The problem was the same as the one faced by pretty much anyone in the business of selling beer in the latter half of the 2010s: Young people aren’t drinking as much of it as they used to. Between 2006 and 2016, beer lost 10 percent of its market share to wine and liquor. Even on the beeriest day of the year, Super Bowl Sunday, in 2016 one Harris poll reported that 20 percent of young drinkers would rather drink wine and another 20 percent would rather sip liquor.
Those hit the hardest? Domestic brands like Budweiser, Miller Light, and Coors Light, whose sales in 2018 declined 4.2 percent to about $12.6 billion. Even though total beer sales rose in 2018, that money is being spent less often at places like gas stations, pharmacies, and grocery stores — in other words, the kinds of places one might expect to pick up a 24-pack of Natty Light.
For a brand owned by the biggest brewery in the world, this was concerning, and made more so by the fact that Anheuser-Busch InBev’s market research showed that if people don’t drink beer when they’re between the ages of 21 and 25, they probably aren’t ever going to start.
“Two of the reasons why people are turning away from beer that really jumped out to us were price and flavor,” says Daniel Blake, senior director of value brands at Anheuser-Busch. “Obviously, price isn’t really a barrier to Natty [a 12-pack of Natty Light is typically under $10], but flavor was the interesting one. We wanted to launch this new product to hit on that big barrier.”
That resulting product is Naturdays, a strawberry lemonade-flavored light lager that comes in a shockingly gorgeous can, composed of a pink-yellow gradient and decorated with tiny flamingos (an homage to pool floats and swim trunks, Blake tells me). Like Natty Light, it has low alcohol by volume (ABV) at 4.2 percent and marginally more calories (132 per 12-ounce can compared to Natty Light’s 95).
More significantly, Naturdays tastes better than Natty Light, at least for those who like their beers to taste a little less like beer and more like strawberry lemonade. Yet despite the rising interest in craft beers — the industry has grown by 500 percent in the past decade in large part thanks to the explosion of microbreweries — Natty Light’s strategy of selling beer that tastes even less like beer appears to be working. Since Naturdays launched in late February, Blake says it’s on track to sell three times as much as the brand had expected by the end of the year.
More breweries are targeting people who don’t like beer
Natty Light is just one of many beer brands trying to appeal to the craft beer–indifferent: Bud Light, which is also owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, has seen its Lime-A-Ritas “margarita in a can” line explode into 10 flavors since its inception in 2012, and this year launched a sparkling wine-inspired version, Ritas Spritz. Corona, which is owned by the third-largest beer supplier in the world, is also launching its first beer alternative, Corona Refrescas, nationally in May.
It’s all indicative of the rise of the “flavored malt beverage,” canned alcoholic drinks that aren’t exactly beer but will get you drunk at roughly the same pace, and taste like some concoction of light beer, seltzer, syrup, and a bunch of unpronounceable chemicals. These types of beverages are among the few in the beer industry that are growing in sales, up 10.7 percent to nearly $2.6 billion in 2018.
In the widening ecosystem of alcoholic drinks that are neither straight-up beer nor wine or liquor, flavored malt beverages exist at the sweeter, cheaper end of a matrix that also includes spiked seltzer and high-ABV “alcopops” like the 8 percent-ABV Smirnoff Ice Smash. Whereas spiked seltzers, another category that’s exploded over the past few years due in part to the “La Croix effect,” tend to be more expensive and have fewer calories, flavored malt beverages don’t typically tout their calorie content on the packaging. And while flavored malt beverages are typically made with barley, spiked seltzers generally get their alcohol content from fermented cane sugar.
Naturdays, it should be mentioned, is actually beer, and tastes slightly more like it than Ritas Spritz or Corona Refrescas, though they’ve adopted similar marketing tactics. Natty refers to the cans themselves as “flamingos” both because of the design and because flamingos are social animals, and Naturdays is an inherently social drink.
Similarly, Ritas’ new, lower-ABV Spritz line targets the same customer as the original Ritas, but for “sessionable drinking occasions like beach days with friends or bachelorette parties,” said a representative of the brand. Ann Legan, the VP of marketing for Corona, said Refrescas was designed for “multicultural females and males” who wanted “the carefree Corona lifestyle with a tropical flavor.” She noted that the flavor tested well with “both Hispanic and general market consumers,” an extension of Constellation Brands’ push to target Hispanic customers, who account for about 40 percent of the company’s sales, a Wells Fargo analyst told CNN last year.
Their flavors are, for the most part, the main draw of the success of such beverages, which means that, ironically, the future of the beer industry may depend on who can sell the least beery beer.
Beer companies are battling for the beer (or non-beer) you can drink all day long
There’s another reason breweries are making lighter, summerier, and lower-ABV brews, and it’s the most obvious and boring one of all: wellness. Young people suddenly care way more about their health, we’re constantly being told, and it’s more difficult to justify a 300-calorie pint of a hazy IPA when it essentially amounts to eating a loaf of bread that also gets you very drunk.
And it isn’t just the domain of brands making waves in the flavored malt beverage space — even craft brewers are starting to listen to their customers who want a little less alcohol in their alcohol. Ballast Point, the San Diego-based craft brewery that’s now owned by Constellation Brands, made its name on such IPAs, like the popular Grapefruit Sculpin ale. This year, however, it launched Ballast Point Lager, the brand’s first beer denoted with a calorie count (99 per 12-ounce can).
