Beer brewers revise playbooks to win back lost customers

Share via

Super Bowl Sunday promises to be another epic day in the annals of gluttony, with Americans consuming 1.3 billion chicken wings, 2,000 tons of popcorn and enough avocados to cover the floor of the Indianapolis stadium 28 feet deep.

But there will probably be a bit less beer to wash it all down because of changing tastes and the growing appeal of wine and cocktails as alternatives.

Beer sales have been on the decline in the U.S., with shipments dipping 1.4% last year to 210 million barrels, an eight-year low, according to trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights. Anheuser-Busch, whose brands include Budweiser and Bud Light, slipped below the 100 million-barrel benchmark for the first time in a decade.


Brewers are fighting back, introducing craft beers and other spins on the classic beverage in a bid to recapture straying customers. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is spending at least $30 million on Super Bowl ads, will devote two of its six game-time spots to one of those products, its new higher-alcohol Bud Light Platinum.

That brew’s 6% alcohol content reflects Americans’ growing thirst for drinks with more kick and perceived sophistication. Sales of both wine and hard liquor such as vodka, bourbon and whiskey are up 4% or more over the last year, helped in part by images in popular media.

The television shows “Mad Men” and “Pan Am” celebrate the cocktail culture of the 1960s, while the recreational drinking on MTV’s popular “Jersey Shore” tends to involve fruity hard-liquor concoctions such as “Ron Ron Juice” (vodka, cranberry juice, chunks of watermelon and maraschino cherries).

The club scene in Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York and elsewhere has turned a bottle of Grey Goose vodka delivered in an ice bucket into a premium experience. The lifestyle it evokes has become more visible worldwide through gossip shows and celebrity shilling, including Kim Kardashian stumping for Midori liqueur and supermodel Marisa Miller touting Captain Morgan rum.

“Wine and spirits have a more romantic appeal to consumers and are seen as an affordable luxury,” said Adam Rogers, an analyst with the Beverage Information Group. “The major beer brands seem to have reached their apex, and there’s nowhere for them to go but down.”

When younger people do reach for a beer, it’s often a craft beer and not something you can find on every supermarket shelf. Consider Brendan Deiz, 25, among the recently converted.


“Beer was always something you had to choke down to go to a party,” said the Pasadena high school teacher. “The first time I ever drank to enjoy it was the first time I had a microbrew.”

Scott Gordon, 43, of La Cañada Flintridge, used to occasionally have a Corona but hasn’t drunk a beer in years. He now prefers vodka and gin, and revels in “the whole artisanal thing.”

He enjoys visiting watering holes such as the Varnish in downtown Los Angeles, where a bartender recently served him a drink that goes back to at least the 1930s, a Poet’s Dream, and then listed the ingredients: Plymouth gin, Benedictine, dry vermouth and orange bitters.

“It’s kind of like ‘Top Chef’ but with alcohol,” said Gordon. “More glamorous and interesting than popping a Coors in the backyard.”

Beer executives put much of the blame for their industry’s slide on the recession and its aftershocks.

Young men in their 20s — the largest beer-drinking age group — were among the hardest hit by unemployment and the economic downturn, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights.


“They may be still drinking beer, but they’re drinking less,” he said. “And they’re less likely to go out.”

Mainstream companies are trying to get onboard one alcohol trend: hard cider, which saw sales grow more than 20% over the last year.

Anheuser-Busch is prepping a cider called Evolve. And many analysts believe that MillerCoors is on track to buy Crispin Cider.

But perhaps the biggest threat to mainstream brands is from craft or “micro” breweries that turn out beer honed by individual or a small group of brew masters in relatively small batches. It’s beer’s tie to the artisanal and slow-food movements, and it’s increasingly popular.

Of the 25 craft brewers that sell more than 100,000 barrels a year, each saw sales increase last year. Brewer D.G. Yuengling & Son Inc. of Pottsville, Pa., was up 16.9%, and Samuel Adams owner Boston Beer Co. scored an estimated 8% increase in shipments.

Even the major companies are starting to turn out craft brews. Popular brand Blue Moon is made by MillerCoors, and at several Barney’s Beanery locations it now outsells two of the company’s mainstream labels, Miller Lite and Coors Light.


“Your average customer now knows a lot more about craft beers and mixology and the different kinds of liquors available,” said AJ Sacher, regional manager of the West Hollywood restaurant chain. “So you’re just as likely to see craft beers at any bar or restaurant as you are Bud or Coors.”

The price of craft brews has fallen in recent years, which has helped boost growth. “It’s aspirational for people to be able to drink top-notch beer and be able to afford it,” said Paul Scrivano, owner of the Blue Dog Beer Tavern in Sherman Oaks.

While many people may be cutting back on beer this Super Bowl, Jasen Wong, 24, isn’t one of them. In fact, to him the beverage is more important than the game.

“I’ve never been a big football fan,” the advertising manager said. “For me, my focus on Sunday is going to be the beer.”

But it won’t be Bud. He’ll be drinking Blue Moon.