Imports Lighten Up

Next generation of beers feature low calorie, carbohydrate counts

OAK BROOK, Ill. -- Think of this spring as the season of the low-calorie import beer. Though initially announced almost a year ago, both Grolsch and Heineken will roll out their light line extensions nationally during the next month, hoping to steal more share away from domestic brews.

With Heineken Premium Light, we meet the growing need among the U.S. consumers for higher quality light beer brands that have a premium cachet, said Marc Bolland, member of the Executive Board of Heineken N.V., when the line extension was announced last March. This new [image-nocss] beer strengthens our growth agenda and will help maximize our participation in the U.S. light-beer category.

Of course, it's no coincidence that both of these stalwart brands -- Heineken imported by Heineken USA and Grolsch by United States Beverage -- are expanding to low-calorie versions now. Data from ACNielsen shows that premium lights and imports were the only two subcategories of beer that saw growth in 2005. Similarly, when asked In which subcategory of beer are you seeing the most sales growth? 33% of respondents to a CSP Daily News poll said premium lights, and 23% said imports. (The next highest category was subpremium lights with 16% of the vote.)

Brewed in Holland, Heineken Premium Light Lager contains 6.8 grams of carbohydrates and 99 calories. It was introduced in four test markets in mid-June, including Tampa, Fla.; Phoenix; Dallas; and Providence, R.I. Mark Beatty, national convenience channel manager for Heineken USA, said the product has done well in the tests, and he looks forward to the national rollout next month. That's been our major focus for the past year, he said.

Also brewed in Holland, Grolsch Light Lager has 107 calories and was test marketed in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Arizona and New Jersey. Positive results have led United States Beverage to schedule a national rollout for this month.

At 107 calories, this is not an ultra-low-calorie or ultra-low-carb beer because it's brewed to deliver more taste than current European light beers, said John Chappell, senior vice president of marketing for United States Beverage, when the product was initially introduced in May 2005. It truly retains the character and quality that have made Grolsch a tradition for generations.

Not wanting to be left out of the fray, importers Diageo Guinness USA are not planning any line extensions at present, but the company has updated some of its marketing materials to highlight the calorie contentof all thingsGuinness Irish Stout.

Consumers are definitely looking at what they're drinking. So they're concerned about calories and carbs, among other things, Zsoka McDonald, spokesperson for Diageo Guinness USA, told CSP Daily News. We've been doing some advertising around the fact that Guinness is 125 calories and 9 carbs. That's less than some light beers. Most people find that surprising. In terms of introducing new products, we're not doing that. We feel we're already fitting that consumer need.

One thing that's kept most imported beers out of the light game for so long is the fact that light beers have little to no following in Europe. Executives for both Heineken USA and United States Beverage said their new respective brews are being made strictly for exporting to the United States.

In other import news, Anheuser-Busch will become the U.S. importer of the Grolsch traditional European beer brands beginning in 2007. This will give the American brewer a well-established and popular entry in the growing U.S. import category, the two brewers jointly announced yesterday.

The agreement gives the Dutch brands access to the Anheuser-Busch broad marketing and sales expertise and to its wide-reaching U.S. distribution network. The deal is part of an aggressive push by Anheuser-Busch into high-end beer categories.

"Grolsch is a quality, well-known name among American beer drinkers, making it an ideal partner to begin building our import portfolio around," said Anheuser-Busch president August A. Busch IV. "Together with our wholesalers, we are excited to gain these brands and help them grow with the talents and resources only our team can offer."

The U.S. import category represents approximately 12.4% of the total U.S. beer market, according to The Beer Institute. It grew about 7.2% in 2005 and has experienced an average growth rate of 5% over the past five years.

"For Grolsch, this is an American dream come true. I can only call it a breakthrough," said Ab Pasman, CEO of Royal Grolsch N.V. "This alliance confirms our international growth strategy, which is based on the conviction that there is most certainly a place in the international beer market for a strong and independent premium brand such as Grolsch. Anheuser-Busch is an ideal partner in this strategy. I also want to take this opportunity to thank our present partner, USB [United States Beverage], for its cooperation over the past few years."