"A combination of light and sessionable is always going to be a large market," Beer Marketer's Insights executive editor Eric Shepard told The Washington Post’s Fritz Hahn at the start of the year. "For a lot of people, that's always going to be what beer is.”
For decades, it’s almost quite literally what beer was, in fact. Before the advent of craft, as Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light, and all sorts of heritage macro brands fought for attention with the common denominator of being easy on taste buds and a “beer-flavored beer.” Even comedian Jim Gaffigan set the craft world ablaze this month by admitting on CBS Sunday Morning that “I don't want a beer that tastes like chocolate or oranges or avocados. I want a beer that taste like…I don't know, beer.” It was a move so apparently objectionable the Brewers Association felt the need to openly respond to it.
For as much as craft has done to push the envelope in terms of options (yes, hello, Pastry Stouts), and IPA has established itself as an unstoppable force, there’s no escaping the history—let alone volume—of what “easy drinking” beers provide. And that’s why—amidst the non-stop, meteoric rise of Michelob Ultra—more players are entering the game for low calorie, low carb, or some combination of low anything to attract more drinkers.
In March, Massachusetts’ Night Shift launched Nite Lite, a 4.3% ABV, 120 calorie Light Lager. The brewery plans to brew about 4,000 barrels of it in 2018, or about as much as J Wakefield Brewing made all of last year. Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker called his mammoth success, 805, “the least dimensional of our beers,” but the Blonde Ale is now 60% of production for the brewery. Even Dogfish Head, which built a reputation for its “off-centered” beers with hefty, caloric brews has fully embraced the runaway success of SeaQuench Ale, not actually touting the 140-calorie beer as a health drink, but certainly playing up it’s “healthy” attributes in context of other beers.
And now this month, Lagunitas has received approval for DayTime IPA, a 4% ABV beer that prominently showcases “100 CAL” on its label and branding text that says it "represents everything we know about making hop-forward beer, expressed in a sotto voice." This comes a month after the Heineken-owned company also announced the release of Hop, a “hoppy sparkling water” with the slogan of "zero alcohol, zero carbs, zero cals."
Lagunitas didn’t return GBH’s request for comment on the new beer.
“It seems to me that as craft growth has slowed, people are looking for volume plays,” says Mike Kallenberger, founder of Tropos Brand Consulting and a former Miller Brewing employee who spent three decades with the company. “Traditionally, craft was above responding to trends. It was a ‘we create trends’ kind of thing. Now it seems like they’re responding to trends.”
“Things like Founders Solid Gold and this Lagunitas ‘light beer’ are almost the next step in that process,” he adds.
For a long time, the lone "craft" light beer that held its own was Samuel Adams Light, which just five years ago sold nearly 20,000 BBLs worth in IRI-tracked grocery, convenience, and other stores. Now it's Founders All Day IPA, which grew by 50% in IRI volume sales from 2016-2017 and is on track for another record sales year. Or SeaQuench, which grew 106% in IRI stores between 2016-2017 and is on pace for an additional 50% growth this year.
Just this month, MillerCoors announced the upcoming release of Saint Archer Gold, a “Helles-inspired Lager” from one of its acquired craft breweries. In its announcement, the company specifically played up its own number of calories (95) and carbs (2.6 grams) per can while noting that it will be targeted at "active, health-conscious 25-to-44-year-old men and women." Gold will be a “low-calorie, low-carbohydrate beer that will appeal to both craft drinkers who want a more sessionable option without leaving craft, and Michelob Ultra drinkers who are interested in craft but still want lower carbs and calories,” brewery president Brad Nadal told the MillerCoors blog.
One particularly interesting perspective Kallenberger provides in a moment like this, when a sudden calorie craze has taken hold a part of the industry previously averse to such conversation, is his work on Miller Lite during the 1990s. The history of that brand was set in its positioning as a beer that a consumer could drink more of, not just focused on carbs or calories, Kallenberger said. When he came on board to work on marketing, success was found by aiming at younger drinkers, which Bud Light and Coors Light had excelled at until that point in time, he adds.
In a strange way, there’s a direct line to today’s updated version with craft beer.
Decades ago, the idea of a “beer-flavored beer” was ubiquitous. The best-selling brands didn’t succeed because of their robust flavor but, in simplistic terms, their lack of it. But in The Modern Age of Beer, that’s not necessarily an option. Craft beer and an assumption of flavor or experience has become enough of a cultural zeitgeist that America’s youngest drinkers are at least aware of what they should get from a craft beer versus a macro brand.
This leaves a common denominator of volume—the idea that someone can drink more. How else might a drinker end up with a beer named “All Day IPA” or “Dayblazer Easygoing Ale” or “Beer for Drinking” or “DayTime?” Or the proliferation of 19.2 and 24-ounce cans? Or 15-packs?
“The more that craft starts to enter this camp, you’ll get volume, but are you hurting for what ‘craft’ stands for in the long run?” Kallenberger asks. He pauses and admits that he doesn’t like to wade into controversial opinions, but adds that he’s concerned. “I really think that 10 years from now, if this is what craft becomes in some way, is it any different than mainstream beer?”
The flavor certainly will be, if only in a case like Lagunitas’ hoppy version of a low-calorie beer. But in terms of volume play, as more breweries see lagers and their like as viable options for sales potential, the lines will continue to blur.
Especially when, for the second-consecutive year in 2018, the Great American Beer Festival’s Light Lager category was swept by Brewers Association-craft breweries. It’s a change in the guard that’s decades in the making. But where does the new guard intend to take this thing?