Good Beer Hunting

Leave the Lite On — Having Built its Brand on Hops, Night Shifts Bets Big on Lager

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American craft brewers have long seen their foray into the industry as an ongoing effort to steal taste buds and dollars away from generations-old macro producers. Beginning in late April, Everett, Massachusetts’ Night Shift Brewing will further plan that heist by going directly after Big Beer.

After slowing ramping up specialty batches of its Nite Lite Light Lager the past two years, the brewery is set to take the brand year-round in its Maine, New York, and home state markets. Its specific goal will be to take on brands like Miller Lite, Bud Light, and Coors Light by taking up space right next to them on shelves. Night Shift co-founder Rob Burns, who also oversees sister business Night Shift Distribution, says he plans to specifically ask for placement among macro adjunct lagers and will also seek new businesses to carry his beer, including big box and convenience stores. In fact, he says Night Shift currently sells no beer in either of those in Massachusetts, which makes this Lager a big opportunity.

“Nite Lite could work well in Walmart or Sam’s Club, where we didn’t have that opportunity to sell before,” he says. “At the end of the day, we want to challenge the light beer category and put macros on notice that we’re coming. I know that sounds silly, but a war is won after many small battles, and this is how we start chipping away at what they’ve built.”

Nite Lite’s basic stats line up nicely against those that beer’s biggest brands like to promote. Made with a malt bill that includes 20% corn, it’s 4.3% ABV and has 120 calories—about the same as Bud Light.

Night Shift will sell 12 packs of 12-ounce cans—the first version of such packaging for the brewery—for a suggested retail price of $15, which Burns noted is specifically aimed at “super premium” category leader Michelob Ultra. The beer will also be available in four packs of 16-ounce cans for around $7. Half-kegs of the beer will sell for about $120.

“As far as we can tell, it’ll be one of the lowest craft keg prices in the Massachusetts market,” Burns says. “Boston doesn’t have many $5 pints anymore, and we’re hoping that’ll get it there.”

Burns says he plans to produce about 4,000 barrels of Nite Lite before the end of 2018 thanks to a new contract brewing agreement with Rhode Island’s Isle Brewing Guild. That amount would immediately make the Light Lager one of the top three brands by volume for the brewery alongside Whirlpool (a New England Pale Ale) and Santilli (an IPA).

In the broad context of craft, Night Shift’s biggest launch isn’t terribly unique. In recent years, “small and independent” businesses have seen the “easy drinking” segment as a key part of their future. Burial Beer Co.’s Innertube Light Lager was considered among 2017’s best new releases, Short’s Brewing Co.’s Local Light Lager recently went through a rebrand, and Wild Heaven Beer’s Emergency Drinking Beer changed an entire business plan for the company. The examples continue to grow.

In 2017, IRI tracked $15.2 million in light beer sales among its craft brands in MULC channels of grocery, convenience, and other stores. That amounted to a 29% increase in dollar sales over 2016, helped by a 24% jump in volume sold. Pale Lagers, with $75.4 million in sales, grew by almost 24% in dollars and 21.5% in volume. Even if these aren’t what beer enthusiasts think of when they consider what to buy, they’re not categories worth ignoring, either.

IPA has long been a style fueling growth for the craft category, and interestingly, these moves may seem to be the antithesis of those origins. However, they may also be necessary to expand a beer segment that, on a whole, has had slowing growth in recent years. Burns specifically noted that if craft is to fulfill a promise of bringing locally produced and/or fuller flavored beer to drinkers, it can’t ignore the need to fight for share of Lager, too.

“In the '90s and 2000s it was fundamental to be on the polar opposite end of the spectrum, but what we’ve accidentally done, or a byproduct of what we’ve done, is we’ve given the macro brands this perfectly walled-in space, and that’s the biggest space,” Burns says. “We said we don’t want craft to play in that because it’s ‘not what craft is about,’ but why can’t it be about Light Lagers?”

Burns says plenty of craft devotees, including brewers themselves, find low-ABV, macro brands as a perfect alternative after a day or night of drinking. And if these beers are in regular rotation anyway, why not provide a direct competitor?

“We’re not going to match Bud Light or Natty Light in price, but we can get close enough that we have a value proposition to a consumer," he says. "If we’re successful, we’ve opened up a new style for craft to play in that hopefully converts them to IPA drinkers down the line.”

By size, scope, and trend, it all seems like an ideal time to launch a beer like Nite Lite, something many other breweries have also worked to their advantage. Nite Lite debuted as a 20-barrel, draft-only batch in 2016 and expanded to about 80 BBLs of draft and canned beer in 2017, earning descriptions on Untappd likening it to a more flavorful option to Bud Light, Corona, and others. The Night Shift team clearly saw these initial interactions as positive feedback to take the beer to the next level.

“We first thought nobody would be interested in it other than ourselves,” Burns says. “And then it turned out people were really excited about it, which got us thinking that this might actually have potential in the market.”

—Bryan Roth