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Who Likes Hot Beer?

jury’s still out on which category malternatives fit into.
Just when you think they’re yesterday’s news a new flavor
comes out, or a new package, or a new positioning, and
suddenly malternatives are hot again.

That’s the
nature of “hot”. It’s that fast-moving part of the market,
whether it’s a big part or a small one, it’s the beer that’s
got all the buzz, the one that has the sellers and the
buyers talking.

Hot is not in
the big brands right now, with one predictable exception.
The usual summer rush to Corona is taking place as the sun
beats down. “Once the warm weather comes, the Corona picks
up,” said Dan Demuth, store manager at Yankee Spirits in
Sturbridge. “We sell a lot year ’round, but some people
associate it with the beach.”

Demuth also saw
a recent surge in popularity for Corona’s little sister,
Corona Light. “A few years back, I might keep 2O cases on
the floor,” he said. “Now I’ve got to keep pallets of it.
Light in general does very well, even more so in the summer.
People are more concerned about how they look.”

Other than that,
the major brands are holding steady. Heineken Premium Light
has come out in cans now, something that’s pushed sales, and
the growth for this new brand looks good, but after last
year’s amazing launch, the numbers will have to be very
strong indeed to look good in comparison. Newcastle Brown is
very hot nationally, continuing the strong growth it’s seen
over the past five years or so, but it’s already an
established brand in Massachusetts (though with national
promotions coming along, it might be a good idea to take
another look at it).


One new big
brand product that might be hot – though its name is not –
is Miller Chill. It was hard to say at press time whether
this brand-new brand was really going to hit, but initial
orders and reports were strong, and the beer’s gotten some
good reviews from some sources.

As you probably
know by now, Chill is a pre-made version of a chelada, a
Mexican beer cocktail of somewhat hazy origins. “Michelada”
is a slangy Mexican way of saying “my cold beer”, evidently,
and is a mix of beer (usually a darker beer like Dos Equis
or Negro Modelo), lime juice, hot sauce, and spices, served
in a glass with a salted rim, a “beerita” kind of thing.
Chelada is a simpler version: light lager, lime juice and
the salted-rim glass. Miller Chill is all that wrapped up in
a green glass bottle, ready to drink.

Is it selling?
It’s still pretty early, but Chill looks like a hot-weather
hit. “They were excited about Chill,” said Rudi Scherff of
his customers at the venerable Student Prince in
Springfield. A recent boston globe article talked about the
whole chelada idea, and guessed that the chelada’s quenching
appeal would easily extend to Chill.


Chill’s heat
might well be borrowed from a hot concept we’ve talked about
here before, one that’s driving craft beer sales and firing
up the majors as well: variety. You might say that’s not a
hot beer, per se, but as a trend, as something the
customer’s looking for, you can’t really ignore

Pamela O’Brien
is the manager at Penguin Pizza, a favorite craft beer spot
in Boston. Variety is driving beer expansion at Penguin:
they’re adding 8 new draft lines for a total of 28, and an
additional 3O bottles to a total selection of 18O bottled

“There’s a
demand for variety,” she said. “We have a beer club, and
when they complete it, they get a 22 ounce stein. So they
want more draft, for the variety and for the stein. We’ve
got a lot of seasonals, really a bit of everything: wheats,
pilsners, fruity beers. The thing’s that really picking up
is the Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale, it’s taken off in the
last month, and Whale’s Tale [Pale Ale from
Nantucket-based Cisco Brewing] is really

Cindy French,
the beer manager at Spirit Haus in Amherst, echoed that for
off-premise. “People are buying a lot more variety packs,”
she said. The variety 12-packs are selling very well these
days, ones like the Harpoon Summer Vacation, and the Saranac
12 Beers of Summer, those are very big.”

Demuth sees that
as well. “Various suppliers do mixed packs,” he said.
“Harpoon and Magic Hat do very well. Smirnoff and Mike’s
[Hard Lemonades] do mixed 12-packs, and that’s also
very popular.”

