Beer is the new wine. Where does that leave the blue-collar brews that have ruled cooler and barroom for more than a century?
Ten days from now Anheuser-Busch InBev unleashes a new beer, Budweiser Black Crown, with a deeper flavor and more alcohol than traditional Bud. The company charged its twelve domestic brewers with devising a variant of the King of Beers. Among the dozen creations, drinkers universally preferred the 6-percent-alcohol deep-amber lager produced by Anheuser-Busch’s Southern California brewery. But when given a choice beyond that dozen, drinkers increasingly prefer something other than Budweiser.
The new brand is the latest gimmick — Bud Light Lime, Budweiser Select, Budweiser American Ale — employed by Anheuser-Busch to reclaim a market that no longer exists. “Anheuser-Busch would call them innovations, not gimmicks,” Eric Shepard of Beer Marketer’s Insights explains. “AB peaked at a 49.6 percent share in 2003. They are just a little over 46 now. They’re doing what they can to stop the erosion.”
AB claims a smaller piece of a smaller pie. Beer sales, like many beers, are stagnant. U.S. consumption fell for three consecutive years starting in 2009. And the three beers dropping most precipitously all live under the Anheuser-Busch roof. Between 2006 and 2011, Budweiser Select experienced a 61 percent decline, Michelob Light moved 66 percent fewer beers, and Michelob, a high-end beer to the high school me, lost 72 percent of its sales. Weekends were made for Michelob, indeed.
“People don’t drink their father’s beer,” Shepard explains. They sure don’t. The legalization of home brewing, tax breaks for small brewers, and consumer demand for variety has increased the number of U.S. beer producers from less than 100 in the late 1970s to more than 2,000 today. There are more people making beer. There are fewer people drinking it. Coincidence?
Beer drinkers have come half circle. Store-bought singles, once the domain of skid-row drunks, now find companions among beer snobs.
A recent trip to the local liquor store revealed something called Hoppin’ Frog Hop Heathen at $11.49 for a 22 oz. bottle. Clown Shoes Vampire Slayer, complete with a drawing of a man driving a stake through Dracula’s heart on its label, retails for $8.49 for a bottle containing less than two normal-sized beers. A Mephistopheles Stout, featuring a picture of the man downstairs on the packaging, goes for the hellish price of $10.99 for a 12 oz. bottle. Other brands — Arrogant Bastard Ale and Supremely Self-Righteous Ale — seem to really understand their audience.
Who buys? People insecure about their standing as sophisticates. The subliminal message behind the cartoonish packaging, gonzo names, and inflated prices is that you are superior to the man who drinks Miller Lite. Consumers aren’t buying a beer but status. Microbrew labels may resemble a child’s juice box but their pricing looks like a bottle of champagne’s. Elitism doesn’t come cheap.
Americans increasingly drink beer as though it were wine. The craft beers may compliment free-range hen pâté. They don’t compliment a stomach after a four-hour session of power drinking. We flee from Budweiser as though Hepatitis C were among its ingredients.
Budweiser has gotten in with the wrong crowd — Schaefer, Stroh’s, and Milwaukee’s Best. Perhaps that’s why it lost its top sales spot to Bud Light just as Schlitz lost it to Bud. When drinkers spot you at the left end of the cooler, they tend to leave you there. In the beer aisle — as in the school cafeteria — who you sit with sadly matters. Anheuser-Busch still dominates. But for how long?
Budweiser Black Crown may appeal to Budweiser drinkers. It won’t win back that six percent (and growing) craft-beer drinking share of the market that would sooner bedizen themselves in the fashions of K-Mart than publicly imbibe a Busch.
They make beer like they used to. Beer drinkers are another matter.