Original Lite Beer Can Coming Back

miller-lite
These always give me a chuckle. Whenever sales are flagging, one of the strategies employed by the bigger beer companies to reverse their fortunes is to change the packaging. Earlier this month, Miller sent out a press release, “Celebrate Miller Time with the Light Beer that Started It All.” They’re bringing back the original can design for Miller Lite, their unnatural abomination of a diet beer. My thoughts on low-calorie light beer are very opinionated, and none too positive, for example read Disrespecting Low-Calorie Light Beer and No Defense For Light Beer.

MILLER LITE ORIGINAL LITE CAN

Here’s the press release:

The Original Lite Can features the familiar images of hops, barley and the words “a fine pilsner beer,” which reinforce the high quality ingredients and the unique brewing process that consumers have enjoyed for generations.

“There was a time when all that existed was heavy beer that weighed you down,” said Elina Vives, marketing director for Miller Lite. “The launch of Miller Lite broke this category convention and offered beer drinkers the best of both worlds, great taste at only 96 calories and 3.2 carbs. Miller Lite is the original light beer and this limited-edition can celebrates that innovation and helps inform consumers of the rich history behind our beer.”

In addition to becoming available to consumers in January, the Original Lite Can will appear in the upcoming Paramount Pictures’ release, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The news team can be seen enjoying the Original Lite in the film, which will be released nationwide December 18.

The limited-edition Original Lite Can will be available nationwide January through March in 12-, 16- and 24-ounce sizes.

All well and good, but sheesh, why not just make a beer that people would want to drink, not one you have to market and advertise to death to create demand? Can people really be nostalgic for that can design? But that seems to be used a marketing tactic every few years, to change the package, the label or something along those lines. It’s indicative of a culture that’s long ago abandoned the importance of what’s inside the package and instead has been concentrating on the external. Sure, how the packaging looks is important, but it’s not more important than the beer, and for big beer companies it surely seems like marketing has trumped any other concerns for many, many years.

MILLER LITE ORIGINAL LITE CAN
Calling it a “Pilsner beer,” of course, strains the notion of what a pilsner is.

Disrespecting Low-Calorie Light Beer

diet-beer
Ugh, why do people keep defending low-calorie light diet beer? It’s an abomination. It should go away. It’s a marketing trick. It’s the best selling kind of beer in America, and defending it is the equivalent of complaining about the “War on Christmas” or the “War on White People.” Yes, sales have been slipping lately, with more people choosing beer with flavor, but certainly not enough to put much of a dent in the sheer volume of this dreck. Yes, many, if not most, craft beer drinkers choose not to drink it and some even bash it as something not worthy of respect. Well, I am one of those people. Not everything deserves our respect. I respect how difficult it is to make, but in the end that’s not the standard I want to use for how I choose what to drink. Degree of difficulty may be fine for Olympic gymnastics or diving, but taste is far more important to me when it comes to my beer.

So please stop telling me I must love it because it’s really, really hard to make. I get that. I marvel at the technology that must be employed, the sacrifice of ingredients to keep it lighter in color and flavor, the loving care taken to make something that … should … not … exist, and would not exist if not for the Herculean effort to make it. It’s unnatural. So why go to such an effort to make something nobody wanted in the first place? Why spend millions of dollars to convince people they should be drinking it? Why create new processes to create Frankenbrew in the laboratory when ordinary beer was perfectly fine, thank you very much? Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Did anyone say “money?” Show ‘em what they win. They win a beer landscape dominated by beer that tastes as close to water as technologically possible. Hooray! Drop the balloons, throw the confetti and start the singing and dancing.

Earlier this summer, David Ryder, Vice-President of Brewing for MillerCoors wrote an op-ed piece in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled In Defense of Light Beer, in which he trotted out the old saws about light beer. The fact that the two top-selling products his company makes are Coors Light and Miller Lite should, of course, have made anyone suspicious of his motives and question any arguments in his editorial piece. The fact that the Sun-Times ran such an obviously biased piece is rather sad, I think. It’s a bit like asking Lee Iacocca to defend the Pinto. You can’t expect objectivity.