He compares
today’s thirst for difference with the old days he recalls.
“I’ve been in this 23 years,” he said, “back when you had
Bud 12-packs, 24 bottle cases, and 24-can suitcases, and
that was about it. Now consumers are demanding new products.
They want to try new things, and the producers are providing
them. A-B throws ten products against the wall and hopes two
will stick. It’s hard to figure what will work. Some of the
things you’d think would do real well, don’t.”


The craft beer
revolution was about variety to begin with, of course: not
better beer, not stronger beer, not even so-called
hand-crafted beer, but different beer. Variety is deep in
craft beer’s DNA, and that’s reinforcing the category’s
popularity. And of course, the more beers there are, the
more there is to know, which has its own appeal.

“We carry a lot
of craft brews: Harpoon, Wachusett, Victory,” said Kris
Wollet, the restaurant manager at Boston’s famous Jacob
Wirth’s. “More people are becoming snobs about their beer,
treating beer like they treated wine in the 198Os, they all
of a sudden know everything about the drink. You’ve got
beerAdvocate, websites like that feeding into it. It’s a
consumer trend. And it’s definitely a better

“Our clientele
is off-the-beaten-path, looking for small breweries, not the
stuff you can get at any old beer joint,” noted Carrie Anne
Martin, the manager at Marty’s Liquors in Newton. “People
are looking for high-quality hand-made products, which is
different from what we saw in the last ten years. They’re
branching out from the major brands.”

She backed that
up with a look at what was popular at Marty’s going into the
hot weather season. “Oh, Dogfish Head 6O Minute IPA and
Avery White Rascal seem to be really taking off. Stone
Brewing, the whole line’s strong, but Arrogant Bastard and
their IPAs, these are all real hot right now.”


The next thing
Marty’s Carrie Anne Martin said pointed up another trend:
big bottles. “We find those are going really well in the 22
ounce bottles as well,” she said. “People are looking for
some variant in packaging.”

Cindy French
sees the same thing at the Spirit Haus. “We are getting more
of the 22s in now,” she said. “We used to have just a few,
and now we’ve got a whole row of them, we’ve started on a
second row. Hey, if you’re just going have one beer, that’s
the one to get!”

Demuth saw a hot
new trend in craft beer packaging we’ve noted here: cans.
“I’m looking for craft cans for a customer who likes premium
beer, but he has a pool, and people with pools don’t want
glass,” he said. “I’ve got five premium beers in cans, and
I’m looking for more. It’s not a huge demand, but a few
years ago you sold Heineken, some Amstel, maybe some Corona
in cans, but no one wanted premium beer in cans. But now
I’ve brought a few in and they surprised me.”

It’s not just
the craft beers, either. As brewers and importers get more
capable with their packaging, they’re able to change package
sizes to more precisely meet customer interest. “I’m seeing
the 2O-pack bottles picking up,” Demuth ticked off the
different packages he’s selling. “When they first came out
with that, it just sat. The 18-pack can cases do well. And
the 36-pack cans do well in the summer.”


There are a few
hot niches to work, too, beers that either didn’t exist five
years ago or represent explosion in a category. Take
gluten-free beers, for instance. People with celiac disease,
a hereditary disease that’s estimated to affect as many as 1
in 133 Americans, have an autoimmune response to gluten, a
protein that’s found in wheat, rye, and barley. Even the
small amounts of gluten that remain in beer after the
brewing process can ravage a celiac’s small intestine. Beer
is a dangerous drink for them.

In thirteen
years as a full-time beer writer, I have probably received
over 1OO e-mails looking for gluten-free beers. Until
recently, I had nothing to offer. When I was on a trip to
Italy with my church choir four years ago, a celiac in the
choir found an Italian gluten-free beer that was sold in
drugstores for around $5 a bottle. He was chortling with
pleasure, and plotting how many bottles he could stuff in
his suitcase and take home.

