James Wilmore

Comment - Is Beer ABV Getting Too Strong For Its Own Good?

By | 30 August 2013

MillerCoors' plans to launch a new, high-strength “golden” lager may not be surprising on one level, but the wider trend is puzzling.

Earlier this month, the brewer, jointly-owned by SABMiller and Molson Coors, confirmed that it will be releasing 6.9% abv beer Miller Fortune in the US in the first half of next year. This is primarily regarded as a challenge to Anheuser-Busch InBev's 6% Bud Light Platinum, released last year, and 6% "dark" lager Budweiser Black Crown, launched at the start of this year

Initially, Bud Light Platinum had performed strongly for A-B InBev, but earlier this year its volumes started to weaken. Meanwhile, the jury still seems to be out on Black Crown, despite a hefty marketing push. 

So, what is MillerCoors playing at here? On one level, these punchier, high-strength brews can be regarded as the big brewers' answer to the still-surging popularity of craft beer in the US. American beer drinkers are used to hop-heavy ales, so it is not a big leap to think they could be tempted by these more mainstream offerings. 

David Kroll, MillerCoors' innovation VP, meanwhile, has suggested that Miller Fortune will appeal to “millennial males”, Hispanics and African-American men

But, are higher strength beers the answer?

In the UK, for example, the general direction of travel is towards low-abv beers. Yes, higher strength brewers, inspired by US craft beers are popping up, but there is little chance of these becoming high sales volume offerings.

The other reason for low-abv offerings in the UK is due to the pledge by alcohol producers to cut the number of units in drinks as part of a pact with government. The products make sound business sense, as well as keeping the vociferous health lobby at bay. 

Notably, the UK Government is also upping its efforts to persuade the European Union to change the definition of wine too, to encourage the consumption of lower-strength offerings.

The US may not have quite the same problem with so-called 'binge-drinking' as the UK, but an increasing noise around the health aspects of alcohol is building, with negative headlines appearing more frequently in the US press of late.

One can almost hear the American health lobby sharpening its claws. 

Perhaps, with the threat to market share from spirits and wine in the US, the big brewers feel they have to cover all bases. After all, beer is still a relatively low-strength product.

In a sense, it's a risk worth taking for the big brewers. But, how these high abv beers go down with consumers will be fascinating to watch.

Expert analysis

Beer in the US

The biggest story in beer in the US in 2012 was the fact that the category achieved positive growth after three consecutive years of decline. Beer manufacturers and distributors are still very concerned that American consumers are moving away from beer towards wine and spirits, but the category’s positive growth shows potential through diversification. Over the review period total volume sales of beer declined by 3% while sales of wine and spirits increased by 12% and 13%, respectively.

Sectors: Beer & cider

Companies: SABMiller, Molson Coors, Anheuser-Busch InBev

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Comment - Is Beer ABV Getting Too Strong For Its Own Good?

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