Domestic beer is a game of volume: Venerable brands such as Bud Light, Coors Light and Budweiser sell millions of cases of beer every year and dominate the on-premise market.
That’s not to say the domestic beer business is booming, however. According to the Beverage Information Group (Cheers’ parent company), total consumption of the leading domestic beer brands fell 3% from 2010 to 2011. Of the top five brands, only Coors Light experienced a bump in sales last year, and it was up just 1%. And of the top 10 brands, Michelob Ultra was the only other brand to show growth, increasing 0.5% in 2011.
But there have been some strong performers on the domestic beer front, including brand extensions such as Bud Light Platinum, relatively young craft brands such as Blue Moon (introduced by MillerCoors in 1995) and considerably older brands like Yuengling (established in 1829).
Its new brand Bud Light Platinum appears to be a home run for Anheuser-Busch/InBev. The higher ABV rendition of Bud Light with distinctive, blue-glass packaging was introduced early this year. According to the brewery, demand for Bud Light Platinum is outpacing expectations, so Anheuser-Busch is expanding production of the new brew to six of its 12 U.S. breweries.
“We’re optimistic we have a winner on our hands with Bud Light Platinum,” says Luiz Edmond, zone president, North America, Anheuser-Busch. “Trial and repeat purchases have been tremendous since the first ads aired during the 2012 Super Bowl, and although supplies were tight in the first few months, having to double the number of breweries producing Bud Light Platinum is a great problem to have.”
According to AB/InBev, within two weeks of launch, Bud Light Platinum reached more than 90% distribution and 1.4% market share.
What other domestic beers are popular now? “Blue Moon, Bud Light, and Coors Light are the top-selling brands across the Yard House chain,” says Kip Snider, director of beverages at the beer-centric Yard House Restaurants. “They are definitely the three best-sellers company-wide, among the more than 800 brands we normally offer,” he says. The Yard House, headquartered in Irvine, Calif., has 40 restaurants in 14 states.
Drafting sports promotions
Sports bars typically rely on promotions and tie-ins to sell more beer. The Scout Waterhouse & Kitchen, a one-year-old sports bar in Chicago’s South Loop, has 12 taps and several dozen brands available by bottle. Typical pint pricing ranges from $4 for domestics such as Coors Light and Bud Light, to $5 for Lagunitas A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ pale wheat ale and $7 for Goose Island Matilda.
The Scout bar’s decor is urban comfort, with 220 seats (plus a seasonal patio adding 30 seats) and 32 televisions for nonstop sports viewing. “We are turning into a neighborhood destination,” says Richard Henri, the Scout’s general manager, “and sports promotions make sense for us, because we’re just a few blocks away from Chicago’s Soldier Field and the Bears.”
In addition to using the social media nightlife app Poggle to promote parties during games (see sidebar “Poggled a plus for promoting” on page 37), The Scout also promotes a running club event every Tuesday evening at 6 p.m., followed by a pint promotion sponsored by the Goose Island Beer Co. Pints of 312 Urban Wheat ale are offered for $3 during the post-run social gathering in the back bar of the Scout.
Sports promotions and domestic beers are also key to the growth at the Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille. The Edgewater, Md.-based chain operates 30 units throughout the mid-Atlantic states and is now expanding into the New York market.
“Blue Moon is our top-selling draft beer,” though all domestic light beers get a big push for football promotions, says Adam Kass, the Greene Turtle’s director of beverage development. “We’re really getting good movement of beer sales on draft, which accounts for about two-thirds of our beer sales,” he says.
One of the strongest-selling domestic beers for Greene Turtle is Yuengling’s American Lager, “which we offer with value pricing during happy hours” where they are allowed, Kass says. Pottsville, Penn.-based D.G. Yuengling & Son, which bills itself as America’s oldest brewery, has become the largest U.S.-owned brewery by surpassing The Boston Beer Company in 2011 sales.
“We also sell a lot of Natty Boh—National Bohemian lager. It’s a Baltimore favorite,” Kass says. (About 90% of National Bohemian is sold in Maryland, though the brand is owned by Pabst and brewed by Miller.)
Sports promotions at the Greene Turtle include special pricing on game nights for domestic drafts and bottles, such as $2.50 bottles of Bud Light, or $3.50 for 22-oz. drafts of Miller Lite or Yuengling. Most units feature regular pricing from $4 to $7 per pint of draft beer, and a selection of 16 to 24 rotating taps.
