Light beer’s aura has been somewhat overshadowed in the U.S. by the still small but rapidly growing craft brew market. And the traditional light category is being supplanted by low-alcohol craft session beers. But light beer is still going strong, and the top brands prevail.
Since their emergence in the 1970s, domestic premium lights such as Budweiser, Coors, Miller and Michelob Ultra, along with light imports Corona, Amstel and Heineken, have grabbed the lion’s share of the market.
Operators attest to their strength. “We carry the big four: Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite and Michelob Ultra,” says Kip Snider, director of beverage for Irvine, CA-based Yard House Restaurants.
Each of the casual, beer-centric chain’s 43 locations offers an array of 120 to 180 different brands, priced $4.25 to $8.50. The majority are craft and imports, Snider notes, but light beers are an important part of Yard House’s offerings.
“Some people knock us for carrying the domestic brands, but at the end of the day, all of those light beers are in our top-10 sellers,” Snider says. “And we want to give our guests what they are looking for. If it’s a hot summer day and a customer wants to drink three or four light beers, that’s what we are providing for them.”
THE LIGHT BEER TYPE
RFD Washington, a sports bar in Washington, D.C., has 45 beer taps, of which just one is devoted to domestic premium light. But light beers are still “a big part of the market,” says RFD beer director Brett Clark.
“We are [located] across the street from the Verizon Center arena, and the customers who come in after the games will often order Miller Lite, so we have to have it on tap,” says Clark. Warm weather and sporting events aside, there is a middle-aged, business-man type who typically drinks light beer, he notes.
RFD’s drafts range from $4 to $10. Bud Premium Light can be found among the 300 bottles the bar offers, as well as pricy imports that can range in price up to $50 for a 750-ml. bottle of Belgian ale.
“There is a core group who will always drink Bud Light, Miller Lite, Corona Light,” says Kate Malaniak, senior director of food & beverage for Sharon, PA-based Quaker Steak & Lube. The beverage list at the casual, automobile-themed restaurant chain includes those light beers and others, such as Michelob Ultra. Some locations have added new lights such as Bud Platinum Light, but it is not mandated.
“I think a lot of light beer consumption is female-driven,” Malaniak says, “but there is a male crowd that always drinks light beer because it’s less filling.”
Quaker Steak & Lube restaurants feature eight to as many as 26 taps, as well as a range of canned and bottled beer; prices vary according to location. A Quaker Steak signature is the Lube Tube, a 100-oz. tableside, self-service tap that’s popular with groups. Customers can order any draft beer for the Lube Tube, says Malaniak, and the sight of one of these towers passing through the dining room typically garners me-too orders.
Deep-pocketed domestic premium brands often cosponsor promotions at Quaker Steak, which gives sales of those beers a bump, Malaniak says. But she thinks the average beer drinker is moving slightly away from domestic premium these days, and getting more adventuresome. “Light beer is always going to have a place on beverage lists,” she says, “but right now there are sexier things out there to drink in the beer world.”
BEER IS IN SESSION
Session beers are one of the sexy, crafty brews now generating interest. Session beer can be made in any style, according the Brewers Association, but must be lower in strength, with alcohol not to exceed 5.1% by volume. “Drinkability is a character in the overall balance of these beers,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association.
Because it can be marketed in a number of styles, the prevalence of session beer is difficult to identify and track, notes Herz. But the number of entries in the session beer category in craft competitions such as the Great American Beer Festive has been growing each year.
“Session beer is exactly what the name says: a beer you can drink a bunch of in one session,” says Clark at RFD. The beer director points to ample historic precedent for these low-alcohol brews. In medieval Europe, for instance, people drank small (low-alcohol) beer in preference to often-polluted water. And monks brewed low-octane saison and farmhouse ales to refresh workers in the fields in summer time.
At any time, RFD offers a good half dozen lagers and pilsners on tap, which are low enough in alcohol to be sessionable. “There are a lot of good, high-end, low-alcohol beers to choose from,” Clark says.
For example, he cites the Founders Brewing Co., which has just released the aptly named All Day IPA, which at 4.7% ABV is a sessionable beer with a satisfying hoppy bite. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Clark. And the venerable Guinness Stout, at 4.2% ABV, fits that category as well, he adds, although the average customer might not realize that.
“If a guest is in the mood for a beer that’s not too strong, it’s nice to know the alcohol content,” observes David Coleman, chef at Michael’s On Naples in Long Beach, CA, and three Michael’s Pizzerias. That’s why he lists the ABVs on a chalkboard alongside the beer selections. Lighter-alcohol beers tend to be more of a lunchtime call, he notes.
