New flavors brew up interest in beer

The beer category wants its mojo back. After losing share to wine, spirits and small breweries for several years, major brewers are out to win consumers back to the category with new products that are a big departure from their classic offerings.

The success of Bud Light Platinum, with its higher alcohol content and sweeter taste, has sparked a flurry of flavored malt beverages into the beer market. This year alone, Anheuser-Busch InBev is launching nearly 20 new products to the U.S. market.

“The spirits people learned that younger consumers are looking for newer tastes, and big brewers have come up short on new flavors and innovation in a category that depends on a churn of new flavors and packaging,” said Eric Shepard, executive editor at Beer Marketers Insights.

Big brewers now aim to close the gap. A-B recently launched Michelob Ultra Light Cider, a gluten-free cider made from apples featuring one-third fewer calories and a sweeter taste than traditional ciders. Rather than positioning the beverage as a seasonal drink, A-B is pitching it as a year-round beverage that can be poured over ice. Beer over ice also is the approach A-B is taking with its Bud Light Lime-a-Rita, a malt beverage containing 8% alcohol, that’s billed as a margarita alternative. Under its Michelob Ultra label, the company also is rolling out a tea-and-lemonade drink called 19th Hole.

Molson Coors Brewing Co. is launching its own Coors Light Iced T in Canada, and is likely to extend the launch to the United States.

The low alcohol content FMBs also can be sold in many outlets where spirits cannot, offering retailers more opportunities to appeal to consumers looking for an alcoholic beverage with an interesting taste profile.

While traditional brands try on new flavors, craft beers and imports continue to power the category. Craft beer dollars were up 15% in 2011, according to the Brewers Association, and accounted for 6% of total beer category sales. That share is expected to continue to rise.

Boston Beer Co. and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. held the top craft brewery spots last year, but big brewers are nudging into the category. A-B’s Shock Top brand had double-digit sales increases last year with such new flavors as pumpkin ale. Both A-B and MillerCoors have introduced summer shandy flavors this year. India Pale Ales and seasonals remain the hottest segments of the category, according to Shepard.

Imports also have seen a nice spike in sales, with A-B’s Stella Artois and Grupo Modelo’s Modelo Especial and Victoria showing
solid increases.