But now there’s another article telling me I have to respect light beer, this time in a magazine I actually read, and usually enjoy: Mental Floss. The piece, Scientific Reasons to Respect Light Beer is written by Jed Lipinski, who appears to not be a frequent writer about beer, not that that should matter. After a few anecdotes from craft beer fans disparaging light beer, he launches into his defense:

What few drinkers know, however, is that quality light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. The thin flavor means there’s little to mask defects in the more than 800 chemical compounds within. As Kyler Serfass, manager of the home-brew supply shop Brooklyn Homebrew, told me, “Light beer is a brewer’s beer. It may be bland, but it’s really tough to do.” Belgian monks and master brewers around the world marvel at how macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have perfected the process in hundreds of factories, ensuring that every pour from every brewery tastes exactly the same. Staring at a bottle, it’s staggering to consider the effort that goes into producing each ounce of the straw-colored liquid. But perhaps the most impressive thing about light beer isn’t the time needed or the craftsmanship or even the consistency, but how many lives the beverage has saved.

And there’s degree of difficulty again. Is light beer really a “brewer’s beer?” I have to question that one. But even more of a howler is how “Belgian monks and master brewers around the world marvel at how macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have perfected the process.” They may find the technology or the process interesting, they may even be impressed by the effort, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a brewing monk who prefers Bud Light to Duvel, or Orval, or Westmalle. Can anyone really think the average German brewer “marvels” at Miller Lite when compared to the average everyday Bavarian beer? Or that the brewers of England think Coors Light better than the average cask hand-pulled from their local pub? In fact, until the rise of low-calorie diet beer, most Europeans, when referring to “light” beer, thought of light in terms of color, as the German helles (which means “bright” or “light”) or hell (an adjective for “light”). Also, he begins by referring to light beer as having “thin flavors.” Since when has that ever been a positive attribute for anything? When is “less flavor” something to strive for? Name another food product where the goal is to create a version with not as much flavor.

But then there’s that last bit, about how light beer has saved lives. Huh? Yeah, that was my response, too. Huh? And here’s the reason.

“Before it was light beer, it was “small beer.” A popular drink in late-medieval Europe and colonial America, small beer was necessary for certain civilizations to grow. In the days before Brita filters, beer staved off disease and dehydration by packing just enough alcohol to kill off pathogens found in drinking water.

Except that it wasn’t. One didn’t evolve into the other, in some natural progression. The two are not the same, apart from both being low-alcohol and beers. He even contradicts himself by saying that it was popular in medieval times and allowed “civilizations to grow.” Given that civilization was around for thousands of years before that period of history and that beer was there at the very dawn of civilization, I think we can safely say that “small beer” didn’t save mankind. Beer generally had a hand in keeping people healthier longer, allowing those with a tolerance for alcohol to prosper and procreate, but it wasn’t “light beer” that saved the day. If those people had to wait around for brewers to figure out they could use the second runnings of their strong beer to make a lower strength beer that they could sell for less, they would not have survived. Small beer was essentially a way to make more money, to re-use part of the brewing waste, first created by English brewers, although most brewing cultures also made a beer of lower strength that was essentially a table beer. Anchor Brewing has continued the English tradition by making a Small Beer from their Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale, and despite it being 3.3% a.b.v., it’s about as far from a low-calorie light diet beer as one could be.

lite-beer

Light beer was the brainchild of one man, who thought people would want diet beer. He was wrong, though he did come up with the process of how to make a low-calorie diet beer. Here’s the story, from an earlier post of mine:

The first low-calorie beer was created by Joe Owedes, who, it must be said, had some very strong opinions about beer. He once told me that all ale yeast was dead and inferior to lager yeast. Around 1967, he created Gablinger’s diet beer, the first light beer, while working for Rheingold. It flopped. Big time. Not everybody agrees on what happened next. Some accounts credit Owedes with sharing his recipe for light beer with Meister Brau of Chicago while others claim that the Peter Hand Brewing Company (which marketed Meister Brau) came up with it independently on their own. However it happened, Meister Brau Lite proved somewhat more successful than Gablinger’s, primarily due to its superior marketing. Miller Brewing later acquired Meister Brau, and in 1975 debuted Miller Lite, complete with the distinctive, trademark-able spelling.

