Big Breweries Go Dark to Attract Craft Beer Set

With new varieties, Anheuser-Busch fights to regain market share.

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After waging battle over America's weight-conscious beer drinkers with light, ultra light, and "select" varieties, the mass brewing industry has now set its sights on another demographic, one that cares much less about calories and much more about quirkiness and quality.

Megabrewer Anheuser-Busch is getting ready to launch a whole new suite of beers, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but instead of that familiar yellow tint, the new varieties come with a darker amber or black hue designed to mimic the look and taste of increasingly popular craft brews. Craft beers typically come from smaller, independent breweries and have unique characteristics and distinct flavor profiles.

Sales of standard and light lagers have been in decline for a number of years as the U.S. beer market—the second largest in the world according to some estimates—has grown increasingly diverse, especially with the relatively recent popularity of beer alternatives such as cider and the flourishing craft beer industry.

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The new offerings from Anheuser-Busch—Budweiser Black Crown, Beck's Black Jewel, Michelob Black Bock, Busch Black Light Lager, and Rolling Rock Black Rock—are designed to appeal to the increasing number of beer drinkers who prefer the more complex and flavorful craft brews and help the company win back some of the market share that big breweries have lost to smaller independent companies over the past several years.

"They're trying to fish where the fish are, which is in more flavorful beers," says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association.

"Beer drinkers are getting far more educated and they're finding out they really like the craft beers from the smaller breweries, so we see the large brewers trying to get into other styles," Gatza adds.

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Recently that's included even fizzy, semi-sweet cider, with big brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, Heineken, and MillerCoors all inking deals to acquire positions in the cider industry, according to a recent report from BusinessWeek.

"Cider's a growth story because of the demographics—it's sweet, it's natural, it appeals to the Coke generation," Stephen Glancey, chief executive officer of Dublin-based C&C Group PLC, which sells two of the world's biggest brands in Magners and Gaymers, told BusinessWeek. "It's unisex beer."

But while Anheuser-Busch is branding its new line of darker beers with familiar household names, big breweries are also capturing market share behind the scenes by buying significant positions in smaller craft breweries. That way they can capitalize on the popularity of more obscure brews without plastering a more commercially known name on labels and turning off consumers who prefer more character and a local touch.

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Although not technically considered a craft brew, Gatza points out that not many people know that Blue Moon beers are actually manufactured under the much bigger umbrella of MillerCoors Beers.

"It's another tactic for them in trying to address this part of the market," he says.

Another reason large breweries are expanding into different varieties is the price point. According to Gatza, sales of higher-end beer, wine, and spirits have all been doing very well and expanding offerings to include craft-like beers allows big breweries to tap into that market and increase profit margins.

As the battle for market share continues to rage, Gatza only expects big breweries to get more creative in how they respond to the shifting whims of consumers and their beverage preferences.

"It's all about possibilities."

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  • Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter at @mmhandley.