Good Beer Hunting

Busting the Ballot — A New Poll Says Heineken is “America’s Favorite Beer.” Is it, Though?

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What’s America’s favorite beer? By sheer volume—and definition—it’s unquestionably Bud Light, which sells more than Coors Light and Miller Lite combined.

But what’s the country’s most popular beer? A recent poll throws a wrench into that assumption using perceived favorability of a variety of widely-available brands. According to online market research company YouGov, the results from 8,000 survey participants make Heineken, a European Pale Lager from the Netherlands, tops in the U.S. Meanwhile, Guinness Draught, Corona Extra, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and Budweiser represent the rest of the five most-popular beers in America, per the poll.

Oddly enough, Guinness Draught is the only brand of the top five that showed volume sales growth of packaged beers in IRI-tracked grocery, convenience, and other stores from 2017–2018. That beer added 6%, while Corona Extra (-2%), Budweiser (-5.4%), Heineken (-5.8%), and Boston Lager (-14.8%) all decreased their sales.

These results would seem out of place on most beer-focused listicles, but they do raise an overarching question: what is “popularity” when it comes to consumer products?

With help from the "Mere-Exposure Effect," the simple acknowledgment and awareness of a ubiquitous beer brand already gives some of the world's most widely-distributed beers a leg up. There's a good chance that beer and non-beer drinkers alike have heard of brands like Heineken, Guinness, or Corona; the mere knowledge of their existence can theoretically create consumer preferences towards them.

Which is to say: the idea of "popularity,” in this case, may be a bit misleading w/r/t trends in consumer behavior.

To wit: the YouGov ratings weren’t based on taste or preference, which a quick glance at any beer rating site would show. Heineken carries a 2.1 out of 5 on RateBeer, 2.73 out of 5 on BeerAdvocate, and 2.86 out of 5 on Untappd. Not exactly setting the world on fire. It does, however, have a 47% "popularity score," according to YouGov's analysis, a hair beyond Guinness Draught’s ranking.

That number is based on whether a participant recognizes a brand and if they hold a positive, negative, or neutral opinion of it. Of 41 large beer brands—almost all national and widely available in just about any store—it means that marketing and placement can offer as much of an advantage as personal taste preferences.

According to the findings, Heineken is known by 95% of Americans, which is actually behind Bud Light’s 98%. However, the “favorability” of each shows an 8% difference from Heineken’s 47% to Bud Light’s 39%.

“Comparing America’s most-popular beer with its most-famous beer reveals that people who rate Bud Light as ‘strongly favorable’ are more likely than people who view Heineken as ‘strongly favorable’ to make an effort to support American businesses,” writes YouGov data journalist Linley Sanders.

But there was a hell of a kicker to the findings: because Heineken’s 47% score led the pack, it meant not a single brand carried even a simple majority of positive views. Maybe that’s a case for some of America’s fuller-flavored beers?

In the way that ubiquitousness is a form of popularity and success, it's also worth exploring what ascendancy offers, too. In that regard, Founders' Breakfast Stout is an interesting case. After becoming a year-round brand in 2018, the chocolate-coffee Imperial Stout has entrenched itself as a key part of the Founders portfolio. All Day IPA is without a doubt the brewery's flagship leader, but through the first four months of 2019, Breakfast Stout sold more packaged volume in IRI-tracked grocery, convenience, and other stores than the Ommegang family of beers. At that time, it was actually within spitting distance of Allagash White.

It's also done well on beer-centric lists, sporting the most ratings of any beer on BeerAdvocate and a top-five spot on RateBeer. It’s the 26th most-checked-in beer on Untappd, and last year, it was included among a collection of beers that could vie for the title of “America’s Stout.”

Worth equal consideration is Bell’s Two Hearted IPA, one of the best-selling brands in the most popular style category of craft beer. Not only is it third on BeerAdvocate's list of most-rated beers, it’s also the reigning champion of Zymurgy Magazine’s list of Best Beers in America, having been voted #1 by American Homebrewers Association members in 2017 and 2018. You'd be hard-pressed to find a beer geek with negative things to say about that beloved beer. And it sells, too—as much as the entire Cigar City portfolio in IRI stores, in fact. It grew sales volume in those channels by 11% in 2017–2018, nearly doubling its total sales volume from 2015–2018.

There’s a difference between simply being known and being loved. It'd perhaps be better for a beer to occupy a lower slot on a list like YouGov’s, because such placement would offer greater opportunity for growth and momentum. When you're at the top, the only way to go is down.

For instance, a brand like Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA might be in an opportune position (the brewery is ranked 40th by the YouGov poll). Following its recent merger with Boston Beer and a host of possibilities for accessing new accounts, it’s already well-known, but has lots of room to shimmy up a list like this.

Now, this isn't to say that the YouGov poll doesn't have merit. Looking at the list of popular beers from that survey alongside the most checked-in beers from Untappd, which boasts around 6.5 million users, there's plenty of crossover.

Guinness Draught, #2 on YouGov, is the most-ever checked-in beer on the rating app. Bud Light is #2, and Miller Lite #3. Heineken is #7. As might make sense for a platform that features more casual beer drinkers, the top-10 checked-in beers are ones you can find all over:

1. Guinness Draught

2. Bud Light

3. Miller Lite

4. Yuengling Traditional Lager

5. Lagunitas IPA

6. Coors Light

7. Heineken

8. Two Hearted Ale

9. Blue Moon Belgian White

10. All Day IPA

None of these options include what might be an obvious answer for America’s favorite beer. Michelob Ultra, which has been on a tear for years, has created such a following that even craft breweries are finding ways to play in the “better-for-you” space. That beer was #20 on YouGov's list, but was the only brand to show positive growth last year among the best-selling beers in IRI stores. Ultra gained 14% in volume 2017–2018 and is set for another record-setting year, while Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, and Budweiser have reached a point where flat sales are considered a feature instead of a bug.

Just like there are lots of different drinkers who have lots of different drinking preferences, being recognized as "most popular" comes with some caveats. "Xerox" may be used as often as "photocopy" and "Kleenex" as a synonym for "facial tissue," but that doesn’t mean being a generic noun is a way to claim victory. Knowing “Heineken” is one thing, but the sheer fact it can’t cross a threshold of 50% of people having a favorable opinion presents a lipstick-on-a-pig kind of scenario.

“Favorable” can be parsed from “popular,” and neither necessarily equates to “successful.” So, what’s America’s favorite beer? It depends on who you ask.

Words by Bryan Roth