Beer shows new life

Supermarkets hop onto the new-taste parade in beers to improve their specialty image.

The beer category, awash in new flavors, is its most optimistic since the recession began.  

In 2012, both ends of the market—the innovative craft/microbrews and upscale domestic super-premiums largely for Millennials, as well as the traditional regular and light segments which dwarf the rest—grew in dollar sales and case volume, Nielsen data show.

Retailers are beginning to offer broader flavor palates to help lift their specialty image and satisfy more drinking occasions, with meals or apart.  Harris Teeter, for instance, offers 680 beer varieties, including 35 in kegs, and advises on food pairings at its new 201central stores in Charlotte, NC, the local Observer reports.  Hy-Vee launched its own Baraboo private-label craft beer line, using Stevens Point Brewing in Wisconsin, the fifth oldest continuously operated brewery in the United States.  The line includes Red Granite Lager, Lumberjack IPA and Woodpecker Wheat Ale, according to its quarterly Seasons magazine. 

These examples provide a taste of the rising excitement over double-digit sales growth in the most flavorful, upscale segments, as well as single-digit advances in traditional brews.  In the 52 weeks ended January 5, 2013, says Nielsen, dollar sales for total beer, cider and flavored malt beverages hoisted by 5.3% to $32.58 billion across all outlets (food, drug, mass excluding Walmart, plus liquor, convenience, and Army and Air Force Exchange Services). This occurred on a 2.0% climb in case volume vs. the year-earlier period.

By appealing to the upper and lower ends of the beer market, retailers can engage both: craft beer drinkers, who respond to in-store marketing and buy impulsively without a specific drinking occasion in mind; and traditional domestic beer drinkers who consume 78% of their purchases on the same day, according to Nielsen insights.

Microbreweries based in New York “poured $1.5 billion into the state’s economy in 2010, according to the Beer Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers Association,” notes amNewYork and Newsday.  This shows significant concentration, since the Nielsen all-outlet figures for the latest 52 weeks show the craft-microbrew segment up 18.3% to $2.81 billion, on a 15.5% case volume increase.

Meanwhile, domestic super-premiums dollar sales jumped by 29.4% to $2.13 billion in this latest period, on a 25.8% case volume climb.

Flavored malt beverage dollar sales also rose by double digits, up 17.1% to $1.55 billion, on 14.2% case volume growth.

By comparison, the much larger light and regular beer segments grew at lower rates.  Light beer dollar sales rose by 4.1% to $16.52 billion, on a 1.2% case volume boost.  Regular beer dollar sales were up 5.2% to $14.37 billion, on a 2.0% case volume climb.

The Nielsen numbers suggest that as consumer confidence gains traction in an improving economy, beer drinkers are beginning to vacate the premium, below premium and near beer segments.  On a case-volume basis, all three segments declined—premium by 0.2%, below premium by 2.6%, and near beer by 3.6%.

A big question now is whether the U.S. Department of Justice will allow Anheuser-Busch InBev SA to complete its acquisition of the rest of Grupo Modelo, the maker of Corona.  This decision could affect long-term pricing in the category, since Corona didn’t always go along with price increases set by AB InBev and MillerCoors, according to published accounts.