But it took marketing the new low-calorie beer in a new way so that it removed the “diet” stigma to make it work. They had to trick people into drinking it. Miller’s famously successful “tastes great, less filling” campaign was the primary reason for the category’s success. But it was hardly overnight. It took fifteen years — from 1975 to 1990 — for Miller Lite to reach 10% of the market. Over that time, the other big brewers (loathe to miss out on any market share) introduced their own versions, such as Coors Light and Bud Light, so that whole segment of low-calorie beer was nearly 30% of the beer market by 1990.

Today, seven of the top ten big brands are light beers. Despite its recent dip in sales, it remains a $50 billion segment of the business and still hovers close to half of all beer sold in the United States. That fact, I find to be incredibly sad, frankly. What a great triumph of marketing over common sense and actual taste.

Which is why I hardly think anyone needs to be rushing to its defense. People are willingly drinking it in frighteningly high numbers. I can only assume they’re the same people who buy Wonder Bread, Kraft cheese, TV dinners and every other popular product, even when everybody knows better, healthier, tastier alternatives are available.

Owedes supposedly saw the focus group data indicating that people were giving up beer to save calories. Remember, this was the 1950s. Of course, it seems to me the smarter decision would have been to persuade people that beer is not as fattening as they thought. That this is true means it probably would have been a much easier sell. The idea that beer is so fattening is something of a myth, just like the beer belly. It seems to me that if the beer companies at that time had thrown their millions of ad dollars into that message, things might be a lot better today. But they chose the harder path, one we’re all still paying for. Instead of changing the message, they went with “the customer is always right” approach and created a beer to satisfy the consumer’s misconceptions and incorrect assumptions. In other words, when the customer was wrong, they just went with it. When it tanked, instead of cutting their losses, they instead spent millions persuading customers something that wasn’t true; that beer was fattening, but drinking this “magic diet beer” would fix that. The first thing they learned was not to call it “diet beer.” It’s what pharmaceutical companies have learned how to do so well. They first come up with the drug, then create the condition it will cure, even if it didn’t exist before. Anybody remember “restless leg syndrome” before the drug that treats it came on the market?

Lipinski goes on to detail the technology and the steps in the process that big breweries take to create low-calorie diet beer. And even he admits it was a tough sell at the beginning, and how a barrage of advertising was necessary to make it succeed. So tell me again why I have to respect something that had to be sold to the American people through advertising and marketing and which would probably not exist had that advertising failed? If those ads had not worked, low-calorie diet beer could have just as easily ended up on the scrap heap with dry beer, ice beer or tequila-flavored beer.

Peter Kraemer, a VP at ABI, seems to believe part of the problem is with definitions. He claims that “‘light beer’ has lost all meaning over the years” and he “considers [regular Budweiser and Bud Light] both light beers.” In that, he may be on to something. Regular Bud and Bud Light were once judged at GABF as separate categories, but today are sub-categories under the umbrella “American-Style Lager, Light Lager or Premium Lager,” a category I judged a first round of this year. Indeed, even the technical differences in the four sub-categories are slight. I suspect that they may have been more different at one time, but as Anheuser-Busch finally revealed in a 2006 Wall Street Journal article, Budweiser Admits Flavor “Drifted” Over the Years. So regular Bud has been slowly “creeping” closer to Bud Light over the years. But the fact is they taste pretty similar, have not much difference in terms of calories and are separated only in the way they’re marketed. They remind me of the choice between 87 regular octane gasoline and 91 premium octane. I’m told they’re not the same gasoline but damned if it makes any difference to my car, and I’ve long suspected that it’s like an old Dave Berg cartoon I saw in Mad magazine where all the gas actually comes out of one big tank below the pumps, and really is all the same.

And why not, the driving force in these changes is being able to use less ingredients, making the profits higher. It’s not rocket science. Use less malt and hops, and it will cost less to produce the beer, all other costs being equal. Over a small batch or two, it’s probably not that much, but in vats the size of Montana, it makes a big difference to the bottom line. And that’s plenty of incentive to spend the ad dollars to convince people that the flavor you’re not tasting is what you really want, because it’s better for you, won’t fill you up and, besides, it still tastes great. Trust us.