Although Michael’s carries a number of sessionable craft beers, the operator doesn’t offer any light beers. “We try to stay away from mass-produced beers,” Coleman says. The beverages, like the food ingredients, are sourced locally from small producers. The restaurant carries eight to 12 bottled beers; the pizzerias each have eight draft taps, priced from $5 to $7.
LEARNING YOUR ABVS
Educating the customer is a factor in selling some of the newer lighter style of beer. “The staff engages our guests to let them know about ABV levels of our beers,” notes Brendan Hartranft, owner of three taprooms in Philadelphia, which all carry lighter beers such as pilsners and Belgian golden ales.
Hartranft is more liberal with his definition of session beer. “I call 6% ABV or under sessionable; I think 5.1% is a little narrow,” he says. His Memphis Taproom sports 10 taps, two beer engines and 100 bottles; Local 44 offers 18 taps, two beer engines and one bottle, Orval Trappist Ale; and Resurrection Ale House has 12 taps, one beer engine and 15 bottles. Beers are priced $4 to $7, ranging up to $10 for rare selections.
Hartranft has contracted with a local brewer to produce a house beer, called Duet, which is a low-alcohol session beer. “That shows our level of commitment to session beers,” he says.
Yard House Restaurants also break out its beers’ ABV levels, as well as other pertinent details on their lists. Beer drinkers are more knowledgeable and interested in these facts, says Snider.
“Some customers breeze through the list, looking for certain regions or styles, which we break out in a progressive format on the menu,” he notes, “and other guests look for ABVs, what’s under 5% so that they can take a ‘tour’ of several different beers in one sitting.”
Snider estimates that about 25% of Yard House’s beer offerings fall into the sessionable category of 5% ABV and under. “A number of breweries are starting to focus more on session beers,” he says, citing Founders, Lagunitas, Stone, New Belgium, Uinta and Cigar City, among others.
He welcomes the change, noting that with a selection as vast at Yard House, customers are able to sample more beers if they are lower in alcohol. “I think you will see more session beers on the market in the future. Operators will have to have at least a couple in their portfolios.” ·
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who crafts his own homebrew and writes about all things drinkable.
LEADERS IN LIGHT BEER
Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite are the top-three leading light beer brands in the U.S., according to Beverage Information Group’s Beer Handbook Advance 2013, followed by Natural Light, Busch Light, Keystone Light and Michelob Ultra. Corona Light is among the top-10 leading imported brands. And Coors Light has enjoyed eight years of consecutive growth; volume for the brand was up 2.0% in 2012.
AB InBev’s Michelob Ultra was up 7.0% last year, thanks to the introduction of a number of successful line extensions. Bud Light Lime and the new Bud Light Platinum also placed in the top-10 light leaders, as did Milwaukee’s Best Light.
But while the leading brands grew 0.5% in 2012, to a projected 1.37 billion 2.25-gallon cases, according to BIG stats, the light category as a whole fell 0.2%.
In contrast, the craft brewing industry saw a 15% rise in volume and a 17% increase in dollar growth in 2012, according to the Boulder, CO-based Brewers Association. But American craft brewers produced and sold an estimated 13.2 million barrels of beer in 2012, a mere drop in the bucket compared to domestic premium volumes.—THS
SPOTLIGHT ON CIDER
At an average 4% to 5% ABV, hard cider is light and sessionable, it’s naturally gluten-free and its softer, sweeter taste appeals to younger drinkers. Although it’s still a niche market—for now—cider has attracted notice from the big beer companies.
In the past year, Anheuser-Busch launched Michelob Ultra Light Cider, MillerCoors purchased Crispin Cider and Boston Beer released Angry Orchard Cider. Heineken USA has Strongbow Cider in its quiver and Danish brewer Carlsberg Group is now distributing its Somersby Hard Apple Cider in U.S. markets through Crown Imports. There is also a growing number of small craft-cider producers.
“Cider is an emerging category. Everyone is trying to jump on board,” says Kate Malaniak, senior director of food & beverage for Quaker Steak & Lube. The chain conducted a promotion with Angry Orchard this past winter, which was a hit with customers.
“We carry one or two ciders, mostly from Normandy,” says Brendan Hartranft, owner of three taphouses in Philadelphia. “Generally, those customers are cider enthusiasts or perhaps they are Celiac sufferers who don’t like gluten-free beer.”
Ciders are sessionable offerings, “usually falling in the 3.8% to 5% ABV range,” points out Kip Snider, director of beverage at Yard House Restaurants. Yard House offers three to five hard ciders, which varies according to location, but can include Woodchuck, Crispin, Angry Orchard, Widmer Wildwood and Strongbow. Snider plans to keep adding ciders to the rotating tap list. “Cider has always been part of what we do,” he notes. —THS