Craft brewers go water and light to lure 'sweaty consumers'

Matthew Sedacca, The New York Times

Posted at May 27 2019 09:42 AM

Brewer Andrew Kokinakes works at Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, California, April 30, 2019. Smaller breweries are responding to the demands of consumers more concerned with health and active lifestyles than they are with hops or high alcohol content. Max Whittaker, The New York Times

For Sam Calagione, a founder of the craft brewery Dogfish Head, his company’s efforts to get healthier had a selfish origin.

“I started to notice that I was getting an everything bagel on my midriff,” said Calagione, attributing the weight gain to the multiple beers he drinks daily for work. “So I was like, well, I’m not going to slow down drinking, so I better start innovating some lower-calorie, but super-flavorful beers.”

In 2016, the brewery, which is based in Delaware, began producing its 140-calorie sour, SeaQuench Ale, which it promoted as “the most thirst-quenching beer Dogfish Head has ever brewed.”

Now, Calagione forecasts that of the 300,000-plus barrels of beer the brewery will produce this year, more than a quarter will cater to the demands of consumers more concerned with maintaining active lifestyles than they are with hops or high alcohol content. One beer is a new IPA with fewer calories than a Bud Light.

The craft beer market has expanded rapidly over the past decade, as breweries across the United States have dreamed up whimsical and inventive beers, often with unconventional ingredients — Beet sugar! Jalapeños! — along with high calorie counts and elevated ABV (alcohol by volume) figures. The same breweries are now looking to make products similar to one they have long ignored and even scorned: watery, light beer.

“I think it’s only natural that they’re going to look outside the traditional craft beer box,” Benj Steinman, the president of the trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights, said of craft breweries. “Business is hard right now. You can’t sit still.”

From 2010 to 2018, craft beers’ share of the United States market by volume grew from approximately 4.9 percent to 13.2 percent, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group. But light beers from big brewers still dominate. Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite are three of the four best-selling beers in the country on an annual basis. And growth in the overall amount of craft beer being produced and sold has slowed over the past few years.

One potential challenge is that 52 percent of beer drinkers said this year that they wanted to reduce their consumption of alcohol, according to a survey conducted by the Harris Poll in partnership with Nielsen. “Opting for healthier lifestyle” was the top reason cited.

So craft brewers are adjusting. Some of the bigger craft brands have even acquired smaller craft labels recently, moves that may make some lighter craft beers more widely available. Dogfish Head and Boston Beer Co. announced this month that they had merged in a deal valued at $300 million. In February, the legacy craft brewery Sierra Nevada acquired the 3-year-old Sufferfest Beer Co., which is marketed to runners.

Paul Geffken, 36, a member of the Borderline Running Club in North Andover, Massachusetts, said that Miller High Life had been the group’s official beer since it was founded. But he and several of his fellow runners who are training for marathons are quietly rebelling with 26.2 Brew, a beer from the aptly named Marathon Brewing, part of Boston Beer Co., that is marketed to athletes.

Geffken said he preferred to drink something that was “somewhat refreshing” after a run. He added that in addition to sea salt for electrolytes, “26.2 has coriander in it.”

“It’s not your traditional Bud Light or craft beer, really,” he said. “And after a race, you want to put something in your system, but you don’t want something heavy.”

Mike Mitaro, the president of the Brewers Advisory Group, said that breweries needed to acknowledge these trends and adapt accordingly.

“In the early 2000s, the millennial generation drove the growth of craft beer,” Mitaro said. “As people get into their 30s, they think more about calories and health and wellness. It’s a different mindset than when you’re in your 20s, so people are more apt to gravitate back toward lighter beer.”

But rather than simply re-create the light beers they have long derided, many craft brewers want to emphasize their artisanal handiwork. Some beers, like Dogfish Head’s 95-calorie Slightly Mighty, are lighter, lower-alcohol versions of IPAs, which often contain 200-plus calories and ABVs above 5 percent, that still command respectable flavor. Others, like Harpoon Brewery’s Rec. League and Sufferfest’s gluten-removed Repeat, feature chia seeds, bee pollen or other ingredients that purport to have health benefits like reducing inflammation or lowering blood pressure. And some craft breweries are simply producing nonalcoholic beer.

“I think these perceived healthy beverages will become an increasing part of the portfolio of a lot of craft brewers,” Mitaro said. “When you have 7,000 entrepreneurs all working for the benefit of their own company, you get a collective quick response that shakes out what works and what doesn’t.”

Beyond just lopping off calories and adding superfoods to their recipes, breweries are marketing their beers as components that fit into customers’ active lifestyles. Caitlin Landesberg, the founder of Sufferfest, said that her brewery’s beers would not be widely available at tap rooms or beer festivals. Rather, Sufferfest would continue to be marketed to athletes, including being given out as celebratory beers at the finish line of races.

“From Day 1, we focused on the ‘sweaty consumer,’” she said. “There is that demographic that is the millennial person who votes with dollars, who wants to have something that’s new and indulgent but understands their health-conscious lifestyle, and that sweaty consumer is a tribe that I’m a part of and speak to and sweat with.”

Dan Lamonaca, the owner of the Brooklyn shop Beer Karma, said craft beer purists have had few complaints about the lighter brews largely because, unlike other health-oriented beverages like hard seltzer and hard kombucha that craft brewers have tried to tap into, they are actually beers.

Rob Burns, a founder of Night Shift Brewing in Massachusetts, said that the company’s Nite Lite lager, an upscale version of a mass-produced light beer that is brewed with flaked corn, had been created partly to nip at the market share of the brewing giants — and to give craft beer drinkers a break from palate-busting IPAs.

“Why did we wall off the biggest part of the beer sandbox to these global brewers, while the local brewers are playing in the 10, 15% market share hopland?” Burns asked. He added that by setting a retail price for 12-packs of Nite Lite at $1 to $3 more on average than Bud Light or Miller Lite, Night Shift could entice noncraft drinkers thirsty for a premium version of their usual lighter beer.

Emboldened by what Burns said was the unexpectedly strong demand for Nite Lite, which exceeded the available supply on occasion, Night Shift recently released a Nite Lite variation, Lime Lite, to continue its push into the domestic market for light beer.

And as for Dogfish Head’s Slightly Mighty, Calagione said orders were surpassing the company’s initial predictions. The company’s initial estimates anticipated needing to produce 5,000 barrels this year. Based on distributors’ orders, the figure has been revised to 35,000.