaigns, including the coupling of beer with events and perceived value, have also driven business in the light category. For Buffalo Wild Wings, a 662-location chain of sports bars and casual dining restaurants in 41 states, Coors Light, priced $4.25 to $4.75 depending on location, is their sales leader. According to Patrick Kirk, marketing and brand manager, they promote it heavily with its sports tie-in—as it’s the NFL’s official beer—and feature it in special deals. For example, it was most recently featured as the chain’s January “Beer of the Month” where a 50-cent discount is offered at participating locations. Every Buffalo Wild Wings has approximately 14 tap handles and 20 bottled beers, and most carry the top three light beers, along with Heineken Premium Light, Amstel Light and Corona Light, all priced $4.25 to $4.75. The majority of their promotions are centered around “one-time big events,” like the Super Bowl, where they can feature a bundled special like two draft beers and a bucket of wings for a discount price.
Brahm Callahan, beverage director at Boston’s Post 390, the newest urban tavern from the Himmel Hospitality Group, also carries the top three light beers, ranging in price from $3.75 to $5, along with Amstel Light, $5.50; Miller Light at $3.50; and several specialty brands that aren’t strictly low-calorie beers but are light-bodied enough to appeal to the same customer. For him, too, Bud Light is “far and away [his] best seller, the brand people first think of and feel most comfortable ordering, even without looking first at the menu.”
In addition to the national brands, Post 390 also focuses on local brands because his market is “fiercely local.” Rather than stock Pabst Blue Ribbon light, they’ve gone with a new retro brand Narragansett Light, which is similarly carving out a chic niche for itself by appealing to “the local component” and also young adult nostalgia.
While originally the category may have been primarily defined by calorie content and health consciousness, the price point and perceived value have come to be some of the most important factors over the past several years and that looks to continue at least as long as our economy struggles, and possibly longer. Callahan’s beer pricing at Post 390, for example, is value-oriented, with Miller Lite being his least expensive offering in the category and other light beers generally less expensive than premium and specialty offerings, which can run up to $11.75 for Stone Arrogant Bastard from California. That has, he believes, translated into increased sales and even repeat business, as customers search for value and the best available deal. Demarco has seen the same phenomenon, which she concludes “is a sign of the economy [where] beer sales have gone up while liquor sales have stayed the same.”
Post 390 also serves comfort food with a twist and keeps their staff apprised of potential pairing opportunities with the beer selection. Like many restaurants offering menu items that could be considered comfort food, suggesting or promoting essentially comfort beers—well-known brands at a value price—seems likely to create an add-on sale and a positive experience for the customer.
As long as the economy keeps price consciousness and value at the forefront of consumers’ priorities, light beer will likely continue to be mainstream beer’s best-selling segment, especially in areas where it can be marketed at a lower price than premium non-light beer. With its commanding market share, light beer—and in particular the familiar long-standing popular brand—really is what a majority of people believe beer to be, creating an expectation that should be reflected in every restaurant’s menu, specials and promotions.