Four hundred US bars and restaurants responded to the CLSA survey on what draught beers they stock

Four hundred US bars and restaurants responded to the CLSA survey on what draught beers they stock

How are US on-trade venues reacting to the shifting nature of the country's beer market?

While the rise of craft beer continues to dominate headlines, it's worth remembering that small, independent producers still only have a 7.8% volume share of the market nation-wide. Nevertheless, bars in the US are responding to consumer demand for hop-heavy IPAs and the like, often at the expense of “light” lagers.

A new survey by analysts at CLSA has found that nearly seven out of ten (69%) US bars still stock a “light” beer – either Bud Light, Miller Lite, or Coors Light. However, nearly a third of venues (31%) admitted to stocking none of the three.

Only 18% of the 400 bars and restaurants nation-wide that responded to the survey said they had all three brands.

So, how worried should the US's big brewers be by this trend? 

“Consumer tastes are undoubtedly fragmenting in the beer industry, and in order to appeal to the widest array of customers, establishments are feeling the need to increase the variety of beer,” CLSA says in its report. The Brewers Association, the trade body for US craft brewers, is targeting 20% of the market by volume by 2020.  

But, CLSA adds: “We believe there will be a ceiling for craft. Craft is not for everyone and there always be a market for affordable, consistent and sessionable beers.”

The other factor is that Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors are also attempting to play in the craft space with their own more premium, flavourful offerings – and, in some cases, appearing to succeed. A-B InBev's wheat ale Shock Top was found in 48% of bars, while Goose Island, the craft beer brand it acquired in 2011, was in 11% of outlets.

For MillerCoors, its own wheat beer offering, Blue Moon, was in 34% of bars, while Leinenkugel was present in 14% of venues, according to the survey.

These figures give some weight to big brewers' claims that the majority of consumers are not concerned about who owns a “craft” brand, even if it is a big major.

But, one anecdotal line picked up by CLSA suggests that the concept of localism remains a key factor for consumers. One Denver bartender said putting the name of a random Colorado city on a tap handle ensures its sells five times better. “The locals want to drink local and the tourists want to pretend they are locals,” the bartender said, according to CLSA. 

Ultimately, it seems A-B InBev and MillerCoors would be better off focusing their efforts on US markets where they can flourish.

In cities and towns where the craft beer movement is strong - Portland, Oregon, for example - they may be fighting a losing battle.