That’s the same
kind of small but intense reaction being seen by retailers
to the gluten-free beers that have finally hit the shelves
in Massachusetts: Bard’s Tale, Lakefront New Grist and
Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge. “Hardly a week would go by that
I wouldn’t get an e-mail asking if we had gluten-free beer,”
said Demuth. “Then I finally got these in.”

“It’s not
cheap,” he cautioned. “The Bard’s Tale is selling for $12.99
a sixpack. But I saw one guy loading up his cart with four
cases of it. I said to him, I don’t want to talk you out of
buying that, but you should know that it’s $48 a case. ‘I
don’t care,’ the guy said, ‘It’s the only beer I can drink.’
The Redbridge is about $8.49 a six-pack.”

Organics, as we
reported a few months ago, are another red-hot category.
With more attention being paid to the environment, to
farming methods and pesticides, and with the popularity of
organic foods, organic beers are only going to get more

Martin at
Marty’s Liquors thinks that once things get better defined,
the organic beer market will boom. “We do a good amount of
organics,” she said. “But I think ‘organic’, because of the
[loose] regulation of what can be labeled organic,
is being diluted slightly. As people lock down on what is
and is not an organic product, I think they will do

You may remember
fruit beers as a hugely hot item in the 199Os. After a
serious backlash, brewers and importers are trying them
again, and beers like Wachusett’s blueberry ale are selling
almost faster than brewers can make them.

“The general run
of the mill purchaser is getting into fruited beers:
lambics, and so on,” said Martin. “More people are asking
about them. A lot of the products that caused that backlash
were the cheesy ones, and people are now finding that ‘fruit
beer’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘chick beer’. There are beers
that are dry and fruity, just a hint of fruit, not syrupy

Two trends come
together in Saranac Pomegranate Wheat. Not only is this new
beer from the old New York brewery a fruit beer, the fruit
is the hottest trend in food and drink. Pomegranate’s
beautiful dark red color and bountiful antioxidants have
made it an overnight success in juice, diet supplements and
cocktails. Apparently it’s working with beer, too. “The
Pomegranate Wheat’s real good,” said French. “I have one
gentleman who’s buying it by the case.”

than the BEER

What may be the
hottest trend of all is who’s drinking beer. Everyone
mentioned that there is a new wave of beer drinkers: women.
“More women are starting to drink beer, they’re coming in on
the fruitier craft beers,” said Wollet. “Some come in and
just stick with that, but about half branch out and try
other beers. Something like the Young’s Double Chocolate
Stout is heavy enough for a guy, but chocolatey enough for a

“When we first
opened,” said O’Brien, “women were drinking Coors Light,
Smirnoff Ice, Miller Lite. Then they started joining the
beer club, and now more and more of them are drinking all
kinds of beer.”

“Ten years ago,
women were light beer drinkers,” Scherff agreed. “Now
they’re going across the gamut. You’ve got a lot more women
exercising and watching their weight, so they don’t feel
they have to limit themselves to a low-calorie


A couple things
haven’t changed. A good local beer can always do well.
Berkshire and Wachusett continue to build on their strong
local sales, Harpoon is solid in Boston, Cape Cod and Cape
Ann do well in their home markets.

Even the Opa-Opa
Steakhouse and Brewery, the brewpub located in Southampton,
is into the off-premise market and getting noticed. “We have
local beers now,” said French. “Opa-Opa has growlers and
six-packs. We carry 5 different growlers which are doing
well.” Scherff sees it doing well at the Student Prince as

Scherff also
believes that familiar, simpler styles like the maibocks and
pilsners popular at the Student Prince are due for a
comeback. “I think you’re going to see people getting back
to the basics,” he said, “maybe what you’d call ‘comfort
beers’. A beer you can sit down and have a couple of,
without it being cloying. The big crazy beers, the novelty
beers, the really hoppy beers; I think they’re going to die

Maybe, Rudi. One
thing’s for sure: the hot beers are always changing, and
that’s good for beer sellers and beer drinkers alike. It
keeps things interesting, and that’s what keeps beer