The future of big beer is sobering, and Denver’s own multinational brewing giant intends to be right in the thick of it.
Molson Coors Brewing Co. this year has been testing fresh varieties of nonalcoholic lagers as it prepares to roll out a yet-unnamed brand in Canada in 2018. After analyzing how that brew is received by consumers north of the border, an American invasion will follow.
Molson Coors already sells 18 low- (containing 3.5 percent alcohol by volume or less) and no-alcohol beers in 10 counties, including its Coors Non Alcoholic and Sharp’s brands in the United States.
Company officials admit nonalcoholic beer is a sliver of Coors’ North American business and not something it has focused on much to this point. So what gives a company based in craft-beer worshiping Colorado the idea it can grow sales by investing in nonalcoholic brewing, long looked down upon for creating a product with substandard taste that fails to deliver a buzz?
Short answer: Europe.
Over the last half decade, sales of low- and no-alcohol beer and other malt-based beverages have spiked in Europe, according to Kandy Anand, Moslon Coors’ chief growth officer.
“In Europe today, it’s anywhere between 4 and 14 percent of the beer market, depending on the country,” Anand said. “We think conditions are right for what happened the last five years in Europe to start happening in North America.”
Anand and others Coors executives point to Americans’ — particularly millennials’ — focus on healthy living as a potential sales driver. Coors NA has roughly 2/3 the calories of Coors Light. The new, so-called “low and no” varieties that Coors tested this year have half the calories of Coors NA.
“In general, beer is completely natural. It has no added ingredients,” Anand said. “People might drink this as part of an extended evening — people who want to pace themselves, want to have a break in between (drinks) — and also as a refreshing adult beverage for lunch.”
What makes the low/no products attractive to a brewers such as Molson Coors, Anand said, is research has shown that it doesn’t compete with traditional beer so much as it steals consumers from other beverages such as soft drinks.
“It’s more adult. Certainly, with soda, people find them often too sweet,” he said. “Our research has shown that about 60 percent of nonalcoholic beer growth came from sodas.”
Molson Coors isn’t the only big brewer looking to cut alcohol to achieve growth. Anheuser Busch InBev, the industry leader that owns Budweiser, has said it wants 20 percent of its global beer production to be low/no alcohol by 2025, according to a recent article on Fortune.com. That article pointed out that while the low/no products accounts for 2 percent of global consumption today, sales of those products rose by 5.2 percent between 2010 and 2016. The beer industry as a whole grew by less than 1 percent over that same time.
Molson Coors plans to offer the low/no products in every country it operates in by 2025. That objective was set both as a means to grow business and to reach corporate goals to encourage responsible drinking, Anand said.
Molson Coors knows that hooking more American consumers will hinge on brewing a product they like while also leveraging its recognizable brand. That is not the case with Coors NA, which many drinkers pan as not tasting like beer at all.
“It’s got to really taste great,” Anand said. “Without great taste, people get put off very easily. We strongly believe that we can truly improve the product and make it great tasting and highly refreshing.”
David Durkee, a senior director of technology and innovation with Molson Coors, said the new lager the company is perfecting was created with a proprietary process unlike any other in the industry. There are two standard methods for making the low/no products: stopping the brewing process before alcohol is produced, or boiling off — or otherwise removing — alcohol after the beer is made. The former produces a sugary, sweet — or “worty” — beverage, and the latter is known to be extra light on flavor, Durkee said. Molson Coors feels its new process is a step forward and will produce something comparable in flavor to Coors Light.
“I think, just as a beer consumer, one of the problems with nonalcoholic beer is people haven’t put the time and effort into making it as good as it can be,” Durkee said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
At Denver’s Argonaut Wine and Liquor, nonalcoholic beer is not flying off the shelves. Co-owner Ron Vaughn said the warehouse-style store on East Colfax Avenue sells probably a few hundred cases a year. That’s a fraction of a percent of how much Coors Light it sells, he said.
Vaughn isn’t willing to write off the idea of an improved variety finding some success. In a state with legal marijuana, he could see the low/no products catching on with people who don’t want to mix pot and alcohol but still want to sip a beer.
Beyond taste, Vaughn feels consumers are turned off by nonalcoholic beer being priced similar to regular beer. If brewers charge less, maybe more people will buy it.
“It will all be in the flavor and price,” he said.