The other reason, or incentive, that the big brewers have for light beer is that having convinced people that they have less calories, people feel that they can actually drink more of them. And that’s what they end of doing. So by promoting them as healthier, diet beer, people end up actually drinking more calories. As The Litigation Consulting Report explains, in order to get the same buzz, that is the same amount of alcohol (which is also lower in most light beers), you’d have to drink 15 light beers to get the same alcohol that’s in six regular beers. According to them, this is known as the “compensation” effect and “is an issue in some product liability cases.”

Selling-Light-Beer

But the diet aspects of beer already work for all beer, no reason to even sacrifice the flavor between the two. But since they’re admittedly both the same, you may as well avoid both regular and the diet versions in favor of something with actual flavor. That’s one of the biggest reasons I hate low-calorie diet beer: there’s simply no reason for it to exist. For most beers, have two instead of three and you’ll be ahead of the game. Drink smarter, drink better.

I realize I’m in the minority here, as every time I write about counting calories, people comment that they do actually watch their caloric intake, but I do not, and never have. I’ve gone over 50 years without counting a single calorie and, while I may not be the world’s healthiest man, I’m not the world’s worst either. And I’ve certainly never regretted choosing to eat or drink whatever I want. I find the slavish obsession to calorie counting absurd, but have come to recognize that many people really do care about them. I’ve written about this issue before, in Calories In Beer: Can We Please Stop?, Calories In Beer: Can We Please Stop, Part 2 and Read This, Not That. Life is undoubtedly about making choices, assessing risks and deciding what’s best for you.

Still, if you love beer, why defend low-calorie diet beer that is in every way as far from actual beer as possible? Everyone acknowledges it has less flavor. It has a few less calories, but stripping calories also strips … wait for it … flavor. But the difference between regular and diet beer seems so slight to me to be almost meaningless, especially when simply drinking one less beer would have roughly the same effect. If Budweiser has 145 calories in a 12 oz. bottle, and Bud Light has 110, drinking three diet beers would save you 105 calories. But have just two Buds, and you’d save 40 calories over three Bud Lights. Better still, choose two Samuel Adams Boston Lagers (160 calories) and you’d still save 10 calories over three Bud Lights or choose two Sierra Nevada Pale Ales (175 calories) and it will cost you only 20 more calories than drinking three Bud Lights would, though you’d still save 85 calories drinking two Sierra Nevada Pale Ales instead of three regular Budweisers. The point is that the caloric savings in diet beers are a sham. The differences are too slight to sacrifice so much flavor and enjoyment.

beer-diets

To sum up, diet beers were created in a laboratory to fill a need that didn’t exist. Making the beer that nobody wanted is incredibly difficult, and much harder than just making normal beer. To be successful, millions of dollars had to be spent on marketing and advertising to convince people to buy the thing that’s harder to make that they didn’t want in the first place. Finally, after nearly 40 years, and at least 20 that they’ve dominated the market, sales are starting to slip as people are choosing beer with more flavor instead. But rather than follow the shifting marketplace, pleas are being made that we should respect the beer nobody wanted that’s harder to make because … well, just because it is so danged hard to make and is a technological marvel deserving our respect.

As Lipinski wittily remarks in his closing sentence, he hopes his efforts at persuading you to respect light beer will “help you see the brew in a new light,” but there’s really nothing new in his arguments. His “scientific reasons” can only command your respect up to a point. I can respect the process, I can respect the technology, I can respect the effort made, but I still can’t respect the results. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can, quite frankly. With no disrespect to the many wonderful brewers who make low-calorie light diet beer, you can do better. You know you can. I have no truck with your skill as brewers or with the technology you wield so impressively. But I want a beer with more flavor. So until diet beer, like so many other diet products, tastes exactly the same as the more flavorful beers I prefer, I can’t give it the respect you insist it deserves.

