Light beers remain a serious category that continues to dominate on-premise beer sales. Given its continued success, operators are still looking for inventive new ways to grow their offerings. “Light beers are still huge,” says Chris Jecha, beverage director at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap in Chicago, a bar with 34 beers on tap, 72 in bottles and 15 in cans, priced in the $3 to $5 range.
While this category remains front of mind, there’s very little clear definition about what “light beer” actually means, so which aspect guests really want when they order a light beer varies. Some operators say their research indicates that the biggest association with “light” is a low-calorie and less filling beverage.
“In that order,” says Kate Malaniak, senior director of food and beverage for Sharon, PA-based Quaker Steak & Lube chain. At the chain, 60 percent of beer sales are light beers, largely, says Malaniak, because they pair so well with food. Light beers average from $2.75 to $3.50 a bottle.
Others say lower alcohol and low calorie are also both mentioned by their guests.
“We rotate in special brews as ‘limited time on tap’ specials and include a guest survey card with those,” says Alex Puchner, senior vice president of brewing operations for BJ’s Restaurant Brewhouse, based in Huntington Beach, CA with locations in more than 10 states, where light beers are in the $4 to $5 range.
Establishing a Definition
Sorting out what the on-premise views as the defining characteristics for light brews is part of the on-premise challenge. “From what we’ve tested, low calorie is important with a light beer. But we have more and more guests asking about alcohol content, so, there is more demand for lower alcohol beers now more than before,” says Puchner.
At the Dallas-based, Twin Peaks chain, which increased its standard number of taps to 16-plus in 2009, “Light beer generally means less alcohol content …. [and it] definitely partners with a connotation of fewer calories,” says Meggie Miller, marketing director. Light beers are $3.25 during happy hour; $4.25 otherwise.
The same is true at 200-unit CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, which operates the Rock Bottom, Old Chicago and the Gordon Biersch concepts, says Tom Dargen, director of the company’s brewing operations.
Part of the challenge may be in providing the facets that guests want in this category. “We first try to identify the core curiosity, asking, ‘What are you in the mood for?’ And, ‘when you say light, do you want low calorie, low-carb, light body?’ ” asks Ryan Conklin, head barman of Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen in Denver, which has 13 beers on tap, 35 in bottles, 12 special feature beers and 25 cellar beers.
Sales figures support that and offer a challenge to the category. According to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, cumulative sales of the top 10 light beers dropped 2.1 percent last year. And while the big brands still dominate, some of the market share is being lost to craft beers.
Expanding the Profile
Many operators see also see potential for sessionable beers that appeal to the traditional light-beer drinker’s palate, but go beyond the typical light beer flavor profile. These may have slightly more alcohol than American-style light lagers, but far less than the hop or malt brews of craft beer fame. Sometimes referred to as “bridge” or “gateway” beers, these can help the typical light-lager drinker over the threshold into craft beer camp. Among the oft-mentioned examples are German-style kolsch beers in the 4 to 4.5 percent ABV range that have often been seen as ale’s best answer to an American-style light lager.
Others say lower alcohol and low calorie are both mentioned by guests. “We rotate in special brews as ‘limited time on tap’ specials and include a guest survey card with those,” says Brewhouse’s Puchner. He adds that, “We have more and more guests asking about alcohol content, so, there is more demand for lower alcohol beers now more than before. “
At Twin Peaks, “Light beer generally means less alcohol content, but with the recent emphasis on healthy eating and the popularity of beers like Michelob Ultra and MGD 64, it definitely partners with a connotation of fewer calories,” says Miller.
“Also, now that it’s become trendy to appreciate more stylistic varieties of beer, the phrase light is understood more often as a way to describe the body of the beer.” Light beers are $3.25 during happy hour; $4.25 otherwise.
The same is true at CraftWorks. “Someone who normally drinks light beer usually prefers something light, crisp clean, well-balanced and drinkable,” says Dargen.
Redefining the “Taste Profile”
Bartender Greg Buttera heads the beer program at The Barrelhouse Flat in Chicago, where 12 draft handles and 20 bottled beers dispense mainly geeky, high-octane craft brews of an obscure, highly allocated or experimental nature. Buttera says he tends to offer Miller High Life ($3) or Schlitz ($4), in answer to a “lightest beer on offer” request. But when the opportunity to pilot a flavor journey presents itself, he takes full advantage.
“Ninety times out of 100 they’ll ask for something by brand. Miller Light ($4.50) is by far our top-selling beer [draft and bottled] followed by Bud Lite and Coors Light in bottles,” says Ken Hendricks, vice president of operations at Bottleneck Management which operates five bars in Chicago, including the new Old Town Pour House which has 90 beers on tap. “When someone says can I have XYZ brand, we’re certainly giving it to them. But if they seem interested in an alternative,” we will offer them alternative beers.
At Quaker Steak & Lube, where Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite hold the top three sales spots, Malaniak says, “Light beer drinkers are fiercely loyal to ‘light’ beers, they may dabble in a craft beer, but, unless it’s a light one, they won’t typically order it.”
