When Anheuser-Busch (AB) launched Michelob Ultra "low carbohydrate light beer" in the US in 2002, the country was in the middle of the famed Atkins diet craze. AB was one of hundreds or possibly thousands of companies that got caught up in the low-carb frenzy. Michelob Ultra was earlier to market than most and managed to survive the popping of the low-carb bubble around 2005. The brand was able to cultivate a devoted core of users including weight-conscious women. But then something began to change. 

Michelob Ultra's fortunes rose while light beer overall sunk. As recently as 2007, Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite collectively accounted for roughly one third of US beer shipments, according to Beer Marketer's Insights and The Wall Street Journal. By 2017, that collective share had shrunk to just over a quarter. But AB InBev's Michelob Ultra brand bucked the trend, with sales increasing for every year since 2011. The brand had its biggest year yet in 2017 when US shipments grew by over 21%.

A sense of urgency: The race to link beer with fitness

Success attracts a crowd and the race toward a lighter "light beer" has commenced, though with a twist. Calorie and carbohydrate counts remain important, but new entrants promise a higher-quality beer experience than past launches that were obsessed with calorie counts (like 64-calorie Miller 64 and 55-calorie Budweiser Select 55). Heineken USA's launch of 90-calorie Amstel Xlight into a handful of markets in 2017 was a sign of a more premium push for ultra-light beer. The new brand's advertising campaign – titled "Fit for Real Life" – was another sign of changing times as it aligned ultra-light beer with wellness and fitness, top interests of Millennial consumers.

While it sounds odd to link beer with fitness, brewers with a sense of self-preservation are keen to establish the link. Data suggesting that younger consumers see alcohol in a much more negative light than older consumers has created a sense of urgency for brewers. According to GlobalData's Q4 2016 consumer survey, a majority of 25–34 year-old Americans, 54%, say they are actively trying to reduce consumption of alcohol compared to 28% of Americans overall and just 15% of 45–54 year-olds. A higher percentage of these younger consumers say they are actively trying to reduce consumption of alcohol than fat (51%), sugar (41%), or even carbohydrates (36%).

Age-oriented alcohol: Premium pricing and organic grains

Beer-makers can ill afford to let a generation of drinkers slip away, which is why the Corona brand is marketing its new Premier beer at men over the age of 35. The first new addition to the Corona brand in 29 years, Premier has 2.6 grams of carbohydrates and 90 calories per 12-fluid ounce serving versus five grams of carbohydrates and 99 calories for a similar size serving of Corona Light. Premier will be priced the same as Corona and Corona Light, brands that sell at around a 40% premium over traditional light beers.

Eager to defend its turf, AB InBev is just launching Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, which is "made with organic grains." With just 2.5 carbohydrates and 85 calories per 12-fluid-ounce serving, Ultra Pure Gold is billed as a "superior light beer," a descriptor that leaves no doubt where AB InBev is going with the launch. Though it has just 10 fewer calories than the base Michelob Ultra offering, Ultra Pure Gold may well be the first ultra-light beer brand to be made with organic ingredients (organic rice and organic malt).

Organic ingredients resonate with younger consumers, who tend to see them as aligned with popular trends like clean eating and drinking. The term "organic" can mean different things to different people, but a surprisingly high percentage of younger consumers equate the term with a product that is intrinsically more healthful. According to GlobalData's Q4 2017 consumer survey, 55% of Americans aged 25–34 believe that the term "organic" means "healthy" to them; 59% of consumers globally believe this is the case. The use of organic ingredients may be a way to soften negative views toward alcohol that younger consumers may hold.

“Sessionable” offerings: Lighter, easier-drinking, and lower-ABV

Brewers are also suggesting that new generation ultra-light beer is more "sessionable" than most other beer options, especially heavier and more bitter-tasting craft beers. Generally speaking, "sessionable" means that the beer is lighter, easier-drinking, and somewhat lower-ABV than other types of beer. How much lower depends on the brand. Amstel Xlight has 4.1% ABV while Michelob Ultra Pure Gold has just 3.8%, somewhat lower than Michelob Ultra's 4.2%.

Lower alcohol, carbohydrate, and calorie contents are trends to keep an eye on in global beer innovation. New in India, Bira 91 light lager has just 90 calories per 330ml bottle and 4% ABV. Debuting in New Zealand, Speight's Summit Ultra Low Carb lager claims to have 75% fewer carbohydrates than regular beers while retaining what is proclaimed to be a "great taste." The "full flavoured" beverage has 4.2% ABV.

Fruit-flavoured beer can be polarizing, but some companies are using fruit and fruit flavours to cut calorie and alcohol levels. Flying Fish Chill Lite zesty lemonade-flavoured beer from South African Breweries is a fruit-flavoured refresher with 30% less sugar than the company's previous offerings and 4.5% ABV. Calorie and carbohydrate counts for the South African offering are reduced by 30% and 35%, respectively.

Brewers are also suggesting that new generation ultra-light beer is more "sessionable" than most other beer options

"Fruity at first sip" but also offering the "taste of beer from within," Prost Alster lemon lager beer is new in Indonesia from PT Beverindo Indah Abadi. Formulated with 10% real lemon juice, the 2.9% ABV product is toward the low end of the alcohol scale, which might be the place to be given the product's thirst-quenching formulation.

For consumers bored with the "same old" light beer, these new offerings may provide a reason to give reduced-calorie beer another look.

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