Budweiser passed another milestone this week; on the way down. The iconic beer brand's 20+ year slide continued, and Coors Light passed it, headed up, moving into the #2 spot in American beer sales according to a story in Advertising Age. Budweiser hit its peak in 1988, selling 50 million barrels (50 million barrels! Of just Budweiser! All U.S. craft brewers' 2011 sales put together should be about 11 million barrels) and then sliding ever since, including a 4.6% slide in 2011...which actually represented a slowing in the rate of plummet. Total 2011 U.S. sales for Budweiser were 17.7 million barrels, an amazing decline since 1988. Of course, Bud Light's rise has pretty much made up for it, and 17.7 million barrels is still more than most of the world's breweries sell altogether...but wow.
What happened? Smarter people than I have guessed at that one. "Light beer!" is the usual answer offered, explaining it as Americans' desire to get into better shape. Well, maybe...only what's up with the boom in steakhouses, and sugary liquors, and...craft beer? As far as that goes, how the hell does "Light beer!" explain the huge growth of Yuengling Lager? Yuengling Lager, a "full-calorie premium" beer, will likely blow through 2 million barrels on its own this year, and is, if anything, accelerating. (Add'n: when I first wrote this, I forgot the other obvious example here: it's not Pabst Light the hipsters and bike messengers are drinking, it's Pabst.) "Light beer"? Bullshit.
Light beer has seen huge growth, but there are other factors here. I think some of the problem is fratricide. There has been cannibalistic action between brands in the A-B house, and Bud and Bud Light are not the only ones. When you have a number of large brands -- Budweiser, Bud Light, Bud Light Lime, Bud Select (several cases a year are still sold), Michelob Ultra, Busch, Busch Light, Natural Light, and so on -- that are this close together in taste and character (okay, granted: Bud Light Lime does taste a bit more different than the others), and require a huge expenditure on marketing merely to create an illusion of difference...success in one camp is more likely to mean failure in another. This is, I believe, a major weakness for the big brewers, and it's just now starting to crack wide open.
Does that explain how Coors Light is growing? Well, no! I'll have to cogitate on that...especially since it's one of the very few mainstream beers that is growing. Is it the blue mountains? Hey, maybe.