Seating for Greene Turtle units ranges from 175 to 280 seats, with bars ranging from 20 to 30 seats plus cocktail tables. Many large HDTVs cover sports broadcasts, with some units placing smaller TVs in booths so that customers can control programming.
Food pairings at the Greene Turtle are promoted in a new tri-fold menu. The offering includes such items as a vegetarian flatbread and Eastern Shore crab mac-and-cheese with Cheddar and bacon, priced two for $14.99 to encourage customers to order several courses.
Mug clubs, coupons and happy hours
Draft beer promotions include The Greene Turtle’s Mug Club, so consumers can purchase a 16-oz. mug, with $1 off refills. “Once you purchase a mug, it hangs over the bar and is available anytime you visit,” says Kass. Mug Club members receive draft beer discounts and specials, as well as member-only events, exclusive offers such as invites to sports VIP visits and autograph signings.
(As an aside, mug clubs may be endangered in Pennsylvania: At press time, the state’s Liquor Control Board had cited several establishments for not offering “uniform pricing” to their patrons. Considering that most of the Liquor Control Board’s codes were written in the 1930s, it may be time for an update to reflect the trend toward loyalty marketing—a strategy that many operators embrace in a challenging economy.)
Draft domestic beers help drive coupon promotions at Bahama Breeze. The 30-unit chain’s 2012 “burger and a beer” deal for $10 has been popular, as has its traditional happy hour. Promoted as “Island Time,” the happy hour often features special pricing on the house brew, Aruba Red, which is contract brewed by Anheuser-Busch. Most often, Bahama Breeze sells 14-oz. draft beers for $2 and 20-oz. drafts for $3—usually Blue Moon, the Aruba Red, Bud Light or Sam Adams lager.
Meanwhile, the Bonefish Grill chain offers each unit the opportunity to localize their draft beer selections. Prices range from approximately $3.50 to $5 for specialty draft beers, though these vary by location.
“In all the locations that allow happy hour, we sell all draft beers for $1 off during happy hour, which is seven days per week, 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.,” says Leigh Merritt, Bonefish Grill’s director of bar innovation.
Another strategy to provide a social and fun experience for beer drinkers is to devote ample space to the bar. At Bonefish Grill locations, for instance, Merritt says the bar is “approximately one-third of our total square footage in the front of house.”
Poggled a plus for promoting
Poggled, a technology platform/daily deals service, is helping both brands and operators grow through event marketing. The social media app for nightlife promotions started in Chicago in 2009 and now includes markets such as New York, Miami and Las Vegas.
To help launch Bud Light Platinum on premise, Anheuser-Busch/InBev had Poggled design promotions to draw crowds to 18 venues across Chicago by offering coupons for a discounted beer and free admission to events. Across the promotion, Poggled collected consumer feedback and opt-in contact data for both follow-on marketing by venue and by brand.
The Scout Waterhouse & Kitchen, a Chicago sports bar that opened in 2011, teamed with Poggle to promote Bud Light Platinum parties during playoffs from NCAA basketball to ice hockey. For example, a $1 Poggle party in the bar’s back room featured a televised Blackhawks game, $3 Bud Light Platinum bottles, chats with the Bud Light girls and the chance to win tickets to a Blackhawks game.
The beauty of beer pairing
Because it’s often high in acidity and low in alcohol, beer makes a great beverage for pairing. And in many cases, beer offers more flexibility than wine.
Rich Higgins, a consultant and one of only four Master Cicerones in the U.S. (a level equivalent to Master Sommelier), recommends matching intensity. A lot of beers are delicate and don’t have as much impact, he says, so they can be run over by food. If a dish is salty and sweet, fatty and rich, Higgins points out that the acidity in beer can create that balance. If the beer is rich, sweet and malty with fruit esters or spicy phenols, it can be paired with a dish with bitterness, spice or herbs, such as a vinaigrette.
Bottom line, beer can fit anywhere within the meal: “It’s great as an aperitif, especially beers with minerality and acidity that stimulate appetite,” Higgins says. “For dessert, a harmonic pairing is a rich, toasty Imperial stout that is higher in alcohol with chocolate cake or ice cream or even a brownie.”
But just as with wine, Higgins stresses that staff must know the beer to sell it. “Training is not just memorization of flavors, but making them genuine ambassadors,” he says.
Most staffers go out and drink beer after work anyway, he notes, so have them taste and tell you what they taste. “Having them write their own notes, rather than just repeat notes prepared for them, makes their approach feel genuine,” Higgins says.