Light beer is the most widely consumed style of American brew, beloved by national sports promotions from baseball to wrestling and one of the top styles of beer sold at nearly every bar and restaurant near universities and colleges. Served ice cold, often in frosty glasses, light beer has classically been promoted by operators as the most refreshing of beers.
Yet last year found total sales of the 10 leading brands of light beer lagging by two percent according to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company. Sales of bottled light beer on premise dropped from 1.496 million cases in 2009 to 1.466 million cases in 2010. The top ten brands include Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Natural Light, Busch Light, Miller High Life, Keystone Light, Michelob Ultra, Bud Light Lime and Milwaukee’s Best Light.
Certainly, the slower growth in the hospitality sector and overall economic slump contributed to the dip. A few standouts included sales of Keystone Light, up 3.9 percent, and Coors Light, up one percent over 2009.
Merchandising and promotional support of the brands may well have figured in those sales increases. MillerCoors invested heavily in promotions between 2009 and 2010. Keystone Light benefited from its first ever national ad campaign, featuring the “always smooth Keith Stone” character and the “Bet on Taste” promotion has Miller Lite winning taste-tests on premise.
The bright side of light beer sales can be summed up in two words: on tap. Across the country, operators are enthusiastic about light beers on draft.
Tap is Tops
Operators across the country are finding the light beer on draft is the preferred mode of consumption for many of their customers. The Verant Group of sports bars in Southern California and Arizona is headquartered in San Diego and shows strong sales of light brands on draft, particularly in the college and university areas where most of their eight units are located. The Tavern on Mill, a Verant Group unit in Tempe, Arizona, draws almost 50 percent of its beer sales from light beer on draft and in bottles, thanks to on-premise promotions such as “Bet on Taste,” competitive blind tastings of Miller Lite and other brands.
The Tavern on Mill is Verant Group’s largest facility with over 7,000 square feet of bar, restaurant and patio space. Located just off the main commercial street and just blocks from Arizona State University, The Tavern on Mill has three patios providing almost as much seating space outdoors as inside. Thirty flat screens display the latest music videos, sports games and more. The Tavern on Mill offers southwestern cuisine and is known for its well-rounded beer selection.
General manager Nic Kelly says, “Out of all beer sold at Tavern on Mill, our light beers, Miller Lite, Coors Light on draft and in bottles, make up almost 40 to 45 percent of sales. It’s a solid performing category.” Pricing is moderate, in keeping with the younger clientele, and, “We do offer 22-ounce beers for all of our draft brands. Miller and Coors are priced at $4.50 during non-specials and only $3 for ‘Big Ol’ Beer’ Mondays.” Kelly adds, “We ran the Bet on Taste promotion for almost four months during the fall of 2010 sporting events with our distributor, which had reps in the field sampling and educating clientele along with the tasting.”
Similarly, the energetic servers at the Tilted Kilt chain of craft beer bars find that draft is a strong seller. The Tempe, Arizona-based chain has 45 franchised units in 18 states, with 18 more slated to open in the next 12 months. Units range from 5,000 to 7,500 square feet, with lots of flat screens showing sports. According to training director John Stevenson, “Every Tilted Kilt franchise features at least one light brand on tap: usually Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light, because they are solid performers; and in many franchises along the east coast, Yuengling Light Lager sells well,” in part thanks to its status as an all American and independently owned brewery.
Stevenson says, “Most of our restaurants’ sales are 50-50 food and beverage, with gross beverage sales that range from $1 million to $2.5 million. Across all units, 70 percent of our beer sales are in draft, and most units have 25 to 35 fonts, with prices ranging from $2.50 to $3 for domestic light beers, and other styles served in 20-ounce glasses are $4 to $5, with imported brands about a dollar more.” Some units also sell a lot of bottled Michelob Ultra or MGD 64.
Each franchisee is encouraged to customize beer selections to cater to local tastes, Stevenson adds, so there’s “varying degrees of demand for bottled imported light beer such as Amstel Light, Corona Light, Heineken Premium Light, or Red Stripe Light.” And craft light beer crossovers are offered too, such as Sam Adams Light.
Beer in the Mix and Calorie Counting
At some bars light beer is also beginning to play a role in cocktails. Tilted Kilt offers a handful of them—priced from $5.50 to $6.50—most of which use light beer as a base. The Three Amigos features light beer, mixed with Grand Marnier and 1800 Silver, a dash of fresh sour and topped with Sprite; or the Raspberry Shandy, which blends light beer with lemon soda (as in a traditional British shandy) but spiked with Grand Marnier and Monin raspberry syrup. The brands used vary from location to location.