No Defense For Light Beer

miller-lite
Ever since I first read about this in Beer Business Daily, it’s been bothering me, but I’ve been unable to read the original editorial by David Ryder, who’s the Vice-President of Brewing for MillerCoors. It supposedly ran in the Chicago-Sun Times, but they apparently do not have that particular editorial online and their search engine only allows searching their archives for articles written in 2011 or before. But apparently on July 4, he wrote an op-ed piece, “In Defense of Light Beer,” though I imagine he would have preferred the spelling “lite beer.” Now, without having even read it, you have to be suspicious of it for no other reason then he owes much of his living to the continued sales and popularity of low-calorie light beer. As Upton Sinclair famously observed. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

But here’s what I do know, as reported by Beer Business Daily:

“It’s absolutely true that U.S. beer drinkers have more choices than ever before, from spicy saisons to big imperial stouts to hoppy IPAs. It’s a wonderful development that brings energy and excitement to brewing.

“But it’s also true that, faced with all those choices, American beer drinkers still overwhelmingly choose American light lagers over all others.

“That fact often draws the scorn and condescension of beer ‘aficionados,’ not to mention the news media. Not too long ago, the financial newswire Bloomberg News derided light lagers as ‘barley water’ in a story on our sales trends.

“The lighter take on beer exemplified by American pilsners and lagers is an authentic and widely admired style. In fact, it is the very first style of beer listed in the Beer Judge Certification Program. I have worked as a brewer in some 20 countries on five continents. I can assure you that this is the most emulated and difficult-to-brew beer style in the world.”

David points out that in the old days before light beer, “beer was a food staple” but Adolph Coors and Adolphus Busch changed beer to be seen as “as a form of refreshment and pioneered new brands to meet changing consumer preferences.” He also points out that “light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. Heavy, sometimes cloudy, beers can mask brewing imperfections. But with light beers, the slightest irregularity is glaring to the taste buds. Consistently replicating these delicate flavors and aromas requires a remarkable level of brewing skill and precision.”

To the point he makes about the difficulty of making light beer, while I generally admire the science of brewing that the big breweries have developed and the difficulty of consistently brewing light beers, where flaws are nearly impossible to hide, that admiration does not extend to the products themselves. No matter how difficult they are to make, that still doesn’t excuse their existence, or make them a beer that I’d ever want to drink. To me, they are still an abomination, a science experiment gone awry. There’s no reason to sacrifice flavor to save a mere pittance of calories. Beer is not particularly fattening, especially if you drink it in moderation. The easiest way to reduce your caloric intake of beer is not to choose the latest scientifically engineered slightly lower-calorie beer, but to simply drink less bottles, cans or pints. Drink less, but drink better is always a good rule of thumb.

A little over a week after Ryder’s op-ed appeared, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Herb Gould also examined Ryder’s assertions. In his column Thirsting for some better pilsners, he claims to be a homebrewer, but one who will drink apparently any beer. He offers that he’s “not a beer snob,” but “simply like[s] beers that, well, taste better than what the Big Two offer.” Despite this apparent contradiction, he applauds Ryder for his “much-needed defense of American pilsners,” continuing. “As he said, it’s an American classic. When you’re watching a ballgame on a hot day, when you’re enjoying a big steak, or a nice piece of salmon, nothing’s better than a well-bittered but not too heavy lager.”

Except that light beers are not “well-bittered” and they’re not pilsners, American or otherwise. They may have been based upon pilsners once upon a time, but they have diverged so far from that purported origin that they bear little resemblance to pilsners from the Czech Republic, Germany or any other place on the planet. They have become, as even David Ryder notes, a separate category of beer all to themselves.

He claims surprise “that the little breweries don’t seem interested in making a nice pilsner — or a better version of Budweiser or Miller High Life” and later in his column challenges what he terms “earnest little micro-breweries” to “[g]ive us more and better All-American pilsners.” I’m not sure where he’s been going to find his beer, because there are literally hundreds of great pilsners made by craft brewers of all sizes. Right in my backyard, the Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley only makes one beer, a fantastic pilsner that’s exactly what Gould claims to want in a “quality pilsner — a beer that’s on the lighter side but has nothing to be ashamed of. A beer that’s got a little bite, has a nice layer of flavor but doesn’t shout out anything fancy.”