At Twin Peaks, domestic light beers also hold the company’s top selling spots, following by its proprietary beers. Miller says her guests like to see new twists on old favorites—i.e. lime infusions, higher-alcohol versions like the Bud Light Platinum—but demand for mainstream light beers remains strong. “There’s a place and time for every beer,” says Miller. “It’s our job to connect with the guest and guide him toward a beer he’ll enjoy.”
Opportunities for Light Beers
Promotionally speaking, many operators say big-brand light beers fit best with sporting events and summer. The 63-unit Wahoo’s Fish Taco regularly participates in the U.S. Open Surfing Championship, sponsored by Corona and Pacifico. “We are more into brands like these that market themselves in connection the extreme sports outdoor lifestyle,” says Wing Lam, co-founder of the Santa Ana, Calif-based chain.
The sports and the summer connection is something big light beer makers heavily support. Category leader Anheuser-Busch plans to leverage sports marketing investments in the restaurant and bar arena this year with Bud light promotions around UFC and NFL, and, with Michelob Ultra golf-linked promotions. It’s also got a summer launch planned for Michelob Ultra Light Cider—a 120-calorie product that represents Michelob’s first foray beyond beer, and, Michelob Ultra 19th Hole, a tea and lemonade flavored malt beverage.
Anheuser-Busch is also launching its newest Bud Light brand extension—the Bud Light Lime-A-Rita, MillerCoors plans are to revitalize Miller Lite this year and Coors light with its new Silver Bullet Aluminum Pint. Miller64, (the relaunch of the Miller Genuine Draft 64 brand) will also be new this Spring.
MillerCoors is also behind bracket-style competitions around the NCAA basket tournament where restaurant guests must key daily codes into their smart phones to pick winners in each match. Guests get prizes for picking the winning team.
“We’re really excited about this driving sales and traffic,” says Adam Kass, district manager for the Green Turtle which operates 31 restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic and offers an average of 20 to 24 beers on tap. Kass thinks this version of MillerCoor’s promotion will work better than previous ones, “because guests have to come in to the restaurant every day to get the new code.”
For lesser-known beers, flights can be a good promotional solution. “Flight programs are really the best way to get people on board with some of the lesser-known, lighter profile beers,” says Hendricks of Bottleneck. “You can encourage buying behaviors by creating stories and an idea behind a flight of four beers.” Bottleneck, for example, will be promoting a flight called “Dawn to Dusk,” featuring a sampling of beers from light to dark with prices that are yet to be set. Likewise, Conklin at Euclid Hall is doing a “Sessionable Sampler,” “with every one of those being an outreach beer.”
Many operators also promote the fact that light beer is an easier match for food than strong, high-alcohol beer. At Coppelia in New York, which serves Spicy Cuban Diner Food 24-hours a day, the majority of dishes pair well with light beer. “Although the craft beer trend is booming, I’ve found that people still turn to light Mexican beer when eating Latin and Mexican dishes,” says general manager Ricardo Palafox.
The same is true pairing beer with inexpensive fish tacos. “Mexican beers [Corona, Corona Light, Pacifico, Tecate] are our most popular,” says Lam at Wahoo’s. “Our food is very light and the ticket average is $7, so, in a way, craft beer—with it’s higher price and heavier profile—can be self-defeating for us. We find light-profile Mexican beers to be the better fit.”
When Quaker Steak and Lube recently separated food from beverage into two separate menus, the company kept the food and beer link on the food menu, with light-beer pairings far outnumbering others. The menu offers suggestions such as Amstel Light’s, “Rich hoppy flavor with moderate bitterness and smooth mouth feel,” makes it a match for the Philly Burger or California Veggie Flatbread.
Summer beer cocktails can also work well with light beers. Bartender Lisa Selman does a “Hop Skip & God Naked” drink at the Franklin Tap in Chicago, combining vodka, frozen lemonade and Coors Light. Wahoo’s Fish Taco does well with the Sunny Side Up—a beer schooner full of frozen margarita mix with a mini-bottle of Corona Light upended into it. And at Coppelia, Palafox says Tecate and Corona Light are great in Micheladas.
Looking ahead, some operators and brewpubs say there is room for more envelope-pushing, light-craft beer. Ryan Valentine, director of beverage for Columbus, OH- based Cameron Mitchell restaurants, which operates seven concepts and 16 restaurants—such as Ocean Prime, Cameron’s American Bistro and Marcella’s among them—agrees. “Craft brewers seem to look down on light beer instead of seeing it as a lucrative opportunity, which doesn’t make sense. We would be very interested to see how craft light beers would perform next to other options at our restaurants.”
Getting there, however, would require better supply. “There are a lot of hiccups within the craft beer supply chain, so, the challenge for brewers would be to fulfill demand,” says Hendricks. Lam of Wahoo’s agrees. “The problem with small batch is that it is not readily available. Since it’s brewed only locally, there is a huge distribution problem for us to get it to six states. There are also issues with quality and price.”
But the bigger shift making light-craft beers a potential reality will be attitudinal, linked to a maturation of the market—both in attitudes beer geeks have toward lighter profile beers, and, in attitudes bars have toward traditional light beer drinkers.