For Dessert, How About a Beer?

ByERIC NOE

Oct. 13, 2006 — -- The $9 billion beer industry is getting a face-lift of sorts.

Beer mugs across the country still bubble over with healthy heads of hops, but more and more drinkers are tipping back beers for other reasons -- to get an energy boost, to improve health, and even to satiate a chocolate craving.

The last several years have seen major brewers introduce a widening variety of flavors to their stable of products, including caffeine- and vitamin-infused drinks and, yes, a chocolate beer.

It's all in an effort to tap into consumer demand that has slanted more recently toward spirits like vodka and rum, which offer drinkers a multitude of fruity, salty and spicy flavors.

Brewers are getting creative with flavors and the way they package and market their beers to draw customers back to beer -- and some of the new offerings are a long way from the traditional light and dark beers of decades past.

Miller Brewing Co. announced Wednesday that it was launching a new chocolate-flavored beer for the holiday season.

Frederick Miller Classic Chocolate Lager is brewed with six different malts and will be available from October through December in Wisconsin and in Midwestern cities including Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

It's the second time in two years that Miller has offered a specially packaged and flavored seasonal beer, something the company hadn't done in a decade, according to spokesman Pete Marino.

"It's about demonstrating what beer can be all about," Marino said. "Today there's a lot of expectation from beer drinkers for variety, and we can create a lot of different flavors and options outside of traditional beer."

Anheuser-Busch has gotten in on the act, too, introducing flavored beers like Michelob Honey Lager and Michelob Amber Bock as well as several seasonal beers and even the regional beer Zeigenbock Amber, created as a Texas-style beer and only sold in Texas.

Beer has been slowly losing market share in the adult beverage market, according to Eric Shepard, executive editor of the industry trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights, which estimated that in 2005, beer consumption fell to 55 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States, down from 59 percent in 1998.

"If you look at the beer market, the only segments that are showing growth are the imports and the craft beers. Everything else is flat or down," Shepard said. "It's consumer-driven. Beer drinkers are looking for more choice -- and they want to feel like they're getting something special."

Sales of craft beers, the industry term given to unusually flavored or seasonal beers, grew at 11 percent during the first half of the year.

Meanwhile, brand-name standards produced by major breweries, such as Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft, have seen their sales numbers fall in recent years, Shepard said.

Craft beers, traditionally brewed by smaller microbreweries, have long offered a wide variety of unusual flavors. The craft-beer segment saw a huge increase in popularity in the early 1990s and has experienced another burst in popularity recently.

"People are saying they want something more flavorful than just malt, yeast, hops and water," Shepard said. "So the big brewers are looking around and saying, 'We can brew whatever we want to.'"

Earlier this year Miller said it would buy McKenzie River Corp.'s Sparks, a caffeinated alcohol malt beverage with ginseng, guarana and taurine -- one of the first caffeinated beers to hit the shelves in an "energy beer" market that is growing more crowded.

In early 2005, Anheuser-Busch introduced BE (pronounced B-to-the-E), a caffeine-infused beer with a blend of herbal stimulants. The company later launched Tilt, a malt beverage enhanced with caffeine and fruit flavors.

In May, Miller released Mickey's Stinger, a malt liquor that packs more caffeine than a cup of coffee.

Though the energy-beer segment is new and fairly small -- experts say it might constitute 1 percent of the almost-beer industry -- its triple-digit growth rate is enticing. While sales of domestic beer lag and growth in light beer idles, energy beer is expected to boom.

One small Texas company even says it created a vitamin-enhanced beer, called Stampede Plus, that not only increases your nutrient intake but also eases hangovers.

Some medical experts are skeptical about whether such a beer could actually limit hangovers, but the product is one way for Stampede to appeal to a wider range of beer drinkers. The company says Stampede Plus is aimed at active, healthy consumers.

For the major breweries, creating specialty brands isn't the problem.

But while microbreweries, which have lower operating expenses, can turn a profit by selling relatively small amounts of specialty beers, the bigger operations like Miller and Anheuser-Busch probably won't see immediate profits from these newer products.

For now, the goal of offering craft beers may be to lure customers back to the major brands.

"So far, the big breweries haven't proved particularly adept at selling craft beers," Shepard said. "But it makes a whole lot of sense -- this is where the market is going."

ABC News reporter Sheila Marikar contributed to this report.

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