A beer fitting that description, frankly, is not all that difficult to find. Of the Top 50 Czech Pilsners on Beer Advocate, 36 of them are made in the U.S. and for the Top 50 German Pilsners, 34 are American-made. Good American pilsners are everywhere if you know where to look.

And quite frankly, the reason he may be having trouble finding one is that he admits he “will drink MillerCoors or Budweiser products, but only if more ambitious choices are not available, which is often the case.” But that’s never going to change if he just accepts what beers they have and fails to tell the bars he frequents that he would prefer “more ambitious choices.” If he keeps ordering whatever is available, there’s absolutely no incentive for the bar to stock “more ambitious choices.” He seems to wear not being a beer snob as a badge of honor, but he’s doing himself and craft beer no favors by settling for whatever beers a bar decides to carry. Asking, or even insisting, on the beers you want is not being a snob, but is simply the only way to effect change and get the beers you actually want. Can you imagine being hungry for a steak and going to a restaurant, only to find out the only kind they have is Salisbury steak, and just settling for that, especially when there are other steak restaurants right around the corner? Vote for what you want with your wallet. Buy what you actually want, don’t just settle for whatever’s put in front of you. Seriously, who lives that way?

But I think his way of thinking is pretty common, and is a big reason why light beer and other less-flavorful beers continue to be so popular. It’s simply that people who are not as fanatical as the average beer geek just don’t care enough to bother. There’s enough to worry about in people’s everyday lives, and we all decide what things we’ll make a priority and what we’ll just accept and not fuss too much about. And in that, the big breweries have the advantage.

Think about colas, for example. There are people who really care that they drink only Coke or Pepsi. They’re fanatical about it. My grandmother was a Pepsi person. She hated Coke. But there are countless people who just don’t care. You see it at restaurants all the time. “Can I have a Coke, please.” The waitress replies, “we only have Pepsi.” And how often have you heard this? “That’s fine. No problem. Whatever.” And so it is with beer. You’re out for lunch or dinner and want a beer. More often than not, most people will just accept whatever beer is offered. It’s the reason that distribution and availability are so crucial to success. Simply have your beer available at more places than your competitor and you’ll most likely do better. Because most people in such a situation will just capitulate and order from what’s available rather than make a fuss or ask for something else or, perish the thought, not patronize that bar or restaurant.

So simply having deep distribution and being available everywhere will sustain light beer for years to come, so long as people don’t speak up. Because until Gould and a majority of people do care enough to insist on what they put in their bodies, the big companies that can afford national advertising budgets and can make their products available everywhere, those light beer makers will continue to flourish, and little will change in the world of beer.

But let’s get back to Ryder, and some of his arguments in defense of light beer. Here’s just a few of the earlier statements Ryder makes that I disagree with.

  • The lighter take on beer exemplified by American pilsners and lagers is an authentic and widely admired style:

    Widely admired by whom, exactly? Sales do not automatically equal admiration. The reasons any product is popular is not that it’s the best one available. Often it’s the cheapest, most available or has the highest advertising budget. Wonder bread my be the best-selling bread in America, but does anyone actually think it’s the best bread money can buy? People drink light beer because they’re bombarded with marketing and advertising, have been tricked into thinking they’re not sacrificing flavor and/or don’t really think (or care) about their choices. And as for its “authenticity,” I don’t even know what he’s talking about, do you? They’re not “pilsners” by any stretch of the imagination and they may be among the groups of beers described as lagers, but they exist in their own world, as a separate category. That a new category was created so that similar beers could be tasted and judged with other similar beers, does not make them authentic, which is defined as “not false or copied; genuine; real.” Given that “light beers” are lighter, less flavorful beers copied from true pilsners and rendered into a false version of them, I’d argue they’re the very opposite of authentic.