VP of brewing James Murray says it was a natural choice: More customers had been requesting lighter options in its tasting rooms, and lower-ABV beers were tending to sell better. “We’d been tinkering around with low-ABV, low-calorie beers before; we just hadn’t really marketed them as low-calorie,” he says. “I think we’re starting to see the more health-conscious craft beer drinker, men and women in that 25- to 39-year-old age group who are more concerned about what they’re putting in their bodies but want to enjoy a beer from a craft brewer in social environments.”
Concerns that people suddenly care deeply about being “well” have permeated the alcohol industry. Forty percent of global consumers say they want to decrease their alcohol consumption, and as a result, nonalcoholic alternatives and alcohol-free bars are on the rise. Though millennials aren’t changing their drinking habits on a grand scale quite yet, a report in the Atlantic tells the story of more than 100 young people who are trying to drink less, for reasons related to health, money, or their social lives.
Murray says this has caused the stigma around lighter beers and spiked seltzers to wane even among craft beer industry folks. “More and more often I’m encountering some of my craft beer peers that are excited about seltzers and more sessionable beers because it’s really getting more of our current lifestyle than other higher-octane beverages would.”
Sessionable, by the way, refers to a beverage you can drink for long periods of time without getting too drunk, and is a word repeated by both those in the flavored malt beverage space and in craft breweries like Ballast Point, as well as Harpoon brewery’s new lower-calorie Rec League pale ale. In other words, these are drinks you can have while actually doing something, perhaps even something that burns calories — hiking or boating or whatever people do while wearing athleisure.
That’s the customer that these brands seek to target: the one who wants to drink something that tastes less beery than beer — perhaps even with fun tropical flavors! — but won’t get them hammered as quickly as wine or liquor. Whereas a couple of shots might make you completely useless to the world, you can still climb a mountain or stand up on a paddleboard with a can or two of a Ballast Point Lager or a Ritas Spritz. Or even if you’re not into that, you can at least drink them all day long.
Are they any good? Depends on who you ask. (But yes, they are.)
Megan, a 21-year-old senior at Temple University, is one such customer. When her school’s classes were canceled in late February due to a snow day, she and her friends went to the store specifically in search of a pack of Naturdays. Though she says she was skeptical about the taste (she’s usually a Bud Light drinker), the cashier informed them that the store was almost sold out.
Once she arrived Naturdays in hand at a snow day party, she says, “Many people were coming up to us to ask how it tasted or for a sip. Mostly everyone who tried it agreed it was a lot better than they expected and will probably buy a case once it’s warmer.”
This is not necessarily an opinion shared by everyone who tastes Naturdays for the first time. The beer publication October gave Naturdays a score of 35 out of 100, and writer Jesse Bussard tells me, “It was probably one of the grossest beers I’ve had in awhile” and that “it was like somebody put candy in my beer.”
Naturdays, of course, is not a beer designed with the professional craft beer reviewer in mind. It’s designed for someone like Megan, or someone like me, a woman who loves fancy double IPAs but who’s also been known to throw down $3 for a Mang-O-Rita at my local bodega. So on a marginally warmer-than-usual day in late March, I invited a few friends over to my roof to pretend it was summertime and drink beer that wasn’t supposed to taste like beer.
It is fun to hate on shitty, sort-of-embarrassing alcoholic beverages, which is probably why even the presence of a Ritas Spritz in a social setting elicits people’s best zingers (the strawberry-blueberry flavor was described by various friends as “Robitussin,” “a reject Bath & Body Works spray,” “a stomachache”). Sweet, girlish things are easy to deride — as Jaya Saxena wrote in 2017, feminine-coded food trends (cupcakes, rosé) are typically talked about as though women are “ruining” food, while male-coded ones (bitter craft brews, for instance) elevate it.
It’s pretty difficult to argue that a can of fake fruit and sugar concocted by the biggest brewery in the world is an objectively superior drink to a precious small-batch sour. But it would be false reporting to say that the product didn’t deliver on its stated job: getting a group of unprecious alcohol drinkers happily buzzed during the day.
It would also be a lie to say that my coworkers weren’t enthusiastic about trying Corona Refrescas, and though the coconut flavor tasted and smelled mostly like sunscreen, the passionfruit and guava sparked pangs of longing for summertime ferry trips to the beach.
But the biggest lie of all would be to say that a couple days later I didn’t crack open a Naturdays while cooking dinner, fully expecting it to taste like a Jolly Rancher had been left in a Natty Light for a week. Reader, I adored it. It might be the fact that it’s April and all anyone wants is for summer to arrive in haste, but in my opinion, to dislike Naturdays or beer that tastes a little bit like juice is to dislike sunshine and flowers and also joy.
The rise of the flavored malt beverage doesn’t mean the downfall of craft beer or anything else, but rather the rise of a drinking culture composed of stuff you can buy at a convenience store that’s more fun than a six-pack of Coors Light. Flavored malt beverages are the beach reads of beer: juicy, easy, and best enjoyed adjacent to a body of water.