Though sales of Bud Lime have declined by 10 percent in the last year, the flavored light beer category is still expanding, perhaps to compete with “skinny” cocktails and satiate customers’ desire for lower-calorie options. Molson Canadian Sublime is a new brand aimed at cocktail drinkers that mixes light Molson Canadian 67 with lime flavor.
Another newcomer to the growing cadre of light beers is Shiner Light Blonde, released this spring by the Gambrinus Company, and brewed at the Spoetzl Brewery of Shiner, TX. Kevin Jurica, manager of the Mellow Mushroom in Ft. Worth, TX, says, “We anticipate doing very well with it over time, it’s got just 95 calories but tastes a bit bolder than the typical light and brewed in Texas.” The Mellow Mushroom chain has more than 100 pizza restaurants in 16 states, and is famed for its craft beer selection with 20 to 25 taps and more bottles. Prices range from $3.50 to $5 for draft and pricing for bottled brands vary according to location. Most Mellow Mushroom units offer the “Thursday Pint Night,” when patrons purchase pints of the featured draft beer and take home a free pint glass.
For the Mellow Mushroom’s Jurica, a crossover brand is Full Sail Brewing Co.’s Session Lager, with 135 calories and 4.5 percent alcohol by volume. “It’s got fewer calories than the typical craft beer, but packs a lot of flavor for $4 per bottle,” Jurica says.
Among independents, light beer is a surprise star at independent bar Faith & Whiskey in Chicago, a rock’n’roll destination for brown spirits, but deriving 70 percent of beer sales from light brands. “Coors Light and Miller Lite make up the majority of beer sales,” says owner Hunter Cannon. Though Faith & Whiskey offers more than 100 premium whiskies, a big draw is the “Skinny Wednesday” promotion featuring $2 draft light beer and 40-ounce bottles of Miller Lite for $6. Cannon adds that light beer drinkers are often the younger customers who seek value. Given its location near DePaul University, the crowd (capacity is 175 patrons) draws mostly ages 21 to 30, who enjoy dancing to the DJ or cover bands.
Sports are Still King
Sports promotions, both on- and off-premise, drive much of for the sales of light brands. That’s the heritage of the Miller Lite brand’s advertising campaigns in the 1970s. But as the official light beer of the National Football League, Bud Light has invested $1 billion in the sponsorship. The NFL is the biggest, most watched sport in North America and Bud Light is a proud sponsor.
Sports fans are also often big fans of light beer. At the independent bar the Gingerbread Man in State College, PA, owner Teague Willits-Kelley continues the bar’s tradition of drawing pre-game crowds to the tavern, now in its 26th year of operation. A former hockey player for Penn State, Willits-Kelley has owned the bar for two years. “It’s more than a bar, serving lunch and dinner and of the 12 taps, we always have Miller Lite, Coors Lite and Bud Light, and in bottles we have all of those brands as well as Amstel and Yuengling Light Lager.” With seating for about 150 people, including 20 seats at the bar, the Gingerbread Man draws mostly younger drinkers aged 21to 30. The “G-Man” does many promotions, including a snowboarding competition during the blizzard of 2011.
“Generally, our beer sales are about 29 percent of beverage and of the beer sales probably, two to three of the beer sales are light beer, says Willits-Kelley. “A lot has to do with the marketing for light beer tied into the NHL, NFL, and we market to the sports fans.” Draft lights are priced at $2.50 for 23-ounce serving; $2.25 for a 16-ounce glass, and beer on special, $5 for 42-ounce pitchers.
Willits-Kelly has run the Bet on Taste promotion “at least 75 times in the last year,” and describes it as a “really good go-to promotion that gives people the chance to interact with someone personally, and then do the taste-challenge: eight out of ten times, people pick Miller Lite out of the blind taste challenge and when they discover their true choice, people’s reactions can be very amusing.” Willits-Kelly thinks that the promotion keeps patrons in the bar, “because by really tasting and looking at their beers, they are thinking about what they are drinking, and it helps them enjoy the experience
That’s the key to better sales of light beer on-premise: shine the ad light on the beers, enlighten customers about light beer’s taste and give them the low-down on light beers’ low caloric load.