Nov 16, 2019

Big Beer faces a risky future

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For decades, beer has been as American as apple pie and baseball. Now, we’re starting to lose our taste for it.

The big picture: Americans will drink 1.2% less alcohol in 2023 than in 2018, per IWSR, an alcohol market research firm. That might not seem like much, but it’s 364 million liters of booze.

  • And it’s beer that’s driving the fall. Consumption of wine and spirits is actually up, IWSR says. But beer consumption is projected to fall another 6.1% by 2023.
  • That’s sending Big Beer into a panic. “The brewers are just terrified,” says William Rorabaugh, a historian at the University of Washington who studies American drinking culture.

What’s happening: Brewers that have long profited from Americans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for beer are attempting to diversify their offerings — adding seltzers and cannabis-infused beverages — as beer consumption falls.

  • Anheuser-Busch InBev, one of the two biggest brewers in the world, has invested in energy drinks and non-alcoholic beer, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Big-time brewer Molson Coors is linking up with The Hydropothecary Corporation to roll out cannabis-infused drinks. Molson Coors is also planning to cut hundreds of jobs as it restructures to move beyond beer, per the Journal.
  • Diageo, the drinks giant behind Smirnoff vodka and Guinness beer, is investing in Seedlip, a European company that makes non-alcoholic drinks that can be mixed with alcohol or consumed as is.

It's the collision of a number of trends that's driving the drop in beer consumption, experts say. But it all boils down to generational differences.

  • Younger people are more health conscious than ever, and they're seeking out drinks with lower calorie counts and alcohol volumes.
  • The younger generation was also raised on sweet, sugary snacks, and those preferences may have followed them into adulthood, says Rorabaugh.
  • "When kids grow up with sweeter snacks, it's not surprising that when they reach drinking age, they'll want sweeter drinks." That could help to explain the craze around flavored seltzers, he says.
  • They're also rejecting big brands — in food, in clothing and in beer — in favor of smaller, independent sellers. "The stranger the brand, the more likely it is to be on the shelf. The big name brands of the past have shrunk back," Rorabaugh says.

The bottom line: Beer may be losing popularity, but it still comprises the lion's share of alcohol consumed in the U.S. Those Bud Lights won't be wiped out anytime soon.

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