Rising consumer interest in speciality beers presents definite opportunities for the dark beer category. As Catherine Mars of Euromonitor International writes, savvy brewers are working to position wheat beer as a sweet and milder-tasting premium beer, with female consumers the prime target market.

The development of wheat beers targeted at women is expected to inject some excitement into a lacklustre category. Dark beer volumes have been largely stagnant (1% average annual growth between 2002 and 2007), as the category suffers from an old-fashioned image and the dissipation of its key (ageing) consumer base in traditional Western European markets.

Elsewhere, dark beer is more of a niche product, generally considered to be an acquired taste, which has limited its appeal in new markets. However, marketing lighter-flavoured wheat beers to female drinkers offers significant opportunities for brewers looking to generate value growth. Since female consumers tend to be more brand- and fashion-conscious and less tied to traditional consumption patterns than their male counterparts, they also tend to be more responsive to manufacturers' product innovation and marketing activity.

In many Western European markets, beer sales have been driven by premium products and this trend has positively impacted on the dark beer sector. Although global volumes have been largely stagnant, the sector has outperformed the overall beer market in terms of value growth, according to Euromonitor International, as consumers have opted for high-quality and flavourful beers.

In the key German market, which accounts for 25% of global dark beer volumes, the category has seen a renaissance driven by Weissbier (wheat beer) and Kölsch, a dark beer variety from the Rhine region. The demographic influence of the ageing population has a strong impact on the beer sector in Germany as older people tend to drink less alcohol and the middle-aged segment of traditional beer drinkers is diminishing.

As a result, growth in beer can only come from younger and increasingly from female consumers. These consumer groups are turning away from the traditionally tart beer consumed by their parents and grandparents, Pilsener, which accounts for over 60% of all beer volumes sold in Germany, and looking for different tastes elsewhere. It is not surprising that a generation brought up on fizzy drinks and Nutella is turning to sweeter and milder tastes. Weissbier and Kölsch offer a milder taste and increasingly appeal to younger and female consumers.

Brewers in the Netherlands and Belgium have taken a more direct approach to attracting female drinkers. The success of rosé wine has spawned pink-coloured, fruit-flavoured extensions of popular wheat beer brands designed to tempt female wine drinkers to drink beer instead. Heineken spearheaded the trend with Wieckse Rosé beer, which was launched in the on-trade in the Netherlands in 2006. Euromonitor International expects that rosé beer will continue to attract new consumers and grow the wheat beer category over the next couple of years.

In the US, wheat beer was the best performing type of beer in 2007 for the fourth year in a row, with volume sales up by 12%, according to Euromonitor International. This success has been driven by the beer's crisp, fruity flavour, which appeals to alcohol consumers who are used to light American lagers, or do not normally like the taste of beer.

Additionally, the complex flavour profile and generally high-alcohol content appeal to craft beer enthusiasts. The potential to lure non-beer drinkers and beer aficionados alike has attracted the major brewers, and the top three brands, Blue Moon, Widmer Hefeweizen and Leninekugel Weiss, have ties to the 'Big Three' US brewers (Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller and Molson Coors).

In contrast to the US and Germany, the dark beer sector in the UK declined by an annual average of 3% between 2002 and 2007, reflecting the general downward trend in the UK beer market. Faced with declining beer sales in the UK, brewers are looking for ways to tap into the female demographic. Following the success of its Blue Moon wheat beer in the US, Molson Coors is now launching the brand in the UK, targeting women with touches like serving it with an orange slice to accentuate its fruity taste.

Euromonitor International expects that brewers will continue to invest in wheat beer over the mid to long term as this category provides interesting opportunities to offer upmarket products which target female consumers. Not only does the popularity of wheat beer follow a broad trend towards interest in unusual, high-quality and complex beers, it is well suited to female drinkers as it is less bitter than traditional lagers and beers. These taste characteristics also make it a suitable drink to target at occasional beer drinkers.

Additionally, many wheat beers, particularly the Belgian variety, are lower in alcohol than other premium beers, which is a bonus at a time when harsher drink-driving laws and growing health concerns are encouraging consumers to restrict their alcohol intake. Marketers can, therefore, present wheat beer as an aspirational and exclusive product for educated drinkers.