It hasn’t been an easy time for beer in recent years. Pandemic-inspired shifts in consumer behavior so far have not favored the category, for one thing. Increasing competition from spirits hard seltzer and other ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages have also flattened some enthusiasm for beer.
That’s not to say that beer is without its shining stars. We polled our vast pool of beverage alcohol retailers, bar and restaurant operators and other industry professionals about the beer brands and companies that sold the best for them this past year.
Two brands on the top sellers list come from Anheuser-Busch InBev. The low-calorie, low-carb Michelob ULTRA continues to appeal to consumers seeking better-for-you beverages, and Stella Artois, born in Belgium, taps into the interest in imported beers.
Thanks to a brand refresh, the continuation of Make Time for the Life Artois and the launch of Let’s Do Dinner, Stella Artois had the most integrated campaign in half a decade, says Kevin Bell, head of U.S. for Stella Artois. “These campaigns were a fantastic opportunity for the brand to bring people together around the table and address consumer trends to drive sales.”
Beyond tapping into casual meal occasions, Stella Artois has also made its presence known in areas such as entertainment, tennis and fashion, Bell says. “The hosts of The World’s Most Fascinating Dinner feature the stars of some of the biggest moments in entertainment this year, from blockbuster films and much-anticipated TV premieres to national concert tours.”
All of these moments center around the theme of family and togetherness, Bell says. “Stella Artois is one of the most established premium lagers in the world, but there’s still so much opportunity for this brand to insert itself throughout culture and entertainment.”
On of the big stories in beer this year was that Modelo Especial officially dethroned Bud Light as the best-selling beer in America. The Mexican pilsner-style brew, owned by Constellation Brands, was already gaining on Bud Light, but a Bud Light boycott this past spring accelerated the process.
The boycott, which stemmed from the controversy caused by Bud Light’s association with transgender social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney, has hurt its sales, though as of summer polls showed that the percentage of beer drinkers saying they won’t buy Bud Light was falling. While Bud Light did not make the list of top sales drivers this year, the brand was cited by our survey participants for its exceptional advertising and promotions and activation programs.
Modelo Especial has continued to gain ground with consumers for several years, in part because it understands that consumers are looking for authentic brands and experiences, says Greg Gallagher, Modelo vice president, brand marketing. “Modelo has consistently stayed true to our roots and Mexican heritage, which is helping us attract more drinkers who are looking for that type of cultural connection.”
The brand has also stayed “consumer obsessed,” Gallagher notes. “We’ve updated our creative platform to ‘Mark of a Fighter’, which is an evolution of the brand’s extremely successful ‘Fighting Spirit’ campaign. ‘Mark of a Fighter’ is about rewarding everyday moments and everyday people that deserve a Modelo Especial,” he says.
Modelo Chelada, a blend of Modelo Especial beer with tomato, salt and lime, continues to launch authentic and bold new flavors, meeting consumer’s desire for variety and traditional cultural drink experiences, says Gallagher. “Our newest and sixth flavor, Modelo Chelada Sandía Picante, launched this past March, and has already become the number-one new single-serve item in 2023.”
Another top-selling Constellation brand, Corona, has continued to embrace “La Vida Mas Fina” or “The Fine Life” this past year, says Alex Schultz, vice president, brand marketing, Corona. “That has been our guiding ethos for all that the brand does. We’ve stayed focused on the Hispanic consumer as Corona has a similar shared history with them, so we continue to celebrate our collective roots.”
The past year kicked off Corona’s partnership with Major League Baseball as the official cerveza, “so that has been great to bring Corona into the ballparks as well as off the diamond with the digital series, ‘La Vida Mas Fina Del Beisbol’,” Schultz says. “We’ve also added some new members to the Corona familia with Karol G joining Snoop Dogg on the beach, as well as football great Eli Manning sitting in our Adirondack this year.”
Meanwhile, Constellation’s Pacifico remains laser-focused on the LDA Zillennial and tapping into the action sports audience, says Ryan Anderson, senior director, brand marketing, Pacifico. For instance, a partnership with X Games has allowed Pacifico to show up at those events. The brand also launched a social impact program, Pacifico Parks Less Traveled, that highlighted and supported National Parks.
“Pacifico has such a unique, edgy and vibrant presence,” Anderson says. “We really want to start building upon that existing energy and motivate our consumers’ thirst for exploration and leaning into life’s adventure – across actions sports, outdoor adventure, music and more.”
An American Institution
Imports may be hot, but some American-made beers have been gaining a following. One of these is Yuengling, a Pottsville, PA-based brewer that dates back 194 years. “This year we have seen our unique Yuengling story as the oldest brewery in America, with fifth and sixth generation leadership, really resonate with beer drinkers,” says Jennifer Yuengling, vice president of operations of D.G. Yuengling & Son and sixth generation family member.
The brand, which launched its flagship beers across Texas in 2021, has since expanded westward to Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, “which was a huge contributor to our success this past year,” Yuengling says. Another factor is tapping into the growing desire among health-conscious consumers for more upscale light beer brands, as well as an increased focus on beers with lower carbs and calories.
Yuengling’s Light Lager brand, retooled in 2021, aims to appeal to consumers who don’t want to sacrifice character or flavor for a low-calorie, low-carb light beer, says Yuengling. “Light Lager is masterfully developed to maintain the full flavor profile akin to our flagship Lager brand, with only 99 calories and 3.2g carbs per 12-oz. serving.”
Twisted Tea from Boston Beer Co. also makes the list of top sales drivers. The hard iced tea brand, launched more than 20 years ago, has been able to keep growing this past year – and for the past decade – for a few reasons, says senior brand director Erica Taylor. One is a focus on physical availability, to make sure that Twisted Tea is available wherever drinkers are from convenience stores to grocery, bars and restaurants to golf courses, and everywhere in between.
Developing innovation that welcomes a new drinker into the brand or expands into a new occasion has also helped sales, says Taylor. “In addition to supporting our core flavors with pack innovation, we’re also seeing big incremental growth with Twisted Tea Light, testing a new 8% ABV line-up with Twisted Tea Extreme for those higher-ABV occasions, increasing our Hispanic households through strategic flavor innovation with Twisted Tea Mangonada and more.”
And with elements such as its Tea Drop ad campaign, now in its third year, “we’re able to drive significant national awareness all year long with big media support across linear, digital and social, OOH, really everywhere, to ensure everyone across the country knows Twisted Tea as the fun-loving brand that makes damn delicious hard tea,” Taylor says.
While many beer brands seek opportunities to connect with consumers at live events, especially after the Covid lockdowns, digital has become an increasingly important piece of the marketing pie. Pacifico is a digital-first brand, Anderson says, “so we always are thinking about how we show up in that space, whether it be through social and influencers, digital paid media and more.”
In today’s world, digital is obviously everywhere, he adds, “so staying on top of those trends and what platforms consumers are interacting with is a key part of our programming.”