Despite all the hand-wringing about declining sales, light beer is still a heavy hitter, according to several operators. “Light beer is huge in terms of volume, and therefore remains important to the business,” says Mike Hurt, director of beverage and late night marketing at Kansas City, MO-based Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, franchisor of more than 1,800 U.S. casual-dining restaurants.
Each Applebee’s typically has six to 10 draft lines and will carry 10 to 15 bottled beers, yet the top-three best-selling beers are all lights: Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite. Corona Light and Michelob Ultra also sell well, he says.
Although light beers are the stars from a volume perspective, “specialty and craft beers are on the rise and growing in importance,” Hurt says. “There are significant regional differences as it relates to specialty and craft volume and the volume and role of imports.”
At Tailgators Pub & Grill, a Cajun-inspired sports bar with units in Woodlands, and Magnolia, TX, Bud Light and Miller Lite are the big sellers, along with local Lone Star Light. Also on the list are Bud Light Lime, Bud Light Platinum, and Coors Light, according to server Brittney Donovan.
Tailgators prices domestic bottles at $3.50; Corona Light is $4.25. Draft versions of the domestic lights are available, priced $3.25 per pint, $4.75 for a 24-oz. glass, and $19 for a 100-oz. self-serve tower of beer. A spring special offering towers of Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light for $15 has been super popular, says Donovan.
Big and Bright
How popular is light beer? Four of the top-five domestic beer brands are lights. Bud Light is king, moving 508.5 million 2.25-gallon cases in 2013, according to the Handbook Advance, published by Cheers sister company the Beverage Information Group. Next is Coors Light, with 253.8 million cases.
In fourth place, Miller Lite logged l85.9 million cases and Natural Light rounds out the top five with 102 million cases in 2013. Other light beers appear among the top-20 domestic brands, including Busch Light, Keystone Light, and Bud Light line extensions Lime and Platinum.
Bright spots in the light lineup during 2013 were Busch Light, which was up 1.2% to 91.4 million cases, and Michelob Ultra, which grew a respectable 7.1% to 50 million cases last year. The latter, an Anheuser-Busch InBev brand, is positioned as a low-calorie (95 calories) and low-carb (2.6 grams) beer. “The Michelob Ultra product has its niche and generally does well,” notes Hurt at Applebee’s.
On the imports side, Corona Light increased 3.0% in 2013 to 13.9 million cases. The Crown Imports brand recently launched a draft version in key markets for on-premise, which has bumped up sales. “The new Corona Light product has done well in markets where it’s available,” Hurt says.
Tecate Light, the Mexican import from Heineken USA, had a banner year, jumping 14.8% to 3 million cases. Labatt Blue Light, Heineken Premium Light and Amstel Light also contend among the top-20 imported brands.
Fans and Factors
Has the light-beer customer changed much over the years? Not really, says Hurt. “Typically it skews about two-thirds male to one-third female in a 21- to 49-year-old age range.”
Prices vary by region, but Applebee’s offers a strong value proposition with its 22-oz. “Brewtus” glass format. The big three domestic beers are generally line priced, says Hurt.
“In a college town, we see that some of the younger drinkers like those light beers, but it’s really a mix of customers that drink light,” says Shawn Clapp, co-owner of The Toasted Frog, with two restaurant and bar concepts in Grand Forks and Bismarck, ND. By the bottle ($3.50), Coors Light, Bud Light and Miller Lite all sell well, but they can’t compete with the craft and import selections on draft.
“We also have a few imported lights, like Amstel Light, but the customers drinking light seem to go for the major domestics,” says Clapp. “That’s what sells in this part of the country.”
As the weather warms up, “people will be looking for lighter beers,” says Danielle Renzulli, owner of 12 Steps Down, a neighborhood bar in Philadelphia. “The light beers are doing better than the regular domestic premiums,” she adds, though among 12 Steps Down’s 10 taps and 80 bottles and cans, only Amstel Light and Miller Lite are included.
During baseball season, the bar runs a themed promotion in partnership with local brewery Yuengling featuring Yuengling Light Lager. 12 Steps Down discounts the beer, along with $1 hot dogs, while Yuengling provides giveaways such as logoed hats and T-shirts.
At Applebee’s locations, “light beers are more prominent during Happy Hour and at late night,” says Hurt. “Another factor that impacts light beer is seasonality; there’s still much more volume consumed during the warmer months of the year.”
Applebee’s runs basketball and football promotions with light-beer brands. “Depending on the market and liquor laws, we’ll run features, discounts, Happy-Hour specials, etc., that all feature light beers,” Hurt says.
Session: The Light Side of Craft
Applebee’s has definitely seen a shift toward specialty and craft products over the last few years, says Hurt. “We’re seeing session beers become more prominent in the specialty and craft space.”
Session beer is craft brew’s version of light; so-called because a number of pints or bottles can be consumed in a single drinking session. “Session beers can be any of a wide variety of beers—any beer that’s low enough in alcohol content. Beers you can spend some time with,” explains Renzulli. 12 Steps Down is selling more of these sessionable beers lately, she adds, “for customers who want to hang out awhile.”
The Boulder, CO-based Brewers Association defines a session beer as one with an ABV of less than 5%. Domestic light premium beers like Bud Light fit this criterion, with ABVs hovering around 4%.
“Under that definition, a great many beers qualify, but they don’t advertise themselves as session,” says Mary Oldham, director of sales for Half Moon Bay Brewing Company in Half Moon Bay, CA. “Many of the domestic premium beers are sessionable by that definition.”
Opened as a restaurant and bar in 2000, Half Moon Bay began to brew on-site three years later. The beer lines run right from the brewery into the taps at the bar.
In response to customer demand for lighter beer, Half Moon Bay’s brewmaster James Costa collaborated with noted brewer Pete Slosberg (of Pete’s Wicked Ale) to produce a line of 3.75% ABV sessionables. After some testing and tweaks, the three session beers were launched this past May, and sold in the 6,000-sq.-ft. restaurant, as well as packaged and distributed to local bars and dining establishments.
“People will say, ‘I don’t want a big 8% beer, what do you have?’” says Oldham. The answers are a Belgian-style Wit, a Rye Pale Ale and a Chocolate Porter, all under the brewery’s Maverick’s brand (named for the notorious surf break in the bay). The low-alcohol brews occupy three of the restaurant’s 10 taps. “They are holding their own against the other selections,” says Oldham, including special brews rated as high as 10%.
Half Moon Bay’s drinks menu lists the beers’ ABVs as well as IBUs. “That helps customers decide what they want,” says Oldham.
All beers are priced $2 for 4 oz., $4.50 for 12 oz., $5.50 for a pint, $6.50 for 20 oz. and $16.50 for a pitcher. The new beers have generated incremental sales; customers will enjoy a pint or two at the bar, and then get a six-pack to go.
Oldham has noticed that the three sessions are especially popular at lunch and in the afternoon, thanks to their low alcohol. “The session beers have been a great addition to our portfolio from open to close,” she says.There’s no question that craft and session brews have had a major impact on the beer category at large. “Ten years ago, people didn’t pay much attention to the taste of beer, and now they do,” says Renzulli at 12 Steps Down. “[Consumer] taste buds have expanded.”