  • In fact, it is the very first style of beer listed in the Beer Judge Certification Program:

    Why yes, yes they are. But that fact has absolutely nothing to do with authenticity or any positive attribute. The BJCP style guidelines are organized roughly by lagers, ales and hybrids, from lightest (and sometimes) weakest to darkest or stronger. Light lagers, being the lightest in color and weakest in terms of flavor are listed first. It is not because they are the most authentic or any other reason that anyone might consider because they are somehow more favored or the best. And, I suspect, Mr. Ryder must know that their position in the list is utterly meaningless such that trying to defend light beer using this argument is completely disingenuous and intentionally misleading.

  • It’s also true that, faced with all those choices, American beer drinkers still overwhelmingly choose American light lagers over all others:

    Yes, that may be true but it hardly proves that this is because light beer is somehow a superior product. As I argued above, marketing, advertising and manipulating consumers over decades is responsible for light beer’s popularity. It’s certainly not its taste or any actual health benefits over other beers.

The true reason that the big breweries have focused on low-calorie beers has more to do with business, and the bottom line, than health or any altruistic reasons. In fact, the earliest diet beers had a very difficult time finding a market. Men, by far the largest gender drinking beer when they were introduced, had to be convinced over a long period of time that they should drink light beer. And let’s not forget that low-calorie beers use less ingredients than their more flavorful counterparts, but yet are sold for the same prince point. You don’t even have to be very cynical to realize that they’re more profitable and to see why breweries might have put more effort into selling them.

Gablingers-Beer

The first low-calorie beer was created by Joe Owedes, who, it must be said, had some very strong opinions about beer. He once told me that all ale yeast was dead and inferior to lager yeast. Around 1967, he created Gablinger’s diet beer, the first light beer, while working for Rheingold. It flopped. Big time. Not everybody agrees on what happened next. Some accounts credit Owedes with sharing his recipe for light beer with Meister Brau of Chicago while others claim that the Peter Hand Brewing Company (which marketed Meister Brau) came up with it independently on their own. However it happened, Meister Brau Lite proved somewhat more successful than Gablinger’s, primarily due to its superior marketing. Miller Brewing later acquired Meister Brau, and in 1975 debuted Miller Lite, complete with the distinctive, trademark-able spelling.

Meister-Brau-Lite-1969

But it took marketing the new low-calorie beer in a new way so that it removed the “diet” stigma to make it work. They had to trick people into drinking it. Miller’s famously successful “tastes great, less filling” campaign was the primary reason for the category’s success. But it was hardly overnight. It took fifteen years — from 1975 to 1990 — for Miller Lite to reach 10% of the market. Over that time, the other big brewers (loathe to miss out on any market share) introduced their own versions, such as Coors Light and Bud Light, so that whole segment of low-calorie beer was nearly 30% of the beer market by 1990.

miller-lite-uecker-1982

Today, seven of the top ten big brands are light beers. Despite its recent dip in sales, it remains a $50 billion segment of the business and still hovers close to half of all beer sold in the United States. That fact, I find to be incredibly sad, frankly. What a great triumph of marketing over common sense and actual taste.

Earlier this year, Ryder gave a talk on beer in Milwaukee, entitled the Science of Beer, where he extolled the recent changes in people’s attitudes toward beer. “‘People are rediscovering beer,’ he said. ‘They’re gaining a brand new appreciation of what beer is and what beer could be.'” And to my way of thinking, what beer is and what beer can be is just so much more than low-calorie light beer. I find that there’s just no defense for light beer.

Beer In Ads #215: Meister Brau Lite

ad-billboard
Wednesday’s ad is for one of the first low-calorie light beers from 1969. Notice the spelling of “Lite” for Meister Brau Lite. That’s significant because Miller bought the brand in part to create Miller Lite, which they later introduced in 1973 I love that Mesiter Brau is trying to link their low-calorie beer to sex from the get go, where refer to it as “Lite … a lusty, full strength premium beer with 1/3 less calories.”

Meister-Brau-Lite-1969

A Marketeer’s Take On Bud Light

bud-light
Thanks to Anat Baron from Beer Wars, who tweeted this. Laura Ries, one half of the father-daughter Ries & Ries marketing consultants, who together wrote The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding and four other books.

She wrote a piece on her far-too-cleverly named Ries’ Pieces blog about the Bud Light brand. It’s interesting to read the take of someone who knows marketing but not the beer industry’s peculiarities.